Thursday, December 29, 2011

I found the salve for my disturbed self

"If you focus on the person who does the wrong thing, then you have anger. If you focus on the issue, then you have compassion. Worrying does not change anything and it only brings pains. Uncertainty is a natural phenomenon. It is a fact and we need to accept it. Just prepare and do our best!" - Ringu Tulku Rinpoche, The 7th Global Conference on Buddhism.

The last one month has been a torment for me. Today, one of my ex-students posted this on facebook and it cleared my thoughts for me.

  1. Let me not focus on the person or persons causing the problems.
  2. Let me focus on the issue - not a clean heart. But then who am i to judge them? I am looking for the compassion. Let me find it.
  3. I shall worry no more and am already looking forward to my weekend at the PJ Hilton and the coming new year.  I am not able to go with my sister to Italy in January but I shall go with her, if she goes, to New York in July.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The river flowed in tranquility ... and the thought came randomly ... If guns kill people, do pencils misspell words?

Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield. As a rule, whatever is fluid, soft, and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard. This is another paradox: what is soft is strong. - Lao-Tzu

December 2011

This has been one month that dished out varying trying times and moments but as has been said, " the heart would have no rainbows if the eyes had no tears". The smiles and joy of celebration captured on paper, for us to sit back alone and enjoy with nostalgia, a moment that has passed and never would return. Captured on paper.

L-R: Mrs Ignatius, me, Nithiya holding Manesh, (Standing L-R)
Raymond Tate, Mrs Tate, Shyla Thomas, Alexine at Janice's
wedding reception

Captured on paper? What else is captured on paper, that comes back with a haunting echo and eats into your soul at night, snatching away your sleep, pricking your conscience, tormenting your very being, for the words that you have written? Words that will affect the joys, contentment, emotions and lives of others. Others who trust you to stand up for them in honesty and fairness. The words of Nelson Mandela can be modified to speak for my teachers.

"I regard it as a duty which I owed, not just to my teachers, but also to my profession, to the practice of education, and to the justice for all mankind, to cry out against any form of discrimination which is essentially unjust and opposed to the whole basis of the attitude towards justice which is part of the tradition of education worldwide. I believed that in taking up a stand against this injustice I was upholding the dignity of what should be an honorable profession." 

You are holding up the ... 
My ears were saturated with words describing the inadequacies of everyone except two or three.
Is this justice?
Give her an ___ (tongue in cheek)
Yes, it was accepted. No words of inadequacies spewed forth.

Have mercy on me, dear lord. I looked back at great teachers to find out what they had to say:

"If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality." Bishop Desmond Tutu

Another view

"Cowardice asks the question: is it safe?
Expediency asks the question: is it politic?
Vanity asks the question: is it popular?
But conscience asks the question: is it right?
And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular- but one must take it simply because it is right.” - Martin Luther King Jr. 1929-1968


In 1965 I was in Form 3. I studied Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice and I had to memorize the speech made by Portia. Each passing year as I re-read the speech I learnt something new, something profound. Today, I go back to Portia seeking an answer.

The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes. --Shakespeare

Christmas eve has come and both Nithiya and I are quite alone in our respective homes. In the evening we decide to go somewhere. We grab two sandwiches from Caltex, some drinks and I drive her car as she cuddles Manesh in the back seat. We drive out to Kuala Kangsar. I want to show her my favourite place.  We pass the beautiful mosque, come up to the palace, turn left into a car park and come to the river and jetty.

We take our food and drinks, place Manesh in the stroller and walk to the jetty and find a place to sit. There are two Malay men and some children. The men are fishing using their fishing rods. The children play quietly. The white cat is fast asleep. The river flows in all its grand tranquility. We are each immersed in our thoughts and bound by our friendship.

The man talks to us. His father had worked in the palace. This is his hometown. After a long while, he sits next to Nithiya and speaks about Manesh. He is not intrusive. He shows a caring nature. The cat sleeps.

A couple come with the professional photographer and assistant to snap pictures, to capture moments on paper for future nostalgic moments. They move on. Another couple come with another photographer and assistant. They too move on. The cat sleeps.

I look at Nithiya. She is holding Manesh close to her chest. A quote comes to mind.

Once in your life, whatever he was to the world, he becomes everthing to you. When you look him in the eyes, traveling to the depths of his soul, and you say a million things without a sound, you know that your own life is inevitably consumed within the rythmic beatings for his very heart. I love him for a million reasons. No paper would do it justice. It is a thing not of the mind, but of the heart. A feeling only felt.

We leave the man, his children, his fishing rod and the river and drive home before it gets too dark. Our Christmas eve was made special by the river, a Malay family and our friendship. The Muslim Malay personified the spirit of goodwill, kindness, joy and care that is quintessentially Christmas. The river brought us back to where we belong - a part of nature.

A good leader knows the way, shows the way, and goes the way.--Unknown

Manesh Johan and cat

Failing Form 3 and the Rising of the Sun

Sometimes I reflect upon the hazards of passing examinations and the ill effects of passing well too. For instance, if I had failed my Form 3 examination, my parents would have been upset and then put Plan B into action for me. They would have sent me for typwriting classes and in those days tailoring classes, so that I could earn some money sewing some clothes for others.

I would have spent a couple of hours a day doing:

asdf ;lkj asdf ;lkj asdf ;lkj asdf ;lkj asdf ;lkj asdf ;lkj asdf ;lkj asdf ;lkj asdf ;lkj asdf ;lkj asdf ;lkj asdf ;lkj

(If you are wondering what the above mantra is, then it's Pitman's Lesson 1 for typewriting.)

With the Pitman's certificate and the experience of having sewn some housecoats or sari blouses in my resume, my parents would have started to pass the word around and tried to arrange a marriage for me.

The best part of failing Form 3 would be me setting my own timetable. I would have risen with the sun and prepared breakfast for my husband and children and sent them all off, out of the house. The rest of the day would have been mine to do as I wished until the children came home for lunch, and he came back in the evening for some tea and vadai perhaps. Then I would have watered the plants, chatted with the neighbours, watched the children play, warmed up the left overs from lunch and served dinner.

As for Geography, I would have believed sincerely that the sun rose and set on my husband's head and not out there somewhere in the east and set in the west also somewhere out there.

As for the Mathematics of it all, I would not need any geometry, simultaneous equations or calculus to work out or calculate how to spend my husband's money each month, after all I would be sewing my own sari blouses, and saving some money for the family!

As for history, with the neighbourhood wives as my close allies, I would have become an expert in local history:
  • who has run away with who (Parameswara was the not only one to run away after a fight with his father-in-law!)
  • who has lice in her hair (never mind about the lies surrounding IMF or World Bank!)
  • who has more cows or goats (never heard of Sharizat let alone her husband!)
  • men acting like the Godfather of the low cost housing estate (Ramasamy is a common enough name)
  • I would hear the call for prayers and enter my home modestly to light the lamp, dot my forehead with holy ash, forget my practical history sessions, and wait for the sun to set.
I never needed the Science lessons to text the latest gossip, use the DVD player and watch the latest movies. Nobody would have convinced me to buy a DVD for RM30 when I could get it for RM 3, I would not have been that stupid.

My place would have always been the front passenger seat. I would have looked at my husband with a sense of wonder and pride. I would not dream of getting into the driver's seat of the car, that belonged solely to my husband, all other driver's seats belonged to me!

But I passed my Form 3 and my Form 5 and my Form 6 and my University and today I sit here and wonder if I am any cleverer for having passed.
Is my life any pleasanter for reading about graft and crime, arguing about the unfairness of the war in Iraq, for having my letter published in the London Times stating my views on the war? Would my soul have been calmer if I only had to worry if Rajnikanth is bald or not bald?

My husband would have been happier for sure if I believed that the sun rose and set on his head. Well it does for me metaphorically speaking, but .... I wonder if I should have been clever enough not to have passed the Form 3 examination.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

"Love is Blind - Marriage Restores Your Sight" - Words of wisdom on a key-ring i gave to my husband

So many times so many different people have asked me how I met my husband. My son says that we are as alike as chalk and cheese. Let me start with the day before I met him. '

A cousin of my aunt invited me to her house for dinner. After giving it much thought I decided to attend the dinner. One of my university friends, Uma Pannicker gave me a lift to Saras Sathiah's house. She lived somehwere between Subang and Klang in a grand house belonging to her father-in-law the late Tan Sri Dr Sathiah. Saras was a final year student when I was a freshie in the university.

I was in awe of so many things that evening:
The house along the main road to Klang which had once been a planter's bungalow.
The artifacts in the house.
Saras' husband Dr Sathiah was a lecturer in the Faculty of Medicine in the same university.
Their sports car.
His dressing.
His Cambridge accent.

And there I was an almost thouroughbred country bumpkin come to town. Thanks to the Nuns and my English teachers at the Convent who had spent hours training us to speak and read correctly, not many suspected the bumpkin in me. Other than Saras and Uma, I did not know anyone and moved around as Saras introduced me to the others as her cousin from JB.

As I said I was in awe and never had I seen so much of food on the table or the sheer variety - and it was that party that has guided me whenever I host a dinner in my house - it was sheer food art! The paintings on the walls, the carpets on the floor, the selection of music, the lights, the electrifying atmosphere - I was introduced to how a certain society of Indians actually lived.

It took me a while to notice that there was a certain Indian man hovering around me. He told me that he had met me in JB in my grandfather's house, when he had gone there to renew his passport. I told him I had never seen him anywhere in my life before. He told me that he had spoken to me during orientation week in the Arts Concourse. I shook my head. I am not sure what he said but I told him, "Look here I have a boyfriend and he is Chinese," before I walked away. Then Saras told me that he really liked me. It was then that it dawned on me, why she had invited me. I told her that he was wasting his time and to me he looked like an ikan bilis. I was not good with my words. The arrogance and folly of youth.

Saras' husband dropped me home. The drive in his new car more than made up for the dubious reasons why I had been invited to attend that party. When I reached home, my landlady and daughter wanted to know about the evening. I told what I had seen and eaten. I did not tell them why I was the only one of the first year students that Saras had invited. Then I remembered that two men were coming to meet me in Selva's house the following morning. I had no intention of meeting any more Indian men. I went to sleep telling myself that they may come and go.

The next morning, a bit of conscience hit me. Selva might get into trouble with her sister if two strange men came to the house to meet me. I put on a dress and walked to the Chinese coffee shop to make a telephone call to Selva. The shop is two doors away from present day Kavita, an Indian restaurant. I took with me 20 cents. The man would not let me use his phone. I decided to walk. Her house was on a road off Jalan Gasing. A bus came and I hopped into the bus. The conductor took my 20 cents. Well I would walk back, I told myself.

I reached Selva's house. I told her that I was going back and to tell them that I could not meet them. As I left her gate and walked back, a car came behind and hooted. I turned around and I recognized only Rajan. There was the Indian driver and another passenger.

I announced that I could not meet them. I was going back. They said they would give me a lift. I declined but they insisted.

On the first day of my second week in University I met with an accident. I was crossing the road in front of the Science Faculty, at the zebra crossing. A motorbike hit me. That story is for another day. I suffered two fractures of the skull and bruises and was hospitalized. I was on ten weeks medical leave. It was during my medical leave that I attended Saras' party. That accident left me with agonizing headaches for many years.

My head was hurting and the thought of walking back to Petaling Gardens was daunting. I entered the car and met Chandra, the driver and his other friend George Thomas.

to be continued.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

When the Heart Stopped Beating

Why can't I write what I feel in my heart
Dear child, why did you depart?
Your tupperware's filled with cupcakes
You say your mother simply bakes and bakes
You come many a time with a little parcel in your hand
And with a smile and a greeting in front of me straight you stand
And give me the parcel - a piece of the cake that your mother had baked.

Where are you our dear dear little child
Your illness was really very mild
So why did you just go away
Why couldn't you stay
Were you so ill?
Our hearts fill
with sadness
This is madness
that you were taken
so suddenly from all of us
Oh please dear child when your heart began to stop beating
Why didn't you call out to us to tell us that your time was running out
We would have grabbed your hand tight
And we would all have fought
And not allowed you to walk
away and out of our lives
We had not the time
to hold you
close and
tell you
going to
forget how
you touched our
lives in so many different
unforgettable ways that are uniquely
Harish and there can never be another you.
We love you, care for you and now that you have left
Father, mother, brother, sister, and friends feeling bereft
To be in God's hands.
May He keep you safe
Until the tide of life
brings us all
dear child
we bid you a sad
and fond farewell and God Bless.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Christmas in Lorong 2B Jalan Abdul Samad, Johore Bahru

Christmas to me is pure magic and has been until now and so it will be until the end. The magic of Christmas was ignited in my heart for all the wrong reasons and when my mother began to protect us from what she perceived to be immoral behaviour on the part of the servicemen and their wives and girlfriends but which to us children was totally exciting to witness. It became an annual tug of war between the few Indian children and their parents for about a week in December.

Christmas is not about the 25th of December.
Christmas is a feeling felt in the heart, that is heard by the spirit and finds its exit in carols.
Christmas is not about whether the government will allow you to go carolling or not.
Christmas is not about whether one group is trying to convert another.
Christmas is not about groups calling each other heathens and pagans.
Christmas is the magic that fills my heart every year. 
Christmas is the jolliness that permeates the neighbourhood.
Christmas is the lighted up trees and the smell of fruitcake and cookies being baked.

The Indian parents and children knew it had arrived when the Caucasian neighbours came with bits of cakes, cookies and beer for us and told us that there would be parties and noise. Mum would accept the cakes and cookies, decline the beer with a sweet smile of thanks, turn around and tell us in a fierce whisper that bad behaviour was about to start in the neighbourhood! And we children tried our best not to display the excitement we had been waiting for.

During the days preceding the party there would be much hustle and bustle which we observed from our gate. Furniture would be taken out into the garden of each house one by one. Trees would be brought in and decorated. The men would be shirtless, beer in one hand and a cigarette dangling from the lips.  The women in their shorts and bikini tops. The Chinese amahs would be busy washing and cleaning. The carols would be blaring and we would all sing along since the nuns had taught us those carols.

There would be a difference in my house too. Mum would be very alert and make sure the curtains were drawn, prepare early dinner for us and tell us to go to bed by eight. She would come around the outside of the house to make sure our windows were all shut and that we would not see what was going on in the neighbour's garden.

Lorong 2B is a short road with six semi- detached houses on either side of the road. The land area of each house is about 5000+ square feet. Let me give you a picture of that area where I stayed from the age of ten till I married and left home and where my dad lives alone till today.

Jalan Abdul Samad is a long road which begins from the sea-front near the hospital and stops at the cross-roads junction where Jalan Sungai Chat intersects. It then goes on passing the turning to Jalan Nong Chik on the left, the palace on the left and Lorong 2 on the right, past Johore Specialist Hospital and Radio Malaysia on the left and finally ends at a T-junction with Foon Yew Chinese School on the right.

When you enter Lorong 2 there are three smaller Lorongs (lanes) on the left, starting with 2A, then 2B and finally 2C. On the right as you entered Lorong 2, there was a big Malay style wooden house with a workshop. It was a tukang-kayu workshop (carpenter's workshop) and that was the house of Musa Hitam's family. He was at one time our Deputy Prime Minister. Today the big house is gone, leaving us with memories of the sound of carpentry and the voices of the carpenters as they spoke and sang popular Malay songs.  Today there is a very quiet nursery there and its distinctive quality is the silence that pervades the area and the chain-link fencing. But all of us old-timers to that area, still refer to it as tukang kayu's house. Whenever we went to catch a bus, we would take the short-cut through the workshop. Those were safe days.

When we first moved in there, as we walked from the Jalan Nong Chik junction to Lorong 2, on the left there were only 2 houses. The first one, a typical Malay house on stilts was the residence of the Penghulu of Kampung Baru. I used to visit his house and spend many afternoons there. His daughter Hanim Ahmad was my classmate. I recall a much younger sister and an older sister who was already working. Her parents were like all Malays, very polite and very hospitable. Much as I declined, I would be given a cold drink and some tid-bits.

The second house, a huge palatial bungalow was the residence of a Malay judge. He had a huge reputation as an honest, upright, law abiding person. His daughter Zaleha was my senior in the Convent by about two years. She was not friendly and never spoke to any of us from Lorong 2. I have only ever caught a glimpse of her father from a distance and her mother, never. It was known at that time that he was Malaya's first Malay judge. I am trying to authenticate this information. In front of his house was Lorong 2B on the right.

Lorong 2B where we lived is the only Lorong with two rows of houses on either side. All in all there are 24 houses in Lorong 2.

Lorong 2B in the 60s.
As you enter Lorong 2B the first house on the right was occupied by Tony and his wife and their two young children. Tony's wife often changed her hair colour and she was neither friendly nor unfriendly. The first house on the left was occupied by an Indian Iyer family.

The second house on the right was occupied by the Nair family and the second house on the left was our home. The third house on the right was occupied by Tony and his wife whom we called fatty Maureen. The third house on the left was occupied by June and her husband and child Graham. The fourth house on the right was occupied by a Maori and his white wife Angela and their baby. The fourth house on the left was occupied by an English family and their daughter Anne Marie. We did not know the names of the caucasian occupants of the other two houses on the left. The fifth house on the right was occupied by a retired Malay postmaster and the last house on the right by another English family with two teenage children: Norma and I forget the name of the serious looking handsome boy. The road continued after a bend with detached houses, all occupied by English servicemen and their families except for a couple of Indian families. So Christmas was in the air all around us.

The activities would become more brisk as dusk approached. Most of them put their children in one house and had an amah take care of them for the night. Each of the houses would host a party so we had a number of parties to enjoy from our bedroom window. Fatty Maureen's house was barely visible. June's house was next to ours. By about ten in the evening, everyone would be in high spirits.

Sulo who lived in front of our house had more freedom than we had. Her parents allowed her to watch the parties from her patio. One party stands out. The music, the smoke from the barbecue and the conversation set the tone. Then the dancing began. For me it was the first live dance that I had seen. It was movie come to life. They would change partners and the songs were all the latest songs. We used to sing along with the music.

There was a commotion of some sort. We peered into the darkness. There was a man and a woman behind the house next door. The tall man we recognized as fatty Maureen's husband. The woman he was hugging and kissing was too short and slim to be Maureen. Another movie scene. When the woman passed next to our window we recognized her as the other Tony's wife, the one who changed her hair colour. The Tony who kissed her stood for a while, leaning against the wall smoking a cigarette.

About four days before the party, she had come to my gate at about half past nine in the evening with a tray in her hand. She told me that her fruit cake had got burnt. It was edible and would I please take it. She was going to bake another one and her children were too young to eat it. It would only go to waste. My mother who was such a stickler when it came to accepting food had gone out with my father. My sisters and brothers came to the gate. I told them what she had told me, in Malayalam of course and asked them for their opinion.

Take it! They said unanimously.
What would mother say?
We will eat it all up before she comes home.
So take it I did.
It was a big cake and we could not eat it all. We kept it in the fridge. When my parents returned, we told them that she had brought a cake, that it was slightly burned and it was in the fridge. Mum looked quite pleased actually. The cake was very nice but rich and we could only eat it in small pieces.

It was 1965. The previous year Moira Boyd, her husband Clark and son George were our neighbours.
Moira was a steady sort of person, she was 24. Her husband had got into a drunken brawl and was sent back to Scotland. She was a good neighbour. She kept in touch with my mother for years, sending her pictures of Baby George growing up.

We wondered what was going through Tony's head. The party had taken another route and we weren't so sure if the feeling that we felt was disillusionment. Listening to the music, one by one we fell asleep. The next day my mother called us and told us that there was a big fight going on in Tony's house. And it was happening in the garden between Maureen and Tony. Then Maureen went over to the other Tony's house. Sulo's house stood in between. We never saw the two Tonys talking to each other again. But by evening Maureen and her husband were holding hands and walking down the road.

Dad was with the British Army and he made monthly contributions to a fund. At the end of the year, he would get lots of new presents for his children for Christmas.  He would bring toys, books, biscuits, chocolates and cakes for us. Mum would apportion the food for us and each one of us would get our toy. This was an annual tradition and the last time he brought gifts was in 1969. The following year, the British withdrew from Singapore and took this tradition home with them.

The garden parties with the music went on until new year's eve. Then the neighbourhood would become quiet again. The people who occupied the house behind ours also had their parties but everything happened in the front of the house.

When the British army withdrew from Malaysia and Singapore, the servicemen left and the houses became vacant and most of them reverted to being owner-occupied.

Today, as I drive into Lorong 2 when I visit my father, the people who made up the exciting neighbourhood where I grew up are no more.

The Iyer family next door, sold their house and moved away. Their eldest son, Dato Ramachandran Viswanathan had retired as a high ranking naval officer of the Royal Malaysian Navy.

The Nair family in front - most of them are no more. Sulo went on to become Associate Professor Dr Sulochana Nair of the Faculty of Economics at the University of Malaya. The house is now rented to an Indian expatriate doctor.

Further up the road, Mrs Titus lives alone for a few months of the year. The rest of the year is spent with her youngest son Thomas a lawyer in California. It was her eldest son Abraham I visited when we went to Belfast. That visit caused a lot of anxiety to Mr Loh and I thank Mrs Lai for the support she gave me in my endeavour to meet him after almost forty years.

As I enter my house, there is our old faithful Min Chu - my mum's aging dog, my Dad and a Filipino maid. I can almost hear the footsteps of all of us who lived there so noisily and their voices echo in my head.

The neighbourhood settled down to becoming a very Asian neighbourhood with Chinese, Malays and Indians.
There are no more garden parties. The people going up and down the road are strangers. But I only need to look within and I can hear
Joy to the world
The party's begun
Let us enjoy the songs ...

An Evening with Dr Cheah Boon Kheng at the Ipoh Swimming Club

 Mrs Lai invited me to attend the dinner talk at the Ipoh Swimming Club today (Saturday, 10 December 2011), the speaker: Dr Cheah Boon Kheng.

I was introduced to History as a subject when I was in Standard 4 and my teacher Mrs Nancy Teoh described it as His Story. I love stories and therefore history has been one of my favourite subjects. Our history books in primary school were collections of short stories. My history book in Std 6 was Malayan Junior Histories Standard 6 by P. B. Hilton. Hilton was a Senior Lecturer in History, Malayan Teachers' College, Penang and the book was published by University of London Press Ltd, Warwick Square, London EC4.

The Preface for the book, written by Hilton:
This book is designed to meet the needs of the pupils in the last year of the Primary Schools of the Federation of Malaya. it follows the Syllabus for History as laid down in 1958, covering Topics 8,9 and 10 of the Sixth Year.

Considerations of space and of expense to the pupil using this book have made it necessary to treat the subjects of these stories much more briefly than one would have wished. Teachers may be glad of the notes on the background to these stories, in the Teacher's Book to this volume.

I should like to express my gratitude to Che Ismail bin Ibrahim, Lecturer in Art at the Malayan Teachers' College Penang, for the maps for this book.

It is hoped that the language used will be found simple and straightforward enough for pupils' understanding, though it is not 'childish'. Some new words will inevitably be encountered, but for pupils who hope to go on to Secondary School, this should be useful.

Carlyle said that great people are always great company. It is hoped that Malayan children will find these men and women, some of the heroes and heroines of World History, to be 'great company'.

The contents of this book, will explain why we found history to be so interesting. It will also explain why I was upset that the contents page of the school magazine was left out.


PART ONE: Stories from the West

  1. Wise men of Greece: Pericles and Socrates
  2. To Conquer the World: Alexander the Great
  3. The Greatest Roman of all: Gaius Julius Caesar
  4. The Holy Roman Empire: Charlemagne
  5. The Caliph of Baghdad: Harun Al Raschid
  6. Men of the North: The Vikings
  7. William the Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy
  8. The Cross and the Crescent: Richard the Lion Heart and Saladin the Great
  9. The Maid of Orleans: Joan of Arc
  10. The Capture of Quebec: General James Wolfe
  11. To be the Master of Europe: Napoleon Bonaparte
  12. "England Expects...": Admiral Nelson
  13. Great Americans: George Washington and Abraham Lincoln
  14. To Rule Africa: Cecil Rhodes
  15. Father of the Turks: Mustapha Kemal
Part Two: Great Travellers and Explorers
  1. Chinese Pilgrims: Fa Hsien, Yang Chuang and I Tsing
  2. From the West to the East: Marco Polo
  3. The Traveller of Islam: Ibn Battuta
  4. Ambassador of "The son of Heaven": Admiral Cheng Ho
  5. The Sea-way to India: Prince Henry the Navigator, Bartholomew Diaz and Vasco da Gama
  6. To the New World: Christopher Columbus
  7. First Round the World: Ferdinand Magellan
  8. The Elizabethan Seamen: Sir Francis Drake, Sir John Hawkins and Sir Walter Raleigh
  9. For Freedom: The Pilgrim Fathers
  10. To the Southern Seas: Captain James Cook
  11. In Darkest Africa: David Livingstone
  12. To the South Pole: Captain Scott
  13. On "The Roof of the World": Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing
Part 3: Modern Inventions and Discoveries
  1. Better Roads: John Metcalf, Thomas Telford and James Macadam
  2. From "Hobby-horse" to Motor Car: Carl Benz, Gottlieb Daimler and Henry Ford
  3. Riding on Air: Charles Goodyear and John Dunlop
  4. Ships: From Sail to Steam and from Wood to Steel
  5. From Glider to Jet Aircraft: Wilbur and Orville Wright and Sir Frank Whittle
  6. The Wonders of Electricity: Michael Faraday, Alexander Bell, Thomas Edison and Guglielmo Marconi
  7. An English Country Doctor: Edward Jenner
  8. "From a grateful humanity": Louis Pasteur
  9. For Safer Surgery: Lord Lister
  10. Painless Surgery: William Morton and Sir James Simpson
  11. "The Lady with the Lamp": Florence Nightingale
  12. Prevention Better than Cure: Sir Ronald Ross and Sir Malcolm Watson
  13. The Courage Never to Give Up: Marie Curie
  14. New Ways of Healing: Sir Alexander Fleming
In JB Convent, we were promoted to the next class in November after the final exam, every year. We bought our books in November, and our teachers introduced us to the topics we would be studying the following year. During our long holiday in December, we would read our textbooks and enjoy the information to be found in them. Very often on the first day of school in January, the teacher would give us a short test and there would be homework as well! Our SR Tenby students got a taste of that system, when I introduced it two years ago. Students were okay, but some parents were confused.

My dear mother kept all our textbooks and a few years ago I found this book in the cupboard in my mum's house in JB. I brought it back to read and to use in Tenby Schools as reading passages for the students.

Today, I came back from the talk and took out this book. I have also taken out the book my Dad bought for me when I was in Upper Six:

History of Europe, 1450-1660 by PJ Helm, MA, Senior Master, Queen's College, Taunton

Dr Cheah's talk was on whether history was fact or fiction. He likened it to literature because of the use of language by historians.

PJ Helm said, "Because the historian, unlike the scientist, uses terms the meaning of which cannot be exactly defined, he must always be sure of two things: first, that he is quite clear in his own mind as to the meaning he is giving to the abstract words he uses; and second, that he makes this meaning clear to others...terms that are the shorthand of history are imprecise and useless until you, and those to whom you are talking, are clear as to just what you mean when you use them. Then you may still disagree, but at least you will both understand why you are disagreeing."

My History teacher in Form 6, Mr Mahan Singh made history come alive because he spoke about the people in the book as though he knew them personally and he was a part of whatever they had done to earn a place in that book! So it was a little like listening to my mother telling me the local history of Jalan Abdul Samad. How Amalu Amma had come and spent an hour in the house telling her about her trip to the hospital. When my mother asked her who had told her that so and so had been hospitalized, she replied, "Nobody told me. About three times a week, I go to the hospital and visit all the wards. I am sure to meet someone I know. And if he does not have any visitors, I spend some time talking to him. Then I will let others know that he is in hospital so that they may visit him!"

A smile comes to my heart as I remember Ammalu Amma, Sulo's father's aunty. She was a widow when we knew her and in the sixties she must have been in her sixties. She was quite bent, always in a white cotton sari and walked very fast. She visited most of the houses along our Lorong. She was most friendly and did not have a shy bone in her body. We could not hide from her for she would find us. Her straight hair was drawn into a knot at the back of her head. She was not grey. And she had a loud voice. We saw her at least twice a week. I am not sure where she lived but she came visiting every week carrying her black signature umbrella. When she passed away, my mother said, "This world will not see another Ammalu Amma," and she was right. For who today, will visit all the wards of the hospital and look for friends who might have been admitted and not have visitors?

Dr Cheah said that different people have different views. Who is correct?

Helm had a very interesting way of describing views. He used the Renaissance as an example.

"Are we to regard the Renaissance period as one of rebirth, or as a grand finale - a hopeful sunrise or a glorious sunset? The answer is that it contains something of both. In the spectrum the colour orange, for instance, lies between red and yellow; it is a colour with its own characteristics, but sharing the qualities of the colours on either side of it. Viewed in one way orange represents the 'decline and fall of red', viewed in another way it shows 'the rise and triumph of yellow' - and both views are correct. It is all a matter of selection. Much the same sort of thing applies to periods of history. By isolating different sets of facts it is possible to create a picture of a brilliant sunset or a promising dawn, for both aspects are present." 

Dr Cheah is right, about literature and the use of words. I have always found the above explanation by Helm to be very poetic and stimulating, a colourful freeing of my mind to see the world without having to accept the blindness of other people!

Now my table had very interesting people. There was the silver-haired Mr Loh Ghee Juan who was very happy about the government pay rise. Then there was Commander (Rtd) Ian Anderson who was not happy that his book had not been promoted there. Mrs Lai our Director who was quite quiet today. Nithiya the person who persuaded me to accept the invitation, was worried about coping since her Indonesian maid was going on leave the following day. A lady from Kinta, an accountant by training, who had worked in Singapore for many years and whose name eludes me now, sat next to me. Jack Wong Kin Tung our History teacher who is a quiet person until you speak to him was next to the accountant. Avinesh the new PA to Mrs Lai, and who has a very interested look in the happenings around him rounded up our group.

I met people I had not seen in a long while and it was an interesting social evening. Then something Mr Loh said, caught my attention. He told me that the gentleman sitting at the last table was a former Deputy Director of Education for Perak and the last non-Malay to hold that post. He went on to say that he was a very strict man. For no reason, other than that of habit, I asked what his name was. He told me his name was Mr Malayapillai. That was history. My history.

I stood up and announced that he was my ex-principal in Johore English College and that I had to go and talk to him. Mrs Lai smiled. I left the table and found him deep in conversation with Mr Maniam, the retired principal of ACS Ipoh. I introduced myself and asked him if he was the same person who was the principal of English College in 1969. EC was the top school in Johore and was on par with Victoria Institution in Kuala Lumpur, Penang Free School and Raffles Institution in Singapore. Mr Henry was the Deputy Principal.

I cannot describe the joy I saw in his face when I told him that I was his ex- student from JB. As he shook my hand, what registered was that his palm was soft. He is Indian so he probably has not done any housework! Like mopping and scrubbing. Just touch my palms now to know what I mean.

He asked me what I was doing and my dear Mr Maniam spoke up for me. He said, "In the tradition of English College, she is very fair but strict and was the Principal of MGS". I am in reality four feet ten inches shorter than the ten feet tall that he made me feel. Again Mr Malayapillai's eyes lit up. Mr Subramaniam then told me that his late wife was the sister of Mr Henry!

When I came back to my place and recounted what had taken place, (I ommitted what Mr Subramaniam said), the lady whose name eludes me asked if he recognized me. I said nought. Mr Loh said that he was strict. I remembered how a boy in Upper Six had used a four letter word in school which a teacher had overheard. The boy was sent to the Head Master's Room and he came out with two of the best. No one expected a Form Six boy to get a feel of tickler. Today when some students use expletives so freely, there are teachers who accept that behaviour as nothing seriously unacceptable. What kind of character are we building for our students?

When I entered Form Six in 1968, my Head Master was Mr Bion Dury. Years later when Anderson School came up with their Centenary Book, I bought a copy after I found Mr Dury's name in the book. He was an old boy of Anderson. When I was in Upper Six, Mr Dury was transferred to Perak and Mr Malayapillai took over. He was a very strict Head Master and like Head Masters and Mistresses of those days, he filled us with a sense of awe. I left at the end of 1969 and never saw him again until this evening, some 42 years later. I shall contact him and have tea with him and his wife. As I shook hands with him and addressed him 'Sir' I found that salutation to be most natural and apt.

Thank you Dr Cheah for making this evening an evening of historical relevance for me, by bringing my ex-Head Master and me together.


Thursday, December 8, 2011

Letter From Peking, Jeeva's Grandmother, cold toast and the Officers' Ward of the Johore Bahru General Hospital

What a title! It sums up a few days of my life in June 1964.

Everyone in the family caught a flu and got well soon enough. I did not. My mother got my Uncle Prasad to take me to the General Hospital and I was treated by Dr Oliveiro. He told my uncle that I needed to be warded. My uncle was a government school teacher and he signed for me to be admitted in the Officers' Ward of the Hospital.

It is a double storey building, high up on a hill, quite separate from the main building, with its distinctive brick exterior. From the building you get a good view of the sea in front of the hospital. I was put in a room for four patients but during my entire week there, i was the only patient. So I had this big room all to myself.

My uncle took me to the room and then left to inform my mother. I was not really very ill, the way I was when I was eight but I found myself looking forward to spending a few days in the hospital. My room was on the first floor and it faced the staircase. My bed was the first bed on the left when you entered the room. That room had lots of windows and fans. The nurse settled me into my bed and she left the room.

I made up my mind to enjoy not having to go to school, not having to do any homework, not having to do any household chores and to lap up the luxury of solitude. After a while I realised that there was no sign of anyone from home. I also realised that I had not eaten anything and I was hungry. I rang the bell and waited.

An elderly Ayamah came to the room. She walked to my bed and switched off the bell. Then she asked me in Tamil why I had called. I told her in Malayalam that I was hungry. She repeated her question in Tamil. I looked at her face. She had a tired but kind face. She was very light skinned and was dressed in white, the uniform for ayamahs. I had seen her before, but where? I told her in Malay, "Lapar,".

She spoke again in Tamil and asked me if I could speak Tamil. I could understand her but for some reason I did not want to try the few words of Tamil that I knew. I remained silent. She then asked me if I was a Bengali. I told her, "Malayali," and she was offended I thought, from the tone of her voice. She told me that all Malayalis spoke Tamil.

I touched my stomach and told her that I was hungry, in Malay. She grumbled a bit and walked out of the room. She came back about fifteen minutes later with a tray, which she placed on a movable table, made sure that I could reach the food, muttered and mumbled and left the room. I told you I meant to enjoy my stay. I removed the cloth that was covering the food and found a bowl of some yellow stuff, two pieces of toast, some butter and jam and a cup of hot milo. This is life, I told myself.

That yellow stuff turned out to be custard. It was delicious. The toast was cold and the butter was spreadable. I buttered the toast one by one and settled back to enjoy my mid afternoon snack. Suddenly, she entered the room again. She asked me if I lived in Jalan Abdul Samad. I said yes. She told me that she was Jeeva's grandmother. Things began to fall into place. She also brought some magazines for me to read. I was touched by her gesture.

She stood there and watched me and spoke as I ate. The cold toast was delicious as well. She helped to wipe away some bread crumbs as she asked me if I knew Jeeva. Jeeva was my sister's classmate. She lived with her sisters, mother and grandmother in one of the big old wooden houses along Jalan Abdul Samad. We had never seen Jeeva's father. When I had finished eating, she told me that they would bring my tea at three thirty and dinner at six thirty. She picked up the tray and left the room.

I opened the first magazine. It was the Australian Woman's weekly. Those days, it was a true weekly and thin and smaller in size. Today although it is called Australian Woman's Weekly, it is a monthly magazine.

The first article that caught my attention was the news article with pictures showing the wedding of the Raja Muda of Johore and his English wife whose Malay name is Kalsom. The three page spread was beautiful. That six year old magazine was of special interest to me because the daughters of the Raja Muda were studying in the Convent in Johore Bahru. There were three girls and they were so pretty. I decided to ask the nurse if I could take the magazine.

As I continued to read every article in the magazine, I saw that the magazine ran a serial from a novel by Pearl S Buck, Letter from Peking. It was the story of an inter-racial marriage - an English girl and a Chinese man. I rang the bell. The same ayamah came. What do you want now, she asked me in Tamil. This time I spoke a mixture of Malayalam and some Tamil words and tried to make her understand that I wanted to know where she had got the magazine from. I failed. I asked her to get me a nurse. She thought I was ill and called a nurse.

The nurse led me outside my room and next to the door to my room, there was another door. It was a big store room which was filled with magazines and books. I was happy. I spent the next morning going through all the magazines and found what I was looking for. As luck would have it, the last part could not be found. It took me more than six years before I found the book in the University of Malaya Book Store.

Unlike 1958 when my mother came twice  day to visit me, there was no sign of anyone till it was almost six in the evening. The uncle who had me admitted did not come either. Everyone in my family came to visit me. Mum touched my forehead, my neck, my arms, my cheeks and declared that I was not ill. I almost agreed with her. My sister said that I had lots of books to read. My father said that I would be all right. I enjoyed the fuss that they made over me. At home, under normal circumstances, I had lots of household chores to do.

Mum asked me if I wanted any food from home. I said no. They stayed for a few hours and then they left. Looking back, I was not scared to sleep alone. Someone came and closed all the windows, tucked me in and switched off the light. A night lamp was left to keep the room comfortably dim. I slept well. Someone woke me up and I took my shower, changed into fresh clothes and got back into bed. Breakfast in bed. More time to read. Mid morning coffee and biscuits. Time to read. Lunch at half past twelve. More time to read.

My Uncle Prakash visited me on the second day. He came in from University. He spoke to my parents about the riots in Singapore. Someone he knew, a journalist had been killed. There was curfew in Singapore and therefore the University was closed. He could visit me more often he said in order to cheer me up.

The doctors came, checked me, did tests and said that I needed to stay a few more days. I finished reading the magazines and after the third day, I began to long for the chaos of my bedroom back home which I shared with my two sisters. I missed my two younger brothers and my older brother too. I did not fancy breakfast of half boiled eggs, toast and butter with milo any longer. I needed to share food and eat together with family. I wanted my own plate and glass. I missed my mother's food.

Finally the uncle who admitted me visited me. I told him I wanted to go home. He went to see some doctor friend of his and came back and told me that I was discharged. He took me home. Till today, I do not know why I was admitted nor what was really wrong with me. But I read Letter from Peking, ate cold toast and had a fairly good stay at the Officers' Ward.

The story of Jeeva and her grandmother is for another day.

my husband Chandra and I outside our home in Ipoh

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

New Boy In The Office

A new boy in the office.
The new boy who is the first to read all my blog entries.

I try to recreate moments that I remember of a life that will never come back.
I attempt to bring back to life, people who have recited their lines and left the stage of life for another stage, that I cannot visit.
I long to let others view how we were, once upon a time.

Avinesh is the new boy in the office.
New boy reminds me of new girls in the class.

I am in Standard 2A, in Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, Johore Bahru. It is January 1958 and my classroom is the last one in the row of rooms, with the first one being the Parlour, the second the office, the third and fourth being classrooms. If I look out of the door on the left, I see Jalan Yahya Awal, where the school is situated. If I look out of the door on the right, I see a small field where we play in the morning before school starts and also during our interval.

I look around me on the first day of school. There are so many of us, 48 to be exact in one class. Every year we are mixed up and put into new classes, so that we can make new friends as we go along. One new girl in the class sitting near me, pretty, friendly and with kind eyes, short hair, brown skin and of my height is Diana Zat. Diana is my first Malay friend and she is the reason why I have such a fondness for Malays, especially Malay ladies and children.

Then one week later another new girl enters the class and she captivates me completely. Her name is Valerie Boswell. She is very light skinned, has brown straight hair, freckles and a very confident manner of speaking. One of our daily lessons is daily news. We are required to come to the front of the class and share with the class some real news. Valerie would come to the front of the class and all her stories centred around her father and her baby sister.

Mind you, I had just learned to speak English. So every day my mother met Valerie vicariously and in quite conflicting situations.

Situation 1

"There is another race that is European and yet not European like our neighbours," I would insist to my mother. "They speak the language, they eat European food, they dress like them, but they are not Europeans," I would argue. Finally, my mother approached the one person who made the final decision in family squabbles, my father.  He listened to me. Valerie is fair but her sister Audrey was perhaps only a shade lighter than me, I told him. Then my father introduced me to the word, "Eurasian".

Situation 2

"Eurasian babies can speak when they are born. Why can't Malayalee babies speak when they are born?" I asked my mother. She looked at me and said, "No baby speaks when he is born".
"Eurasian babies speak when they are born. I am telling you. Valerie said her baby sister speaks!"
"That is not true."
"How do you know? You have not seen a Eurasian new born baby."
"I know. All babies are the same. They cannot speak when they are born."
The next day, I spoke to Valerie.

"Can your baby sister speak?"
"Could she speak when she was born?"
"Of course not, stupid!" I forgot to mention that she was not very polite.
"How old is she now?"
"The why do you call her baby?"
"I'm nine. She's three. She's my baby sister, silly!"

"Ma, Eurasian babies do not speak when they are born."
"I told you so," my mother told me kindly. I did not tell her that Valerie had called me stupid.

Situation 3

"Ma, Eurasians are the happiest people in the world. They are not like us." I informed my mother.
"Everyone is happy sometimes and sad sometimes," my mother explained. But I could not forget Valerie and the stories during Daily News. She spoke of breakfast with her dad, the way her father hugged and kissed her. That did not happen in my house. I went next door to Sau Siah's house. It did not happen there either. I asked them.

She spoke of picnics and long car drives. She spoke of her father telling them stories that made them all laugh. Her parents and parties and dancing.

"They dance and they are happy," I announced during lunch time. My mother was not really impressed.
"Theirs is not a dance! Our dance is very old and it takes you years to learn. Padmini has danced in England and America."
"Not Padmini's dance Ma. Her father and her mother dance. Her father makes her mother laugh all the time when he dances with her".
"Keep quiet and finish your lunch," said my mother as she moved away from the table. "Your father does not have to dance with me to ..." I burst out laughing and my mother stopped to look at me seriously.
"Why are you laughing?" she asked.
"Just thinking of father dancing!" and I continued to giggle.

My obsession with Valerie Boswell lasted for years. We were in the same class for three years. After standard four she left our school and the family moved to Kuala Lumpur. In 1969 they moved back to Johore Bahru and Audrey Boswell who was one year my junior was in Lower Six when I was in English College. I never met Valerie again. But ...

In 1989 my younger brother Harish was going off to Australia. Mrs Nesadurai, a piano teacher and the retired Head Mistress of Sultan Ibrahim Girls School (Primary) lived along our lane. Her older son Henry Nesadurai had come back from England and was living with his mother. He gave Harish a fish tank and one fish. A black fish. One day when I visited my mother, Harish and Henry were there. In the course of our conversation, I discovered that Henry was a divorcee. His ex wife was Valerie Boswell. She had moved off to Australia.

In 2007 Mr Skelchy, father of Peter Skelchy came to our house. Peter is Roy's friend. During the course of our conversation I made another discovery, that Valerie's father was Malaya's first Fifa referee, Norman Boswell and that he had come from France.

To me Mr Boswell is the man who danced with his wife and made her laugh, who gave such joy to his daughter and who to me is etched in mind as the ideal father. All the more because Valerie could go home with any kind of marks for the tests in school, and she was not scared to face her father.

While Valerie captivated everyone, with her stories, her passion for speaking and her natural prowess as a leader, I still spoke to Diana. Diana never said an unkind word, she never told us that she would not friend us, the way Valerie did if someone did not follow her rules. Yet, everyone was drawn to Valerie.

To be continued.