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!