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?"