No Bite and The Bark Was Better -- July 31 2007
When I was a little girl, I remember Bapak to be strict. A disciplinarian. Firm but fair.
You know the saying -- his bark was worse than his bite.
The fact is, though, I don't remember him barking much. And there was never any bite.
How was he strict and firm, then?
Frankly, I don't know. I find it hard to remember how. I suppose he was just the way all fathers are and should be.
That larger-than-life figure of authority.
All I remember is that there were little rules set, and we had to abide by them.
I suppose he was Bapak and we did not want to displease him.
But we did not fear him. We did not shiver and quiver at the mere sound of him coming our way.
For all his strictness and firmness, I can say now that Bapak was really a softie.
I have come to the conclusion that it was all a show.
Really, Bapak was the one who'd be comforting us after Mak had given us a good scolding. He was the one who'd pat our heads when we'd done something good.
He was the one who'd have chocolates and comics ready for us when he came home from work.
And once a month, he'd take us to the book store to buy us books.
And yes, when he could, he'd take us to the movies.
He was the one who got Abang Med a guitar and would have us gather around the humongous Akai tape recorder almost every weekend for our sing-along.
It was Bapak who encouraged Abang Med to do little tricks with his (then box) camera and got him a book to explore all those neat tricks.
And oh yes. Bapak was the one who enrolled us in art classes, got us a Mandarin teacher and agreed to let me take ballet lessons.
The art and Mandarin classes were his idea. Taking ballet lessons was mine.
I had come home from school one day and told him and Mak that I wanted to take ballet lessons with a teacher who had visited our school looking for ballet students.
I must have been eight or nine years old.
That young teacher who came to our school was Tan Lee Lan (now Lee Lee Lan of the Federal Academy of Ballet) who was then, I think, a fresh undergraduate who wanted to teach ballet for the love of the art as well as to help her through university.
Bapak, almost immediately, warmed up to the idea of my taking ballet lessons.
He was cool about it. So was Mak. Very encouraging.
I remember he said Azah should also take the lessons with me, remarking that it was a good way for us to occupy our Saturday afternoons, seeing that we would more often than not, end up quarrelling with each other over silly little things.
That was how Azah and I started our ballet.
Weekends were a lot of fun. They usually were. But there was one thing that would spoil our weekends.
It was when Bapak would find one of his books missing or misplaced.
That was a damper because he would make us stop whatever it was we were doing to look for whatever book that he found missing from its place on the shelf or on his desk.
We would be searching high and low for that missing or misplaced book.
Ah..now I remember. That would be the one occasion he would be barking.
Of course, we would always find the book and it would always be that he was the one who misplaced the book.
I think Bapak would always assume that Mak was the one who had misplaced it because he knew Mak was averse somewhat to untidiness and would always re-arrange things in the living room.
But Mak was very careful not to disturb Bapak's things, including his books.
She knew Bapak did not take too kindly to anyone messing his things. We all knew that from a very young age. And Bapak knew that we knew that.
Bapak was (and still is) in many ways, eccentric and had little idiosyncracies.
So, when one of his books went missing (always misplaced, actually), Bapak would assume Mak had put it somewhere she shouldn't have.
He could not tell Mak off. Gosh! He would not dare even to allude to what he perceived to be Mak's overzealous tendency for neatness. No way. That was really asking for trouble.
Mak could retaliate ever so silently but oh-so-potently. I never got to learn that from her.
So, the only other way to demonstrate his displeasure was by making his very irate children go look for that book.
This would happen now and again because Bapak was prone to misplacing his books.
He was always wrong. Mak never misplaced his books. Nobody did.
But, from the time he found his book missing and until he realised it was him who misplaced it, we would be searching for the book all over the house.
We were never amused but, well, how could we protest?
The good thing was that it usually would not take long for us to find that missing book .
I know Mak also resented this whole rigmarole but she never protested. Instead, she would join us in the search.
"Kesian anak-anak Mak," she'd say.
By the time the missing/misplaced book was found, you could see that hint of remorse mixed with regret on Bapak's face.
He would not say sorry for putting us through all that but he would always make up for all that ado.
He would do something nice later -- take us to Taman Selera or the Pines, perhaps -- and we would all so easily forget it ever happened.
There was one time when I was very young that Bapak was quite angry over, I think, some missing encyclopedia.
I remember he said he was going to cane us. In fact, there was a cane at home although I don't remember him ever putting it to good use except for that one occasion.
Well, threatening to use the cane seemed pretty much like putting it to good use.
I don't remember whether the books/encyclopedia were ever found. I think they were, eventually.
Bapak lined us all up, anyway, and waved the cane.
Like a firing squad.
I'm not sure if Kak Ton was with us. But I remember Abang Med, Kak Olin, Kak Eda and I were there. Perhaps, little Azah too. Not too sure about Kamal. I think he was just a baby.
I don't remember being scared because Bapak, despite looking angry and waving the cane, was not scary.
I remember Abang Med telling us that he had quickly put on another pair of shorts under the ones he was wearing, to cushion the blow of the rotan.
I thought he was so clever.
So, the time came for Bapak to cane us.
He started from the eldest and worked his way down to the youngest.
If Abang Med thought he was going to be whacked and had so prepared for it, then what came must have been a disapppointment, for it did not put the cushion to good use.
It was not a whack. Not a rap. It was a, ummm, a tap on the backside.
I could hardly feel it. So, Abang Med's anxious moments must have come to nought.
I think the girls giggled because it got to be quite funny.
I think Bapak tried to put on fierce facade. It didn't work because, we, the little ones, could spot the pretence.
Bapak then dismissed us, with a warning to not be irresponsible with books.
"Jangan campak-campak buku merata-rata," he warned.
That was the only time he ever held a cane to threaten us.
The fact is, he never laid a finger on any of us.
And he did not take too kindly to reports of Mak pinching or smacking us.
I think mothers get away with a bit of pinching and smacking because they are the ones who'd be cuddling us at night.
They pinch you but just as quickly hug you and soothe you.
I was the one to report to Bapak everytime Mak smacked or pinched me, or any of my siblings.
If you had kids like us, I think you would go crazy and be driven up the wall.
We drove Kak Ton up the wall.
The age gap between Kak Olin, Kak Eda, Azah and I was quite close.
So, Mak had these like-minded kids messing up the house, quarrelling and God-knows-what.
We were always up to mischief.
Kak Olin, being the eldest of the four of us, would get the brunt of it whenever we got out of control.
It was at our very first house in Petaling Jaya -- at Jalan Sentosa, in Kawasan Melayu (Old PJ).
We were all playing in the house and in the garden. Playing hide-and-seek and climbing trees.
Then, Kak Eda fell from a tree which was really a small tree, so she did not quite fall from a great height. She was fine, just a few scratches.
Kak Olin was only nine but she was the eldest of the four of us. So she had to take the rap. Poor Kak Olin.
Anyway, when Mak was told about the little mishap, she pinched Kak Olin's thighs.
Looking back, I could understand how panicked she must have been to be told that her child had fallen from a tree.
Kak Olin was fair-skinned so Mak's pinches resulted in blue-black marks on her thighs.
This momentary episode was quickly forgotten when, in no time, we were back to playing tag, running around, climbing trees. Laughing and squealing.
Everything was forgotten until later that evening when Bapak came home from work.
He called for us --"mana anak-anak Bapak ni?". On hearing his voice, we scrambled downstairs to greet him.
Then he noticed the blue black marks on Kak Olin's thighs.
He asked Kak Olin about it. Before anyone could say anything, I said "Mak cubit Kak Olin".
We could see Bapak's thick eyebrows raised. He turned to Mak.
Mak quickly explained what happened.
Bapak clearly did not think that her action was justified but he did not chide Mak.
He just looked down at the blue black marks, shook his head and muttered under his breath, but loud enough for us to hear -- " mak sendiri ni, bukan mak tiri..."
So, in all honesty. I remember Bapak to be strict, firm. And, well, a softie sometimes.