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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.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Happy Birthday Hem Raj

(Hem Raj, as he was, at 2 years old)

“Time and tide waits for no man” an old adage goes. They also say that “time flies”. And so it has been with me. It feels so recent when my son was born. I still vividly remember our first encounter when I went to cradle him at the old Butterworth hospital where he was born. It also seems fairly recent when he completed his primary, went on to secondary and is now in varsity doing his tertiary. And when you flash back on all these events, you suddenly realize how long it has been since his birth……….. as he celebrates his 24th birthday today.

It is either that time appears to be flying by………….. or I am trying to delay my aging process by imagining that it isn’t.

Happy Birthday Hem Raj.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Priyanka's Childhood Friend

It was in the early 90s and I had just bought a house in Taman Bersatu Kulim having disposed off my previous one in Taman Bayam as the area, being located just next to an industrial estate, was getting ‘infested’ with foreigners. Being surrounded by so many of these foreign factory workers, I had started to feel alien in my own land. The government had just opened up their entry and their influx transformed the landscape of the area that I had been living in until then; hence my decision to move out. I didn’t mind having to travel the 10 km to work and incurring additional fuel cost so long as I can enjoy some peace and quiet in my new abode.

My last daughter Priyanka was about 2 plus then. Bubbly as she was, she would often spend her time with our neighbour’s son Balbir Singh who was quite fond of her. He was a turbaned Sikh with a good disposition and well mannered. He was doing his Form 4 then but the age gap was not an issue. He treated her as a good friend and she in turn would often hop over to his house with milk bottle in hand to watch TV or to chat with him. Whenever she saw him passing the house, she would call out his name and he would smile and wave back at her. She was proud to have a 16 year old as a friend. We went on to spend about 2 more years there until we moved to Taiping after I secured a job there having opted for VSS at my previous place. With the decision to shift, we found it practical to sell off the house too as we knew that we may not return to live in Kulim again. We thus lost touch with the Singh family although my daughter had often mentioned his name and reminisced of him many a time since then.

Last weekend when we were in Kulim, my daughter reminded me and asked if I would take her to look up her long lost friend. I was initially skeptical whether he was still living in the same house as it had been such a long time since we left. I drove over to the house in Taman Bersatu where he lived back then and noticed that they had a Sikh insignia on the gate. Convinced that it was still occupied by a Punjabi family, my daughter alighted and approached the gate. Calling out his name, she waited anxiously for someone to appear.

A man in his mid 30s appeared. Priyanka could still make him out as Balbir Singh but he was totally at a loss as to who she was as she was still a 3 year old kid when we parted ways. When she introduced herself to him, what a shock he had! I could see his eyes brightening up as he asked “You are Mr. Aravind’s daughter ah?” I could see excitement written all over him as he called out to his mum who was inside, explaining who we were. When I realized that she remembered us too, I got down to greet them. He kept insisting that we should all come in. I explained that we were there to attend to my Dad’s final rites and that it may not be appropriate to do house calls. I promised however that we would surely drop by again during our next visit.

Balbir Singh is now in his mid 30s and is married to a Kaur from Punjab. He has a 1 year old child. Priyanka on the other hand is doing her Lower 6. They had not met in 15 years and his last memory of her was as a toddler clutching her milk bottle.