Saturday, May 06, 2006

The House Boy

It is the year 1927. Kupu, a scrawny little boy stands behind his mother at the doorstep of a large house. His mother is asking the Eurasian lady there to take him on as a servant. If the lady agrees, his mother will leave and he will never see her again. What a big house these people have. Kupu lives with his teeming family in a shack on the coolie lines in Shaw Road, far out of town. Kupu is of the lowest caste and his family are very poor. Now he is 12, his mother will find him a job to get him off her hands.

Mrs Van Tooren is not rich. This large sprawling house in the middle of a sizeable fruit orchard is rented. But she feels sorry for this half-starved creature, shuffling his feet at her doorstep. Besides, this is a time when even the less affluent households include cousins, poor relatives and a handful of servants. She agrees to take him, and Kupu’s mother thanks her and walks away. She does not hold her son or give him one last look or remind him to be a good boy. Outward displays of affection are a luxury for the rich.

The lady takes him into the kitchen and gives him a meal, the first he has had in two days. He smiles shyly at her. She is a nice lady. She then calls her five children – Avin, Leslie, Thelma, Marguerite and Audrey – together to tell them that Kupu has come to stay with them as their new podian, that is, servant boy.

It is the year 1929 and Kupu is now like one of the family. Seventeen-year-old Leslie goes for a holiday and brings back a hideous cloth mask with ginger hair and ginger eyebrows. They each try it out in turn, but Kupu presents the most gruesome spectacle and the kids realise that they are on to a good thing.

A beggar comes to the house, holding a coconut shell, shaking, as if with palsy. Kupu walks up to him with the mask, also with a coconut shell outstretched. The beggar stops shaking and quietly turns to go. But, as this creature still advances, the poor man reaches into his pocket and takes the coins he finds there, chucks it into the other’s shell and runs off.

There are road works going on at the bridge between Yap Kwan Seng Road and Circular Road. At night, there is a man on duty to see that the hurricane lamp, placed by the hole in the road, doesn’t go out. This man lies on the bridge singing Indian love songs when he suddenly feels something scratching his toe. He looks down, lets out a yell and somersaults over the masked Kupu, screaming to everyone within hearing distance that he has seen a “devil”.

In the 1920s, there are tiny little buses, a dull silvery colour, about the size of a van today, plying Circular Road. They are known as “mosquito buses” and can take up to 10 passengers at a time. Though small, they are seldom overcrowded, as there is one every 10 minutes and they stop anywhere along their route, to pick up passengers. One day, at around dusk, the bus stops for Kupu, who is waiting at the side of the road. When he ascends, the driver takes one look at him and hurtles out of the driver’s exit. The passengers, all eight of them, follow likewise.

The mask features in many satisfying pranks. One day, however, Kupu chooses the wrong person to tangle with. Leslie and one of his college friends are sitting on the veranda chatting when Kupu appears in the famous mask and moves menacingly towards the boy. The strapping 18-year old simply plucks a post used to hold up one of Mrs Van Tooren’s Joachim orchids, and chases him across the orchard. Kupu runs wildly towards the house of a Chinese caretaker, at the edge of the orchard, and that old man, spying this ghastly apparition running towards him, bandy legs splayed out like a monkey, sets his dogs on it. They attack Kupu viciously, and Mr Van Tooren has to take him to the hospital to be stitched up.

A year later, the two youngest missies – Marguerite and Audrey – are at school. Every lunchtime, Kupu appears, spruced up in socks and shoes, his hair slicked back, to present their lunches, freshly cooked from the kitchen. He stands at ease behind them, and when they have finished, gathers up the containers and flies back home. The family often comment on how speedily those thin legs can carry him. If Mrs Van Tooren sends him to the shop around the corner to buy something, he is back in no time at all. When little Audrey starts school, she decides that Kupu should be taught to read. Every evening, she brings her reader to him and stands by his side with her ruler as she has seen her teacher do, to take him through the reading exercises.

It is two years later. The family are on holiday at the beach in Port Dickson. The two youngest daughters are afraid to put their heads under water, so Kupu does handstands in the water for them, dangling his skinny legs in the air. Everyone laughs. He is no longer just the podian. He is now the family cook.

In 1942, Malaysia is under Japanese occupation and everyone is reduced to a diet of tapioca and sweet potato. Mrs Van Tooren’s brother, Dr Bertie Van Cuylenburg, tells the family that fresh toddy is very nutritious and they should try to get some if they can. The family send Kupu to a nearby plantation, which supplies toddy fresh, once a week. This proves to be his undoing. From fresh toddy, he graduates to the fermented variety and soon, to any liquor he can lay his hands on.

It is two years after the war. Kupu’s “home” breaks up as half the family move to Singapore. Both Marguerite and Audrey are now married and Mr and Mrs Van Tooren are dead. Kupu goes to live with Audrey but her husband Cecil turfs him out when he comes home drunk one night and nearly sets the house on fire. He then goes to Marguerite, and her husband Patrick, who put him in charge of their tennis courts. He is happy in his new role and does an excellent job, sweeping, rolling and re-marking the lines every day. In the evenings, he gives Patrick a massage and regales him with all the gossip of the neighbourhood.

It is 1953 and Patrick, a prominent lawyer in Singapore, is under doctor’s orders to take a break from work. With four small children, Marguerite is unable to accompany him so he takes Kupu instead. They set off for Penang on a P&O steam-liner and Kupu dons his first evening suit for dinner. An English steward comes up and asks: “Would you like to have a look at the menu, sir?” sending him into a fit of giggles. This is the first time a white man has ever addressed him as “sir”. When the steward comes back and asks, “What will you have, sir?”, Kupu, in another spasm of giggles, answers, “Yennything.” He has a fantastic time in Penang and they fly back to Singapore. Patrick overhears him telling his friends later: “From the herroplane, you look down on the herth, the people look like hants.”

Ten years later, Patrick dies of a heart attack. Marguerite packs up and moves to Australia. A heartbroken Kupu bids her a tearful goodbye. He will never see her again. He now works for Patrick’s cousin, maintaining tennis courts. But he lives mostly with the bottle. When he cannot afford liquor, he turns to methylated spirits. Sometimes he empties the kerosene lamp into his throat.

It is 1971 and Kupu lies dying. Years of alcohol abuse have destroyed his liver. His “family” have all migrated abroad and he is once again the little boy at the doorstep of a stranger, shuffling his feet. Now, however, there is no kind Mrs Van Tooren to take him in and give him a meal. No sweet Miss Marguerite to play with him. No nice Miss Audrey to take his part. His last wishes are for a cup of coffee and a cigarette. He dies without.

It was a life that never had a chance.


A thinker said...

Wow, what a sad story.

I sometimes wonder where you get the inspiration for your stories. Are they people you know, or just fiction based on real-life situations in Malaysia?

whatever, it's a well-written if sad story.

Jenn said...

A thinker: Thank you. This story was the result of research. In Australia, I did a project interviewing ex-Malaysians who are in their 70s and 80s, to try and get a picture of the country as it used to be then, or at least, their impressions of it.

Kupu is real. His story touched me because of that profound sense of displacement he must have felt. No matter how fond the family grew of him, he was the podian, the outsider.

How does it feel going through life as an outsider, always looking in but never able to be a part of what you see?

David Cho said...

I must echo what thinker is saying. It is very well written.

To think that Kupu's life is being repeated as we speak, and begs the question as to why life can be so unfair.

Just curious. I know English is not the main language of Malaysia. Did you live in Autralia for awhile? You should write a book. You will do better than that Dan Brown guy at the very least.

Jenn said...

David, thanks. You made me blush. English is not the main language here but it is my first language as I was brought up in an English-speaking household. So my Malay is in effect, atrocious, and as for my mother tongue, let's not even go there.

I never read Dan Brown but I'm awfully curious now...:)

Also, I felt a special affinity for Kupu's story, as he died the year I was born. I sometimes think I am him, that life is going on all around me, and I just observe but am not allowed to participate. It's ridiculous of course, but there you have it.

goldennib said...

I always wonder when I hear stories that seem so fatalistic, if there was a point where it could have been different, had a more "happy" ending. Did he ever have a chance to be a different person, have a different life? Did his mother think he had a chance at a better life or was she really just trying to get rid of him?

I think this would make an excellant book.

The story of The Da Vinci Code is fun. Dan Brown is a simplistic writer. He's not thought provoking and his puzzle was easily solved. It's the kind of book to read when you don't feel like working hard, like a lazy Sunday afternoon.

David Cho said...

(You realize you just gave away your age :-D).

I know the feelings of detachment from the surroundings, but then I wonder if nearly everyone feels that way.

Jenn said...

Nessa: I wondered that too as the old lady recounted the story to me. I got this sense of profound displacement while she was talking.

The very poor, especially at that time, when the caste system (not only among the Indians but among all races in Malaya) was so rigorously upheld and the children of servants were not allowed in school, would have regarded children as liabilities. You couldn't help having them, birth control being unknown, but you would get rid of them as quickly as you can. This mother displayed a lot of love by finding him a nice home.

I think maybe if he had started his own family and carved out a life for himself, things may have been different. But as it was, he began drinking during the second world war and never quite recovered.

I'm sorry if it was fatalistic...the last line was a direct quote from the woman I interviewed. She said: "Poor Kupu. It was a life that never had a chance."

Jenn said...

David: Haha, that's OK. I always insist on my age.