by Mihar Dias
A story of young boy on his first day at an English school in rural Malaysia.
| 6842 words
A SPECIAL BOY FROM ELEPHANT HILL
By Rahim Said (C) October, 2013
A SPECIAL BOY FROM ELEPHANT HILL
"You are special" Dad pronounced surprisingly at dawn as I was getting dressed on the first day of term, to be enrolled in a new school ten kilometres away from our house, somewhere in a rural area in the vicinity of the Elephant Hill that was visible from where we lived yet seemed so far away.
"Why am I special?" I enquired curious on listening an alien term for the first time in my life. As far as I could remember I had never heard that expression coming from Dad, particularly to describe the characteristics of any of his children. Until that day no one felt anything special being a member of a family of five, living two kilometres away from the centre of Alor Setar, in a hut, on the edge of a swamp, we fondly call home.
"You are selected to go to this special school!" he said adjusting the collar of my new white starched shirt that Mom ironed the night before because she was worried that it would be too hurried if it was done in the morning. Besides, she told me she had to make breakfast for everyone else plus my lunch box to take away with me on that ten kilometre journey into a strange and unfamiliar territory.
"May be the teachers at your new school will be able to tell you more how special you are! I only know that you are the only one selected from your class to attend this new school!" He disappeared to get ready, leaving me to reflect and speculate on the real meaning of the word.
Dad insisted that we start early for the long journey. In the early morning light with the glow of dawn on the horizon, I jumped on to a big bicycle imported from England with a wide carrier fixed atop the rear wheel, holding on tightly to my new school bag, waved to Mom as Dad pulled away from our front door with a strong push on the paddle. I watched our little thatched roof bamboo-pleated hut slowly fading away in the distance with a sinking feeling in my stomach that most children felt on the first day of school. I would certainly miss helping Mom around the house and playing with my brothers that I enjoyed so much over the last long school holidays.
We passed by the old school that I went to for the last four years. I wondered whether I would miss not being there anymore. Someone would have to look after my vegetable patch that I so lovingly cared for in the last three years. At half-past six in the morning there was hardly anyone around that I could shout to and leave word for them to water my vegetable garden. The gates were still closed. Except for a few stray cats that my friends and I loved chasing around the school yard, no other living souls could be seen at that early hour.
Dad pressed hard on the paddle, manoeuvring the handle trying to avoid potholes, keeping to the cycle lane along the quiet undivided secondary road going north.
Occasionally a lorry carrying vegetable supplies from nearby farms would pass us going in the opposite direction towards the market, downtown. There were very few cars on the road that morning. A few that we saw were mostly British made, like Austin or Morris Minor. They could have belonged to some government officials who lived in the vicinity of a golf course that we passed by earlier.
Dad told me that if I worked hard and became a Civil Servant, I too could someday own one of those cars and we would not have to cycle everywhere. Immediately I responded telling him my mind was made up, when I grew up I would buy him a car. But would he be able to drive one? Or I could always learn to drive myself. My thoughts were put at ease when Dad told me not to worry about owning one because they were very expensive.
He continued, saying that he was happy cycling everywhere and getting exercise at the same time. “If we wanted to, we could cycle all the way to the Thai border using this road. But, we have to be very careful, from here on it would be dangerous because you see, the cycle lane ends right here. From this spot, we’ll be cycling along with cars, busses and
lorries. On dark nights many have been accidentally hit by heavy vehicles on this road!”
Scenery along the narrow road changed as we moved northwards towards Elephant Hill. The large flame of the forest that lined the road were in full bloom at this time of year. Passing by each tree we could catch little red petals billowing away, blown by the soft seasonal early morning breeze, scattered on the grass making lovely shapes wherever they fell. Alternating with flame of the forest were large “angsana” trees with yellow flowers. I loved the overlapping patterns where red petals fell atop the yellow ones yielding a seemingly orange hue one could hardly find on an artist’s palette.
Hanging from the large trunks of these big tall trees were wild orchids that came in handy for me when I was in my first three years at the old school. Dad would pick some of the stalks for me to use as erasers to clean my slate board. But the less fortunate ones whose parents were not as encouraging, would either wash off with water from stand pipes in the toilet or applied their spit, making some boards smell awfully bad in the stuffy classroom.
"You are lucky, Rizal you do not need the orchid stalks anymore. They’ll have books that you can write on" Dad said, reading my mind.
Just then we passed by a large white house with a beautifully landscaped garden and a driveway that went under a porch and came out through a gate so far away from the entrance that one would need at least five minutes of walking to reach the exit. Dad pointed out that it was the former residence of the British Adviser but was occupied by the
“Menteri Besar” a year ago when Malaya became independent.
"What's a British Adviser?" I could not help asking.
"The Sultan was advised by this British gentleman who was specially brought in from England" Dad replied.
"What advice did he give?"
"He advised on everything, mostly about governing the state. The Sultan often consulted him on most matters, except those that have to do with Malay culture and religion!”
"Do you think I can get some advice from him?"
"Only if you were the Sultan" Dad laughed and continued paddling at his normal pace enjoying the ride in the cool morning air that would surely turn warm later in the day. He added, “By the way you may need to go to England to meet him, the British Adviser left when we became independent”.
We crossed the Kedah River on a temporary wooden bridge parallel to the old concrete one bombed by the British during the Second World War, more than a decade earlier, to slow down the advancing Japanese army on their rapid march towards Singapore. Although the war ended one year before I was born, the scars remained for people like me to see. I asked why they have not rebuilt the bridge. Dad said our new government, hardly a year old, was
doing its best to rebuild the nation. They must have many more important things to do. “I am sure they’ll rebuild it soon! They are busy trying to find people like you who’ll help them do it”. He was right. One of the boys whom I went to school with was sent to study Civil Engineering in England and returned to help rebuild the bridge almost twenty years later.
Very fond of using stories that happened to others as learning examples, Dad pointed to the river, "You do not want to wander into the water. There are large crocodiles lurking in the mud. Some children were snatched away by the monsters, not too long ago, when they went for a swim". Until today I still do not know whether it was a true story or it was just a way that adults used to scare children from swimming in rivers. These ideas planted early in life had stuck in my mind, making me fear swimming in a river all through my adult life.
Past the bridge were paddy fields on both sides of the road. There were many water buffaloes with long horns wandering aimlessly in the field, like tourists on a beach. Dad remarked that at harvest time, even the buffaloes go on a vacation. They seemed contented to roll around or lock horns playfully with one another.
A large part of the fields with yellowing paddy remained to be harvested. The plants now drooping downwards heavy with matured grains make swishing sounds as the light morning wind blew across the fields. Men in colourful headscarves and bright sarongs, mostly indentured labourers from Southern Thailand were busy harvesting the paddy with crescent shaped cutting knives. They moved quickly from one plot to the next, cutting, thrashing and bundling the ripened rice into gunny sacks neatly stacked along the bunds, to be collected and ferried by a buffalo cart to the nearest rice mill.
Parallel to the road was a railway line built by the British to transport limestone from Elephant Hill to the crusher nearby the bridge. A train with open steel buckets carrying a load of big lime stone boulders passed by us heading towards the crusher as we pushed forward towards Elephant Hill.
A makeshift board with handwritten sign "Elephant Hill English School" reminded us that we had arrived. Not too far away was the Elephant Hill that looked more worn out at close range than the dark bluish outcrop shaped like an elephant that I was accustomed to seeing from afar. It appeared dilapidated because sections of it had been blasted and taken away to the crusher to be chopped into pebbles for many new roads being built in the state.
Glancing at his old watch, Dad told me it took us almost one hour to cycle from our house to the school. I felt bad watching sweat streaking down his back from all that cycling. I wished I could help. But at eleven, my legs could hardly reach the paddles of the big tall heavy bike.
We got off the bike and gazed at the Elephant Hill. It meant so much to us when we were kids listening to a legend that emerged out of the caves of that hill. Dad turned around and casually repeated the legend. In a tone that we have grown accustomed to over the years, he said, a long time ago most of the state including the area surrounding the hill were part of the sea that stretched out into the Indian Ocean. A ship ferrying a wedding party was cursed by an angry vengeful witch and it turned upside down. The top of the hill that we were looking at was actually the hull. "If you were to enter the caves, you could see a couple seated on a wedding dais with their guests at dinner facing dishes and glasses still full of food and drinks but were hardened, turned to stones by the curse. A special occasion that was unfortunately accursed".
Some other children with their parents were already lining up in front of the school office. We joined the queue and Dad signed us in.
The headmaster addressed parents and twenty-nine others like me. "This is a Special school. You and your parents are lucky to be here. All of you have done well in the selection tests. After a lengthy search, the state has finally chosen the thirty of you for this new school. Congratulations!"
Smiles broke out from faces of every parent. The biggest one was from my Dad. He was so proud to have his son chosen for the school he could hardly contained his happiness. I did see him wiping away droplets of tears from his tired eyes. I did not know how much it meant to him until later in the evening when he told me how he wished he too could have passed a similar examination years ago when he was my age.
Dad took his leave as we filed into the classroom telling me he would come by to pick me up when school was dismissed later in the afternoon. I could not help thinking that he would have to cycle ten kilometres back to town and return later in the hot afternoon to pick me up. For the rest of my adult life I kept on reminding myself that on that particular day, Dad had to cycle forty kilometres for my sake and I would have to do something extraordinary to show him how I loved and appreciated his efforts.
"All of you are special in this school" the headmaster continued his explanation once we were at our seats. I chose the first row because Mom told me to sit in front, “In that way knowledge from the teacher would reach you ahead of others in the class”. Throughout my school and college days I continued sitting towards the front, indirectly encouraging me to raise questions and interact well with my teachers.
"This is Special Malay One. Next Year you’ll move to Special Malay Two, then Standard Six. You will learn everything in English for three years. Your teachers will prepare you to sit for the Secondary School Entrance Exam". With those few words, the headmaster mapped out our lives for the next three years.
Then he said something that bothered all of us for the next few months but came to be valuable many years later after we graduated. "Only English language will be used in this school. All of you must speak and write in English! Remember that!"
Everyone looked at each other. Except for three English words painted on an old bicycle at home I knew absolutely no English. My younger brother and I could barely make out the brand "Raleigh, Made in England" pronouncing, made as "ma ‘day" much like a restaurant
that at I later came across in my adult life, named after the second child among the Balinese. England sounded more like "Inglaand".
Of course I knew what "I love you" meant because every boy in my neighbourhood had been singing the famous song "Rose, Rose I love you" to every girl that we came across. Only Mom kept reminding me that I was not supposed to say that to every girl in case all of them decided to follow me home and claimed that they too loved me. "Where would we put all of them in our tiny hut?" For a child of ten, statements like that although uttered in jest, was rather threatening.
I was not alone. When the headmaster switched from Malay to English we merely stared at him with blank expressions. Needless to say it was quite a challenging morning. Using sign language and repeating selected English words, the headmaster managed to make us understand what he meant. We knew names of teachers who would be teaching us and that they were all trained at a college called Kirby, somewhere in England soon after the Second World War.
We received our brand new books that were still crisp, in mint condition, unlike the old and
cruddy ones we had at my former school. I fell in love with the colourfully illustrated story books right away. Over the next few months, I enjoyed reading and rereading tales of William Tell, Blue Beard, Cinderella, Red Riding Hood and other fables, mostly in the evening using a paraffin lamp that emitted a peculiar smell. The experience was so memorable that similar scent would always rekindle memories of those wonderful stories later in life.
When the bell rang for our morning break, we reached into our bags eating whatever we brought from home. The canteen was still under construction. One of the boys sitting next to me looked lost. He said he did not know we had to bring food from home. I offered him some of my bread with margarine and sugar that Mom packed that morning. We didn’t like sardine sandwiches, at that early hour because of the strong smell and passed on to others who ate heartily.
My new friend asked, "Do town folks like you eat lots of bread?"
"I was expecting you'd give me fried noodles or rice. We eat lots of rice in the village! What is a town boy like you doing in a village school like this?"
"I don't know, really. They sent me here! Why do you ask?"
He studied my face for a long while before saying "Look around you. You are the only boy from town. Everyone is from the villages nearby!"
I was not conscious about this town and country divide until then. I knew it would not be correct to reply when someone is in the mood to pick up on our differences on the first day of school.
I left him and went on to explore our new surrounding. I visited one of the five empty classrooms converted into a mini library. A magazine that fascinated me was Illustrated London News with pictures of the Queen and the English Royal family. Another was the National Geographic Magazine that had beautiful pictures of faraway places that would influence me for the rest of my adult life. But that morning, on my first encounter, the magazine that I have never seen in my life brought out a desire to travel that eventually
became almost an obsession. Besides all other material things that I knew I could never have, like cars, toys, chocolate coated ice cream soda or fancy clothes, the magazine invoked in me a longing to visit faraway places, like the Tower of London, The Statue of Liberty, The Rocky Mountains, Mount Everest, The Great Wall of China and the dancing girls in grass skirts of Tonga and Fiji. I did not understand the printed words but I loved the pictures I saw. I went through the magazines one after another and wished I could take them home and figure out what the words meant using the Malay-English Collins Dictionary that was given by the teachers together with other texts.
Alongside the magazines were some books. "Dongeng Gunung Gajah" or Legend of Elephant Hill attracted my attention. I could not understand the English version, so I read the Malay edition. It revealed a story that had become part of my growing years, retold by various members of my family. It was an event that took place a few thousand years ago when two royal houses wanted to wed their children on a vessel at sea. The bride's family had earlier promised her hand to a prince of a neighbouring state but changed their minds when approached by another. Out of anger the original suitor engaged the services of a grand witch to cast a spell on the wedding. With a huge puff the witch blew a massive tsunami that capsized the ship and turned its passengers and everything on board into stone. The spell would never be reverted unless a young man with special skills and noble intentions, willing to sacrifice his own life was ready to defeat the wicked witch in a duel.
I thought how wonderful it would be, if only I was the chosen one to challenge the wicked witch. I sat and fantasied the event that would take place in the dark winding caverns. I would hunt for her to force her to bring back to life those who were turned to stone. Wielding our long flashy swords that clashed with sparks flying as they crossed in the darkness, we would fight up and down the narrow pathways. I would then slay her.
I did not know how long I sat there contemplating a fierce duel and poring over those magazines until someone tapped me on the shoulder, “We have been looking for you everywhere!” said a lovely teacher in sarong “kebaya” who had earlier introduced herself as Zarina. “Some of your friends thought you went off to explore the caves!” I could have, if I wanted to, inspired by a new-found adventure spirit kindled by the National Geographic and the legend of the hill.
Dad and I left around two. I couldn't wait to tell everybody at home my first day at school. But Dad wanted to hear more about how I felt rather than minute by minute actual events of the day. He kept on asking, “How did you feel? Did it raise your spirit? Did the day’s experience make you want to touch the skies?” Dad was my greatest motivator. Next to the Elephant Hill legend, my National Geographic moment was what he liked most.
"Dad, I would like to travel!"
"Of course, you will! But you have to do well in school, win some fellowships and they'll send you overseas".
"Dad, I have to fight the wicked witch!"
He was silent for a long while. Then in a serious tone, "First you have to find the wicked witch. No one knows where she is! Second, you have to prepare yourself thoroughly. You have to acquire many skills, knowledge of sorcery, art of self-defence, some geology perhaps to dig under the limestone caves, and so on. You have to learn, my son, to be good in every skill to overcome all obstacles in your life! Only then will you succeed
On the way home, Dad decided to stop by his sister’s home near the Golf Course. I had never been to my auntie’s new quarters. Dad felt that it would be best for me to see for myself how the other side lived. He said it would perhaps inspire me to reach for greater heights.
The house was a smaller version of the British Adviser’s mansion. It was a two storey bungalow with high columns and an equally impressive u-shaped driveway that went under the porch and out again around manicured lawn lined with beautiful red palm trees. Next door were similar houses with a view of the extensive golf course and racing tracks that were part of an exclusive Kedah Club. Dad said it must have been established by the British, probably with consultation with the British Adviser and blessings from the Sultan. The club became the centre of Colonial officers’ activities and later developed into a social hub for local civil servants and aspiring entrepreneurs in the state wanting to rub shoulders with local who’s who.
We entered the house through the kitchen door because Dad said our bicycle was too small to be parked underneath the porch and could get in the way of the two cars that already occupied the space. He justified by saying, "Besides, we're family, kitchen entrance is more proper! Remember to take off your shoes!"
After a quick lunch served by maids hired from a nearby “kampong”, my uncle who was a State Secretary wanted to meet what he called “our new boy”. My aunt suffering from a bout of asthma retired to her room after saying hello and expressing her happiness with my new found achievement.
I was almost immediately buried by the many soft cushions in the living room. Not accustomed to the luxurious environment, I was in complete awe, "So, this is how a senior civil servant's house looks like!" I thought. I meekly answered questions when asked by this figure of authority that most people in the state loved and admired.
He told me that he too was in a Special Malay class at my age and was sent by the British to read Law in England. I was to follow his footsteps and go overseas, study hard and must return to help build our new nation. He went into his library and returned with an old copy of Pears Encyclopaedia and handed to me, saying, "My gift for you!" I was to refer to that Encyclopaedia incessantly to look up facts throughout my entire school career much to the dismay of my classmates who often wondered how I knew so much.
“Do you like cheese?” he asked. Not waiting for a reply he cut a wedge, put on a piece of cream crackers and invited me to try. He stared at my face as I nibbled on the salty creamy preserved milk that initially tasted spongy and would require some time for me to get accustomed to. “It is an acquired taste!” remarked Dad who himself had very little liking to the strange tasting curdled milk. How could I like something that I did not know even existed until that very moment?
“You are a lucky young man!” said a voice from the far corner of the living room. I was later informed that the dark looking, balding man originally from Pondicherry was a State Veterinary Officer who while lauding the government’s plan to increase the number of locals in the Civil Service wanted the benefits extended to everyone. I did not quite understand the politics of our young country then. I was not conscious that there were people who were deprived of the same chance I had.
A serious discussion between the two government servants on benefits ensued with Dad and I left to watch in silence. My uncle defended the policy saying Malays who were economically backward were most deserving of government's help. I did not understand at all because they were talking in English but Dad did the interpretation later. They were at it for a long while and I dozed off in the comfort of the soft cushions lulled by the whirring of the large ceiling fan with the encyclopaedia on my chest, to be woken later when we were ready to leave.
On the way home Dad explained that "Our new government felt that the majority of the people like ourselves who were poorer than the rest had to be given a chance to catch up with others!"
I did not know of other families in our neighbourhood who were poorer than us. There was our immediate neighbour, Lee who owned many rice mills. Then there was Dr. Tan who had a clinic of his own next to Lawyer Raj's office, whom everyone went to when they had to attend court. Dad's good friend, Kim Seong has a coffee “tiam” that we frequent for toasts with "kaya" spread. We were all friendly with Tan Kim who had a successful furniture factory from where we bought timber for our houses. Allee Madras operated a popular Indian Briyani restaurant while Miss Burg an Eurasian headmistress of a local convent was a regular feature at his eatery. Bahadur, I was not sure where he came from was a fair Northern Indian who operated a bakery from a shop house, a short distance away from our local mosque.
The houses they lived in were made of bricks and mortar along the main road of our little township while other people like us had wooden ramshackle huts for homes. Our own house, for instance, was made from trunks of large trees with bamboo for walls and floors. The roof was from leaves held together by bamboo sticks carefully woven with tiny barks of reeds. When it rained and the roof leaked Dad would easily repair the leakage with leaves from a “nipah” plant, growing in the wet and muddy mangrove. Some nights when it rained heavily and the river overflowed its banks, water would fill up our hut through the wooden floors, making us pick up our pillows, put them behind our heads, leaned ourselves against the walls and slept standing up until the flood subsided.
To make ends meet Mom sewed clothes, made beaded slippers out of velvet and baked cakes using firewood placed atop and below earthen pots, outdoors, because the kitchen was too tiny to cook large quantities of food. Dad who merely earned a meagre income as a Tracer at the Irrigation Department slaved away helping her with chores at home then dropped off cakes and “kueh” at coffee shops in town before leaving for work every morning. We managed except on some occasions like last week when our friendly money lender came by to give Dad a small loan to help pay for things I needed to attend this new school. At month’s end, I was quite sure he would reappear with his signature black umbrella to collect the repayment.
Haji Abdullah’s house next door was by far the loveliest with hand carved wooden window grills and panelled doors sited on its own small plot of land planted with red hibiscus hedges surrounding its perimeter. His family had lived on that land for generations. With a little gratuity received from the government after the war, he was able to rebuild his own house and started a wood carving business producing beautifully hand crafted Malay “keris” and walking sticks. My friends and I would spend many hours watching him at his craft, often wishing, we could, someday, get to be like him.
Other Malay houses that lined streets of our neighbourhood were less illustrious, made
mostly of rejected pieces of planks from Tan Kim Furniture and Timber Company but cleverly pieced together by sheer ingenuity of experienced Malay carpenters. As a result, the dwellings, though humble, looked presentable with well etched window frames painted over with black greasy coating to protect the structure from the elements.
Our Koran teacher into whose house we piled in to learn the basics of religion and scripture lived in a hut the size of a school bus that had a single bed, a tiny kitchen, a living room that could hardly accommodate ten teenagers. Her toilet was outdoors about ten meters away, consisted of one big hole dug in the ground that we were often warned to be careful about not because it could drown us but more for fear that we would not smell like roses when we exit the outhouse. A fellow classmate, nicknamed Mat Jin for his notoriety did fall into the bog one day, causing an uproar when he appeared at the front of the tiny hut in his smelly soiled clothes and had to be sent home by the Koran teacher, enraged by the incident.
Poverty was everywhere in my community but everyone was happy except a few who could not repay their loans to the white dhoti clad money lender carrying a black umbrella at the end of each month. Some would easily panic at the sight of a black umbrella outside their houses intentionally left behind by pranksters. One fishmonger who had difficulty settling his debt stayed away from his house for days until the black umbrella
removed. But he did settle his debt when the money lender out of his own kindness, took pity and reduced the interests.
Quarrels among neighbouring housewives were settled by pulling out each other’s hair in public watched by all with glee. We would bet on who would get toppled first into the mud. It could easily have been the first Malaysian version of women mud wrestling. Once the fight was over, the Koran teacher would settle the conflict by asking them to "salam" or shake hands, forgive one another and she would thank everyone for coming to watch the spectacle. "We'll announce the next match in advance and you fellas can enjoy the show over a picnic!"
I was jolted from my reflections when the bicycle Dad and I were on accidentally toppled over and both of us fell on to the grass by the roadside where Dad earlier said was the most dangerous spot on the secondary road. My first thoughts were "What a way for a happy day to end!"
Our bicycle was rolled over by a bus that sped past as we fell. It screeched to a stop and the driver came rushing towards us, sympathetic but was reluctant to accept blame for crushing
our only means of getting home. Dad who was more concerned about me than his bicycle, had bruises on his elbows from the fall, was silent, shocked by the accident. He sat down on
the curb, held me with one hand and the other he raised to the skies thanking God for saving our lives that day.
By then a small crowd of passers-by had gathered around us but most were more curios than helpful. I was in a daze. My hand was aching from the fall but I was not bleeding like Dad’s bruised arm. I must have looked very pale and scared. One lady in a white doctor’s coat came forward, took out her scented handkerchief wiped my eyebrows, patted my cheeks, massaged my arms, shone a light into both my eyes and pronounced, “You lucky young man, you will live for a long time!” Then turning to Dad, she said, “Go to the Dispensary and get your bruises dressed. Take care of this special boy of yours!”
With those kind words she disappeared as quietly as she came leaving her sweetly scented handkerchief in my hand. I did not know who she was or where she came from but I kept her handkerchief and years later connected the initial embroidered letter “H” on it to a face I saw in the papers of a doctor who married a well-known leader of our country.
Everyone was asking questions but none offered to help us get home until the Veterinary Officer whom we met earlier arrived on the scene. He took issue with the bus driver for
destroying our bike," You should be more careful with cyclists. I am sure you were driving fast otherwise this would not have happened. You ought to pay for the bike!"
"I am a poor driver. I cannot pay!"
"Then the bus company should pay!" The Vet repeated his demands like a lawyer in a court room until the poor driver retreated quietly behind the gathering crowd.
Dad stuck the shattered bike into the boot of the Vet's car and we piled into his little Morris Minor leaving the bus driver relieved because Dad did not want to file a police report on the accident. The onlookers were left to speculate on the mishap. The Vet told us that he was sure many of them would visit the four digit lottery shop and punt a permutation of the bus number plate plus two, because Dad and I were involved in the accident, consult the Chinese dream book and pray it would win at the draw the next day.
I had a notion of what four digit lottery meant because Grandma who was an occasional punter would sometimes write four numbers on a piece of paper when she had a good dream, gave me ten cents and sent me to a bookie at the end of the street in our
neighbourhood. He in turn would write a chit acknowledging receipt that Grandma would keep under her pillow hoping for a strike. As far as I could recall she never made money from such an investment and consistently advised us not to gamble because it was against religious teaching. Some of my uncles grew up confused as a result of the conflicting signals she sent out.
My Mom, Grandma and the rest of the family were waiting when we arrived. Words have reached them that we were in an accident. Tears streamed down Mom’s cheeks when she held me, inspecting my limbs, checking out for broken bones. She was grateful she said, in between sobs, we were alive and well.
"Mom, do you think the wicked witch wanted us dead?"
"No, it was an accident! Why would any witch want that to happen to my good son!"
"Because I told Dad I wanted to fight her!"
Grandma dispatched my aunties to prepare a meal for a thanksgiving dinner after our evening prayers that night. My uncle was made to get hold of a few chickens that we raised around our house just for such an unexpected event.
Our small family gathering grew larger that evening with religious faithfuls from a local mosque invited for a special thanksgiving prayers. When everyone raised their hands giving thanks to the Almighty, I could not help think of how lucky Dad and I were that day to come away from the accident unscathed. I prayed that if the wicked witch had any ill intention against us, do let God protect us.
I wanted the prayers and the dinner to end quickly partly because I was tired and partly because I was thinking of the witch who turned people to stones on a happy occasion into an accursed one. I did not want this happy day to end with everyone turned into stone sculptures hidden away in a cave waiting for wayward visitors to discover and return to tell others how my own family suffered a similar fate.
A dream that night transported me to the inner sanctum of a long winding cavern
underneath Elephant Hill that led into a large hall decorated with sweet scented flowers
from the flame of the forest. Colourfully dressed folks from my neighbourhood accompanied by their favourite water buffaloes were present. The friendly Vet was busy examining the animals. Even the money lender clad in his white dhoti carrying a black umbrella was on hand to collect his dues.
Music was in the air. "Rose, Rose I Love You" echoed and reechoed in the cavern. Everyone looked happy savouring culinary delights of chicken curries and delicious cheesy desserts. My poor friends from our neighbourhood who arrived in bus loads were already unceremoniously helping themselves at the buffet table. Even my new classmate who did not like the sardine sandwich was enjoying it tonight.
At one corner there was a mud wrestling pitch set up for women from my village to demonstrate their fighting skills to the guests. The Koran teacher was all ready to referee the match. A big picnic basket was neatly placed on a stool next to an ice cream soda fountain sprouting out a variety of chocolate and other delicious drinks. They were served by waiters in tall glasses decorated with edible colourful toys. Some of my friends were already sucking on the large long straws oblivious to things happening around them.
The Queen and members of the Royal family whom I had seen in the Illustrated London News, were guests of honour. They arrived in a bright brand new silver coloured Morris Minor followed by the old British Adviser in his small white Austin. The doctor in her white coat standing next to the State Secretary, smiled and waved her handkerchief.
The Sultan of our state made his grand entry atop a large blue elephant. It was strange, most that I have seen at the circus were always grey! Could it be a reincarnation of the bluish Elephant Hill itself. The royal footmen in bright shiny Malay traditional outfit walked in front carrying yellow umbrellas with young maidens throwing petals of angsana in their path. A writer from The National Geographic was clicking away at his box camera recording the scenes hopefully to be printed in the forthcoming issue of the magazine. I could imagine the caption on the front cover, "Legends of Elephant Hill Come Alive".
My new headmaster in his black suit and all my teachers in their new clothes were there to herald me as a new hope of our country. The teacher, Zarina announced that I was ‘an extraordinarily gifted and special young man” who was chosen as a leader of the procession to destroy the evil witch and restore the upturned ship to its former glory.
Mom and Dad were there with big smiles on their faces, urging me on. Dad stood by his brand new bicycle donated by the bus company waving to me as I passed by in my new school uniform of starched unwrinkled white shirt and brown trousers.
When I opened my eyes Dad was still smiling “Time to go to school, young man!”