My life began on a countryside farm. I saw more of grass, trees, chickens, ducks and farm animals than people. The only people around me were my brothers and sisters, Ma and Pa and sometimes our paternal Grandma. We never knew our Grandpa, because he passed away before we came along. And we'll never know how he looked like as he refused to have his photo taken. As Pa said, he'd rather spend his money on food. But there was sometimes that resentful mention by Grandma that he would sneak away somewhere to indulge in some opium smoking, and that's where most of the money he earned from his odd-jobs went.
I came 4th in our family of 5 boys and 3 girls. We either played together or quarreled and fought over petty things or when there weren’t enough goodies to go around for everyone. Both parents were usually too busy to mind our affairs until one or some of us get too ‘oppressed’ and started complaining, usually to my mother. We had neighbors too, who lived on their farms next to ours, but we seldom have time to mingle with them. Some of them though, seemed to have all the time in the world to loiter around our place while we were busy at work. Pa seldom let them hang around for long. He would get rid of them by asking why they had nothing to do.
My 2nd brother and I occasionally got involved in arguments. Once, we even ended up in a brawl. He had a corrosive tongue and I had my hot temper, a great combination for an explosion every now and then in this quiet country-side farmhouse! But we were always careful and would bear whatever suffering and waited until my father was not around to let it escalate into an open battle. Occasionally, we got careless and ended up facing the peace-maker (the Rotan hanging in the wall). Pa would grab one of us and reach for the cane with his other hand. Anybody who escaped at that moment had still to face the music later. Pa seldom let anyone off scot-free.
The lesson was quite clear. We either learned to live peacefully together or all parties to the mayhem get it equally. It was a good training, like what you'd get in the army. In everything we did, it was not just for individual benefit. We had to think of everybody else in the family. In the end we learned to take care of each other. I can still remember when we were growing up, Pa would tell us that if we were to be good to our friends it would be meaningless if we don't take care of our own brothers and sisters. Pa didn't have much education but he practiced and taught us the great philosophy that "Charity Begins at Home".
We each had our share of work and responsibilities. But hot afternoons were our respite from tight scrutiny and control. We noticed pa would go off to the local kopitiam for his regular pow-wow with his fellow villagers. That was when we were free to run with our carefully-hidden kites, spin our home-made tops, play marbles or shoot pop-guns made of bamboo using cherries for bullets. We also hunted birds with our catapults, or fished in the streams. At times the whole gang of us would be up in our favorite guava tree, playing Tarzan. That was when, one day, 2nd brother tried to swing down from the tree on a rope which slipped off. He dislocated his shoulder. Eldest brother, being the one who tied the rope, was scared out of his wits. 2nd brother was in pain and Pa had to know.
The next day Pa took him and the whole gang of us on a bus ride to town. There was a Sinseh in a fruit shop who fixed the shoulder. Much to our relief, no one got punished for the mishap. Perhaps the painful experience for 2nd brother was enough punishment for him. For us all, that was a lesson in gravity. Though we’d never heard of
’s law as yet, but we know for sure that if you come down the short way from too high up or on the wrong end, it can be pretty painful. Also that there are many different kinds of knots you could tie with a rope, depending on how you intend to use it. And never tie a slip knot if your health depended on it. Newton
One afternoon, we heard a loud clucking coming from some bushes behind a chicken house. We went to investigate and spied a cobra. A hen was pacing around her nest yelling her little head off while the snake had his head hidden somewhere in the bush. Having heard from Pa how he’d tackle these critters, we each grab a stick and went after him and whacked him to pulp. We couldn’t tell if he’d swallowed any egg. There were a few eggs in the nest. We left mama hen to get back to her hatching, while we stretched the snake out on the ground. If I got it right it was probably about 5 feet in length. We couldn’t tell if Pa was alarmed, angry or proud of us but Ma was definitely worried about us although she never said so. That incident probably prompted Pa to take precautions for our safety. He bought a pair of geese.
The geese grew up and roamed around on the farm. They were like watchdogs. It is popularly believed that their droppings contained sulphur which could deter snakes from coming into the farmyard. But their presence was a threat to us kids. Both goose and gander were equally aggressive and would attack us whenever we entered our animal farm through the gate. The gander was huge and its wingspan opened out to about 6 feet from tip to tip. I once got pecked a few times on my back when I had nowhere to run. We often had nightmares as a result of these attacks. It got to a point when we were so scared we had to arm ourselves with sticks whenever we get inside the gates of the farmyard.
Pa told us to grab him by the head the next time he attacked. So one day, I got up the courage to do just that, with some of our gang behind me. Talk about picking on someone your own size. He and I stood up to almost the same height. Defiantly we waited for him to rush at us. Sure enough he came right at us. In a blur of action, I didn't notice what the others did but I managed to grab hold of the neck and almost choked him. After that I guess he realized he couldn’t bully little kids anymore. He kept his distance whenever we approached the farm but once in a while would lower his head as if to charge at us again, but when we refused to turn and run, he gave up his intimidating stance.
From age 4 or 5 as I remember, I had to do my share of the farm work using a cangkul (hoe) with a handle somewhat taller than me. We struggled to keep the tapioca plots free of weeds. Sometimes, we had to tackle thorny Mimosa and other prickly crawlers. There were the unbeatable lalang on our neighbors’ vacant lots on which they never planted anything, and these lalang, with their sharp penetrating roots, kept encroaching into our tapioca plots. During the dry season, usually around December to February, we always had to be on the lookout for bush fires as these dry lalang can burn very easily.
We also had to deal with mosquitoes and other biting insects. The most dreaded of these were fire ants, whose bites are hot like fire on the skin. I had my fair share of suffering their bites, and strangely, the immediate relief for fire-ant bite is kerosene, the fuel we use for starting fires. A drop of the liquid on the spot soon relieved the itch and only a reddish spot remained for a few days and no pus or sore would develop.
…to be continued