Thursday, 30 October 2008

Rest in peace, Ms Sibert

Talk to any former students of St Nicholas Convent, Alor Setar, and the conversation will inevitably turn to Ms Sibert, our former headmistress, who not only put the fear in our hearts but also made sure that our uniforms were starched and creaseless, the hems were well below the knees, our hair neatly combed and tied back, and no chatting during assembly.

Today, I woke up to the news that Ms Millicent Sibert has passed away in Penang.

She was in her eighties. Thank you QOTH for leaving me a message this morning. This was confirmed by a journalist friend in Penang. The sad news is now seeping through the ex SNC network, thanks to sms and YM’s.

Pix of Ms Sibert at a recent reunion with QOTH's batch

Most of us have our own memories of Ms Sibert. I remember her arriving in the trishaw in the mornings and we’d scramble back into straight lines in the canteen waiting for the assembly to begin.

No running along the corridors, no speaking in any other languages but English. A strict disciplinarian she was and today, we are grateful for all the rules and regulations and disciplines that have shaped us into what we are today.

Rest in peace Ms Sibert from all your former students at SNC.

To the family and friends she left behind, our heartfelt condolence.

These are some of your former primary school students at a reunion in Alor Setar some years ago.

This article "A Loving Mother to 6,000 girls" was written by T Thant in the NST on 22.5.2000

Other tributes to Ms Sibert:

Queen of The House

Sunday, 26 October 2008

My Diwali Story

My dearest R,

This Diwali, I suddenly thought of your mum. I met her at a friend’s house. Her vivacity and warmth just meant she stood out in the room full of people. I took an instant liking to her. She was intelligent, friendly and she was pregnant - with you. The evening went too fast and soon it was time to go.

It was at our hostess’ door that we kissed goodbye. Patting her belly, she said, I want you to teach my child Malay. I want him or her to be able to speak Malay, at which point I laughingly said, yes, sure, call me when you are ready and we said goodbye. Our last goodbye.

We had heard of the move your parents made, taking you away to foreign shores, where they worked. But what stunned us most was the news of your mum’s sudden and untimely departure, leaving you when you were only sixteen months old. Your father, needless to say was devastated.

I had forgotten the promise we made in jest at the door of our friend’s house, a few winters back. But promises, even in jest, tend to find it way back. I received a call from your Dad who had heard that I dabbled in this and that and part of what I dabbled in was teaching Malay. We reminded each other of the time we met when your mum was still around, and foolishly, I agreed to give it a go – teaching you Malay.

When I first set eyes on you, I fell in love with you the way your Dad fell in love with your Mum. You had those big round eyes of hers and the biggest and sweetest smile, that is, when you chose to share your smile with me. The smiles became more frequent when you became more comfortable with me.

It was understandable that you were suspicious of my presence in that huge apartment of yours. After all, after your mum’s death, you only had your Dad, and K – your nanny. I was after all a stranger who only knew you as that bulge in your mum’s tummy. It took a while to win you over.

After work in central London, I’d make my way to north London. In summer, the walk up the lonely path to your place wasn’t too bad, but in winter it was a struggle. But I persevered because that huge smile waiting for me at the door was well worth the walk and the cold.

To say the two hours spent with you were lessons in Malay would be a violation of the job description. We played with your train set, read your books and messed about on the floor of that spacious apartment. We went to the playground where I pushed you on your bike and chased you around, pointing out to you, ‘daun’, ‘bunga’, ‘anjing’ and ‘kucing’. I think we had more fun in the garden than in the apartment.

The apartment was more like a shrine for your mum – she was everywhere, her pictures, her things – it was as if she never left. She would have been proud of the handsome son you were growing up to be. You were also very intelligent.

But as we became closer, it also became more difficult for me to leave. Already I was struggling emotionally. The few times that you cried when you saw me leave left me an emotional wreck. I couldn’t help you who definitely needed your mother, nor could I help your Dad who was still struggling to come to terms with your mum’s death.

To this day, I remember the last evening we had together. You wanted me to stay for dinner. While K placed the plates, you arranged and lit the candles on the kitchen table; one for Daddy, one for Mummy, and one for Zara, for that's what you called me. I choked back tears I shouldn’t be showing in front of a four year old. And then when dinner was over, you cried and pleaded; Please don’t go Zara.

When I left late that night, I knew then I couldn’t go back. I cried all the way back in the train full of rowdy passengers. And like a coward, I phoned your Dad to say I couldn’t teach you anymore.

I am sorry.

Today, as I write this, I know you must have grown to be a handsome young boy. I was sorting out some old pictures and found some pictures of yours. I also googled and found some on the net and read your Dad’s beautiful story of his love for his young wife, snatched away from him so soon after their marriage. And I remember one Hari raya or was it Diwali celebration in London when I bumped into your Dad and you looking so handsome in that Indian Kurta.

This Diwali, I felt the need to write to you to explain why I left without a goodbye. But I will never forget that dinner by the candlelight when you begged me not to leave.

Your Mum was a true Malaysian. Even on foreign land she wanted her son to learn Malay. So here’s a few more Malay words “ Selamat Menyambut Diwali, R.” And take care of your Dad.


And Happy Diwali to all my Hindu friends.

Friday, 24 October 2008

Confessions of a Facebook Hacker

Do you have any idea how difficult it is to put on a serious face, pretending to be working hard on a story for the Sunday Times, when what you are actually doing is hopping from one Facebook account to another? All courtesy of one sayang mama who had actually left his/her Facebook without logging out!

MUAHAHAHAAH!!! (I've always wanted to do this!) And this is not the first time. This sayang mama is so going to get it from his/her siblings! Muahahahaha!!!!!!

I have resisted Facebook invites mainly because I am loyal to blogspot. I enjoy blogspot and I enjoy interacting with my readers in blogspot. I don’t need to be prodded and pelted with tomatos or being superpoked, whatever that means.

So, my darling Facebookers:

Dena, you are hungry all the time – it runs in the family. What's new? And the wait will come to an end soon and I will be lumbered with another cucu saudara! Life is so not fair!

Wani in Manipal, you are supposed to be studying forensics and not eyeing your lecturer! And while you are doing that, close your mouth! You're drooling.

Norashikin Amin, so, what’s the 20 year old mystery? I thought Man is no longer a mystery.

Nazrah, when you’ve finished shampooing Dena, I need my hair done too.

Nona, are you serious? You are reading Roots and VS Naipal????

and to Nona and KakD, your posing memosing in Yvoire is soooooo Minah perasan!

Oh the list can go on, but I need to get on with my work and my stomach is aching trying to suppress laughter while Sayang Mama is sitting in front, unsuspecting of my forays into their worlds!

Happy Facebooking my sayang mamas, MUAHAHAHAAHA!

Kak Teh's other confessions:
Confessions of a Compulsive Liar
Confessions of an Aunt
Confessions of a Techie Idiot
Confessions of a Spoonerism Surrefer
Confessions of a Spoonerism Surrefer and other Weird Things
Confessions of an AlleyCats Die Hard Fan

Monday, 20 October 2008


Work is piling up yet I have to destress, kan? So I took to doing scrapblogging with a vengeance! This will be the selingan for now. I did this (when I should be working) using Try it!

I love this one of Nona and her cousin Wani jumping over the Tajmahal when they were in India.

This is one of sibling revelry in Geneva recently.

This is a postcard I made for our loved ones left behind. Ingat jugak, kan?

And this - you can look but musn't laugh! Featuring Charlie's Angels in "The Great Swiss Escapade"!! Don't miss it! Coming to a cinema near you!

Thursday, 16 October 2008

The house that Pak built - where is it?

The last chat
with my brother left me with a despondent mood that is not about to lift any moment soon. As usual the topic of conversation was Mak. She was insisting that some one takes her back to the house that Pak built for her. But that is nothing new. She does that on a daily basis these days.

Yesterday, as my brother was getting ready to go to work, she insisted that he takes her to work with him, and leaves her at a certain junction where she would proceed to her house. Considering where he works is somewhere near Melawati, she has got a long way to go indeed, back to her home town in Alor Setar.

But what is more worrying is that when Ajie asked her where her house is, she went quiet and looked very confused and couldn’t even remember where her beloved home is. And this is sad. The house that she keeps yearning to return to, the one that is keeping her alive in her waking hours and one that fills her dreams when she goes to sleep, is nowhere near her radar screen these days. In her mind, the house still has a garden that is perpetually in full bloom and orchids with a riot of colours that would stop people in their tracks and stare in admiration. Somewhere in the deep recesses of her mind, they are still there, awaiting her return. But for now, she couldn’t place where that house is.

These last few years, Mak has used the same excuse that Pak never wanted her to leave the house that he built for her. We never heard this when Pak was alive. Pak would have wanted Mak to stay where she would be cared for by her children. And that is where she is now. There is no denying that Mak feels closer to Pak when she is there. She wants to go and visit his final resting place and offer her prayers. She also wants to offer her prayers to Tok, but that big house is no place for her, not even with a companion or a carer. For now it has become a place to go back to during Raya, and once in a while in between. And that is certainly not enough for Mak.

That Mak is feeling this attachment with Pak who left us some thirty years ago, is rather touching. When we were growing up, we never saw even a hint of lovey-doveyness between them. I suppose in those days, a public display of affection, even in front of their own children, was a no no. There was no Yang or Abang, or any such terms of endearment that we heard. But the loyalty and devotion were obvious for she cared for Pak right until he breathed his last. The companionship that they shared was evident. They were hardly apart – except of course when she went to Mekah and when she spent time looking after Kak when she gave birth.

Looking back, I remember that they spent most of their time together in the big kitchen. While she prepared food, he helped peel and chop the onions so finely and top and tail the taugehs. At other times, he kept her company reading the Straits Times or doing the Crossword puzzles while she went about doing the chores.

Pak was housebound most of the time since his accident and this meant Mak was practically on her own when she went to kenduris and do’s or visiting friends and relatives. Pak was contented with being at home with his newspapers and TV. Once in a very long while, he’d take us to the cinema – in two trishaws. And that was a treat indeed. One treat that I remember to this day, was the trip to Penang where we stayed at a resthouse. And yes, he bought us Black Magic chocolates, which in those days were like gold dust.

It is anyone’s guess what still remains in Mak’s mind. Whatever it is, it must be some beautiful thoughts and memories of time spent with Pak, in the house that he built for her.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Shopping with Nek

Tok, in the days when laser was unheard of, was already known for her mulut laser. Thus, Mak poking her head out of the window to beckon in a vendor would prompt Tok to look up from her daily task of picking bunga melur in her garden or from her sewing and let out a tirade such as this: Why don’t you all put a signboard outside the gate, inviting all vendors in?

Yes, why not? The trail of vendors to the house would include the Chinese Man selling carpets and lace table cloths, the Indian guy with all manner of materials latest from his part of the world, the mak cik selling trinklets and gold accessories, the Mamak Mee goreng and those selling kuehs in the afternoon. They all made a trail to our front door knowing very well that time spent at number 13D, was time well spent as they’d get their returns soon enough.

Pak wasn’t too fussy about what Mak bought: the various coloured tupperwares and pyrex of different sizes and shapes were always useful during kenduris and birthday parties. The carpets made an appearance once or twice a year. Pak only called in the mamak kueh. He never went out, so the vendors came in.

In a way, it was more like having your personal shopping time, without the rush and the dizzying and maddening crowd of Lorong Sempit or Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman.

There’s the usual bargaining tactics. Mak was quite good at bargaining; feigning to be indifferent and most not interested in the wares spread out before her.

The vendors too had their tricks; dropping a name or two of other possible interested parties. Once the transaction was almost done, out came the Buku 555 and a plan of payment was drawn out.

For this raya, I poked my head out of the YM "window" and called out to Nek to see if she had any new items for Raya. I hate shopping and browsing and spending hours in shops in crowded Oxford Street isn’t my idea of a good time. So having Nek come over to my window is certainly the best alternative, without having to leave the comforts of my living room and not upset Snowbell dozing on my lap. All I needed to do was buzz Nek and beckon her over.

“Salam, Nek! Ada apa kali ni Nek?” I asked.

“Eeeeeeeee, Kak Teh! Ada banyak! Cantik-cantik. Ada beg Coach ni. Eloklah pakai untuk hari raya,” she said employing her tried and tested sales tactics.

“Alaaaa, mahal laaa, tak mampu. Tak ada ke yang murah-murah sikit?” I asked.

“Lalalala.....Kalau berkenan Nek boleh bagi discount kat Kak Teh. Ni yang last dah. Kalau tak mau Nek nak hantar balik,” she tried again.

And yes, that did it. I clicked frantically on the page of Coach bags, picked one and closed my eyes and typed – YES!

See how easy that was? And within five days, I was already carrying the brand new bag for my hari raya visits.

Nek has more in store – that was just to whet the appetite. She came back after her LA raya trip with more bags and accessories to tempt me. Again, I had a private viewing session – and needless to say I succumbed to Nek’s sales tactics once more. This time, it wasn’t for me. I bought one bag to be delivered to someone dear in Malaysia as a present. See, no hassles!

If you want to shop around and see other collections of branded goods and accessories, then go to Ninnie’s. There’s no need to worry about parking space or the rush back to beat the traffic jam. Take your time to browse around and your spouse wont even suspect where you've been. Just put on your most serious 'hard at work' look on your face.

Before venturing to Nek's, I went shopping here to get new tudungs for Raya. I am no expert in tying tudungs but these Ezy Peazy Tudungs are a real godsent. I picked a few and had them delivered just in time for raya.

There was one year when I ordered the most delicious fruit cake online.

So, really, there's no reason to get into the rush and come back home tired and worn out. By buying online – the only damage you get is of course to your bank account, which is unavoidable, and also to your manicured nails.

I can almost hear Tok reprimanding me: Bukalah tingkap banyak-banyak, ajak semua orang mai jual itu ini. Pantang tengok orang jual barang!

Friday, 10 October 2008

The Journey Continues - the tale of the blue kebaya

As she walked down the stairs to show me what she would be wearing for Hari Raya in Geneva, my heart skipped a beat. It was as if the outfit was made for her, waiting for her to choose it from amongst other kebayas in the wardrobe. The sight of Kak Di, my niece, in that kebaya brought a flood of memories rushing back. The kebaya is four years older than Kak Di, and had made the journey from Malaysia across the oceans nearly 29 years ago. It was the kebaya that I wore for my wedding.

The start of the kebaya journey with Rehana (middle) carrying on the tradition.

Kak Di continues the journey.
In fact, I had been toying with the idea of keeping the kebaya back in the old suitcase I keep under the bed. After all, none of my girls could wear them anymore. It was a favourite with them during hari rayas and weddings. But this year, the girls had outgrown it. In fact, there are still several of my old kebayas and kota bharu with matching batik sarongs, still hanging in their closet. And these too have seen several rayas and weddings since I packed them in my suitcase for what seemed to be a very long honeymoon after just two weeks of getting married.

I seem to remember very vaguely the shopping trip to buy the material. It was in old PJ town. Not much thought was given to what kind of material I wanted for our special day, but I remember that I wanted something that I could wear more than once; something that wouldn’t look out of place at a function or a simple kenduri. I didn’t relish a wedding dress that would only gather dust in the wardrobe. So I settled for the dark blue lace, while he picked a lighter blue for his baju Melayu. And as an afterthought, a white lace to wear over my hair. No perms, no long hours at the salon, but a simple rinse and blow dry at home.

I brought several other pieces to send to the tailor, so I could wear them to visit relatives before our departure to London. And even those I packed with me, ignoring warnings that the cold London weather is not the place for thin flimsy kebayas. I even wore one on the flight here regretting almost immediately upon arrival, as it was below 10 celcius!

But it would seem that I wore nothing else BUT the kebayas here in London. The first airing for the blue lacey one after the wedding was to the Buckingham Palace Garden party. 22nd July 1982 was a warm summer afternoon - a perfect day for a garden party. With Aishah Ali and Dina Fuad, all in our finest Malay traditional costumes, we took a taxi to the Palace. Aishah was in bright red, I was in dark blue and Dina was in rich green. We nearly stopped the traffic. Never mind that we couldn’t get to see the Queen; we were too short and our path was blocked by people in tall, fancy hats. But I believe it must have been one of the Queen’s officers who asked us: Are you from Thailand? What a disappointment!

Anyway, the blue kebaya made another journey to the Palace Garden party a few years later and this time I was accompanied by Rehman. Another warm summer day and we decided to end the afternoon with a short walk to Harrods in Knightsbridge, for tea.

I wore most of my kebayas to work at the BBC World Service in Bush House, where a kebaya was certainly not out of place amongst Vietnamese ao dais, Indian sarees and the Burmese longyi.

Alas, four children later, the waist is just a fond memory of the good old days and most kebayas were banished in suitcases under the bed, including the blue lace kebaya - only to be taken out and stared at longingly, wishing for the return of the waistline.

But all was not lost. As the waistline grew, so did the children. The girls took to wearing my kebayas and in them I saw me, even if it was a fraction of me that I saw.

Malaysian students organising Malaysian nights too found my collection useful.

One favourite short kebaya of mine is one that I had made in Penang, for my graduation. I remember parting with quite a hefty sum to pay the tailor for the fine kerawangs, plus the kain batik susun to go with it. I was in that short brown kebaya, and had a flower in my hair, while Fati and Ena were in their best as well, and our picture appeared in the newspaper the very next day. Fame at last!Up until last year that was also a favourite with my girls.

Several kebayas were hand me downs from my eldest sister, a kebaya queen in her heyday, and these too made their way to the children’s closet. Nona loves Kak’s green kota bharu which I think will soon make its way back to Malaysia to see who else can wear it. Like the blue lace kebaya, the end of its journey is nowhere near.

The girls in hand me downs from Kak.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Bohong sunat di pagi raya

“Zaharah masak apa?” she asked for the fifth or the sixth time in between coughs, while Eena held the microphone close to her mouth and the speaker close to her right ear.

“Masak nasi tomato, Mak!” I lied, loud enough for her to hear and clear enough to prick my conscience on this Hari Raya day.

“Masak apa lagi?” she was adamant to know, as she knew how limited my culinary skills are.

“Ah masak Ayam Portuguese macam Mak ajar tu, ayam golek macam Pak suka makan tiap-tiap hari Raya, daging masak kicap, banyaklah lagi”, I said so convincingly that I was beginning to it believe myself. There were chuckles in the background; chuckles of disbelief coming from the other half and the children who had been denied of a Raya meal.

“Yang tu sajalah dia tau masak,” she said turning to Eena, my niece. Such is the confidence Mak has in me.

Mak and I skyped this raya morning my time and evening Mak’s time. When she was aided to the front of the computer, I didn’t think I could continue the conversation with her. She looked so frail as she had been seriously fasting for the past week. I said seriously because at other times, she didn’t even know that it was Ramadhan. Sometimes, she thought my siblings were doing puasa sunat. But during the last week of Ramadhan, she fasted. And on Raya day, with visitors all day long in Lilah’s house, Mak decided to help with the dishes. And no one could stop her. Lepas tu dia penat. It was in that state that I saw her on my screen and I wanted to look away, because I didn’t want to see Mak like that. For a few minutes when she asked me how I was, I couldn’t speak for the lump in my throat.

I lied to Mak about cooking because I wanted her to believe that her son-in-law and her grandchildren were well fed that Raya morning. I didn’t feel so bad because they joined in the conspiracy as well. My other half had actually bought a whole lamb but because of the unexpected announcement of Raya on Tuesday, the lamb in several parts, is languishing in the freezer.

For several days and nights, all we, (husband and I) saw was the computer screen. Raya morning after subuh, I stopped a while just to change the tablecloth I bought from Fenwicks and put some jam tarts and biscuits that Nona brought back from Malaysia. (I don’t do kueh raya. Last year I tried, but I suspect, it was mainly so I could blog about it.) Then we were off to Malaysia Hall for prayers. All along the way, I had the laptop on my lap, typing away until we reached Whiteleys where Rehana parked the car. Rehana is our driver these days as Nona, after gallivanting in Thailand and India, has gone to spend Hari Raya in Geneva.

And all the way to the High Commissioner’s residence in the leafy suburb of Hampstead, I was furiously banging on the keyboard. As the car turned into the exclusive enclave with big houses behind tall hedges and walls, I plugged in the mobile internet thingy, pressed the right keys and voila! mission accomplished! I could at least enjoy the rest of the day. And my family had free food at the open house hosted by our Foreign Minister.

Raya mornings, come rain, shine or thunderstorm, Mak would have a spread ready for us. Ayam Golek was a must. Pak’s favourite. And of course, nasi tomato to feed the whole clan that would descend soon after prayers at the Mesjid Sultan in Alor Star.

How she managed it, we never knew. Pak helped her with peeling the onions and slicing the vegetables. The rempah and chilli paste would have been done by the little Indian lady who came weekly to grind our chillies and spice on that big slab of stone just outside the kitchen.

All these Mak did quietly but efficiently to ensure that her husband and children got their hari raya feast. All these, in spite of the fact that she had tons of baju kurungs with tulang belud to make for her regular customers. Yet, there’d be the food ready on the table.

“Selamat Hari raya, minta ampun minta maaf, Mak,” I half whispered. “Minta ampun minta maaf sebab Ah bohong pagi raya ni – bohong sunat, Mak! “