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Friday April 25, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Friday April 25, 2014 MYT 1:40:19 PM
The rustic charm of kampung life leaves an indelible imprint on the heart.
Back in the late 1950s, there were 11 of us siblings. My eldest brother, Abang Long, was the head of the pack. He was about 13 at that time. Abang Ngah was the second in line, the rest were girls.
We stayed in a government house in a kampung where both my parents were teachers. I don’t remember much about that house, but from what I gathered from my siblings, it was a small miserable house. The house had one room, so the children slept wherever they could, mostly in the hall. The kitchen was even smaller; this was where all of us had our meals. Once everyone was seated on the mat on the floor for meals, there was no more room to move.
There was a small outhouse where we discarded our bodily waste. It was always dark in there, even in the day time. Some of us must have developed spontaneous constipation to avoid going in there.
Our daily routine then was, for the older ones, to go to school, while the younger ones were left at home with a babysitter who came daily from the kampung. School was just a few hundred metres away, the house being in the school compound. After school there were Arabic classes to attend. After that there were numerous chores to be done around the house. Firewood needed to be chopped by the boys, the compound around the house had to be swept, clothes be picked up from the clothes line, a big dinner to be prepared, and numerous little siblings to be looked after.
The two older boys resented the housework for there were so many exciting adventures awaiting them in the kampung. It was a full-time job to stay on top of things among the kampung boys. To earn the respect and stand tall among the local boys, they had to be good at spinning tops, flying kites, trapping birds in the woods, and catching fish in the water channels in the padi fields.
But mostly they loved to go swimming in the river behind the house. The river was a forbidden place for all of us. After a rendezvous in the river, the boys were careful not to reveal their wet clothes or else Mak and Ayah would know about their forbidden adventure. Once Mak found a pair of wet pants on the clothes line, carefully spread and hidden underneath her batik sarung.
Born a year apart, the two boys were inseparable. Knowing how the boys could get into trouble if left free to roam the kampung, Ayah kept a tight watch on them. If the boys were not found in the house, Ayah quickly asked the girls to look for them.
The girls just knew where to find them. In the river. Ayah would tell the girls to go to the river and call them home. The girls then went to the river and shouted out the boys’ names at the top of their lungs, asking them to come home. As long as the boys did not get out of the water, the girls continued calling their names. You could hear their voices along the whole stretch of the river, to the embarrassment of the boys.
Ayah had an old gun that he used to shoot squirrels and other wild animals. There was a time when Ayah was away and Abang Ngah used the gun to shoot some birds and catfish in the nearby water channel.
Once Ayah got home, my sister Imah, ever the reporter, told him what Abang Ngah had done. Ayah’s eyes became big and round, they looked like they were about to pop out of the eye sockets. He could not believe what had happened. He quickly took the gun and looked for places to hide it – under the bed, on top of the cupboard and everywhere – but could not decide where to hide it. He was probably thinking no matter where he hid it, Abang Ngah would surely find it.
As for the older girls, after Arabic classes, on the way home, they usually stopped by the roadside stall to buy scraped ice-balls laced with red, sweet syrup. These ice-balls were sold on yam leaves as they were be too cold to hold on bare hands. They had to cross the school field to reach home.
In those days, school fields were not fenced, so the kampung folks were free to park their buffaloes, cows and goats there to graze on the grass. Crossing the field was a feat by itself; you have to watch out for the animals. On one occasion, some kids were chased by a hostile cow, and they ran helter-skelter. It seems that someone was wearing red that day.
Being among the youngest in the family at the time, I was left mostly in the care of my older sisters. When I was about three, an incident took place that was remembered by everyone of my siblings.
One day we were crowding by a window in the hall, watching the goings-on in the street in front of the house, when all of a sudden I fell out of the window. I went down head first, hands and legs flailing behind me. I fell on a flower pot, which probably saved me. The other older children looked down in horror. Later the babysitter ran to the school where both my parents were teaching, to tell them that I had fallen down and “broken my head”.
I was rushed to the hospital where I had my scalp stitched up. I am sure after we came back from the hospital, some of my siblings were on the receiving end of the wrath of Ayah and Mak.
Under the command of Mak, meals were prepared by the older girls. Fish was a staple diet, brought to the house daily by a Chinese man on a bicycle. We ate more rice than fish; we could have any helping of rice, but not fish. Everyone knew that if you ate too much fish, you could have worms inside your tummy. Despite not having too much fish, we still had lots of worms then, every one of us.
Eggs and chicken were a treat only to be had once in a while. Sometimes Mak cooked some eggs and cut them in half for each one of us.
On the few occasions that we had chicken, the day before, Mak would identify which chicken to be slaughtered. In the evening, the poor chicken was chased around the compound and kept in a small coop. Very early the next morning, Ayah would sharpen the intended weapon. By now every one of us was excited about the big lunch we were going to have. The chicken was then slaughtered and cleaned. The whole kitchen buzzed with activity. Once the food was ready, everyone got a small piece of chicken. Still, it was a feast for us.
We are all adults now with plenty to eat. Ayah had passed away a long time ago. Mak is 90. She no longer believes that eating too much fish can result in worm infestation. She now allows her grandchildren to eat as much fish as they like.
Abang Long is 68 this year and he remains the leader of the pack. He and Abang Ngah are still close, and they play golf together every now and then. Both are very handy around the house, a legacy from their childhood training.
Imah remains the reporter in the family. If you want to spread news, you tell her, and she’ll get the job done. I have two huge scars on both sides of my scalp, devoid of hair, as a result of the fall. I keep reminding every one of my siblings that the fall, I believe, deprived me of becoming the second Einstein; I just became an ordinary Jane. The debate on who was responsible for my fall is still going on until today. Some say I was accidentally pushed by someone in her eagerness to look out, others speculate that I climbed out of the window. Every one of the girls became good cooks, from cooking at an early age. All became wonderful mothers and doting grandmothers.
Those were the days.
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