by Tara Dhar
A while ago, a friend gave me a copy of The Sound of Sch. Intrigued by the title, I started reading, and was hooked from page one itself.
The author intended it as a tribute to her maternal uncle, her grandma and her mother, all of whom walked a difficult path, of caring for the uncle, who developed schizophrenia at a young age. Yet equally, it is a moving memoir of growing up in a Singapore which was very different from the one we live in today, in which we read about a Balestier plagued by ‘gangsters’, the author’s grandma travels long distances to wash the clothes of well-off people for a small payment, people frequent bomohs to get cured of illnesses, and many similar vignettes.
The main time-line of this deeply personal story of strong and enduring family-bonds goes from 1961-1994. From chapter 6 especially, as the author herself enters the story, we see everything mainly from the perspective of a little girl of nine, trying to make sense of a complex adult world.
We are introduced to her uncle, ‘ah gu’ (Seng), an intelligent, sensitive young man, who has a mental breakdown when his girlfriend jilts him. Soon, based on a report filed by a neighbour, the police come to take him away to a doctor, who diagnoses schizophrenia, and suggests treatment which would include passing currents through his brain. His mother is terror-struck. She, who speaks only Hokkien, and his younger sister, Chu (the young author’s own mother), try their best to cope with his terrible condition on their own. But they never abandon him to Singapore’s then ONLY mental health facility, the dreaded Woodbridge hospital, with its cage-like rooms for many sufferers, even though he does have to be admitted for short stays during episodes of severe meltdown.
We also see the terrible societal stigma associated with mental illness, with most people shunning such sufferers out of fear, some even calling them ‘xiao lang’, or ‘madman’, instead of extending compassion and empathy towards them.
But the nine-year old little niece knows better. She loves her ‘ah gu’, and understands his affection for all of them, expressed often through quiet gestures. Looking at him through her eyes, we see a sensitive, lonely man, who gradually loses all his friends, and withdraws into himself. He spends hours without talking, and goes frequently for long walks by himself, sensing others’ fear of him. He, who had a bright, quick mind, now becomes a sweeper at an office of the police academy, and focuses on his job of sweeping away the fallen leaves with his broom, making the sound of sch, sch. But one day, after yet another relapse, he loses even that lifeline.
This book depicts the heavy burden borne by caregivers of the mentally ill. The younger sister, Chu, makes a promise to her own mother that she will take care for her elder brother. Over the next 30 years, she honours that promise, even at great cost to herself and the family she starts when she marries. She is often plagued by severe headaches in trying to cope with it all, but she just pops pills and soldiers on.
We witness also the close relationship between the little girl-narrator, Lin, and her mother. At times, this is portrayed even in humorous terms; for example, when she is compared to chewing gum, ‘sticky and soft’, clinging to her mother! On another occasion, when the mother walks out on her husband and two girls, overwhelmed by frustration, Lin is terror-struck, afraid that her mum has abandoned them. She runs off to her grandma’s, assuming her mum will be there. But she is not.
We are pulled into the situation- we feel her despair keenly, and we cry with her. Finally, around 10 pm the key turns in the lock: ‘my heart knocks about inside like a ball stuck inside the pinball machine, and my head is thinking, did God answer my prayers? Can God really make my mother come home?’ thinks the little girl. In her child- like way, she asks her mum what made her come home. After a reflective pause, the mum replies, ‘It was the thought that if I didn’t come back, no one will tie your hair for school tomorrow.’ Deceptively simple and spare language, with a wealth of underlying meaning and implication behind the simple words.
That is part of the power of this book, which often moves one by what is left unsaid, or alluded to, not fully spelt out. The language seems appropriate for a young child, yet it carries many layers of meaning. There are some powerful metaphors which are repeated at critical moments to convey emotions indirectly. One such is the sound of Sch. It is the sound of ‘ah gu’ walking in his loose slippers, the sound of the leaves he sweeps with his broom, as also the sound of garlic sizzling in the wok, at times when the mum is feeling frustrated, angry or upset.
This is a very life-affirming book. The underlying love of the whole family comes through clearly. One is struck also by the lack of resentment or blame, and admires this tightly-knit family that manages to come through, despite the heavy odds.
Tara Dhar Hasnain has been a university teacher most of her life, having held tenured positions at Delhi University, and taught in Geneva. In Singapore she was adjunct faculty at SMU till she made a career change. Currently she works as a book editor for Marshall Cavendish publishing. She has a research degree in English Literature from Oxford University, and a graduate degree in human Resource Management (HRM), from USA. She has given a number of talks at the Singapore National Museum and at ACM (Asian Civilizations Museum) on various topics, and founded the Writing Enthusiasts’ Club of IWA (The Indian Women’s Association).