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.