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.