Tuesday 29 November 2005

As I was munching muruku

I sat on the 0815 going towards East Anglia, feeling very much like Michelin’s grandma trying to feel my feet under those layers and layers of socks. I had rolly-pollied down the platform just minutes before the train pulled away and plonked myself, quite breathlessly, on the seat and I swear I must have bounced up and down a few times much to the amusement of prim proper lady sitting in front of me, trying to concentrate on her John Grisham.

When I had peeled off my coat and jumpers and whatnots and piled them neatly like freshly made laundry on the empty seat next to me, I proceeded to take in the English countryside whizzing past. Posted by Picasa
The once yellow fields of rapeseeds are now bare, succumbing to the harsh winter that is intruding into autumn like an unwanted guest. The farmer’s cottage looked so calm and peaceful – the only hint of life being the soft, willowing smoke coming out of the chimney. Oh, how I envy the farmer’s wife cuddling up to the farmer under their feather-filled duvet, warmed by the crackling fire from their fireplace.

And how I envy the sheep their thick coat of wool as they stood still, dotting the bare field, as if they are glued by blue tacs to the ground. Oh, how I envy.....stop it, stop it , stop it! I told myself as I furiously munched my muruku, grinding them to a paste and downing them with strong starbucks latte that I had bought at the station.

Alas, at this ungodly hours of the morning, as the temperature dipped further and further, self pity was also fast setting in, especially when thoughts of what I was doing in good old sunny Malaya three weeks ago flashed by like those unsolicited Tourism slide show . Oh what am I doing here? It is cold and wet and gloomy!

“Yes, what are you doing there?” “How long more are you going to be there? “ “When are you all planning to come back and work here?” “ Do you plan to queue up with other OAPs (Age Old Pensioners) for your pensions at the post office?”

Those are the harsh, no nonsence, mind probing questions from friends that came like flashbacks...questions I don’t have answers to. I swear prim proper lady peered from behind her Gucci framed glasses, taking her attention away from Grisham momentarily. Had I been talking out loud to myself? Am I going crazy? I smiled sheepishly and continued munching my muruku courtesy of friend from good old Malaya.

Next month (and I thought I had stopped counting) it’ll be 26 years away from good old Malaya – the Malaya where I can wear my colourful kaftan up and down the streets and eat roti bakar with generous dollops of planta margerine and even more generous spread of kaya, at any time of the day or night. So, it has been 26 years of cold wet and glomy winter and I still can’t get used to sitting on cold toilet seats in the morning, without it giving me a jump start. Twenty six years and I still yearn for mee goreng mamak that never failed to bring tears to my eyes and make me rush to the toilet in five minutes flat – yet I keep on yearning, especially on a cold, gloomy day like this. When the train pulled in at a small station, I half expected a food vendor to come rushing to the window with nasi lemak and beehoon goreng and even kacang kuda rebus. Prim proper lady looked up unamused as if she could read my mind. Dream on, she seemed to say, raising one well plucked eyebrow before turning back to Grisham.

As the train left the platform, it seemed to be going through a wad of cotton wool. Gone were the leafless trees and the bare fields and I was feeling a tad claustrophobic. It was fog! Even prim proper lady seemed a bit ill at ease by this change in scenery. She muttered something under her breath that betrayed her breed and background. I only knew this after watching many repeats of To The Manor Born.
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Self pity was rushing in at full speed and I overdosed myself with more muruku as if that would help, but it only brought back memories of that brief but fun evening at a deepavali open house eating chapati and curry to the sound of Selamat Hari Raya by a sittar player. This can only happen in good old Malaya.
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The fog lifted but it failed to leave my mind. It was still foggy and muddled up – my mind, that is. Someone cleverly mentioned my life as one being cradled on two cultures. It has made it more muddled, that’s what it has done. And what have I done in my 26 years here? It stocktaking time!
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Anyway, the scenery outside the window was becoming more interesting. The little lanes snaking into the woods were white against the dark gloomy background. It was like strokes of white chalk on a painting. The ground was frozen! Even the streams running alongside the tracks were frozen. Luckily I had my layers and layers of jumpers and shawls! Then, like wads of cotton wool, they drifted down gently settling on tree tops and roof tops turning it into fairyland at Christmas time. And as I stepped off the 0815 from King’s Cross, I felt the first snow drop of the season, on my nose.

Sunday 20 November 2005

Confessions of an aunt

My dearest A,

You missed alot of fun during the last raya gathering cos you chose to do some more important (read: boring) things at the UN. So, here’s the story in brief. But I also take this opportunity to slip in a confession or two.

I wont talk about the food. Suffice to say, there were plenty. But we catered - no one bothered to cook and many a times your uncles slipped out and came back with mee goreng Shariff.
You know we have a ritual of taking family photographs, right? This year, two of your cousins fought to sit on my lap and I suffered under a combined weight of 24 stones that very nearly not only broke the chair but also my poor bones. They were Abang Am and Kak Oli – the oldest of your cousins who I used to balance on my lap and spoil them rotten. No, that is not the full story for if they have their own blogs or a say in this entry, I will be arrested by the NSPCC.

So, I will confess and tell the truth and nothing but the truth.

You know that I have a reputation among my siblings, your mum included, one they have viciously circulated among their children in my absence, adding this and that making a mountain out of a mole hill. It also doesn’t help that their children too (you included) have memories so strong of their Mak Teh that they have now passed on to their children. And I think this is so unfair. I now wonder why your younger cousins eyed me suspiciously everytime I approached them with presents. "Beware the one bearing presents", they must have said.

I thank God that our family is such a fertile lot that during my visits home, I would always be greeted by an addition - a newborn niece or nephew and now I even have grand nephews. But the sad thing is that the parents watched me like hawks. They have even formed a protective circle around sleeping babies and this really breaks my heart. Even memories of them doing so bring tears to my eyes as I am never allowed near any of my cuddly wuddly nieces and nephews, whose chubby cheeks I love to pinch and whose tiny toes and fingers I love to bite. Oooooh, and those delicious little ears! I love talking to them and waking them from their deep, peaceful sleep, much to the annoyance of their parents.

I really don’t understand the fuss – babies do go back to sleep, when they are tired. (Or when I am tired). What is a pinch or two? Or a bite and lots of hugs and gomois that usually leave them breathless? It is all done in the name of love and affection of an aunt.

My own children to this day endure my pinch on their less chubby cheeks. They have grown into quite normal adults, none showing any signs of being mentally scarred by what I subjected them to. Don’t you think so too?

Come to think of it, my nieces and nephews have done rather well inspite of or perhaps because of the Mak Teh treatment. I treasure Eena and Wani’s company as we ventured out to KL – they are now my partners in crime. But I must say this, I still have a lot of apprehensions and fear being driven by Kak Di. I fear her little feet couldn’t reach the pedals. But hey! Zhafri – wa caya lu lah! You know, he has grown into quite a hemsem young man! But I wonder why he speaks into his pillows so much! Hish, budak2 muda ni! And I suspect Am and Oli who sat on my laps were just doing so to actually break my bones to get back at me!

But A, I have one heartbreaking story to tell you.
When it suited them, your parents, allowed you to sleep with me. I truly enjoyed changing your nappies and pinching your cheeks – well, both, in the process. But one weekend, I came back from college with mumps. And Olah (your maid), didn’t know any better and allowed you to sleep in my bed. That night, your mum, aided and abetted by your dad, sneeked in and took you away from my side. And I cried myself to sleep and promised that when I have my own children, no one will ever take them away from my side ever again.

Anyway, this trip, I was really delighted to see the youngest addition to the family, Sofea, but she has lost lots of the chubbiness but still delicious enough to be eaten alive. But I wonder what Pak Ajie and Kak Nisa have told her cos she has this defensive gestures whenever I went near her, even when she was asleep. They have even taken to sleeping with their arms protectively around her at night. In the day time, she walked around covering her cheeks when I was near.

Anyway, I was not alone in 'torturing' these little children, you know. Well, Tok doesn’t have Astro and we needed to amuse ourselves. So, we took turns. Don't be fooled by Pak Su's banker look, which hid a real sadist in him. We pretended to hit the mother and gleefully watched her cry. This we did several times. I even have them on video and you can watch on your return. Even Kak Nisa and Pak Ajie joined in with the worst mental torture a child have to endure. It went like this: "Sofea sayang sapa? Mama ke Papa?” If she said Mama, Pak Ajie pretended to cry. When she said Papa, Kak Nisa pretended to cry leaving her so traumatised and confused. And they say I am cruel! But we had such fun. We used to do that to you too.

But I have to confess to one other thing that I did and which to this day I am most shameful to talk about. I hope that when little Hilman grows up, he will find it in his generous heart to forgive me.

You know that Hilman is very much a fan of Siti Nurhaliza. Who isn’t? I happened to have a picture of Siti and me in London. I also happened to have a raya SMS from Dato Lat, which says “Selamat Hari Raya from the three of us: Siti Nurhaliza 0123456789
Mawi: 0198765432 dan yang terglamour, Lat and family (his number). So, overcome by a wicked thought, I told Hilman that I have Siti’s number (fake of course!) and he pestered me to phone Siti, for 4 year old Hilman wanted to propose to her – and warn off Dato K! So, I was in a real fix and had to rope in your dear sister in this sting. I gave her half an hour’s notice to practice being Siti . (Sorry, Siti – Kak Teh minta ampun!)

Much later and after more presterings from a love struck Hilman, I called ‘Siti’ (and this I have on video which will be shown during my confession when Hilman comes of age). Your dear sister, I must say, did pretty well and even agreed to his proposal, much to the surprise of your Bro in law sitting by her side. Hilman, to say the least was beaming! BUT trust your sister not to know any of Siti’s songs – so when he asked her to sing, Jeling Menjeling, she suggested lagu Balik Kampung instead!

Anyway, I sighed a sigh of relief when Hilman went to sleep with a smile on his face, still clutching the photo. I didnt have the heart to pinch him and disturb his dreams.

So, my dearest A, we missed you and to the rest of my nieces and nephews, I am sorry, Mak Teh

Thursday 17 November 2005

In Praise of the Kaftan

To friends and relatives who visited me during raya and found me not in any Raya clothes, please forgive me. I did buy some baju kurungs to get in the raya mood but trying them on in the air conditioned changing rooms just isn't the same as wearing them in the sweltering temperature of Mak's kitchen. So, whenever I had the chance, I’d slipped into those wonderful, cooling and comfortable batik kaftans, ignoring Mak’s repetitive (for she is so repetitive now) questions – “Laaaa, tak mandi lagi?”

What is it about kaftans that makes people think you have not had a bath or ready for bed? I sincerely believe that the Malaysian kaftans is so undervalued and under rated, but of course we are not talking about those mass produced ones. I have quite a few of those, with arm holes that allowed people to see more than the armpits...gross! For some mothers, they find it easy to breastfeed their babies thru the armholes– hahaha! (sorry)

Anyway, I am so delighted to discover some very beautiful new designs of the kaftans that really ought to be seen out in coffee bars or garden parties. So, of course, I bought a few and wore them everywhere. Such an easy concept. Just a big piece of cloth sewn on both sides and a hole for the neck. In fact, if you can get a few of your Mak’s old lacy selendangs, just sew on both sides and you get one fashionable one without having to pay hundreds of RM, for that is what they cost at the shops.

The good thing about kaftans is that they come in one size and can hide a multitude of sins. Of course the danger is that you tend to forget the bulges that you are hiding and become comfortable with that.

Anyway, back in cold gloomy London, I attended a fashion show at the Four Seasons Hotel two days ago and caught up with an old friend, a batik designer Khalid Shamsuddin. I am in awe of Khalid and his designs. Of course, Khalid’s designs and collections are not new in London. His designs made an appearance at this year’s London Fashion Week in the Eric Way Collection and also for Lewre’s shoes. He designed for Jendela Batik when they had a show at The Dorchester.

Khalid’s soft colours and unique designs were such a hit – and I set my eyes on one particular black number with a big butterfly in front. It looked so good on the model. And kidding myself that I’d look good in it too, I parted with whatever RM I had left in my purse and bought it.

Now I will have to wait for a warm summer evening and an invite!
PS I 've had loads of problem putting pictures here. Anyway, the above pictures are just some of Khalid's creations. The black and white kaftan with the big butterfly is now MINEEEEEEE!!
PPS - Thank you for all your comments - very,very interesting read. I have bought some Batik Kaftans for English friends and they were disgusted when I suggested that they wear them to sleep. Bergen, pls blog abt your aunt's business. Ummi, thanks..the softness? Must be my extra tyres. Thinktankgirl - u saw & heard?
I once threatened to wear a beautiful and colourful silk kaftan toa friend's BBQ but my children did a counter threat and refused to come along. One even said, Mama, if you stand in the middle of the road, motorists might mistake you as the traffic light!
For your info, Khalid is known as the Pareo Boy after introducing the Malaysian Pareos to Club Med. He also created the Baju Laut popular among tourists.

Tuesday 15 November 2005

Raya with Mak

It was 1610 London time when MH4 landed at Heathrow yesterday. While waiting for the doors to open, memories of the last two carefree weeks came flooding back. Two weeks of being spoilt and dare I say- two weeks of being a spoilt brat – and enjoying it! So now its back to the harsh realities of being a mum, a wife and as I write this, at 0430 (jet lagged!) I have just under three hours to rest before my first assignment – a breakfast meeting with a Minister! And I can bet you, I will be dozing off by 5 pm and hopefully someone will wake me up for another assignment at 1930 at Four Seasons. No rest for the wicked.

The harsher reality is the weather PLUS the realisation that my coat is still not at the cleaners.

Will I sound irresponsible if I say I had really enjoyed my two weeks away from my husband and children? Throughout the time I was doing my studies, my Mak fell, injured her head, was ill several times. But I pushed aside all negative thoughts and soldiered on with my studies. I ignored blogs with entries on Mothers. I was in denial but I silently prayed that Allah gives me this chance to be with her during Hari Raya. When I prayed alongside with her the morning of Hari Raya, I thanked God, that I was back home on that special day with Mak. Alhamdulillah, I can say that the first part of the holiday, I was with her and my siblings all the time. When Abang came back from the Middle East, Mak couldn’t stop smiling. She was chirpy and active. All her children were with her in the house that Pak built for Mak and she watched us up to our mischiefs. We were her little children, arguing, bantering and teasing each other, and at other times, we were mothering her – telling her off for walking miles in her own home that she has left for the past six months or so, brushing this and sweeping that. We humoured her and played along when she talked about staying back in the house and not wanting to move back to KL. We conspired with other relatives against her and psyched her up for the trip back...and she played along too, knowing deep down, she has no choice anymore.

In a way, it is sad. She was THE strength for not just us her children, but also for all her siblings and other relatives. The house that Pak built used to be the centre for relatives to get together. The kitchen was always full of relatives sitting around eating and eating and talking about old times. We’d move from the kitchen to the hall and back and still had plenty to talk about. And Mak would feed all of us endlessly.

Now, she has been reduced to a nomad, moving from one child’s house to another, carrying her small bag of necessities. With all the love she has around her, she is frustrated that she is now incapable of doing things for herself, that she has to depend on other people.

Everyday while we were at the family home, she woke up with this smile on her face and padded to the front room to see her new table. Ajie had bought it for Raya. And Nisa bought a table runner that pleased her enormously. She didnt want a table cloth as she wanted to see the polished wood. The table first became her excuse to stay back. Then, one day before the trip back to KL, she feigned illness. We played along and later we overheard her chat with the neighbour – she admitted, she no longer has any say – she goes where ever we take her.

In the middle of the nights when we were there, she did her rounds in that big lounge that has become our communal bedroom. I was reduced to tears when she came over and covered me with the thin blanket that had slipped away. Once, I woke up to see her stroking Ajie’s hair forgetting that Ajie is already a father of five! Earlier, against all protestations, she slowly pulled a mattress and some blankets to one corner of the lounge. “Ni untuk Abang” she said, refering to the beddings. Yes, Abang has no one to care for him now that Kak Piah is gone and Mak knew that she needs to mother him again. In a way since Kak Piah’s passing, she has found it in her to be strong for Abang.

Last week we brought her back to KL and on day one, she was down. She didnt want to leave the house that Pak built for her and her orchids and her plants that she loves so much. So, we put plan 2 into action. Lilah brought over Ajie’s small children to be around her. Lilah did her chores walking past her every few minutes to show that there are people around her. I was, of course, out shopping and meeting friends. She’d ask after me, but she is also resigned to the fact that I need to be with a group of childhood friends whenever I am back. She knows that when I am with them, I would either come back at 3 am or not at all. She allows this irresponsible child in me and perhaps also realised it is too late to change me. Well, at my age I can’t be up to much mischief now, can I? Or, can I?

On the last night, I slept with her and watched her sleep. She is so small and frail but she still has so much love that has touched so many. She has given so much and expects so little in return.

So, last raya, the house that Pak built for Mak was full of fun and laughter again and that should keep Mak happy for a while. When I left yesterday, Mak at 88 was a picture of health. As she hugged and kissed me, she whispered “Jangan lupa Mak”.

The Captain’s announcement brought me back to reality and as I pushed my bag out, I called Taufiq’s mobile phone. My husband answered and said he was still at home. I was a little disappointed but we did agree to meet in Paddington instead of Heathrow. But once outside, I saw a familiar figure trying to hide behind a pillar! He was up to his old tricks again! And there was Taufiq trying to suppress his laughter seeing his father acting like a teenager!

Aaaah, we do need to let the child in us out once in a while and I certainly did during my 2 weeks home with Mak. Now, I am ready to be a Mak again. And hopefully a better one!