My father has recently been inspired into a spate of creative activity. He submitted a Fusion Story a little while back, about his first experience of coming to study in England. He is of that generation of men - particularly in the Chinese tradition - who were never encouraged to share personal moments publicly. And he has never been known to write much creatively. So I am really touched that recently, he has been sharing his personal reminiscences with us in writing - and really proud of him.
This piece about his grandmother also gives us a flavour of a Malaya of a different time - before the freeways and high rise buildings and Starbucks.
My earliest memory of Grandmother was when I was four or five when we moved to Cheras. I had gone with her to clean the house before the family moved in. Some day she would buy durians from the Malay vendors who came with a huge basket of the fruits stacked on the back of his bicycle. We would eat them squatting at the front door. She was very fond of durians.
In the little garden in the front of the Cheras house there was a pomegranate tree to which she seemed very attached. She would water it with water which had been used to clean fish and would hang empty crab-shells on the branches because they would help the tree. It seldom bore fruit and when it did she was very pleased with it.
She doted on his grandsons and I think particularly me. She would make sure to buy Nyonya kuih from the Indian vendor who would come around with his 2 huge baskets on a pole across his shoulder hawking his wares. And very often he had a pot containing assam curry with a charcoal stove underneath it - for making assam laksa. A word about this Indian gentleman. He was already quite old then, I would say at a guess about 50 years. He would carry these two baskets and the pot and walked many miles a day to sell his food. It must really be a very hard life. I still remember his gaunt but cheerful face wearing a brown felt hat like an inverted flower pot. He would disappear every now and then for 3 months or so and then he would appear again saying that he had gone back to India.
There are two things which Grandmother wanted me to do which caused me some pain - as little boys would have when they are asked to do things which caused them to stand out amongst their peers. The first was to part my hair on the right side because she said that if I used the left side all the time, the hair along the line would drop out. The second was to wear braces to hold up my shorts. It was, of course, a sensible thing to do but little boys did not do sensible things when the others do not do it. I can’t remember how I got her to allow me to revert back to normal. May be I complained to Mother who must have stepped in.
She would tell very earthy stories to AHC and I heard some of them which I can still remember but it is not suitable for re-telling as my secretary types all my letters.
When Mother went out with Father she would bring back Hokkien mee about 11.00 at night and Grandmother would eat the mee with me in the bedroom. As far as I can remember my brother BT never joined in the eating. Was it because of my known greedy nature that I was that she woke me up. Grandmother was full of common sense and it was she who told us that Queen Victoria had lots of children whom she married off to all the royal houses in Europe and thus she was related to them making the likelihood of disputes or war less likely. (Although it did not prevent the First World War.)
I had always thought she had a noble face with good cheekbones and bone structure. She did not chew betel nut but she smoked self-rolled cigarettes but did not have the dirty habits of the smoker. I remember using up my savings of Japanese paper money to buy her, just before the Japanese surrender, tobacco in packets and the cigarette paper.
Later on when we were in secondary school she lived in the Imbi Road temple and we would see her when we visited the temple on the first and fifteenth day of the Chinese month and other feast days of the Gods. Still later on when she lived on top of the dispensary we would see her on Friday evenings after going to the Rex and Madras cinemas.
She was so effacing that she would not stay with anyone of us for fear of disturbing our lives. I remember saying to myself on her death which occurred on a Saturday that she is so understanding that she would not want to inconvenience anyone and have them to take leave to come to her funeral.
Written by Guestblogger: Ooi Boon-Leong