Migrating to Community
Her hands were as calloused as her feet. The tributaries of the hardship she would endure etched on the palms of her hands resembling barbed wire. Her birthmark.
She wasn’t one of those children who played silly games at school joining both palms to see if their lifelines made the shape of a boat. The deeper the ‘boat,’ the more handsome the man you married. And even if she had, her ‘boat ‘would have been a straight line. A ‘sampan’ if you like. And like her Amma had told her, “thalai yerethe- it is all written on the top of your head,” pre-ordained and embossed how her life would spell out. H for Hardship, B for Beatings and D for Destitute.
As a child, slaps like stunted praise rained from her mother’s hands for not sweeping the floor of their squatter house, for not folding the clothes, for doing her homework, or for just being a girl. Her escape was school, where she could exist in the world without fear for seven hours, as Ammutha a/p Munnusamy, age seven, Standard one.
And as a grown woman, she would recall and remember beatings from a pair of drunk hands, in cold clarity. The pinching of her skin, the splitting of her lips and the smell and taste of fresh blood dripping silently into her lonely mouth.
When her abusive husband left her, after treating her body as a palimpsest, layering it with verbal abuse in Tamil, Cantonese and Malay, and that universal language of beatings, she felt unburdened, reborn if you will - a momentary savour of freedom startling and awakening. Her new reality; Mother Father Sole Provider.
That same body that bore him three children, that covered their young bodies from his blows and that lay there on the mattress for him to have his way with her, packed up the few belongings they had and migrated across town.
A nomad in her own country, she moved geographically and culturally from Sentul, leaving behind a community of interfering Indians, to a Chinese neighbourhood where the distinct sound of shuffling mah-jong tiles drowned out the swearing in Cantonese.
Her rented room was on the third floor of a five storey walk up flat. The stairs were littered with snuffed out cigarette butts, spent crumpled tissues against a backdrop of stale urine. On the ground floor was a busy coffee shop with hawkers selling a variety of dishes, from wanton mee and pork noodle soup to curry laksa and economy rice.
She stood outside the room with her three children, holding keys to the flimsy padlock in her hand, contemplating a crisp new life that lay behind the rusty metal gate and grimy wooden door. She sent up a prayer to Ganesha, the remover of obstacles. He seemed to hear her. Partially.
Ammu considered her new living quarters.
“It’s much smaller than our old home but we can make it nice, okay chellams?” she said to the three pairs of eyes taking in the stark and musty room.
“It’s bright and once we clean the place and open the windows and let the air in, it will be freshandnew,[MDF1] ” she said in one breath.
Her children nodded in silent agreement.
The double mattress took up nearly one whole side of the room. On closer inspection, it was stained with country shaped patches of dried urine from leaky bottoms of past. At the other end of the room was a makeshift table with a two-ring stove. A fat gas cylinder sat next to it on the floor, the pipeline to their sustenance. She turned the sticky knob and after a couple of blanks, the blue fire spat to life. A small chipped formica table, two red plastic chairs, a blue bucket with a pink bathing mug and a wire strung across the window from which Ammu would hang their clothes to dry, completed the room.
“Hungry Amma,” said her youngest, rubbing his tummy, pulling her out of her reverie.
“Okay chellam, let’s go down and get something to eat, she said while pulling him to her in a hug.
“The Gods are answering my prayers!” she threw her hands up to heaven.
After ordering two plates of wanton mee for them to share, she had tentatively approached the old man who ran the drinks stall and explained her situation. Taking pity on her predicament, he gave her a job to make the drinks and clear and wash up the glasses and cups. In addition to her salary, she would be fed one meal from the economy rice stall, and at the end of the day she could take some of the leftover food for her children. That meant one meal less for her to worry about. She had never known such kindness.
“God will bless you and your family for many generations, Uncle,” her hands stuck together in prayer.
“New birth, good Karma,” she thought to herself, inhaling the virgin first press scent of freedom, tart and awakening, even if it held traces of rancid oil from her new place of work.
She was up before the street cats that came smelling in the garbage bags of green and pink, tied up like balloons with confetti of bones and curry leaves spat out in haste.
“I am leaving the kichiddi for your lunch, Kavita. And make sure you are all up and bathed,” she called out to her sleeping children as she closed the door.
Eager to make a good first impression, Ammu was the first one standing outside Kopitiam Ah Seng, waiting for the shutters to roll up.
“Dua milo kosong, satu kopi orr, satu barley peng,” yelled the Bangladeshi helper across the coffee shop.
It was relentless until 3 p.m. when the coffee shop closed for the day. She had to help wash the sticky and oily floor, before walking up the stairs, carrying with her the scald marks from hot water that spilled on her hands, the grimy layer of cooking oil on her clothes and skin, and the white plastic bags with food for her children. Kavita, who was used to babysitting her younger siblings from a very early age, listened out for her Amma’s tired footsteps, standing like a sentinel by the door.
Her days were filled with work and worry in equal measure. She paid RM400 a month for her room, and the rest of her salary had to be carefully distributed between food and essentials. Soon she would have to think of Kavita’s schoolbooks, uniform and lunches. Sometimes, if she was lucky, she was able to supplement her income by peeling small Indian onions and garlic for the lady at the market.
She lay down next to her sleeping children, contemplating her story.
“My already hard life torn apart. All my dreams of a safe and happy home so quickly replaced with fear of the unknown. Am I too bold to dream of a real brick house with roof tiles? My own front door, shining floors, hot water from taps, dining table and chairs instead of mats on the floor, 10-piece bucket of KFC satisfying fingers and stomachs at RM66.90?”
“March 2020. Fresh start. How will I write the rest of my story? In pencil or pen? In bold CAPITAL letters or shy illegible cursive? They deserve a happy childhood and I would like to be loved and cherished.”
Ammu falls asleep in a pair of make-believe arms.
Strains of a virus floated through the coffeeshop like a game of Chinese whispers. Some customers spoke of bats carrying the disease and others embellished that by saying it was because they ate the bats.
“It come from a wet market in Wuhan leh,” said one old Chinese lady to her grandson, while vigorously shovelling a bowl of wanton mee into her waiting mouth.
“China so far mah, why we so kia su,” was his reply.
“People are dying leh! Fall and die on the road. No warning ah, just like that,” she says, waving her hand to the floor.
“Not kia su ah, kia si eh!” She laughs at her own attempt at a joke.
Copies of Nanyang Siang Pau were held akimbo by wrinkled and age-mottled arms, hungrily eating with their eyes all they could about this Wuhan Virus. The market where this virus had originated from had been shut down and now there was talk of a lockdown, no one would be allowed in and out of the city and no one would be able to leave their homes, except to buy food and groceries.
Ammu couldn’t help but wonder why a disease that was happening so far away in China was being watched and talked about so closely in Malaysia. It wouldn’t be long before she would learn that the virus, like whispers, travelled on planes, trains and buses, and it didn’t require a ticket or have to apply for a visa.
It soon made its way to Singapore on the breath and sputum of businessmen from China. A cough, sneeze and a handshake away from Malaysia.
The arrival of this nebulous and insidious virus led to empty shelves of hand sanitisers, antibacterial wipes, sprays, disposable gloves and surgical masks at pharmacies across the land. Waitlists grew, as did the queues at supermarkets. Chickens were going into overdrive, laying eggs that would combine with flour and sugar into cakes, breads and biscuits. Ammu was simply thankful she was still able to take home one meal a day, and for her job.
Bad news rained and poured and filled the drains and rivers and paddy fields and markets. Malaysia was going into lockdown. No one could leave their homes. Offices turned into graveyards for silent computers, and pubs, restaurants and coffeeshops became mute from clinking glasses and conversations of lost love - found love, heartbreak and celebrations. Ammu stared at the muddy remains of local black coffee at the bottom of empty cups, wishing they would tell her what lay in store.
A quiet stillness descended, and suddenly the sounds of nature didn’t have to compete with the blare of horns and the blue of the sky didn’t have to fight the black of industrial smoke clouds.
Metal shutters came clanking down on the lives of so many. Ammu stood on the road and watched in the hot sweltering sun, as the window to her livelihood shut. Uncle Ah Meng had to close and let her go. The virus with a name, COVID-19 had reached them. She stood there watching all the women and men, who had become a part of her landscape and vocabulary, turn and walk away with sunken shoulders.
Her feet of lead carried her upstairs and she knew that life would be fringed with fear of the unknown, yet again. Her empty stomach churned to keep her lonely mind company.
The weeks rolled by in layers of hunger. The provisions that Ammu had before the lockdown were dwindling, and she was now left with a quarter tin of powdered milk, one and a half cups of ‘thoram parappu’ to make dhall, and enough rice flecked with black diamante weevils to make three more meals. She managed to buy four eggs and a small bunch of spinach at the market.
When the landlord with the mole and a long strand of stiff hair poking out of it, appeared outside her flat to collect or evict, she was prepared to beg and hang on to his ankles. She tried. She pleaded with him not to be heartless, to have pity but he had all the answers.
“I already give you face ah, two weeks wait, still no money. I so verry patient, sudah bagi extend mah, what else you want? Now got other people want to stay lor. You mesti mau kosong bilik hari Jumaat ini. By Friday you go.”
It was Wednesday.
It didn’t take Ammu and Kavita an hour to pack the few belongings they had. She heard from some of the disenfranchised people measuring the streets of Pudu with their worn-out slippers, about a place that served a hot meal every evening at 5pm next to Bangkok Bank on Jalan Tun H.S. Lee.
Driven out by the lack of humanity, they carried their world in four plastic bags, and walked towards that pot of nourishing gold.
It was only when she stood on the periphery of Bangkok Bank that she understood. They were destitute. They would be sleeping on the streets. They were homeless.
Too afraid to put their bags down, they joined the queue that was snaking its way around the bank, waiting for the shutters of The Pit Stop Community Café to lift. The spread resembled a king’s banquet. Baskets filled with bread and buns, a mountain of hard-boiled eggs, big blue enamel cauldrons with savoury rice porridge cooked with chicken, and another of tomato and vegetable stew, and two dessert options! Ammu and her children copied what the others ahead of them were doing. They wrapped the bread and the eggs in tissue and buried them in one of their bags, to serve as next day’s breakfast. They gingerly carried their piping-hot plastic containers and sat with a young single lady at a table. Ammu tried to make eye contact with her, but she was too preoccupied sustaining her problems. So, instead of worrying where they were going to spend the night, she focused her attention on her children enjoying their food.
Full-bellied and satisfied, they ran around, chasing birds, caught up in a game of hide and seek, completely oblivious that this would be their school and their playground, where they would win games, lose games, make friends only to lose them, learn how unfair life was and yet experience the warm hand of kindness, all out in the open on public display.
The lady from across her at the table came and sat next to her and introduced herself.
“I am Lizel. This is your first time here,” she said stating a fact.
“Yes,” said Ammu. “We were evicted from the room I was renting in Pudu.”
Lizel was reticent about her circumstances, but Ammu soon learned that she was a part time Filipino domestic worker who had fallen on hard times.
Lizel took her to the dumpsters at the back of the bank to look for enough dry cardboard boxes that would be flattened out to become the protective layer between the cold granite and their warm bodies. She would have to somehow secure a spot under the walkway, in case it rained.
She yelled for her children, who were sweaty from all the play, to help her. They couldn’t understand what their mother was saying to them, something about sleeping in the open with all these strangers.
“Why Amma,” asked her youngest. “I don’t want to sleep here, I am scared, Amma.”
Ammu tried to blink back her tears but they fell anyway. Salty, fat, pent up, until now, unfallen tears.
By the time the sun started to set, all the players had already taken their places. As if on cue, they brought out their sleeping arrangements. Some unrolled thin mattresses, but most unfolded their cardboard and used their clothes as pillows.
Passers-by turned their faces and hurried along dragging their children behind, admonishing them not to stare. But the people on the street had started their own conversations, some with each other, some with themselves.
Ammu watched as everyone made room for her children and her. As they moved closer, squeezing out air margins, the space seemed to grow larger. And just like a jigsaw waiting for the last piece, they slotted in, their slightly odd-shaped four- pronged piece completing the picture of humans spread out.
There was an acceptance and peace amongst people on the street. There was respect and hierarchy in the line for masks and personal hygiene supplies distributed by volunteers. The very old at the top, invalids followed by mothers with children and finally single men. They came as individuals with personal stories stitched into their clothes, but eventually lived as a collective. And in time, they unpicked the seams of their tales of sadness, sharing them with each other, without seeking solace or pity. And they listened without judgment.
Social distancing in the queue meant everyone stood one metre apart. Ammu was locked in her thoughts, staring into space, when she looked up to see a man ahead of her in a surgical mask, dressed in a blue shirt, light brown trousers and a pair of worn slippers. His outstretched right arm, waiting for his hardboiled egg. A mole with a long strand of stiff hair poking out of it.