By V. Dharmalingam
Tender love or tough love? Which is best?
My name is Siva. In the 1940s, at the age of nine, I lived in Klang with three sisters, four older brothers and my parents. Father was a labourer. Caring for our large family was hard on my mother. But we, the four younger ones, didn’t know it. We spent carefree days playing in the mud outside our home. My sisters’ thick black hair was filled with lice. My legs were covered in sores and I fell sick often. But I didn’t mind because, then, I got special attention from mother.
One day, father broke the news. “You’ll be getting a new brother or sister soon,” he said. “But Mother can’t handle all of you. You four will have to live with granny.” He put us on a train to KL the following week.
Grandma, a widow, lived in a shop house in Brickfields. She wore a simple white saree and smoked a cheroot, like many old Ceylonese women. People feared her sharp tongue.
She sent me to sleep upstairs. In Klang, I used to sleep with the whole family crammed in a tiny room. I looked around the huge empty hall. I heard the whistle of the train going back to Klang. I went to the window. It was heading west. I dragged my mat to the western wall and lay down to sleep. I wanted to be as close to home as possible.
The next day, grandma made the girls wash their hair with kerosene to get rid of lice. No breakfast. Instead, she gave us castor oil to get rid of worms. Soon, we were racing to the latrine. Fasting and purgatives once in three months became a routine.
We went to a Tamil school in the same block. In the evenings, grandma made us study while she sat on a sofa with her cheroot and a rotan.
Living with her was a battle of wits. She banned story books. So we hid them inside school books and pretended to study. She had sharp ears. So for discussing secrets, we had to switch to English. And that’s how my illiterate Grandma picked up English.
One day, my youngest sister Prema broke the rules. She took her brand-new pencil box to class! During recess, Grandma marched in. The headmaster stood up in respect. He summoned Prema. “Didn’t I say the box stays in the house?” thundered Granny. She gave her a slap and confiscated the box.
The 1940s were desperate times. The Japanese Occupation had just ended. The black market was thriving. Food prices soared. Grandma found it hard to make ends meet. But she was a thrifty shopper. She knew how to select the best and cheapest vegetables and drive a hard bargain.
We children learnt to cope. When Mala outgrew her clothes, she handed them down to Saras, who later gave them to Prema. I collected abandoned empty beer bottles in the neighbourhood and sold them at 5 cents each to the coffee shop. With 20 cents, I could feast like a king at the school canteen!
One day, father came to visit. He told grandma the monthly payment would be late.
After he left, she grumbled: “Why does your mother produce so many children when he can’t afford to look after all of you?” I felt somehow responsible and guilty. But Saras, the family fightercock, shot back: “You can’t blame her. When people get married, children just get born. It’s natural. Mother can’t help it.” We listened with admiration. Clever, brave Saras! She saw the flaw in Grandma’s logic and dared to point it out.
Grandma hadn’t anticipated the outburst. She regarded the hard, accusing eyes filled with disbelief in the four small faces. Her frown deepened. Then a smile tugged at her mouth. That gave way to a look of frustration. She didn’t want to win this argument. “Yes, she can help it,” she said abruptly and ended the discussion.
I was the next to break the rules. It happened at a maths lesson. I was fidgeting, my hands inside the desk I shared with my classmate Mohan. I felt a smooth and round object. I pulled it out – a red apple. Saliva trickled down my throat. Apples were a rare treat in those days. I took a tiny bite and quickly put it back, hoping Mohan wouldn’t notice.
When the lesson ended, all hell broke loose. Mohan had pulled out the apple. He was bawling, holding it up for teacher to see. All eyes turned on me. I spent the rest of the day, standing in the corner.
When I got home, grandma was out shopping. Prema whispered: “She knows.”
When Grandma returned, there was no explosion. Instead, she put away the groceries and served dinner.
After we had eaten, she pulled out a shopping bag and handed each of my sisters an apple.
Then she sat down and peeled one for me. I avoided her eyes. I was thinking about the stolen bite in class. My face burnt with shame. Grandma didn’t say a word as she fed me, slice by slice. I stole a glance. She wasn’t looking at me. She had a far-away expression on her face. I was puzzled. Grandma spent the little money she has on apples for us, I thought. At that young age, I made an important decision: I would never again give in to envy and steal.
As for grandma, she seemed to have resolved something as well. After that day, she began treating us with tenderness.
Decades later, I visited Brickfields, now called Tun Sambanthan. I saw a bookstore and recognised it as the shophouse I once lived in. It conjured up a vision of Grandma and memories of the apple incident. I recalled the far-away look on her face that puzzled me. Now I understood. My stolen bite had helped her see the world for the first time through her grandchildren’s eyes.
So, tough love – or tender love? Grandma’s tough love gave me a good foundation for health and education. Her tender love pricked my conscience and developed my character.
About the Author – Dharma, originally from Kuala Lumpur, is a freelance writer based in Johor Bahru. He is also interested in the spoken word and coaches people in public speaking during his free time.