Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Kuala Lumpur, 6:00AM December 1965

At the crack of dawn, the coach slowly pulled into the Grand Station in Kuala Lumpur.  A giant billboard with a simple drawing of a woman in kebaya (a form fitting Malay outfit) standing in front of a winding train greeted us from the platform.  I rubbed my sleepy eyes and heard Mak asking Jamal to look for a porter to help carry our bags to the taxi stand.  We followed the porter who then signalled to one of the cab drivers milling around the exit.  Jamal helped the driver to transfer the big, heavy bags and boxes into the boot and helped him secure it with a plastic rope.  As we flopped onto the back seat, Mak scratched Jamal’s shoulder and repeated the name of the street that we were heading to:  “Tell the driver to go to Lorong Keramat 2, ya!”  “Ya!” Jamal said, nodding quickly to stop Mak from repeating the instruction for the third time.
That was how I knew that our new home in Kuala Lumpur will be in Kampong Datok Keramat.  I had followed Mak to Keramat Habib Noh and Keramat Raden Mas before when she felt her prayers could do with extra boosts from saintly spirits.  We had to climb the hillock on East Coast Road to reach the mausoleum of Habib Noh, which was covered with yellow satin cloth and enveloped by an overpowering scent of francensine.  Believed to be a descendent of the Prophet, Habib Noh was a pious person who helped the destitute and performed various miracles.  People flocked to his shrine when they needed his spiritual support in seeking Allah’s help.  Raden Mas, on the other hand, was a Javanese princess who defended her father from being murdered.  She was not only beautiful but pious, obedient and loved by her father but despised by her stepmother.  Her tomb was located within a little grove surrounded by a big banyan tree on the edge of a hill looking out over Kampong Raden Mas and a stream - its water believed to have healing properties - which flowed in the valley below.  I wondered if Kampong Datok Keramat was named after a saint and whether I would get to visit his tomb with Mak. 
I silently memorised the names of the roads - Batu Road, Hale Road, Princess Road and Gurney Road – and the new landmarks – Globe Silk Store on Batu Road, Pasar Minggu (Sunday Market) in Kampong Baru and Gurney Road School – as the taxi made its way to our new home.  When it pulled up by the side of a kampong house, I realised that we will be living in the extended part of that house.  There was just ample space for the cab to drive through between this house and the next one on the left.  The door led to the bare living room, two bedrooms, a small kitchen and a covered bathroom.  The outdoor toilet was a shack at the back of the house.  There was a large drain by the kitchen and beyond, tall grass grew wild by a partly hidden stream.  Across the stream, a football field led to a school building.            
We stayed home for most of December and January while Mak and Kak Aida arranged for our schooling.  Since there was no space to play outdoors, we spent most of our time reading story and comic books while waiting to be schooled.  Kak Aida’s good friend, Jenny, had moved to Kuala Lumpur before us and lived with a rich relative in a spacious double storey bungalow at 22 Jalan Maktab, off Jalan Gurney.  That was to be our mailing address for the next six months. 
After a couple of months being homebound, we were glad to be back to school – me to Jalan Gurney Road Primary School (1), Yat to Ampang Road Secondary Girls School and Jamal to Sekolah Menengah Aminuddin Baki.  Yat and I walked to school but in opposite directions – me about half a mile to the left and up hill towards Gurney Road and Yat about the same distance but to the right, across the school field, pass the market and over the narrow, wooden bridge to Ampang.  Jamal had to leave early to take two buses to his school in Kampong Pandan.       
At the bend across the road, Rahman Rahim, Bapak’s old buddy from his printing press days, lived with his family in a large half-concrete, half-wooden yellow and red house.  Pak Rahman Rahim was an editor with the Utusan Melayu and he used to contribute to Bapak’s publications in Ipoh.  His wife was kind and his children friendly but we had to adapt to the way the Malaysians speak and the words they used.  Jamal derived such joy from imitating our landlord, neighbours, his teachers and schoolmates, especially when referring to different body parts.  The Malaysians seemed so refined and proper; and we felt so boorish conversing with them.  They would use words like “Dah berkelamin?” (Are you married?) instead of “Dah kahwin?”  “Suami” (husband) instead of “laki”, “orang rumah” (wife) instead of “bini”, “lelaki” (male) instead of “jantan”, and so on.             
Very soon, Pak Rahman and his wife helped Mak to find contractors to build a squatter house on the hill within walk distance from his backyard.  Jamal told me, “Malaysians called these dwellings ‘Rumah Haram’ or ‘Rumah Kilat’ because they were built illegally and ‘in a flash’”.  After three months in the back quarters of Lorong Keramat 2, we moved to this overnight abode which was two houses away from the end of the rows of Rumah MARA on Lorong Keramat Kiri 12.  It was a humble structure of cemented bricks and varnished wood, with a medium-size living area covered with vinyl mat and a small bedroom with an amben for a bed, a narrow kitchen and a bathroom with a view of the sky, a pump to supply water and plastic containers to retain it.  The toilet was a wooden hut by the river, about 150 meters in the backyard.  Primitive it may have been, but it was a lot more hygienic than the bucket type that we had at the back of our house in Kaki Bukit or Lorong Keramat 2.  There was no electricity – Mak or Jamal would light the kerosene lamp or burn clumps of carbaid to light up the house after dark.  The corrugated iron roof would raise the temperatures on hot, dry afternoons and would amplify the sound of the rain on wet days or nights.  But we were in our own unit, with wonderful neighbours and ample land to run around in.  Yat and I would catch shrimps and dipped in the clear water of the stream that flowed from the tin mine to cool ourselves among the big rocks and under the canopy on hot afternoons.  By then, Yat had developed a tan, started to have pimples and her hair had frizz up from the hard water that I stopped being conscious about being dark, scabby and plump.  Jamal had formed his own circle of friends and Kak Aida had found a regular job as a receptionist at a government agency in Petaling Jaya. 
Our neighbours were such well-mannered people, who minded their own business.  On the left, facing the road lived Kak Hasnah, her husband and toddler in a pleasantly painted and gated home with well-tended potted plants and an iron swing.  Their toddler had taken such a fancy to me that he would amble over to our house and knock on our door as soon as he woke up.  “Oh, Bet!” we would hear him call.  In front, in a slightly better house than ours lived Kak Leha, her two teenage sons and her second husband who suffered from epilepsy.  A few times he had an attack when she was not home and we all had to help him to regain composure.  Further to the right lived Mak Fauzi*, a Sumatran from Padang, with whom Mak clicked instantly because of her stint at Bukit Tinggi during the War.  Since they both had absentee husbands, they would console each other, exchange news and recipes from Padang and hair dyes whenever they could find the time.  Mak Fauzi would always greet me with the same salutations:
"Alah gadang kini, alah anak daro kini!" (Oh, how you have grown, oh what a young maiden you are now!) 
But those idyllic days in Datok Kampong Keramat were short-lived.  Kak Aida had found a low-cost PKNS flat close to her workplace in Petaling Jaya, about 15 kilometres from our squatter community.
* At that time, mothers would be identified according to their sons' names for example 'Mak Hatta' or 'Mak Jamal'.

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