“Hey! Are you the boy from Scotland Road?” There was no hello, no g’day from the caller. The phone number did not reveal his identity. But his voice did. “Dennis the menace?!” I asked excitedly, not requiring an answer. Apart from Dennis Lee the pianist, Dan was the only other Dennis I knew during my school life in Penang.
“Close, it was Scotland Close.” I replied. In all my years since leaving Penang, I have never come across a more beautiful road than my childhood Scotland Road, the main road that was parallel to Scotland Close. Not even the Jacaranda trees that line the blue-ribbon streets here can outdo the magnificent Angsana trees that flanked the road outside the house I grew up in. The Angsanas were majestic trees, easily over one hundred feet tall, that turn golden during the flowering season of February to April. In the early 70s, Penang was quaint and exotic with more bikes than cars. Gridlock was not in my vocabulary. When the Angsanas dropped their flowers, the road would become carpeted with a thick layer of golden petals. It was pure joy to walk on the golden trail, and if the occasional car was to leave its tracks on the carpet, it wouldn’t take the trees long to cover them up. If only I had a camera then to capture what was my heaven. When I finally saw the yellow brick road in that famous Hollywood movie, The Wizard of Oz, my mind turned back to Scotland Road’s Angsana trees. The film’s director, Victor Fleming, would have created a more beautiful yellow brick road had he been acquainted with my real golden road. I wanted to brag about the aphrodisiac fragrance of my youth that the Angsanas brought but I honestly cannot recall they produced any noticeable scent. Well, better that than being woken up by a strong belch of sinister bushfire smoke in the wee hours of the morning. I live in the foothills and that means I can wake up in a panic thinking the bushfires in the hills I read about daily and watch on telly have reached my personal frontier. In my household, we now sleep with closed windows to shutter out the filthy brown air from Kangaroo Island and nearby peaks. My bedroom smelt of barbecue the one night that I forgot to close the windows. Apocalyptic is a word frequently used to describe the carnage and destruction of Australia’s wildlife this summer. Apparently, over 500 million animals have perished in the bushfires.
We spoke for 27 minutes. All the while, the Dan I saw in my mind was the same 18-year-old dark-skinned boy with a thick curly tousled tuft, bright wide eyes and a prominent nose reminiscent of Gérard Depardieu’s. Tall, dark and handsome, I was convinced those three words were strung together to first describe him. “Send us a photo! Show us how our Dan the cool man looks like today!”, I implored him to share his latest pic. He said he was balding, and confessed he envied the long-hair genes I have been blessed with. I suspect the tuft he has now, is on his chin. He proudly announced his status as a “Datuk”, not the title conferred on the wealthy or super successful, not the one you can buy for RM500,000 (a rough guess, based on the going rate of RM300,000 ten years ago) plus ongoing annual contributions, but the one that’s got the “kong” after it. My Indian friend still knows his hokkien. Kong means grandpa in the hokkien dialect. I could sense his happiness when he talked about his two grandsons, 4 and 6. “It’s hard to keep up with them but they keep me fit.” I imagine when he tries to put them to sleep, they put him to sleep first. Sixty-year-olds lack the energy to stay awake, I have come to learn. But, don’t ask me how I keep awake in my office please. The 27 minutes went by in a flash. I was sorry he had to go. As if he couldn’t talk in the toilet. He forgets we even shared a bed together when we were in our teens. That was how close we were as buddies. Back then, sharing a bed had no sexual connotations and was without any reviled intent. Yeah, I believe Michael Jackson was as innocent and pure with his young fans in his NeverLand.
Dan, my old buddy. As I listened intently and grabbed every single word of nostalgia from his amazing memory bank, the recollection of happy childhood memories was slowly tinged with a growing heaviness within. The realisation that all the carefree joviality and frolic he shared with me was long gone, shredded by the unrelenting twin demands of parenthood and filial piety. I always suspected Dan could have been a budding movie star. Opportunities were lacking, I suppose, during the 70’s in Penang. The only avenue to experience the joy and fun of acting was during our Boy Scout comedy sketches. It was serious business to be funny. There were prizes to win for our patrols. Together, we wrote our play scripts, plotted the storylines, picked the casts, devised the musical instruments (pots and pans and empty glass bottles) and directed the sketches. The most memorable one for me was the play that had me as a nosy parker, middle-aged housewife. Hilarious. I secretly discovered my penchant for acting. Once we even performed as a musical duet – he on guitar and I, the lead violin. He was self taught but his natural talent put me to shame.
With Dan, it is still hunky-dory to call him Indian. I never asked him what race he belongs to even though it is clear to me now that his surname does not sound Indian. When we were growing up, it never mattered what our race, creed or religion was. Not even rich or poor. Defenders of slavery were quick to promote the 19th century scientist Samuel Morgan who professed that white Caucasians were the smartest followed by East Asians (Mongolians), and black Africans importantly for them, were bottom of the food chain. But, no. Not us. We knew humans are all equal, decades before geneticists applied DNA sequencing to complete the human genome project. Race is just an invention to set us apart, a made-up label. In June 2000, Craig Venter, a pioneer of DNA sequencing, observed, “The concept of race has no genetic or scientific basis.” We may all be out of Africa, but it is the Africans who are the most diverse. Having existed the longest, they have the most genetic diversity and mutations. Along the way, the early migrants met another homo genus, the Neanderthals – that branch went to what is now Eurasia – and further east, they interbred with yet another, the Denisovans. Both Neanderthals and Denisovans became extinct after having co-existed and copulated with homo sapiens. There are many theories why this occurred – human violence and diseases, competitive advantages such as domestication of dogs helped humans with hunting and human adaptability to climate change. I suspect, without evidence, that it was the destructive nature of urghhlings that decimated their rivals.