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.