Once again, we packed our few belongings and moved to a modest two-bedroom unit on the fourth floor of a 10 block complex of low cost PKNS flats on Jalan 17/1A, Petaling Jaya (PJ). Mak unpacked her stuff and mine in the front room, Yat and Kak Aida arranged theirs in the back room while Jamal set up his clothes and beddings in the living room that doubled up as a dining area. The kitchen had a hollow concrete slab to support the heavy cast iron single-burner gas range and accommodate a gas tank underneath. Next to it was a corrugated zinc sink to wash and dry food and dishes. There were separate cubicles for bathroom and WC, a garbage chute and iron clothes lines that extended from the back veranda. The flush toilet was a novelty since I had only encountered that mechanism at a few of our relatives’ homes – Wak Enah’s municipal flat on Norfolk Road, Wak Aman’s pre-War terrace house on Lorong 37 and Siddi’s government quarters on Jalan Raya Barat, Klang.
We finally had electricity and water supply and could gradually afford a new rattan settee, a complete dining set, wardrobes, beauty cabinets and beds on hire purchase. There was even a blue, plastic battery-operated turn table on the side table at the corner and a steady collection of LPs and EPs of Andy Williams, Petula Clark, Dusty Springfield, A. Ramlee and The Rhythm Boys and Jefrydin and The Siglap Five.
Since we moved in the middle of the year, Mak could not arrange for transfers to schools in PJ, so we had to spend many hours waiting at the bus stand and commuting on the buses to and from our schools in KL. I had to take the first bus that passed through Jalan Universiti, the Federal Highway, Jalan Bungsar, Jalan Brickfields and hopped on to another bus at Foch Avenue to get to Gurney Road. I chased my loneliness on those long bus trips by playing popular songs in my mind and spotting names of Indian restaurants along Bungsar and Brickfields – Barathi Villas, Shanmugan Villas and so on. As soon as I reached home, showered and had my dinner in the evenings, I rushed for Quran reading lessons a few blocks away. Gone were the carefree days when I dashed out to play in the field with my mates from the afternoon religious class at the Kampong Datok Keramat mosque.
Towards the end of year, Mak was occupied with Kak Aida’s wedding, which was held at Abang Yusuf’s parents’ semi-detached house in a more upscale area on the other side of the Federal Highway. Kak Aida looked beautiful and radiant in a beige songket modern style kebaya, sitting alone on a filigree iron chair perched on the satin dais. Their marriage was by proxy and she flew to London to be with Yusuf, a day after the ceremony.
Sitti, meanwhile, was taken ill and warded at the old Klang General Hospital on the hill at the top of Simpang Lima intersection, less than a kilometre from the government quarters where she lived with Siddi, their youngest son, Ami Sahak, who chauffeured Siddi to his official duties in a maroon Mercedes, his wife, Amati Rodziah, who cooked for the family, and their three children. I had spent both long holidays and short stints at Jalan Raya Barat whenever Mak needed to replenish her dwindling cash reserves. I simply loved the feeling when the taxi or trishaw that took us there diverted into the tarmac, cut through the neatly kept lawn, passed by the garage and pulled in before the front staircase. My cousins – Naimah, Hassan and Luqman – would run eagerly towards our vehicle to welcome us and help us carry our bags to the wide veranda, which led to the indoor living area in the centre and the spacious bedrooms which flanked it. A rattan settee graced the middle of the veranda, where Siddi received his guests, and mengkuang mats were furled open to the right, where he taught his students to read the Quran.
When we heard that Sitti’s body was brought home from the hospital, we took the next taxi to Klang. We alighted by the side of the house, stopped at the back staircase to remove our shoes and entered through the back door. There were people every where – the men folk milling around in front and gathering on the veranda, and the women folk standing at the back near the vacant servants’ quarters, in the kitchen and the master bedroom, where the body was laid. I was used to seeing Sitti in floral, chiffon kebayas and kurungs, embellished with thick gold chains, matching moonstone brooches, ear rings and rings, ready to be taken to wedding ceremonies and social gatherings, that it was sad to see her covered in the batik lepas, waiting to be bathed, wrapped in white cloth and buried. We stood behind the groups of women who were busy preparing the layers of cloth and setting up the paraphernalia for her last journey on earth. My aunts were no where to be seen – we heard that the eldest had fainted when she was accused of at the tempting to escape with some family heirloom, the youngest had appointed herself as the guardian of her mother’s jewellery in the grey vault, while the middle had not arrived from up north. Throughout this commotion, one of the legs supporting the bed where the body was laid upon, had broke and the body almost fell out.
Siddi visited Sitti’s grave every day until the 100th day. By then he had tendered his resignation, made arrangements to move back to Makkah, sold the remainder of his property, divided the proceeds among his offspring according to faraid and packed all his belongings in a green rectangular trunk with metal trimmings. Before his departure, he had asked Mak to spend the last few weeks which coincided with our long school holidays at Jalan Raya Barat. Ami Sahak, Amati Rodziah and their children had gradually moved their things to their own single storey bungalow in Sungei Pinang. Mak took over the task of cooking the parboiled rice and low-salt, low-sugar diet that Siddi had to observe. He was so pleased with Mak’s cooking and care-giving that he muttered:
“That’s the problem when you wished that your daughter-in-law is your own child and that your own child is your son-in-law.”
He had dismissed Bapak after Bapak returned to ask for more of his share from the sale of the remaining property.
“You’ve taken your share as the eldest son, Aji Din. There’s nothing more for you. Leave!”
He must have had high hopes for his intelligent, first born son to follow in his footsteps but those great expectations were crushed when Bapak ran off at 17 to join the Navy and sailed from Jeddah via Goa to Malaya. He wired his good friend, Ahmad Badawi, in Penang to look for Aji Din at the port if and when he disembarked on that island. And when Bapak decided to be in the pulse of the nation’s politics and culture in Singapore, he wired to his former student, Ustaz Jalal, to ensure that his son was in good hands. When he heard Aji Din had married a Javanese girl who was related to Jalal’s wife, he thanked the Almighty. Then there were intermittent news about the young family in Bukit Tinggi, Ipoh and Singapore. Not long after he returned to accept the Sultan’s appointment as Head of Religious Affairs after more than three decades in Makkah, he was welcomed with a telegram informing him of Bapak’s arrest in 1956. He immediately ordered Ami Sahak to drive him South to make sure that we were alright. Ami Sahak drove down again to fetch Mak to recuperate in Klang soon after she gave birth to me. Mak never tired of talking about our visit to Governor Tun Uda’s residence in Penang when I was an infant. But Siddi finally lost his patience when Bapak’s requests for funding of his various business ventures – Ra’ayat Trading, the paddy field in Kahang, the fish and coconut project, the publishing offices at Jalan Rogers and Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman – and demands for his share of the estate became incessant.
Soon after Siddi left for Makkah, Mak found a job as a cook at the canteen in Rothman’s. By then, it was a new school year and Yat had been placed in Assunta Secondary Girls School in Section 6 and me at Sultan Alam Shah Primary School (1) in Section 11. Jamal remained in Aminuddin Baki since there were no Malay-medium schools in PJ. Mak would start walking after the dawn prayers, along the stretch of grass embankment, crossing over to Phillips, passing by Sin Chew Jit Poh and crossing again to Rothman’s and walked home as the sun set. But she was happy to have cash in hand and we were never hungry. She would pack food from the canteen and we would drop by to have our meals on our way to or from school.
Unlike our close relationships with neighbours in Datok Keramat and Kaki Bukit, our interactions with neighbours at Block F of the PKNS flats were cordial but restraint. On our right was a young Malay married couple from Sitiawan, Perak, and on our left, separated by the stairs, was a middle-age Chinese couple, whose sons had Kok as their middle names. Two floors below us were siblings from Kuala Ketil, Kedah, and on the ground floor were Seng Heng sundry shop and WY electrical repair shop.
The couple from Sitiawan – Kak Ani and AbangYeop – had a toddler, Jefri, who also made it a habit to appear at our door whenever it was opened. Abang Yeop worked as an insurance agent while Kak Ani stayed home to sew school uniforms and traditional clothes for her customers. Unlike Abang Yeop who was taciturn, Kak Ani was hospitable but kept herself busy with cleaning, cooking, sewing and minding Jefri.
Kok Chuan’s Mother, or Nyonya Wak Enah (Mak’s nick for her), was a chatterbox while her husband was a man of few words, preferring to bury his head in the daily Chinese papers, seemingly glued to the white and blue plastic easy chair and blocking the common walkway that served as the front veranda. They hung a round mirror smeared with something that looked like blood above their front door and burnt joss sticks which they poked into tiny bowls resting on the miniature red altar by the door. We never had Chinese neighbours before and my encounters with Chinese in previous neighbourhoods were few and far between – the female Lok Tang (Taoist monk) who ironed her cheek while in a trance at the end of Lorong K, the heavily made-up Wayang Pek Ji (Chinese Opera) actors performing on a make-shift stage in front of Central, the short-tempered ice cream vendor and the emaciated night-soil carrier behind our house at Kaki Bukit.
Mak’s relationship with Nyonya Wak Enah started on friendly terms – exchanging greetings and updates on their children at the top of the stairs that separated our units - but turned sour a couple years later when the loquacious Nyonya* embraced a Pentecostal type of Christianity which involved hours of loud chantings in their unit and spilled on to the walkway into the wee hours of the morning. There were also tensions between them when Jamal and Yat lost their bicycles - gifts from Siddi – which they kept under lock and chain against the wire fence of the electrical fuse boxes behind the stairs on the ground floor. Kok Thoy, the older son, had dropped out of school and was seen in bad company, so Mak viewed him as the prime suspect.
It was just as well that on the eve of May 13 1969, Mak managed to acquire a larger unit on the third floor of Block N, which was one of the new block of flats further down the road.
· A Javanese term for a married woman; also used for Straits-born Peranakan Chinese women.