Shalini is married to a supportive and loving gentleman who has always encouraged her to grow and discover her potential. Manmindar is an economist, and is the head of corporate and regulatory affairs in an MNC in Singapore. They have two adult children. Their daughter, Sandhya, is married to a Japanese national and lives in Tokyo. Sandhya runs her own social media business, and manages the accounts of some prominent clients. Her son, Preshin having completed his Masters in law in the UK, is currently doing his legal training at her brother's law firm in Singapore. Her mother who is her pillar of strength has been a loving presence, raising her children.
Shalini is currently a writer, writing coach and teacher educator. She was a Teacher Educator at the English Language Institute of Singapore (ELIS), Ministry of Education. She specialised in the teaching of writing. She conducted Professional Learning Programmes for English Language teachers in several primary and secondary schools, and coached and mentored teacher leaders.
Her core training was at ELIS, the National Writing Project (US) and Research for Better Teaching (US). She was part of a pioneer team that designed, organised and facilitated three-week Writing Retreats for English Language Teacher Leaders. She has also designed and led 'Writing Marathons'.
She has published poems and a research paper in SWIRL (A publication of the Singapore Writing Institute) and ELIS Research Digest respectively. This year, she published two articles on Medium: "Meditate and Write: They are great bedfellows" and "Mindful Writing"
In Feb 2019, Shalini co-facilitated a weekend Mindful Writing Retreat in Singapore with Amy Spies, a Mindful Writing teacher in Los Angeles. They also facilitated Mindful Writing Sessions for The Singapore Book Council and Club 1880.
Shalini continues to enjoy learning. She is currently enrolled in two courses: 'Teach Mindfulness Online' and 'Impact Selling with Neuro Linguistic Programming'.
In June 2019, Shalini volunteered to train English Language teachers in schools in Livingstone, Zambia.
Besides travelling, writing and Yoga, Shalini loves oil painting. She paints landscapes and portraits and has recently started figure drawing.
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A daughter questions her relationship with her father on his deathbed. Taking a closer look at some of his challenges and his attitude towards them, provides her with greater clarity and a deeper appreciation of her dad. She realises how a homogenous family in a small village in Kerela could have evolved through three generations into a diverse global network of family and friends. There are compelling anecdotes of openness and inclusion from his immigrant life that are inspirational.
This memoir is a celebration of a simple man who was extraordinary in many ways. It is a call to discover the heroes we encounter everyday.Share Tweet LinkedIn Embed pszr.co/gAfyL 2015 views
|Memoirs Spiritual, Immigrant Life, Write your way to happiness, Openness, Diversity, Inclusion #1 in Memoirs|
|5 publishers interested|
Dad and I
This is a story of a love that was not fully expressed between a daughter and her father.
This memoir is a tapestry of recollections, reflections and emotions that emerges as a daughter explores her relationship with her father on his deathbed. As she walks in her father's shoes, she begins to wonder about her father's motivations to leave India for Singapore in the 1930s when he was only 15.
The immigrant thread provides insights into the motivations, challenges and struggles faced by many immigrants like my dad who came to Singapore in the 1930s, and stayed to build a sense of community that contributed in significant ways to early nation building. It will provide younger generations from immigrant societies with simple lessons on the attitudes and values needed to create a more inclusive society.
The ‘no holds barred’ authentic expression of deep emotions that form the backbone of the narrative takes readers through a world of dreams, spirits and ghosts as the daughter tries to gain a deeper understanding of her father, and the relationship she shared with him.
The three clear takeaways for readers of my memoir:
1) Death, fatal diseases or negative life experiences can provide us with positive life changing experiences if we embrace them. It helps us better understand ourselves, and rekindle relationships forgotten, neglected or ignored. My memoir started out as a tribute to my dad but ended up being cathartic as it led to a deeper understanding of my relationship with him.
2) Embracing diversity and being open and inclusive are vital for peace and harmony. It starts with faith in oneself and trust in others regardless of their social status or religious and ethnic backgrounds. It gives one the courage to venture into the unknown fearlessly as the focus shifts to the bright spots paving the way for opportunities for growth. There are lessons especially for immigrants in any age to adapt and assimilate into their host countries;
3) Writing a personal story, you care about from the heart, can lead to a transformational experience. It provides greater clarity, and a better understanding of yourself, others and your relationships.
A Sentient Soul is a contemplative poem that looks at what lies within and beyond the physical body.
My first hug
A daughter questions her relationship with her father on his deathbed.
Who was my dad?
As she watches her dad unconscious, she wonders about his life in India and his motivations for leaving his family and friends for a country unknown to him.
You cannot rush the dying nor living
Time stands still as the family helplessly tries to make meaning of an unconscious life.
Recollections of beautiful stories of how her dad came to marry her mum, puts the spotlight on the innocence of the times.
The final curtain drops quietly in the wee hours of the morning. It describes Hindu funeral rites as family and friends participate in quiet contemplation. Death in a strange way reconnects and rekindles relationships forgotten, neglected or ignored with the passing of time.
Bereavement is a poem that sets the tone for this section. It looks at the grieving process and the internal struggle experienced in responding to death.
Mourning. Grieving. Reflecting
Coping with the death of her dad, the daughter experiences unfamiliar emotions and a confusing state of mind chronicled by supernatural events and dreams.
Kampong Bahru days in the 60s and 70s
The flashback takes us to life in the 60s and 70s in Singapore. She retraces her childhood days with her dad. She realizes her dad’s motivations to make Singapore his home. How did he raise a family and form friendships, in the backdrop of raucous historical events like the racial riots in the 60s that threatened to rip the young nation apart?
The modest entrepreneur
As she makes sense of her dad's life, the focus of the narrative shifts gradually away from the images of death and disease to the dad’s innate talents and craft.
The daughter re-lives memories of her days in the pre-war shophouse where she grew up. This chapter chronicles stories of her dad’s kindness and generosity as her home becomes a sanctuary for family and friends.
Openness. Diversity. Inclusion. Peace.
Who was the dad's early influencers? One figure stands out in her memory. It was a feisty guru, a social reformer, from his village in India who fought tooth and nail against tradition and hierarchy, and reminded all of their common humanity.
Where are our roots?
The foray into her dad's life makes her wonder about how he felt about his fatherland now that he is older, and a grandfather of pre-adolescents who do not speak his mother tongue?
This chapter explores the parenting culture in her dad’s day and how it has evolved today. She juxtaposes her own experiences as a parent against his to gain a deeper understanding of his parenting ways.
Out of the shadow into the light
One day, a sudden realisation hits her that traumatic life experiences like death or fatal diseases have a way of overshadowing the good times.
Light Lines is a poem that sets the mood for an ending that celebrates 'diversity in our common humanity' through the life of a simple and ordinary man with extraordinary qualities.
Re-fashioning the blueprint
As a mother of two pre-adolescents, she comes to appreciate her liberal upbringing that has provided her and her brother with the confidence to find their own rhythm. She realises that as society evolves every generation will have to find their own beat.
There is a greater appreciation of her dad’s courage to venture into the unknown. The modern mind, in a sense has lost its innocence. It has the tendency to focus on all the things that could go wrong rather than be propelled forward by the things that could go right.
Let stillness light your way
This chapter juxtaposes the daughter's spirituality with her dad's. They were different in many ways but bound by common values.
The Cave is a poem about how one can find a quiet mental space in spite of the busyness of having responsibilities as a wife, mother, daughter and teacher.
Discovering the unlived life through art
This chapter looks at how the life choices you make to free yourself bring you closer to your creative side.
Writing in the dark…meditative writing
This chapter looks at how life's events got her to start writing her memoir: 'Dad and I'.
This chapter comprises four letters written by each grandchild (the oldest being 30 and youngest 14) to their late grandfather. What would they want their grandfather to know if he was listening?
In this Chapter the daughter addresses her late dad in a letter that is revelatory and touching.
The memoir ends with the late dad's response to his daughter.
The Mountain Does Rise is a poem about the importance to rekindle and connect...
The immigrant thread should resonate with many today who cross borders in search of a better life. There are gems of insights that show how the right attitude can help mitigate the social, racial and religious divide we are experiencing currently worldwide. My memoir should reach out to all who want to create a world that is: Open, Diverse and Inclusive. It would also appeal to those who puzzle about consciousness, unconsciousness and death.
Most of the memoirs published locally were written by prominent members of society. Heads of state, heads of the civil service or wealthy businessmen. e.g. The Singapore Story by Lee Kuan Yew (former Prime Minister of Singapore), Tall Order by Goh Chok Tong (former Prime Minister of Singapore), Neither Civil Nor Servant by former EDB Chairman. In addition, Robert Kuok's Memoir with Andrew Tanzer, Ho Kwon Ping's: Asking Why, Selected Writings and Woffles Wu's: Life in Plastic were memoirs published recently by successful and wealthy businessmen: real estate tycoons and a cosmetic surgeon respectively. A Tiger Remembers - The Way We Were in Singapore was by Ann Wee the founding mother of social work education in Singapore.
What will readers get from my memoir:
1) A historical perspective in which the common man played a significant role in building a sense of community. How did they do it? What were conditions like that helped nurture such inherent values and expectations for a better life?
2) The message of the pressing and urgent need to celebrate our common humanity in a world that is becoming increasingly diverse with families and individuals crossing borders to set up homes in unfamiliar places everyday.
Will organise the following events:
1) Pre-book launch that constitutes a book reading from 'Dad and I' and a light reception at the following venues:
- My Home: For family and friends
- The Singapore Book Council
- Club 1880
- Singapore Cricket Club
- The British Club
- Serangoon Gardens Country Club
- Mui Studios
- Sree Narayana Mission
- The Ananda Group
- Damodara Hazra LLP - My brother's law firm (clients, partners and friends)
2) At the book launch:
a) There will be a short Mindfulness Writing Exercise
There will also be flyers to advertise:
b) Announcement of a Writing Marathon that will take participants through some of the locations in my book. Guests will be informed of the details: date, time, meeting point, and agenda at the launch.
c) Announcement of a three-hour Mindfulness Writing Session at a discounted rate of SGD$90/- if they do a early bird sign up at the book launch
d) Discounted rates for writing coach services
1) When Breath Becomes Air What makes life worth living in the face of death? , Paul Kalanithi, Vintage, 2016. Kalanithi's memoir is as honest as it is elegant in his reflections on life and death; of terminal illnesses and their profound influence on one's identity. It trumps our fear of death as he majestically embraces his curtain call with love.
How does my memoir compare?
In my memoir, I grappled with my dad's brain haemorrhage and his state of unconsciousness with the little knowledge I had. Having little knowledge, I guess, is as frightening as having the specialised knowledge of a neurosurgeon. It was a bewildering and painful experience not knowing how long my dad was going to be in the state of unconsciousness and what it meant. It led to a deep examination of my personal life and my relationship with him. My memoir provides a lay person's perspective on the same topic and the consequent reactions.
I have just like Kalanithi wondered about the body: brain, heart and sinews; do they have a life of their own communicating something beyond their physiological make-up? My reflections in 'Dad and I' took me to the supernatural world of souls, spirits and an afterlife as I tried to make meaning of life and death.
2) Where the Past Begins - Memory and Imagination, Amy Tan, 4th Estate, 2017. I found the author's writing style contrived in the beginning, meaning it was schooled. I could see how she was listing as many details about her life as she could in the first 115 pages. The turning point in her memoir comes when she talks about the writing retreat she attends at the ski resort where she was required to write about a moment when she thought she was going to die. She thought of a moment and she wrote. Then she was required to write again about another moment when she thought she was going to die. She wrote about that moment. The third time she had to write about a moment when she thought she was going to die, some frightening memories tucked away in the back burner were unleashed powerfully. From that point, her writing hit home.
How does my memoir compare?
Meditative writing that I speak about in my book has the same effect. Most of the writing that I did in my memoir emerged from writing after I quietened my mind through meditation or a technique called listing. As you go down the list you tap into the inner most layers of your consciousness. So, my writing I dare say is more lyrical and soulful as it touches at the heart of the issues that I raise throughout my memoir.
3) I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou is a beautiful rendition of humanity at its most brutal self. Even more than the rapist, the white dentist who blatantly refuses to treat a five year old Marguerite when she suffers intense pain from two rotting teeth because it is policy, reflects the unconscionable ugliness of the times. Yet, Angelou's voice, throughout her memoir, remains non judgemental and forgiving even of the perpetrators that made her life a living hell.
How does my memoir compare?
Unlike Maya Angelou my narrative is about neglect at a more subtle level. Not being fully present for your loved ones or anyone is often treated lightly in the backdrop of busyness over work or other more pressing engagements. But it's NOT OK. My narrative is about urban life and how we are often present but not present, and how in the long run, it could have dire ramifications. My story is a struggle with the day to day banal challenges that we often don't acknowledge. We sit up and pay attention to it only when it slaps you in the face.
4) From Estate to Embassy (Memories of an Ambassador) by K. Kesavapany with Anitha Devi Pillai ( 2019) chronicles Kesavapany's passage from a Kampong or village in Malaysia to his ambassadorial role in Singapore, and how and why he joined the Singapore Civil Service, and went on to bigger appointments. The book has many anecdotes of the political scene in Singapore conveyed in a true blue diplomatic voice.
How does my memoir compare?
My memoir is about the common man who through their hardwork and openness built nations by raising their families to be honest, upright and inclusive.
5) The Truths we Hold An American Journey by Kamala Harris (2019). This memoir is a story about an immigrant family in the US and how her family, of especially her mother and sister, supported Harris in her ascent as a voice of justice for all. The anecdotes of how she represented everyone, "All of them" and insisted that her trainee lawyers learnt about the communities where they didn't live, to follow neighbourhood news..." was inspiring.
How does my memoir compare?
My memoir similarly takes many lessons on openness, diversity and inclusion from my dad's immigrant life in Singapore.
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My first hug
It was my first hug. Decades late, you might say, as I tried awkwardly to put my arms around my father to comfort him. He lay stiff on the white sterile sheet of a single bed in Ward A of Tan Tock Seng General Hospital, breathing and feeding through tubes of oxygen and fluids. The doctors declared that he was unconscious. In medical terms, it meant that he was partly or completely unaware of external stimuli, but every now and then he would give out a loud guttural heart wrenching wail, which the doctors assured us were involuntary reflexes. How was I to be convinced? Every twitch however insignificant spoke to me. I felt he was desperately trying to reach out to us. Knowing my father, he was probably fighting to live, even if it was for another day. He was always tough and it shattered me to see this strong silent man in agony. All my attempts to comfort him and say, “Acha*, I love you” seemed to fall off the walls of Ward A. It’s too late, I thought to myself.
*father in Malayalam
I was struck at that moment by the chasm that lay between me and my dad. I just didn’t quite know how to express my affection for him. Growing up, we never hugged. We never kissed. We never said I love you or how deeply we appreciated each other. It was comfortable sometimes to let the day go by with not a single word passing between us. A nod here, a smile there seemed enough. And that’s the way life passed us by unsuspectingly. My dad was 80 and I was 48, a mother of two children, when my dad suffered a hemorrhagic stroke that rendered him unconscious.
The last time my mum saw my dad conscious was at 2.30 in the morning when she got out of bed to get a drink. My dad had done the same. She said that their eyes had met in the kitchen when he gave her a sad forlorn look as if to bid good bye to his loyal companion of fifty years.
Acha seemed to have left us that fateful morning. When I arrived at the hospital later that morning, there was no semblance of sentience, though the heart monitor registered a beating heart. If not for his heart-wrenching guttural wail that echoed through the Neuroscience ward, he seemed to have lost all his faculties.
In the Neuroscience ward, as I tried to give him a bear hug to comfort him in vain, I was unable to recognize my own dad. His pupils seemed to have turned upwards though his skin was still warm. Where are you, dad? What would you say, if you could speak now? I sat helplessly by his bedside asking questions of a man who had grown quiet in the last few years of his life.
Day after day, I would sit at his bedside, asking him question after question, without heeding the doctors’ diagnosis. I would still wonder what it was he was thinking, feeling and remembering. I was in a state of stubborn refusal. I felt that something within him was still alive and sensing. His soul perhaps was making its rounds, in and out of his life and ours, reliving and taking stock of what he was and what he had become, frame by frame as if in a slide show.
How, I wondered, would he see himself. Overwhelmed by questions I had no answers to, I would fall into deep remorse and regret for not knowing enough of him as a child, young adult, husband, father and grandfather. As the Neuroscience ward darkened night after night, I would stay late by his side, compelled by a genuine desire to know my dad better and connect with him. Thus began my foray into my dad’s eighty odd years.
Who was my dad?
My dad, Damodaran, named after Lord Shiva, the Creator and Destroyer of the universe, left Puthuval Veedu* in Anathalavattom, Kadaikavur District, Chirayankil, as a budding adolescent, in the late 1930s. Puthuval Veedu was the name of his ancestral home in the state of Kerela close to the southern tip of the Indian subcontinent. You needed to take a boat from the city of Trivandrum and cross a rivulet to reach the village. In other words, Puthuval Veedu was tucked away amongst coconut plantations and padi fields far away from what we would call civilization today. Puthuval Veedu was unknown to others as was the little known tiny island of Singapore.
* ‘new house’ in Malayalam
Yet, unaccompanied by family members except for an acquaintance from the same village who was returning to Singapore for work, my father boarded a steam ship in pursuit of opportunities for a life that was beyond his imagination. My paternal grandad, Kochupappu, whose name literally meant ‘little baby’ in Malayalam, managed a tea plantation in Ceylon, what is present day Sri Lanka. (It was not unusual, in those days, for Malayalees in Kerela of Hindu, Christian or Muslim origin to name their sons: Kuttan, Kutty or Kunghu. They all meant ‘baby’ curiously, and were variations of terms of endearment for male infants.) In spite of the implications Kochupappu carried with his name, he grew up to be a tall handsome gentleman who fathered seven children. He struck a note with his long aquiline nose and warm olive skin tone. For most of his married life, Kochupappu, my grandad, lived away from his wife and children, but sent his earnings without fail for their upkeep.
Kampong Bahru days in the 60s and 70s
The experience of losing my dad took me to his world like the tide that comes and goes for short visits to the shore. I wondered what made it easier for him stay in Singapore to build a home for himself and his family as an immigrant. I wondered what it would have felt like in Singapore without his parents, siblings and a whole village of people he knew intimately. It couldn’t have been easy. Just as there was a clear motivation to leave Kerela, what contributed to the strong sense of belonging to Singapore.
I recalled my neighbourhood, growing up in a pre-war colonial shophouse in Kampong Bahru Road. We lived in one of the several brick shophouses connected by a five-foot way starting from the end of Neil Road and located near the Singapore General Hospital, Malayan Railways and the Singapore Harbour Board. At the end of the row of shophouses were what looked like sheds with red zinc roofs and zinc walls about seven feet tall, corroded and bent with age, and on the verge of collapsing. All you needed was a gust to send bits of the roof and wall clanging in the wind. We hardly knew the people who lived in these houses. But we knew cleanliness and personal hygiene perhaps meant something to them as they would boil their clothes in a big pot sitting precariously on a charcoal stove in front of their homes facing Blair Road, a slip road off Kampong Bahru Road. Most of the time they kept to themselves and would occasionally emerge to dry their clothes on a clothesline erected in front of their houses.
Singapore, in the 60s, must have felt as if it was at the centre of the universe, being strategically located at the crossroads of east and west. The world arrived at our door step, every day. The radio blasted local and global news, and Malayalam, Tamil and Hindi songs filled the hallway throughout the day. My dad would not miss the news for anything. He listened to the Tamil news that was broadcast on radio thrice a day. When the news was broadcast we had literally to hold our breaths. It was a priority. He was intense when he listened to the news. He would additionally, read every single page of the “Malaysia Malayalee”, a regional newspaper and “Maadar Bumi”, a Malayalam newspaper that brought news from Kerela. In his conversations, I would hear the names of politicians that he clearly admired being bandied about. I listened to how Nasser outwitted the British to take over the Suez Canal. My dad seemed to applaud Nasser’s political savvy in forming an alliance with the Russians. Influenced by my dad, perhaps, I too, became a fan of the Kennedy brothers, and was stunned when they were assassinated. I moped for days, as if I had lost a close member of the family. My dad was also an ardent supporter of the Congress party in India, and the Nehru family. As a Gandhian enthusiast, there was a portrait of the Mahatma, on the wall. My mum was influenced to read his autobiography when she was expecting me, hoping that, I too, would follow in the path of non-violence and peace. These were empowering times for my dad.
Mourning my dad’s loss took me to my own childhood days and the lives we led then. I began to recalibrate and focus on how he was always there for us though he seemed to be preoccupied a lot of the time behind the radio, newspapers or sewing machine. My parents worked hard from 8 to 8 from Mondays to Saturdays, but on Sundays, they took a break.My dad was a different man on Sundays. He looked less intense. There was a time devoted to work that he enjoyed, but there was also a time to languish. He would take us to Queen Elizabeth Walk. We would walk the stretch of the esplanade, languish in the gardens and soak in the sea air. It was truly relaxing for everyone. My brother and I would run around and play. After which, we would often end up in Chinatown for a bowl of fish ball noodle soup which was a welcome change from the curries my mum cooked. Sundays were also devoted to the cinema. We would go to Ciros theatre in Telok Blangah Road or Rex theatre on Serangoon Road to watch Hindi and Tamil movies, and the occasional Malayalam movie when it was screened in Singapore.
While Chirayankil in Kerela, the village where my dad grew up in, would have been a somewhat safe and sleepy haven with nothing happening from day to day except births, deaths and weddings, my dad would have found Singapore complex as it was primed for economic growth, teeming with immigrants in search of better opportunities to eke out a living. This would have meant different things to different people. While most would have been driven by the need to survive and provide in honest ways to sustain themselves and their families, there would have been those invariably driven by unscrupulous means to make a quick buck at the expense of others. Singapore in the 60s was well known for its secret society activities and gangsterism.
So, the neighbourhood was united by the fear and trepidation of secret societies and gangsters who stalked small business owners for protection money. Loan sharks would leave heads of pigs bludgeoned, dripping in blood, at the door steps of those who defaulted on their payments. There was then a need for small business owners like my dad to protect their livelihood and loved ones. I think a sense of what it is to live in a community was born then as everyone had to stand united against a common bully. There was camaraderie. Everyone who had similar goals of wanting peace and harmony stood by each other. Barriers between the Gulams and the Alsagoffs, and the Tans and Damodarans became grey and greyer. Nobody envied the Gulams who lived in a three-storey house because they lived like everyone else in the neighbourhood, though they had money and property. Nothing distinguished them specially on the face of it. We ate well and dressed well. Food passed from one household to another regardless of race or religion. We knew not to serve our Muslim neighbours pork or Hindu neighbours beef. The Chinese ate everything, contributing in even greater ways to the spirit of community.
Our neighbourhood was multi-religious, multi-racial and multi-lingual. We had Malay, Chinese, Indian and Eurasian neighbours who became friends of the family. There were Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Taoists and Hindus. My mum and aunt had Chinese, Malay and Indian girl-friends. They would dress up in each other’s ethnic outfits: sarees, Punjabi suits, baju kurung, kebayas and cheongsams to take pictures at one of the photo studios in Tanjong Pagar Road. My parents’ old albums are rich with professionally taken posed pictures at photo studios. It didn’t matter if some were rich owners of businesses, or others like us who lived from day to day. These women were celebrating life’s riches. They enjoyed the friendship and companionship, that came from a true appreciation of each others' cultures. The diversity provided colour in their lives. They were unhampered by differences in language, religion or ethnicity. Their smattering of English and Malay went a long way in creating bonds.
We valued each other’s skills and strengths. We needed the barbers, the tailors, the cooks and the cobblers. And we needed, most of all, for the rich to remain rich to buy our goods and services. We wished everyone well. The children of some of the rich businessmen in our neighbourhood didn’t do so well in school, as formal education did not play a significant role in their lives. They would join their family businesses once they came of age. But there were exceptions. One of the girls, a daughter of an Indian Muslim businessman who owned several pieces of both commercial and residential properties in Kampong Bahru, was sent to England for her studies at nineteen. She would always come by our home for a meal, during her vacation. She had exciting stories. Some were about her love for horse riding and how she broke her nose when she was thrown off a horse. We loved listening to her as she spoke with a British accent. Years later, she met the love of her life at college. He belonged to Malaysian Royalty. All of us in the neighbourhood were invited for her wedding. It was a grand affair that stretched our imagination. For children of small businessmen like myself and my brother, education was a priority. Our parents ensured we exceled at school and learnt to speak and write good English as it was perceived to be the only means to better your lot in life. In our minds, everything evened out eventually. As children, we didn’t feel the social divide, and may be neither did my dad, as he did what he had to, in his own pace and time. He was not a man in a hurry trying to outwit others to get ahead of the pack. He believed simply in an honest day’s work.
Despite the harmony we enjoyed in our diverse neighbourhood, in July of 1964, when I was eight years old, one of Singapore’s worst racial riots occurred over Mawlid to celebrate Prophet Mohammad’s birthday. A religious procession attended by twenty-five thousand Malay Muslims was supposed to have taken place from the Padang to Geylang. We heard stories from my dad about how the clashes between the Chinese and Malays had led to many casualties, and how twenty shophouses in Geylang and Jalan Eunos were razed to the ground, and how there were fears that they would spread all over Singapore. Curfews were imposed to contain the riots, and schools were shut.
This meant that we had more time to play, and sneak into each other’s homes unseen by the soldiers who were pacing up and down the five- foot way. Many of the Chinese, Malay and Indian parents in our neighbourhood remained calm. They did not allow the communal violence to get to them. My dad would tell us, as a matter of fact, of how one of his friends, a cameraman was caught in the midst of the riots, trying to take photographs. He was beaten up badly with a parang and sustained head injuries but he escaped death as he was taken to the hospital in time. Like my dad, no one displayed signs of paranoia in the neighbourhood. There was a recognition that we needed each other to protect the sense of community that had been cultivated over the years. Nobody took it for granted. Since such wisdom prevailed amongst our elders, we were spared the ugly possibilities of communal violence erupting in our own backyards. We stayed indoors during the curfew, but business was as usual. Men in jungle green paced up and down the five-foot way, in front of our homes, carrying their imposing rifles. We felt safe.
Openness. Diversity. Inclusion. Peace.
After my dad passed on, I thought a lot about how a fifteen year old boy from a small homogeneous village in Chirayankil adapted and assimilated into Singapore which would have been shockingly diverse to him. How did he come to be so fearless and open to differences? How did he come to embrace diversity? He seemed to have been comfortable with the idea of oneness, and that we are more alike than unlike in spite of our different religious, social and ethnic backgrounds. His choices in life, I realised, reflected his openness. He had the audacity to start his business in a neighbourhood that was multi-religious, multi-ethnic and multi-lingual. It was not a predominantly Indian enclave. There were mostly Chinese, Indian Muslims and Malays in Kampong Bahru then. It was a bold move considering that he spoke only his mother tongue, Malayalam, when he landed in Singapore. In order to assimilate into the environment he learnt Malay without hesitation to communicate from day to day with not only the Malays and Chinese but the Indians, too, who spoke languages other than Malayalam like Punjabi, Telegu or Hindi. It enabled him to assimilate quickly into the local culture and be one with the neighbours. How did he come to be so comfortable with people who did not look, speak or dress like him? He did not allow unfounded fears to debilitate the connection he could have with people he encountered in his daily interactions. He wanted to be included and respected in this country and was prepared to do the needful. He made assimilation his priority to build friendships and connections that were mutually supportive. Hence, his decision to send us to mainstream schools to get integrated into the local community.
Who were my dad's influencers?
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