It is 1959. The place is HIJ Convent Primary, Johore Bahru. The specific place where it all began, is the little field next to my class, Std 3F which is next to the school office. The time is early in the morning before the bell rings for lessons to begin.
I arrive by car at about 7.15 in the morning and walk up the steps that lead to the marble statue of our Lady who stands there tirelessly, to receive us in her open arms. The nuns had told us stories of Mary and that we should look upon her as our Mother, and that she would never forsake us but always protect us. We believed them.
I walk down the corridor past the office and enter my class, go to my desk and place my bag by my chair. I look around and talk to some of my friends who are all eager to go out and play their favourite games with their favourite friends. We run out to the corridor on the other side of the classroom.
First let me explain what my class is really like. It is a big room with four doors, two on each side. The doors open outwards and we fix a kind of hook from the door to the wall, so that the doors will not bang shut when the wind blows. There are no windows. But the class is really very bright. We have a long desk which two girls can share. We sit on a long bench which has two hands and a 'back' that allows us to lean back. Below the top of the desk, there is a kind of compartment where we place our books, there is no cover. Nothing ever got lost those days. There are lots of display boards on the wall in front, between the doors and at the back of the class. We are so proud of our work being displayed by the teachers.
From the corridor on the other side of the class, i cross the little drain and skip to the little field which is to me a really big field. So many of my friends are there and we begin to play, "The Farmer takes a wife", by forming a big circle by holding hands. There is one girl in the middle who is the farmer. She will choose the wife and the wife joins her in the middle. Then the wife chooses something or someone. And the game goes on. Today i wonder who the leader was who organized the game. I do know that some girls are natural leaders and all the others want to be their followers. If the leader 'friends' us then we have lots of friends. If the leader does not 'friend' us, then we can be isolated until we fall into line.
Then was a group of girls who fell outside this cycle and who were content to remain as onlookers untouched, or so they seemed, by the leader, followers, friend and won't friend rules! i was never a top leader. i was quite content to follow the natural leaders and kept my place by scoring high marks in all tests and examinations.
I remember seeing two little Indian girls standing on the outside watching the game. One is Sulochana Nair and the other is Minni Nandey. They are both in Standard One, light skinned and quiet. Sulo has black curly hair that is plaited into two plaits. Minni has short straight hair. Minni is a very confident girl who speaks well. Sulo is quiet at first. I ask them if they are Punjabi. Sulo is Malayali like me and Minni is a Bengali. Soon it is time for lessons. During our interval, and after going to the tuckshop, we come back to our field to play again, hopscotch or some other game. I do not see the girls during interval. I only see them in the morning.
I am in Form 1 in 1963, and Mrs Ramanathan is my class teacher. I learn that she was a Ms Nandey. Minni and Eva, Minni's sister, are her nieces. She is also the sister of Mr Nandey who travels to work in Singapore with my father. I begin to understand the confidence that the two Nandey children possess.
I am in Form 3 in 1965 and Minni Nandey comes into Form 1. We bump into each other before school and during interval. Our paths do not actually cross and we move on with our different friends and our lessons while smiling and exchanging the ocassional greetings.
I am in Form 5 in 1967 and Minni is in Form 3. We are both in our own ways known for the different things we do in school. I am very much into drama and theatre at school level. I finally leave school and go to Johore English College. I do not see Minni for two years. I leave English College in 1969 and both Sulo and Minni enter English College in 1970. I however see Eva who is a friend and classmate of my younger sister.
I enter the University of Malaya and do not see her for another two years. Then in my final year in 1972/3 both Sulo and Minni enter the same University. I see more of Sulo than i do of Minni. I shall come back to Sulo in another story. Her family and mine bought new houses in Lorong 2B Jalan Abdul Samad and moved in when i was in Std 4 and Sulo in Std 3, in November 1960, and we became more like family than friends and have remained so until today.
Minni and i are never great friends by any means but, we remain knowing each other, and remain tied by the ties of our school. I leave University and my life takes a path that i had not planned for, nor envisaged. My life takes a lonely path away from my family and friends, sometimes into the deep interior areas of New Villages and curfew, and to the poorest of poor districts of this country and sadly away from my friends. I who had so many friends, am suddenly without friends and slowly lose touch with almost all my friends except for Sulo, when i finally leave the University of Singapore in 1975. I make new friends but ....
Years pass and I am 47 years old in 1997. I am in my mother's house in JB and my sister in law Joyce brings me some fashion magazines and i see the name Suniti Nandey written on them. I remember thinking, "So this is what her handwriting looks like!". Suniti is Minni's actual name. Joyce's older sister Harriet got the magazines. I speak of the little girl i first met on the field and of the relationship or lack of it that i share with her. She is a teacher. She is still single. Joyce gives me some material and i make a couple of outfits following the patterns in Minni's books. I speak without much conviction about getting in touch with Minni. I go back to Ipoh.
The years move on and two days ago, it was the 30th of July 2011, i am 61 and sitting outside my mother's house as we usually do in the evenings, with my brother, roy and vivian. Roy, Vivian his girlfriend, and i had come down to JB for different reasons. Roy took part in a golf competition in Singapore and had come to my Dad's house in JB. i drove down from Ipoh, picked up Vivian and met Roy in my dad's house. Vivian and Roy wanted to meet The Chinese Traditional Medicine Doctor. I wanted to meet my only remaining maternal uncle who was ill in hospital, lung cancer. I also want to meet a pastor who has healing powers. My older brother is the kindest soul you can meet and his wife is ever so accommodating of our family. I never want to hurt my brother's feelings at all.
My youngest brother attended the funeral of Sulo's oldest cousin on Saturday, 30 July 2011, while i accompanied Roy and Vivian to see the doctor. If i had accompanied Suresh, my youngest brother, i would have met Sulo. I would have attended Minni's funeral. Suresh met Sulo and she told him of Minni. Minni had passed away, stomach cancer. I do not say much. The news cannot and will not sink in.
Memories jostle with each other. Each one fighting to come to the front and be remembered with pain or laughter. I remember Mrs Ramanathan my teacher in Form 1, who is today Singapore's First Lady. I remember her in her skirts and blouses and short hair. She was plump and not very tall.
I remember her sister Mrs Ramakrishnan my class teacher in Form 5 and who remains till today the best teacher anyone could have. She is slim and tall and has long hair put up in a 'bun'. She is always dressed in a sari and she is the picture of elegance. She is by no means a loud person but one look at her and you know that no nonsense will be tolerated. In her class she allows us to do nothing but be educated. That is one lady who moulds characters.
I remember Mr Nandey who worked with my Dad, the silent man. I remember all those years when i could have been friends with Minni.
Yesterday it was the 31 of July, my brother spoke about Minni's funeral in his church and the strong police presence because of the President of Singapore and the First Lady. I am sure yesterday, Mrs Ramanathan was the aunt remembering what i remember today: a little girl, her hopes, her beauty, her brilliance, her pain and a life that ended too soon.
I remember the steps leading up to Mother Mary waiting with her open arms. I remember Minni as the girl in school. I never met her again after i left the University of Malaya in 1973, which is a shame. We can only talk and help our friends when they are alive. All these words written by me and others, after our friends are gone, are nothing but empty words. They are merely words we hope would act as a salve for our hearts, to help us come to terms with life's unfeeling, relentless march forward to a destiny and destination that we do not know.
She came into my life with Sulo and it was Sulo who told me of her passing. I remember the Convent days and the school song that we used to sing with such gusto with our young lungs bursting with feeling and often not hitting the right note. Today, the lyrics and melody come into my mind yet again, minus the gusto:
"Through weal or woe we forward go
United great and small
In virtue simple and duty strong
Is the motto for us all.
Tho far we roam from our ancient home
Our thoughts would often stray
Back to these happy Convent days
Where our hearts are warm and gay ..."
Minni if we meet again, i will surely speak to you more than i did in this world. Farewell my friend. May your soul rest in peace.