They were drivers, workers and grasscutters

·6-min read
Malay Mail
Malay Mail

JULY 21 — They did not close the casket. They had to wait for armed men with guns to show up.

Growing up in Kampung Pandan is to be neither here nor there, literally. Half the Indian settlement is in Selangor and the other in Kuala Lumpur. I was never allowed to enter the hillside quarters alone, the part in Selangor. Too dangerous except when with the family to catch an open air film screening on weekend nights.

My mom always kept us safe, which sometimes meant away from our own kin. Most of the family lived in and around Kampung Pandan.

Which was part of the reason I cannot remember one conversation with my cousin who died two days ago.

Her mom swept for the city, a general worker. I remember walking into the Puduraya bus terminal years ago and seeing her sweep the floor, just one industrial strength broom and dustpan.

Anyway, my late mom wanted us to go to better things and it seemed chilling with my cousins who lived a street behind, separated by the Sikh Gurdwara, led down and not up. So, we did not mingle despite the proximity.

Suffice to say we could not move out of Kampung Pandan and to Cheras — the part closer to Kajang — quick enough in my mother’s mind. Nothing good will come out of living in the Kampung Pandan squatter colony, she was convinced.

So here I was standing next to my brother, on a slightly raised space between an elevated highway and more squatter homes. The funeral invite listed the business operating next to the area since the illegal settlement would not show on Google Maps.

The term nowhere seems apt. My uncle and aunt found some space — more than 30 years ago — which the new Pandan Jaya development did not swallow up and built a home on the dirt.

We were part of a solemn crowd witnessing the rituals for my dead cousin. The stereo played drums and horns; it was a Tamil funeral.

Complications from gangrene induced amputations associated with diabetes — the dreaded D word in the family — ended her journey. Widowed once, she remarried two years ago. Now her children are orphaned. Goodbye, Jayanthi.

My late dad was a government driver who moonlighted as a taxi driver. His siblings went with general employment where they could; council workers, drivers, factory workers and such.

We had one aunt who ended up with a Singaporean. As their currency rose through the years, so did their relative value to other family members. Currency exchange and family ties, the book needs to be written.

The thing which struck me about my dad and his family was two-fold.

One, these men and women wished the best for their children, therefore they accepted their lot in life and strived for their children. And all things considered it has been decent decades. It is the story of Malaysia in so many ways.

While there are stories of great successes and how migrant working class kids steer from trouble and propel themselves to achievements, there are those who did not make it out. — Picture by Hari Anggara
While there are stories of great successes and how migrant working class kids steer from trouble and propel themselves to achievements, there are those who did not make it out. — Picture by Hari Anggara

While there are stories of great successes and how migrant working class kids steer from trouble and propel themselves to achievements, there are those who did not make it out. — Picture by Hari Anggara

Which leads to the second point. Malaysia is a migrant nation, and as such opened an amazing number of opportunities for those who persevered. This is not a given in many parts of the world.

There are places, including where my family originated from, where those opportunities would have been absent. Sivaganga in Tamil Nadu, or for the sake of Indian restaurant goers in Klang Valley, Chettinad, does not offer easy upliftment for lowest caste communities. Even now, when on holiday there, the locals who have never travelled think of Malaysia as the land of riches. Their eyes betray envy.

But the larger exposition today is about returning home. And that is 10 kilometres from Kajang to Kampung Pandan — and knowing that our strength comes from accepting who we are as people and to retell our stories as the most personal parts about ourselves.

The men arrived.

We were outside my aunt’s house and the funeral was at its tail-end before the deceased was to be transported to Ampang Hindu Cemetery. My cousin, two years younger than me, was to be buried, not cremated.

The men with guns and uniforms came because they were necessary. To accompany my other cousin from his Kajang Prison cell to his sister’s funeral.

There was a hush as he was led to the casket to have one last look. His youngest sister was no more.

He had the numbers 08907 adorned on his prison uniform. No, this is not a story of a wrongful conviction or the victimisation of yet another young Indian man who has spent the better part of 20 years incarcerated.

My cousin was involved with various inexcusable incidents. The attendance of many gang members to pay their respects to him rather than his dead sister was palpable.

It is a reminder that while there are stories of great successes and how migrant working class kids steer from trouble and propel themselves to achievements, there are those who did not make it out.

But there are two things to that. The first which redeems.

While of five children — two have died, one incarcerated, another missing suspected dead — only one, the eldest son is left to be leader to the various families, they have pushed on for better.

The reports are splendid, my nephews and nieces have proceeded to jobs, and one is a police officer. None is in trouble with the law or ended up directionless. The missteps before only guided them to better stories for themselves.

My mom may have felt the best way forward was to not look back but the answers are always in the past and the people we leave behind.

I do not know my cousins enough, but I was present when expected to. I wish I was there more through those years. Maybe there was a risk I could have been dragged into a dangerous world.

Those choices made for me cannot be undone as also the divide between us.

I’ve not seen my inmate cousin for 30 years. It would have been bittersweet for him to come home after a few years even if just half an hour to attend his sibling’s funeral. The guards cannot let him proceed to the cemetery as they have to head back to prison with him secure.

I went over, said hello and embraced him. He said hello.

It’s unlikely I’ll see him again. But if I do, that would not be a terrible thing. We are family.

The second thing is to accept who we are, even the parts not impressive on our social resumes.

One cousin is under dirt, another in a prison cell as I write this in a pleasant café with people who do not know me. It is OK. At least I know my family.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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