Rinching (circa 1936-39)
Rinching Estate, located between Kajang and Seremban, in the state of Selangor, was the beginning of my learning, in more ways than one. After Jerantut, where there were no schools, I could finally go back to school which I had started a little in Singapore. School was in the primary (elementary) section of the Kajang High school. My voracious reading habit and my ability to speak well in English quickly got me points with my teachers. So school ambled along pleasantly but it was not my only source of education. Rinching was also where I learned a little about miracles and providence and life and people. I learned a little about human kindness and generosity that transcended race and language, and about the ugliness of caste and class consciousness.
Rinching had the honor of hosting Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter Indira for an afternoon. My home was abuzz with activity as my father rushed around the house preparing it and my mother busied herself with making (1)bondas, (2)kesari and (3)filter coffee for the esteemed guests. I watched in awe as the handsome Nehru came up the stairs of our home on wooden stilts with his sweet, young daughter whom my mother greeted with a kiss on the cheek. My father was all smiles and pride. Nehru spoke to the staff of the plantation in Hindi through an interpreter. I learned later that his purpose was to gauge the living conditions of overseas Indians and probably to spread the word of the Congress party. But at that time, I didn’t understand his speech or the significance of his visit very much but certainly this was the most glamorous event the estate would ever see. Life that flowed along like a lazy plantation stream, threw me some unforgettable experiences like these now and then.
My first sports event is another experience that I cannot forget. It taught me that winning in a race for sport is of little consequence in the larger scheme of things. I was excited as I was going to run the 50m run meant for children of my grade level. I trained hard and was overwhelmed with excitement when the day dawned. Unfortunately, my bubble was burst by the starter pistol, the loudness of which I had never heard before. I was shell shocked and transfixed at the starting point while everyone else ran to victory. I was crestfallen and my parents did everything they could to console me and assure me that there would be other sporting events to prove my mettle.
Just as we started our drive home from the school, dark clouds gathered in the sky, almost as if they too had learned of my disappointment and had turned up to sympathize. The wind was strong and lightning ripped the dark sky as a sense of foreboding filled us. My father revved up the Austin 7 as we hurriedly made our way home. Incidentally, my father had a yen for high speeds, at least what was considered high speed in those unhurried days. I remember literally flying through the plantation sitting on the front, on the petrol tank, of the BSA motorbike with him riding at 40mph. As we sped homeward in our car on that day, torrential rain came down lashing. Coupled with gusty winds and flashing lightning, it was really quite a frightening experience since the top of the car was canvas. My father had a hard a time driving in the blinding rain especially along winding roads of which there were many between Seremban and Rinching Estate. The roads were already flooding fast. And then it happened. Thankfully, just about half a minute too soon.
There was a loud explosion and a blackness descended on us. Shocked, bewildered and completely unaware of what had happened we sat rooted for a minute or two. When we regained our bearings, we realized that a tree had fallen on the bonnet of our car. The leafy branches had pierced into the car though the canvas and protruded in through the windows. We were covered with leaves and the branches trapped us in our seats. We couldn’t see what was outside. It was a true miracle that we survived with only a few bruises and scratches even though my father’s head was stuck between the branches and the steering wheel. Suddenly we heard human voices outside. Strong hands pulled the doors open and we felt ourselves being dragged out of the car. We were shaken and confused but when we regained our senses, much to our astonishment we saw that our car was sitting on its roof. It had overturned and was balanced on a huge tree that straddled the whole road. If the tree had fallen just about half a minute later it would have come crashing down on us, crushing all three of us completely.
The people who had pulled us out to safety were a Chinese family which lived exactly opposite from where our car had overturned. They had watched it happen and had rushed across to help us. They invited us into their home to calm us with some hot tea before driving us home in their van. Aside from learning that providence had a strong hand in determining the fates of men and women, I also learned that kindness and generosity had nothing at all to do with race and language. My parents and the Chinese family communicated in Malay, the language that they had adopted. Clearly, our stars were aligned and smiling down on us on that day.
But just as some basic human values have little to do with race, some values ingrained in the psyche through centuries of reinforcement want very little to do with change and new environments. Much like in Jerantut where there was Chitthan as a sort of handy helper for my parents, there was Kalian in Rinching who came around to the house to help my mother with fetching water from the well, and doing some heavy lifting when necessary or gardening. He would also run errands for my parents. Just like with Chitthan, I would go with Kalian on some of his errands just for the fun of it. He came into our home freely without any restrictions and so I was completely unaware of his caste or class.
One day my father sent me with Kalian into nearby Semenyeh, between Kajang and Rinching, to get a haircut. For the first time in my life, I became conscious that not everyone thought that caste should not be a barrier between people. The barber who was cutting my hair struck up a conversation with Kalian about where each one was from back in India. During the course of the conversation, Kalian revealed innocently that he was from a lower caste. Much to my perplexity, the barber became hostile and rudely asked Kalian to leave and wait outside the shop. “Should a person of your caste, enter my shop?” he asked frostily. Kalian sheepishly smiled at the barber and meekly walked out of the shop to wait for me.
I was filled with helpless anger. My friend had been scolded and I couldn’t understand why. My parents had never treated him in that manner. Given the fact that I was only about nine or ten, I couldn’t do very much about the insult that he had suffered except be confused and bewildered by what had happened. It was on that day that I realized that along with their luggage, many immigrants had brought along an extra piece of baggage labeled caste consciousness from their home country. This piece of baggage was pretty much left unpacked, in a corner of their hearts, only to be drawn out every now and then, when confronted with their past.
(1) Savory teatime snack
(2) A sweet or dessert
(3) South Indian filter coffee is made with thick milk and coffee decoction
Chapter Navigation Links
Part 2 - Storm
Part 3 - Calm but murky waters