Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Free-writing: Atuk and Wan

It's been a stale month overall, and I've fallen behind in any kind of writing, so I hope to embark on a writing spree with the intent to overcome my writer's block as well as hone the writing skill. I thought it would be easier to start with some family portraits, so here is my grandfather from my mom's side.

I can't say exactly when but my atuk was born in the 1930's in a port city called Klang, on the west coast of Malaysia. Back then it was Malaya and under the British rule. His name is Abu Hassan but we call him atuk (grandfather). His parents had come from Indonesia, they were 13 and 14 when they got married and lived in a poor industrial area where most South Indian laborers lived and how my atuk came to learn Tamil. When he was around 10 years old the Japanese came and wrested power over Malaya from the British and my atuk was absorbed into the Japanese school system. He used to sell his mother's baked goods in the market after school, and he'd cross the Klang bridge where the Japanese placed heads on spikes as a warning and prevention of future transgressions. He told me that people called a back-handed slap a "Japanese slap" due to the cruelty with which the soldiers treated the people in Klang. My atuk said he enjoyed school though, and was going to advance well into his Japanese courses when the war ended and the soldiers left.

My atuk has an older brother, Hussain (but Tok Long- eldest grandfather- to us grandkids) and for a while it was just the two of them. They had a younger sister, but when she was still an infant she died when a bunch of coconuts fell from a tree and crushed her. It sounds like a joke but unfortunately it's true, and my atuk's mother grieved bitterly, until they adopted a Chinese girl, who we call Busu. She grew up to be a typical Malay woman, wearing batik sarong skirts and her hair in a serkop (scarf) pulled away from her face. All the times that I've seen her as a kid she would be sitting at the threshold of the house, working something in a plastic tub (chicken, fish, I don't know) and her skirt hiked up around her. She would cluck and smile when we came over and scold us in a very typical Malay 'mak cik' kind of way which was endearing.

My atuk was a smart student and worked very hard to make it to the teacher's college in Penang up north, where he eventually met my grandmother, who at that time was Tan Kim Kee. My Chinese grandmother had a very different upbringing in Seremban. It was luxurious compared to my grandfather, and even during the war she had access to luxuries like chocolate. She does recall a troubled time however when she and her cousin were hiding from Japanese soldiers out in the rubber plantations and she rolled down a hill. She was fine though. She used to study at a convent where Irish nuns taught her everything from pslamsto home economics to dancing the fox trot. She was a touch vain, and found reasons to visit her photographer uncle who'd take portraits of her. She was beautiful and a bit proud, and when she met my grandfather she didn't think much of the boy who bossed the younger freshmen around and yelled often from the top of the stairs. My grandparents don't elaborate beyond this point however, as they say the rest of their story is a secret and they fast-forward to the part where my grandmother converted to Islam and Tan Kim Kee became Mona.

Her mother was furious over the conversion and even more furious at her new son-in-law who often came to the gate of the house with a chicken as a peace offering. She used to chase him away with a broom. Over the years when my grandparents had five children and my grandfather's responsibilities grew as a teacher, headmaster, and eventually as a member of the board of education, my great-grandmother began to soften towards him. In the end she was the one who bought the chicken and prepared his favorite dishes, and before she passed away she confessed that out of several son-in-laws he was by far her favorite.

Since my grandparents retired as teachers in the 90's they been travelling like a pair of NatGeo adventurers. They've been to nearly every country in the world, first visiting their kids in university in Europe and the US, then expanding around the region (Vietnam, Indonesia), around Europe and the Matterhorn. My grandfather recently had open-heart surgery, but that didn't stop him from going onto a 30-hour-flight to Cuba a few months after.

These guys, they can't even see what kind of a legacy they're leaving behind. They think they're just ordinary grandfolk.

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