Too close for comfort


Teacher TalkBY MALLIKA VASUGI

WHEN Mr Subra told us that he was moving into his new house next month we congratulated him and joked about a housewarming party. Some of us however were more direct. 

“Tandoori chicken and mutton kebab as the main course,” said Carol. “No grisly remains of chicken floating about in dilute curry powder solution – like we had at Lily’s place last year. No offence meant, eh, Lily?” She nudged Lily who glared back at her.  

“If my memory serves me right, you had three helpings of my so-called watered down chicken curry, packed some home, and asked me for the recipe,” said Lily. 

“Did I now?” said Carol pleasantly. “Must have got my parties mixed up. Anyway, Mr Subra, as I was saying, it has to be tandoori first and then we can have the tikka.” 

Mr Subra looked genuinely amazed. “What are you? Some kind of expert on North Indian cuisine? I have never even heard of half the dishes you mentioned.” 

“Just kidding, Mr Subra,” said Carol. “But tell us something. Why did you have to buy a house so far away from the school? Almost 20 km. It’s going to take you ages to get to school in the morning, what with the traffic jams and all.” 

“Or have you already applied for a transfer to a school near your new house without telling us?” said Lily coyly. 

“New school, Mr Subra!” Sue looked up in alarm. “Now why do you want to go to a new school for when you have such a bunch of loyal, reliable, charming, interesting... You’re going to miss us that’s for sure.” 

“Why didn’t you do the sensible thing and buy a house in our own Taman,” said Lily reprovingly. “At least that way you don’t have to change schools and keep on missing us every day.” 

“Now look here all of you,” said an exasperated Mr Subra. “ I am just moving house, not changing schools. Only heaven knows for whatever inconceivable reason I do enjoy working with all of you and I’m comfortable here. And as for the 20 km distance between my new home and the school, well, that is precisely the reason I bought my house there. To be as far away from the school as possible.” 

“Say it again to me slowly please,” said Sue. “Very hard to understand.” 

“You mean you actually choose to forfeit an entire hour or more of sleep in the morning and get home a whole lot later?” asked Carol.  

“And the house you’re living in now is just around the school block. Barely two minutes away. Why, we can even see your house from here,” said Sue craning her neck. “Yes, yes,” she continued excitedly, “the one with the white gate and purple underwear on the line.... Yours, Mr Subra?” 

Mr Subra looked at us wearily. “Now you know why I have to move.” He sighed. “You know, when I first moved to J.B. I was overjoyed to get a house so near the school. No more ploughing through traffic jams, I thought. No more waking up at unearthly hours. I could be back home and on my couch within 10 minutes of school dismissal. It was just wonderful – or so I thought initially. As time passed I realised that living so near the school wasn’t so great after all. Basically it encroached into my privacy. There would be students passing my house at all hours of the day. Of course it was nice at first to be hailed with a cheery, ‘Hi, Cikgu’ or ‘Hello, sir’ each time I opened the front door but after a while it began to get to me. It became too much of an effort to make sure I looked trim, presentable and behaved cikgu-like constantly. What the heck, I couldn’t just go out to get the mail clad in my old patched sarong or just lounge around my front porch in shorts. My wife couldn’t fry ikan masin without the whole school knowing what I had for lunch the next day. I felt like I was being watched the whole time. I couldn’t even yell at my own kids. I suppose, to put it in a nutshell, I just couldn’t let my hair down.” 

We looked at the balding patch on Mr Subra’s head and Sue opened her mouth to say something but was stopped just in time by a quick elbow jab from Carol. 

“What was worse,” continued Mr Subra gravely, “ was that each time the school needed teachers for emergency duties or overnight camps, it was always me who was called back. The reason, pure and simple: ‘Rumah Encik Subra kan dekat. Senang lah.’ (Your house is so nearby Mr Subra. It is very convenient.) As if it was some sort of unofficial rule. In the end I began to feel that my house was just an extension of the school. And look,” said Mr Subra almost fiercely, “no matter what anyone may say, no one wants to have to be a role model 24 hours a day.” 

“Hmm,” said Lily nodding her head. “I think I understand a little of how you feel, Mr Subra. That’s part of the reason I would never go to a beauty salon anywhere in our Taman. With the number of our students having part-time jobs around here, I don’t want to risk having my pores scrutinized or legs waxed by one of them.” 

“Same reason why I am extremely careful about who works in the private clinics I go to,” said Carol. “Imagine having to get undressed and lying down on the doctor’s examining table only to find that the doctor’s assisting ‘nurse’ is none other than the student you reprimanded last week for wearing five ear studs.” 

“The shopping mall is the worst,” said Sue. “Be very cautious about the sales assistants especially at the lingerie section – unless you want the whole school to know your bra size.” 

Listening to them I had to admit that there could be many disadvantages in having your house too near the school but I know that there are teachers who would definitely disagree. I remember Mrs Maniam who was my colleague 15 years ago whose house shared the same back fence as the school. Now, Mrs Maniam was a fine teacher and definitely not one to shirk but every now and then, when she had long stretches of free periods she would slip back home through a strategically located hole in the fence to get some household chores done and then slip back again when it was time for her class. No one really complained because the jolly silver-haired lady was well liked by both teachers and students.  

The only person who found Mrs Maniam’s going-outs and coming-ins very distressing was our chief gardener. Things went on like this until one day Mrs Maniam’s sari got caught in the fencing in mid-exit and she had to be “rescued” by the chief gardener himself. Thus ended Mrs Maniam’s “escapades” but happily, she and the gardener became firm friends after that, exchanging fertilizer tips or recipes for home-cooked curries. Mrs Maniam must have retired years ago but I can imagine her deep chortling laughter if I were to tell her about Mr Subra who was moving because school had become just a little too close for comfort for him. 

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