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Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Turning Point

(This is the prelude to the earlier article on ‘The Paramedic in Me’)

The journey was long and tedious. The train left the Butterworth station at 8.00pm and we (my brother Praba and I) were due to arrive in KL at 7 the next morning enroute to JB. From there we were to catch another train at 8.00am that would eventually reach JB at about 7 in the evening. This was 1974 with Razak at the helm. Mahathir was not in the scene yet, not due for another 7 years for things to change. Sixteen years after independence and the main mode of transportation was still the trusted train service. It was slow but there was not much of a choice then. We didn’t have that many bus services as we have now. To kill the time and to contain the boredom, you just have to get hold of a book or some reading material to pass your next almost 24 hours before you reach your destination. During peak seasons, they sold as many tickets as they possible could because the seats in 3rd Class (as they referred to it then) were not numbered. Without air-conditioning, you have to really sweat it out. Much later when I traveled back to Butterworth during holidays while working in KL, the coaches used to be filled to capacity with even very limited standing space available. With sleep deprivation, the need to find any place to rest would become paramount in your thoughts especially in the wee hours of the night. During those occasions, I remember having slept in nearly every part of the train…..on the wooden luggage racks, along the walkway, in the 2nd class toilet, in the cargo coach….any place would do. It was only after Mahathir took over did some decorum, decency and comfort return to train travel.

Back to the main story, my parents had finally consented to allow me to continue my education at Cambridge College in JB since my brother was working there and he had agreed to provide support. Incidentally I was equally interested to go because one of my friends, Raymond was also there doing his Form 6.

After reaching JB, we went over to my Aunt’s place where I stayed the next couple of days until Raymond managed to find a room for me near the college. My brother had gone off to the jungles of Pengerang, an undeveloped remote part of eastern Johore where he worked as a Land Surveyor in the construction of a link road to ‘civilization’.

College was fun. Raymond, having started much earlier knew most of the other guys. The first person he introduced me to was Helma, a cute, petite and shy girl with whom I became quite close during my short stay. Lincoln was a stand-up artiste who provided much of the fun with his company. He, together with his brother Andrew and Sigamoney (later my room-mate) hailed from a little known obscure place called Cha’ah in northern Johore. Later in the week, I got to know the other classmates Helen and the Mohans, among a host of others. We quickly forged a close relationship. Being local, everyone was especially nice to us since Raymond and I were the only 2 from out of town. In fact many a time, they had gone out of their way to make our stay comfortable. Hospitality at its best I could say and we relished every moment of it. In time, the lonesome feeling of being away from my family disappeared. My brother would visit me once every month and we would spend a day or two together usually going for movies or we would just walk along the brightly lit water-front after dinner, listening to soft music coming from the speakers attached to the trees, talking about almost everything there is to talk about. And on the days when he visited, I used to put up with him at the hotel where he stayed. He was 8 years older than me and a very affable person. We enjoyed a strong cordial relationship. I could discuss or confide anything with him and he would gladly oblige with his opinions. In fact among my siblings, I was very attached to him.

Then one day about 5 months into my Form 6, when I was attending a Literature class, the Principal sent word that he wanted to see me in his office. I excused myself and proceeded to his office wondering what could be the urgency. It’s not often that a Principal would want to see a student in the middle of a session. He told me about a phone call that he had received, something about my brother being ill and admitted to the hospital. He couldn’t remember from whom or why he had been admitted. “Could he have met with an accident” I thought as I rushed to the GH with Raymond tagging along and found my way to his ward. His colleagues were at his bedside when I reached there. They briefed me that he had had a black-out the night before and of late had been constantly complaining of splitting headaches. He had self prescribed some analgesics to subdue and contain the pain. I spent the next couple of hours with him where I noticed that he had become kind of disorientated. He was unusual. I didn’t know how serious his condition was and the nurses and doctors couldn’t tell me anything either. Later on the way back, I composed myself and stopped at the Post Office to send out a telegram to my parents. We didn’t have a phone at home so this was the only option. Telegrams are supposed to be short and precise. It is charged according to the number of words used. I still remember how I worded it. “PRABA AETEN HOSPITALISED. START IMMEDIATELY” (we address brothers as ‘Aeten’ in Malayalam). After that I went back to my rented room and went about my normal chores without the slightest hint of what was in store. I assumed that it was a normal ailment and that he will recover after a few days.

My parents had got the telegram and had already arrived at the hospital when I went to see him after skipping class the next day. Raymond followed me again. Noticed that my brother had been transferred to a different ward. When I enquired, I was told that he had gone berserk during the night, taken a fall and gone into a coma. It had all happened so fast. If I had only known that it was going to be this bad, I would have stayed back to look after him. A feeling of guilt seized me. But I honestly didn’t know. The next four nights, Raymond and I alternated the vigil at his bedside. My parents stayed at my Aunt’s place. Then on the 5th day just as we thought that he was showing some signs of any recovery, he passed away! My Dad and I were at his bedside when he heaved his last breath. It took me a while to absorb and digest the shock that came with it! And when I finally came to my senses, I broke down…..uncontrollably!

My world crashed on me! All kind of thoughts crossed my mind. The person who meant everything to me had been cruelly snatched away from me. He was the sole bread-winner after Dad retired and he was financing my studies. More than anything else, I lost a close confidant. It was as if the rug had been pulled from under my feet. I lost all sense of directions at that point in time. And my world had been turned inside out!

The funeral was held the next day in my Aunt’s house in JB attended by friends and relatives, near and far. Dad decided against bringing the body back due mainly to the distance. No amount of solace could console or comfort me. I was a total wreck. I pulled myself together the following day and prepared for the long arduous journey back. My other siblings and parents had already left the same night after the funeral.

There was a huge crowd gathered at the railway station when I reached. Raymond had already sent the word around that I was due to return to my hometown that night. Apart from my friends from college, even those who did not know me personally came to say goodbye. They had been touched by my plight. Some extended their condolences while others brought books for me to keep my mind occupied during the journey. As the train sounded the whistle, the group comprising Raymond, Sigamoney and Lincoln among others gave me a hug each, one after the other, wishing me well, asking me to take care and to keep in touch. Quietly tucked away in one corner of the station, I could see Helma putting up a brave front while wiping away her tears and waving at the same time as the train slowly pulled away into the darkness. Seated beside the window looking out into the wilderness, I broke down and cried to myself……….almost throughout the return journey. I came to this town with my brother with a lot of hope and aspirations. Now, after losing him, I was returning home with shattered dreams…….. into uncharted territories of my life!


Anonymous said...

After so many years you have opened up at last, it is painful but life has to go on.

Our kids and myself are always with you.

Anonymous said...

hahahah Aunty i think this is you :)
Congrats on your first comment

Bouncy Cat