Someone has only to mention 466-B Ayer Itam Road, Penang, the house where I was born, and I will experience a rush of memories : Idaham, my eldest brother, vigorously beating eggs with a fork and scrambling them with sliced onion and chili for a most appetizing breakfast.
Badlil drying dehusked coconut shells and mangosteen skins in the sun to supplement firewood for cooking. My big sister Zurina, sweeping, scrubbing, straightening up the house or sewing pretty dresses for my kid sister Faridah and I. Mustapha, the gregarious one, dressing up to the nines for a night out with his friends.
Abu was a tease. When I was yet a wee girl, I unintentionally swallowed a sizeable mangosteen seed. He looked at me gravely, shook his head and said a mangosteen tree would most surely sprout from my stomach. I was terrified and subjected my stomach to the most careful scrutiny. After several weeks had passed I was hugely relieved to find nothing shooting forth from it.
Mother’s only brother, Mamak Hassan, had an endearing personality. An avid small game hunter, he thrilled me with stories about his jungle exploits. He told me about his beloved pet tiger cub which would follow him companionably all over his house. He always wore thick leather gloves when playing with it. Clever, that, I thought. I don’t recall what eventually happened to it.
I remember he brought Mother a mouse deer to be skinned and was scolded for what she described as his senseless killing of helpless little animals. But she smiled at his proposition : that she consider marrying one of her sons to the lovely daughter of his dear friend, a senior government official. It would be a fine match he assured her. He pointed out that Father and Mother were prominent members of the community. Father had distinguished himself as an English teacher at the Penang Free school, the country’s premier school. And were they not invited each year to attend the Penang Governor’s birthday party?
Although Mother’s sons were all of marriageable age, Idaham and Mustapha had made plans to further their studies in England. Abu had secured a place at the University of Singapore. Mother decided that Badlil, who had a well paid job with an international company, Cable and Wireless in Singapore, was the perfect candidate.
Mamak Hassan arranged a meeting with his friend. My parents were most warmly received. And they were won over by the grace and beauty of his friend’s daughter. Mamak Hassan had chosen well indeed.
When a date was set for the wedding, Mother presented the bride-to-be with an exquisite gold necklace.
Following Badlil’s return from Singapore preparations for the wedding were finalized. The bridal bed with its tasseled beige bedcover sparkled with beads and sequins. As did the matching pillows and cushions. Carpets were rolled out and laid in the living room at one end of which stood the elaborately decorated bridal dais. Tables and chairs were arranged under a large tent in the garden and a wide variety of food ordered for the wedding dinner.
My parents had personally called upon all their guests to invite them for the wedding.
Two days before the wedding I woke up to the sound of people rushing around and talking in raised voices. I looked for Mother and found her weeping inconsolably. It broke my heart to see her tear-stained face. Father appeared sullen and angry. I asked Zurina what had happened and in a pained voice she told me Badlil, the bridegroom-to-be, had disappeared and was nowhere to be found. Mustapha had raised what he called the red alert.
We had a major crisis on our hands. There was no way we could hush up what had happened. The wedding had to be called off and all arrangements made had to be cancelled.
Though deeply distraught, Mother was able to pull herself together. With Father and Mamak Hassan in tow she hastened to disclose what had happened to the parents of the bride-to-be, expressed her remorse and regret and sought their forgiveness. Then she faced each one of her invited guests and came away, at the end of it all, with her dignity preserved.
A contrite Badlil returned after a week. He had grievously wronged wronged his parents but didn’t foresee the extent of their wrath. The punishment he received was severe. He was most sternly rebuked and then driven out of the house.