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Thursday, December 31, 2009

Cheng & I

It was the year 1973 and I was doing my Form 5. My Dad had arranged for me to take tuition for Mathematics as I was kind of weak in the subject. For a while, I was attending and all was ok. Then I got bored and on certain days, I played truant.

It was during one of those days when I had skipped tuition that I met Cheng at the Butterworth beach at about 7.30 in the evening. This was the beginning of my smoking days and I had gone by the beach area where it was dark and lonely with only courting couples in their cars for company. Cheng was there too. His father runs a sundry shop near my house and I had seen him quite often whenever I went over to buy something but we never got to strike a conversation as he was always busy in the shop. So when I met him tonight, he greeted me as I formally introduced myself. He was doing his Form 5 too but in Penang Island while I was on the mainland. I got to know him a fair bit more but what sealed the relationship was when I noticed that he smoked too. That made 2 of us. While I was just learning the ropes, so to speak, I noticed that he was seasoned. From then on, we met up often and went on to become close buddies. Every time he had some errands to run, he would always pick me up as my house was situated in his “drive path”. In fact during my sister’s wedding that year, he volunteered to drive and came with his family car and spent the entire time with us. The difference in ethnicity didn’t divide us. Far from it, in fact it was not a factor at all in the 70s. Together we joined the Bahai centre and used to attend prayer sessions. And those days, I would always claim that I was a Christian. I don’t know why but I never said that I was a Hindu. It was probably because I had so many Christian friends then…Raymond…. Andrew….. Victor ….. Ruban…..and many more. In fact, I had a Christian name too. I used to call myself John. That was until my sister pointed out one day that we had had a dog named ‘John’ in the house when I was a kid. Then I dropped it and changed my name to Steven for a while.

In this Bahai group, we would sometimes visit fellow Bahais in neighbouring towns. I remember those days when I mentioned that I was a Christian to anyone, their first reaction would be “ Ohhh…….so which church do you go to? And my standard answer had always been “There’s one near my school”. It was only much later that I learnt that the answer should have been either “Roman Catholic” or “Protestant” or one of those! Until today when I think of it, I feel stupid! Wonder what would have run through their minds!

Cheng featured prominently in my life then. He loved Hindi movies and Hindi songs. There had been many occasions when we went for movies together. In fact, I went for Bombay to Goa, my first Amitabh movie with him. His performance was impressive to say the least. Throughout the movie I was wondering who this new hero was as until then it had been Rajesh Khanna who was creating the waves. We now know how all that changed after Amitabh entered the movie scene.

Once he showed me a book titled ‘Hindi in 30 days’ that he was reading. I’m not sure if he made any gains by reading it but later in life after I had started working in KL, he went to Rajasthan in India to pursue a course in Agriculture.

I last met him in 1985 when he returned to Butterworth for a short break. He was working as a Planter in some plantation in Sabah then. We spent quite some time together to the extent that once when I went to visit him, I heard his mum telling him in Hokkien not to follow me out if I asked him to, while in the next breath, greeting me in Malay. I marveled at the level of hypocrisy that some people have but in retrospect, it was perhaps the family had wanted to spend more time with him and I happen to be depriving them of it. It was during this time that technology gradually advanced many fold……unnoticed (to me at least)! I realized one day a few months ago that the world has actually shrunk and distance was not a barrier anymore in communication. With that in mind, my wife and I made a trip to the old sundry shop in Butterworth where Cheng’s parents lived with the hope that I can revive the channels of communications with him. I was pleasantly surprised when his brother, mum and his dad could still recognize me as they welcomed me by my home name (Ravi). They were extremely delighted to see me. After a short tete-a-tete, I got Cheng’s phone number in Sabah and left, assuring them that I will drop in again.

I spoke to Cheng last night and he was indeed surprised to hear my voice. We spoke a lot of our present as well as our old times. I realize that a lot of water has flowed under the bridge since we last met but it is never too late to revive the relationship. He had been a part of my life at a certain point in time and it had been impactful. I could very nearly “smell” his love and sincerity when he started enquiring of my family. He has promised to visit his parents during the next Chinese New Year. I am looking forward to catching up with this dear friend of mine whom I have not seen for 24 years!

(FYI, in spite of playing truant, it may interest you to note that I still managed a strong credit in my Maths).

Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Singh is King (continued)

(Click on image for enlarged view).
This is the picture taken with Murali during the trip to PD. Managed to retrieve it from an old album of mine. I’m seated in back row, third from left (or third from right, whichever you prefer). Murali is the one seated in front of me in blue T shirt wearing watch on right hand. The others in the picture are all his friends but I have no clue if he kept in touch with them.

I recently recalled an incident that took place in the 70s. My classmate Jalil was a Police Inspector whom Murali had also met before. One day Jalil had gone to Brickfields to do some chores when from a distance, Murali had seen him parking his car. He approached Jalil and had struck up a conversation in full view of his friends, not so much as to build on the relationship with Jalil but more to impress his friends that he had police connections since Jalil was on duty and in full uniform on that day. However the plot backfired! Jalil saw through his intentions when he noticed his friends watching him and without warning, quickly handcuffed him to the steering wheel and left him there while he went about his chores returning only after a good half an hour or so. It was a real embarrassment for Murali that he had least expected. Later that weekend when Jalil dropped by at Happy Mansions and related the incident to us, we all had a good laugh.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Happy Birthday Praveena

No…this is not my grand-daughter Kalavitha although she looks very much like her. This is a picture of my daughter as a child. I am reproducing it here because today happens to be Ms. Big Eyes’ 27th birthday and as much as I love my grand-daughter, I love my daughter too.

Happy Birthday Praveena!

Publicity & Fame

(Picture shows Mr. Bhagwan Das (left) handing me the track-suits).

It is always nice to be ‘featured’ in a local daily or to appear on TV….for the right reasons of course You get a sense of pride especially when you are young and just about coming into the real world. It creates a false sense of achievement and you tend to believe that the whole world would have seen it…..and it kind of makes you feel all the more so important…… least that’s what it did to me. I had often been full of admiration and envy when I used to see my friend Imbaraj being featured ever so often in the papers but then he was a Penang State badminton player and back in the early 70s, he was the player to watch, so said a leading English daily. He earned those accolades and rightly deserved to be featured. But I wasn’t much of a sports person so I couldn’t even imagine being focused on for such reasons, or for any other reason whatsoever for that matter.

So in 1982, when my photograph appeared for the very first time in the Malay Mail, pictured receiving some goodies on behalf of my employers, from the proprietor of Ashrock Sportswear for the Malay Mail Big Walk, I was ecstatic. I remember getting hold of about 5 or 6 copies of the newspapers that day just so that I can cut out the article and post it to my nephews and niece back north and to show my family and friends, just in case they missed it. I couldn’t afford to allow them to miss it as it was not often that your picture gets to appear in the newspapers. The joy lasted a long time.

The other occasion was when I appeared together with Datuk Mahalingam (now Tan Sri) on National TV and that too, on primetime news. And it was big news back in Kulim where I lived then. As a Deputy Minister, Datuk Mahalingam was visiting the factory that I worked in and I was tasked with showing him around the plant. The next evening, the snippet appeared in the news segment. For the next couple of days, I remember being inundated with calls to the house as well as to the office, from friends and relatives alike asking if it was indeed me with the Minister as if it was the greatest thing that could happen to a person. But this was way back in 1993… a God forsaken laid back town up-country in a suburban part of under developed Kedah that I used to call home but from where I have since vacated and have no regrets for having done so, except for some fond memories of my childhood since ironically it was here, amidst the remoteness that I was born!

So you cannot really blame me for craving for such publicity, can you?

Monday, December 21, 2009

Singh is King!

This photograph of Murali and I was taken on 27th November 2009 during Rashna’s wedding. Attired in full Punjabi 'regalia', I was just flattering him that he looked very much like a typical Punjabi when another fellow Punjabi couple walked in and greeted him, enquiring in Punjabi on the whereabouts of the wedding ceremony. Murali had to apologize that he was not one of them but that he was from the groom’s side. Taken aback and probably feeling slightly embarrassed, they then spoke in English and we guided them in to the adjoining hall where the ceremony was taking place.

Murali and I go back a long way. I have known him since I was about 18. Being Imbaraj’s cousin, it was easier to break the ice. When I was working in KL in the
70’s, he was still studying at FIT and used to call himself Don Raj, the “Don” adopted perhaps from the Globe Silk Store’s house brand as he was fond of wearing their clothes. It was one of the more stylish brands those days that didn’t leave a hole in your pocket. Word has it that on one occasion his father had gone to his college looking for him but when he asked around, no one seemed to know him until some college-mates advised his father to ask for “Don Raj” to make any headway! Boy…….! Was he furious!

Sometimes on weekends he’d drop by at Happy Mansions in Section 17 where I stayed with Sargu. And when he does, we used to chat for hours on end. I can still remember one particular Saturday afternoon when I had just returned from work and I noticed that he appeared troubled. He explained that he had been tasked with chartering a bus for a trip to PD that weekend with his school friends but in spite of trying everywhere, he had been unsuccessful. He appeared totally lost not knowing what to do next. I immediately swung into action and together, we approached a school bus driver from the nearby flats who was willing to oblige, albeit not before some tedious and tactical negotiations. What a relieve it was for him. So the next morning I joined in the trip together with the rest of his college-mates. And we had some good fun.

Later in life, in 1988 when I took up appointment in Alor Setar, he was kind enough to offer me board and lodging at no cost at all, allowing me the exclusive use of an air-conditioned room with attached bathroom. Truly speaking, it was luxury living then, so to speak. An incident I cannot forget was when on one occasion, he had forgotten to take his house keys when he went out and I had slept off by 10 that night. When he returned close to midnight, he approached the window to my room and called out my name. Unable to recognize his voice in my half dazed state, I asked him who it was and he answered “Thief! Thief! I opened the door for him and we had a good laugh.

There was another instance when I was forced to drive back all the way from Gurun to Alor Setar with a flat tyre. I had had a puncture on my right rear tyre when I passed the toll in Gurun. No sooner had I replaced with my spare tyre to continue my journey when to my utter disbelief, the spare went flat too. My choice was either to wait for a tow-truck or to continue driving with a flat tyre. I decided on the latter. By the time I reached my Taman in Alor Setar where I stayed, the rubber from the tyre had all been shredded and had fallen off and I was driving on just the rim; the grinding noise was so loud that the neighbours' children actually came out of their houses curious to find the source. But before I woke up the next morning, Murali had already replaced the tyre. That's how efficient he is when it comes to obliging friends.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Passage of Time

These are pictures taken with my brother Ashok who lives in Butterworth. One was taken in November 1976 while the other was in October 2009, 33 years later. I wouldn't refer to the changes in our features as transformation....more so they are the damages caused to the human body due to the realities of life as we traversed through the passage of time! (Notice the bell-bottoms. It was the fashion of the day then. You could even attach stilts to your shoes to appear taller and no one would have noticed).

As we pass through this life
At an early stage we often wonder
If the world will be what
We perceive it to be

As we grow older
We change those perceptions
But the world stays
As true as it ought to be

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

When time stood still....!

It was the year 2003 and I had been working in KL for about 2 years then. I had left my family behind in Ipoh though preferring to travel back to be with them every weekend. And I always took the bus back as it was too tiring to drive. I didn’t like the fast paced life in KL and didn’t want my family to endure the challenges that came with living life on the fast lane in the city. Ipoh was a total contrast compared to KL, with idyllic settings and a place where you dictate the pace of events. I looked forward to each weekend to spend with my family and always went back after a good rest feeling rejuvenated. I dreaded every moment that I had to be in KL feeling lonely and ……..depressed even. But I was left without much of a choice as I had to fend for me and my family and the job paid well, though I wouldn’t say much about the working conditions then. For a start I was branded anti-establishment for championing employee rights. Actually I wasn’t…..I was just ensuring that employees’ were not bullied for their ignorance which was rampant in the plant. My employers were also violating local statutes at every turn and I took it upon myself to right the wrongs regardless of the dip in my popularity with the management. I was here for a purpose and surely not for any popularity contest. When I decided to travel the path of righteousness, I threw caution to the wind with little regard to consequences or personal glory. But I must admit, it was indeed stressful. Added to my dilemma was having to juggle my life shuttling between Ipoh and KL. (It may be comforting to note that I have since succeeded in most of my initiatives).

It was on the 13th of May 2003 that the stress took a nasty toll on my health. I suffered my first heart attack and was warded at Ipoh Specialist where I got the angioplasty done. I remained warded for about 5 more days before being discharged with a month of medical leave. Frankly, it was a good break and a much deserved one at that. After I returned to work, I stayed with my sister in Klang for a while before returning to my rented apartment near my workplace. And the boredom returned……..!

One Saturday afternoon not long after I had returned to work, I was as usual at Pudu Raya waiting to catch the Express bus to Ipoh. I had felt alright the whole time and didn’t suspect anything amiss about me. I reached the platform and was waiting at the place where the bus was supposed to arrive. All of a sudden I felt dizzy and I could see the world spinning around me. Before I could find something to hold on to, I fell flat on my back and took a hard knock to my head in the process! I must have remained there for a good minute or two before 2 good Samaritans splashed cold water on my face and helped me up. I was still in a state of daze as they pulled me up and made me sit up along the pavement. After I regained consciousness and my composure, I continued with my journey back home.

I can only remember the 2 guys’ faces vaguely now as soon after they made me comfortable they disappeared in the maddening Saturday afternoon crowd perhaps to catch their own transport back to their home-state. But what I do know is that one of them was a Malay gentleman while the other was an Indian, both were in their late 20s or early 30s. From the innermost depths of my heart, thank you gentleman wherever you may be!

I was later to learn that the cause of my blackout was that at that precise moment, for some strange reason, my heart had actually stopped beating! But the impact of the fall had helped to revive the heartbeat and resuscitate me. God works in mysterious way…..? Indeed He does!

I have not suffered any more of such bouts after that one freakish incident…………… and I hope it stays that way for some time to come.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Catching up.......!

(From left to right: Sethu, Aravind, Ragu & Jeevan)

Jeevan had been the catalyst for this whole reunion thingy. He had been in the US since the 90s and had returned after a lapse of 12 years. I suppose he had been the live wire among his cousins for them to organize this gathering. He was in the same age group as my nephews but I had the opportunity to play host to him once or twice in the early 90s when I was in Kulim and he would drop by often to visit my nephew. I had wanted to visit him for the past 2 weeks but somehow I just couldn’t find the time. I had been told that he was on a short visit but when I heard that he was due to return the next morning, I realized how fast time flies. It was an anti-climax of sorts when he came up to greet me; I couldn’t quite place him. For one, he spotted the bald look now and he has grown taller too with a much more robust figure then 20 years ago. I felt a little embarrassed at not being able to recognize him initially. We spoke of his younger days and his jaunts for a while.

His uncle Ragu who had recently returned from Australia that he now calls home, was also there. I’m not too sure what the trick is but he looks exactly how he was the last time I saw him in 1982. Could it be the not so punishing climate there…….I wonder? Surprisingly, he doesn’t appear to have aged one bit. Having lived down under for such a long time, I would have expected him to speak with the now all too familiar Aussie slang but no……he doesn’t have that either. Understandably, his kids speak that way having been raised in the foreign land for most of their lives but not him. He is still as modest as he was when he lived here and has not adopted any of those objectionable and sometimes even annoying traits or characteristics whatsoever. What a relieve! We spoke at length of our present and even had time to catch up with some of our past, promising to meet up again sometime soon.

Sethu was the other person I caught up with during the party. No…he is not from overseas. He lives in KL and we have known each other since I was 14. I tried many a time to meet up with him but somehow we couldn’t. On each of the occasions when I tried on almost all my visits to JB where he was working in the 90s, he had been busy and unable to make it. Being 3 years older to me, I learnt a lot about the birds and the bees during my transition to adulthood. He just about knew of all those things and I used to hang around with him often, once personally becoming a witness to his exploits or escapade. But we owe no one any apology as we were young then and ………….being young I suppose entitled us to be experimental. How else are we to learn or for that matter even grow, in the truest sense of the word? It had been 28 years since I last met him. He had lost much of his boyish looks and now projects an intellectual appearance with gold-rimmed glasses to match. We caught up with some old stories over a couple of pegs. Although the session was tempting, I couldn’t stay longer and left by 11 that night as I was working the next morning.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Only Family Photo

On the left in order of height are Praba (eldest brother), Ashok (second), and me. On the right are Susilah (eldest sister), Sumathi (second) and Vanaja (third). Parents are seated. Dad (Velayuthum s/o Unneroo) is 1st generation Keralite but Mum (Leela d/o Kunjambu) was born here in then Malaya, making her 2nd generation. Her parents were from India though.

This family photograph was taken circa 1959 when I was about 2 years old. It’s the only one taken with my whole family. Fate and circumstances would dictate events from then on to ensure that we never get to take another group photograph together with the whole family again……. ever! I managed to retrieve what’s probably the last remaining copy from my sister Sumathi in Klang when I visited her over the weekend. It is being posted here for the benefit of my future generations who might be interested in unearthing their ancestral roots......that is, if the world doesn't end on 21-12-2012!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Our Paths Crossed...!

It was the CNY holidays in 1980 and I had planned an outing with Imbaraj and Shareen, my new friend. Shareen came into my life in the first week that I got transferred to Seremban when I was attached to Rothmans. She was introduced to me by another friend whom I had also just befriended. They worked in United Oriental Assurance that was located just above Pearls Restaurant along Birch Road that I used to frequent for my regular pints. I remember we hit it off from our first meeting and soon after she had asked if I could chaperone her to her office dinner that weekend in KL to which I readily agreed. We became close friends from then on. It was unfortunate that I had to make it clear that there were to be no strings attached in the relationship as I was already committed to my girlfriend from Ipoh then (now my wife). It was a perfect arrangement for us as being a Punjabi, it would have been difficult to make any headway although in retrospect, I realise I later went on to be well received by her family as well. She was an interesting character and being a good conversationalist, she made an excellent companion to me since I socialized on most evenings. Petite and pretty, she could get along well with all my friends and would often join me during my drinking sprees, soon becoming my drinking partner as well. Although she drank and smoked, she always carried herself with grace and etiquette. The Bhais in town would always stare whenever they saw us together but I couldn’t care less for them and was never at anytime intimidated.

Back to the main story, my boss had other plans. He insisted that the non-Chinese staff had to continue working to help service outlets as stocks were expected to be depleted during the long CNY holidays that fell just before a weekend. I was fuming when I heard this as I had already made plans to go on a holiday. Back then, I was a bit rebellious and kind of anti-management most of the time, especially when certain decisions didn’t favour me. Realising the hopelessness of the situation, I went about working around it for a solution and eventually got one of my distributor’s Malay salesman to cancel his leave and stand in for me to do my tidings during the shut-down. With that, Imbaraj, Shareen and I went off to Cameron Highlands for a 2 night 3 day trip.

Leaving Seremban early on the 1st day, we reached Camerons by lunch and checked into the Rose Garden Hotel. It was a decent 3 star hotel where I had often stayed when I was based at Ipoh previously. Most of the time that we stayed there was spent either chatting, playing tennis, swimming in a small waterfall deep inside the jungle or just drinking away in the room while playing cards. The weather was extremely cold then unlike how it is these days. It was fun….just the 3 of us. After having a good time, we left Camerons on the 3rd day making our way down the winding road to Tapah from where instead of heading back South, we decided to drive to Ipoh to visit my future in-laws who lived there. It had been some time since I last met them and I was eager to see my girl-friend anyway, even if only for a while. The traffic from the opposite direction was heavy with the holiday crowd returning after the long CNY break. I had hardly travelled about 1 km after turning towards Ipoh from the junction of the Camerons road when I noticed what looked like my boss’ car on the opposite direction heading back towards KL. By the time I got a closer look, it was too late! It was indeed my Area Manager who recognized me at once as we were driving branded cars then with mine having the Rothmans insignia all over. At that exact moment, my heart sank as I was supposed to be working on that day back in Seremban. Pretending that everything was normal, I just waved at him nonchalantly and continued my journey. But deep within me, I knew the trouble I had got into! On the way to Ipoh we stopped by at Malim Nawar to pick up Regu, another relative of mine. Regu was related to me after my sister married into his family. I was about 12 when I first met him and since we fell within the same age bracket, we became good friends.

My in-laws were of course happy to see us; and so was my girlfriend. After spending about an hour or so, we bid them farewell and adjourned to a nearby pub for our regular shots. Half way through our session, we realized that Regu had been competing with Shareen with the beers little realizing that she actually drank like a goldfish and could still hold her drinks! But it was a little too late when we realized it….Regu was already on the brink of intoxication!. It was about 11pm then and our plans was to drive back the same night as I had to return to work the next day, since my boss had already seen me earlier in the day. Imbaraj and Shareen however were still on leave though. Not knowing what to do, we decided that we will send Regu back to Malim Nawar on our way back. These were the days when we didn’t have the Plus highway and had to make do with the old trunk road.

Upon reaching his house, we noticed that everyone had already slept. Regu was by now completely knocked out! Assessing the situation, I carried him and put him over my shoulders and knocked on the door. I felt a lot of guilt doing this but I had no choice at that moment as I had to return back. His brother opened the door expressing shock and outrage seeing him in a drunken stupor. I carried him inside and placed him on the couch, apologetically explaining that he had had a bit too much to drink………. and hurriedly left the place.

I drove all the way reaching Seremban at about 3 or 4am, sleeping only for the next 3 hours or so after that before getting up to report to work. At about 10am that morning, a warning letter from my boss came through the telex machine for "dereliction of duties".

Since then, Imbaraj and I continued to keep in touch but Regu migrated to New Zealand sometime in the early 80s from where I later learnt that he moved to Australia where he has since settled down. I received a call from him last week saying that he was down in Malaysia visiting his folks. We re-lived some of the moments that we spent together in our younger days promising to meet up sometime soon. I am excited and looking forward to seeing him again after all these years.... I wonder what has changed....!

As for Shareen, after I got married in 1981, she went on to continue her tertiary education and soon after, settled down with one of her college heart-throb. She is now a full fledged lawyer and lives with her husband and son in Subang Jaya…….but that was in 1998 when I last bumped into her. Our paths have not crossed after that meeting and I have lost all forms of contact with this dear friend of mine.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Stage experience

The 1st time I went up on stage was when I was 13. It was a school concert in St. Patricks, Kulim and I went up to render a Hindi number from the movie Humraaz. My classmates liked it and I felt thrilled after that……and proud too. I realized that I liked being in the lime-light and was not afraid of crowds. When I was 14, I won the school elocution contest, beating even the 5th Formers. I represented the school debating team as their 1st Speaker while still in Form 3. Then I moved to BM High School where the Debating Society was not active. I tried reviving it by speaking to the seniors but no one showed any interest. They just held regular meetings with little follow up. We only had inter-class debates and I was placed as the 3rd Speaker. The famous sixth former MPL Vengadasalam used to be the 1st. Thereafter I was selected to represent the class once while doing my Form 6 in JB.

I realised that I had a penchant for such pursuits......a kind of a passion even. I thrived in such matters. I was not loud but controlled and I knew exactly when to pause and when to thunder. Breathing techniques helped me do that. And the crowd loved it. Their constant applause sometimes didn’t give me enough time to present my whole text. The times I checked back with the judges to see how I scored, I found that I was always the highest scorer in style and delivery. All these public speaking helped me in my career. I remember when I was in Rothmans I was asked to give an impromptu speech in front of all the trainees in my batch as well as the sales force…about 200 of them. And my bosses were impressed. They admitted that they had underestimated me. Another time was when I was in NST and it was my turn to do a presentation in front of the whole marketing team. Once again I did extremely well. From then on, I was ‘noticed’ by the top guns, so to speak.

There was an incident once in Ipoh when I was with RCI, a manufacturer of white cement. The company was bought over by a Danish firm and as the HR Manager, I was appointed as the MC during the signing ceremony. My new bosses had actually thought that I was an external professional. The new Chairman of the company approached me later and congratulated me for a job well done. During dinner that night, I was quietly piling my plate with some bites, intending to sneak away to some obscure corner to enjoy my beers when the same Chairman sought me out and made sure I sat beside him throughout the night. The GM (Chinaman), with whom I had had a fallout then, was not too happy about it. I further rubbed it in by engaging the Chairman in a lengthy conversation, completely sidelining the GM in the process. I was really elated to see the reaction on his face…….it made my day.

While working in Kedah, I used to organize their annual dinners and as usual I was the MC. I remember once when I organized the whole function for the 1200 employees single handedly! The MD was all praise for a job well done as we had 100 % attendance, excluding gate-crashing by ex-employees. What I had done was unconventional. It was a habit of these multinationals in Kulim to hold their annual dinners at some posh hotel in Penang. They would then ferry their workers to the venue and return after the function late at night. But the next day would be a working day. So usually many employees kept away from attending resulting in only about 60% attendance. When I took over, I changed all that, preferring to do it right adjacent to the factory itself where we had a large piece of empty land. I transformed the whole place into a carnival atmosphere. Leveled the ground and put up a large tent to sit 1200 people. I lit up the whole area and put up a huge stage. I engaged 2 live bands; one to play English and Malay numbers and the other for Tamil and Hindi selection. It went well with the crowd. And I had also slotted in employee performance ……..singing, dancing etc. The crowd just loved it. At the end of the day, I saved about 50 % of the cost as compared to previous years. For my efforts, I was selected as the Best Employee of the year, earning a promotion along the way.

In spite of all these experience behind me, I still have butterflies in my stomach before I take to the stage. I am not sure of the others but I still feel a little nervous before I step onto the stage. No one notices it as outwardly I strike a confident pose. But once I start, then I’m in control. Thereafter the feeling just wanes away. So it was no different when I addressed the crowd last Saturday during Rashnaraj’s (Sargu’s son) wedding dinner. It was a massive crowd and the drinks were free flowing. I volunteered the arduous task of subduing them and bringing them to focus in the 3 or 4 minutes of my opening address before I hand over the mike to Theishini (Imbaraj’s daughter). And from the accolades that I received after I stepped down, especially from Dato Kanda who is generally a man of few words, I realize I must have done fairly well. Even my wife and kids couldn't hide their approval over my performance. This was also Theishini’s debut exposure in front of such a huge crowd but she did well. I’m quite certain that she would have had butterflies in her stomach too before taking the mike. No one noticed though……as she bottled up all signs of stage fright and went about her job like a pro.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Wonder of Life

(I couldnt have written it better)
I would never trade my amazing friends, my wonderful life, my loving family for less gray hair or a flatter belly. As I've aged, I've become kinder to myself, and less critical of myself. I've become my own friend. I don't chide myself for eating that extra cookie, or for not making my bed, or for buying that silly cement gecko that I didn't need, but looks so avante garde on my patio. I am entitled to a treat, to be messy, to be extravagant.

I have seen too many dear friends leave this world too soon; before they understood the great freedom that comes with aging.

Whose business is it if I choose to read or play on the computer until 4.00 am and sleep till noon? I will dance with myself to those wonderful tunes of the 60s & 70s, and if I, at the same time, wish to weep over a lost love ... I will.

I will walk on the beach in a swim-suit that is stretched over a bulging body, and will dive into the waves with abandon if I choose to, despite the pitying glances from the crowd around.

They, too, will get old....
I know I am sometimes forgetful.
But then again, some of life is just as well forgotten....and I eventually will remember only the ones that matter.

Sure, over the years my heart has been broken. How can your heart not break when you lose a loved one, or when a child suffers, or even when somebody's beloved pet gets hit by a car? But broken hearts are what give us strength and understanding and compassion. A heart never broken is pristine and sterile and will never know the joy of being imperfect.

I am so blessed to have lived long enough to have my hair turning gray, and to have my youthful laughs be forever etched into deep grooves on my face.....
So many have never laughed, and so many have died before their hair could turn silver.

As you get older, it is easier to be positive. You care less about what other people think. I don't question myself anymore.
I've even earned the right to be wrong.

I like being old. It has set me free. I like the person I have become. I am not going to live forever, but while I am still here, I will not waste time lamenting what could have been, or worrying about what will be.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Happy Anniversary Darling!

14th November came and went. Like in all years, it came this year too……and went…..just like that. It would have remained inconspicuous as in most of those previous years if not for the event that took place on that fateful date some 28 years ago. I didn’t think that I should upgrade the day and accord it “celebration status” thereby creating a cause-célèbre situation of sorts this time around. After all we already have so many other functions to celebrate all year round so I didn’t think anyone would mind if I didn’t upgrade the occasion. I failed to realize the good tidings that this date had brought with it into my life. I mean, I knew it but probably had been a little careless not to have accorded it the recognition it deserved. I thought being together on the day would have been thoughtful enough………!

But no, it was not enough! So says my wife! And rightly so too! She pointed out that it’s a day to be remembered and celebrated for the rest of our lives. How come it didn’t cross my mind all these while, I wonder. It is not that it wasn’t important. In fact it was….and to a large extent, it still is. And will be….. forever. It ought to be anyway. And no!..... I didn’t forget the day. Just that I didn’t think it was a day that should be openly declared as a significant milestone in my life. How wrong of me!

Happy Anniversary Darling! Thank you for all the good things that have happened since we tied the nuptial knot. We will spend next year in Bali together….that’s a promise.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Cop and The Judge

(This story is inspired by actual events. Names of the main characters however have either been changed or intentionally omitted so as to maintain anonymity due to the sensitivities and protocol involved).

One of my functions as a HR Officer in the company that I worked for in Kulim way back in 1993 was to ensure that the caterers we hire for the factory canteen meet the standards set by the company. There were 2 canteens, one was manned by a Malay caterer and the other had recently fell vacant when the previous caterer, an Indian, absconded. We had to urgently appoint another suitable person as we had to cater to over 1200 employees, half of whom were Indians. This was when Raja (not his real name) walked into my life. He had heard of our search for a suitable canteen operator in the grape vine and approached me to voice his interest in the business. After the usual process of screening, he was successfully appointed.

Raja was a Police Inspector who had recently been indicted and suspended from duty for abuse of authority and there was an on-going court case looming over his head. He made quite an impression with me on the first day that I met him. I was impressed with a certain style that he had and the way he carried himself. Importantly, our chemistry matched in more ways than one. Within a short period of time, we managed to forge a close relationship that many in the plant were envious of, including my boss. But there was nothing ulterior in the friendship and I certainly didn’t extend him any favouritism or grant him any special favours. He still had to comply with the requirements of the company especially in the pricing of the food in the canteen. After about a year or so, one day during our usual tete-a-tete session over some beers, he confided in me of his anxiety over the outcome of his court case that was nearing completion and that if he were to be convicted, it would mean having to give up the business as the offence attracted a mandatory prison sentence. He indicated that he was unsure of what the verdict was going to be as there had been compelling evidence from witnesses who had testified against him.

On the penultimate day of his case in Butterworth Sessions Court, I decided to take a day off to attend the hearing. There were not many people there on that day, just a handful of relatives who had come to give him moral support. The hearing itself was boring and slow with the judge writing down every sentence that was spoken as is the standard practice in courts. I sat quietly in the gallery listening to the proceedings when after a while it struck me that the judge looked familiar. After taking a good hard look at him, it dawned on me that this judge who was presiding over my friend’s case happened to be my housemate in Bangsar when I was working in KL about 12 years back in 1981!

After I got married that year, I had moved out and that was the last I heard of him. Moreover my roommate then by the name of P.K. Ramani who was close to this judge had emigrated to US in the same year so I had failed to keep in touch with the group. (Incidentally P.K.Ramani now heads a large conglomerate in New York where he has since settled down. Forbes magazine lists him as a much sought-after corporate executive in US. His story will be told another day). Added to this was the fact that I had got married and I had my wife for companionship; so everything and everyone else became secondary and kind of unimportant in my life at that point in time. When the excitement of having recognized him slowly tapered, I had mixed feelings at the thought that I never kept in touch with him after our Bangsar days when he was a DPP and later went on to become a magistrate. Even then I knew him as a balanced and industrious person; so his elevation as a judge now came as no surprise to me. It was close to 1 pm when he adjourned the case and exited into his chambers.

I came out of the court room and decided for once that I will have to say hello to this old friend of mine, if only to rekindle old memories. He was just removing his robe as I knocked on the door and entered his chambers. As I grinned from ear to ear, I greeted him saying “Selamat Petang Tuan Hakim”. When he reciprocated with a blank look, I continued “Tuan Hakim tak kenal saya lagi Tuan?” He gazed at me trying to figure out who I was or where he had met me as I walked closer. It had been such a long time since we last met. Then after a good minute or so, he blurted out “Hey Ravi! What are you doing here?”

I was happy he could place me after all these years. “I live in Kulim now Tuan” I said to which he asked almost immediately, with a smirk on his face, “Ok….so you live in Kulim now….but what brings you to MY court?” he demanded.

“Tuan, the guy who is on trial happens to be a good friend of mine” I explained, nevertheless trying to camouflage my discomfort at the statement. Wiping away his initial surprised reaction, we switched topics and discussed on our other common friends, ‘exchanging notes’ on their whereabouts and went on chatting away for a good 20 minutes or so during which time he had already asked me to drop the formality and to address him by his name. I had however exercised extreme restraint by avoiding any comments on the on-going court case. I didn’t think it was right or proper to go into the merits or mechanics of the case and thereby risk being cited for contempt for infringing into his jurisdiction or jurisprudence. After promising to meet up again soon, I shook hands with him and left.

Then a few days later was the day of reckoning. It was judgment day. I rose early that morning so I could get a place in the gallery. Some relatives of Raja had come ready with the cash in case it was necessary to raise the bail money. After a while the judge entered and after adjusting himself comfortably in his seat, started reading out his findings. After about an hour of pin drop silence in the packed courtroom, the crowd broke out in loud applause when he finally announced that “dengan ini saya perintah bahawa En. Raja dibebaskan!” From where I was seated I could see him in astonished disbelief! It took him a while to digest the reality of the situation. His legs actually failed him for a moment as he took his first step to hug his solicitors. Regaining his balance, he smiled to his host of friends and relatives who were all equally overjoyed as he walked out of the courtroom a free man, wiping away the tears rolling down as the hitherto enthralled crowd made way for him. Well wishes hijacked his attention thereafter.

After the standard formalities, Raja was fully reinstated in the police force without loss in salaries or seniority and since then has gone on to earn 3 more promotions along the way. He now serves in East Malaysia as a DSP. We still keep in touch.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Kerala beckons...!

This is an old photograph that I retrieved from my Dad’s belongings. He had been holding on dearly to it together with a few more since I was a kid. The people in the picture must be all old by now and the older ones may have probably passed away. I have no idea who they are except that they are all my paternal relatives from India whom I have never met before but who I hope to meet up soon when I visit Kerala.

All these years, I knew that I had paternal relatives in India since Dad originated from there. There is not a soul in Malaysia (other than from my Mum’s side). My sisters had been in touch with them and had even visited them a couple of times but not me. I knew all along that they were there but somehow I didn’t follow up on the lead. My Dad was eldest in a family of 5 consisting of 3 sisters and a youngest brother. They have all passed away now though. And I do know now that I have a host of uncles, aunties, cousins, nephews and nieces there. I am not too sure of their feelings towards me but I am basically all excited and looking forward to the day when I get to meet them in person. I cannot understand why this eagerness was not in me while Dad was alive. I suppose everything was taken for granted then and you tend not to give much thought to those you have not met. But it’s different now that Dad is no more. You want his memories to remain and what better way to relive those moments than being with his own people.

I cannot quite describe the feeling that I felt when I made that call to India 2 days back……to my cousin in Mumbai. First his son Rajan answered (my nephew). Then I got to speak to Mr. Raman, my paternal cousin brother. I didn’t know where to start or what to ask so I just spoke generally for a while and hung up, after getting his son’s email address so that I can communicate more often. But after I hung up, a lot of thoughts raced through my mind…….for one, I felt disturbed that I had neglected them for so long and failed to establish any meaningful relationship. I felt closeness in the connection…. something that I had not felt before……and a lot of guilt too….!

But why…? I don’t have the answers to the question. I suppose it’s the need to trigger back Dad’s memories and allow it to linger on……!

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Man in White

Back in 1980, Seremban was a sleepy hollow. There was zero development then, no Seremban 2………. or Seremban 3 or whatever. It was just that…….a sleepy hollow. I was based here, having been transferred to serve here after a one year stint in Ipoh where I worked for a cigarette company. I didn’t have any friends in Seremban then except my classmate Raymond who had moved here with his family. So when I got news that I was to be moved out of Ipoh, I called him and told him when exactly to expect me. This was the handphone-less era; so you have to make do with public phones or telegrams well in advance. He was waiting when I reached his house on the predetermined date and I went on to stay at his place until I managed to find accommodation elsewhere after a couple of months.

There were no decent drinking holes here in Seremban except for a couple of Chinese joints that I was not particularly keen on. I loved the ones with western décor. They were more appealing to me. And I also detested loud music as well as those outlets that use women to lure in their customers. All these were unimportant. I preferred the ones that played soft sentimental music in the background, with a conducive and pleasant ambience where I could spend a couple of hours downing my favourite brew. There were many of such joints in PJ and KL but not in Seremban..

So on most weekends, I’ll just take a drive in my company car to PJ for my pints. The Seremban-KL highway was convenient. It had just been completed and commissioned then and tolls had not been imposed as yet. It used to take me only 30 minutes to reach Jalan Gasing in PJ to my favourite getaway called Woodlands, managed by one Mr. Bala. I’d usually go alone, sometimes with Raymond. At other times, Shereen my new found good friend will be in tow. Otherwise I’m usually alone. I’d have some nice beers up until they close the pub and drive back after that, the return journey lasting even lesser than 30 minutes. This was routine and the regulars at Woodlands know that. Bala, who sometimes joined me for a drink, had often advised me not to drive back after the binge……but I wouldn’t listen. I always drove back.

During one of those days when I was returning well past midnight, as I entered the Seremban exit from the highway and was headed towards the town, I noticed a white figure, waiting at the junction, waving at me to stop! The exit was not like how it is today. There was no toll to start with; so once you reach the point along the KL-Seremban highway where it shows ‘Seremban exit’, you just drive out of the highway and head towards the town that was located about 3 or 4 km away, lined all the way with rubber trees.

For a moment, I was stunned cold! I revved up and disappeared from the scene as fast as I could, not even looking into my rear view mirror. The next day, I discussed this with some colleagues but no one seemed to have had any similar experience so I left it at that and went about my life. After this incident, on another night when I was returning from my drinking spree in PJ, I saw this figure along the exit again. This time I noticed clearly that it actually seemed to be smiling at me, waving at me to stop! Cold sweat gushed down as once again I sped away! Thereafter, for a while, I took the old road back to Seremban to avoid the bizarre encounter.

A couple of months later, one day I had had one too many and summoning up as much courage as my youthful spirit allowed (pardon the pun), I decided that I’d return via the Seremban highway again. I was still fully conscious of what to expect as I got off at the highway. I looked at the clock on my dashboard and noticed that it was well past midnight! As I made that dreaded final turn, sure enough there was this same figure in white waving at me. This time, in my state of inebriation, I threw caution to the wind and decided that I will stop to check and “shame the devil” in the process (pardon the pun again). I was sick of this constant harassment! I screeched to a halt and looked in the rear view mirror. The angle at which the car came to a stop didn’t allow me a good view of its legs to see if it was floating towards me or was in fact walking, since they say spirits don’t have legs, but I noticed that it was fast approaching me. At that second, I was terrified and froze! Realizing the foolhardiness of my decision, I slammed down the accelerator but……….Holy cow! The bloody car wouldn’t move! It was then that I noticed the engine had died. The timing had been giving me problems for sometime now but “what a time to die off on me” I cursed. Just as I attempted to turn the key to the ignition again, the figure had reached the side of the passenger door and was tapping on the window gesturing for me to wind down. I pretended not to notice and ignored it when all of a sudden, it opened the door! I shut my eyes tight as my heart missed a few beats, holding my breath……overcome by fear! “Can you give me a lift to town please” it asked.

I peeked through my fingers while slowly opening my eyes and noticed it appeared to have dark features. I tried discretely to look down at its feet to ascertain if there were legs, when the voice continued “I just got a lift from an Express Bus headed to JB and got off at the junction. I work as a Band-boy in KL, you see….and there is no other transport back after work at this hour. That’s why I take the bus and get off at the highway". I gave him a blank look, bewildered and half dazed, totally terrified when he continued, “Hi! I’m Edmond by the way......May I.....?”.

“Ohhhh!.....” I exclaimed! “Ya! Ya! Come in!…Come in! My name is Ravi! Nice to meet you. Come in…..No problem…..What are friends for anyway!” I blabbered, trying to conceal my embarrassment in misunderstanding the whole situation.

During the drive back into town as we exchanged pleasantries, I couldn’t help but muse to myself at the thoughts of this 'Bandboy in the dark.………. attired fully in white', as I quietly took out my handkerchief to wipe the cold sweat off my neck!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Hitch Hiker

It was during the 2nd term school holidays in the year 1974 when I was doing my Form 6 in JB. Having been away from my family in Butterworth for a while now, I was feeling homesick and wanted to make a trip back. Managing on a tight budget did not accord me the luxury of normal travel so I decided that I will hitchhike back. Once the plan was hatched, Frederick another one of my friend’s cousin who was to return to his hometown in Seremban, agreed to join me. I had only met Frederick once or twice before but he was a pleasant kid in his lower secondary.

We met up quite early on the day of the trip and took a bus out to Kulai town as hitching a ride from JB wouldn’t have been possible with its heavy traffic. Moreover, people wouldn’t know where you were headed to. Once we reached Kulai, we walked a short distance until we were away from the town proper en-route north. Kulai was undeveloped then with only a row of pre-war buildings forming the main township surrounded by rubber plantations. There were not many housing estates fringing the town like how it is now. From there, we waited under some rubber trees with our thumb sticking out, waving to passing vehicles, with a confident look and an artificial smile. We had to look pleasant and decent as those were the days of wayside robberies and there had indeed been such incidents, though more rampant overseas than here. We had hardly waited for half an hour when a 10 ton lorry pulled up. The Indian driver asked where we were headed to and offered to give us a lift, asking us to climb onto the back into the cargo section. The tarpaulin had been rolled up so it made the ride breezy and exciting with a full view of the surroundings as the vehicle made its way north through traffic along the only trunk road then. Along the way, I got to improve on the acquaintance with Frederick. He brought along a periscope that we used to view distant objects and smiled at people in over-taking vehicles as they passed us. The blistering afternoon sun didn’t discourage us from proudly giving clearance when the coast was clear by gesturing to tailing vehicles to overtake. It was immensely satisfying especially when some drivers acknowledged by waving back at us when they overtook. After a while, we just sat down in the empty carriage and spoke of anything that came to mind. Frederick was young…….younger than me at least and I remember he asked a lot of questions. I answered every one of them with what little I knew but I think he got the answers he wanted.

After travelling for about 4 hours or so, we finally reached the Seremban Railway Station. The initial plan was for Frederick to get off and I was to continue to KL where the lorry was headed to but Frederick encouraged me to spend a day or two at his place to which I agreed. We got off and thanked the driver before walking towards the Lake Gardens where he said his house was. I was still wondering what kind of a house it would be…..was it a terrace or a kampong styled house or what? I didn’t have that much exposure with people living in bigger houses. As we made our way up a meandering slope, there was a sign along the road that read “X.A.Nicholas”. Frederick said that it was his Dad’s name and challenged me to guess what “X.A” stood for. Coincidentally, I guessed it correctly in my first attempt as “Xavier” and…………. “Alexander”. He was astonished and asked if I had heard of his Dad before to which I replied in the negative. He said his Dad was with the police. The only other policeman whom I had ever met in my lifetime until then was a police inspector who lived next door to my rented house (room) in JB who had helped me once in an incident. Other than him, I didn’t know anyone else. So when I was told that his Dad was from the police, I really couldn’t imagine anything extraordinary. Once we reached his house, that I noticed was a palatial government bungalow, he introduced me to his brother and his mum who offered me a drink and in no time, made me comfortable. I looked around the house and was impressed with the range of branded up-market electrical gadgets……a tape recorder playing songs from a oversized reel impressed me. It’s not the type that you find in an ordinary household.

Soon after when I was seated in the hall, I heard sirens screaming from police vehicles and looked out to see a couple of patrol cars approaching the house, flanked by out-riders. I didn’t have the slightest inkling of what to expect. Upon reaching the porch, a policeman got out from the front seat and opened the back door for someone in full police regalia, to alight, as the cops gave him a stiff salute. As he entered the hall, he smiled and gave Frederick a hug, who then introduced me to him saying, “Appa, this is my friend Ravi from JB with whom I hitchhiked up”. His dad shook hands with me, enquiring briefly about me before walking in. It was then that Frederick’s brother told me that he was the number one Cop in Negeri Sembilan, the Chief Police Officer (CPO) to be exact! Wow! Never had I before the opportunity to even say hello to people from high places so naturally I felt intimidated for a while until Fred’s brother took me up to his room and made me feel at ease. I went on to stay another 2 days here during which time I forged a close relationship with Fred and his brother who would drive me around in his dad’s Jaguar Sovereign, making me sit in front while Fred sat behind. During those moments, I felt really proud. A couple of times we stopped by at the Lake Gardens and he would buy me beer. As I was not much of a drinker then, I usually stopped after just one. I slept with him in his room while Fred slept with his parents. I guessed as he was the youngest, he still got to enjoy all the pampering. It was the first time I has come across a digital watch. This was the beginning of the digital era. Until then I had seen only analogue watches. So I was fascinated when Fred’s brother showed me his new digital watch and demonstrated how the alarm worked, after I wondered albeit a bit too loudly if it was capable of fulfilling its purpose of waking people up. I then realized that although the sound of the alarm was faint, it was actually shrill and of high pitch that was capable of waking anybody up.

On the 3rd day, it was time to bid farewell to Fred and his lovely family and managed to get a ride from another one of their friends who was headed to KL who had dropped by for breakfast that morning. I then got off at Jalan Pudu where I met my brother-in-law in his office who eventually gave me a lift back to my hometown where I spent the next 2 weeks before returning to JB by train.

I had not met Frederick again after the hitch-hiking trip as, soon after my return to JB, I had to pack up and leave town once again to return to my hometown after my brother’s untimely demise. So that was the end of Fred and I…..or so I thought.

One hot Sunday afternoon in the year 2002, 28 years later to be precise, I was in FMS Coffee House in Ipoh seated at the long bar enjoying a nice chilled beer while chatting with the owner who goes by the name of ‘Nephew’ (his uncle started the place during colonial days when he was a kid and he was often referred to then as the uncle’s ‘nephew’. The name stuck since then). There was a boisterous group of three seated at the other side of the bar and I have this habit of avoiding eye contact especially with other drinkers so as not to be accused of ‘staring’, an excuse that is often enough for uncouth characters in their inebriated state to start arguments. But it turned out something different today. While engaged in the conversation with ‘nephew’, I couldn’t help listening to and thereupon recognizing a particular voice from the group; so I turned to see if it was indeed the person I thought who it was. And sure enough it was Lingam, a friend from Butterworth whom I had lost contact for over 30 years. We exchanged pleasantries and he introduced me to his 2 other friends seated with him after which I too joined in their conversation. Earlier when he introduced me, I didn’t quite get their names but during the session, I heard one of them referring to the other as “Fred” once too often and began to wonder if this could in fact be the same person from JB. He appeared much older now with a receding hairline and I could not make him out at all. In fact I had shrugged off the very thought of clearing my doubt as being wishful and too far fetched. “Meeting 2 long lost friends in 1 day only happens in movies” I thought. But after a while just to quench my curiosity, I looked at him in his eyes and asked “Would you by any chance happen to be Fred Nicholas?” He gave me a surprised look trying to figure who I was, before blurting out, “As a matter of fact, I am! I am Frederick Nicholas!” he said.

I simply couldn’t believe it! It was too good to be true! After a few anxious moments, I gathered myself and introduced myself to him again, recalling the days in JB and about the hitch-hiking trip. He was lost for words…..especially when I spoke of the trip. As he got up and gave me a long hug, I thought that time stood still for a while. Excitement was written all over his face as he related to his friends of how immensely he had enjoyed the trip…..of how his somewhat ‘aristocratic’ upbringing had deprived him of such worldly teenage pursuits…and how I had been instrumental in providing him with the adventure of his lifetime! He said that many a time, he had thought about me but didn’t know that I had left town and surely didn’t know how to contact me……and had slowly resigned to the fact that he was not going to be able to meet me again. Tonight, after so long, I made his day as he vehemently invited me over to the Royal Ipoh Club located just adjacent to FMS where he insisted that I must meet up with his wife and all his other friends who were there that night. Once there, he introduced me and in fact, short of parading me, narrated to his friends about his hitch-hiking experience. I could see that they were all very happy for him. I later learnt that he had related to them about the experience previously and had often fondly spoken of the role that I had played and about being unable to locate me. It was a joyous atmosphere in the club that night. They were all in a celebrative mood. As far as Frederick was concerned, it had been the greatest adventure of his youth……! He had never once forgotten about it and it had been at the back of his mind for so long. That night…..I was happy to realize that I had been part of his unforgettable experience……for having been able to touch his life……..and thereby add some colour!

Mr. Frederick was a successful lawyer in Ipoh when I bumped into him in 2002 but has since been accorded due recognition and elevated as an Industrial Court President in KL. We still keep in touch.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Penang Hill Bungalow Camp 1975

(Back row from Left to Right: Jalil, Sargu, Imbaraj, Aravind, Akbar, Hari. Front row from Left to Right : Zuriah, Catherine, Muna,Ismail's gf, Amitha, Mala.
Pls click on picture for enlarged version).

The year was 1975 and I was working as a Trainee HA in Kedah. I had known Ismail, a mamak teacher for a couple of months by then. One day he dropped by and in the midst of our conversation, he mentioned that he had a contact through whom it would be possible to book the Raj Bhagwan bungalow located up in Penang Hill belonging to the philanthropist Mr. Arumugam Pillai. On learning of this, I immediately told him to go ahead and make the application while I swung into action in organizing my friends and classmates who were to join me. These were the days when we didn’t have mobile phones or e-mails so I couldn’t get in touch with many of the JACHFRINS boys except those who were in regular contact then.

On the day of the trip, Jalil came with his childhood heart-throb Zuriah (they have since married and now have a happy family), Hari brought Mala who he was mentoring as her athletic coach, the flamboyant Imbaraj brought not only Catherine, the lass from the Batu Ferringhi trip but also another one of his girlfriend Amita, Akbar showed up, so did Muna; and then there were the rest of us namely Sargu, Singh and I. Ismail of course brought along his girlfriend. It was to be a 3 days / 2 nights trip. We gathered in BM and made our way to Air Itam from where we had to catch the funicular train to Penang Hill. Some of us had been up the hill on numerous occasions; in fact we had even hiked up a couple of times. The scene as the train lazily drags itself up the steep slope is spectacular……simply breathtaking. The tracks are built on deep ravines but should any cable snap for any reason whatsoever, they have a safety latch that is immediately triggered that would prevent the tram from rolling down. The air gets steadily cooler as you gradually climb higher, finally reaching the top station after about 30 minutes or so. From there we asked around and took a short walk to the magnificent bungalow, situated on a small hillock with wide acres of greens dotted with rows of flower plants that is unique to the highlands. It really looked majestic!

Upon reaching the front door, we were told by the gardener that the caretaker had gone out for a while and was expected back at any time. Hearing this, I thought I will just scout around the nearby places and got Mala, with whom I had already become close during the journey from BM, to follow me. It was just a short walk and when we reached a small park, we sat down and engaged in a lengthy conversation. I cannot remember what we spoke about but I suppose it must have been interesting as we lost track of time and only returned to the bungalow after close to an hour. Hari who was instrumental in getting her parents approval to allow her to come was naturally displeased with me. In fact he was so upset that he punched and broke the cupboard in one of the rooms. I later learnt that Sargu and Singh were the ones who had provoked him by planting unsavory thoughts into him while we were away. Any doubt as to who was Mala’s preferred candidate was soon settled when she outwardly displayed her allegiance and affection towards me thereby ending all ambiguity. Hari, though disappointed, relented in good faith.

Later in the evening Singh and Sargu had run through Hari’s bag and found a condom in it. Hari had come prepared for such eventualities in case he got lucky with someone, little realizing his limitations in that area of expertise. Singh filled up the condom with water until it formed the shape of a large brinjal and put it back in his bag. Later as we were discussing something else, Singh asked him what he will do if he succeeded with one of the girls. He proudly claimed that he had come prepared for such developments and immediately went to his bag to show the condom that he had brought along. Unzipping the bag, he put his hand in but being unable to find it, he started to take out the clothing one by one and put them outside including the bloated condom without realizing what it was……still searching in the bag! We all burst out laughing!

We had a party that night on the first floor. I remember the lights were switched off to create and encourage a romantic feeling………. only to be switched on again……and again…… to catch the smoochers off-guard! I remember Imbaraj kept coming back to me because one of the girls was trying to get fresh with him and he didn’t know the art of kissing. I articulated to him with hand gestures……I think. That night after the party while the rest of the group occupied the many rooms upstairs, Imbaraj and I decided to sleep in the large hall downstairs with 2 of the girls for company. We used the extreme cold as an excuse to huddle together. Except for the glow from the heated up coils of the electric radiator, everything else was pitch dark, opening up new horizons of opportunity for us to explore (pun intended). We were young…naïve….curious… an experimental stage of life. And being such, it felt nice ‘falling’ in love, being able to call someone your ‘own’. And to be able to improve on your otherwise underutilized sense……the sense of touch. Being in love is not just a feeling….its a state of being…..there is a difference between just ‘feeling’ the feeling and being actively involved in the dimension. It’s a fantastic feeling.

As fatigue engulfed us midway through this rare ‘mystical’ night, we decided that it was time to call it a day when out of the blues….with no prior warning, we heard footsteps of someone walking down…..slowly, step by step….stopping right at our door. We cuddled up tightly together, quite certain that everyone else were asleep. There was something spooky about the whole thing and I was beginning to sweat in that cold night with my imagination playing havoc. But I couldn’t outwardly display such emotions…not tonight with a damsel in tow. I probably would have screamed if the door had opened but fortunately it did not. We found out the next morning that no one had walked down the stairs at that hour. There was no reason to. A creepy feeling overwhelmed us……!

The next morning understandably we woke up late and were all having our breakfast when the caretaker came running to break the news of the impending and untimely arrival of the owner Mr. Arumugam Pillai who was headed to the bungalow for an unscheduled weekend retreat. It broke our hearts but we rejoiced at the wonderful time that we had during the relatively short space of time…..and still cherish those moments to this day.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Batu Ferringhi Bungalow Camp 1973

I remember we were very excited about the bungalow camp especially since it was to be a farewell of sorts after our MCE exams. Mr. Vasu about whom I had mentioned in my earlier post had arranged not only the bungalow but he had also arranged for the caretaker to cook the meals for us that evening. Imbaraj had estimated that it will cost about RM15.00 per head in expenses so we managed to come up with it and passed it to him to manage. It was only much later after the trip that he let us in into a secret……..that he and his brother didn’t have to pay a single cent! Jalil, Singh, Chan, his girlfriend Catherine, Nazir, Hari, Imbaraj and I made it for the trip. Later at night Sargu and Thillai joined us. Hari’s brother Karthik dropped by for a while. The other two members of the JACHFRINS fame namely Farid and Radzi didn’t join us and I really cannot recall why.

When we arrived at the bungalow, we found that it was a three roomed stand alone unit with a large compound fronting the sea at Batu Feringghi, Penang with the privilege of private access to the beach providing an expansive view of the Indian ocean. There were not many bungalows along the stretch then and the area was a paradise with its natural landscape of swaying palms fringing the virgin coastline, clear and untouched with the waters crystal clear and pristine adding a touch of romance to its beauty. Except for the occasional hoot of a distant boat or the rare rev from an unseen passing vehicle snaking through the winding roads through unspoilt forest-reserve, the atmosphere was otherwise exceptionally quiet, soothing, admirably silent…….peaceful…..rejuvenating even. This was my first experience out with friends on an overnight stay and I cherished every moment of my new found freedom. We were young then…..and carefree, not a care for the real world out there. We didn’t have to. During this occasion at least, our world revolved only around the 9 or 10 of us. That was all that mattered. We lived for the day…… at a time…unhurried… our own pace… if everything else can wait.

We did engage in some basic cooking but my memory fails me as to who steered it after the caretaker, on the 1st night……it could have been either Jalil, Nazir or Hari……or was it Catherine? It surely couldn’t have been Imbaraj or Singh as the kitchen is the last place you can expect to find them in. I’m not too sure of who exactly did the cooking after the 1st day but faint images of freshly cooked salt-less sardines, roughly cut sandwiches, overcooked eggs and burnt sausages seem to linger past my memory archive. We spent the 1st night sitting in the hall and with only 1 girl in tow, that too as Chan’s girlfriend, I remember we were all trying to impress her. Those sharing the same couch with her told ghost stories in the hope that they might get to cuddle her if they could succeed in scaring her, foolishly disregarding the fact that Chan was always by her side. When none of it worked, we retired to our rooms sometime in the early hours past midnight. (It will be interesting to note that this lass went on to later join us on our 2nd bungalow trip 2 years later ….and this time not with Chan but as one of the other JACHFRIN member’s new love interest about which I shall not divulge much……….. except perhaps to say that his name starts with a vowel and it surely wasn’t me! Some secrets must be kept. After all that’s what friendship is all about.......No?).

After allowing Chan and Catherine the privacy of a room all to themselves, the rest of us went to our room to play strip poker among us….conspiring to play a prank on Hari. We manipulated from start to finish and made him lose every game that in no time saw him reduced to his tattered briefs whereupon we made him roll on the icy floor. He virtually squirmed and growled while he rolled in the by-now chilled room and we wouldn’t allow him to get up until he reached the end of the room…… might have been 'sadistic' but Hari was always a sport……he didn’t complain and we ended up with a good laugh!

It was unfortunate that I could not stay the full 2 nights as when I woke up, I had to bid goodbye to my still half-asleep friends as I was to follow my sister and family on a holiday to JB. I took the bus back, reaching my house in Butterworth by about 10, only to be told that the trip had been postponed to the next day. Hearing this, I was at first disappointed...... but it slowly turned to joy when I realized that I could go back and spend one more day with my friends. I really wanted to. But I didn’t have enough money for the fare to reach Batu Feringghi. Then I remembered the ferry fare by bicycle costs only 50 cents! I hurriedly gathered the required change from various points in the house and started my trip to the bungalow. I roughly knew its location and the distance from the mainland but I was determined to join my friends. It took me about 2 hours of cycling to reach the bungalow through winding and narrow roads in the midday sun. But I finally made it! My friends who had not expected me back were naturally surprised and overjoyed to see me…….and so we continued with the merriment. We spent some time playing in the sand and sea in the evening, then watched the sun slowly fade away lazily into the horizon. It was a sight to behold.

Once again I had to leave early the next morning and I cycled all the way back to Butterworth and reached just in time to join my sister for the trip to JB, a story that will be told another day.

(This story is dedicated to my friend (and relative) Mr. Vasu who made the adventure possible with his kind gesture of obtaining the holiday bungalow for us….….and who unfortunately now lies bed-ridden as a result of a recent stroke).

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Values of Yesteryears

It was the year 1965 and I was in Standard 2 in St. Marks Primary in Butterworth in the afternoon session. After walking for about a mile from my house in Jalan Kampung Bengali, I finally reached the school. Then even the midday sun wasn’t as hot as it is these days. I had just about entered the school compound when I found a 20 cents coin on the ground. Twenty cents those days was big money for a kid. It could buy him “4 ice-kapai” or 2 coned ice cream and things like that. My pocket money was only 5 cents then so twenty cents would have made a significant difference to my life in the school that fateful day.

However, I have been indoctrinated from an early age that you should not retain anything that is not yours. With that in mind, I went over to the office and handed over the shilling to a teacher who was there who then recorded my details before accepting the coin. I then went back to my class.

After a while, the school office-boy came with a note apparently from the Head-Master Mr. Robert David that I later learnt was addressed to the class teachers asking each of them to make an announcement to the class to find out if anyone had lost any money that day. When no one in my class admitted to having lost anything, he went on his way to the next class….and the one after until he had covered all the classes. The answer he had received in each class was the standard “No. No one had lost any money”. So imagine my surprise when towards the end of school the same day, Mr. Robert David came over to my class and handed the 20 cents coin back to me saying that I could keep it as it didn’t appear to belong to anyone from the school. I was elated and treated myself to ice-cream and some tidbits on the way back from school.

Look at the values we had then……about a school that made a concerted effort to return a twenty cents coin to its rightful owner…….and about the HM who took the trouble to return it to the finder. Do these values still exist in us today?

These were the kind of values that kids usually grow up with but sadly along the way to adulthood, much of it is lost in many of them through influence or emulation and they often end up compromised.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Tragic Tales Unveiled During Diwali part 1

It was Diwali eve and I went over to Kulim to my sister’s place this year to spend the holidays since we were not celebrating. In the evening I went to the pharmacy to get some medicine when I came across Mary, a girl who worked as a QC Inspector in the company that I worked with way back in the early 90s. She didn’t see me as she was walking in front of me. I had noticed her getting off a car parked nearby so I thought I might as well say hello to her husband Mariappan who happened to work in the same factory. Theirs had been a love affair that started at the working place. When it came to my attention, I had actually encouraged it. Concerns were raised as to their different religious background. I had in fact advised them that when two hearts have already come together, everything else is secondary. I had once found them both missing from their work stations only to later find them quietly tucked away between the packed cartons in the warehouse enjoying their hour of solitude. They were especially gratefully when I didn’t make an issue out of their secret jaunt and had just let them off after advising them. After a couple of years of courting, by which time I had already left the company, I remember both of them came to see me one day to invite me for their wedding. Unfortunately work commitments had kept me from attending. Now after almost 15 years, our paths crossed again. From a distance, I noticed a lady at the steering and someone who I thought looked like Mariappan in the front passenger seat. When I went near, they wound down the window for me and as I peered in, I noticed the passenger seating in front looked different. He appeared to be handicapped with saliva drooling and he had little control of his rolling eyes. From his features, I thought he was probably Mariappan’s brother. After introducing myself and confirming with the lady driver if it was indeed Mary whom I had seen earlier, I asked where Mariappan was. I was shocked when she pointed to the guy in the front passenger seat. When I looked at him in his eyes, I was in fact surprised when he stuttered “Mr. Aravindan”…….he could still remember my name! I was told by the driver (who I later learnt was his sister) that he had met with a nasty accident and that he has lost much of his memories due to head injuries. I spent the next few minutes trying to come to terms with the reality that I was faced with and left after a while. Back in my car, it took me a while regaining my composure as I sat quietly relating to my wife of what had happened.

Tragic Tales Unveiled During Diwali part 2

Jega was one of my close friends in Kulim. He was a bachelor when we first met and lived alone then in his own house. Many a time I had spent my time in his house where we had partied till the wee hours of the night. He was fun. When he got his first promotion, I still remember he took me and another friend to Penang to celebrate at Kashmir Restaurant which was famous for their authentic north Indian cuisine as well as the soft Sitar music by the renowned Mr. Hamid Khan. I had once met this music lecturer by day during a cultural function in Sg. Petani where I had rendered a song with his band providing me the chorus support. The crowd was thrilled and ecstatic. Tonight when I proposed to render the same number, he immediately obliged with his keyboard. The song “puthu maapillaiku” from the blockbuster Kamal movie Aboorva Sahothargal was an instant hit with the mostly Indian diners that night. When he suggested that I do one more number, I had to graciously decline due to a weakness that I had………..after a few beers, I usually cannot remember the lyrics to most songs. Back at the table, not only did we have a good time, we ended up putting up the night at one of the hotels in Penang and continued with our celebration until the next evening. Our friendship flourished over the years. Jega went on to get married and now has 2 children We were working together until the dreaded VSS after which we went our separate paths. But we still kept in touch. Whenever he came to KL or when I went to Kulim, we would almost always look each other up. So it came to me as more than a shock when I learnt that Jega has been undergoing chemotherapy having been diagnosed recently with cancer! I was told he has lost much weight and now spots a thinning scalp! I spoke to him over the phone but since he was away in the estates, we were not able to meet up. I will make it a point to look him up the next time I drop by in Kulim. I don’t want to make the same mistake that I made with Helma, my classmate and dear friend from JB who I couldn’t bring myself to visit when told by her sisters that she was in her death-bed, being stricken with cancer, as I stubbornly made a stupid stand to myself that I always wanted to remember her as the petite and bubbly person whom I had known all these years. But after she passed away, I harbour deep regrets to this day for my selfishness and lack of humanity and compassion.

Tragic Tales Unveiled During Diwali part 3

I got to know Mr. Vasu during my sister Vanaja’s wedding in the early 70s. He was related through her husband. I was doing my Form 5 then and although Mr. Vasu was twice my age, we got along quite well. He was attached to LLN (now TNB) and based in Butterworth where we lived. During some of the conversations that we had, I was particularly impressed that LLN provided their staff with holiday bungalows as an employment perk. I thus approached him one day and requested him to help get us a couple of nights stay at one of the bungalows in Batu Feringgi during the December holidays so that my classmates and I could have a farewell party after end of school year. He readily obliged. I was excited when he came over to my house one day just before the holidays began to hand me a letter from LLN approving his application for a 3 days / 2 nights stay. It cost only RM8 per day that he insisted in paying. My friends were thrilled when I broke the news to them and we quickly made preparations for the trip. Once there we had such a good time. The fully air-conditioned bungalow with a private sea front had a gate in the large compound that gave us direct access to the beach. We cherished the private moments that we spent there especially since we realized that we were destined to go our separate ways having completed our fifth form. Then getting into form 6 was a big hurdle unless you obtained excellent results and many of us were skeptical if we could do that. Chan Keng San, the C in the acronym JACHFRINS about which I had featured in an earlier article, was the only one to bring his girlfriend along and I remember we told her ghost stories one night to scare her. This was also my first bungalow stay and I relished every moment away from my orthodox upbringing. It was like being let lose and the new found freedom, although I realized it was temporary, was something to savour forever. It was the beginning of everything else that was to follow later in life. Indeed it was a farewell party as a few months after the stay when the results came out we all went our separate ways except Jalil (the J) who remained to continue with his form 6. (This story of the Bungalow Stay will be told another day)

After this, I had met Mr. Vasu many a time especially during weddings and some other functions since he was a relative and although we went on to become close friends, I am actually guilty of not keeping in touch with him. We bumped into each other 2 years ago when I was distributing my daughter’s wedding card. Although he was already into his 60s, he appeared fine with no sign of any illness whatsoever. That was the last time I met him. So it came to me as a shock when I learnt that Mr. Vasu had recently suffered a stroke and that he had since been paralyzed!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Jest......for laughs!

I first read this in someone's blog and thought it fit to reproduce here....a good one to laugh out loud.

Samy Vellu and his driver, Muniandy, were cruising along a Sungai Siput country road one evening when an old dog loomed in front of the car. Muniandy tried to avoid it but couldn't - the old dog was killed. Samy Vellu told Muniandy to go up to the farmhouse and explain to the owners what had happened.

About an hour later, Muniandy staggered back to the car with his clothes in disarray. He was holding a bottle of expensive wine in one hand, an expensive Cuban cigar in the other and was smiling happily, smeared with lipstick.

"What happened?" asked Samy Vellu.

"Well," Muniandy replied, "the farmer gave me the wine, his wife gave me the cigar, and their beautiful twin daughters were so happy they kept kissing me!"

"My God, what did you tell them?" asked Samy Vellu.

"I said I'm Samy Vellu's driver and I just killed the old dog".

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Void I Feel

(This is an interesting piece of document that I retrieved from Dad's belongings. Its a copy of a testimonial to him from a Visiting Medical Officer that he held on dearly to. Click on the image to get a magnified view and you will see that it was dated 1948. Also notice the 2 digit telephone numbers then. We have gone into 7 digits now. 8 digits in KL).

In a few days time, it will be Diwali again. Unlike previous years, we will not be celebrating this time around due to Dad’s demise. But I will surely be returning to Kulim with my family to be with my mum and sister who live there.

Dad had been a strict man all his life. I still remember we had to be seen with books in front of us by 7.00 each evening if you don’t want to earn his wrath. We will be happily playing and running about in the house until just before 7 when Dad would return. Our house in the estate was located on a small hillock and it was quite a distance from the nearest quarters. Dad had a habit of clearing his throat in a peculiar manner every time he nears the house perhaps to ward off spirits as the area was secluded. We could hear him from the distance as being isolated the place becomes extremely quiet especially in the evenings. And when we do, we would all run helter-skelter, grab our school books and practically jump to our specific studying spot. Some of us used the dining table to study. Some of us sat down in the hall. It didn’t matter if we were panting or sweating. Dad wouldn’t take notice. Till his end, Dad didn’t realize that his cough was what gave away his otherwise stealthy return. Mum wouldn’t tell either.

Dad was so strict when it came to studies. He was steadfast in his belief that only a proper education can take you anywhere. I don’t remember a day when I felt unwell or skipped school when in the estates……didn’t dare to. We had to wake up at 5 to catch the 6 o’clock bus. The journey through meandering gravel roads usually took about an hour. It was always late lunch for me as the bus reaches back after school only by about 3 pm each day, having to wait to pick up a couple of convent girls who finish only at 2. I used to go through severe hunger pangs initially but eventually got used to it. Dad was also particular about the grades that we got. I usually made good grades in my early years so much so that I was selected to go through Express Class where I completed Standard 3 and Standard 4 in the same year. So when I was 10 years old, I was already in Standard 5. It didn’t work out well for me after that as I had difficulty coping with my studies from then on until I was in Form 3. My grades fell badly and Dad wasn’t happy at all. But what could I do? It was the system that failed me and back in the estate, there were no tuition classes that I could attend. Dad didn’t realize that I was an average kid. And average kids made do with 60 or 70 marks. But he wanted high marks in all the subjects that I took. And Art was my worst subject. I used to get about 9 or 10 marks only. I just couldn’t draw. If you made a man stand in front of me and ask me to sketch him, I would probably end up producing an image of a cow! I was that bad. But Dad wouldn’t have any of it. Low grade was not an option. So I did the next best thing. I created my own report card to please Dad. I had 2 sets then, one was the official one given by the school that contained my actual results and another was my own creation. The one from the school, I signed myself and fortunately my teachers never suspected anything amiss till the end. To my Dad, I showed the duplicate one that contained only high marks in all the subjects. Dad would be satisfied only with 90 marks and above. Even 89 was not acceptable to him So I showed all the subjects as having obtained above 90. And he was happy. I never felt guilty doing this and don’t look at it as cheating….it was win-win for both of us anyway ……….anything to make him happy. And that is the reason why when my own kids bring in their report cards these days, I scrutinize them thoroughly. I don’t want my genes in them to make them adventurous in this area.

My brother Ashok had a habit of collecting pictures of film-stars that he would paste in an exercise book and write a caption underneath the pictures. That was his hobby. His favorite actor then used to be MGR. And he was not alone in such pursuits. I knew that many of my cousins and his friends were followers of the movie icon too. The patriotism that they displayed transcends all logic. Theirs was a passion by itself. I still remember when MGR was shot in the neck by another actor M.R. Radha back in the 60s due to some political difference, many of them couldn’t bring themselves to accept it….some wouldn’t even eat until he regained consciousness a day or two later. Such was their reverence towards their idol. Coming back to my brother, he would cut out his idol’s pictures from any available source, usually from magazines and newspapers. One morning Dad went to town and bought back the Sunday Tamil newspapers and had left it in the hall while he went to bathe. A while later after lunch, relaxing on his easy-chair, he opened the spreadsheet wanting to catch up on the news when he found a gaping hole in the centre-spread; they had featured some scenes from an MGR movie and my brother had cut them out without realizing that Dad hadn’t read the papers yet. Dad was furious seeing this! The rest of us had a good laugh seeing Dad chasing him around the house!

My maternal Grandmother reared cows. Each of her herd had a name. I remember her calling out their names during feeding time…..Letchumy…Radha and the likes of it that I cannot recall now. I used to cycle to the estate quarters where she lived to collect yogurt during weekends. Meals were never complete without them and I used to savor the taste especially when Mum made chicken curry. I still enjoy the habit of mixing rice with yogurt to this day.

And talking of that, when Mum gives word that it’s going to be chicken curry for lunch, my brothers and I will be tasked with catching one. We had a large chicken coop in our sprawling compound where Dad reared chicken… one time even turkeys. It was not easy catching chicken because of their sheer speed. After mum identifies which one to catch, we will carefully ‘guide’ it out from the coop. Then we will chase it from all directions until it tires out. Then holding it by its neck, we will proudly give it to mum to cook. Dad would do the cleaning.

Estate bungalows those days were built without being restricted by perimeter fencing. This meant that we could run and play as far as we wanted to. The estate maintained the lawn to golf course standards. The nearest house was about 500 meters away so we had a large area to call our own. We had all sorts of matured fruit trees in our compound. My favorite was the cashew nut tree. We would pluck the fruits when they are ripe enough and throw the seeds into a fire like how Dad taught us to. Once it’s burnt, we would prise open the seed to get to the cashew nut inside it. The taste was simply tantalizing but it was never possible to satisfy our craving palates as we got only about 4 or 5 fruits at any one time much unlike rambutans that ripen as a bunch. Today’s children are so lucky as roasted cashew nuts are so easily available in the markets.

This trip back I am hoping that my other siblings would also be able to join me. I know I will feel the vacuum without Dad. We will have to make do with Mum and pretend that all is well….at least for her sake. Life has to go on.