Tuesday, 18 October 2011


MY CEYLONESE NEIGHBOUR in Kuala Selangor was a lady from Jaffna with an extremely long name and a very small stature. We lived in one half of a wooden semi-detached house, and she and her family lived in the other.

She was fastidiously clean - inwardly as well as outwardly -so much so that all the other Jaffnese around avoided her like the plague. "She's trying to be a Brahmin!" they would sneer. Then they would shake their heads and ask me: "How do you manage to tolerate her nonsense?"

True, she could be quite a nuisance at times, but I found her fascinating. Whenever she was happy, she would experience religious ecstasies; when provoked by her husband or her sons, she would let fly with a fluent stream of Tamil curses. She walked very slowly and and always had plenty of time to chat - sometimes leaning on her balcony, and other times popping round for a long visit. But she was definitely a source of mental stimulation for me; indeed, Punchuri was an entire "library" for my inquisitive mind.

In 1944, the only book in my possession was a midwifery manual which helped me to deliver three babies under less than ideal conditions. I can still recall Ah Mmm's slippery eight-pound granddaughter. Rice being hard to come by, the mother had eaten too much tapioca during her pregnancy, which is why the baby turned out so heavy. There were no towels, so I used the father's new singlets. No proper thread, so I used pineapple fibres, which kept breaking. No rubber mat, only old newspapers strewn on the hard floor for the first-time mother to give birth on. Ah Mmm didn't want to soil the precious mattress.

IT WAS ANOTHER pleasant evening in our government-issue wooden bungalow in Kuala Selangor during the third year of the Japanese Occupation. My two children were waiting for their dad to come home for dinner. They had been quietly observing as I chatted with our neighbour. Suddenly, my daughter asked: "Mum, how come her teeth pun choot lay?" ("Pun choot lay" is Cantonese for "to protrude"!)

I ignored her question, but from that moment on my children kept referring to her as "Punchuri" - which, I suppose, did sound a little like her Ceylonese name. After a while, she picked this up, and she asked me, "Why your children calling me 'Punchuri'?"

I managed to change the subject, but the nickname stuck. Children don't know how to be discreet... but they were right; Punchuri's teeth did protrude in a remarkable way.

PUNCHURI'S HUSBAND was a chief clerk in a government office. She herself wasn't expected to do any work, owing to her "condition."

She had been a lively, healthy teenager until her widowed mother married her off to a man twice her age. At that time, she was fifteen. Her health gave way after the birth of her two sons, and the treatment she received at the hands of her in-laws only caused her more mental anguish. Eventually, she suffered a nervous breakdown, and was now regarded by the family as "psychologically unsound."

Punchuri's mother had had a son and two daughters. She had laid careful plans for her son and the fairer daughter. Punchuri, being dark and not as pretty as her sister, had been foisted off on an older man who was willing to accept a much smaller dowry. Punchuri's mother had promised to send the dowry after her son's graduation. However, no dowry came - not even after Punchuri's sister had snared herself a doctor. Now, every time Punchri's sisters-in-law came to the house, they would demand to know when they could expect the dowry. The only blessing was that Punchuri didn't have to cope with a mother-in-law as well; she had died before her son's marriage.

The nasty sisters-in-law were in the habit of arriving at Punchuri's home without any luggage. This way, they had an excuse to borrow all her good saris. (Perhaps they had once been guests at a Japanese hotel! I was holidaying in Hokkaido some thirty years later when something reminded me of Punchuri's sisters-in-law; a whole busload of Japanese women checked in at my hotel empty-handed apart from their handbags. Not long afterwards, I encountered them in the village, and they were all clad in identical kimonos and clogs taken from their hotel rooms. Another group of women, also in identical kimonos, but of a different colour, suddenly appeared. At first, I thought that there must be a political convention in the vicinity. It took me a while to realise that it was all part of the hospitality Japanese hotels offered their guests, both male and female, who were thus free to travel unburdened with suitcases. They didn't even need to bring underwear - who would know under those robe-like kimonos?)

Shortly after her marriage, Punchuri found that she couldn't eat meat without feeling nausea. So she turned vegetarian, which presented some problems: she felt she couldn't prepare vegetarian food for herself in the same kitchen where carnivorous meals were being cooked. Finally, a solution was worked out: the panjaran (temp;le keeper) would cook her meals, while their own cook supplied her husband and sons with meat dishes.

ONE NIGHT, Punchuri had a dream. In her dream, she heard the clash of cymbals and the booming of a gong, which signified the arrival of a Royal Personage. Sure enough, Lord Krishna appeared before her bedroom window - and he didn't seem very pleased with her. She knew right away that it was on account of her failure to keep her promise, which was to dress the temple deities in new clothes.

The same night Punchuri had her dream, a large brass ornamental plate fell off the mantel shelf in our living room. It made a terrible clatter as it rolled across the room, before coming to a halt with a thunderous clang. Could the brass plate have entered Punchuri's dream as a sound effect? I decided not to mention this at all; the poor woman seemed so distraught that I found myself volunteering to help her fulfill her promise. Little did I know what I had let myself in for.

First, I had to clean and polish my sewing machine before starting work on the deities' new clothes. Then I had to bathe myself and change into clean clothes before cycling two-and-a-half miles to the temple and dressing up Punchuri's gods. Some of my Christian friends, I know, will raise their eyebrows at this concession to "paganism," but I had no qualms about performing this service for my neighbour because I was acting out of concern for her health.

WHENEVER Punchuri had a monthly period, I was roped into special service. I had to go over to her house each time I heard her knock on the plank wall, and deliver food and drink to her on a tray. She would be seated on the floor near the bathroom, in the middle of a circle drawn with chalk. Apparently, her religious beliefs dictated that menstruating women must have an early morning bath and wash their hair before they could enter any part of the house. Since Punchuri was usually too sickly to carry out this ritual, she was required to spend the day just sitting in one spot, like a leper. Punchuri certainly knew how to make life difficult for herself. She would sit only in the children's cane chairs whenever she visited us; she felt the grownups' chairs were "unclean" since we observed no elaborate rituals during our monthly periods.

One day, she invited her son's Tamil teacher over to read my children's palms. According to his reading, my daughter had God's gift of healing, but my son had the gift of the gab and would make a good lawyer or preacher. Thereafter, Punchuri always insisted that my daughter measure out her medicine for her. The palmist proved correct about my daughter; she did become a doctor. He was completely wrong about my son, however. His job is putting people to sleep (he became an anaesthetist)!

Punchuri told me many stories about Hindu gods and goddesses and how they relate to Man. From her accounts, it would seem fairly hazardous for a Hindu god to commit any injustice, for all it takes is the curse of a righteous woman to burn down the god's heavenly abode!

I kept in occasional touch with Punchuri after the war years. She must have valued my friendship greatly, for when my daughter departed for her medical studies in Singapore, Punchuri sent her husband to the airport bearing a sovereign gold coin as a gift. This was indeed a generous gesture, from a man who had always been very careful with his money.

I heard that Punchuri's elder son married a girl from a lower caste and moved to Sarawak, and that the younger, more obedient son remained a bachelor. Over the years, Punchuri seemed to have grown stronger, while her husband eventually developed a heart condition. The last time I tried to visit Punchuri, her home in Brickfields had been demolished to make way for redevelopment, and I lost touch with her.