Chapter 2 - Malaysian Shores – 1959 – The first long day
Time passed albeit at a snail’s pace, and soon the day arrived when the ship docked at the Port in Malaysia, her final destination. She had already packed her stuff and eagerly stood outside on the deck ready to disembark as soon as the ship berthed. Her elder sister and her brother-in-law would be waiting for her at the port. She was glad that she had family to receive her there, especially so after a long rigorous journey and one that left her bereft of company. She was eager to see them. She was eager to finally get off the ship.
It was on a crisp October morning that Aruna found herself hugging her sister and her brother-in-law in a new Country, in the land that offered many opportunities to immigrants and newcomers like her. The first look she had of Malaysia before the ship berthed, awed her. She had quickly carried her bag, stood in line with the rest of the passengers and walked down the steps of the ship eagerly with the wind blowing in her face. She looked around the environment after her initial meeting with her family. Her sister and brother in law couldn’t contain their mirth when they saw her and was chatting away without stopping about how happy they were to see her. They were just so overwhelmed with her arrival. She saw a sea of faces at the port – happy looking people eagerly awaiting their relatives and friends. She encountered the new face of a different land so unlike India in many ways and so alike in its geographical features.
It looked so much like India at the outset, Aruna thought fleetingly, a little overwhelmed by the scenery she glimpsed all around her. She saw quaint wooden kampong houses that stood on stilts amongst tall coconut trees and lush vegetation that provided a picturesque setting for the whole scenario. On its long clean beach, the sight of a sprawling fishing village and fishermen selling their catch in long boats they called the sampan, she came to know of the name soon enough, reminded her so much of India. She came from a fishing village in India so she was familiar with the sight that greeted her. The fishermen were speaking in a language so foreign to her, though. They spoke the Malay language.
As she stared at the faces of the fishermen and people around her, she could distinguish the natives from the rest. They were so unlike the Indians going by their physical appearance. They had Chinese looking flat features and they were a different shade of color, almost a mixed shade of lighter brown. The fishermen, who were busy with their trade, had dark burnt skin synonymous with seafarers and fishermen. They looked so at home in their domestic surrounding.
The sun scorched her skin as she stood amongst her two family members. The breeze that blew tasted salty on her lips and its taste was so different from the breeze that blew across seas in India. She didn’t know why but that thought crossed her mind at that moment. It had a new taste to it, one tinged with expectation, she thought wryly.
Dark and tanned, the natives stared hard at the shipload of Indians who arrived at the port when the ship berthed. There were so many of them who disembarked from the ship that day and Aruna was sure that it must have overwhelmed the natives some. Apart from the passengers from the ship, who were all from India and her sister and brother-in-law, there were no other Indians who looked Malaysian enough to her. She only saw Indians from India coming and going all around her. They somehow seemed to fit into the landscape of the land. What really differentiated a Malaysian Indian from an Indian of India?
How did the thought of recognizing Indians who were of Malaysian nationality conjure up in her imaginative mind – well Aruna was not sure at that point in time. She only knew that she would recognize a Malaysian Indian when she sees one. They had a different accent when they spoke and it wasn’t as flowery as an Indian’s way of speaking. She had met a number of children who were from Malaysia at her school. They studied in India and usually returned to Malaysia during the school holidays but their early years were fostered in Malaysia. They had a bit of a British accent, maybe because before becoming an independent nation, Malaysia was colonized by the British just as India was, and most of the schools in Malaysia, she was told were missionary schools.
As Aruna took in the scenery and the new environment before her with wide-eyed innocence, she noticed that everyone who had sailed with her had now disembarked and were walking fast past her, leaving the port area to get to a bus station that was in the vicinity. Auntie, who had been her sole friend on the ship, had left the ship in a hurry once it had berthed, and right before that had briefly bid Aruna goodbye with a warm hug. Glancing at her fast retreating back, Aruna wondered to which part of the Country Auntie was heading to. She had forgotten to ask Auntie where she stayed in Malaysia. While traveling together, they had never discussed their plans once they both arrived in Malaysia nor did they really talk about personal matters at great length.
However, Aruna did tell her about her proposal and Auntie had just nodded her head in understanding. Aruna gathered that Auntie felt a little sorry for her from the way she didn’t really look her in the eye. Aruna was after all a young girl. Aruna discerned that Auntie too was wed by way of an arranged marriage and so, did she know how it felt to be in Aruna’s shoes? Aruna was not so sure about that because Auntie never elaborated on anything and didn’t really find out in detail about Aruna’s proposal of marriage when she mentioned it to her, which Aruna thought was quite odd. It was almost like Auntie didn’t want to get into personalized details about the proposal or anything personal for that matter with her. Maybe in Auntie’s case, she was not against an arranged marriage!
Aruna wondered briefly how the people who arrived in Malaysia on the ship with her felt upon disembarkation. Especially those like her who landed in the Country for the first time. Were they as overwhelmed with the newness of the place just as she was? Were they worried just like her about their future in a new Country? Would they stay long and become permanent residents of the Country like Auntie planned to. Aruna dismissed all these thoughts from her mind when she heard her brother-in-law tell her sister that their car was parked on the other end of the bus station.
To Aruna’s relief, her sister and brother-in-law had come to pick her up by car so there was no need for them to rush to the bus station to buy the tickets to Kuala Lumpur, like the people Aruna saw lining the ticket counters there. In a way, Aruna was thankful for that. In the event they had to take the public transport to Kuala Lumpur, they would have had to join the long queue and it would have delayed their trip further and Aruna was tired of all the waiting and queuing and traveling. She couldn’t wait to get home to her sister’s place.
Aruna wasn’t sure how long a bus ride would take to reach Kuala Lumpur. How far was Kuala Lumpur from the place where she was at the moment? Anyway, her brother-in-law pointed at his car parked at a big wide spacious land just next to the bus station. All of them walked quickly to the car and got into it. It was the first time that Aruna had ever had the privilege to sit in a car. A car was a luxury and Aruna was impressed that her sister and brother in law owned one.
Stealing a glance at them, she thought that the both of them looked rich and prosperous. They even had a personal driver and that was quite something in Malaysia. They must be millionaires she thought with admiration. The clothes and the jewelry her sister wore showed their affluence in society, and her sister spoke with a new eloquence that she didn’t possess when she was in India. Aruna guessed that Malaysia changed her in many ways. She was so suited for the role of a rich man’s wife and they looked a perfect match for each other. She wondered how their home would look like.
As they were driving out of the port area, her brother-in-law was enthusiastically talking about the places they were passing and showing her a few landmarks here and there and her interest ignited, Aruna heard herself ask him timidly what the name of the place was.
Her brother-in-law looked like he was more than happy to update her about Malaysia and its many attractions. In answer to her question, he explained quite enthusiastically that they were traveling from Port Swettenham to Kuala Lumpur. He briefed her shortly on their plans right then. They would stay a night at a hotel in Kuala Lumpur and then leave for a place called Dungun in the East Coast of Malaysia, the next day. They lived there and it was a 6-9 hour drive from Kuala Lumpur depending on how fast they were traveling and if there were any stopovers along the way.
Aruna listened to him speak closely, dreading yet another long journey before they reached home. The other names of the cities and places mentioned by her brother-in-law, except for Kuala Lumpur didn’t sound familiar to her. It was common knowledge that the only place the Indians recognized and talked about in Malaysia was Kuala Lumpur. It was the capital of Malaysia, so it was not surprising that people were more accustomed and familiar with its name. Where are you going? Oh, I am going to Kuala Lumpur. They don’t say ‘I am going to Malaysia’ it is always ‘I am going to Kuala Lumpur.’.
For the moment, Aruna forgot all about her fear and anxiety and took in her new environment and scenery. She began to shed some of her reservations about leaving India. She had family in Malaysia, a tiny voice in her reasoned. However, she felt a little overwhelmed in the presence of her brother in law. But he seemed happy that she had come to Malaysia to start a new life and be close to them. Aruna guessed that he was happy more so for her sister since she would have family from her side, living in the same place with her now.
Aruna knew too that her brother in law had his siblings already living in the Country and they had come to Malaysia from India in the early stages of the British rule, so his side of the family was somewhat firmly rooted in Malaysia. With Aruna’s arrival and her forthcoming wedding, her sister’s side of the family would soon take root too.
Malaysia was a newfound Country when Aruna set foot on it. They had just gained their independence from the British rule two years before and changed their name from Malaya to Malaysia to incorporate the three major races in the Country - the Malays, Chinese and Indians. Her brother-in-law continued talking about the Country and giving her an overview of it, however, she felt that behind all his enthusiastic explanations, he was trying hard to convince her that she did the right thing to relocate to Malaysia. He wanted to assure her that she would be happy there and it was a great Country to emigrate to and start a brand new life.
They stopped by a small restaurant on the way from Port Swettenham to the hotel so that they could have something to eat. Aruna was famished and was pleased that her brother-in-law decided to make that stop.
As it was still the early hours of the morning, the restaurant was busy with the breakfast crowd. When they had found a table and seated themselves, Aruna saw a wide variety of cooked dishes displayed in the front section of the restaurant. There was rice, the staple food with countless side dishes placed in warmers and Aruna also noticed that there were other stalls inside the restaurant which had signs displaying chicken, pork and duck noodles and mixed rice, all specialties of the Chinese cuisine. It was quite a big restaurant and it was crowded and noisy
The food looked delectable and inviting but it was too early in the day for Aruna to eat something so heavy like rice or noodles and she indicated that to her sister. She saw a lady sitting at the next table from where they sat order some bread spread with butter and a caramel looking paste that she wasn’t familiar with, and Aruna wanted to try some of that. Her brother-in-law ordered it for her and it came with a side dish of boiled eggs.
For the first time in her life, Aruna had a taste of bread with a spread of butter and kaya (a sweetened coconut jam). Her sister explained that the caramel looking spread was a coconut jam called Kaya. It tasted really good to Aruna. Aruna loved the sweetness of the kaya and it went so well with the buttered bread. The Chinese restaurants usually had them on their menu and sold them at all meal times. It is best eaten with a drink of hot steaming cup of coffee to wash it down; her sister conveyed enthusiastically. It was comfort food especially when she fell ill, her sister informed Aruna.
Well, the comfort food really tempted Aruna to have another two slices of it and smiling at Aruna’s evident hunger pangs which was openly reflected on her face, her brother in law ordered another plate for her to eat. “It is good that you are eating Aruna. Your sister told me that you did not have anything much to eat on the ship because you hated the food and had seasickness and now, look at you, you are so skinny and you really need to put on some weight,” her brother-in-law said to her before ordering the next round of kaya bread for her.
After her brother-in-law had placed the order, Aruna heard the owner of the restaurant who was at the cash register, shouting out for another two slices of the bread to be sent to Aruna’s table. A Chinese worker standing nearby then shouted extending the order the same way the owner did to the kitchen staff.
They spoke so loudly in their mother tongue and were rushing about their work. She looked around to see that the few patrons who were seated at the restaurant were all Chinese. They were the only Indians eating in the restaurant and the Chinese owner and workers were familiar with her brother-in-law. Aruna gathered that her brother-in-law frequented the restaurant often.
Her brother in law ordered coffee that came served in small china cups and when the waiter placed it on their table, Aruna noticed that most of the drink had spilled onto the saucer. The waiter had practically thrown the cups on their table and moved to another table to take someone else’s order. Aruna thought that so rude, but then the waiters in India were no different. They were always in a hurry and did not care much about whether they spilled their food and drink or was careless with orders. It was all in a day’s job for them.
Aruna looked at her sister who moved her cup of coffee closer to her, which the waiter had placed in the middle of the table. She saw her sister drink daintily from her cup and followed suit. If her sister had in any way noticed the spilled coffee on the saucer, she did not show it. She definitely had the etiquette and mannerisms of a refined lady Aruna thought and decided to emulate her and her ways.
Aruna knew that her brother in law was quite a prominent businessman in the Country and so, she understood their need to portray class and elegance in their society of the rich. The rich, she thought, would always have an outward image to portray and maintain. It was a façade and a superficial demeanor that the rich needed to arm themselves with in order to attain respect and even success. Once people attain wealth, they are adjudged by a different class and distinction. They more or less become stewards of affluence. The irony of life, Aruna thought, the rich had to mostly live a pretentious life!
There were so many firsts that Aruna had encountered within the first few hours of her arrival to Malaysia and she knew that there was a lot more that she needed to get accustomed to and learn about. So far what she had seen and heard had intrigued her to self-awareness about the worldly lives of people from another part of the world. She was thrust into a new life and new way of thinking.
However, one of the first things Aruna believed she would have to do is to learn how to accept the change that was thrust upon her by fate. Her destiny was charted out by the very people closest to her. Was she afraid still? She was more overwhelmed than afraid this time by the situation she was thrust into and of the future that she would have to face in time to come.
After breakfast was over, they continued their journey to Kuala Lumpur. Her brother in law announced in the car that they would have to first make a stop to see the family of the boy she was to be betrothed to, before heading to the hotel. The boy’s family lived in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, quite close to where their hotel was situated.
Aruna felt her heart lurch and panic seized her when she heard what her brother-in-law said. Her stomach started churning and she was sure she felt faint! How was she going to react when she met them? She was not sure what to say or how to react when she met them.
Tears started welling up in Aruna eyes just thinking about how to handle the situation when her sister sitting next to her noticed that she was close to tears. Her sister gave Aruna a reassuring look and held her hands tightly in hers and hugged her close.
She told Aruna not to be daunted by the prospect of meeting her future husband and in-laws as they were good people, from a good background and that they were really looking forward to meeting her. Her sister continued to pacify her by saying that she would be happy with her suitor who had a good job and who could provide for her well.
All Aruna had to do was to keep an open mind about them and learn how to embrace her new life and her new environment. She reassured Aruna once again that Malaysia was a great place to live in and that Aruna wouldn’t regret leaving India in time to come. It was just a matter of time before Aruna got used to the Country and its people, so she shouldn’t worry herself unnecessarily. “Am I not here for you Aruna?” Her sister cajoled trying to placate Aruna’s fears.
Aruna wasn’t the least bit pacified though to hear what her sister had to say about the boy and his family nor about how great the Country was! She didn’t dare say anything averse to her sister who was trying so hard to console her because Aruna had the utmost respect for her sister and her views and especially for her brother-in-law who doted on her and considered her as much his own younger sister than a sister in law. Aruna looked down at her hands as she listened to her sister and shook her head in resignation, agreeing to what her sister had to say and through her falling tears, telling her sister that she understood what her sister was saying to her.
However, the more she thought about the impending meeting with her husband to be and his family, the more distressed she became. Her tears wouldn’t stop and started falling harder. Aruna felt that she was the most unlucky girl in the world. She felt her stomach churn with all the anxious thoughts she had in her mind and fear engulfed her once more.
Her brother in law, who was seated at the front seat, didn’t say anything to her at that point of time when he heard his wife consoling her, and Aruna knew that he guessed she was crying softly about the whole marriage proposal. He looked visibly upset himself. Her sister too looked troubled and teary-eyed. She knew that the both of them only wanted the best for her, but she just couldn’t understand why she had to be married off to a total stranger, especially when she was not ready to become a married woman! Didn’t they know that she was still a young girl?
Getting married was such a huge step in a girl’s life, Aruna thought sardonically. Didn’t a girl have to be ready to get married?
There was pin-drop silence in the car after that little emotional interlude between her sister and Aruna. Each of them sat resigned, deeply engrossed in their own thoughts. Aruna looked out the car window and noticed the scenic view as they passed by them. The outskirts of Kuala Lumpur had an old-fashioned rustic charm to it. It was a much quieter place with not as much activity going on, unlike in India where the hustle and bustle of life were so evident, surrounding the multitude of people involved in creating the utmost commotion of everyday living. People were always walking all over the place in India because there was always something going on for them to be a part of. It was the same scenario everywhere, from the remotest villages to the busy cities.
Aruna’s thoughts reverted from India to the scene in front of her. Except for a few people walking by the roadside that morning, there was nothing much to disturb the peacefulness of the place. There were kampong houses deep in the jungle area and she saw chicken and ducks running freely outside of those houses. The houses had large compounds in front of them and vegetables were grown in neat patches on those fertile lands.
The kampong folks would most probably be rearing the farm animals for consumption, she deduced and the vegetable patches were a good source of income if they wanted to have them sold. It was more of an underdeveloped area that they were passing by on the way to Kuala Lumpur, and the roads were lined by thick jungles. She caught sight of rubber plantations and she had heard that a lot of Indians were being recruited by big Chinese and British corporates to work as rubber tappers. There was a shortage of labor in the plantations and many hopeful Indians were making a beeline to enter the labor market in the Country.
Her eyes reverted further still towards the distant. Mountains rose above those thick jungles and created a scene of utmost tranquility and mystic. The fog that covered its peak gave it a transcendental aura to the whole picturesque setting. This place was almost picture perfect. Aruna loved nature and the exquisite scenery that depicted itself before her and every aspect of it had a story to reveal either directly or indirectly. The people who lived in Malaysia brought a certain measure of exoticism to the land, which in turn, brought upon an almost surreal feel to the Country. Aruna loved the simplicity of the Country and all the beauty it possessed. Somehow she felt that there was no inherent pretention found in the people there. They seem to be a genuine lot.
They were nearing the city of Kuala Lumpur. The milestone showed another 5 miles more of travel. Her sister took out her powder case and a comb from her handbag and handed it to Aruna. She wanted Aruna to powder her face and to comb her hair in order to present herself charmingly and gracefully to her in-laws. It was their first time meeting her so it was important to look good and first impressions are very important, she told Aruna.
Aruna knew she looked tired and her eyes were all puffed up after her crying bout. Her sister commented in a concerned voice that she is not to cry anymore and to be brave.
But Aruna wasn’t up to being brave. Her nerves were all jittery and she was shivering inside. While on one hand, her sister was talking about how she wanted Aruna to freshen up and look the pretty girl that she was, Aruna felt the exact opposite to what she was supposed to outwardly project. Aruna had to make a good first impression to her in-laws, her sister repeated again. Then continued, “I want them to be proud that they are getting a beautiful bride for their son,” her sister said, finishing her sentence with a kind smile. And all the time her sister was talking, Aruna went cold inside, in spite of all the comforting words and assurances.
Aruna took the powder case from her sister’s hands and on opening it, saw a visibly troubled face staring back at her from the mirror in it. She almost didn’t recognize her own face. It was drawn and much thinner, her eyes looked larger than it usually was and sadness prevailed in it. Her long black hair that she had braided before leaving the ship looked windblown and untidy.
Aruna didn’t see the girl with the carefree attitude and a quick smile that she was before she left India mirrored on it. Instead, the face that stared back at her didn’t have a glow to it or an added sparkle to the eyes. Even her looks had changed with her circumstances. She looked a lot older than she was and felt. Now as she reflected in the mirror, she saw a girl who seemed to have the world on her shoulders, unhappy and unsure of herself. She had lost the most important thing she needed to have right at that moment. She had lost her confidence to go through life, Aruna thought dejectedly.
Her features drawn with worry, Aruna looked disillusioned and felt so helpless. Did her sister notice that? She wondered. Aruna noticed that her fair skin had become a little tanned from her long journey at sea, and she reasoned it brought about a tired look on her face as well. How could she look pretty when deep in her heart she was sick with worry and anguish? Didn’t your emotions always reflect in your eyes and project itself through your beauty? She questioned philosophically.
Aruna undid her braids and started combing her long her out. Her long straight hair had always been a fascination to her family and friends. So thick and black, it is lovely, Nila had always remarked in passing. Some of her friends in school were envious of it. She glanced at her sister sitting by her side, who looked so pristine and well groomed. Her sister’s hair was tied up in a bun clipped neatly to her head. Strands of her hair fell to the side of her face, giving it a stylish look to the hairstyle she wore.
Her sister was immaculate in her dressing and carried herself with faultless composure and confidence. Would she someday turn out to be like her sister, Aruna wondered admiringly? She hoped so because her sister was someone to be emulated for her grace and beauty.
Just as Aruna was thinking these thoughts, her sister looked at her and asked her if she would like her to help braid her hair for her. She didn’t. She could do it herself, she replied, a little childishly. She didn’t want anyone’s help! The child in her wanted to sulk and be left alone. She did not want to speak to anyone but she knew that what she was feeling was pointless. Everything had been pre-arranged for her and she was to only accept what was in store for her. What a terrible thought that conjured up in her! To be at the mercy of what is planned for her and just be accepting of it!
She then powdered her face, a little angrily, but wasn’t sure if it would hide the puffiness of her eyes. Would she cry again? Well, she just might and her tears would wash all that powder off once again and ruin the freshly made up look on her face.