Sunday, November 28, 2010

MY CONVOCATION DRESS

I remember - my convocation dress, or baju. Nothing extraordinary by way of fashion; it was an ordinary two-piece modern baju kurung. It is not unusual for girls to focus a lot of attention on their convocation dress months before the actual day; it being a very special day that marks her departure from student, and heralds her readiness and eagerness for the working world. So it was a big deal! Those among us who were more fashion-conscious, and had the resources, would have had the luxury of contemplating on its fabric and design. We had finished our final exams either in late January or February, depending on our course of study, and the Convocation Day was in early May. Definitely there was ample time to make preparations - to cause a splash or a stir, whatever the fancy. Especially for those who were sure that they would walk up the stage and not be upstaged.

In the couple of months preceding this momentous day, I was home with the family in Ipoh, doing very little besides relishing the freedom of not having to study anymore! In February of that year, I received an offer of a temporary job from the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka in Kuala Lumpur. I was ecstatic; firstly because it came unsolicited; secondly, it would give me the long-awaited opportunity of earning some money instead of idling away the months. Alas, it was not to be. My father was against my taking up the offer. He felt that I should not be in a hurry to 'work' seeing that I would be working for the next few decades, and should therefore be content to simply take it easy while I could. I was disappointed, but he was not one to argue with.

Sensing my despondency, he then handed me a paper bag and said, "Make your convocation baju with this." Flabbergasted, I found in it several yards of material - in a colour that was not immediately identifiable, but could be said to closely resemble pale lilac. It would have been starkly plain if not for the heavily embroidered border running on both sides of its length. Up to that point, I had not even given my graduation day a thought because it was still at least two months away, and, if anything, I was more concerned about the results of my exams.

I did not have much money then; and certainly none to splurge on a new outfit for the convocation. That's not to say that I did not secretly wish for one. Much as I would love to have a new dress for the occasion, I was not going to impose on my already retired father and his small pension. So I relegated it to the realm of the trivial, and did not dwell on the matter after consoling myself that I could always fall back on one of my newer baju kurungs. So you can imagine my utter surprise to have the material in my hands when I least expected it. My father had returned from his pilgrimage in Mecca just the month before and he had bought the material there.

Come Convocation Day, I was in my new baju, although it was barely visible beneath the graduate's robe. The top had a high collar that was the fashion of the day, matched with a kain ketat. It was plain and simple, with no fussy details to boast of, but it was endued with a lot of meaning for me that was almost serendipitous. That my father had given thought to my need during his pilgrimage, and that he must have had some measure of confidence that I was going to make it was enough to make me proud. I stood tall that day; elated to be graduating from a university, and proud to be doing it in a dress made possible by my father. Did he even have an inkling that I was prouder still to have merited that much thought from him?

Thursday, August 27, 2009

HOME PUNISHMENT

I remember - the man who used to beat his son. He wasn't a neighbour who lived close to us, but lived in the row of police barracks that was visible from our house in Changkat, Batu Gajah. The first time was when we heard a commotion of sorts from out of the blue, and curiosity got the better of us. Before long I was out on the adjacent road leading to the barracks, trying to get a better view of what was going on. The man, shirtless, with his kain pulikat tied loosely round his rotund waist was beating his son, also shirtless, on the buttocks with a long rattan cane, while his other hand held the boy to the floor.

It took place in the porch of the single-storey quarters in full view of other residents and passers-by who cared to look. I wasn't the only one watching the ongoing spectacle, but the man was oblivious to the small crowd beginning to gather on the side of the road, and the wailings of the boy who couldn't have been more than 8 years old. On another occasion, from my window, I saw the man, with cane in hand and sweat streaming profusely down his chest, chasing the boy up the road parallel to our house, sputtering curses as he ran. This time his other hand was holding on to his sarong that was hanging on for dear life due to his podginess. This soon became a regular sight. Perhaps by then the boy had smartened up and was able to get away before his father could strike him. Sometimes he was not so lucky and ended up being caned on the roadside.

I simply couldn't understand what could possibly have possessed the father to beat his boy. And so vigorously at that. I remember feeling really sorry for the boy and thought it unforgiveable on the part of the father to mete out such a punishment. In the eyes of a child - mine - it was tantamount to cruelty. I always suspected that the father's inability to control his anger, no matter how provoked, was the real cause of the beating. Later, when the boy, a scrawny fellow, became a regular in our games, I couldn't help but notice that he was nervous and always took time out to pee - at close intervals.

Fortunately, we never had any form of corporal punishment in our house. That's not to say that we weren't disciplined by my parents. My mother, the kind woman that she was, would, at her most irate, pinch us on the thighs and even that was seldom. Despite being burdened with all manner of housework and child-care all day long, she wasn't easily riled by the antics of her children. And we were no angels!

With the exclusion of my two teenaged elder brothers - who kept themselves busy with after-school activities outside the home - the five younger ones, with no more than a few years between us, were left to amuse ourselves. Needless to say, sibling rivalry was rife and would sometimes manifest in bullying among us. With my mother, any form of scuffle was always the fault of the older ones. "You should know better!" was her sharpest rebuke, devoid of cuss words or tirade. At worst, we would get a pinch from her; at best, just a mild scolding. Maybe as a mother, she knew better - that while we, as children, had the propensity to make up in quick time, it also didn't take long for us to be squabbling again. Like cats and dogs, she would say. So she regarded our quarrels - which were never violent - almost dismissively.

Punishment from my father was always brought on by his intolerance of noise which possibly interfered with his thinking or sleeping whenever he was home. Of course we children could sometimes cause a pandemonium! First he would shout out from his room, warning us to keep quiet. When that failed to deter us, he would come out of his room and, with arms akimbo, give us a stern stare that was enough to freeze us. On more uncharitable occasions, he would send one or two of us into his room where we would have to sit quietly in a corner. For hours on end, sometimes. This was our most dreaded moment, and the extent of his punishment. But I used to think that this was bad enough. Can you imagine the frustration of not being able to speak, much less to move about, and to be released of the ordeal only at his whim? Or when he fell asleep - when we would seize the moment to flee. Of course we resented every minute of the time crouched in the corner. It was as though time stood still. My father's stare of reproof alone sufficed to show his displeasure. We cowered every time we received it, and he never needed to resort to lengthy reprimands.

Chastisement for us was never the cane nor the swear words. Still, as children we knew better than to incur the wrath of our parents, who were perhaps never tested to the brink. My father was a stern man who brooked no nonsense. Strict and taciturn with us, he was much feared even by my cousins who frequent the house. Yet he spared us the pain of physical punishment. Fear of that deadly stare was enough to keep us on our best behaviour at home.

Perhaps because of the lightness of the punishment, my siblings and I often laughed about it, afterwards. We even deemed it comical to be cowed into a corner, like a teacher would a pupil who had been 'playful' in class. Having witnessed the beating of the neighbourhood boy, I knew that punishment could be worst. While she never condoned the beating, my mother, as a parent, felt the need to justify the man's action by telling me that the boy must have done something really terrible to deserve it. Still, I wondered if inflicting pain was a worthwhile form of punishment that was sure to leave an indelible mark on the recipient. When my brother-in-law caned his young daughter for what my parents thought was 'making a mountain out of a molehill', my father was horrified, and couldn't say enough of the matter.

While the form of punishment was light, it was no less serious in gravity. As children, we learned our lessons, and learnt the limits of our parents' tolerance. We accepted the punishment in the course of growing up - without a tinge of regret, resentment or shame. Had they used the cane, would we hold it against them?

Friday, August 14, 2009

IN PLACE OF PRAISE

I remember - being given my first watch. It had a thin black leather strap and a small silver face with black roman numerals against a white background. And how I thought it looked so grand on my never-had-a-watch wrist! It took me completely by surprise when my father gave it to me that evening when he returned from work. I have no recollection whatsoever of the box though - or if it ever came in one. I was 16 and in my early days in Form Four. I was esctatic; it was the first gift ever from my father.

My siblings and I had learnt not to expect anything for our achievements. We were not a family of gift-givers, nor did we ever celebrate birthdays. Come to think of it, there was hardly an occasion that we celebrated as a family besides the hari raya. It could have been a question of affordability since there were more than a handful of us! But, not only did my parents never made much of our achievements, they seemed bent on playing them down.

One of my elder brothers was a high achiever in his schooldays. Apart from academic success, he shone in extra-curricular activities like sports and the debating society, and was a prefect and school captain during upper secondary school. I remember him bringing home numerous awards in the form of the silver cup on a wooden base with dainty red ribbons tied on the cup's handles. My mother would then put them away inside a cupboard and there they stayed - ignored and forgotten. As years went by, I would find one or two under the bed or in some neglected corner of the house - the silver tarnished with no hint whatsoever of its former lustre, and the ribbons nowhere in sight. Like some useless item that had no story to tell, certificates of merit or other forms of prize were simply not prized possessions.

My parents never attended any of my school prize-giving days either. The report cards and book prizes that I brought home year after year hardly elicited any comment from my father, much less a visual expression of delight. I would have to get by with a simple nod of approval from my mother as long as there was no red mark in the scores. To her, the red mark would have been a sign of fiasco. A praise from any of them would have been too much to expect.

Despite that, I always aimed to please my parents particularly in my studies. They never complained about my performance - my mother, perhaps for not knowing any better, and my father, perhaps, nothing was ever good enough for him. In not expressing praise, delight or disappointment, however, they communicated a sense of expectation that made me strive even harder to achieve the best I could. Have I ever done well in their eyes - I'll never know.

The day the results of my final university exams. came out, my father drove me to UM to collect them. He waited in the parking lot of the Arts Faculty while I went to the English Dept. Office. I beamed when I found out that I had passed with Honours and couldn't hide my excitement when I went back to the car to tell him. What did he say? "You must have just barely made it!" My balloon burst. In a matter of a few words, he had reduced my elation to smithereens. To think that I had deluded myself into thinking that maybe this time - at the end of my most important test - I would get to hear some praise.

When relatives or friends commended our success in school, my mother would be quick to volunteer a put-down relating to some other apparent weakness on our part, while my father would simply change the conversation topic. We were the envy of our cousins for seemingly breezing through school while some of them were plagued with stumbling blocks. If there were some point in time that my parents did in fact appreciate our achievement, they never showed it.

Perhaps it was their way of teaching us humility lest the success got to our heads. Perhaps they wanted us to continually raise the bar of our achievement so that we would not be complacent. Perhaps. On my part, I learnt from young that I had to develop my self-confidence through my own devices to see me through my studies and every tribulation that came my way. No one at home provided the morale booster, nor the verbal support to spur you on. Certainly not my siblings. For they too had learnt not to give praise - especially to or of one another. Unfortunately, they also picked up on the antithesis; while reluctant to praise, they found it expedient to criticise, and I was often on the receiving end from my brothers.

So when I got the 'Lady Tissot', I was overjoyed. It wasn't so much the watch as the connotation the gift carried. After all, I had managed without a watch thus far. I had made my way to Form Four having obtained a creditable result in my LCE with a fair share of distinctions. So I came to believe, or wanted to believe, that the watch denoted my father's acknowledgement of my achievement. Not that he said so in so many words. But the watch said it all in place of praise.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

A FURRY FEAR

I remember - my mother was not fond of cats. But when I was growing up, the house was not short of cats. It wasn't that we reared them; they were simply strays that made their way to our house in search of food. She would not tolerate them inside the house, and would be at her most vigorous when driving them away into the garden. Come mating season, it was difficult not to be disturbed by the din from the howling males and the patter of feline feet on the roof. Given the cats' promiscuous nature, it wasn't long before kittens joined the brood.

She might not like them but she did not have the heart to ignore them. She made it a point to save leftover food after every meal, and place it on a tin plate in a corner outside the kitchen. When she knew there were kittens about, she would also leave a chipped saucer filled with milk. Instinctively, she would go out every now and then to check the plate. If the food was untouched, she would mumble "Milih sangat kucing ni!" (Choosy, these cats!) through her teeth, making no secret of her disappointment with their distaste for the meal. It was as if she expected them to lap up every morsel that she dished out - like her children did - as testimony of her great cooking! It also worried her when she thought that they were not eating. She couldn't help herself; despite her denial, her maternal instinct extended even to cats!

It was not so much fear of the animal as the aversion to anything furry that stemmed from a childhood experience. One day, an uncle of hers handed her a small cloth bundle, and told her that it was durians. Not suspecting anything, she held the bundle close to her chest. Suddenly she felt something furry and ticklish, and was startled out of her wits when a kitten leapt out of the bundle! It was made in jest, but it cultivated her dislike of cats. So much so that if we cooked bubur or pengat pisang that was too light for lack of gula melaka, she would liken it to the cat's vomit!

Her dislike of cats rubbed off on me, but not on my younger sister who secretly - at first - adopted a stray and named her 'Mary' for reasons only known to her. In the early days of the adoption, my sister kept Mary outside the house, while making sure that she did not cross paths with my mother! Funnily though, when my mother found out, she was not angry at all but cautioned my sister that she would not tolerate any nonsense from Mary. My sister took that to mean that as long as Mary kept out of her way and did not do her 'business' inside the house, she got to stay. And stay she did - well over 6 years - in full relish of her position as official pet of the household. But my mother kept her distance from Mary as she did the others. To her Mary was just another cat - to be fed but not to be fussed over. No amount of seductive purring from Mary could melt her, and not once did I see her touch Mary. And Mary's animal instinct sensed that too for she would go nowhere near my mother!

While my mother would not touch a cat with a ten-foot pole, yet cared for them from a distance, her half-sister, who lived near us, couldn't get enough of them. At any one time, there were at least 15 cats milling about her house. When all her children left home to work in Kuala Lumpur, the task of feeding and caring for the cats fell on her alone. It became burdensome, and it was telling. The whole house reeked of cat pooh; you couldn't see it, but it was so strong in the air that I had to hold my breadth every time I visited. In those days, the domestic cats were less sophisticated and not "potty-trained". Hence, they had their babies and peed and poohed just about anywhere in her house. So when she became weak and sickly in her old age, she was also careless with the cleaning up. She was one of the nicest people I know, but even that would not keep me at her house longer than necessary. Feeling smothered by cat-pooh air, I could never bring myself to finish the coffee, much less eat the cucur kodok or pengat that she served. And to this day I have not stopped wondering how my aunt could stomach it all until the day she died.

On the morning that Mary died - ran over by a car outside the gates of our house - my sister cried buckets, and wanted her buried in the garden. A younger brother dug a hole in the ground and filled it up again after Mary was laid inside. My grieving sister found the strength to plant a hibiscus branch to mark Mary's grave. And my mother watched - from a distance.

Monday, June 15, 2009

AT UNIVERSITY (4)

I remember - if it was freedom that I was after, freedom I got - loads and loads of it. At university, you alone were responsible for everything that you did. No parents or teachers dictating or regulating you, nor was there anyone minding you, unless you had some issues with any of your lecturers or tutors. But because I never faulted on my assignments (though some were handed in way past the due date), they left me pretty much alone. My life was very much my own.

Apart from the lectures, tutorials and the College meal times, I had no other timetable that would affix my life in a set way. Nobody - except maybe the close friends that you hung out with - would so much as bother about your goings and comings. In the evenings and weekends, you just needed to be mindful of the time the entry gate would be locked, unless you had planned to stay elsewhere for the night. No way could you climb over the wall without risking a fall, and drawing attention to your nocturnal activity. So I was free to live out my campus time in ways I thought fit, that best suited me, and no one else.

Despite the apparent freedom, I found myself restrained by my childhood conditioning. The rules that had beset me as I was growing up for as far back as I could remember continued to dog me. Every time I considered doing something out of the norm (my norm), my conscience would prick me without fail. Most of all, I would be thinking "what would my parents say?" - a legacy of the numerous constraints that had been doled out on my path to adulthood. Such was the gravity of parental control in my growing up years that it seemed that I would never be free of its clutches, that it would continue to hold me back. And there I was hoping that at university I would have a free rein to explore new possibilities! Especially on the social front.

At home, I could not go out as and when I pleased. And certainly not on my own. My father had always driven me to and from school except for a couple of years in primary school when I was in the afternoon session, whereby I had to take the school bus. Right up to secondary school, my co-curricular after-school activities were limited because I was dependent on my father for my mobility since I was not allowed to take public transport on my own. Was this a convenient way to curb my independence? A way to ensure that I did not engage in any undesirable pursuits associated with my age group? Or simply a concern for my safety?

Certainly there was an overriding concern with the 'kind' of people that I might mix with outside school. At the core of that was my parents' fear that I would enter into a relationship with the opposite sex, and thus distract me from my studies. And this same fear continued to dog me in the University. Thus, I ended up house-bound, and my social life was nil. Naturally, I was far from street-wise too. It wasn't until my Form 6 years when, considered 'grown up' and sensible enough not do anything untoward, I was allowed to cycle to school for any activity after school hours, but with a stern reminder to be home before dusk. Such was the measure of 'protective custody' in my teenage years.

My circle of friends was limited to my classmates, and even then, outings with them other than the organised school trips were few and far between. I was encouraged to invite them home, instead of going out with them. Of course they came; but what fun was there to be got? So their visits were scarce. During Form 6, whenever parties were held in school at night (not that there were many), my father would send me there, and I would find him already waiting outside in the car well before it ended. Private parties were out of the question for me. Once, when a cousin invited me out for a party, my father, when I asked for permission (mandatory in my time) said: "What for? It's only a waste of time!" So, as a teenager, I was party-deprived.

When I started university, my father would again send and fetch me to and from college at the beginning and end of each term throughout the 3 years. Except once - when I had to literally plead my case to be allowed to take the train from Ipoh to return to campus in Kuala Lumpur in the company of a few friends. My father relented, and I was thrilled to bits. At the end of my final year, on the day of my last paper, I returned to College to find my father waiting to take me home - putting paid to my plans of spending a few days with a friend in her kampung.

So, at Uni (as they call it these days), while I wasn't exactly inept, I wasn't about to become a party animal either. Even in the prime of my youth, I was no raving beauty. With no visible physical flaws, I was at best, average-looking. As compensation, I was blessed with a friendly nature. I could make friends quite easily even with the boys - when I chose to, and once I got past the initial stage of apprehension towards the boys. So I had my share of attention from the opposite sex, although it was hardly in droves.

But because my parents had instilled in me that my sole priority was to get a degree, I was so afraid of any form of distraction that the minute a boy showed some form of romantic design, I would rebuff him instantly. It was as if my father was watching me from a distance, shaking his head in a "no, no" sign. So while I went to balls and social dos on campus, and a couple of dates and parties outside campus with out-of-campus fellows, I kept my relationships strictly casual. I was even appalled when I got to know that some girls had mothers who told them that they had to secure a husband-to-be - never mind the degree - by the time they finished university. How I envied them! They must have had the time of their life.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Wife My Mother Was

I remember - the way my mother was as a wife. My father's meal was always laid out for him, regardless of when he came home. As soon as my mother had finished cooking, the table was to be set for my father to have his meal, whether he was home or not. Often, that duty rested on my shoulders when I was old enough to be entrusted with some form of domestic chore. As I was the eldest girl with 3 brothers before me, it might have been my mother's way of initiating me into housework! For her, it was imperative that there was food on the table for my father whenever he came home - irrespective of the time, and whether he was going to eat it or not. Sometimes, he didn't, and the next morning, I would see the food cold and untouched.

Whenever she made anything in addition to the main meals, for example, bubur kacang, pengat pisang, lepat pisang, karipap, cucur badak, mee rebus, etc. she would put aside a portion for him first, and indicate to us that it was "Abah's share". In no uncertain terms, we children were warned to lay off the plate! Which was sometimes quite difficult for us when we knew there was the possibility of it not being eaten at all when he came home very late. To think that the bubur or pengat would end up on the table as feast for the ants was heart-breaking!

It was plain to me that my mother put my father first before anyone or anything. Like any other, theirs was a relationship coloured and tempered by the personality of the persons involved. One party usually had a stronger role in the mix, and in this case, it was obviously my father. I often wondered what it would have been like had my mother been of a different personality. As it was, theirs was an alliance of placidity and acerbity. But, as children, we never really knew the inner nature of our parents' relationship, did we?

My mother was a stay-at-home wife who only concerned herself with the wifely duties such as cooking, housekeeping, bearing children and looking after them (work that is never done). My father was head of the family - in the real sense of the word - a position endowed also with numerous perks and prerogatives, which in those times, took on king-like proportions. Which in turn made the role of wife appear to me as somewhat subservient. It was not her place to question her husband; instead, "his lightest word, his merest whim, his hinted desire were law" to her.

Even in his absence, my father's presence loomed large in all circumstances. She would not give us the 'green light' for anything until she had conferred with my father. Whenever I asked her permission to do something or go anywhere, she would say to me: "Ask your father." And, usually we knew what that meant. Ever so often I would hear her say: "Abah wouldn't like it." I wondered often if that was really so. Did she really know how he thought?
Every decision she made was out of deference to him.

Whenever my father was home and resting in his room, she reminded us to tread carefully and not make any noise lest we should disturb his rest. I had never known her to raise her voice to him, much less argue with him. Nor was she ever openly critical of him. To do so would have been irreverent.
My father typified the old-school disciplinarian - autocratic, absolute. I never saw any light banter, cajolery or jesting between them, much less a hug or any physical show of affection. The latter was of course 'simply not done' in Malay society which prides itself on not being demonstrative. Perhaps he thought that any show of tenderness on his part would make him appear weak in the eyes of the children, and, for a father, that would not do. Whatever conversations they had must have been within the confines of their bedroom walls, and we were not privy to it.

Neither had I seen any arguments between them. It would be naive to think that my parents' marriage was devoid of rough patches. But if there were squabbles and misunderstandings, all were well-disguised to spare us any embarassment or anxiety. It was perhaps telling of the day - when things were done differently, when affairs of the adults were kept very much so. He was not beyond reproach, of course, but I never heard her complain about him. If she was angry with him, it never showed.

Married off at 12, when she was barely an adolescent, it was only natural that she looked up to the husband who was 6 years her senior. Her conservative upbringing and religious discipline defined her role as wife, which, on reflection appeared to me as no more than a combination of hard work and submission. Far from demanding, she was easy-going; acquiescence was second nature to her. She assumed her wifely role with resignation, with nary a bleat. Was she the mitigating factor to my father's frequent brusqueness? Was this the formula to the longevity of the marriage that had spanned 53 years by the time she passed away at 65 in 1984? Or, was she merely perpetuating a wifely tradition? For it would not be her to go against the grain.

My mother was mostly house-bound, and hardly went anywhere without my father. Not that my father took her to many places. She adhered faithfully to the tradition that a married woman should not leave the house without her husband, or go anywhere without a chaperon. When most of us were married and had families of our own, she seldom visited. When she did, she would not stay for more than two days despite our insistence. "Your father is on his own; who's to take care of his meals?" was always her reason. Or excuse.

Perhaps he loved her well, and she loved him in return, in a time when love was implied, but seldom declared. In her lighter moments, she would reminisced - and I noted - wistfully, about how it all began. He was attracted to her having seen her in school while he was playing hockey in an adjacent field. She said he would deliberately send the ball to where she was standing so that he could seize the opportunity to come near her. Under the pretext of collecting the ball, he would flash her his most charming smile (and my father was quite dashing in his youth). Dictated by her own modesty and the decorum of the day, she refrained from acknowledging it, though it was probably the apogee of her young life. So when his party came to ask for her hand, she was quietly elated. Not that she would have had much say, anyway. Back then, a 12-year old girl was already ripe for marriage! I suspect also that her parents were more than happy to have her taken off their hands since they had six younger ones in tow.

Still very much a child bride, she found a loving companion in her mother-in-law while my father was away at work. An aunt told me that she was often caught napping on the lap of the elder lady who was frequently quoted as saying that my mother was more a daughter to her than my father was a son. Before long she was with child - my eldest brother was born when she turned 13! And if marriage did not mellow her, child-bearing did! She bore my father 13 children, though only 8 survived into adulthood. In turn the 8 grew up in a home that was never without food, thanks to a woman whose mission in life - seemingly - was to feed her children well. We also grew up in the security of a home where the mother was always 'there', and in the stability afforded by a marriage that was held together more by the stoicity, restraint and forbearance of the woman who was my mother - to whom I cannot hold a candle.



Wednesday, May 6, 2009

AT UNIVERSITY (3)

I remember - 3RC as a formative phase in my life. I was entering university as a young adult, footloose and free, armed with ideals and the irrepressible spirit of youth. I was ecstatic with the new-found freedom - freedom from the rigidity of rules imposed at home, freedom to explore my capabilities. The thought of endless possibilities brought me to dizzying heights of excitement. To begin with....

The friends - meeting boys and girls from virtually every corner of the country like never before was particularly stimulating. The friendship that I cultivated in college has prevailed to this day, unlike the one I made in school.
Of the scores of acquaintances, the handful that would eventually become long-lasting friends, were the ones with whom I was compatible from the beginning. Perhaps it was a time when we were not so set in our ways that made us less judgemental towards others, but more accepting of one another's faults and foibles that allowed friendship to bloom so easily. Our sense of adventure too must surely have played its part in nurturing the friendship. In the 3 years of sharing time and experience in college, we bonded. Away from my family, the likes of Jessie Tan, Guat Eng, Noor Aini, Zawiyah, Sim Choo, Zahrah, Kushalia Devi, Gloria Cho, Abu Bakar and Yip - to name a few - provided companionship. And distraction. The only thing I missed about home was my mother's homely fare. College food after a month was barely palatable; nevertheless, it sustained me for the whole 3 years.

The life - during the day, we all went our separate ways mostly, unless we were doing the same course and therefore could go for lectures together. It was not always possible to meet up for lunch in college because our schedules didn't always coincide. After dinner, while some of us would loll around the College lobby, or play carroms in the Common Room, most of us would return to our rooms to do our own thing - to finish an assignment, to read or study, to wash clothes, etc. until about 10pm when the supper-lady would come calling. The shouts of "Supper! supper!" would reverberate along the corridors. This was a welcome cry that would be met by girls scurrying out of their rooms for the lady's wares - fried mee or meehun, kueh, or whatever else that could ease the hunger pangs. Sometimes she would be a sell-out; sometimes, she would leave as quickly as she came - less takers, and her basket barely empty.

While some might have been genuinely hungry because of an early or unsatisfactory dinner, the supper-lady was more of an excuse for a break, giving us the chance to gather along the corridor or in one another's room for some idle chatter. Which could last longer than the study hours! Around this time the corridor would be abuzz with activity - boiling water, making coffee, tea or Milo, flitting upstairs or downstairs, conversing, giggling or simply muscle-flexing.

Occasionally, the silence on the floor would be broken by the ubiquitous Krishnan with the smiling face. In charge of maintenance, he would walk up the stairs to the all-girls' floor to do some repair work. As he reached the landing, he would shout out "Man on the floor!" as warning of a male presence. Without fail, a shrill voice from one of the rooms would then retort "Woman on top"! Youth cheekiness at its best.

I enjoyed the room-gatherings most. My 'clique' - at least 4 or 5 of us - would get together in one of the rooms to exchange stories, gossips, anecdotes, etc. over coffee and cookies (sent or brought from home). In those hours, we found our common ground. It was a nice place to be in; the mood - carefree; the tone - convivial.

But come exams, the atmosphere took on a completely different mood. Not that the supper-lady would stop coming. The girls - who did not favour the library as a study place (yours truly included) - would still appear from their rooms - but this time with eyebags in addition to the teabags. They would no longer linger on the corridor, but re-enter their room in a flash after getting their supper to bury their head in their books yet again. This was exam-mode which embraced a whole new character. The carefree mood had metamorphosed into a serious and somber one. The slightest laughter - or a prolonged giggle - would elicit a shout of "Shut up!" from one or several rooms. You would be well advised to tiptoe along the corridor. Or hell would break loose if someone's concentration or nerves were jangled. We had all turned "muggers" overnight!

In the mornings in the common bathroom area, bleary eyes and weary bodies met yours, all having pegged to grave-yard hours of study. Exhausted from lack of sleep - that was the price I paid for having adopted the 'last minute' study in all my 3 years, having spent a greater part of the rest in fun but fruitless endeavours on campus. Yet desirous of that piece of 'paper' that would determine the course of my future, and ensure that I would have a life beyond the kitchen walls. The latter - a mundane existence surely! More so after a course-mate had told me that there was a RM100 difference in salary between a 'General' and an 'Honours' degree. So much for motivation. Exams. season was also a time when most of us threw vanity to the winds, causing one senior lady to mourn aloud that exams took its toll on beauty. Despite that, the same lady went on to become a well-known educationist with a school or two to her name.

I was never one to frequent the Library, and visited it only to secure a 'red spot' book (books in high demand tagged with a red spot-sticker) that was deemed essential reading by my lecturers. (By an inexplicable twist of Fate, I later became a librarian, albeit a reluctant one). By all accounts, I wasn't the 'mugging' type, but I rarely missed a lecture, and most certainly not a tutorial. Neither did I fault on my assignments although most were done burning the midnight oil, or in the wee hours of the morning that they were due. Even at university, I found myself relapsing into the bad habits that I had while in school. I did my revision and my assignments at the last possible minute, often way past midnight in the belief that I worked best in solitary surroundings and produced better work under pressure! Suffice to say, I made it.

Sports was never my forte, although I loved games. So most times I ended up a supporter and spectator, especially when the College was a competitor. To compensate for the lack of active participation, and upon the persuasion of a friend, I decided to take up morning jogging in campus. Furthermore, its physical layout was simply conducive for walking/jogging. The University of Malaya as I remember it was a beautiful campus - with a lake in the centre (though the water was always ochre-coloured), gently undulating slopes, mature trees and abundance of foliage. The concrete buildings within campus were well-spread out and did not appear to be encroaching on the space. The only problem was I was never a morning person - meaning, not an early riser - and would only wake up with the shrieking Jessie outside my door. It was difficult because most nights I would only turn in after 1am. Sometimes we jogged in the evenings when we would inevitably meet our beloved VC who obviously kept himself fighting fit through jogging. And being far from stuffy, he would always greet us cheerfully.