Monday, February 28, 2011

Tampin, 3:00AM, December 1965

Although my eyes felt heavy, it was hard to doze off on the hard plastic seats with not much room to stretch my legs.  Outside, in the pitch black night, I could only trace the shapes of trees, bushes and railway quarters as the train whooshes by, picking up speed on straight stretches, and slowing down on crooked ones.  Inside, the bright yellow lights, the whirr of the overhead fans and the clickety-clack, clickety-clack of coaches in motion kept me awake.  As we drew near the Grand Station in Kuala Lumpur, I could not imagine how our lives will be like in this capital city that Mak and I had often passed by on our way to visit my grandparents in Klang.    
Will we be living in a big house with a large compound and kind neighbours like we had in Kaki Bukit? Or will we be huddled up in rented units with strange neighbours like in Lorong K?  I missed the expanse of the compound in Jalan Damai.  Although the soil was too hard and the grass too scrubby to call it a garden, we found pleasure running around and climbing the tapioca tree on Pak Seman’s side or the guava tree on Mak Cik Mani’s.  If the afternoon sun was too scorching hot to climb trees, play 'police and theives' (a different version of catch) or 'teng teng' (hopscotch), we would hunched on the bench under Mak Cik Mani’s house to be regaled by Nek’s scary tales of pontianak (a banshee who died at childbirth and nailed at the neck) and penanggal (a female spirit who flew around with just her head and entrails), hantu galah (a ghost that was as tall as a bamboo tree) and hantu tetek (a female spectre who hid her victims between her voluminous breasts).  When Cikgu Jalal’s house, a grounded single storey modern bungalow next to Mak Cik Mani’s, acquired a television set, we would peek through the wavy, cream coloured grills and half-closed shutters to catch glimpses of Tom and Jerry, Bugs Bunny or The Flinstones on late afternoon shows.  But as soon as we catch a glimpse of Abang Hatta walk down from the bus stand at the end of the road, we would be scurrying home to open our school books to pretend to read or do our homework.  Abang Hatta may have sat three times for the Senior Cambridge (SC) exams before he finally passed but he had such a thirst for knowledge and wanted to inculcate the love of reading and enquiry in Jamal, Yat and I.  He would read books like Animal Farm aloud to us on nights when he was not working and regularly subscribed to Readers' Digest, National Geographic and Psychology Today. 
Being the eldest son and with Bapak absent most of the time, Abang Hatta took on the mantle of the major breadwinner, protector and disciplinarian.  He was the epitome of the loyal first born son, who would never talk or fight back even if Mak were to scold him or Bapak were to smack him for wrongs that we did.  Old photos of him at Bukit Tinggi, Geylang Serai or Klang always had him hanging his head down, looking sad and solemn.  While Kak Aida got away with mischief, Abang Hatta was never spared the rod.  There was a sephia tone picture of them with Mak, Bapak and another young family in Bukit Tinggi where he sullenly twirled a rubber band around his wrist.  And another of him in kain pelikat (plaid sarong worn by men) and a Pagoda singlet standing glumly by Kak Aida, who was in a shabby dress which hung over one shoulder pulled by the weight of the infant Jamal on her hip, set against the dreary backyard in Kebun Ubi.  And yet another of him in a simple Baju Melayu (traditional Malay outfit for men) at the end of a row of male and female cousins who were dressed in newer and shinier Arab-style garbs in front of the colonial style bungalow in Klang.  Being the straight and steadfast grandson, he stayed back and endured the abuse by callous aunts and cousins after Kak Aida ran off to Singapore by train.  He only returned to Singapore when Mak went to fetch him at the end of that year after he had a serious fall from a tree in the yard.                
He continued his education at an English-medium secondary school while Kak Aida was enrolled in night classes to study shorthand and typing skills.  When he failed his SC exams after completing his Secondary Five education, he applied for work with the Police Force and became a Mat Kampau (police constable).  We became accustomed to him dressed in stiffly starched khaki shirt and culottes, calve-length socks, black leather boots, a thick belt and a wooden baton by his torso, like the law enforcers in P. Ramlee movies.  He always had interesting encounters with the public that he shared with us at the kitchen table.           
We too had our high points whenever there was a ‘shooting’ at the big, cream coloured house across the road from the bus stand, where we usually got on.  We would beat the traffic to cross the main road and join the crowd of children gawking at the white vans, the white umbrellas, the cameras, the lights, and the movie stars - Latifah Omar, Roseyatimah, Malik Selamat, Tony Kassim.  There was an indoor scene of Roseyatimah in Rumah itu Duniaku (That house is my world) that remained etched in my mind.  I felt my memory violated when I heard a snide remark from a jealous cousin that she was not a big star because her legs were full of scabs.  Secretly, I empathised with her since I knew what it was like to have scars all over my legs from insect bites and falls from trees!        
After the director had called it a day, we would disperse and walk along the trees that lined the main road, where the buses plied, to pluck flat, green beans that produced soap like fluid.  We never ventured far ‘til the last bus terminal at the end of that long road.  But I remembered taking the bus with Mak ‘til Barrack Hitam (Black Army Barracks), where the last bus stop was on the hill.  There was a yellow mosque, a community clinic and a youth activity hall (4PM) as soon as you got on the hill.  The narrow roads, part tarred part dirt, that branched off from the main bus route were named after local leaders who had struggled for Independence, like Jalan Ambok Solok and Jalan Sudin.  The main road – Jalan Eunos – ended at the intersection with Geylang and Still Roads, passing by Central commercial area, Yat’s primary school on the right and the Buddhist temple on the left.  Central got its name after the cinema where Abang Hatta had taken us to watch Animal Farm.  I had photos of me with an iodine-smeared knee and a half-eaten cup cake on my right hand sitting on velvet-cushioned rattan chair, sitting on Mak’s lap with my siblings and, the most recent, wearing matching new light peach dresses with Yat, holding plastic pears and grapes, taken at the photo studio.  Mak had bought our dresses and shoes and had our hair cut at the hair salon along the same row.  There were also rare trips riding on the bar of Abang Hatta’s Raleigh bicycle at night whenever Mak craved and could afford spicy, mutton soups and hot teh tarik (frothy milk tea), packed in emptied condensed milk cans and balanced precariously on the handle bars.  And, of course, last Hari Raya Puasa (the celebration after Ramadan), when we blew our ‘duit raya’ (money collected from the houses that we had visited) on ‘ais kepal’ (flavoured shaved, ice balls) and candies. 

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Gemas, 1:30AM, December 1965

It was more than an hour since the train chugged its way from Kluang Station.  Although it was in the middle of night, there was a sense of excitement as it approached the interchange at Gemas, Negri Sembilan.  Unlike Kluang and other minor stations, Gemas had tracks that led to the East Coast.  Passengers heading for Pahang, Terengganu and Kelantan would disembark and board another set of coaches.  The stop was longer than at other stations, so most people would disembark to stretch their legs, sip some coffee or go to the washroom.  The dining coach was at the end of winding coaches and the train washrooms usually stank, so passengers would dine in or ease themselves only as a last resort.  For those who chose to stay put on their seats, there would be vendors who boarded the coaches to sell samosas, curry puffs, some other Malay kuihs and bottled drinks. 
Mak took out a thin Good Morning face towel, dampened it in the sink at the kopitiam and wiped the layer of oil and grime from my face.  She fed me with a warm steamed red bean pau and hot Ovaltine.  I felt stuffy in my new brown, plaid cotton dress with its high, round collar and short, tight sleeves but I kept quiet since all our loose pyjamas were in the big baggage on the top rack above our heads.  Being the youngest child, I was the apple of her eyes. 
Mak doted on me to the chagrin of Kak Aida, who loved to scare me with stories about me being adopted and that Mak kept a toyol (a cherubic devil that steals at the owner’s behest) that she would pass on to the youngest offspring upon her demise.  She must have been upset with the presence of three younger siblings after seven years of blissful childhood in Bukit Tinggi, Sumatra, where she was born at the end of World War II, and Ipoh, where Bapak had a printing press which was confiscated for printing anti-colonial publications.  Those were times of plenty for my parents and the two older children.  Bapak and his partners were said to roll 50 ringgit notes as cigarettes whenever they painted the town red.  There were cabarets in Ipoh where they could listen to musical quartets and pay for the dancing girls.  Photos of them in Bukit Tinggi and Ipoh had Bapak well turned out in dark pantaloon, light long-sleeve shirt, a broad tie, a white smart jacket, dark sunglasses and dark hair thickly gelled with Brylcreem.  Mak looked demure in her Javanese batik sarong from Pekalongan, embroidered kebaya of ‘kasa rubiah’ and a transparent shawl over her Indonesian-style bun.  Abang Hatta was usually in neatly-pressed short-sleeve shirt and short Oxford trousers while Kak Aida looked pretty in floral print dresses, patent leather shoes and attractive hair accessories. 
It was painful then to compare those photos with the ones at Kebun Ubi, where they and the infant Jamal looked forlornly into the camera dressed in drab attire and set against a ramshackle outhouse.  When Ra’ayat Trading folded, the family moved back to Singapore where they lived with Ustaz Jalal’s family in Geylang Serai, a haphazard traditional settlement unlike the more organised Kampong Melayu Kaki Bukit.  By the time Yat and I were born, we had moved to different rented units until Ustaz Jalal, Siddi’s former student and Bapak’s adopted father, was kind and generous enough to allow us to live in his house at 38 Jalan Damai.               
My thoughts flew to the veranda and the broad stone stairway, where we would put on our shoes before we leave for school in the early or late mornings, depending on the session we were in.  My school uniform was a saffron orange, knee-length starched linen skirt with broad pleats that accentuated my rounded belly and exposed my blemished legs for everyone’s scrutiny.  The transparent short-sleeved shirt made me feel so conscious of my budding top that I always had plain or ribbed chemise on underneath.  On Mondays, I had to put on an ugly orange tie for the weekly assemblies that made me feel more like a tomboy since Mak had my hair cropped short to prevent me from contracting lice from scruffy class mates.  My name must have been registered late for me to be admitted to the last class – 1F - and some of my class mates from the squatter areas were generally unkempt.  But I made good grades and was promoted to 2C and 3A.  It didn’t help though that Yat was tall, slim, fair, with soft wavy hair that complemented her dimpled cheeks.  I felt like a Gollywog next to Shirley Temple, especially when my siblings and relatives started calling me ‘Budak Muka Lipas’ (Cockroach Face Kid), 'Kaki Tiang Jamban' (Toilet Post Legs) or teased me with taunts of:
Betty, Betty bom-bom,
Malam-malam curi jagong,
Mata-mata tangkap,
Masuk rumah pasong”
(Betty, Betty bom-bom,
She stole corns at night,
The cops caught her,
Put her in the lock-up)
Yat attended the primary school at Jalan Eunos, which was closer to our home than Telok Kurau, and her school uniform was more flattering too – a dark green pleated pinafore with a belt which created a slimmer silhouette.  To make matters worse, Mak would buy bulky boys’ laced-up shoes for me and dainty, streamline girls’ shoes for her.   
Since her school was closer to home, she got to ride on an orange van driven by a prune-faced Javanese man.  I had to wait for Mak, Abang Hatta or Jamal to take me to school either by trishaw, bicycle or by bus.  Since I never attended kindergarten, Mak waited at the canteen with other protective parents to accompany me and other timid pupils during recess.  It took me many months to wean off Mak’s warm bosom and adjust to regimented school life.  Luckily I had gentle and kind teachers in the shapes of Miss Suppiah and Miss Tan, who were very patient and understanding.  Mrs O’Hara, the principal, was just the opposite - strict and merciless.  She would shoo off the parents waiting at the canteen to go home:
“Balik, balik!  Apa tunggu lagi di sini?”  (Go home!  What are you all waiting for here?)
In my second year, Abang Hatta would give me a ride on the bar of his Raleigh bicycle taking the short cut through the bumpy, back road crossing the shanty homes and pig farms in Chai Chee.  In my third year, I had to take the bus either with Jamal or on my own and walked the extra mile from the junction of Jalan Eunos and Geylang Road to reach my school.  I was often late and Jamal had to accompany me to explain to my class teacher and walk back to his school near Still Road.  We never figured out why Bapak enrolled him in a Malay school when all four of us attended English schools.  Never mind that Abang Hatta had to sit three times for his Senior Cambridge or that Kak Aida dropped out from school when she ran away from her grandparents’ house in Klang. 
Although Kamal was protective of me as his little sister, his relationship with Yat was competitive.  Yat had always been resourceful, looking for coins that fell in through the cracks between the planks in the living room to rest on the supporting planks outside.  When she had gathered enough to buy Wall’s or Magnolia’s stick ice cream - not the cheap ‘ais krim potong’ (wafer ice cream bar) from Sun Sun - she would show off and allowed us just one lick.  One hot afternoon, when Jamal tried to get a bite off her tangy orange ice cream, she pulled it away and, before we knew it, fell into the small drain that ran around the house and hit her shoulder blade on the jagged outer rim.  Jamal turned pale and ran off to hide while I alerted Mak, who got Abang Hatta to call the ambulance.  Yat was warded for a few days and when she was discharged, she had to wear a sling until her fractured shoulder blade mend completely.                 

Kluang Station, 12AM, December 1965

It was about midnight when the train dragged to a halt at Kluang Station, Johore.  It was like any other railway stations that dotted the railway route from Tanjong Pagar to Kuala Lumpur.  Wooden benches painted yellow to match the wooden administrative offices of the Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM).  There was a ticket booth and a canteen that served Hainanese style kopitiam food - steamed or grilled white toasts cut two inches thick and splattered with margarine and kaya, half-boiled eggs splashed with soya sauce and kopi kau (thick, black coffee) served in porcelain cups and saucers on round, marble top tables with trunk-like, wooden legs and chairs to match.     
We had disembarked at this station two years ago to spend our December school holidays at Bapak's paddy field in Kahang, about 40 miles away.  Mak had bundled me, Yat and Jamal to spend a week or so at the tiny hut in the middle of the paddy field that Bapak had worked on with the help of his adopted sons, Razali (a mualaf or Chinese convert) and a few others with unusual Javanese or Boyanese names.  We thoroughly enjoyed the simple, rustic life, waking up to even plots of yellowing paddy stalks separated by narrow irrigation drains, filled with sepat, keli and haruan, fresh-water fish that Razali caught and Mak cleaned and cooked in an earthen pot with tamarind juice, or coconut milk, or simply fried or grilled and dipped in soy sauce and cut chillis.  In the mornings after breakfast, we would follow Razali to the river to bathe.  We had to walk through some thickets to get to the rickety wooden stairs that led down to the cool waters of the river.  It was deep on our side and Razali would build a rakit, a flat raft made up of even bamboo poles tied firmly together, to take us to the other side, where there was a swathe of white, sandy bank.  Once we reached the shallow side, we would wade in the water and splash on each other.  Mak would wash our clothes and Razali would swim after pieces of clothings carried away by the currents.  Once we saw a snake in a hollowed space on the other side and heard a tiger's growl.   
There was no electricity or water supply in Kahang and tales of Sang Kelembai (local Bigfoot) and Bunians (fairies) were rife.  One evening when we were taken around the village, our local guide stopped by a grassy clearing, and told us,
“Inilah tapak kampong Bunian.  Dia orang macam kita juga, cuma kita tak boleh nampak dia orang tapi dia orang boleh nampak kita.” (This is the spot of the Bunian's village.  They’re just like us, only we can’t see them but they can see us.)  
All of a sudden, I sensed a strange, sweet fragrant that enveloped the air around us.
“Baik-baik jangan jalan sorang-sorang atau waktu senja.  Ada budak kampong yang dicolek dek Bunian.”  (Careful not to walk alone or at twilight.  There had been village kids kidnapped by Bunians). 
Stories of village simpletons being abducted by the fairy community and married off to their womenfolk were rife.  It occurred to me now that it was rather odd that beautiful fairy creatures would want to wed and breed with village retards. 
Our adventure in Kahang soon ended when we had to return to a new school year.  A few months later, we received the sad news from Razali that Bapak had to give up the venture because he did not have enough help during the harvesting season and the ripe paddy stalks quickly turned bad.  Bapak returned home dour-faced and we all had to tread ever so carefully, especially on the planks of the main house, which was his domain.                         
The main house was bare except for a couple of worn out hideous green vinyl arm chairs, a round wooden table with a glass top and a couple of pandanus mats on the floor of the spacious living room.  In the two bedrooms, there were bug-infested kapok mattresses, faded mosquito nets and rickety closets for our clothes.  I usually slept in the main bedroom with Mak when Bapak was not around, my sisters in the smaller bedroom and my brothers in the living room. 
Spartan as it was, the living room had welcomed many fascinating guests, from endearing male cousins - Abang Aim, Abang Razak, Abang Omar - to Kak Aida’s gallery of suitors – Ariff, Hamdan, Yusuf - and Bapak’s rowdy Indonesian ‘hantus’ (informants).  I used to gape at the sleek scooters and shiny metal contraptions that they parked in front of our compound. 
Fair-skinned, well-built and dashing, Abang Aim normally turned up grinning in his gleaming Triumph Trophy, either to drop off or pick Abang Hatta up.  Even though he was a second cousin, Abang Aim and Abang Hatta were the best of buddies, serenading innocent love songs like Jeanie Come Lately to Kak Aida’s friend Jenny (Zainab) from the veranda, or gallivanting at Central (the closest rows of shops with restaurants, photo studios and a cinema) or picnic-ing at Ponggol, Katong or the many beautiful beaches on their off days.  Abang Razak (Wak Som’s second son) was tall, lanky and funny.  He would usually arrive on foot but would entertain us for hours with his hilarious gags about family scandals and skeletons in the closets.  Abang Omar (Wak Enah’s youngest son) was medium built and subdued, and usually arrived on a modest Vespa, which matched his amiable personality.  He was close to both Abang Hatta and Kak Aida and, once in a while, would show up with Kak Pet (Wak Nyok’s daughter) riding pillion. 
Ariff, Kak Aida’s ardent admirer, was lean, tall and sweet in both demeanour and character, like most decent Javanese boys.  He used to pick up and drop Kak Aida off in a Norton motorbike until his marriage proposal was flatly turned down.  He was heartbroken when he confided to Mak what Bapak had told him: 
“Kalau kail panjang sejengkal, lautan dalam jangan diduga’ (If the hook is short, don’t try the deep sea”).  
Hamdan, the son of the shop owner of a textile shop on High Street where Kak Aida worked, was of Yemeni Arab descent, dark-skinned and small frame with bushy hair and thick moustache like a Mexican character in a Western movie.  Kak Aida was smitten by his flamboyant style and marketing savvy, and regarded him as her knight in shining armour on his modish Vespa.  When his marriage proposal was also rejected by Bapak, they eloped but were intercepted by my cousin's husband, who worked for the Special Branch.  Kak Aida was sent to a ‘Girls’ Home’ in one of the streets near Central, where she spent several months sitting on the iron swing and looking miserable. 
A few of Bapak’s ‘hantus’ too tried to get Kak Aida’s attention by revving up the engines of their sleek Triumphs and Nortons but they would never fit into Bapak’s idea of a suitable son-in-law.  Kak Aida's childhood sweetheart, Yusuf, used to spend his term holidays from his residential college in the northern part of the peninsula at our house but he had left for further studies in the United Kingdom in September last year.  They met when Kak Aida was sent to live with our grandparents in Klang when Bapak was detained from late 1956 ‘til the end of 1958 for smuggling contraband fire arms.  His father worked in the same Religious Department as our grandfather, so they were neighbours.  Kak Aida’s budding beauty caught Yusuf's eye and he started sending love notes through his sister to her.  Their romance blossomed and continued even after she escaped to Singapore from the drudgery and daily bullying of our youngest aunt.  Mak wondered aloud who these louts were who littered our compound and clambered up our spotless stone stairway onto the narrow veranda and into the main house but Bapak bragged: 
“Don’t worry, they’re my hantus!  They provide me with information about what’s happening in Indonesia.  Sukarno is dead set against this idea of a Malay-sia.  Macapagal too supports Maphilindo!” 
Being a third generation Javanese-Bugis in Singapore, Mak agreed that it was only natural to return to a pre-colonial notion of Nusantara.  And she was simply happy too to have Bapak focusing his energy on this nebulous concept instead of turning his anger towards her or the children.  She told us that she was engaged to be married to another young man before the Japanese Occupation but her father was persuaded by his fellow Javanese compatriot, Wak Jalal, who was Siddi’s student and Bapak’s adopted father in Kampong Ubi, to break the engagement and marry her off to Bapak.  She was a protected 18 year-old and he was a 25 year-old who had fled Makkah, where he was born, to join the Navy and return home to Tanah Jawi (Malay Peninsula) to be part of the exciting Kaum Muda (Islamic Reformist) movement in the late 1930s.  Atok Semawi, my paternal grandfather, was a busy man, holding down two jobs as a proof-reader at Utusan Melayu during the day and a Bangsawan director at night.  When Nek Cemplok (maternal grandfather) passed away, Mak was just eight years old and Pak Cik Pom six years old.  They then had to live with Wak Hassan and Wak Som, their eldest brother and his wife, at their house in Jalan Taugeh, not far from Central.  When Atok Semawi married Nek Sapura, they moved in back with him but their relationship with their step mother was unpleasant.
In 1942, the Japanese Military Administration (JMA) was in power and had re-named Singapore Syonan-to.  Girls who were of marriageable age were either hidden in the attics or married off to prevent from being taken away and raped by Japanese soldiers.  Less than two years after her marriage, Mak gave birth to Abang Hatta in October 1943.  Severe food shortages and the state of famine at that time forced Bapak to pack up his young family to Bukit Tinggi, Sumatra, where he worked as an Arabic-Malay translator.  Kak Aida was born there in the middle of 1945 but her birthplace was registered as Ipoh, Perak, where they settled after the JMA surrendered to the Allied Forces.
In Ipoh, along with several nationalist friends, Bapak had invested in Ra’ayat Trading, a printing press located on the row of concrete shop houses facing the Ipoh Padang.  The late 40s and early 50s were halcyon days for Mak, when Bapak lived and maintained his family in style.  They had a nicely-furnished three-bedroom flat above the printer and the two children played all afternoon at the padang.  When she suffered a few miscarriages, she waded across the Kinta River with Kak Aida to see Dr Megat Khas, her gynaecologist at the Ipoh General Hospital.  Bapak was immersed in the publishing and printing business, excited about the anti-colonial materials written by comrades like Pak Sako, Rahman Rahim and Jamil Sulong.  Naturally, it was a damper to his exuberant nationalist sentiments when the printing press was confiscated by the Brits.  They fled to Singapore in 1951 to seek refuge at Wak Jalal’s outhouse in Kampong Ubi.  In early 1952, Jamal was born songsang at Wak Aman’s house on Lorong 37 after Mak had been in labor for 36 hours.  Yat arrived in late 1953 in Kandang Kerbau Maternity Hospital.  By then the family had moved to a rented unit in Lorong K, a few streets away from Central and Wak Som’s house in Jalan Taugeh.     
When Bapak was detained and incarcerated in Outram Jail, Mak was seven months pregnant with me and when he was released, I was about 18 months old.  There was a photo of me as an infant in a short-sleeve ribbed singlet and cotton short pants, seated on the table in the prison’s visiting area between Mak and Bapak.  Mak used to ask me,
“Where’s Bapak?”
And I would point to the sole of my foot, which is ‘tapak’ in Malay.  Mak would bring home-cooked food and cigarettes during her weekly visits.  Bapak’s court trial and arrest, which made the news in the local dailies, was a public humiliation for Siddi, a conservative ulamak.  But Mak stood by his ideals of colonial resistance and a post-Independent construct of ‘Maphilindo’ (Malaya-Philippines-Indonesia), a return to an empowered pre-colonial Nusantara.  After his release, his mood swings worsened.  He was away most of the time, either in Klang to persuade Sitti to sell off a piece of the 114 acres of land belonging to her and Siddi to start a new business venture or at one of his current projects, like the paddy field in Kahang. 

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Tanjong Pagar, 8PM, December 1965

Finally, it was time to board the Senandong Malam to Kuala Lumpur.  The station master had blown the whistle for the third time and flagged down the red triangle cloth as a signal of departure.  I stood behind Mak, Kak Aida, Jamal and Yat on the narrow aisle between the bare seats in the third class coach.  Abang Hatta, my eldest brother, stayed behind.  He was  22 and working in the police force.  I could see Mak’s tears streaking down her face as she said her last words of advice:
“Jagalah diri baik-baik.  Rajin-rajin tulis surat.  Kalau sunyi carilah Aim or Razak” (Take good care of your self.  Write often.  If you’re lonely, look for Aim or Razak). 
Razak and Rahim were cousins that were his best buddies.  Leaving him alone in Singapore was one of the hardest decisions in Mak’s life, one that she regretted until her dying day.  But events that unfolded forced her to leave the island republic where she was born and had spent the first 40 years of her life.          
There were the race riots during the Prophet’s Birthday procession in July last year, and in December, there was the family crisis that had smeared ‘charcoal on her face’.  The women and children had huddled and shuddered in their living area for many nights while the men prepared for armed combat amidst the not-too-distant sounds of war drums being beaten in the neighbouring village of Chai Chee.  I heard that men from as far as Batu Pahat, Johore, had provided reinforcement for the vigilantes in Singapore.  Even after the tensions had subsided and the curfew hours reduced, there was still a general feeling of unease.  And a family calamity that occurred late in the year hastened my mother's decision to listen to my Siddi's (paternal grandfather) suggestion to move and start a new life in Kuala Lumpur, about 40 kilometres from Klang, where he lived and worked.
My vision was blurred as I pressed my nose against the train shutter and waved good bye to all my mother’s brothers, sisters, nephews and nieces - Wak Som, Wak Enah, Wak Yok, Wak Aman, Mak Munah, Wak Aeng, Pak Cik Pom, Abang Aim, Abang Razak, Abang Omar, Abang Amzah, Kak Pet, Kak Imah, Tutut, Tenah - and our neighbours – Mak Cik Mani, Enchah and Yon - who had sent us off.
As the dusty brown and yellow coaches snaked its way out of the station and headed north, I bade farewell to nine years of my childhood, the last three years spent at 38 Jalan Damai, Kampung Melayu Kaki Bukit (Malay Kampung at the Foothills), the traditional Malay kampong house which faced the padang (field) at the back of the hill.  I closed my eyes and pictured the air pancor (water spout) halfway up the hill, where the neighbors’ children and I scooped its gushing water to wash our sweaty faces on hot afternoons.  The dirt ditch that separated our house from the orange dirt road that ran parallel to the padang, where Benggali bread vendors, Chinese ice cream sellers, Sikh cow herders and Malay movie stars passed by.  That old dirt drain, whose waters had swelled one monsoon season and whose currents had swept and almost drowned me had Jamal had not dived in and rescued me, was recently reinforced with uniform V-shaped, concrete ducts.
The dirt bridge that led to our compound with its rough hedges of tea bushes that hugged the big dirt drain in front and the little one on the left that marked the boundary of our plot and that of our affable neighbor’s – Pak Seman ‘Benjol’ (a permanent bump on his right forehead earned him that nick name) and his wife Mak Limah who supplemented her husband’s income by selling ‘cakar ayam’ (small, rounded, caramelised sweet potato hash browns) from home.  Mak had heeded Pak Seman’s advice to feed Jamal two boiled eggs in the mornings after his circumcision but that proved disastrous, when the pus on his wound got worse.  When Mak told him:
“Wak, nananya makin teruk bila saya kasi makan telor” 
(Uncle, the pus got worse when I fed him eggs)
“Siapa suruh kau kasi dia makan telor?”  
(Who asked you to feed him eggs?)     
There was no drain separating our land and our neighbours’ on the right – Mak Cik Mani (short for Mahani, the stern-faced yet kind breadwinner of her family), Pak Cik Man (her reserved husband, who spent hours looking out the front window with a rosary in his right hand since he recovered from a stroke), Nek (her crinkled-face, betel chewing, story-teller, octogenarian mother), Pipit (her 16 year old daughter, nicknamed ‘sparrow’ for her love of ‘chirping’), Mamat (Mohamed, a year younger than Pipit, who filled every waking hour with youthful pursuits like gasing spinning and kite slicing with such fierce intensity), Enchah (Habsah, her studious, sensible daughter who was my best pal) and Yon (Haron, her youngest son, whom Jamal loved to tease as my suitor) – only scattered, waist-high hedges of hibiscus plants and a tall jambu batu (guava) tree, which shaded the ‘amben’ (low, wide bench) where Enchah and I spent many lazy afternoons listening to Pipit’s tales of romantic escapades.  The guava tree had also provided the shade for my mother’s makeshift ‘warong’ (foodstall), where Mak occasionally sold her ‘nasi sambal goreng’ (rice served with spicy offals and mixed beans), ‘nasi rawon’ (rice with beef in black sauce made from buah keluak) and ‘lontong’ (rice cubes with creamy mixed vegetables soup and sambal, serunding and bergedil).  Mak Cik Mani was more steadfast in purveying her white and yellow steamed ‘putu piring’ with ‘gula melaka’ fillings.  I had earned my pocket money from selling those hot piping flour cakes wrapped in banana leaves by going around the village with Enchah after school.  With the 15 sen ‘duit jajan’ (sales commission), I had splurged on ‘tikam-tikam’ (a mini wheel of fortune) which got me a pink ‘cincin buah kana’ (a ring with a fake stone in the shape of an olive), pink cotton candies, ‘gula tarik’ (hard, white treacle) and ‘ais krim potong’ (blocks of wafer ice cream bars).  Enchah and I were very close although we attended different schools and different levels – I was a standard three pupil at Telok Kurau West Integrated Primary School, an English medium school, while Enchah was a Secondary One student at Sekolah Menengah Still Road, a Malay medium secondary school.  I remembered we were not on talking terms only once, when Mak Cik Mani had accidentally given a toxic fragrance, which upset Mak so that she hurled her red and green coconut candies to the ground just outside the kitchen for Mak Cik Mani to see.
Our kitchen, like most Malay kampong ones, was a half-concrete half-wooden part of the house which was built on the ground at the back of the oil varnished brownish black wooden house on posts.  Welcoming the guests in front was the red-painted, concrete stairway and a small veranda with its smoothly finished wooden bench.  The kitchen was rather large, with ample space for a small cemented area to wash fish, meat and vegetables, a small aluminium-plated charcoal stove, a steel and formica dining table and chairs, a plan beige mengkuang mat and kapok mattress to lie on for afternoon siestas, an indoor bathroom with a ‘tempayan’ (porcelain water vessel) and ‘kolah’ (concrete pool to retain water from the tap), and the creepy ‘bawah kolong’ or space under the stairs.  I recalled one night a few years ago when I was thirsty and Mak went down to get a glass of water while I waited at the top of the stairs that led to the main house with its larger and smaller bedrooms on the right and left.  I thought I saw my second brother Jamal dash out from the dark cell and called out, “Mal!” but the figure just vanished into thin air.  Since that incident, I dared not venture down to the kitchen at night. 
The kitchen held both pleasant and unpleasant memories.  Jamal, Yat and I could not wait to lap up Mak’s hot coconut pancakes, omelettes, eggs in soya sauce, fish in soya sauce, fish ‘tauco’ (fermented soya), fish ball soup, fish cooked in ‘asam pedas’ (hot and sour gravy), ‘sambal goring’ (spicy offal with mixed vegetables) or the golden, honey-combed ‘baulu suri’ (traditional Malay sponge cake) on those rare, rare occasions or just plain watery vegetable soup, porridge or gruel with margarine and sugar, unsalted cream crackers and Cheddar cheese (donated either by the USAID or the American Peace Corps) on the unexpected lean days.  Once in a blue moon, when Mak returned from wedding invitations, we would get to taste ghee rice or briyani, beef or chicken bamia and hard-boiled eggs that the hosts packed for us.  Special treats like murtabak (Middle-Eastern bread with mince meat fillings) from Islamic Restaurant in Arab Street were few and far between, like when Wak Enah, Mak’s eldest sister, appeared through the kitchen door (which most womenfolk and children did then) like a Fairy Godmother bearing pricy imported fruits and delicious desserts – red and green globes of juicy grapes, shiny crunchy apples and tangy oranges, moist marble cakes and wobbly green and red clear jellies - that Mak could not afford to buy or prepare.  Whenever Mak craved for the Mi Rebus (noodles in thick mutton gravy) and Satay (skewered meat drowned in peanut sauce) in Joo Chiat Road, she would take one of us and a more expensive batik sarong of hers to hock at the pawn shop in front before tucking in at the back lane. When Abang Hatta started work as a police constable, he would buy remnants of sponge cakes from the bakery on his way home which we devoured in a jiffy. 
And then there were the days and nights that we dreaded, whenever Bapak took his place at the head of the table.  Not only we were not supposed to help ourselves before him, but we had to be extremely careful not to ruffle his feathers.  Mealtimes with Bapak were tense and sombre affairs.  One evening, when we were all salivating at the dining table to tuck into Mak’s steaming hot fish ball soup Mak said to Bapak,
“Please use the ladle, not your own spoon, to scoop the soup to your plate”  
Bapak suddenly flew into a rage, got up and thumped the table.  
“I’m the head of the family! Why do I have to use the ladle? Why can’t I use my own spoon?  Are you afraid that I’ll spread my germs?” 
Whack! Mak raised her palm to cool her burning cheek.  We just hung our heads and squirmed and prayed silently for the storm to subside.  Bapak’s fury was unpredictable.  It can be triggered by any slight from any one of us.  One day, when a hot water flask that he flung at Kak Aida missed her, some of the scalding water spilled on my thighs.  And I just winced when he bent three copper coins with a pair of pliers and twisted Jamal’s arms for failing to buy him Players cigarettes with those three cents.  Whenever I heard Bapak’s footsteps on the wooden planks of the main house, my heart sank and I escaped to play outside.