Dinner time at Kampong Bahru, one of my dearest memories. All seven of us, gathered at our dining table with our parents. While we did full justice to the food my mother had prepared, my father, the English teacher, would talk to us about Shakespeare, a most remarkable story-teller, so he said. And he would regale us with Shakespeare’s tales of revenge and intrigue, jealousy, murderous kings and queens, and love and romance. And I would listen to him enthralled.
I remember going about reciting lines from his plays and sonnets. I’d approach my pretty cat Pekoe and ask her, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely….”
I’d startle the rabbits in the hutch with, “To be or not to be: that is the question.” Even the goats in the pen were not spared. “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. And I thought they bleated in agreement!
I would dream about the gentlemen of Verona, the merchant who lived in Venice, and of the merry wives of Windsor, as I continued to be bewitched by this man who lived more than 400 years ago and told such remarkable tales. My love of Shakespeare increased with the years. That was one of my dear father’s greatest gifts to me.
On the day my father’s gleaming, black Morris 8, number plated P 3328 arrived, we were filled with a frenzy of excitement. As we rushed out of the house to examine it, I caught the smile on my mother’s face. She and my two sisters and I got in the car and we were soon off on a long, smooth ride to Penang Road. My father stopped at Kek Seng for our favourite ice-cream. It was decidedly our happiest day.
My mother loved our rides at night best, when her chores were done and she could relax and enjoy the bright lights of George Town. And cream puffs at the Tip-Top Cafe at Pulau Tikus.
On other nights we would dine at our preferred restaurants, Meera and Hameedia, on Campbell Road. They served great Indian bread, “roti canai”, and “murtabak”, bursting with beef and onion.
On bright, moonlit nights, well after dinner was over, my mother would spread a large “tikar” or mat on our front lawn. There we would all gather to chat and laugh and listen as my brother Mustapha strummed his guitar. And we would munch on rambutans, mangosteens and guavas, all grown in our backyard. But there was nothing to match the durian. When it was in season, my father would buy several of the fruit, cut them open, deftly avoiding their vicious thorns, and we would have a feast. We’d dig our fingers in and pull out sections of the fruit. What bliss to sink our teeth into its creamy flesh.
After I was done, I’d snuggle up to my mother and place my head on her lap. And when she gently rubbed my forehead and then moved her fingers to caress my head, I could feel her sweet love flowing into me and I would be filled with a wondrous contentment.
For many years after she’d passed on, I was stricken with grief whenever I heard, “Waktu Terang Bulan” (On a Moonlit Night), one of the most beautiful Malay songs of all time. It may be loosely translated thus:
When the full moon shines brightly
In a sky filled with a thousand stars
I will see my darling mother’s face
And remember how dearly she loved me
Then my eyes would brim over with tears
And my heart filled with a deep sadness……