Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Malays The Chinese The Indians and I

The Indians

Part 1 - The Wedding of Kunjunnie

Today is Saturday, 10th September 2011. I chose this title more than a week ago and waited for something momentous to take place, so that it would give me the right substance and impetus, to translate into words my thoughts and thereby justify my chosen title. I had no idea what it would be but I had the conviction that such an event would occur. Today, something momentous did take place - the wedding of my former student, Captain Shashi Kunjunnie Narayanan of the Royal Malaysian Armed Forces.

Let me tell you how my journey with Kunjunnie started in December 1994 when the new academic year started for Malaysian students. Now why did the school year start in December, you may well ask? Well each Minister for Education in my country, whether he is an educationist or not, most often he has never been an educationist, feels a compulsive urge to mark his place in the history of our country with a brand new change. The Minister responsible for this change felt that having a long break in December reflected our strong servile bond to our colonial masters and their celebratory festival, Christmas. So school holidays were changed and we were told that it was for the sake of the monsoon rains!!! and the public examinations!!!

Silly sheep that we were and are, we followed and follow, instructions from one minister after another without question. Today that minister is a villain and has a strong bond of  support from the very same people whose celebration of Christmas caused the change in our holidays. The year he was thrown out of office, we got back our December holidays once again. That my friends is called change.

My journey with Kunjunnie started in December 1994 when I reported for duty in Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan Kampung Pasir Putih in Ipoh. I had come from Sabah. I was an English Language teacher. Kunjunnie was in Form 2. By the time he reached Form 4 I was his teacher. He was a quiet, hardworking, polite boy who joined one of the Uniformed Units of the school, did all his work and was well liked by his teachers and friends. Due to some narrow-minded teachers' excitement caused by Malay students taking part in an English concert, my friend and co-teacher Dena had her share of problems and I received a letter telling me that I was transferred out to Batu Gajah with almost immediate effect, and the signatory to that letter was the husband of my principal, who happened to be a person of some position in the Education Office. Talk about coincidences.

Over the years, I met Kunjunnie and his brother Giri in the Gunung Cherong temple on Fridays quite infrequently. Then some weeks ago, I received a call from him, telling me about his coming marriage and that he would like to come over and invite me for his wedding. A week later, he came to my house with his father. That visit was the start of one lesson about life which I was never able to learn properly from my mother. Today I graduated. And with my graduation, I know I am a part of the Malays, a part of the Chinese, a part of the Indians and I am a vital part of who they are as well.

His father Mr Narayanan, an unassuming man, soft spoken, leader of a family, quiet at first, more vocal later, began to interact with me and share his views.

"Is this a love marriage? I asked with a smile.
"No, no. It's an arranged marriage. We are very traditional,"  he said. His son smiled and I felt suitably chastised. The boy added, "Teacher, my parents chose the girl and I know that they will choose the right person for me."
"His job was to study and get a good job and salary first," the father explained. "Otherwise, their minds will be on other things and not their future. We will help them make right choices when the time is right," he nodded, looking at me for approval. I indicated with my shaking, nodding head that I absolutely agreed with him.

How often had I heard that from my parents more than forty years ago. They were not speaking for effect. They were speaking a belief which they tried to instill into their children from a young age. Roles and responsibilities, choices and priorities. I had beliefs but no conviction. I had convictions and beliefs but no one listened and followed. Therefore I had no more convictions. They planned. I had no plans. Ad hoc, ad hoc, ad hoc became my shallow mantra.

"Kunjunnie, I know you are in the army. What exactly is your job?"
"I am a Captain. I am in Putrajaya," he answered.
"What made you join the army?"
"I was a member of the Cadet Corps, you remember?" he asked for clarification. I nodded my head, "And I always wanted to join the army, so I applied and when I got it, Teacher, I was really very happy."
"Didn't you want to do anything else?" I kept probing.

"Mrs Chandra, my son joined the army after he graduated from University Technology Malaysia in Johore. I told him that he had to go to University first and he did well." I then remembered Dena telling me that Kunjunnie was the top student of his batch. I looked at the beaming face of the proud father who continued, "He took a PTPTN loan and studied and now he is paying back his loan."
"Well done Kunjunnie," and I meant it. I am truly happy with every achievement of each of my students.
"I always listen to my father. He has always takes me the right way."

The conversation moved away from Kunjunnie to things in general and that meant, am I a Malayalee, did I speak Malayalam, my house did not reflect my ethnicity. The English conversation shifted to a Malayalam one and soon everyone was convinced that each of us was a genuine item. It came back to marriage.

"Is your son married?"
"Teacher, you know so many people. Why don't you arrange something for him?"
"I don't think he will listen."
"Teacher, but he knows you will do it carefully and won't do the wrong thing," he said with genuine surprise at my answer. "He will listen, he is your son."
"People are different, he is different. I am sure he will find someone really nice."
"I know, today people are modern," Kunjunnie conceded.
"Yes," I said in a neutral tone, "people are far too modern".

"But I'm sure you want marriage to be old-fashioned so that it's happy and lasts forever," said the father. I nodded my head.

"Everybody is modern, their dressing, their music, their clothes and what they eat. But some things we as parents must make sure remain steady, like being polite to parents and elders, taking family life as sacred and marriage as unbreakable," he said with a shake of his head and an iron-clad conviction staring me straight in the face before turning to face his son.  I remembered my parents. They stuck it out through good and bad times. I remembered all the older people who have passed on, marriage was a contract. You don't break a contract.

The father and son then got up and when I rose, they moved towards me and placed a tray on my hand. On the tray was the wedding invitation card. "Mrs Chandra, I want you to bless my son and his life," said the father with so much of respect and trust in me. I took the card and held it against my chest.
"Kunjunnie, you are a good son. Surely goodness will follow you the rest of your life," and I realised that was misquoting Psalm 23. I told them to wait and went to the pantry and got the huge bar of Cadbury's Milk Chocolate, which I had purchased in Changi, for the tray that I returned to the couple.

I promised them that I would be present for the dinner on the 10th of September. I would not be able to make it for the wedding on the 2nd in Seremban. I asked the father how many children he has. He has 5 children.
"How many children do you have? he asked me.
"One!" they both exclaimed in unison.
"Yes," and I realised that my smile was a little sad.
"I had to put five children through university. They are good children," the man acknowledged.

"Are you working now?" I asked.
"I retired about four and a half years ago," he informed me. I was overjoyed.
"I am sixty one years old. You must be my age!" I exclaimed.  He smiled and nodded.
"Where were you working?"
"XXX, technician. Now I work in some company and I go in only for a few hours a week and they pay me more than what I earned with the government. My children don't want me to work but I am very happy doing what I am doing." I remembered my gruelling hours and the pittance I earn for the long hours I put in. The job that you do and the amount that you earn does not raise good children, nor fill your home with piety, nor fill your heart with joy.

"Teacher, you live alone here. Don't you feel lonely?"
"I work long hours. When I come home, I take a bath, say my prayers, talk to my dogs and maid, read the papers, write, read a book and it's time to sleep I guess," I offered as a timetable of my life.
"What about visiting your friends and relatives? My mother couldn't come because she was visiting some relatives with some guests," he explained.

"I don't visit anyone in their home," but I did not tell him that in this miserable town, nobody invites you to their home. They hop, skip and jump to your place each time you invite them. Well to be fair, Nithya always invites me to her place and so does Mrs Ignatius. "And I am not from Ipoh. I have no relatives in Ipoh," I explained.

"Teacher, you must come to my house and visit us," he invited, poor lonely me.
"That will be lovely," I replied and realised that my answer was a response taught to me as the correct way to reply to an invitation. But was it an honest answer from the heart and not the lip?  I began to see that I was a part of that boy and his father and their family and their values, when I was growing up in the fifties and sixties. Which turn at which cross-roads led me to no-man's land? A feeling of intense loneliness and longing for a way of life which had once belonged to me and of which I was once a part, filled me with pain and tears.

The father left me with the words in Malayalam, "Take care of your son's life. That is our duty as parents." He was not patronising me. It is just that after more than 35 years of living away from my parents' house, I had forgotten how my parents spoke to us and constantly reminded us of our duties to others.

The Indians -Part 2

The Wedding of Mr Appukuttan Nair

All of us in our house met Mr Appukuttan Nair somewhere in 1958, when I was eight years old and my younger sister Sheela was five. I want to take you to our house and introduce you to our neighbours before you meet Mr Appukuttan Nair.

We left Jalan Lumba Kuda Lama in mid-1958 and moved into a run-down Malay Kamupung style house. Dad had booked a new house and we needed to save all the money that we could. The rental was RM40 and when it was shared between the two families it was most affordable.  There was no tarred road leading to the house. Cars stopped in Jalan Storey and people walked along a sandy path to reach the houses. On either side of the path were trees and shrubs and it was like no-man's land. Our house was the first house on the left.

There was a tall coconut tree and an equally tall durian tree. There were three steps going down into the sandy patch in front of our old wooden house with tall windowns and brick stilts. Our house was separated from our neighbour's house by a bamboo fence and there was a small natural gate in the middle that allowed access to each other's house.

A large extended Malay family lived in the house next to ours. There were so many very interesting characters in that house. Our two-year stay in that neighbourhood cannot be emulated ever again, because people like them and those who occupied our house belonged to only that period of Malayan history.

The Lady of the house was fair skinned and plump, always with a smile and a very majestic demeanour. From our kitchen window we had a good view of their kitchen. There was a huge table in the kitchen. Ladies sat on the table and did all the cutting and cleaning of vegetables. They took a nap on the table in the afternoon after lunch. They sat around the table in the evening to share their evening meal. Not sure what happened to the table at night, once the windows were shut for the day.

There was another lady, light brown-skinned and very slim who did much of the work like washing the clothes, sweeping the garden, cleaning the house and she sewed beautiful dresses. She was full of smiles every time she met us.

The Man of house was also brown-skinned, heavily built, not very tall, hair always neatly combed, bespectacled and in white shirt and dark pants when going to work and in a sarong and singlet after work. He did not smile or talk but always nodded his head when he met us and we in turn bowed and smiled most reverentially.

The oldest child was Mat, a very serious looking young boy of about 15. He was very polite and hardly spoke but he was not at all unfriendly. His younger sister was the beauty of the house, Safiah. She was friendly, very courteous and came across as a very caring and helpful girl. She was about 12 when we moved in.

Then there was Awang, the terrror of the neighbourhood. He was naughty, really very naughty. He laughed loudly, ran around very noisily and climbed trees and loved to irritate our dogs. He would call us names and disappear. The toilet was outside the house, an outhouse under the trees and the system was the bucket system. Whenever we had to use the toilet, he would make all kinds of noises and make us most uncomfortable and irritated. Most times, we had no idea what he was saying as he spoke in Malay and had a slang that was very different from the Malay that we learned in school. He was about nine or ten, very tanned and sturdy, the kind who never fell ill.

Then there was little Faridah who was about six. She was slim, very light skinned with shoulder length hair and who played with us. I do not remember the others in that large house.

The people of our house were also quite varied. My father worked with the British Army in Singapore. He was Malayalam educated in India and English educated in Malaya. His outstanding features were his silent nature and the Straits Times. My mother was Malayalam educated, could speak some English, could understand English quite well but never spoke the language. My older brother was in Standard 4 in Temenggong Abdul Rahman School, I was in Standard 2 in Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, my younger sister was five and not schooling, and Sobha was about two. My 26 year old mum was pregnant with Harish when we moved in there.

The other family that shared that house was a Malayali family, like us. The man was also Mr Krishnan, and he worked for the British Army but was based in Johore Bahru. His wife Ratnamma had been my mother's classmate in India. She was taller than my mother but hardly understood any English. Their oldest child was Prabha who was Sheela's age, Devadas who was four and horrendously rude and naughty and the baby Mohana Das who was about one.

There were two bedrooms. We occupied the first room, the other family the second room. We shared all the other facilities in the house. Staying together was very trying for all of us.

Before my brother and I reached school going age, Dad had registered us at the Public School which was near Jalan Lumba Kuda. Now we were in Bukit Chagar and there was no school for Sheela to prepare her for the Convent. After much debate, Uncle Krishnan and Mr C P Thomas who was also with the British Army in Johore Bahru found a tuition teacher for Sheela and Prabha. We waited with much anticipation for the arrival of the teacher.

One evening at about half past five, there was some excitement in our house. The two ladies, my mother and Aunty Ratnamma prepared something for tea and we children hung around for the guest. He came with Uncle Krishnan and Mr Thomas. He was slim, tall and wore a long sleeved light coloured shirt and slim fitting pants. He had wavy hair, parted in the middle and combed away from his forehead. His skin was brown, more like nescafe with milk.

We children gathered in the sandy garden in front. The three men walked down the three steps, and went to the steps that led to the house. He gave all of us a sweeping glance and a smile that swept our faces, the garden, the fence and ended on the steps leading to the front door. We became part of his entourage as he entered the door. Mum and Aunty Ratnamma stood near the door and gave endless smiles to no one in particular. There were a few rattan chairs in the hall. He was invited to sit on one and Mr Thomas sat on the other. Uncle Krishnan went to his room and his wife followed him. My father, who worked in Singapore had not returned.

"This is Mr Appukuttan Nair. He is from Quilon district," Mr Thomas said, as he went on to name the exact locality. All eyes were trained on Mr A and he graced us with another smile. "He is very good in English and has taught many children to read and write," Mr Thomas continued in the wake of another smile. Our eyes went to Sheela, who was then a very timid child who was easily frightened. Prabha was a tougher person and she stared at Mr A. Sheela, slowly crept to my mother and held on to her sarong as it dawned on her that she was  going to play an instrumental part in Mr A's association with our families.
 The Chinese

The earliest memories I have of the Chinese date back to early 1954 when we lived in a house owned by a Chinese family I never met. My parents rented two rooms on the second floor of the old link house in Jalan Lumba Kuda, in Johore Bahru.

The front door of the house was always open and there was a big brass urn with joss sticks burning. The floor was cement and it was a dimly lit room. Every time I entered the house I would look at the urn and the joss sticks and the smell and smoke from the joss sticks permeated the entire house. The dark staircase was at the front end of the room. It was a wooden staircase and we had to climb some twenty steps before coming to a landing. We would then make a 180 degree turn to the right and walk past closed doors on the left then come to another staircase, a 90 degree turn and climb another twenty steps to reach another landing. Turn right and the first two doors on the left, was our home. The second door opened a room that was our bedroom, our dining room, prayer room and living room.

Our home, that room had a huge bed that was placed on the right side of the room. On the left was a simple table and some stools. Facing the door was a wooden window, that gave us our view to the outside world. My brother was five going on six then, I was three going on four and my younger sister was about six months old. My mother was about 22 years old and my Dad about 33 years old. The room was very bare except for some curtains that my mother put up.

We woke up early, when Dad went to work. My mum would then dress up my brother and he would walk with the son of another tenant to the Public School. My sister would sleep and I would spend hours at the window. Someone from Purushothaman's shop would send a tiffin carrier with lunch for us.

The Chinese who lived in that house are faceless and nameless to me now. They were neither friendly nor unfriendly. They minded their own business and we minded ours. Mum spoke only Malayalam and therefore conversation with them was almost nil. Sometimes Dad would go out in the evening and we would be in the room. Mum would then send my brother or me downstairs to tell the matriach who sat regally on a chair, with hair neatly arranged in a bun, that my dad was out and not to lock the door.

Mum's first Chinese friend that I remember was a Chinese tailor who lived on the ground floor. She had two sewing machines in the living room and a pile of pattern books and new dresses hanging on a line. Every month Mum would make a dress for me. I would spend  a long time going through the pattern books and choosing patterns. Mum would sit with me and go through the patterns. The lady would help us to choose. Sometimes when Mum found a pattern, the lady would offer to buy suitable material for the dresses. Once she sewed two beautiful dresses, one was pink and the other a light powder blue. The material was some kind of muslin.

We moved from there to 100 Jalan Lumba Kuda Lama. Our house was the first house. The next house was occupied by two families. The main tenant was an egg seller in the wet market. She lived there with her husband, two sons and a daughter. The girl was Sau Siah and the boys were Sau Meng and Sau Leng. We became close friends. The lady worked very hard from morning till sunset when she would come home with a few vegetables, a small fish and a small piece of pork which they cooked for dinner. Dinner was not later than six in the evening, when we were having our tea.

There was an old lady who would come and look after a few babies. I have no idea whose babies they were or who the old lady was. She would sit on a chair and proceed to feed the babies. My mum found their feeding habits just out of her world, but it was totally natural for them. The lady would pour a black sauce on the porridge, stir it until the whole concoction was a light brown. Then came the part that my mum could not watch. The lady would pick up a piece of meat and some rice and put the whole spoon into her own mouth and proceed to chew. Then she would put it back on the spoon and feed the babies.

One day Mum decided to tell Sau Siah's mother about it. She wanted her to know what was happening to the children's food. Sau Siah's mother laughed and said that that was the way to feed babies who could not chew properly and they would not get a burnt mouth. Mum decided that they were most certainly not like us at all.

In front of our house there was a large piece of land and at the furthest end stood a big house. The residents travelled by car and therefore we did not ever meet them. They had an annexe that housed their servants. In the annexe lived a fat, elderly Chinese woman who left early in the morning with a kandar stick across her shoulders. Hanging on the two ends of the kandar sticks were two big baskets. She would go waddling down Lumba Kuda Lama, in the direction of the railway station.

In the evenings, often after the sun had set, the old woman would return. She would stop on the five-foot path outside our house and sit on a small wooden stool. The two baskets would rest on the floor and she would place the kandar stick next to the baskets. Inside her basket were so many little little things wrapped in what appeared to be coloured waxed paper. After some time, Dad allowed us to accept some of the wrapped things. Mum would give her some shillings.

That was my introduction to Chinese dried stuff as we called them. There were dried olives wrapped in paper and rolled into a circle. We called them kana. Then there was the sour kana with salt on it. She would tell us to drink water with it and the water would taste sweet. Then one day, she forced my Mum to accept what looked like red crepe paper with sprinkled sugar. We had to chew on it and soon we all loved it. It was dried sotong with a hint of chilli and sugar. Mum would give her some water and then she would slowly get up, get her stick, hook the baskets and waddle off to the house in front. And we would go inside our house with the tidbits in our hands. Mum declared that they were very clever. Imagine making something edible out of orange peel!

To the right of that large house was another detached brick house. That house was occupied by a European couple. I thought they were the most loving people I had ever met. Every evening at about six, the lady would walk down the road in a beautiful gown. She would grace us with a smile if we managed to catch her eye. A short while later she would walk up the road holding the hand of her husband. They would be chatting and laughing. In the evenings, when we sat in our darkened five-foot path with the kana lady, I would look out for the couple in the porch. Often she would be sitting on his lap although there were two chairs on their patio.

One night there was a lot of laughter and that drew the attention of the people in my house and Sau Siah's house. Sau Siah's mother made a comment that I did not understand. As we watched, the man stood up, lifted the lady in his arms, kissed her as in the movies and entered the house and kicked the door shut. That brought forth a lot of comments from my five foot path.

Then one night, there was a Chinese lady at my door. She wanted to see my mother. She talked to my mother and she was crying. My mother told us children to go inside. That meant there was something going on which in turn meant we hung as close as our ears could hear. Much later the lady walked over the house where the loving coupled lived. Mum stayed outside with Sau Siah's mother for a long time and they were speaking in whispers. Nobody told us what had happened. The lady came to our house again a few times, at night and in tears.

One day about 45 years later when I was having lunch with my mother I asked her if such and incident had taken place or if I had imagined it. She had a story to tell. When the European man was away for a spell, the lady entertained other men in the house. One of the men was the husband of the lady who was crying. She had been in Sau Siah's house since afternoon and had seen her husband walk to the house and enter the house and close the door. She waited outside our house for him to leave that house. Mother declared that the Chinese were just like us, there was a lot of sadness in their lives as well.

Once a month, the neighbours would make some cakes and offer with joss sticks and other stuff by the roadside. We would go to the kitchen and watch as they beat the eggs and sugar to a frothy stiff concoction, stirred in flour and baked it in a brass vessel with burning coal underneath and on top. In the evening, we too would sit by the roadside as they revered long gone ancestors. Mum said that their offering was a bit different from ours. We offered in a room and shut the door but they offered in a public place for one and all to see. They were not very different from us, she declared.

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