ANOTHER PLACE TO CALL HOME

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Chapter 6 - Day 2 – Leaving Kuala Lumpur

They left early the next morning to Dungun. Her sister and brother in law didn’t show any of their misgivings they had with Aruna the previous night and instead was very loving to her. She knew deep in her heart that they understood her predicament. They hugged her when she came down the lobby and together they left the hotel to have breakfast in one of the restaurants along the way. Aruna was looking forward to having a good breakfast. She was famished and ready to have a good meal.

That morning, she was woken up at 5am by the sound of a loud horn. It was the bread man making his rounds on his bicycle. She jumped out of bed, ran to the window and quickly drew the curtains of the room aside, to look at what was going on down below. At the same time, she saw a man delivering papers to the residents who were living right opposite the hotel. He carried a stack of papers at the back of his bicycle and as he passed each house, he tossed it on the driveway. There were a few ladies surrounding the bread man. She looked at them talking in a friendly manner to him and the others surrounding them. The sky was still downcast but Kuala Lumpur was beginning to wake up to life.

Aruna was captivated by what was happening and pulled up a chair from beside the coffee table in her room and sat to observe the morning activities that were taking place below. It intrigued her. There was so much character on what was going on that morning. People were beginning to slowly wake up to another day. Aruna saw a few housewives gather outside one of the houses, chatting, even gossiping maybe and some others with baskets in their hands probably going to the market nearby. They were of all races and were very friendly towards each other. She heard them greet each other. As the sky slowly lighted up with streaks of sunlight, Aruna noticed the neon lights by the side of the road slowly go off, one by one. It was a beautiful sight to see and Aruna thought how cleverly the sun and the world worked together to create a life filled with light for its inhabitants. The person who created light would surely have been someone with great vision.

Aruna missed India more than ever just then. There in the mornings, she could see the view of the sunrise from her house. She stayed by the seaside so every day she could watch the sunrise through the window of her room. Just like the scene she witnessed in Kuala Lumpur, people rose early to go the markets, buy fish by the seaside from the fisherman who went out to get their catch of the day in the wee hours of the morning or sit on the beaches waiting to see the sunrise and maybe wait for their friends to meet them there.

People always congregated in groups in India. They had so much to say and talk about. There was always something or other happening around them. Groups would walk past her house, talking loudly without a care about waking up the neighborhood. The tea stall would be filled with men who would start their day with a glass of tea as they talked about the politics of the Country before they left to their individual places of work or wherever it is they wanted to go after that. There were so many who were jobless but standing at a tea stand and just relishing that glass of tea was a favorite past time among them. Indians were famed for their glasses of tea in the morning.

In Malaysia, she noticed that they would order coffee in the morning to go with their breakfast. Then too, coffee would be served after dinner like they did in Amma’s house the previous night and tea was normally served during tea time. Of course there were the exceptions and she knew that but she was talking about the norm. They emulated the English who colonized their Country she presumed. Some even dressed like the English here wearing long dresses and hats.

Aruna missed her school and her classmates. As she sat there reminiscing about India, she thought about her friends and especially Nila who would be getting ready to go to school. It would be examination time for them, right about now. If she had been in India, she and Nila would have been studying really hard for the exams together. They normally did their homework and studied together after school every day. Aruna thought about how they would giggle about just about anything that tickled them. They had both wanted to grow up to be doctors. Now that Aruna had been cruelly taken away from her original vocation, she wondered if Nila would eventually succeed in her ambition. She felt sadness consume her once again and thought for the umpteenth time that she was the most unlucky girl in the world. Aruna missed her family too very much. She made a mental note to ask her sister to give her the telephone number to their home. Her best friend Nila promised to call her and she hoped that she would. She couldn’t wait to hear her voice again.

At six PM, Aruna got ready for her travel to Dungun. She was relieved that she would not be meeting Amma and her family that day. She dressed quickly and as she was combing her hair and braiding it, she heard the phone ring. It was her sister and she asked Aruna to get ready and come down to the lobby to meet them. They would be having their breakfast in one of the restaurants on the way to Dungun, she informed her.

Dungun, another funny name Aruna thought. She didn’t know how to pronounce it. She would in due time of course, because her sister told her to learn the Malay language. It was the national language and it was important to learn it since everyone, no matter what race, was familiar with it and conversed in it here. It is a language that was commonly spoken and integrated within each community living in Malaysia. Aruna did notice that from the time she arrived. No matter where they were, the different races mingled and spoke in the common language that was Malay. She heard it spoken in the morning chatter that took place that day and she heard it spoken everywhere she went.

Aruna took her bag, looked around her room for the last time and walked up to the lift to go down to the lobby. Her sister asked her to make sure that she didn’t leave behind any of her important things or essentials in the hotel room by accident. She was to check the room properly before leaving. “Don’t forget your toothbrush from the bathroom Aruna,” her sister had reminded her. Aruna didn’t and she also took the tiny bottles of shampoo and conditioner that was there with her. She checked the room once more and left certain that she hadn’t left anything behind. It was a long way to Dungun and they couldn’t afford to turn back or worse still someone might steal it, if it was of value that she had left behind, her sister’s words rang loud through the phone earlier. She was not to trust any stranger at any given time and this, her sister had repeated a couple of times to her. Aruna knew that her brother in law and sister were concerned about her but didn’t she travel alone for two whole weeks among strangers while on the ship? She felt she had learned quite a bit from travelling alone and especially about looking after herself.

Aruna hadn’t taken out any of her important documents like her passport or certificates or her jewelry from her bag which she had kept safely in a hidden compartment, so she wasn’t afraid that she would leave anything of value behind. Anyway just to make sure, she checked the compartment of her bag one more time and they was still safe and intact in there.

They left the hotel after her brother in law had settled the bill and went out of the Kuala Lumpur town area before stopping for breakfast at a restaurant along the way. Her brother in law always ate there and it was one of his favorite restaurants. It was a Malay restaurant and when they went inside the restaurant, she noticed that all of the attendants there were native Malays. The ladies wore the Baju Melayu, their traditional costume; her sister told her and spoke only in their native mother tongue. They had a big smile for her brother in law because he patronized the restaurant quite frequently and they conversed with him in Malay.

One of the ladies, walked up to them to take their order. They already had their food prepared and displayed in the restaurant. His brother in law ordered nasi lemak for both Aruna and her sister. It was rice with an anchovy chili paste called ikan bilis sambal and it came with a side of boiled egg, fried anchovies, some peanuts and a few pieces of cucumber. They put a piece of banana leaf on the plate before serving the nasi lemak on it. It added to the flavor of the nasi lemak, Aruna was told.

She had never tasted nasi lemak before so when she tried it for the first time, she found it a delicious concoction. Every item on the plate tasted good, eaten together at one go. The sambal was a little spicy but it tasted good. She noticed that the Malays cooked food similar to the Indians except that they used much less spices and their curries had the look of blended coconut milk added to it. She tried a potato cutlet that her brother in law ordered as a side dish for them and she loved it. The food was really tasty. They had a glass of black coffee to go with it.

Her sister told her that nasi lemak was synonymous with the Malays and one of the favorite foods in Malaysia. Nearly everyone in the Country loved to have it for their breakfast. She finished every bit of the rice as she was really hungry as well and she saw that her sister and brother in law noticed it. They asked her if she wanted another plate of nasi lemak but she didn’t. Instead they bought some Malay cakes that the Malays normally have after eating the spicy sambal dish. Kuih bakul gula Melaka – the name, said the waitress to Aruna smiling as she handed the brown sticky looking cake wrapped in a banana leaf to her. Her brother in law mentioned to one of them that Aruna had just arrived from India and they started fussing over her and telling him to get some cakes for her to taste as well. They were a bunch of friendly, helpful people with no airs about them. They showed genuine concern and liking for her. They were quite pretty too, Aruna thought.

Just before they left the restaurant, one of them packed a packet of nasi lemak for her to eat on the way. They refused to take money for it. It was their gift to her, they said. She felt really touched by their gesture and her sister asked her to thank them in Malay. “Say terima kasih,” she whispered in her ears. So she plucked up enough courage and uttered the first words she learned in the Malay language to them. Terima Kasih, she repeated a little shyly. Terima kasih was so bonding, she thought. It had a nice flair to its pronunciation.

They got all excited that she thanked them in their language and had a big smile and chorused, “Adik balik lagi ya. Makan nasi lemak. Lain kali makan banyak lagi” (Come back again to eat the nasi lemak. Next time eat much more) And they called her adik which translates to little sister. Aruna was a little touched with all the friendliness and show of concern they had for her. Yes, she would definitely come back to the restaurant more than often, she thought happily.

They continued their journey to the town of Dungun, Aruna clutching the plastic that contained the nasi lemak in her hands and she couldn’t wait to have another taste of it. Her brother in law bought a bottle of Coca Cola from the restaurant earlier and told her that if she was thirsty and needed a drink, she could have that. Well, that drink was a first for her too. She had never tasted Coca Cola before.

Malaysia, from the time she arrived, one that she never envisaged as she experienced now, was indeed a land of many “firsts” for her. Everything about it captivated her and anything that she had done there during the first two days of her stay had brought about an awareness and new insight to her.

It would take at least another five or six hours to reach Dungun, her brother in law told her. They had to pass quite a number of towns along the way. The stretch of road was long and winding and they passed the jungle areas along the way. The roads were quite empty as not many had the privilege of owning a car there but she noticed some taxis plying that area. They passed a red and white painted bus along the way and she noticed that it had a full load of passengers.

Her brother in law told her that the buses take a longer time to reach their destination because they stop at every town for at least half an hour so that the passengers can stretch and freshen themselves. She listened to all he said with a keen interest and learnt how people in this new foreign land lived. But then, the system was the same, she realized. It was how the Country was geared to advancement. India was a poor populous country whereas Malaysia had a lot of potential to be a rich nation as the population was still growing and due to its size, it could be developed at a faster rate.

The people here had a chance to grow and prosper and achieve their ultimate success. As long as one learned to live and abide with the Country’s laws and culture, she believed that discrimination was at the lowest. She saw it in the interaction between the Malays and her brother in law at the restaurant. They adapted to each other’s ways of living. Perhaps they valued the peace and tranquility more than anything to be able to be united.

It was the era of the Sultanate in Malaysia, her brother in law told her. He went on to explain about the various Sultans and head of states who headed the Country. She listened absorbing everything he said. Dungun was in the state of Terengganu, A royal state and they lived by the seaside in a big wooden house, her sister added.

She was fascinated by the whole lot of information that they imparted to her. As they travelled towards Dungun, they arrived at a quaint little town called Kuantan in the state of Pahang. There they stopped to have a meal. It was another 5 hours from there to Dungun. She had already eaten her nasi lemak in the car about an hour after they had had their breakfast in the Malay restaurant. Her sister insisted that she ate it in case it got spoilt or something since the rice was boiled with coconut milk. She devoured it without a second prompting.

Her brother in law, on an impulse decided to stop by at a friend’s house in one of the beachfront housing estates situated a little out of the town area in Kuantan, after their meal. His friend was formerly an estate manager at one of the palm oil plantations in Pekan, another small town they had passed by on the way, which was about 46km away from Kuantan.

Her brother in law’s friend and his wife were so excited to meet them and immediately insisted that they stay for tea before heading back to Dungun. Mr. & Mrs. Gopal their name, she found out, when she was introduced to them. In Kuantan, they lived at the sea front of a gorgeous beach called Teluk Chempedak. Aruna marveled at their home in front of the gorgeous seaside.

She was so thrilled to see the beach. It was just a short walking distance away from Mr. & Mrs. Gopal’s home and so unlike the beach in front of her house in India. These waters were so pristine and blue-green in color. So crystal-like it looked from where she stood viewing it. A bluff stood at the forefront of the sea, encircling a portion of the sea and little mounds that rose from the waters and which formed rugged looking structures, were playfully sprayed and splashed by the frothy sea water thus creating charming and exotic picturesque scenery. Aruna could smell the saltiness of the breeze from where she stood.

There were shady Casuarina and pine trees growing by the sandy beaches. The sand on the beach was the whitest she had ever seen and there were many picnickers there, sitting on rattan mats, uncaring about the scorching heat of the sun and enjoying their day by the sea, without a care in the world. Aruna watched some of them take a dip in the sea, laughing and playfully splashing the waters on those around them.

Oh she loved the beach, her little heart screamed. Her sister joined her a short while later and the both of them stood outside the lawn area of Mr. Gopal’s house and observed the spectacular view ahead of them. It was simply spellbinding. A painter with a paint brush and an easel would be enthralled with capturing these moments of exquisite pleasure.

”You know Chechi, this place is so beautiful, I could stand here the whole day and admire the scenery. In fact, I have forgotten all my reservations about coming here. It is a different world that I am coming to know of, one that has kept me mesmerized by its beauty since I landed here. It is so awe inspiring.” She heard herself admit to her sister. Her sister smiled at her, happy that at least something touched her little sister’s heart and above all, made her happy.

Her sister quickly thought that the opportune moment for her to broach the subject of Goku to Aruna. When she was at her happiest that is. Now how should she begin? Her sister brought up the subject a little hesitantly and Aruna suddenly noticed her sister’s discomposure. She then held her sister’s hands tightly in hers, almost like giving some form of comfort, and leaned against her sister’s shoulders. She had a feeling that her sister was trying to say something about Goku and their impending wedding, so before her sister could say another word, she spoke first. “It’s alright Chechi; I know what you are trying to say to me. I have decided after my conversation with Chetan and you last night, that I will marry Goku and not make a fuss of the proposal anymore. It is what I have come here for and it will be an embarrassment for our family if I back out of the proposal now, especially since all the preparations are underway. And anyway he came across to me like a good guy too, just like you said when I spoke to him last night. Please go ahead with the wedding arrangements.”

Aruna felt her turbulent feelings just then match those waters that hit the mounds from a distance. The seawaters rushed, splashed high across the mounds, receded and returned to shower it with its salty waters repeatedly. Her sister didn’t utter a word then, just held her a little tighter and walked away after that, leaving her with her thoughts. Aruna knew that through her relief, her sister was feeling some of the sadness in Aruna’s words uttered to her. There was really nothing anyone could do about it because everything had been agreed to and arranged beforehand. To give away the hand of a girl in marriage and to keep true to the words of those involved in its preparation was a very serious matter to an Indian family. Aruna understood that perfectly.

Since Mr.& Mrs. Gopal insisted that they have tea before they left to Dungun, Mr. Gopal went out to the stalls nearby to get some of the Malay cakes famed in Kuantan, for them and especially for Aruna to savor with their glass of tea. While Mr. Gopal was out, Mrs. Gopal was busy in the kitchen, preparing the beverage for them. Aruna walked to the kitchen to stand next to her sister who was there chatting with Mrs. Gopal. On seeing her enter the kitchen, Mrs. Gopal gave her a big warm smile and asked her to sit down in the chair nearby. She sat down and listened to the conversation between the two ladies. It was interesting to listen to them because they both had a lot to talk about and catch up with and Aruna noticed that her sister was very at home in Mr. & Mrs. Gopal’s residence. She soon found out that they had been friends from the time her sister arrived to Malaysia from India to get married and that they often vacationed together to the rest of the other states when on holiday. The couple didn’t have any kids and “only had each other” Mrs. Gopal updated Aruna with a smile.

Aruna liked Mrs. Gopal. She could tell that she was a very warm hearted person as it was so evident in her mannerisms and her ready smile.

Mrs. Gopal asked Aruna if she would like to have some biscuits to go with her tea as well. Aruna declined politely and told her instead that she would be happy to help her take the cups and saucers and set them on the table outside the garden for them to have their tea. Mrs. Gopal showed her where the cups and saucers were kept and thanked Aruna for her kind offer to help. Once the table was set, the three ladies sat outside the garden and continued with their conversation while waiting for Mr. Gopal to come back with the cakes.

Her brother in law was in the living room reading a newspaper when Mr. Gopal came back with the cakes. The two men on noticing the ladies sitting outside in the garden, walked to where they were seated. Mr. Gopal placed the cakes on a plate and Mrs. Gopal got up to bring in the jug of tea from the kitchen. Aruna offered to help her do that but Mrs. Gopal waved her request away with her smile. “I will serve you today Aruna,” Mrs. Gopal said with a smile to her, “The next time, I hope to be served tea by you in your own home.” Aruna smiled at Mrs. Gopal, not saying anything to her in return.

They sat at the dining table, talking and laughing at all the silly things they did when they first arrived to Malaysia from India. Aruna heard about her sister’s account and also Mrs. Gopal’s account. They too were child brides who came to marry and settle down in Malaysia. And the both of them told her that she had made the right choice to come to Malaysia and didn’t regret it. Mrs. Gopal said that she was happy that Aruna had come too and be with her sister. However, the Gopals had never heard about Amma and her family until her sister told her about the proposal. Mrs. Gopal assured Aruna that if her brother-in law and sister approved of the match, then she had nothing to worry about. They wouldn’t put her at any risk. Mrs. Gopal told Aruna with a wide grin on her face that she was excited about the marriage proposal and couldn’t wait to attend her wedding. The Gopals thought of her sister and brother-in law as family members so they were to request any assistance they required during the wedding from them.

Her brother in law glanced at Aruna when he heard what Mrs. Gopal said to her and turned away when he caught her looking at him. She had seen the look of concern in his eyes just then. Aruna guessed that he was thinking about how miserable she was the day before and it was more than likely that her sister hadn’t told him yet that she wanted to go ahead and marry Goku without creating any more disruption with her uncalled for fears and inhibitions.

They left for Dungun later that evening after having tea and thanking the Gopals for their lovely company, telling them that they will keep them informed about the details of the wedding. The sun was already setting by the time they left and the beach was filled with more people who, just like in India came to watch the sunset. Aruna told Mrs. Gopal how enchantingly beautiful the beach was and Mrs. Gopal informed her that it was a famous tourist destination in the Country.

Mrs. Gopal went on to say that every evening she will go for a walk with her husband on the beach, and some days just like kids who play on the beach; they build sandcastles on it indulging in the wet sands. Aruna smiled at Mrs. Gopal when she heard that. Aruna too used to sit on the beach and create big tall sandcastles whenever she and her family ventured to the beach. They were real fun times. Then as she witnessed traces of the sunset across the sky as they were leaving the beach area, she missed the times when she looked out for the sunset while travelling on the ship. It was the only thing that kept her going all those lonely days while on her voyage and one that will stick in her mind for years to come.

It is amazing how people are always looking forward to weddings, Aruna thought while travelling to Dungun from Kuantan. They love the furor that comes along with it and all the clamor and pandemonium, not to mention the many gossips that people inadvertently indulge in about the whole affair. There will be a million things that they’d have to say about the girl, about her looks, her outfit, her jewelry and how much dowry she gave the boy, what her parents do for a living, not the mention the groom and if they are rich, and so on and so forth.

What they want to more than anything know about the groom is whether he has a good job and if he is able to provide for the girl and how many properties he has in his name, etc. However, the bulk of the talk would be about the girl. God forbid if she is not good looking and the boy is. There will always be uncalled for statements about their match being unsuitable! More often than not, the dowry will make up for any mismatch in a couple.

Yes, she has been to numerous weddings where the boy usually marries the girl because of the dowry she can afford. Well, the dowry system which she feels will never die in India discriminates a woman in more ways than one. She sighed. She had hoped to someday educate the people in her Country about its ill effects after finishing her tertiary examinations and fight for the rights of all women in India but it was now too late to even think about that, her life has taken a different course, one which she has to accept and make the best of.

They reached Dungun late night that day. After their brief stopover in Kuantan and the sumptuous cakes and tea treat by the Gopals, it was a quiet drive back home. Her sister and brother in law slept for a while during the drive back but she was wide awake, unable to take a nap like them and instead focused on the scenery outside, taking in the diverse views and images through her window.

Aruna looked at the driver. He had never uttered a word all the time she was in the car except to say “Yes Sir” when her brother in law gave him some instructions. It was such a long drive but he didn’t seem to mind. He must be in his late forties, she gathered. He looked like he was married and with family. Was he staying close by to where her sister and brother-in law stayed? She wondered.

She looked at him driving with such expertise. She hoped to drive a car around one day. Would Goku approve? Her thoughts reverted to Goku. She would wait for his call to tell him that she wanted to go ahead with the wedding. It was childish of her to react the way she did when they both spoke to each other that evening, she acknowledged a little hesitantly. She was also sorry for all the anxiety she caused her sister and brother-in law.

Then Aruna thought of an apt description of what was happening to her and the girls in India who married at a young age. She summarized her situation to a few verses that simply came to mind. In a way, it related to every woman in the world, thought Aruna poetically.

A girl’s life is as complex as the feelings she is laden with. From birth she is nurtured and raised to be empathetic to the world surrounding her. Her life is often one of acceptance and tolerance. Of self-sacrifice and thoughtful consideration – She, often a target of fantasy, love, wiles, indulgence and even hate. There is very little a girl can dream of achieving in a world where men’s heart rule. And there is very little that she can do when fate and destiny is mapped out by those who believe it to be their right to uphold and impose.

She took out a piece of paper and wrote it down as it came to her mind. She believed that the verse projected the exact portrayal of girls who were forced to marry young and who didn’t have a say at all in its chronicles.

The dark images of the night blurred as the lights faded while they were travelling on a lonely patch of road as they neared Dungun. Aruna looked at the time on her watch. It was already going to be 10.00 PM. By this time, her sister and brother-in law had woken up from their short nap and were concentrating on the road ahead of them. Aruna heard her brother-in law ask the driver if he was tired in any way and if he wanted to stop for some food or drink before they continued their journey to Dungun. The driver declined, said he was fine and that he preferred to continue with the journey without interruption so that they can be in Dungun as soon as they could. That was the first time Aruna heard the driver say something apart from his usual monosyllables.

Aruna could understand how tiring it’d be for the driver since he had to concentrate and drive to his destination with care. It was indeed a long journey from Kuala Lumpur to Dungun. She was glad that her brother-in law offered to stop for a drink or some food, if the driver was tired. Just sitting at the back of the car made Aruna feel tired and her limbs were stiff with sitting too long in the car. Some parts of the roads to Dungun were rough and bumpy. She could just imagine how the driver felt just looking ahead and concentrating hard on the potholes and jagged edges of the road he had to miss to make for a smooth ride.

Her sister had asked Aruna just a few minutes before that, whether she was hungry in any way or if she wanted to stop and have a drink. Aruna wasn’t hungry after the tea and cakes she had at the Gopals and she relayed that to her sister. Her sister said the same thing and told her that in the event, Aruna wanted to eat, they would be back by the next hour and her sister could get her maid to prepare some sandwiches for Aruna to eat at home. Aruna was surprised to hear that her sister had a live in maid. “Oh, you have a maid Chechi?” Aruna asked in a curious tone. Her sister had simply nodded her head but went on to elaborate that she needed one to help her with the household chores and other menial tasks around the house. Her maid would have prepared a room for her too, Aruna was informed. “If there is anything that you want or need help with, you can ask Siti. She has been with me for more than ten years and is like part of our family.” Aruna heard.

Aruna gathered that Siti was the name of her sister’s maid and couldn’t wait to meet her. “Is she a Malay Chechi?” Aruna asked her sister. “Yes,” her sister replied. Her sister pointed out that it was one of the reasons why Aruna should learn the Malay language; it was so that she could converse easily with the natives there. ’I will ask Siti to teach you to speak the language fluently like she taught me, Aruna. It is an easy language to pick up and if you practice speaking it every day, in no time will you be fluent in it.” Aruna listened raptly to what her sister said and agreed to follow her advice.

She couldn’t wait to begin learning the language. She wanted to be able to understand and speak to everyone there like her sister and brother-in law did.


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