Monday, March 7, 2011

Oh, Fatimah

Oh Fatimah was a popular hit song by A Ramlie and the Rhythm Boys at the height of the Pop Yeh Yeh and Alompak A-go-go days of the mid and late 1960s.  Jamal had slowly built a collection of vinyl records in colourful jackets showing Singaporean Malay youths in tight, shiny suits and mop haircuts, ala The Beatles, on the front covers and song lyrics on the back.  Little did we know that we will welcome a real life Fatimah into our home, albeit for a few memorable hours.       
We had not seen Bapak since his last dramatic outburst at Kaki Bukit, a few months before we moved to KL.  As Bapak’s fortunes fluctuated, Mak had learned to be financially independent – paying the rent and putting food on the table by washing other people’s clothes at the public tap when Bapak was in Outram, working as a seamstress at a tailoring shop for traditional outfits, selling nasi sambal goreng and nasi rawon under the guava tree in our front yard and taking on irregular cooking jobs for family friends.  Abang Hatta had taken on construction and other odd jobs and Kak Aida had baby sat, danced in movie scenes and cultural shows, sewed gold embroidery on sampings at the tailor shop and sold textiles at a shop on High Street.  Together, they contributed towards the family’s kitty, which made Bapak feel that his traditional role as breadwinner and head of the family had been usurped.  He struck back by adopting Razali, a mualaf who helped him in his paddy field and coconut and fish project, assorted Javanese and Boyanese helpers whose names slipped my mind and Ali Oteng*, a Pakistani youth who flattered and sponged gifts off him. 
(By mid 1965, both Sukarno and Macapagal were overthrown by Suharto and Marcos, thus shattering his dream of seeing the formation of Maphilindo (Malaya-Filipina-Indonesia) becoming a reality.  His Indonesian hantus (informants) had also scrambled away from our front yard in their Triumphs and Nortons) 
One day, when Kak Aida was walking to the tailoring shop where she and Mak were employed, she ran into Bapak and Ali Oteng at the Sarbat (a tea joint) in Central.  Ali Oteng showed off his new gold-plated watch to Kak Aida, who left in a huff and reported the incident to Mak.  Mak confronted Bapak when he returned home but he was defensive.  Thumping the glass top coffee table in the hall, he yelled at the top of his voice:
            “I love my son and I love my daughter!  It’s you who turned them against me!  It’s you who made them lose respect for me!”
            “I did not!  It’s you who put other people’s children before your own!  Hatta and Aida have to scrape to make ends meet but you just splurge on a stranger,”  Mak retorted. 
            Bapak raised his hand to hit her but she had scuttled off through the front door.  Bapak darted after and caught her elbow at the veranda.  She struggled free and ran down the stone staircase with him hot at her heels.  By now, Mak Cik Mani and her children had heard the shouts and the scuffle and peered through their kitchen door.  I felt a hot flush on my cheeks and a shiver down my spine when Bapak caught up and pinned Mak’s arms behind her back.  I squeezed my eyes shut, covered my ears and turned away.  I wished that the earth would swallow me or I would be transported elsewhere.  What happened to the father who had hummed to the tune of P. Ramlee’s ‘Tiada Kata Secantik Bahasa’ when he was just released from Outram?  Where was the father who had bought me the big blonde doll that blinked her big blue eyes, the little wooden bedroom set and the little plastic snake in its plastic basket?  Who was this creature?
      My parents had their final showdown at Kaki Bukit when Kak Aida was taken into custody by the Welfare Department after she went missing for a few weeks.
     “You don’t know how to take care of your own daughter!  Now she has smeared charcoal on our faces!"
     “Me?  I had to take care of all the five children on my own!  Where were you?  You only came home when you’re broke!  You might as well not come home at all!”
     “If that’s what you want, then I won’t! I’ll be busy with my fish and coconut project in Johore, anyway!”
      And with that parting shot, he was out of our lives, except for his brief appearance at Kak Aida’s wedding where he had to be the wali to give her away.  After much coaxing over several days, he arrived at the wedding in a faded kain pelikat, a Pagoda singlet with a jacket over it.  A worn outsongkok  rested on his grey hair.  A few months earlier when he heard that we had moved to PJ, he had quietly evicted the tenant of the Rumah Kilat in Datok Keramat and moved in.  Mak countered by asking Mak Fauzi to look for a buyer and completed the sale transactions while he was out. 
A few months later, Yat and I bumped into him at Jalan Rodgers, where he had set up a publishing office, and again at Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman, where he later moved his office.  (By now, he had reconciled himself to the reality of Malaysia and was publishing a magazine to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Merdeka).  He invited us into both his offices, which had an uncanny resemblance to the movie set of Madu Tiga.  The main door led to the narrow aisle with rows of tables for the assistants on the right and on the left behind the wooden doors and partitions were the bosses’ rooms.  Anang, his ‘right-hand man’ who showed us around, could have been the side kick in the movie, and Fatimah, the secretary with the hair sprayed pouf, wide neck transparent blouse, tight shiny sarong with the slit in front and narrow stilettos, could have been a double for the actress who played the role of the second wife.    
We were flabbergasted then to have Fatimah come a knocking at our door one day.  Mak invited her to sit on the single-seater, asked Yat to make tea and serve cream crackers.  Soon, she was in tears, confiding in Mak that the proprietor had seized the office, Bapak and his partners were nowhere to be found and she had not received her wages to even pay for her bus tickets back to her hometown.  Mak wanted to help but she had not received her pay from Rothman’s and the post office was closed that day so she could not cash in the money order from Kak Aida.  A question slipped from her:
“But I heard from Anang that you’ve gone to Hadyaai to marry Aji Din?”
“That’s a lie!  My mother would never allow me to marry an old man!  Plus, I had professionals asking for my hand.”
I was not sure if Mak had given her money for the bus fare home but, after drinking her tea, she was out the door and down the stairs.  The next day, Mak managed to find Anang at his favourite coffee shop in Jalan Masjid India but he swore that he did not lie, that Bapak had indeed married Fatimah in Hadyaai.  It was a shock then to see Bapak at our door a week later.  Mak was sweeping the house, but she must have been rankled by the ultimate deception that she forgot she had the broom in her hand when she chased him away! 
            *  Oteng - I have to dig deeper for the meaning of the word but it must be "good for nothing".

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