Somewhere between 3 and 4 years of age, in 1953, my family moved out of my grandparents' house. Kunju Kannan Master had recommended that house. Why did we move? I used to overhear Mum say that my Dad could not get along with her parents. His parents in India and his very close first cousin, Uncle Karunakaran, had advised Dad to move out of 15 Jalan Dhoby. When we grew older, she told us the same story. That was how we moved to a shophouse in Jalan Lumba Kuda, which was still near enough for us to visit our grandparents and uncles in Jalan Dhoby.
Dad, Mum, my brother on the right
and I taken outside my grandparents'
house. Mum pregnant with my sister,
picture taken in 1953
My son Roy and I taken in Tuan Estate
I still have vague memories and clear pictures in my mind of the time when we lived as a family in one room in a huge house belonging to a Chinese whom I had never ever seen during our entire stay in that huge house, that had no soul. The rooms we rented were on the second floor. The ground floor was a Chinese temple. I do not know who resided on the first floor. We never left the dark staircase to explore that floor during the months that we lived there. And Mum never spoke to us about that floor or the people who lived there. There was one other Indian family and an Indian man who lived on the same floor as us, in that totally Chinese house.
It was while living in that house that Mum made a discovery, that everyone living in that house and around that house, had one common tie that bound them tightly into one group. They were all immigrants in Malaya. They had come in search of a better life and they had no choice but to succeed. Success to my family meant, money to be made and saved by the adults, good grades in school to be achieved by the children and for no one to fall foul of the law in any way.
Therefore, there was no feeling of permanence in that house. It was a life of transition. In the mornings the men went to work. The ladies cleaned the home, washed the clothes and cooked the meals. The children went to school, came home, did their school work and studied. In the evenings, women, men and childern gathered in different groups, in different places and traded stories, shared their hopes and fears. The adults longed to one day return to their different countries, their homeland, with their children and their money.
In our little room that was our home, every evening, without fail, my mother would light her small brass lamp and a joss stick. She would then place my brother and me on a small, straw mat on the floor. I am sure she sat with us to pray, cross-legged on the floor, palms together, facing our very simple altar that consisted of one framed picture of Sri Raman and Sita, Laxmanan, Sathruganan, Barathan and Hanuman from the Ramayana, and chanted the Hindu Sanskrit prayers that my Mother had taught us, long before we had learned to speak coherently.
My young mother, with an unwavering, patriotic determination, created her own little Mayyanad for her husband and three children, using Malayalam (language), clothes, food, music, prayers, joss sticks, stories and memories of her relatives and friends in Kerala. Everyday the postman brought letters from India - from her friends and her relatives. She would place my brother and me on the floor near her feet. She would sit on the chair and read the letters aloud to us. What we could not understand, she would explain. All letters were read twice. On days when she did not receive any letters, she would take one of the older letters to read aloud. She would also read to us the letters she sent to India. So we knew everyone in India although we had never met any one of them.
Her best friend and classmate, Rukmini, had trained as a teacher and would send my mother pillowcases on which she had embroidered beautiful Forget-Me-Nots and we all so lovingly placed our heads on pillows covered by those pillow cases. My mother would send her things but I do not remember what she sent to Rukmini. Mum did not do any embroidery but she could crochet very well.
Into that Little India of my mother's, crept in new smells and sounds that fascinated me - that of the migrant Chinese who like us had brought with them their language, clothes, food, music, prayers, joss sticks, stories and memories of a motherland. Without me realising it, I began to understand their language. Chinese rituals mesmerised me - their colour, sounds, smells, sights and the people themselves who were so different from us.
Mum was very traditional in many ways. She dressed in a mundu, a plain white unstitched cloth, which she wrapped around her waist like a sarong, and a long blouse that came down to her hips, no collar, buttoned down the front with sleeves that came to just above her elbow. She had long straight hair that came to below her waist. During the day, she would twist it into a kind of knot at the base of her neck. In the evening after her bath, she would put on a sari, plait her long hair into one long plait that came down to her hips. Dad wore trousers and shirts when he went to work or out to town, and a mundu and singlet when at home.
My brother and I were not dressed in Indian clothes. We wore western-style clothes, that were either bought from Chinese shops or they were tailor made. Sathasivam was the well-known Malayalee tailor who stitched pants and shirts. My clothes were made by Chinese tailors.
The Chinese ladies who lived there wore plain, cotton samfoos most of the time. The Chinese men wore short, cotton pants which had a string at the waist. It was mostly blue in colour. They sometimes wore a singlet which they would pull up above their chest and I remember them constantly rubbing their stomachs and stating that it was too hot. Most of time the men were bare chested. I cannot recall any of them in trousers and shirts. Their favourite footwear was the clog which made a lot of noise when they walked around.
There were days when my brother and I never left the room. I could sit for hours, or so it seems now, at the tall, Malayan shophouse window of the solitary room that was home to us, and watch life moving on outside. It must have started then, this restless yearning within me to break free from this place where I do not belong. It must have also started then, my contentment of staying in one place alone and comfortable with my thoughts.
Mum was an avid reader and every month, Dad bought Malayalam books from Peter's shop, for her to read. She would tell us stories from the books that she read. The two books that I remember are 'Ramanan' and 'Neela Kuyil'. My mother was a very emotional person and had no problem crying as well as laughing, whether she was talking to someone or reading a book! Mum always told us stories from the Ramayana and therefore when we prayed in the evening, facing the picture of Rama, his brothers, his wife Sita and his faithful devotee Hanuman, there was a meaning to my prayers. There still is, the meaning and the tie to my childhood days.
It was always evening, about five I reckon, when the certain lady that I was waiting for would come walking down the main road in her elegant cheongsam holding a walking stick in one hand and the hand of a tall, slim European man, with her other hand. The tan and black Alsatian on a leash walked a few paces ahead. I so badly wanted to be that woman who could walk so freely on the road holding a man's hand. I wanted that dog. The man I cannot remember.
"Ma! Ma! She is coming," I would call out and my Mum would come to the window.
"That is Han Suyin," Mum would say, as we watched the couple and their dog.
A few months later I developed a skin disorder on my feet. It would not clear up and everyone was afraid that I would have the skin disease for life. My uncle Karunakaran had Singapore Foot? My Mum took me to the General Hospital in Johore Bahru and my doctor turned out to be the lady who walked her dog in the evening. So she was a doctor, we discovered. My Mother asked the nurse and the nurse told her, that her name was Dr Elizabeth Comber. I vaguely remember her touching me and speaking to my mother. When there was no change in my skin condition, my grandfather took over and treated me with Ayurvedic medicines.
On some days, Father would come home and tell Mother, "They are going to kill a pig today. Don't let the children go out of the room." As I said earlier, the ground floor was a temple of some sort. I believe there was a ritual when a pig was slaughtered. Our parents did not want us to witness it and they never talked to us about it. But, somehow from their conversations my brother and I were able to gather some information. We never talked about it either. It was to us, something that the Chinese did, that we did not do, and when they did it, we would keep away and not see or say anything.
We were good children, my brother and I. But, how come I remember seeing basins of coagulated pig's blood? Then there would be the burning of joss-sticks and the smell of scented smoke twirling all over the place on the ground floor, which was never brightly lit. I can never forget or feel anything but nostalgia when I see and smell Chinese joss sticks anywhere.
Once in a while my mother would allow my brother and me to go out in the evening and play by the roadside of Jalan Lumba Kuda, with stones and rubber bands. She would watch with my younger sister in her arms. Mother would buy ocassionally buy for us some coloured rolls which had bits of 'gun-poweder' embeded in them in little circular mounds. We would use a stone and hit the mound and there would be a safe but not so loud explosive sound, which gave us such a thrill. For 5 cents we would get 3 coloured rolls. Each roll, we could fire perhaps 15 times.
When my Father went out at night alone, one of us would go down and inform the temple caretaker or whoever was in charge, so that the main door would not be locked. On one ocassion I was assigned to inform the caretaker. I remember walking bravely down the stairs while my mother stood at the top of the stairs. I came upstairs after my job was done, and Mum put us in bed. My younger sister always slept in the cot.
I do not remember what woke me that night. The bedroom was dark with the moonlight coming in through the open window, or perhaps it was the streetlight. There was a strong wind blowing the curtain and the wind that comes before the rain brings with it the smell of rain. I watched the candlelight flickering on the table. Mum was a lonely figure at the table, with her back to the window, facing the door, writing a letter, in the light of the candle.
I lay there watching my mother and the candle. I longed to write but a Hindu child had to go through the 'rice-writing' ceremony first and to do that I had to be four years old. I could not wait to grow up.
"Baby, come here," softly, Mum called out to me when she realised that I was awake. I got up and went up to her chair and stood close to her and watched her writing a letter to India - I felt sad for my mother - I did not realise then that she was so young, about 22 years old, but I knew that she missed India, her old family home, her friends and the kind of life she had led there. She always told us happy stories of her life in Mayyanad, how she would run from one end of Mayyanad to the other with her friends.
In Malaya, we lived in Johore Bahru town, and the town was made up of Chinese. There were very few Malays and the Indians came from all over India, with their different languages. The Chinese amongst whom we lived, frightened her. I stood by her chair loving her and loving the sensation of the cold wind blowing on my face - I still do - love her, love the wind and feel sad for her.
My mother was gentle and till today, there is a child-like quality about her. She and her family always made us feel that we children were special and destined for great things. I have no recollection of my brother and I ever quarelling and we shared everything. He was the ideal older brother and I hero-worshipped him as I constantly followed him around.
Mother and Father would take us to town very regularly after Dad came back from work. We walked everywhere and rarely took a trishaw. We patronised all visiting circuses from India, China and Russia, watched all shows that were staged in the town padang whether Malay, Chinese or Indian, enjoyed fun fairs, and played in the playground next to the railway station. Mum would watch over us. Dad would cross the road and go to the stalls in front of the station, and buy banana fritters or fried noodles from a certain Malayalee Muslim vendor, for us to eat.
My brother and I enjoyed playing on the swings, the see-saw and the slides. On the way back home, we had to walk past Cathay Cinema. It would be dark and there would be the sound of cicadas. I would most times be tired, scared and too lazy to walk.
"I cannot walk. My legs are tired," and I would squat on the road and wait for my father to carry me.
He would, bless his soul, lift me in his arms and carry me home. Sometimes he would walk on and leave me on the road, telling me, "If you don't walk you can sit there. I am going," but I would wait for him. I knew he would never leave me and he never did. Mum carried my sister. My brother walked without any complaints. My brother never complained as a child, and he was always so well mannered and accommodating.
Whenever Father took us to the fair, he bought for us helium filled balloons. They fascinate me to this day. My brother and I would get a balloon each. We had to hold fast to the string or it would really fly up, up and away into the sky. When we reached home, tired, we would let the balloons go and they would go and park themselves on the ceiling. We would be so tired that our eyes would be closing even as we entered the room. Mum would quickly wash our feet, change us and put us in bed. We would fall asleep as soon as our heads hit the pillow - and today, as I sit with my memories of a bygone era, sleep eludes me.
I remember one balloon incident so clearly. I often wonder if my brother remembers it. I have never asked him. We had all gone to the fair and were on the way back with our balloons when his balloon burst. He was very upset but we did not walk back to the fair to get another balloon. I did not offer him my balloon.
We reached the house and after a while I offered him my balloon. He did not want to play with it. I no longer liked my balloon nor did I want it. The next day, my balloon was still there and he would not play with it. As I looked at that balloon, I became very lonely and I found peace only when I reached out over the rail of the window and let the balloon float away from the room. My agitation left me, there was no balloon between us.
I think the main Indian tenant in that house, was a man called Kunju Kannan Master. He was called Master because he had been a French teacher in India and teachers were called Master in India. He stayed there with his wife and his two sons, Narendran and Chandrahasan. He was a brown skinned man, with slightly curly hair, thick features and he was shorter and fatter than my Dad. His wife was more tanned, slim, had curly hair parted in the centre and she had two plaits. She always wore a sari and her sari blouses had puffed sleeves, unlike my Mother's. She also wore long dangling ear-rings, again unlike my Mother, and like my Mother, she smiled all the time. She was taller than my Mum.
My brother and Narendran attended the Public School which was down the road from where we lived. They would walk to school. Since the Master family had the corner, main room they had two windows. One window gave them the same view that we got from our window and the other window gave them a view of the road leading to the public school. Our one window gave us a view of the main road, Jalan Lumba Kuda, which ran in front of the house, and there was a workshop in front of our window.
The two mothers would watch their two sons walk to school in the morning and walk back before noon, from the window in Mrs Master's room.
Mrs Master, I don't know her real name, would all the time compare Narendran and my brother. My mother would smile and most times just nod her head. She would say, "Narendran is taller. Narendran is fairer. Narendran is cleverer." When Mother visited our grandparents, she would tell my grandfather how upset she was by the negative comparisons.
Grandfather would tell Mum, "Let Mrs Master say what she wants. We know our Son is good." Mum would be pacified for a while. However, the two ladies from India remained friends until Mrs Master passed away in December 1969. My Mum had studied English as a second language in Mayyanad and the Mrs Master had studied French!
We rented two rooms in the huge dilapidated, dark, gloomy, dank house. One room was our bedroom. Let me describe the house. It was by the road side, what we would today call a link house. It was a middle unit. There was a cemented five-foot path that ran the length of the single row of houses. Then there was a sandy-stony area that was about ten feet wide and beyond that was the road. There were so few cars on the road then.
The road, the path and the stony area where we played were all very bright and lively, and often windy. Lots of people used to walk along the path way. Everyone was so friendly and I do not recall any fights or quarrels. Two doors away lived a Chinese tailor who sewed beautiful clothes. Nearly every month Mother made a new dress for me. Mum and I would spend long moments going through her pile of pattern books. That was where I saw my first Lana Lobell pattern book. Mum would choose patterns for my clothes from those pattern books. She would buy the material for the dress from Toko Sumatra in Jalan Trus.
Every evening, a satay man would come and park himself outside the tailor's house. He too lived nearby in a room, with his wife. He did some regular job in the day time and in the evenings he sold satay. I enjoyed watching him take out his stool, perch himself on it and begin to light the charcoal in his little, oblong tin barbecue set, in order to cook his satay. He was newly married and his wife was an actress. She had long beautiful hair and had just acted some small parts in a number of movies. One of which was Anak Pontianak.
1958 Chinese flyer for the movie ‘Anak Pontianak’ by Ramon Estella
The satay man's wife was my mother's friend. She had come with her parents from some place in Sumatra. Her marriage had been arranged for her just like my mother's. She showed Mum photos of her family in Sumatra and spoke of going back one day, when they had made enough money to live comfortably. Like Mum, she too missed her home.
I do not remember if Mother bought satay for us when we lived in that house. But we used to hang around him and watch him fan the burning charcoal until it became a glowing orange. Then he would brush the tops of the satay sticks and some things would drip on to the glowing coal, and that would produce a sizzling sound, smoke and the most mouth-watering aroma imaginable.
Let me describe what I remember of our home. When you entered the house from the main road, the first thing that hit you was the darkness, the quietness and the coldness of the house. There was a big brass urn against the wall on the right, it was filled with sand I think and joss sticks would be continuously burning. There were some statues and pictures. A few stools lay scattered. I don't know what was on the left. I don't recall looking left. Next to the urn was the staircase that went up. The staircase was dark. We climbed up and came to a landing, turned right and right again to climb another flight of stairs to the third floor. At the top of the landing we turned right. There were a number of doors leading to the different rooms. Our two rooms were nearest to the top of the staircase.
Our room was very bright and to my eyes quite large. The door was in the centre. You opened the door and entered the room. Shut the door, and on the right, against the wall, was a double bed. Facing the door was a window. The window faced a workshop and the main road in front of the house. On the left of the door was a table, placed in the middle with a few stools or chairs, I do not remember. We used this as a dining table and it was my Mother's writing desk as well. I don't remember my father writing any letters.
I do not have clear images of the other room. But there was a stove there and a table. Mum never cooked. Food was brought in a tiffin from Purushotaman's shop and it was placed on the table. On Friday's we would get payasam. Mum would hand feed both of us. I think Mum used the other room to wash up. I am not sure. But I do know that we all slept in this one room.
Bath time was a torture for my mother I am sure. We never entered the bathroom. There was a big ceramic container with carvings of dragons on it. A leaky kind of pipe was all the time turned on and water would be flowing into the huge jar, but I had never seen the jar overflowing!
Mum had a bucket. She would boil some water in an aluminium kettle and mix it with cold water from the jar so that I would have a warm bath. Once the water was ready, she would come and pick me up from the bedroom and carry me to the little stool and make me stand on it. She would wear clogs.
Mum would then proceed to pour water over my head, using a tumbler. She would then scrub me from head to toe and pour water all over me again. Once she was satisfied that I was relatively clean, she would wrap me in a towel, pick me up and carry me back to the room. She would then dry my hair vigourously with the towel, plaster me with ample talcum powder, dress me up, comb my hair and look for a teaspoon.
The best part of my bath - a spoonful of Woodwards Gripe Water. Then she would place me on the bed and tell me to go to sleep and I would. I am not sure who took a bath first, my brother or I. Most likely it was him.
I remember my fourth birthday in bits and pieces. That was the only birthday when I had a cake with icing. I remember it was hard and sugary and therefore I believe it was royal icing. We never had iced cake after that. I remember eating the cake all the time, especially the icing. Then my uncle Prakash came. My mother cut him a big piece of cake. I wanted another piece and she told me that I would get a stomach ache. But Prakash gave me a slice. Then we had another visitor. My Uncle Karunakaran from Singapore. My Dad's first cousin and a very close uncle to all of us. He too had a slice of cake. To this day, I love cake with Royal Icing and my two uncles who passed away in 1975.
I am not sure how long we stayed in that place. There was one frightening incident and my mother insisted that we move from that place. One day my mother saw a huge centipede fall from the ceiling on to the floor. She screamed and grabbed us from the bed and placed us on the table. She told us not to move. The centipede went under our bed. Our neighbour came and she told him what had happened. Soon Mr and Mrs Master came and then my Dad came home. The bed was moved but the centipede could not be found.
Those who came to look for the creature, had their horror stories of being bitten by those poisonous creatures. The bed was moved away from the walls and the lights were left on that night. Dad began to look for a house and he found one within days. The Chinese lady who sold eggs in the market told him about the new row of brick houses that had been built in Jalan Lumba Kuda Lama. We took the first house and she took the second house.
We moved when I was about 5 years old.