Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Bloomers! I want a pair and I am 61

While speaking to my sister Sheela a couple of days ago, I told her one deep hidden desire of mine - I want to stitch a pair of bloomers for myself. But, I am embarrassed to get myself measured by the tailor and for her to know that I want to use them. My sister laughed her head off and told me to tell the tailor that they were for someone else.

In 1957, I started my formal school life in Standard 1F at the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus in Johore Bahru. My uncle took me to school on my first day and from then I was on my own. He took me to the school book shop which was on the ground floor of the block that faces Jalan Yahya Awal. He spoke most respectfully to the European nun who appeared to respect him too. He bought my school books for me and gave them to me. I held them tight, close to my chest and the smell of those new books linger on till today. I kept on smelling them and from that moment onwards, I have had an endless love affair with books.

He walked me to my classroom which was at the back. It was the second classroom from the right. There were two Standard One classes in the afternoon - 1E and 1F. The class teacher of 1E was Ms Theresa Yagappan. The class teacher of 1F was Mrs Rogers. She was my class teacher and I was terrified of her.

Mrs Rogers was a very brown skinned lady, slim, with short wavy hair that came to her shoulders and she always wore floral, sleeveless frocks with billowing skirts and a pair of high heeled shoes. From the first day, she laid down the rules and we listened very carefully, too afraid to utter a sound. We were each given a small green board and two boxes of chalk. One box contained about 12 pieces of white chalk and the other contained 12 pieces of coloured chalk. We were to handle the chalk very carefully and make sure that they did not break into small pieces. She wrote our names on the boxes. During the start of lessons she handed out our chalk boxes and collected them before we went home. On some days we could take our boards home.

The only language allowed was English. If we could not speak English, then we could not speak at all. I remained silent for most of my Standard One year. I remember vividly the few ocassions when she spoke to me.

The first ocassion was when she was giving me my box of chalk. She said something about broken chalk and I approached her trembling with fear. She opened the box, looked inside and then at me. She held my stare and said slowly, "Good,". I was so relieved.

On another ocassion all the girls were removing their pinafores. They had on blue shorts with garters at the top and at the end of each 'leg'. It almost reached the knee. I did not have such an attire and I had no idea that I had to have one. No one had told me or my mother. I stood there without changing. Mrs Rogers said something which I did not understand. A girl nudged me towards her. I approached her most fearfully.

When I reached her desk I decided to speak before she asked me something I did not understand. I said, "Mrs Rogers, I have no knickers," and she looked at me with a horrified expression. I felt thoroughly mortified. She got up and came towards me most purposefully, reached out for the edge of my pinafore and lifted it above my waist. She looked at me and said, "You are wearing knickers,".  I shook my head and said, "I don't have that kind of knickers,".

She laughed and so did some of the other girls. "They are not knickers. They are bloomers. Who lives near this girl's house?" Maureen Yong came forward. Maureen could speak English. She told Maureen to lend me her bloomers so that I could show them to my mother. She wrote the word, 'BLOOMERS' in capital letters for me. That evening when I went home, Maureen's bloomers followed me. Luckily, we stayed near the tailor. Mum walked to her shop and ordered one pair of bloomers for me.

Then one day she told us to bring one dollar to buy something. She repeated the word several times. I kept on repeating the word until I reached home. Excitedly I told my mother, " Teacher wants us to bring one dollar."
"To buy mangosteen."
"No. Father will buy mangosteens. They are cheaper when he buys."
"The school mangosteens are different. You don't eat them."

Uncle Anandan who was staying with us, got involved in the argument. "This is how the Christian schools make money. They use the children to get the money from the parents. They do this a lot in Kolam." I was upset with him for supporting my mother and for speaking against my school.

As a consolation, when I was leaving for school, my mother tutored me on what to tell my teacher. So again I walked to her table as she was collecting the money. I said,"My mother said, I cannot pay."
"Father will buy, from town."
"What? Your father cannot buy from town. You have to buy from us."
"Mother said cannot. When father buys, it will be sweeter."
"Sweeter! What is your father buying that is sweeter?"
She laughed and again the class laughed. I was lost. She looked at me and said, "Not mangosteens. Magazine. School Magazine." Again, she wrote, "SCHOOL MAGAZINE" in block letters for my mother to read.

At home. "Ma, I told you we had to take one dollar. Everyone paid, except me. I told you that what they were selling you could not eat." I then showed her what my teacher had written. Mum, Dad and Uncle Anandan had a big laugh and that story was told to all visitors who laughed as well. Whilst repeating magazine in order not to forget the word, mangosteen had crept into my mind. Though I smile at the memory of that day, on that day I felt quite ashamed of my Malayalam speaking status.

The school sports. The trishaw rider came late and he took such a long time to reach school. He took me right up to the front of the parlour and I was afraid because I did not see anyone. He was a kind man. He took me by the hand and led me to the small hall with the huge stone steps. He told me to sit there quietly and wait for my teacher. He said that he would come and pick me up from the steps when it was time to go home.

I waited and I waited. There was not a soul to be seen. I did not dare leave my seat. After eternity, I heard the voice of my teacher. "Siva, what are you doing here? Why didn't you come to the field? You have missed the sports."

I was almost in tears. I was not sure how to tell her in English that I did not know where the sports was being held. We had all assembled in the small hall the previous day for sports practice. When I arrived on sports day, there was no one there. That was my first school sports.

When I went home, Mum wanted to know about the sports. I did not speak much and they thought it was because I had not won a prize. I had missed everything. After a few days, I told her about my first school sports. She told everyone and I felt somewhat comforted when I felt their sadness. So I was not alone in my sadness.

Although I hardly spoke in school and was rarely called upon to answer any questions, when the Mid-Year Examination results were announced, I was 12th in the class. Everyone was surprised. I had full marks for spelling, dictation, arithmetic and English. I had high marks for reading, writing and not very high marks for art. I learned one lesson - if you are good at something, then you will have friends. I studied hard for the next eleven years.

The visit to the dentist. One day, my name was called out and I was one of the group of girls sent to the dentist at the General Hospital in Johore Bahru. We were so afraid especially when the girls started to share frightening stories. I do not remember the dentist but I do remember the nurses. They were very kind and they gave us some small plastic boxes as souvenirs. I got about five of them. I looked after them carefully and brought them back to my class. I placed them near my school bag on the floor and somehow forgot them when it was time to go home. The next day, I searched in vain but they were gone. Mrs Rogers asked the girls if they had seen my boxes. I was very sad and disappointed.

The devil in the toilet. Ng Yeow Joo, a very talkative and bossy girl, came back to the class and told us that she had seen a devil in the toilet. It had just drunk a lot of blood and had drowned in the toilet bowl. It was white, covered with blood and floating. One by one we went to have a look. It was white all right, there was blood and it was floating. It did not look like a person. In fact it did not look like anything I had ever seen. When Mrs Rogers realised that we were taking turns to go to the toilet, she made a toilet visit and stopped us from going to that cubicle.  My mother told me not talk about it again when I described the devil to her. Years later, I realised that we had actually seen a soiled sanitary towel.

Poppy Day. Then one day, a European man came with Sister Helen and spoke to us about people who had died for us and who were actually heroes. To appreciate them we were told to buy a poppy flower. It was blood read with a black button in the middle. It cost ten cents. I had ten cents and I bought one. I kept the flower with me the whole afternoon. The whole afternoon Yeow Joo never left my side and kept on asking me for the flower. She was a bossy girl and finally she wore me out and I gave the poppy to her. I was hoping she would be my friend. Once she had got the poppy, she left my side and never spoke to me again spontaneously. You cannot buy a friend. I spoke to my mother about the poppy I had bought and given away. Dad told me the story behind the poppy. I still miss my poppy.

The Joyful Vanguard. It was yellow in colour and had a few pages. It had comic strips and stories. The stories were not exciting but I liked reading. I also liked the look on Sister Helen's face when I placed 15 cents in her hand and she gave me a copy. After a few issues, my mother told me that she would stop my pocket money if I bought any more Joyful Vanguards. I continued to buy them on and off until I left school.

Mrs Cora Danker. She filled me and still fills me with joy when I think of her Physical Education and Art lessons. She was a stunning beauty and she dressed like a dream. Her clothes, her shoes, her handbags - they all matched and were so fashionable. She had such lovely milky white skin, reddish hair styled so elegantly and the sweetest smile. She never said a cross word to any one of us.

"What's the time, Mr Wolf?"
"One 0'clock."
"What's the time, Mr Wolf?" It went on until you said, "Dinner time!" It was fun.

She taught us art. We had fun with colours and brushes and water. Our paintings would be left to dry on the floor and when done, would be displayed on the board. Time passed so fast when she entered the class.

Then there was the lady who taught us craft and writing, Ms Maria Harun, the gentlest teacher any young child could ask for. She was always dressed in simple, colourful, traditional baju kurungs. She would walk to our tables and teach us how to cut paper patterns, make baskets, model plastercine and enjoy ourselves. Not one of us ever heard a harsh word from Ms Maria Harun.

The days passed. I no longer travelled by trishaw but a Chinese driver would send me to school and take me home. In the evening, he had a passenger, Ms Theresa Yagappan. She would sit in the front seat and not talk to me at all. She was dressed in a sari. The driver would send her home first. She lived in a huge house on top of a hill facing the sea, near the mosque. The driver always drove to the back of the big house and dropped her near some smaller houses. She would open the car door, walk out and not look back. One day I told the driver that the house was a very big house. He told me that very big people lived in that house. I believed that Ms Theresa was a very big person. Years later, when I was a flower girl at her wedding, and met some of the VIP guests who attended, I found out that her father had been the driver of Tun Dr Ismail. That big house was his family home.

The days passed and by the time the End of Year Results were released, I was 10th in the class and found myself reading, writing and speaking English. My days of solitude were coming to an end together with the beginning of the long Christmas holidays.

Bloomers. I used them twice a week for PE and I wore that same pair until I finished my primary education. Today, I want to make a pair of bloomers for myself, wear it and re-feel those carefree days of bloomers, mangosteens, magazines and floating devils. If only I could have met Mrs Rogers, Mrs Danker and Ms Maria Haurn one more time. I really must be kinder towards my young students.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Why? Why? Why? It rhymes so painfully with aaaiiiee!

WHY? - one of the first few words that I learned in the English Language and yet there are moments in life when WHY can pierce your very soul, with its single syllable which rhymes so perfectly with sorrowful cries that explode from some great depth within your soul.

I was very young when I met this aunty who was not really my aunty. We were brought up to address all adults as uncle or aunty. I cannot picture her husband but I can picture everything about her except her face. They were my mother's friends from India, they were Christian and visited us once every few months. And like all our visitors those days, they just arrived at the gate at any time of the day or evening. The arrival of guests would fill our home with a lot of excitement. Mum would go into a frenzy preparing meals for the guests. We children would have to display our best behaviour. My silent Dad would have to painfully dig deep within him to find some conversation pieces to keep the guests entertained until Mum emerged from the kitchen with her smiles and endless chatter.

If the guests arrived in the morning, we would help in the kitchen by peeling onions and potatoes, scraping coconut, grinding whatever was needed for the curries and cleaning up. Mum would be at the stove busy putting all the ingredients together before the aroma would begin to entice the entire neighbourhood. It was fun because there would be good food to share with guests.

If the guests came in the evening after the market had closed, then it would be vegetarian food with some sardines thrown in for flavour. But in the evening, we had to go through the motion of sitting with our books and present the image of studious children poring over books. This charade lasted until Mum instructed us to clear the table and set it for dinner.

Coming back to this faceless aunty whose name has also been deleted from my memory, for the sake of this episode I shall call her Mary Aunty. They always visited us in the evening and that may be a reason why I see everything about her appearance except her face. She was almost as tall as my Dad. Her skin was not dark brown but lighter than the colour of chappatis. She was always dressed in a sari and had a soft voice. They had no children and after they left, Mum would mention the number of years that they had been married.

There was a kind of stigma attached to a lady who could not bear children. There were people who did not want motherless ladies to carry their children for fear that she would cast an evil eye on their children. They would have suffered a lot of pain. Divorce was not common and the couple often stayed together but we had no idea if they shared any togetherness.

Then one day in 1962, when I was 12, they visited, again in the evening. This time there was a difference. There were lots of loud chatter and laughter. We were not allowed to to participate in any adult conversation but if luck was in, we would get the gist of the story from the post-mortems my mum would have with my dad.

Dad was quiet. I wonder if Mum thought he was a bit dim as well because she would tell him stories in such great detail even though he never asked any questions. Sometimes she would repeat the details using different sentence structures and examples. In this way, we got all the needed details. But if we were to comment, she would give us an earful. So we absorbed and stored the stories.

As mentioned, this visit was different. There was a gaiety about the couple who always had a touch of melancholy about them. There was more laughter as they left. Dad dropped them off at the bus station to catch the bus to Queenstown. When Mum came back she told all of us, "Did you hear that story?" That comment from her to us, was not the norm. We shook our heads and she announced,"After 17 years of marriage Mary Aunty is pregnant."  We thought that she was too old to have children. She was older than my mother and by 28 my mother had all of us six children, to her credit.

Even my Dad smiled and Mum could not contain her excitement. The next day she told Sulo's mother about it and she told her brothers, my grandparents and all our visitors. Everyone was happy and we children too joined in the joy of Mary Aunty's coming baby. Then one day she came shortly before the baby was born, to tell us that they had booked their berth on the SS Rajula and would sail to Madras when the baby was about 6 months old. Mary Aunty would stay for 6 to 8 months but Uncle would return after 2 months because he could not get long leave.

Days passed. A letter arrived from India about Mary Aunty's visit in India and the joyous reception and welcome that was accorded to her and especially to the baby.  Life went on. Uncle never visited us during his wife's absence.

Then came the night that I can never forget. Mary Aunty and Uncle arrived at our gate. It was my brother's job to open our gate. The rest of us all ran to the gate, except for my father. There was a loud howl and Mary Aunty collapsed in Mum's arms. Mum cried and we were not sure what we were supposed to do.

"What happened?" I asked and Mum told us brusquely to go take our books and study. This was serious. We took our books, sat around the dining table but could not concentrate. Mum and Mary Aunty sat on the porch. Uncle and my Dad looked at each other in uncomfortable silence.

Mum told me to get her a hot drink. I made a cup of Nescafe and took it to the porch. "Why? Why? Why?" she wailed and I remember thinking that 'why' rhymed so perfectly with her, "aaaiii" kind of wail. She was heartbroken. Then she said, "Why did God give her to me for 14 months? Why? aaaiiii!"

"Something has happened," I told the others at the table when I returned after completing my chore. The men just looked at each other and nodded. Occasionally they asked unimportant things about their job. At last Dad got up and got dressed to send them to the bus station. This was really serious because no dinner was prepared for the guests. Their visit was also not a long one.

All of us at the table dutifully got up to say goodbye to Mary Aunty and her husband. With tear drenched eyes, she touched our cheeks and said, "Molay, Monay, we are going. I don't know when we will meet again. Study hard and do well". Then after a few more wails had been shared with my Mum, the four adults got into the car and drove off. A kind of sadness and a feeling of impending doom descended upon our house.

Mum and Dad returned. All of us asked my mother what had happened. Mum then told us this story.

"They had all set sail for India and had a very happy time. Their little girl learned to crawl, to sit, to stand and even to walk. She talked incessantly in her baby talk that her mother understood so well. Uncle had come back after two months, when the Baby was about 8 months old. Mary Aunty stayed on longer than she intended because her parents and her siblings wanted her to stay there with Baby.

Then finally when the baby was about 14 months, Mary Aunty finally decided to return. She booked her berth and the entire family went from Mayyanad to Madras and on board the SS Rajula until just before the ship sailed. Everything was fine and she could not wait to meet her husband. It was an eight day journey.

On the fifth day, the baby developed a slight fever. The doctor on board treated the baby. By late evening the baby became very ill and a couple of hours later passed away in Mary Aunty's arms. Mary Aunty became hysterical and would not let go of her baby. The doctor and the nurses took the baby away. That night when everyone had gone to bed, at the designated hour, the body was wrapped in white and was gently lowered into the sea. The flag was flown at half mast."

"Mary Aunty spent the rest of the days in bed crying," Mum continued. "When the ship finally berthed and her husband came on board to meet her, she could hardly stand. She just held out her empty arms. Somehow Uncle knew." (Those were the days before the telephone.)

We were all horrified. The thought of the poor little baby we had never seen, lowered into the dark ocean, all alone, carried deep down, sent a shiver through all of us. We sat around in silence. Mum with tears, Dad in his silence and the rest of us not wanting to look at each other. I was haunted by images of sea creatures and a frightened baby for many months after that visit. Until today, I do not like to view a sea by night. The dark mysteries of the deep sea, frighten me and the thought of that baby comes to mind.

We never met Mary Aunty again. Both she and uncle left Singapore and went back to India. Letters from them stopped coming. When I think of Mary Aunty, I can hear her words, "God should not have given me a child. Why? Why? Why did he give me a child for only 14 months?"

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Moments in Time

Life is made up of snatches of moments. Moments that keep returning to us, to be replayed only in the theatres of our mind. This screening goes on, until memory starts to fail and the shows are deleted one by one.

My mind has started the deleting process and before all my memories are deleted, I would like to write down what I remember, as vividly as my imagination and skills permit, so that others, may get a glimpse of the many events of my life as I remember them.

I am a school teacher. A reluctant school teacher really, because I always knew that I did not want to become a teacher and yet became a teacher.  And with the passing years, the different students I met in class and the memories of my own teachers when I was in school, I became a fairly good teacher. I believe I became a good teacher mainly because of the teachers I was fortunate to have had in my growing, learning years.

It was while I was studying in Form 5B at the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, Johore Bahru in 1967, that my class teacher, the inimitable Mrs Ramakrishnan called me to her table one day, to get some information about my ambition.

Mrs Ramakrishnan was certainly not a teacher. She was a breathing, living institution of learning that moulded us, not with smiles and friendly words but with an unvavering commitment to values, a relentless drive towards excellence and a consistency that tolerated no nonsense from any one of us 48 girls in the class who dared to even think of standing in her way, as she drove us in herds to achieve a Grade 1 in the Senior Cambridge Examination in November every year.

The class was always silent, waiting with open books, before she entered. The class was silent except for the sound of fountain pen nibs on paper, when she remained in the class. The class remained silent long after she had left the class.

But she was human because one day, when the bell rang for interval, she called out to me, "Siva, go to the canteen and get me an ice-cream," and she put twenty cents on my outstretched palm. "She eats ice-cream!" all of us said to each other.

Who was that ogre who reduced us to silence with one look, you might well ask? She was a slim, fairly tall, fair skinned, sari clad lady who glided silently, in and out of classes and along the corridors of the Convent where she had once been a student. She was soft-spoken, rarely raised her voice during the rare occasions when she had to chide a student, and smiled a serene smile as her words, heavily tinged with sarcasm rained upon our spirit. Her hair was pulled back into a bun at the nape of her neck and not a hair was out of place. She was never absent from school and never late to class. Lessons started without fail, about five seconds after she reached her table.

One day, she called me to her table to ask me what my ambition was. I had so many ambitions that I could not articulate my thoughts within the 2 seconds that she allowed me. As I stammmered and stuttered a bit, Mrs Ramakrishnan my English Language, English Literature and History teacher grew impatient and asked caustically, "All right Siva, since you are having such a hard time deciding what you want to become, perhaps you can tell me what you do not want to become!"

"Teacher!" I blurted out to the lady who was such a fine teacher and example to all of us girls. She glared at me, wrote down something on the card in front of her and nodded me off, back to my desk. I was wondering what on earth had stopped me from telling her that I was going to be a journalist covering the war in Vietnam, who would one day become a famous writer.

Well at least everyone knew that I would not become a teacher and be stuck within the four walls of a classroom with children who did not want to study and who constantly criticised their teachers, like we all did. I consoled myself.

Days passed happily into years which passed into the day I entered Form 5 in Sekolah Menengah Paloh Johore, in January 1976 as a fully trained teacher of English and History. I looked at the sea of 48 faces of 17/18 year old boys and girls and I remembered Mrs Ramakrishnan. I would push them to pass with a Grade 1. They were the last batch of English medium students in Malaysia.

Clutching the new class register and a few textbooks that the teacher in charge of textbooks had given me, I called out their names and they stood up to be recognized. I remember the blue dress that I wore on my first day. I had bought it the weekend before from John Littles in Orchard Road. I smiled and they smiled back at me. Everything was fine.

I told them to take out a piece of paper and write down some personal details that I needed for my register. After that I gave them some work and called them to my table one by one to confirm what they had written. About forty five of them had written, " Labourer, rubber tapper," to indicate their parents' occupation. No one had a telephone number. The majority lived in estates, including Landak Estate, where my husband was the Senior Assistant Manager.

The words labourer and rubber tapper took me back to 1960 when I was first introduced to Geography in Standard 4. It was another two years before my Dad drove me to Scudai early one morning so that I could see tappers at work. They had a light fixed to their heads. I had proudly gone to school and declared, "I know what a rubber tapper looks like. He has a light on his head when he goes to work," and the girls had looked at me with a sense of ignorant wonder.

I was 25 years old and my oldest students were almost nineteen and the youngest seventeen. Something changed in me, that morning as I checked their details. I knew somehow, in spite of my ignorant inexperience, that the future of those students in my class, lay in my hands. They could follow either in their parents' footsteps and work in the plantations, or walk in my footsteps and go to college. I also felt a reaslisation, that I could be the one making their choice of which footsteps to follow. The choice of the road taken or not taken, lay not just in their hands but also in mine. I took their hands, gripped them hard and marched forward.   I marched and I marched for the next 36 years without losing my tight grip on the hands of my students - hands that were held tightly in mine.

Remembering My Teachers

My first teacher, I failed to appreciate until after she left my life forever. My first lessons were Hindu prayers that my mother taught me to recite from the time I started to create meaningful sounds. As far back as my memory takes me, I hear my voice reciting prayers. I did not know their meanings but I understood the rituals. Washing my feet and hands, sitting cross-legged on a mat and facing a lighted lamp, chanting words that held no meaning for me other than that they were holy and the chanting was to be done seriously every evening at sunset.

Then came the black slate and the brittle pencil-like device that was used to write on the wooden framed slate. I was careless and broke so many slates by dropping them, but my mother faithfully got me a new one and reminded me that when she was at school, she never broke a slate.

I learned to write the vowel sounds, long and short sounds, in the Malayalam script. Once I had got the curly wurly bits right, I would write in one of those cheap exercise books with 40 pages. If my writing was not up to the mark, then I would have to re-write them. This laborious task was carried out twice a day for about two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon. Yes, there was a lunch break, but no afternoon naps.

Slowly, I progressed from Book 1, bought from Peter's shop along Jalan Pahang, to Book 2 and Book 3. I learned to read short poems in Malayalam. I still recall two poems. One was about calling a sparrow to come to me and build a nest and it offering bits of straw and other material to build the nest together. The second poem was more patriotic and proclaimed Kerala as my land. Those lessons slowed down a bit when my father registered me at the Public School in Johore Bahru in 1955, so that I could study some English.

My First Proper School

I was about three when my father enrolled my older brother at the Public School in Johore Bahru. My brother would walk to school with Narendran, the eldest son of Kunju Kannan Master. I used to wait for my brother to come back from school and regale me with stories of school. I was lonely in the house without my brother. Fear about school must have touched me for the first time, sometime then.

One day when my mother removed his uniform to give him a bath, she noticed the mark of a cane on his back. She was very upset and told my father when he came home after work. My father was furious and went to the school at once. The Headmaster and Headmistress of the Public School, Mr and Mrs Samuel, lived in the school premises. I am not sure what transpired but I can take a guess knowing my father's temper, but my brother was never beaten again.

Then one day, my father bought two pieces of fabric. One was red and the other white. My mother took me to the Chinese tailor who sewed all my clothes. Some days later, I went to the tailor to try on the two sets of uniforms that she had sewn for me. Those were exciting days. Every few hours I would open the cupboard and touch the red pinafore and white blouse and hold them to my face. I was finally growing up.

Soon it was time to go to school and meet the Headmistress. My mother had coached me the whole afternoon on what to say and do. I walked into the office with my father. We sat in front of the Headmistress who did not smile at all. She pushed a book in front of me and told me to read. I saw a picture of a cat and read out, "C-A-T cat,". She looked up, frowned and said, "Cat,". I froze and never read another word in front of her, though my father coaxed me to read.

I watched as my father signed some papers, paid some money, collected some books and spoke to her in English which I did not understand. I then walked home with him. He asked me why I did not read. I kept quiet and he did not bother me. My mother was more vocal, "They will think that you don't know anything. Did you tell them that you can read and write Malayalam?" I withdrew into the safe world of silence and thought, "That is an English school. Perhaps I should have told her that I could read Book 4."

I am not sure who took me to school on the first day. I was placed in a large class with lots of windows. As I looked around I saw Sintokh Singh my grandmother's neighbour but he would not look at me. There were two other girls of my size, the rest were all bigger than I was. The teacher made us read after her and then copy the words from the textbook into our exercise book. There was an interval when we could leave the class and eat and drink what we had brought with us.

I stood by myself and slowly took out the bottle that my mother had filled with fresh cow's milk. The teacher came to me and told me not to break the bottle and mess the place. I looked around and the other two girls had colourful plastic bottles. I felt ashamed of my 'gripe-water' bottle. They had orange juice. I wanted to hide the milk. So I put the bottle back in my bag and pretended I was not thirsty. When I returned home, my mother was most annoyed about the milk. She gave me a long lecture and told me that plastic bottles had a smell and should not be used to store hot drinks.

I had lots of stories to tell about my first day. My mother told me that Sintokh Singh was 16 years old. My father then told me that the war had disrupted the studies of many students. Life was very difficult immediately after the war and adults and children had to work. Life was becoming easier and that was why there were many older students in the class together with me. I was almost five.

The first few days were pleasant and I found myself to be a fairly fast learner, though I did not speak at all in class. Everyday, I brought the milk back home, went to the back of the house and poured it down the drain and returned the empty bottle to the kitchen. I have no idea if my mother guessed what I was doing with the milk.

One morning as I was busy writing, I heard the sound of footsteps on the wooden staircase next to the class. Everyone became very quiet. The teacher said, "shh!" and placed her forefinger on her lips. I could not take my eyes off the staircase. I saw the feet first in a pair of black shoes. Then I saw the bottom of the sari, the waist, the blouse, the neck and finally the face of the unsmiling lady who had said,"Cat," to me in a very reprimanding tone a few weeks earlier. She must have been watching me for she walked into the class, and came up from behind me and stopped just behind my elbow. My fingers stilled and I waited for her to move. She did not move. I did not move and time did not move.

As I waited, my heart beat faster. I felt it first because I never saw it coming. I believe she boxed me, jsut above my right ear. The shock and the fear, more than the pain made me cry out. I looked at her, saw her monster eyes and howled loudly with my eyes shut tight. Not a soul in the class moved. Not a sound was to be heard. Then over the sound of my howls, I heard the sound of her shoes as she moved away from me and out of the class.

I am not sure how long I cried or when I stopped crying, but I was very sure from that moment, that school was not for me. I would go home and learn all the Malayalam that my mother, who never boxed me, taught me so patiently everyday.

The next morning, I refused to go to school. I kicked up a great fuss and cried and begged. My mother allowed me to stay at home. That evening we visited our grandparents. From there we went to Murah Market. Mum bought me a pair of dangling ear-rings which pleased me a lot. I wore them for a while and then they began to pinch my ears and I removed them and put them in my bag. I meant to go to school and show them off.

With a fast beating heart, I walked to school. I went to my desk, put my bag down and slowly took out my books and my pencil. While waiting for my teacher to come, I took out my new ear-rings and put them on. I swung my head in all directions to feel the ear-rings beating against the side of my face. No one noticed my ear-rings.

"Siva! Siva!" I looked around and it was a boy sitting near me. He asked to see my ear-rings. I took one off and placed it in his hands. Then the teacher noticed my ear-ring, walked up to me and told me to take off the other one and give it to her, which I did. She then took the one from the boy and we all heard the footsteps on the stairs. Slowly they came down. This time I did not look up. I looked hard at the tip of my pencil, so near the paper and yet not touching it to leave the mark of a word.

I heard whispered words and the footsteps came to my elbow. My name was called. I did not move. It was called again. I looked up and the mouth told me that my ear-rings were going to be taken away from me and I would not get them back. I said not a word and after school I went home in fear. My mother would surely want to see the ear-rings.

That evening, Uncle Anandan and his new young wife, Aunty Indira visited us for the first time. We walked down the road to greet them and walked up to the house with them. Aunty looked at my face and commented, "You did not pierce her ears!" My mother proudly announced that none of her daughters would have pierced ears. Suddenly Mum looked at me and said, "Go and bring your new ear-rings and show aunty." I was scared. I did not have them.

When we reached the house, mum reminded me again. I told her that I did not want to show anyone. Mother was shocked by my rudeness. Rudeness was not a trait that her children possessed. She must have been too shocked to pursue the matter. I had to get them back. The next day in school, I plucked up the courage to tell the teaher that my mother wanted the ear-rings immediately. I got the second shock when she left the class and came back to return my ear-rings. Perhaps the Headmistress remembered the meeting with my father after she had caned my brother.

I just hated school. Every morning my mother would dress me up and take me to the front door of our house. I would cry and squat on the ground. Mum would take a little stick and threaten to beat me. I would run a few steps and squat on the ground. This went on until I reached the front of Maureen's house. Often Maureen's mother would talk to my mother and tell her not to force me. Mum would say that I had to be like Maureen and go to school. Maureen and I struck up a kind of friendship that lasted until our university days. My first school friend, Maureen Yong.  I think, finally my father took me out of that school and taught me at home.

to be contd.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Can someone please give me the answers to my questions? Part 1

There are so many questions that have no answers. How do I find the answers? I can ask and hope that someone will read this and give me the answers that I have been seeking for so many years now.

Question 1

In the early 1950s my family lived in two rented rooms in a house that I believe belonged to a Chinese family, in Jalan Lumba Kuda. It was one of the houses in a row of link houses, facing the main road. There were no fences. There was a five-foot path when you stepped out of the front door and gravel beyond that until the road.

When you entered the front dooor, there was a huge Chinese altar. There was a gigantic brass urn filled with sand and stuck into the sand were tall joss sticks emitting a pungent fragrance that I forever associate with the Chinese.  I have always believed it to be a temple. I am not sure who lived on the first floor. We lived on the second floor.

I have no recollections of having seen the owner but there was always an elderly matriach seated on a wooden armshair, with an ornate pin in her hair which had been fashioned into a bun. She wore black silk trousers and an embroidered top. She looked ancient and scanned us with a very domineering, sullen look at all times, her narrow eyes darting from left to right to let us know that she never missed anything. She never smiled and never acknowledged us. Perhaps to her we were not people.

Many people rented rooms on the second floor. We knew the Master Family. Mr Kunju Kannan Master who lived there with his wife and sons Narendran and Chandrahasan had been a French teacher in India, hence the title. To us, he was the chief tenant and everyone was in awe of him.  But he did not merit a smile from the matriach and somehow that made him drop a bit in my esteem.

The rooms were dark and dingy. Mum and Dad converted the rooms into a home for us. Today, that row of houses is no more. Who owned that house? Who was the old lady who presided in such an unfriendly but majestic manner from her chair, on the ground floor? What was the story of her life?

Question 2

We moved from the two rooms into the newly built No 100, Jalan Lumba Kuda Lama. Our house was the first house in a row that comprised two similar houses and four shops, all linked.  Our neighbours were all Chinese. In front of our house was a five-foot path and a drain.

That drain came from the top of the road on the left and was a pretty shallow drain when it reached our house. After the second house, we had to go down two steps to pass the first shop house and two steps to pass the second shop house and two steps to pass the third shop house and a final two steps to come to the last shop house. The shallow drain became deeper and deeper as it went down and left our house to finally end somewhere.

Quite often, from somewhere, someone would send down a torrent of water that would sweep all debris out the drain. The fast flowing water was clean and we would hear it coming before it reached our house. We would then run outside and sit with our feet in the drain and let the water flow with force over our feet. The feel of the flowing water made us all laugh aloud gleefully. Our laughter would bring my mother out of the house and she would join in our joy with big, wide smiles. Where did the water come from and for what reason? When did they stop that and why?

Question 3

In 1955, in front of our house there was a palatial mansion with a big, beautifully kept lawn. That is what I remember. At the end of the lawn stood a large, brick house. The house was occupied by an important Chinese family. They had a beautiful black German Shepherd. The dog was trained to pick up and take back to the thrower whatever was thrown. Whenever he came to our side of the road, we would throw a stick or a stone and it would bring it back to us. This would go on until someone from the house whistled for the dog to return home. Who lived in that house? Where are they now? What are their names?

Question 4

Our immediate neighours were Chinese. The main tenant of the house was a lady in her forties who had come from China. She was a very thin lady and she sold eggs in the market. She had three children. The eldest a daughter, Sau Siah, followed by two boys, Sau Meng and Sau Leng. They all attended the Foon Yew Chinese School in Jalan Trus. We called her simply Sau Siah's mother and when we spoke to her, called her Aunty. Her husband was a very thin man and I do not recall him working.

She introduced us to ancestor worship. She would make cakes to be placed by the roadside in front of her house. She would burn joss sticks and paper money. We would go and sit by the road side at times. My parents had come from India and were conservative Indians. Soon Mum began to notice that they served their ancestors a day before or after we served our ancestors. We served in the privacy of a closed room. Theirs was a public affair. We began to notice many common religious ceremonies and customs too.

Where are the three children now? Does anyone know the people I am talking about? Sau Siah was about fifteen then.

Question 5

Sau Siah's mother sold eggs in the wet market. I have seen her squatting in a corner of the market, with a wire basket filled with eggs for sale. I am not sure if she sold anything else. She would leave early in the morning and return when the market closed in the evening, with some wilted vegetables, a small fish or a piece of fatty pork. I am not sure how much money she made and how she ran her household.

That house had two rooms. She rented out one to a Teow Chew family.

Once a year there used to be a grand market festival that attracted lots of people. Sau Siah's mother would tell us about it. We would wait eagerly for my father to take all of us to the market in the evening. The wet market would be so clean and dry. We would walk from decorated stall to decorated stall but not buy anything except some fruit perhaps.

Whole roasted pigs, chickens,ducks, fruits and vegetables were offered to the Market God . There would be the fragrance of joss sticks. The fruit stalls would be laden with imported and local fruits, so would the vegetable stalls. I recall seeing not just Chinese stall keepers but also stalls of other races. What was the significance of the market festival? When did that stop and why?

Question 6

In 1957, my parents enrolled me at the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus in Jalan Yahya Awal. They also found a Malay trishaw man to ferry me and Abhi to school. He was a very kind man and the journey from Jalan Lumba Kuda Lama to the Convent was a most leisurely and enjoyable ride with the wind blowing on our faces. He sometimes shared his food with me. Is there anyway anyone can remember a trishaw rider ferrying two young Indian children to school in January 1957? Unlikely. But miracles never cease.

Question 7

In the middle of 1957 after Uncle Anandan found Abhi and me pushing the trishaw up the hill in front of Cathay cinema in the evening after school, the trishaw man's services were terminated and a Chinese driver in a black car took us to school. That driver gave me my first ang pow in 1958. There was a 20 cent coin in the red packet. I was so thrilled and till today the sight of a red packet fills me with joy. Who is that Chinese driver? And what was the name of the kind, fatherly man who took good care of us young children?

The other students in that car included two Eurasian brothers Albert Scully  who was ten and Dennis who was 8. The brothers were mischievous and they would bully me. I kept quiet and was scared of them. They had a younger sister, Patricia who was five. The boys studied in St Joseph's School. Where are the Scully boys now?  They used to live in Majidee. Sometimes when the car dropped them off first I had seen their father in his army uniform, he would be carrying Patricia on his shoulders!

Question 8

Down the road leading to the railway station, there was a big wooden house on the left. An Indian family lived there and they kept cows and had a big curry leaf plant. Mum would send me with a tumbler to get some yoghurt and curry leaves. The lady would pat my head and speak to me in Tamil which I did not understand and give me lots of smiles and a feeling of love and safety.

She was older than my mother. She charged a few cents for the yoghurt. She was a slim lady, very tanned and had curly hair. We simply called her the 'milk lady'. I would run to her place with the tumbler once I got back from school. Sometimes Mum would ask me to get some curry leaves as well. When I returned with the yoghurt, I would have lunch with my mother. Where is that family and what are their names?