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

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