Half a decade after the Japanese invasion, Malaya was wising up. Malayans did not believe that their colonial masters were their saviours anymore. Everyone was talking about independence and everyone was laughing a lot these days.
People seemed to be in a hurry. Office workers, in long dark baggy trousers and long sleeved starched cotton shirts, wove through pedestrians, scurrying on their shiny new bicycles, ringing their bells. The cyclists appeared to be annoyed by the slow-moving bullock cart with lethargic bulls sauntering along the tarmacadam roads swishing their tails rhythmically in the tropical heat of Penang. Honking in the background on the island’s little street were the Morris Minors and the Austin multi-purpose vehicles, the latest additions to the city landscape. Oblivious to the vexation they were causing, the pullers of the bullock cart batted their lush eyelashes, seemed to mutter something into their chest and continued to drag their load at their own leisurely pace.
Penang Island did not want to be left behind. Penangites of all races — Malays, Chinese, Indians and Eurasians — seemed to be of one heart trying to rebuild their town as they said it had been. The world had modernised and they wanted to keep pace. The men from the East were no liberators but squanderers of wealth. Now, the British had returned to resume pilfering the lion’s share of their loot.
That year, 1952, had been declared by the Government as the year of ‘education for all’. The future inheritors of power realised if the nation was going to have self-rule, it needed people who could read and write. Truant officers were there to implement just that. Their job would be to walk around town to track down boys and girls of school-going age who were not in school.
I was in standard six, and I had grand ambitions. The stories that Ma had been telling all these years had convinced me that the only way to come up in life was by getting a good education. Her oft-repeated descriptive tales of her comfortable life in her childhood rang like mantras in my ears. Many times, she had told us of Pa’s privileged childhood and how he had squandered it all away in a single generation; entertaining friends, merrymaking and gambling. No matter how hard Ma tried to put things in order, she seemed to be fighting a losing battle. She pinned her hopes on me to bring the honour back to the clan. She knew that there was no substitute for education to prosper in life.
“We do not have money or property to come up in life,” she frequently repeated. “The only way to get out of this rut is to study.”
My Pa had other ideas.
If Ma thought that it was her duty to bring out the best in her children, Pa was just the opposite. His notion of having children was to have them serve their parents for having brought them into this world. The youngster’s duty was to pay back for their existence. In his mind, I was old enough to earn him some extra cash to get him going. I knew it was wrong, but I felt helpless.
Oh, no! There he was again. From the open door at the back of the classroom, I could see him. He was walking briskly in the direction of my classroom, coming from the principal’s office. Three times already this week, Pa had come to my school. It was the same old story — that my mother was very sick, and I had to go back to take care of her. And surprisingly, my teacher was buying his crap.
If only I could tell my school teacher, “Teacher, don’t trust him.” If only I could give her the real story of what was happening in the house.
“No, my mother is just fine,” my mouth yearned to yell. “She is very much alive and kicking. No, she is not sick. No, she does not need my help. And yes, she will give me a nice whacking if only she comes to know what I am doing when I am supposed to be at school.”
As it was only a few weeks since I had joined this school, Lutheran Primary School, I did not have many friends. I was a loner, and this chronic absence from class just made others look at me as though I was some strange creature.
Time stood still. The rest of the class seemed immersed in the lesson in hand but not me. Ah Chong, Mani, Ali, Peter and others were all attending to what the teacher, Mrs Chin, taught. To me, her explanation on multiplicative functions sounded like a muffled horn from a distance.
I tried not to look at Pa’s direction. I was hoping that he would just change his mind and go away. I turned to see, but I could not find him. I thought he had left only to discover that he had gone around the corner to take the stairs towards my classroom. I tried to concentrate on Mrs Chin’s lesson, but the anxiety was just too much. I could see her scribbling away on the blackboard. The squeaking of chalk on the blackboard gave an eerie background score to the drama that I endured daily. I could hardly make out her mumbling as my senses numbed in anticipation of his arrival. Like clockwork, like a boomerang that returned to its owner every time, like a recurrent nightmare, Pa kept returning.
“Excuse me, teacher,” he said apologetically. I had to give it to him. In spite of his relatively low educational achievements, he had the gift of the gab and a flair for languages. My mother told me that he had had a privileged upbringing in his childhood only to lose everything in a single generation. However, he still had the gift of bossing everybody around. His excellent language skills seem to be his only inheritance from his now blemished past.
Pa had a good life, at least in his childhood. Being the only heir to an up and coming industrialist in 1930s’ Malaya, he was placed high on a pedestal. His parents were too busy making money and dealing with relatives’ problems and he was left to grow with the servants. The workers gave in to all his whims and fancies. He could get away with murder. A tiny squeal here and a small tantrum there, he knew how to wind them around his little finger.
Ma used to say that she heard somewhere that wealth in a family does not last more than three generations, but in Pa’s, it evaporated in only one. Pa’s parents used to be the proud owners of the tallest building in Penang which housed the once famous Dawood Restaurant where the affluent indulged in fine Indian dining. To match their wealth were fleets of cars, but now, Pa had to content himself chauffeuring others around.
Even though good fortune seemed to have fled, he had not lost the art of living life to the fullest. Pa still lived in his old ways. His pockets could be empty, but his appearance had to be spick and span. Come what may, whether the dinner table was barren or it was time to buy books for school term; it was all the same to him.
His brown leather shoes had to be sparkling shiny. The creases of his starched attire had to stay fresh. His hair needed grooming, and a daily shave at the barber’s was essential. He lived to eat. His palate still craved for the cuisines that he enjoyed in his childhood. Saving for a rainy day was not in his vocabulary. His philosophy seemed to work well for him — enjoy today what you may not live to enjoy tomorrow. What if tomorrow never comes?
“The birds and trees grow, why can’t you? Somebody planted the seeds, and there would be someone who would come along to water them,” he repeatedly said. “You, don’t worry. Be happy.”
Mrs Chin looked in my direction, all the way to the last row. I found sitting at the back of the class did well for me as it gave me space to ponder over my future. Sometimes I thought of Ma and relived all the stories that she told about her childhood and the prosperous life that my parents had in their formative years. I sometimes wondered how it must feel to be rich. I would not have to face the constant yelling at the end of the month when Ma ran out of money. I wanted to be rich. I wanted to be somebody.
Mrs Chin was calling for me. The classroom suddenly became quiet. There was pin-drop silence. I could swear that everybody in the class had both their eyes focused directly on me. I could feel my cheek turn hot. I secretly wished that I could just disappear just like that. Poof!
“Thamby, come, boy, come. Pack your books,” she said in a gentle voice. “Take care of your mother well. So sorry you have to miss the class. Don’t worry; I’ll teach this again tomorrow.”
If only she knew, if she just knew where I was taken daily during schooling hours.
It was a routine. Pa would come bundled with my home clothes into which I would change. He would take my books and uniform, pack them up like an old newspaper and shoo me to our destination, the marketplace. He thought of everything. He did not want me to stand out in the crowded marketplace in full view of the truant officers. His mission was to take me by stealth to the porridge stall so that I could help and earn. The money would go to him, of course.
We approached the morning market. Housewives who came early to get their best picks of fishes and vegetables had finished their marketing and gathered around the food stalls. The food stalls were selling delicacies like hot noodles and traditional sweet cakes of a variety of colours and tastes. The stalls were strategically located in the centre of the market in plain view for all to see. Anyone who ran in just to buy a thing or two from the vegetable seller or fishmonger was bound to drop in to buy something to eat. The hit among all the stalls had to be the gandom(wheat porridge) stall.
Business was brisk that morning, as usual. Many hungry mouths were waiting, salivating at the anticipation of indulging in the much-talked-about gandom of Mamak (uncle) Wahab, the well-known food vendor. Nobody knew just how long Wahab had been peddling his famous delicacies but he seemed to know everybody, the officers as well as the lowly coolies. People were quick to explain why his cooking pulled such a huge crowd. They talked about unique secret ingredients and Indian herbal intoxicants.
In Mamak Wahab’s stall were two large baskets. A sizeable wide-bodied aluminium pot fitted snugly into each of the baskets above a canister filled with hot burning charcoal. In the pot simmered sweet wheat porridge, gandom, cooked in coconut milk and flavoured with fragrant pandan leaves. In spite of the various aromas in the air, pungent smell of the different meats, fermented food, preserved, air-dried sea produce and human body odours, the scent of sweet gandom still stood out.
The sight of steaming wheat porridge in small china bowls with little porcelain spoons and the locally baked aerated bread attracted many customers. The patrons of the stall were mainly wharf workers who took their morning break from their back-breaking task of unloading cargo off the onion-carrying vessels that had just arrived from Madras.
Occasionally, housewives would drop in to take away a pack or two for loved ones. The women dropped in silently, softly whispered their orders, looking down towards the ground, as if bashful, and without raising their glance, they paid the exact change and hurried away. It seemed they did not feel comfortable being in the company of too many men, in particular with the port workers who carried a reputation of being rough and tough.
The ladies kept returning. The gandom must be too tasty, I guessed. It was during one of these moments that I caught a glimpse of my nosy neighbour, Santi. She had the reputation of carrying tales around the neighbourhood. She found much joy in finding faults and ruining other people’s family.
I ducked the very moment I saw her. The last thing I wanted was for her to tell Ma as I did not want to witness another shouting match in the family. I had enough of that. On the other hand, I secretly wished that she would, as that would mean I could get back to school. I was quite sure I missed her roving eyes.
“Gandom, Gandom, Mari, Mari (come here)!” The call was given to entice potential customers who might have been so caught up in their thoughts that they would miss the sweet aroma of the starchy broth that brewed and bubbled in the huge containers.
My hide and seek existence lasted for almost three weeks. Pa had been turning up at school unannounced. He would make the same excuse, pick me up, take me to the stall and then back home by the evening. The journey home would be laced with threats of severe repercussions if our little secret were to leak out. If only Ma knew about the truancy, I was sure to be dead meat. So would Pa. But did he care?
All my toil and manual labour earned me nothing. For, when the time came to close the stall for the day, Pa would faithfully be there to unburden me off of my meagre daily wages.
I was in two minds — should I or should I not tell Ma about our covert operation? All I had to do was to squeal to Ma. But I dreaded the result. It would be an all-night shouting match. I had had one too many, and I could do well without another one.
Our little secret, however, did not stay undercover for long. The market was not the best place for concealment. And neither was the sight of a 12-year-old manning the stall and serving customers. The delicious taste of gandom drew more customers as the days went by. It also attracted Santhi, Ma’s chit-chat buddy. She repeatedly came back for second helpings. She finally spotted me. Obviously, I had not been vigilant enough.
Actually, I would say, Ma was more of Santhi’s chit-chat buddy. Ma was just a convenient listener to all of Santhi’s tall tales. She would go on a rant, gossiping about the latest ‘masala’ that had taken place in the neighbourhood and amongst the relatives’ circles. It would usually be a one-sided conversation with Santhi doing all the talking punctuated with Ma’s occasional nods and grunts of acknowledgement.
Santhi came all riled up to clear her bosom off her latest discovery. As usual, draped in light coloured cottons and a big rounded bun with a day-old jasmine flowers at her occiput, she was especially excited. She hurried through the door announced by the clinging of her silver anklets and called for Ma. Ma smiled to herself to see such a grown woman in such a huff, all excited like a young girl. Her fifty sen coin-sized crimson red vermilion bindi with her turmeric treated face and big round eyes added to her comical presence.
“Letchumy, Letchumy. Why you stopped your son from schooling?” she asked, quite out of breath, after running all the way from her home. “He is a bright boy, such a waste.”
“No, no. It can’t be.” Ma thought. “I trust Thamby. He is going to reach greater heights and salvage the family dignity. She is talking rubbish.”
Santhi, the rumour monger, went to great lengths to make herself available that morning. She rose early from bed to prepare breakfast for the family. Her thosai was awkwardly asymmetrical, and the coconut chutney must have had double servings of salt and tamarind. Oh, but what the heck! It was going to be an exciting day, and she was not going to give it up for these trivialities. A day of salty gravy must be okay, she thought. After all, without fail, she had provided 364 days of crispy sizzling steaming hot thosai with accompaniments.
Quickly, she packed her husband off to work and her two kids off to school and hurried to Lakshmi’s abode.
“I heard he only reaches there at about 11,” said Santhi. “That gives us time to have tea and catch up with stories.”
A disinterested Lakshmi obliged. Her mind was filled with thoughts of Thamby manning a porridge stall while entertaining his blue-collar clientele. The customers of the marketplace were mostly from the port and not the best role models. Their crude talk, lingo and doublespeak innuendoes would sway Thamby from his true callings in life… to salvage the family from the rut of debts and ruins.
So immersed was Lakshmi in her mental soliloquy that she had mixed salt into Santhi’s tea instead of the usual sugar! Santhi, yearning to meet her mid-morning craving of sweet, foamy milk tea, sipped the concoction to savour its richness when …“Amma!” she almost cried. Her taste buds froze with the saline impregnated tea! However, in anticipation of the excitement of what the day promised, she just politely put away the tea. She did not want to delay their planned ambush at the porridge stall.
On reaching the marketplace, like stalking tigresses, Lakshmi and Santhi slowly prowled to the vicinity of the sweet wheat grain stall. The stall was teeming with sweaty port labourer just off for their break. The sweet aroma of the sizzling wheat porridge fragranced with pandan leaves and the pungent odour of perspiring men gave a dizzying olfactory sensation. Although buried in their food, the men were not busy enough to give a cursory assessing look at Lakshmi and Santhi. They lost interest with what they saw. Lakshmi had no time to notice anything. Her mind was all out to prove that Santhi had been wrong all the while. Now, where was that stall?
Oversized men slurping their meals standing around the large wheat broth stall was an excellent cover up for whoever manned it. Lakshmi needled herself through the crowd. Under her breath, she uttered her silent prayer.
“Muruga, Muruga, let it be not him,” she chanted. “What torture is this. What is my family coming too? Must light an oil lamp at the temple after all this is over,” she reminded herself.
Between two burly men, she saw it all. Like an avalanche, her hopes came crashing down. She could not believe what she saw — Thamby busily serving the hungry men with their bowls of nourishment. Her jaw dropped. Hurrying through the utensils, the pans and the appliances, the disgusted and disappointed Lakshmi grabbed her prized pint-sized possession by his protruding bat ears and dragged him all the way home with occasional lambasting by the earful.
That night was hell for the Muthu household. Loud decibels of screams pierced the neighbourhood. This type of emotional display was becoming the norm of late. What a sad state of affairs! How I wished that it would all disappear just like that?
The neighbourhood, by now, was quite accustomed to the wailing of Lakshmi and the haughty rebuttal by Muthu, the once-promising heir of Periyathamby Kallar.
At the other end, in Santhi’s abode the tone was one of serenity. It was business as usual. Santhi was lullabying her children to sleep. Santhi, on hearing the distant sounds of Lakshmi’s wail, pondered to reflect whether she did the right thing. She felt guilty for secretly being content in the thick of things. She wondered if her actions were justifiable. After much deliberation, she shrugged off any compunctions. She told herself that what she did was morally right. She exposed the truancy of boy with high potentials, preventing him from plunging deep into decadence. That cannot be wrong, can it?
Farouk Gulsara is a daytime healer and a writer by night. After developing his left side of his brain almost half his lifetime, this johnny-come-lately decides to stimulate his non-dominant part on his remaining half. An author of two non-fiction books, ‘Inside the twisted mind of Rifle Range Boy’ and ‘Real Lessons from Reel Life’, he now ventures into the genre of fiction. He writes regularly in his blog ‘Rifle Range Boy’.
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