My favourite love story, dedicated to my parents on the eve of their wedding anniversary …
Once upon a time, in Malaya where the days are hot and the nights not much cooler, there lived a young girl. She was the second child, the eldest daughter, in a family of six – 3 boys and 3 girls. Her parents, having travelled from Ceylon, had decided to settle and raise a family in this place of opportunity.
Her father came from a family of, mostly, men, and he longed for a daughter. His first-born was a son … When his wife was expecting their second child, he was so convinced it would be a girl, he had already chosen her name before she was born. A doting, loving father, nothing was too good for his daughter; he would order her clothes from Europe, and buy gold clips for her hair, no matter that she kept losing them.
Then her father was taken ill. On the advice of the doctors, he returned to his homeland to live by the sea. So his wife would not be raising their children on her own, he wrote to her brother for help; he left his life in their homeland to join his sister so she would not be alone.
The young girl never saw her father again. About two years later, when she was eight, their father passed away. Their mother, only in her 30s, was left a widow with six young children to care for, the youngest still a baby.
Life was hard for the young widow and her family. Being the 1930s, she did not have many options open to her. And yet, whatever else they had to do without, the widow made sure the family were never short of food. Neither would she turn anyone away who asked her for food. She would say, “They can only eat this much, why deprive them?”
The girls’ school that the young girl went to in her early teens was next to a boys’ boarding school. To get to their playground, the boarders had to pass through that of the girls’ school. And the young boys did enjoy teasing the girls … One of them would usually pull the young girl’s pigtails.
That pigtail-pulling boy grew to a young man who began working in the railways after leaving school. Settled in his new job, he answered the call for volunteers to join the Railway Operating and Maintenance Company (ROMC). There he met the young girl’s older brother, and they became the best of friends.
The war that engulfed the world broke out. Abandoned by their colonial masters, the country was taken over and occupied by another. Under their new masters, the people endeavoured to continue with their lives as best they could.
The young man, allowed to carry on working in the railways, knew the young girl, now a young woman, but only as the sister of his best friend, and he was attracted to her. Having seen him in the company of her brother, the young woman was secretly attracted to him also. When the young man asked his best friend for his sister’s hand in marriage, his best friend was overjoyed.
The young woman’s brother excitedly spoke to his mother about this possible match. She, however, was filled with doubt and worry. The young man was Indian, she said; they were Ceylonese. But her son refused to entertain that sort of attitude. All that mattered was that his friend was a decent, upright man who would care for his wife and family. When his mother said that the local Ceylonese community would not be happy with such a union, he angrily said that it was not their place to say anything; none of them had offered the family any help when their father had died. If anyone had a problem with how the family managed their own affairs, he said, they should speak to him and he would set them straight. His mother knew none would for they were afraid of her son and his sharp tongue.
When the widow met her future son-in-law, her misgivings soon vanished; each took to the other quickly, and a mutually respectful and loving relationship came into being that would last until the widow’s death almost forty years later.
The young man married the young woman on 10 December 1942. Because of the increased expenses of living in such times, there were no wedding invitations. Instead the young woman’s brother put up a notice announcing the wedding, and stating that whoever wished to attend could do so. After heavy rains, come the day of the wedding, the town was flooded. The biggest question turned out to be, how to get to the temple. The answer – by boat! And people did come to the wedding … more out of curiosity than anything else.
In 1943, six months after the wedding, the young woman’s brother was taken ill with cerebral malaria. His mother was in the hospital with a foot injury at the same time, and she visited him every day in the men’s ward. One night, he sang one of his mother’s favourite songs to her; his voice was so beautiful, it enchanted the entire ward. The next day, only 22 years old, he died. The widow was heartbroken; for many mornings afterwards, she would wake crying and calling for him.
Even though her other two sons were still in school, they managed to get jobs to help look after their mother and sisters. After a while, the widow and her family moved in with the young woman and her husband; it was his pay that provided the main support for the family.
Life was not easy for the newly-weds; just as they were starting their life together, they had the added responsibility of a whole other family. But the young man continued to do the right thing by his best friend’s family, even after he had a family of his own. He looked after his wife’s siblings until they were married. And he cared for his mother-in-law as if she were his own mother.
In time, life got better, easier. The young man worked hard and earned his promotions. Having started as a parcel clerk when he first joined the railways, he made his way up to the position of Assistant Traffic Manager, the highest position a non-Malay can hold in the railways. After retiring from the railways, he then worked for a private cement company. He raised his family of four girls, making sure they were protected and educated. He weathered the heart-stopping scare of almost losing his wife to a brain tumour. As he got older and his responsibilities eased, he enjoyed a more relaxed relationship with his children and grandchildren.
The marriage had its ups and downs, but the ‘downs’ were never anything that could not be put right. He was proud of his wife, an independent-minded, strong yet feminine woman, ahead of her time in her outlook. Outwardly, she was the ‘quiet’, dutiful wife who never disagreed with her husband. Yet he never expected her to be anything other than who she was; he knew she wasn’t the sort to agree with everything he said, that she spoke her mind, and he was glad of that. She always read the newspapers from cover to cover, and was well-informed on current matters, be it politics, entertainment or sports.
The young man and young woman, my beautiful parents, celebrated their 50th anniversary in Aug 1993, surrounded by family and good friends, their love for one another as strong as when they were newly married. When my Papa died, aged 80, they had been married for 57 years. Not wanting to face time without him, still my dear Mummy lived another 7 years before she passed. And, in that time, she showed her children, her grandchildren and those around her, how to live a dignified life despite profound grief and debilitating illness, which left her bed-ridden and without speech.
It’s taken me long enough to realise, but I know now, she also showed me that, no matter the opinions of those around you, it is possible to be strong and to stay strong, regardless of what lies ahead … to look life in the eye, and face it with head held high.