I’m noting down family details and it’s all these little stories and varying perspectives that may come in useful for a story about a typical Singaporean family that have their ancestral roots in Sri Lanka, specifically Jaffna.
Of course no one would be interested in a pure success story (blowing one’s own trumpet, vanity project) as the field is saturated there.
I also don’t like the idea of books with a ghost writer. I need to have control of my own tale. But the conflict is that it has to be presented unvarnished. Not just the palatable stuff which wouldn’t be as honest or captivating.
The trick is how to not hurt anyone’s feelings (this might be inevitable for a worthy story). Also how to get to those secret true stories, as in my life, it has been proven again and again, that truth is stranger than fiction.
What follows is what my uncle shared with me today.
His was a 1950’s childhood. He would wake up when the others woke up. He didn’t have an alarm clock and the noise everyone made was enough to rouse him. He slept in the hall, while his cousins slept on the verandah. Upon waking he would roll up his thin mattress which was covered with a bedsheet and put it away.
Breakfast was coffee and you would help yourself. He would fill up his glass from a big kettle of coffee prepared by his mum (my maternal grandma). Sometimes he would have a soft boiled egg with pepper and salt plus a slice of bread. When I asked if it was toasted he laughed reminding me there was no toaster then. Well at least they did not own one.
It took him 15 minutes to walk to school. Each brother went at their own pace and at their own time, bumping into their friends and chatting along the way.
Often, my uncle and his friends would kick an empty can found on the road (no anti littering campaign then) like a football all the way to school. They often took a short cut through a Muslim cemetery. (I had asked whether he and his brother went together as they both were studying at the same school and he said no, they didn’t specifically wait for each other and went independently)
Back then it was a different system. Primary school at McNair was standard 1 (equivalent to primary 1 and 2 today) Then it was standard 2 to 5 at Rangoon road primary school. It was 7 years of primary school.
At recess my uncle spent the 20 cents pocket money he got, this way: 5 or 10 cents for a plate of Mee Siam or Mee Goreng. 5 or 10 cents for a fizzy drink like Sarsi, Red Lion brand Orange soda and Sinalco. It was just 2 cents for an ice ball and it would be shared with a friend. The ice ball man would slice it into half so in the end it cost him just 1 cent for his share.
Under British Colonial rule, Uncle A sang both ‘God Save the King’ in primary school then ‘God Save the Queen’ from 1952 onwards. My uncle lived through a remarkable historical period. George VI was King of the United Kingdom and the British Commonwealth from 11 December 1936 until his death in 1952. Then his daughter Queen Elizabeth II reigned from 6 February 1952 until her recent demise. And now it’s her son King Charles, so my uncle has experienced it all. Colonial rule, independence, and WWII including the Japanese occupation (although he was just a toddler then.)
He had a very strict teacher in Primary 4. Percy Procter who was of Indian ethnicity and a very good pianist (moonlighted as a pianist besides teaching). Just one spelling mistake and my uncle would get pinched or carried by collar off the ground and dropped. I was quite horrified, but not surprised by that abuse. It took place in my primary school as well, two decades later in the 70’s. Thank goodness for better protection for children these days.
My uncle would often ponteng (skip) Tamil class because it was held in the afternoon after school. Children from other schools would join in as there were not enough Tamil Teachers or students so they had to pool students from different schools. He added that he got scolded by his father as he didn’t do well in Tamil.
My uncle said children would get into trouble for being mischievous and getting into fights. Not fist fights, but just pushing and shoving each other.
He had hardly any homework. He would rush home to change immediately and then go out to play with the children in the neighbourhood. They would all run back home by 5pm to not incur the wrath of their strict fathers.
Some of the stories overlap with my mum’s who is three plus years his junior, but I always learn some new facts from each sibling.
They had Pal Appam (fermented pancakes with coconut milk) on the weekends made by my grandma. I know it’s one of their favourites as they always speak fondly about this breakfast item.
After his father’s death he was forced to become more responsible and could no longer be carefree. He had to contribute to the family.
He gave his full teaching paycheck of $300 to his mother (that was highly commendable and selfless in my opinion), but kept what he earned from tutoring for himself. (Made $200 from just 2-3 pupils)
Soon after he bought a second hand motorcycle for $200.
Then he got his first car, a second hand Borgward Isabella for $500 (at that time a new car cost $4k). It was my first time hearing this brand of car mentioned. A wiki search reveals that it was manufactured in Bremen, Germany from 1954-1962. My uncle selected an open top convertible car. This is one fact I have always known about my uncle – his love of cars.
My youngest aunty failed her driving test twice but passed immediately once her brother (Uncle A) taught her. I’m not surprised as he’s always been a very calm, unflustered teacher in this regard. Back then you could just place a Learner’s L plate on your car and conduct lessons. He taught her on his Austin Mini. (A car manufactured in 1962 by the UK based British Motor Corporation)
At home he didn’t watch much tv, but played Carrom, 7 diamonds and monopoly at night. Besides that he would play football with his own kakis (friends) rather than his siblings.
Back then they used to go freely in and out of neighbourhood homes. It was no problem. On all the festivals like Deepavali and Chinese New Year there was free exchange of festival foods and sweet meats. Very much open door and not like how it is now where we all live in silos and more privately.
My eldest cousin and the number one grandchild M broke the fence in order to play Carrom with his friend next door with the board placed through the fence. The fence would be patched up only to be ripped apart again.
Our grandfather was very doting on his first and only grandchild he was alive for. The remaining 10 of us came after he passed.
I’ve never experienced having the adoration of a grandpa, which is why I am so happy to see my nieces being doted on by theirs (who happens to be the Uncle A of this story). He would move heaven and earth for them, and it just warms my heart.