The year 1964 was the only year when all 6 of us (siblings) were still in school, with me starting in Standard 1 and my eldest sister completing her Form 5. There were no English schools at the estate where my parents lived; the nearest one was about 20 miles away through laterite roads in Kulim, so my Dad had put us all up at my Aunty’s place in Butterworth to get through our education. Like all orthodox families, Dad was steadfast in his belief that a good education was the only key to success.
After my sister finished her Form 5, it was felt that we should all return to live in the estate as we were big enough to endure the 35 km travel to school. The estate provided 2 school buses leaving each morning catering to the needs of the more than70 students studying in the town. It meant that we had to wake up by 5 each morning to catch the 6 o’clock for the journey that would usually take about an hour. There were not many vehicles on the roads then to compete for space, so the travel was hassle-free except that the white uniforms turned beige by the time we reached school. But I didn’t have to go through all these then……not for the next 3 years at least. The reason was that my folks felt that waking up early to make the arduous journey to school would be too much for me to bear at that age. Moreover I was one of those selected to go through “express” class….meaning, I get to complete the next 4 years of classes in 3 years. And schools in Kulim didn’t practice the express class system then.
So in 1965 when the rest of my siblings moved back to study in Kulim, I had to stay back to continue my education in Butterworth. They put me up at one of my uncle’s place where there were a host of other school going kids too with whom I soon bonded and blended in to become one of their own, travelling back to the estates only during school holidays. Initially I felt lonely….. extremely lonely, especially each time I came back after the holidays. There had been moments when I’d just bury my face in the pillow and cry my heart out. Although I was surrounded by so many of my relatives here, it was never the same. I missed my mum especially.
So it was here in Butterworth where I grew up the next 3 years until I completed my Standard 5 in 1967. My uncle was a tailor. He starts early usually by 8 or 9am and I have only seen him working through the day without any real breaks in between, often rushing to complete his orders. I remember doing errands for him once or twice, running over to the shops nearby to get him his favourite ‘rough-rider’ cigarettes……..not much of a smoker though as he only smoked about 4 or 5 sticks a day. Such was his discipline. I remember him as a mild mannered person and had never ever seen him admonishing his kids in any way…not once! Disciplining was the forte of my aunt (his wife).
There were many of us in the same age group including the neighbourhood boys. Vidya, being the last son, was naturally the blue-eyed boy in the family. He seldom joined us in our activities preferring to stay back with the family. The other cousin Ravi (often referred to as Big Ravi as we both shared the same name) was the head of our pack. Together we engaged in all kinds of games….kite, tops, marbles, police & thief, rounders etc……games that have almost disappeared from this part of the world now. Many of the neighbours were muslim boys. But back then friendship was not built along racial or religious preference. We were just harmless young kids who happened to get along well with no such inhibitions whatsoever. There were the bad guys in the group too (Gabriel and his Donald) who fortunately, we avoided mixing with after being advised not to by the elders. Later in life, Gabriel & Donald went on to become wanted criminals in the country. I didn’t keep track of what happened to them after that but with no news of them in the tabloids these past 20 or 30 years, they must have met their Maker, like everyone else like them.
The girls in the house treated me well……Chandrika, Subathra, Sumathi and their cousins Thangam and Uma (or Parija as she was called). They had a large room upstairs for themselves while the boys slept in the other smaller room. The blue-eyed boy, of course, slept with his parents. I went on to spend the next 3 years here during which time I missed home dearly but seldom spoke of it to anyone. I missed being with my siblings who I got to see only during school breaks.
(….to be continued)