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Praba Ganesan

Praba Ganesan is chief executive at KUASA, an NGO using volunteerism to empower the 52 per cent. He believes it is time to get involved. You can contact him at prabaganesan@hotmail.com or follow him on Twitter @prabaganesan

APRIL 20 ― My auntie died last month. I had to return home.

Though, the thing is, it’s not that far. In fact, it’s in the middle of the city. I drive pass her home all the time, I just don’t pit stop. There are good reasons, and then some not so good reasons.

Achi died, I was informed belatedly, from complications related to her ovarian cancer.

Hail the speaker

I lived in the Kampung Pandan Indian Settlement till I was eight.

It’s divided into lorong (lanes). Lorong Lapan (Lane Eight) was a mud road, and grandma lived there with all the unmarried children. The 16 she had minus those married, minus the one who died during childbirth, the unfortunate one she scalded to death in a bathtub, the third one who went missing at the maternity ward and a fourth in a construction site mishap.

Her story is for some other day, or book.

Achi was one of the many middle children, half-sister to my father, and eloped with her sweetheart. They returned to the scene later, and raised their five children in their home on Lorong Tujuh (Lane Seven).

We were parallel to them on Lorong Enam (Lane Six). There was a small path from our lane through the gurdwara (Sikh temple) to the their house. We, meaning me and my siblings, often used the path but not to visit Achi and her family.

We only did when we needed to, as a family.

My mother was petrified of the area, everything about Kampung Pandan. Even more about her sister-in-law, whose neighbourhood nickname was “speaker.”

Which is not to mean she ran a legislative assembly, well she did, but not in that sense.

She’d beat anyone into submission by railroading them in a shouting match, and if that did not convince her she’d get physical. It requires a certain confidence to stand up to her. That, and a protective fence.

I exaggerate, of course. After my dad’s death she’d always tell me how I look exactly like her brother.

OK, I admit, I might not be exaggerating.

Moving out

Mum wanted us out of the settlement and away from my dad’s family which was never lacking in the colour department.

When I was five, we got burgled. It’s fairly certain one of my uncles was involved, who later alternated between prison for drug related charges and married life, before dying with two wives and six children.

So, we moved to a new development in Cheras, but still close to plenty of family from both sides.

Achi and family had to move out when Lorong Tujuh had to make way for better homes, and expectedly, better people with better money.

They survived in a flat, but a flat life never suited Achi.

They soon relocated to a patch of land unclaimed between Taman Maluri and Pandan Jaya. They squatted.

It’s a family thing

Her kids all went through the Kampung Pandan Tamil Primary. In my house, we went to national schools.

Major gatherings at grandma’s brought everyone together, all the grandchildren stacked up all over the place. This is when I nominally talk to my cousins. There was the time, of course, when I punched a tooth out of my second cousin. Being soft in that neighbourhood is not an option. Don’t worry, he punched a tooth out of me when I visited him in Seremban. Young lads bonding.

The intervals between these gatherings grew longer once both grandparents passed on.

One day, grim news arrived.

A machete wielding gang ambushed another, and there were deaths. Right in front of Achi’s home. Which was not an accident, because it involved my cousins, their father and friends against what I imagined a motley group of equally violent characters. There were deaths.

A few years later, one cousin went missing over a turf war, and another still serves time in Kajang related to a few killings.

It seemed like good reasons to keep my distance.

From dusk to dawn

I left the funeral early to catch a flight.

But I was there for the 16th. Indian rites for the dead include prayers 16 days after the passing. There are prayers, and thereafter a waiting till early morning before a crew departs for the sea for a completion ceremony.

Till departure, everyone stays awake.

My brother and I were there to represent ourselves and our dead parents.

Indian wakes in Malaysia are expected to have card games, with the usual low wagers. In short time, Blackjack was in full flight.

I lost two ringgit.

As I sat there staring at my cards and figured out what Lady Fate had in store for me, my brother would point out to one young lad after another. “This is Gopi’s son, and the other is Ayya’s second born. And the other one, the one who went to the back twice to make sure your coffee had no sugar and milk, well he is Jayanthi’s boy.”

Every introduction had a backstory, had a summary filled with promise.

The cousins, as in the children of my cousins, were close and perhaps the result of living right next to each other throughout their lives.

My brother recounted that earlier my cousin had called from prison. He heard my brother was around and asked the phone to be handed to him. Funnily, he asked about me. I can’t recall one conversation with my cousin, not one. But he asked about me, and somehow I really appreciated it. After all, we are cousins.

And as arresting as long wakes turn out to be, conversations over cards leading to money keep interests going till the time for final goodbyes, I found myself enchanted.

While my mum was trying to outrun the trouble that lay with living in Kampung Pandan in those days, I do not believe she wanted to evade our past.

The past may have bloodstains, but there was nothing but promise in the present. These kids, they turned out fine. Achi would have been proud.

It is sad that it takes the exit of someone who would have held me as a child, to remember the more innocent moments of my youth. And more pertinently, appreciate the innocence of what remains of the family, and not to be ravaged by fear.

I lost two ringgit, but perhaps I won myself family.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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