By Farouk Gulsara
Malaysia National Day Special
Like the Sword of Damocles, his domestic troubles hung over his head. There was nothing much he could do about it. It had gone on too long, too deep. He just had to live with it and move around it. He could not give up everything. There was a nagging heaviness in his temples. He knew things were going to take a nasty turn and it might get worse. He had created some arbitrary goals to improve his life, but this one had crashed it all. But still, life had to continue. As they say in showbiz, the show must go on.
He knew it was a bad idea. With all these problems plaguing him, he thought it was inappropriate for him to participate in this event. But then, it was also a lifetime achievement — a success hailed by his kinsmen as the epitome of his checkered life. Akin to a water lily, growing wild amongst the filth of marsh, stench and reptiles infested wetland to glorify the lotus feet of Buddha, it was an achievement enviable to some but yearned by all and privileged to only a few!
The problem, as he understood, was not something that developed overnight. Like a crystal, the lattice had developed over the years slowly but surely to its full wrathful glory. How could he be so dumb? Or was it beyond his control and was decided by the constellations and the genetic predisposition?
In other people’s faces, he saw joy and happiness. Flashlights from cameras blinded at intervals, a reminder for achievers to immortalise and digitise the moment. Unfortunately, for Gus, it was only melancholia. With philosophical rationalisation, he decided to forgo everything. He resolved to enjoy the moment, to be in the spotlight, to immerse himself, to bask in the glory of the moment. After all, it was not every day that a lowly village doctor gets feted at the Royal College of the Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in London.
Gus Muniandy had given up the simple things in life to serve the rural poor of the Malayan peninsula. Despite offers of postgraduate degrees and the lure of the city lights, Gus answered to the calling to dedicate his service to uplift the living standards of the marginalised aboriginal community of the country. Ever since he attended to a young teenage mother who almost bled to death during parturition, Gus made it his divine calling to prevent such an event from ever occurring in that community.
It was all from a page of memory from a time so long ago. Maybe he was too engulfed in his obsession with saving the world; he failed to see the elephant in the room. He neglected his duties as a father. His loving daughter’s cry for help fell on his deaf ears. If only he had realised her yearning for unrequited love and her quest for release through intoxicants. If only Gus could turn back time.
His professional duties, however, did not go unnoticed. His single-handed efforts to improve the awareness amongst the community to women empowerment, equal educational opportunities and need for antenatal care caught the eye of the authorities and the obstetric fraternity. What followed next was the flurry snowballing of accolades and salutations. If only things were equally fulfilling on the family front!
“Professional studio photography, sir?” somebody suggested, pointing enticingly at the display of families of graduates flashing their enamel possessions as if they were advertising for a tooth care product.
“No, thanks,” said Gus as he hurried through the main hall. “What is the meaning of all these things,” he thought to himself, “when there is no peace of mind?” His mind wandered through his childhood. He recalled all those seemingly desperate times when sad songs were the flavour of the day. Happiness was then an unattainable feat. The future was stretched out before him so that he could just walk and harvest its fruits. “Oh, how I had longed for this day!” Gus lamented. “But do I want to go through all of it again?”
Just as his mind was deeply engrossed in the nostalgia of yesteryears, his daydream was interrupted. “Do you have any food preferences, sir?” the lady at the reception voiced out, appearing slightly irritated, probably as Gus’s appearance did not exude cordiality.
“Pardon ma’am?” Gus replied politely.
“Do you have any preferences for your dinner, vegetarian or vegan?” the receptionist read out mechanically.
“We are okay,” Gus replied in unison, with his wife nodding in agreement.
“As long as there is no beef.”
“So, can we serve you vegetarian? Since we are serving deer meat tonight,” she replied.
“Yes, deer meat!”
Then it hit Gus and his wife. “You mean you are serving venison!”
Gus, chuckling inside, wanted to see the change in the receptionist’s face.
Though we may look Indian on the outside and are not so metropolitan in the way we dress, she should have guessed that the guests, especially the ones on the honour list, the ones appreciated enough by the esteemed British college, would be likely to be well conversant in English, thought Gus.
She must have been some actress or perhaps a right hand at poker as she never flinched a muscle giving away a clue that she might be embarrassed.
Gus was in two minds to start his sermon on how words like mutton, venison, beef etcetera came to the English language from French, but against his better judgement, he decided to keep it for another occasion another day. After all, Gus was a feted guest and guests ought to behave at the highest etiquette to honour his host. Maybe sweet revenge would come another day…
I swear I had seen that surname somewhere, cogitated Gus. But Indie? Surely it must be a shortened version of the name Indiana. Indiana for a British? Strange. Anyway, I never understood why someone who would name a child after a state. Saying that, Malaysia was the most popular newborn girl’s name in the United States of America last year among the black community. The only association between England and Indiana that I remember was the riddle when I heard as a young adult about where Prince Charles spent his honeymoon!
In the modern age, when in doubt, what does a sane person usually do? Google of course. Within a fraction of a second upon typing the surname of the staff of the college, the whole anthroponymy of the said name appeared in full glory. Now, it made sense. I could not have guessed, thought Gus. When she offered vegetarian food for dinner, was she under the impression that venison and beef were from same ‘cattle of fish’ (pardon the pun)? I was wondering why she said, ‘deer meat’? My usually dull grey cells went into hyperdrive. I thought that perhaps she was one of those true-blue Anglophile, who was trying to restore the old glory of the English language. She was attempting to revive the language to a period before it was corrupted by foreign words from the self-appointed bourgeois societies like the French or the contamination of the returning officers of the British Raj, who boasted of being familiar with everything in the world while indulging in a bout of logorrhoea laced with gibberish.“Jungle, bungalow, khaki, juggernaut, loot, shampoo. We have our own words,” they said just like any hardliner would say. “And we need no ham, no mutton and certainly, no venison.” We need to keep our language clean just like our bloodlines!
Gus’s little research revealed that the ‘deer meat’ lady is indeed a descendant of those that the British Raj tried to abandon in 1947. Her surname was a dead giveaway, originating from the cattle-breeders’ clan of the Punjab Valley. Her pale complexion and her pseudo-accent had fooled me. For all you know, ‘Indie’ could have been an abbreviation if ‘Indira’.
“My, my, Oh righty!” she had said in a typically British manner, he recalled.
In the same way, a Farsi by birth, Farrokh Bulsara, born in Zanzibar, grew up in India, became Freddy Mercury to blend well into the society to become a British icon, Indira Kaur Gill had become Indie Gill.
Gus was telling himself, “Here we are, two descendants of the Indian subcontinent, one displaced to one colony and another deciding to snuggle up with the masters trying to outdo each other thinking that one is more British and know more English than the other! Interesting coolie mentality.”
But then how different are we, really?
Gus’s grandparents decided that India was too toxic to bring up their children in the trying years of the early twentieth century when mob rule, violence, injustice and uncertainty were the order of the day. Their gamble brought his parents to a fresh green land called Malaya. Like a chameleon changing its hue to the surroundings, the new nation became their land. The challenges meeting its population became their own. Their souls became embroiled in that of their new found motherland. It was not a case of abandoning a biological mother to find a stepmother but to relieve instead a grieving Mrs Hubbard of feeding her hungry offspring while living in a shoe.
And there Gus stands proudly for deeds done for the only motherland that he knew. Even though on the outside, anyone could tell from a mile away that he must be an offspring of the Indian diaspora, Gus felt every inch a Malaysian on the inside. For that matter, he had not even set foot in India. Flying over its airspace would not count.
Indie, or Indira’s family or perhaps, ancestors must have thought long and hard to decide that the United Kingdom was the place to be. Growing far from cousins in India, Indie would have yearned to be wanted, to be one of the contemporaries that she grew up with. Her mother tongue would have appeared aversive, perhaps even too derogatory for her liking. Pretending to know the collie’s language, English, with the local flavours would have suited just fine. There you have, Indie Gill, as British as Beefeaters can be.
Perhaps, it was not a case of economic pull and push only. After years of tyranny and subjugation, people of the Indian subcontinent have landed where they are by the twisted fate of history. Everywhere they laid their hats, it became their home and they embraced their adopted home wholeheartedly; much like how Gus is very much a Malaysian and Indie, a British. Perhaps, at some point a common unifying thread may ignite their common past akin to the chorus of Men at Work’s super hit song ‘Down Under’ where the mention of something quintessentially Australian brings all the characters in the melody together.
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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