When The Heart Knows Reason - June 19 2007
Bapak looked at us, grinning, as he bent over the dining table, going through the pile of Sunday papers. He wore an impish look.
He seemed so oblivious to the emotion-charged discussion that was held in the living room, just moments before he appeared.
My heart wanted to scream, weep.
"Aah...apa cerita?", he asked.
Funny thing about being angry with your father, accompanied by the millions of questions that are going through your head and the wave of emotions unsettling you. The moment he looks at you, and you at him, your jaw suddenly feels heavy. You just cannot open your mouth to say anything.
A sudden overwhelming sense of realisation sweeps over you. Your mind -- your brain - starts ticking, telling you instantly that "no, no, you can't pounce on him, he's your Bapak."
Five seconds passed. We weren't counting but for those long moments, everyone froze, speechless.
"Hehe...haha. tak ada apa" we all seemed to be mumbling, muttering, all at the same time, The silence was broken. Like a comic sketch, we turned to each other, and pretended as though nothing had happened.
Bapak grinned, turned his attention to the pile of newspapers for a few more moments, and returned to his study.
I thought I heard him humming a tune.
Then, we looked at each other, wondering the same thing -- why didn't we just ask him?
The issue of Bapak's impending marriage loomed larger as the days went by.
I was very unhappy. I was 36 and due to deliver my second and youngest child, and I could not accept my father's decision to remarry.
"Betrayal. It is betrayal. He is supposed to love Mak," I said, in clandestine discussions with Kak Piah and Kak Ton.
I wanted to confront Bapak, but at the same time, I did not want to hurt him. I did not know how to go about asking him without hurting his feelings.
Nina and Lalin were our main concern. Lalin was still in London but was completing her final exams soon. She would be returning home at the end of the year.
How and when should she be told about it? She would be coming home to Bapak and his new wife.
Nina was the stronger of the two. Since Mak died, she was the one who had been keeping Bapak company at home in between attending her lectures and tutorials at the university (International Islamic University), as the rest of us were already married and had our own homes.
Thankfully, the university was located nearby, hardly a five-minute drive.
It was needling me but neither Bapak nor any of us broached the subject for discussion.
But Bapak seemed to be dropping hints. We ignored them, playing dumb, hoping that it would all go away, that he was only joking. Yet, we knew he was serious and we wanted to know. But we did not want to seem eager about wanting to know about his marriage to the woman, whoever she was. At the same time we we wanted to know details about this woman and why in heaven's name that he needed to get married again. And why she wanted to Bapak as a husband.
There were times I did not want to think about it because it made me so sad thinking about another person taking over Mak's place. It made me sad thinking about my two younger sisters.
One day Nina told us that she had already known about Bapak's decision to remarry even before Kak Piah dropped the bombshell.
No wonder she said nary a word all the while. No wonder she did not break into fits when Kak Piah said the "M" word. That made me wonder but I never thought much about it as I was too preoccupied with the whole issue.
My poor little sister. To be keeping such a burden from her older sisters and brothers.
Nina said that one afternoon, Bapak was waiting for her in the living room. This was not unusual because, after Mak died, he would always be waiting for her to come home from college to have lunch together. Lunch he had prepared. Sometimes, Nina would catch him deep in reflection, with tears in his eyes. But she never ventured to probe.
But that afternoon, she had an uneasy feeling that he was going to tell her something she had suspected for quite a bit. She knew that this was coming.
Nina had been feeling that Bapak had been "up to something" lately, disappearing for long lunches, taking with him "tiffin" of food he had cooked and, accompanied by a close family friend, they would go to our cousin's place in Gombak. Looking pleased and happy. Very Odd, Nina had thought. And very suspicious, her mind had wondered.
All this after June 2, 1992, two years after Mak died. Could Bapak be ready to remarry, Nina had flirted with this thought. But she never intimated this to any of us at that point.
That afternoon when Bapak was waiting for her return from lectures, he wanted to talk to her. He called her to his study and broke the news to her. As he spoke to her, his eyes glistened.
"Don't think I don't love your mother," he said, calmly, but his voice quivering a little.
Nina turned away. She could not say what she wanted to say, that yes, she knew that he was lonely. So was she. Yes, he had lost a wife. And she had lost a mother and was missing her terribly.
But she had expected it. Perhaps, even quite accepted it because she felt, yes... he had to get married because he could not go on like that without a companion.
There had been too many occasions that Nina had to take Mak's place -- a wife's place - to accompany Bapak to events and functions. She did not mind it at all but over time, felt that Bapak could not go on like that forever.
Besides, she became a little concerned when she knew that there were a couple of young women who had shown interest in Bapak.
One came to mind, Nina said. A university (Universiti Malaya) undergraduate who kept visiting Bapak even after Bapak had finished his tenure as lecturer at the university.
Manija, the maid and Ida, my maid and a couple of grandchildren (including Adel) would be at Bapak's house, when this female undergraduate came a visiting. On several occasions, Nina would come home, to find the young lady, talking to Bapak in the living room.
"Too many times for comfort", Nina had thought.
"Aku rasa budak tu suka aku," Bapak told Nina one day. She felt Bapak was uncomfortable with the young lady's frequent visits. One day, Bapak was pleased to see Nina returning home and asked Nina to send the girl back to the UM campus. He politely told her that he had plans to go out with "his daughter" (Nina) for the afternoon.
Nina never told us about this young lady, knowing well how we would all react. Quite hysterically, perhaps.
There was another young lady who would drop by Kak Ton's office. Kak Ton had set up her media consultancy, "Media Strategy", after leaving journalism. Bapak was (and still is) chairman of the company which was located in Damansara Heights.
According to Kak Ton, this person would "just drop by and have a chat with Bapak in his office".
Bapak told Kak Ton that the young lady wanted "tips on writing, on writing a novel".
Who was she, Kak Ton had asked. Bapak said he never knew her before and that she had dropped by the office one day and introduced herself as so-and-so who wanted to learn to write a novel. And she kept coming by.
I suppose without Mak or the presence of a wife, Bapak was considered available or "a catch" for some women - young or old. Never mind that he was 67, not a wealthy man (as wealthy goes), a father of 10 and already a grandfather to as many. Could it be that he was a Tan Sri and had a "big" house which, to some people, was something of an attraction. Or, could it be his alluring, appealing and stimulating personality and towering intellect? Er, perhaps.
So, when Bapak told his daughters that so-and-so had shown interest in him, it was a way of telling us to help him out, perhaps "rescue" him because he himself was not able to tell the person that he was not interested.
That afternoon, Bapak told Nina that there were a "few candidates" for him to choose.
"Oh no, I hope they don't include that university student or that novelist wannabe," Nina thought to herself, almost freaking out.
He said, among them was a Datin and a rich janda.
Nina very calmly told Bapak that there was nothing she could do about his decision to remarry, it was, after all his decision but she understood it.
However, she wanted to impose several conditions. Rather, cutting a deal, if you know what I mean.
Nina told Bapak that the candidate must not be a "janda" or one with children because she did not want Bapak's wife to have been somebody else's and she did not want step-siblings either.
She must not be young (read: university student), either and she must neither be prettier nor smarter than Mak.
Bapak kept quiet.
Bapak also had a deal but it was one-sided, heavily in Nina's favour. He said Nina could go visit Lalin in London and accompany her home.
(Later, Bapak bought them each a car and an apartment as well as topped up their Amanah Saham investment. )
Despite having accepted Bapak's decision, Nina still felt hurt. There were times she would purposely come home late, or she would come home only to collect her pillow and blanket.
When Bapak asked where she was going, she would give a one-line reply, and disappear out the door, into the night.
"I was so bengang", she told us. We never knew.
And now it was in the open. It was odd because Bapak did not sit down to tell us. It was just out in the open because it was going to happen whether we liked it or not.
Now that it was out in the open, I could show my displeasure openly. I disliked the idea of Bapak remarrying. I think I shut my mind to everything else except the fact that he betrayed Mak.
On reflection, it was totally unfair, and cruel too.
Several people, including the top guns at NSTP, had come to know about Bapak's intention to remarry. I was horrified to know that they knew.
Bapak was still close to some of the NSTP people and I suppose, it must be the male-bonding thing. They had readily embraced Bapak's decision as though it was a natural and most logical decision for a man to take.
Conspiracy, I hooted. Men, I retorted.
One or two NST bosses must have regretted advising me to not be too hard on Bapak for wanting to remarry. Easy for them to say. It was not their father who was taking a new wife. It was not their life that was going to change. And it was not their mother's room that was going to be taken over by a stranger.
Looking back, Bapak must have been very very patient with his very very angry daughters.
One day, he said he was going to arrange a meeting between his would-be bride who by this time we were duly informed that she was an "anak dara" in her 40s (three months older than Kak Ton and heck, 18 months younger than Kak Piah), fair, a former Kemas teacher, and from Gombak.
I decided I did not like her.
So, Bapak thought it would be nice that a dinner be organised so that she could meet her future step children plus their spouses, and her step grandchildren -- all 27 of us.
I decided that I was not going to be nice.