Blessed be childhood

Growing up in Malaya in the Thirties was a joyful and interesting experience for me. I liked the weather, which was hot and therefore enjoyable. We did not expose ourselves to the sun, to which we paid homage as part of our faith in some of our rituals. When we went out in the heat of the day, we covered our heads. My headgear was a pith (cork) helmet, a heritage from our colonial rulers.

I preferred a straw hat, which I would wear at the jaunty angle favoured by the Malays; but this style was frowned upon by the family – so, no straw hat. Actually, I thought that the Ceylon Tamils were a very conservative lot – and their speech and general conduct reflected that.

Because we protected our skin, my mother, at sixty-five, had skin comparable to that of an Australian woman half her age. Anyhow, she already had a nice tan. The family also had a practice of a weekly oil-bath. Warm oil was rubbed into the scalp and all over the body. After twenty minutes or so, it was washed off with the aid of a vegetable seed which was boiled to provide a soap-like cleanser. Hair was also dressed each day with a very light touch of oil, but no water was permitted (presumably because one might catch a cold). Gingelly oil imported from Ceylon was the only oil for us – the poorer people had to do with coconut oil. I am not sure what the other communities did to cleanse their scalps. I guess most would have used soap – the attractiveness of a new commodity would soon have overridden traditional practices.

Those men in our community who were able to keep their hair into old age proudly credited the tradition of daily oiling and weekly oil baths. Thus, nurture overrode nature for them; the rest of us kept pretending that our destiny was not deep-rooted hair but deep-rooted relationships enabled by the extra testosterone causing the hair loss (subject to consent, of course).

When the sun lost its fire, we children went out to play in safety. In the warm evenings, (after our study, of course), we walked in the balmy air, counted the millions of stars above us, especially the spectacular shooting stars, or bought freshly-roasted nuts from noisy vendors. The vendors had charcoal fires, and acetylene lamps for lights, on their bicycles or carts. The nuts were roasted, sometimes in hot sand, and we clutched our good fortune in little paper cones. It was a great life. Any lesson to be learnt about the meaning of life was to come later.

When it rained, it poured. Four inches in an hour would be followed by dry roads an hour later. (The British were good at drainage.) Thunderstorms were spectacular. Palm trees would be bent to forty-five degrees, tin roofs would fly, bolts and cracks of lightning would frighten the life out of everybody, especially if a fireball went past one’s nose (as happened to my father once, as I watched), and the thunder would roll and roll. For me, the grandeur of it all overcame the realisation of how puny we were against the might of nature. However, this metaphysical stance was not shared by a team of cricketers on our local padang (sports ground) when, one afternoon, a fireball shot across both wickets just above head height.

One day, I was in the sea, on my holidays. The rain came (it seemed) from nowhere in large painful drops. My cousins and I found it best to get as low in the water as possible. Even then, our heads hurt. Our oiled, thick mops of hair did not help. Being out in the rain was not normally permitted; we could fall ill. Why only the middle class would fall ill when exposed to the rain was never explained to us. I mean, we did ask. But the answer was always predictable – “concentrate on your studies, and do not ask stupid questions.” Perhaps, as in the Easter Islands (or some other equally strange place), they feared the consequent loss of virginity! (The risk of taking of the findings of social anthropologists too readily or literally is now well known.)

In the nineteen eighties, a sixty-year-old relative of mine was seen to cover his head with a handkerchief when the slightest of rain fell, consistent with the taboo on moistening one’s hair to comb it. Yet, I remember him at eighteen, attending class with a deep and open wound in the palm of his hand, with no dressing to cover it.

One of the joys of the tropics is the colour of the sky. Fancy being able to see a green sky. Years later, my senior officer (a pillar of his church), seeing the green tropical sky on a poster next to my desk, denied that the sky could turn green (I presume that his God promised an invariant world). On the other hand, sunsets are so often spoilt by low clouds which suddenly appear – I have spent days and days, on many occasions, waiting for a sunset to photograph.

Sunrise is more glorious. I remember, at eighteen, when I went to complete the cremation ceremony for my father on the west coast of Malaya, that the whole sky seemed to be lit up by lightning, producing inspiring patterns of purple lights against a black sky, without break, until the sun rose. It was simply fantastic – and balm to my soul. I remember too, decades later, the sun rising over the sea on the east coast of the peninsula, and giving me peace, in the days following my mother’s funeral.

(This is an extract from my first memoir ‘Destiny Will Out,’ showing the pleasures of a simple life, even under colonialism. Greater detail about how we lived will be found in my second memoir ‘The Dance of Destiny,’ published in 2010. ebook versions are available at Amazon)