The following is an excerpt from a chapter of What We Inherit: Growing Up Indian, an anthology published by the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) telling the stories of Indian women (and a few men) in Singapore. What We Inherit is now available for pre-order — the link is at the end of this issue!
by Sujatha Raman
I was in Primary Three when a new Tamil teacher, Mr Rama, joined the teaching faculty.
He was pint-sized and wore bright shirts that deepened his rich black skin and contrasted with the other teachers’ plain shirts. His teaching style too set him miles apart. He zipped around the classroom gesticulating with his hands while exuberantly coaching the student he had called on to read aloud.
In contrast, my home class teacher Mr Leong, who was middle aged with thick black-rimmed glasses, taught while standing in one spot in front of the blackboard, often with his back to us. He frequently lapsed into Hokkien in the middle of an explanation or lesson. This confused me and the ‘others’, as the non-Chinese students were referred to. When Mr Leong was upset, he picked on a student and made fun of him mercilessly. He had never made fun of another teacher before but after Mr Rama had been with us a week or so, Mr Leong started making jokes about him. “Wah, his shirts are so bright. Can go blind one.” “Err, his shirts just like the coolies isn’t it?” His comments made me uneasy—I sensed they were wrong, but I laughed along with everyone else.
While I usually scored As and Bs without much effort, Tamil was my Achilles heel. My classmates and I gabbed away in Singlish. At home, we yakked in English, although my parents spoke in Malayalam to each other.
My father insisted that we speak impeccable English and forbade Singlish. He worked for the British Civil Service and was a WOG (Western Oriental
Gentleman) who prized good English language skills over his own language and dressed in long-sleeved crisp shirts with neatly pleated trousers and polished shoes. When he was ready for marriage, he travelled back to Kerala, India and picked a bride. My mother moved to Singapore shortly after the wedding and we
were born and brought up in Singapore.
One day Mr Rama informed the Tamil class we were going on a field trip to watch a movie. He handed out permission slips for us to take home to our parents. After Tamil class, the other Indian kids and I had to skedaddle over to Mr Leong’s class, managing to slip into our seats just before he walked in. Mr Leong tossed his bag down on the table and without a word started writing math problems on the blackboard. He wrote with such force that the chalk screeched. The class fell silent. I quickly copied down the problems and started working.
With a jolt I realised that Mr Leong was standing next to me. He reached out and grabbed the permission slip on my desk, asking, “What’s this?” As I explained, his eyes narrowed behind his black glasses. Then he smirked, and with a flick of his wrist dropped the slip on my desk. Walking to the front of the room he said, “Wah, the coolie knows how to enjoy himself huh? Get the students to pay for his ticket. These Tamils from India—watch out for them!”
Six parents, including my mother, agreed to the movie outing. I was over the moon. I wanted to go to the cinema badly, even if it was for a Tamil movie. My three older sisters had gone to an American movie a couple of Saturdays before, but despite my pleadings had refused to take me. But when I saw the theatre, an old colonial-style white building in Serangoon Road, I was disappointed. My sisters had gone to a brand-new theatre on Orchard Road. I consoled myself with the fact that I was going on a weeknight with Lena, my best friend and next-door neighbour. When the movie started, I was totally absorbed but my limited Tamil made it difficult to follow it. At intermission, Mr Rama explained the plot and suddenly the words made sense. During the second half, I understood almost everything that was said, which thrilled me. I had found the key to a new world.
When he was driving us home, Mr Rama asked us what we thought of the movie. At our enthusiastic responses, he beamed and promised us another outing. I was elated and found myself telling Mr Rama that Mr Leong made fun of his shirts and called him a coolie. He fell silent and then he asked the other students, “Have you heard Mr Leong make fun of my shirts?” They looked at each other, unsure how to respond, but then they nodded.
The next day in class, I looked out of the window and noticed Mr Rama walking towards the building that housed the principal’s office. His back was to me, but his walk and the set of his shoulders caught my attention. A short time later, the clerk, a young girl that worked in the office, came out and scurried down the path to our classroom. She spoke softly to Mr Leong, who looked surprised and said, “Now?” He then told the class he had to leave, and hurried out towards the principal’s office. I watched him leave, feeling a strong sense of foreboding.
From my seat by the window, I could see the door to the principal’s office and glanced over at it several times. Mr Leong was gone for at least half an hour. When he came back to class, his face was beet red. He walked to the cupboard in the front corner of the classroom and unlocked it. He called my name, the sound loud and jarring: “Sujatha, come here.” I slowly stood up. Silence fell across the room as I walked to the front of the class. Mr Leong had a cane in his hand. His face was contorted, his eyes narrowed and his mouth was tight and grim.
He said, “You have been coming late to class.”
To read the rest of this piece, as well as many others, pre-order a copy of What We Inherit: Growing Up Indian.