Thursday, February 06, 2014

Desperate Measures

by Maheswary Ponnusamy

(The author taught English in government schools in Malaysia for almost 30 years before taking early retirement. She has published fiction for children for the Malaysian market, and now resides in the Philippines.)

‘Apa tunggu lagi, nanti karat!’  This was exactly what that old decaying non-performing Cikgu Hashim said to me over lunch break at the school’s canteen. Newly joined members of the profession may not have understood. Mr Lim seemed amused. Miss Lau looked aghast. Cikgu Hashim’s comment could well be applied to her. She was like me, in her thirties and unmarried.

Later in the wash-room, Miss Lau probed. ‘You think he was talking about menopause? Could be. By now his wife would be dry. He speaks from experience.’ Then both of us giggled, our faces flushed and the midday heat caused beads of sweat on our foreheads. ‘I’ll see you tomorrow. I've got a class with Form Five Alamanda.’ I hurried to the class while Miss Lau sauntered to the teachers’ room.

The comment bothered me. I was the head of the English department. I have a Master degree in applied linguistics. I helped the school to manage a department of twelve English teachers. I am the chief invigilator during the SPM examination every year. And yet to some, respect seems to stem only if one possesses a ‘Mrs’ degree.

Tea time at home was always something to look forward to. Today, Mother had prepared chapattis with spicy mashed potatoes. She noticed my lacklustre appreciation for her efforts as I sipped the hot milk tea thoughtfully. ‘Was there a lot of HOD work at school?’ she inquired. I just nodded. Mother knew that it was the HOD jobs that took up most of my free time. I too have realized lately that being the head of the English department kept me at school till late evenings. Saturdays were set aside for meeting up with other heads of department. Sundays were solely for attending to mother’s needs, such as driving her to the market. ‘By the way, I met that lady again at the temple this morning,’ Mother interrupted my thoughts. She told me once more about the temple in Kapar where a priest performed miracles. It seemed he was able to break obstacles that prevented marriages. ‘Shall we go to this temple tomorrow?’

Mother walked to the temple near our home in Subang Jaya every morning. I suspected a big part of her quiet monologue with God was to request for help in finding a suitable groom for me. Lately, mother had been bothered by remarks from relatives who had begun to inquire about my single status. She had even begun to avoid a few social functions just to keep away from ‘concerned’ relatives who had already got their daughters of ‘marriageable’ age married.

I agreed this time without creating the usual fuss. I had never been to Kapar and the drive would take my mind from the nasty ‘karat’ comment by my colleague. I wondered who was ‘rusty’. Lately, Cikgu Hashim has become really ‘karat’. Several teachers saw him nodding to sleep during the last weekly meeting. That was Monday, the beginning of the week, and I wondered how he had kept himself awake till today. On the other hand, I have always kept myself updated with the latest theories on second language teaching and learning.

Anyway, it was a Saturday free of meetings, and Mother and I could do with some outing after going to the market.

‘Do you know the way to this temple?’ I asked. ‘The lady at the temple told us to drive to Kapar town and ask for Periasamy kovil, which she said any adult will be able to give directions to. By the way, he is only free after 6pm. We are also required to bring a live chicken, a bottle of wine, some turmeric powder, jasmine flowers, three types of fruit and cigars.’ I was tempted to tell Mother that these purchases seemed like preparations for a sumptuous dinner rather than tools for removing the obstacles that blocked my prospects for a speedy marriage. 

We drove to Kapar town with our purchases around four in the evening. Mother made sure that the feet of the chicken were properly secured and the other offerings properly packed in a box.

It was not difficult to find the temple. Everyone in Kapar town seemed to know where the temple was. Some even inquired if we had bought the right offerings.  After driving through a dusty side road we came to a rubber plantation. There were some wooden houses just before the temple. The entrance to the wooden temple that had a zinc roof was guarded by the fearsome goddess Kali. When we reached the inner sanctum we were greeted by a young man who introduced himself as the assistant to the chief priest. The chief priest apparently was busy with a devotee in one of the consultation rooms. It became apparent that this assistant priest was to attend to my problem.

Mother explained in detail that several match-made marriage ‘proposals’ for me had not worked out. It was I who had turned down some good marriage proposals. The assistant priest gave me a questioning look. After mother’s narration, we were asked to step out of the temple. The assistant priest told me and Mother to sit on a mat. Mother inquired if the purchases should be brought out for the obstacle removing ritual. The reply was only one word: later.

After murmuring a few prayers, the young priest sat beside me. He closed his eyes and chanted very loud prayers and shouted the word ‘waa’ several times. It sounded like a command to come at once in Tamil. Finally he opened his eyes, and they looked rather red and tired after his strained squinting and shouting. He had even begun to froth at his mouth. To our surprise, he reached for a short hand-held hoe and dug up a pot. It looked old and muddy. He opened it and presented from it a piece of red coloured cloth. He instructed us to examine it. While we had no idea what it was, he told us that the cloth had been stolen from our clothes line from our backyard and used by our enemies to cast a spell on me. Now that it had been retrieved, I should be married off in no time.

Mother and I burst out laughing, much to the dismay of the young priest. I explained to him that we lived on the fifteenth floor in a condominium and that our clothes are sent to the laundry. Mother supported me by saying that the red colour was simply awful and that we would never have owned such a piece of cloth. The desperate young man found it hard to find a rebuttal. Mother and I got up to walk to our car. The young man insisted on his fee. Mother gave him the bottle of wine and the cigars. It was thoughtful of her as he was much in need of smoke and drink to cope with our reaction.    
The chicken was set free after we had driven far away from the temple. The fruit and flowers, we took home for us. I was amused, but at the same time acknowledged that I had allowed myself to get into such a desperate situation. Perhaps, it is time to go on more social dates, instead of burying myself in books on language theories.