EARLY MEMORIES: The formation of character

An attribute of old age would seem to be to reminisce; to call up what memories are available at the end of one’s life. There is, of course, the risk of an apparent memory not being one of an event, of an occurrence; but, rather, a memory created to reflect what had been told as having happened.

At age 65, I discovered such a memory. And that was because, as one of my relatives said, I must have “a memory like an elephant” (in response to my first memoir). But then, Ganesha (or Pilleyar), the Hindu deity with the elephant head, is my favourite guide – as the god of learning.

My earliest memory is of me pulling my baby sister, 2 years younger and clad in a nappy and a singlet, down a rough concrete corridor in our home, calling out “choo, choo,” while she chuckled loudly. Our early bonding has lasted, in spite of an extended separation by sea over many decades.

Then, at age 4, I was dropped off one morning at a local vernacular (Tamil) school. During the official break, I walked home, about a quarter of a mile away. I told my mother that I would not be going back, because the teacher had been rude to me. In the parlance of modern Australia, that was an intimation of a personality who would ‘take no shit’ from anyone; and that he could find his own way. My character was clearly being formed.

At age 5 and 6, I was one of a carload of little children taken to a bigger Tamil school about 4 miles away. Whenever we were delivered late (by about 5 minutes or so, my teacher would cane me; 2 cuts on my writing hand! Thus was planted my lifelong pre-occupation with justice.

A few years later, I noticed that Joseph, my neighbour, frequently received 2 cuts on his bare buttocks at his Catholic school. Is there something about the bottoms of boys which attracts celibate teachers and priests?

At age 7, I joined a government school. The teaching was in English. There I learnt potato printing, and basket weaving; and participated in an exercise regime daily. I received a sound education, topped my class each term (except once). School hours were only half a day, the facilities being shared with another school for the other half of the day.

My no. 1 uncle gave me a little soccer ball at the end of my first year at that school, promising me a bigger ball each year I topped my class. With my new ball each year, a number of boys of about the same age (a few a little older or younger) and I played every evening on a field in front of my home. Since we played with bare feet (who could afford a second pair of shoes?), extracting thorns in my feet was a daily task.

Self-sufficiency was thus being ingrained in me.