“BEING illiterate is like a curse. It closes all doors to your life even before they can be opened!”
My mother’s words rang loud and clear in my mind.
She had literally been plucked from a remote village in India and brought to the then Malaya by my father, a man she had obediently married some sixty years ago.
Being the only daughter of a well-heeled man, she had believed that her aunt had got her a good match. My mother was fair, tall and willowy. Everyone had remarked on her big eyes and thick lashes when she entered her husband’s house as his bride.
The marriage celebrations had gone on for three days and she had yet to see what her groom looked like. As custom dictated, she had kept her head bowed and eyes downcast throughout the numerous ceremonies that went on during the three days.
The fact that her head scarf had been drawn low to cover her face did not make things any easier.
When she was finally introduced to her spouse, she was shocked. He was stocky and quite dark while she was as white as snow, by North Indian standards.
The fate that awaited her shattered all the dreams that her aunt had spun for her, the very aunt who had made the match.
Being the typical Indian bride, she became a dutiful daughter-in-law to her husband’s childless aunt and uncle who had cared for him ever since he had been orphaned at the age of seven.
Life was difficult as there was nothing of the luxury that she had been used to in her father’s house but she did not complain.
When her in-laws, asked her to pawn her jewellery to release their land from mortgage, she did so without question.
When her husband’s aunt insisted that she wove blankets for them, she did so submissively. After all, she was illiterate and her only skills included cooking, sewing and embroidery.
Six months later, her husband announced that they would be leaving India to seek their fortunes in Malaya. She cried for days but remembered her father’s parting words,
“Your husband decides your life for now. Go with God’s blessings.”
The trip to Malaya took almost a week by ship. All sorts of fears tortured her but she did not dare utter a single word for fear of displeasing her husband.
Upon arrival in Penang, they travelled to a little town in Perak where they lived with another uncle until her husband secured a job.
Life in Slim River was not easy. Her husband often left her alone, unaccompanied for days at times as he eked out a living as a lorry driver at a tin mine.
The kind Malay ladies, sensing her loneliness, tried to make small talk with her, despite knowing that she did not understand a word of the local language.
Undeterred, they slowly taught her simple words which she would need in her daily life. This life went on for three years.
There was no electricity or water supply. She did her washing and bathing by the river.
Despite her frail form, she could carry two pails of water all the way home for cooking and drinking. Every night, she cried herself to sleep.
A few months later, she gave birth to a daughter. Her husband had not been pleased and he had refused to see the new child.
He had expected his first born to be a son. His ego had taken a slight dent, but he did not know that there was a worse fate awaiting him – the tin mine ceased operations and he lost his job.
They had no money and no savings. Not about to give up, he decided to take her and their little daughter to the capital.
For the next few years, they lived with his second uncle and his wife who were also childless.
Life for the young couple was no bed of roses. Jobs did not come easily those days and after failing to secure a job, her husband gave in to the demands of his uncle and aunt.
For two meals a day, he had to wash the drains on the five-acre piece of land and cut the grass while she had to do all the tedious household chores.
Without fail, the old woman would insist that she scrub all the brassware (even though it had not been used) with ash every day before beginning the day’s chores.
She had to wash second uncle’s white trousers and white shirts by boiling them in caustic soda over a charcoal fire and then scrubbing then clean before ironing them using a hot coal iron.
Her daily chores kept her busy and she barely had time for her first-born.
The poor child was often hungry as second aunt did not provide them with breakfast. Deprived of essential nutrients, the poor little girl was thin, almost skeletal.
The young couple endured this terrible life for several years. Even when her husband got a job as a watchman she still had to submit to the will of second aunt.
The couple had a second child, a boy, but he died when he was ten months old. Three years later they had me, another girl. This time my father was not so disappointed. I suppose the hard life had made him more accepting.
“Why did you allow these things to happen, ma?” I asked furiously as she related her painful past.
I held her battered hands in mine; the cuticles were swollen and the nails had turned yellow due to all the washing with caustic soda.
“... because I was illiterate and I had no one.”
That was her simple answer. She had no options as she was financially dependent on others for every single need. She could not go out to work as her husband’s uncle and aunt had a reputation to maintain. They were the cream of the town. No one knew or even suspected that she and her husband were being ill-treated. Worse still, she had to tolerate all forms of verbal abuse.
“My father had never raised his voice. He showered me with love after the death of my mother when I was five.”
My father, who himself had lost his mother when he was twenty-six days old and his father when he was seven, could not do much.
I am now thirteen. I know mother is telling me these stories so that I will be resilient. I also know she wants me to study hard so that I will not have to have a difficult life.
As much as I admire my mother and her perseverance in the face of adversity, I will not allow a similar fate to befall me.