When I was seven I started a new school. My fourth in three years. My third in Australia. I’d learned from the mistakes of the first two schools and was well on the way to camouflage. I had set down the heavy Malayalee-Malay accent I’d arrived with a little over a year previously. I’d flattened and nasalised my vowels, and let my final consonants fall surreptitiously by the wayside.
My parents and I moved to Australia and were joined a few months later by my siblings. My position in the family as the only child, the sole focus of my parents’ attention, came to an abrupt end. I discovered the pitfalls of the permanent presence of siblings, but also the intense joys. There were fairy rings with my sister, and cricket with my brothers, and there was noise and laughter, Helen Reddy and Jim Croce.
I learned my first Christian prayer and my first Mondegreen too. In my five year-old mind, God was my father, jovial and gregarious, not the more sedate loving one the nuns declared. I wasn’t wrong.
“God is my laughing Father; He cares and provides for me. He calls me to walk close beside Him;” I intoned proudly in the school’s small chapel.
Already fluent in two languages and with a soupçon of another, Admissions class at St. James school introduced me to the sharp edges and slippery semivowels of English, to rigid rules and requirements to conform.
The year my mother and I returned to Brunei, her need to be with her boarding-schooled children having been satisfied, and my father’s 30 page letters tugging at her emotions. Three was the age of riding my bike around inside the house, using the nub that remained when one of the training wheels fell off as a brake. It was the year of sitting on the kitchen table between adoring parents and drinking milk.
The big move to India with my mother, away from my father and towards my siblings. She rented apartment and broke my siblings out of boarding school for a year. Though we could muster five or six languages between us, none of us spoke the local language, and our neighbours spoke none of the languages we did. Young enough to swallow languages, to inhale and inhabit them, I became the go-between ferrying ingredients and felicitations.
I lost my siblings to boarding school. The house fell into a reticent hush and I became the sole focus of my parents. My mother was riven in two as her three eldest, the youngest of them aged just 10, evaporated from our daily existence. There were no phone calls except for emergencies, there was no Skype or FaceTime or email. There were just words scribbled on the back of photos, and letters that tiptoed the tightrope between deep heartrending despair and forced cheeriness. I have no memories of this hole in my family, this aching. There are only the stories that I’ve harvested from my mother and siblings, careful not to squash them with my own imagination, trying not to impose my own emotions. These gathered stories fill the gap.
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