Throughout my life, I have declared I am my parents’ 7th child. Every legal document listing the names of my family members will reveal that; including the application forms to support my siblings’ applications to come over as Australian permanent residents, states that fact. But, the penny just dropped. I was Ma’s 11th pregnancy. In her mind, I would be her 11th child. It is not as if Ma never mentioned them. On the contrary. They are remembered by Ma on every anniversary of their demise. Some times, she would tell me he or she was born on a particular day. Ma reminisced about them recently. I paused ever so briefly, after she mentioned all of them to me. The weight of her emotions did not even cause a ripple on my conscience such was the impervious layer of my apathy. Maybe I did not detect her sadness. Maybe she said it matter-of-factly. Maybe I had heard it too often from her. Maybe, in my mind, they were not born and therefore were inconsequential to be mourned for and remembered. Life goes on? They did not even earn a little patch of ground to prove their existence in this world. No grave, no headstone, nameless forever. The truth is I would not exist, had they survived. There were four of them, in fact. Three were miscarriages, between 3 to 6 months old. Ma curled up her fingers and pointed to her palm. “He was just this big.” I think she was referring to the last one. Ma was only given a quick glimpse each time. The first was in June 1948, a 6-month-old foetus, a boy. The following year, there were three more casualties. Deaths, in fact. The second fatality was another 6-month-old, a girl, followed by the “beautiful boy who flashed Pa the sweetest smile”. He survived his slightly premature birth, but he did not hang around to enjoy a cuddle from Ma. He sneezed and died minutes later whilst Ma was being washed by the midwife. In December 1949, Ma lost another boy, a 3-month-old foetus. Ma does not know how they were disposed of. There is no record, no trace, no certification of their existence however temporary, no funeral, no evidence. They only exist in Ma’s memory. Even Big Sis cannot vouch for them. Big Sis was born in 1943. I arrived 15 years later. Penang was already a very different place. Big Sis was born during the Japanese occupation of Malaya. She experienced terror that I only read about or watch on the news with little emotion. Terror that does not haunt me despite the news anchor’s warning that they contain graphic scenes that viewers may find disturbing. Big Sis’ cries had to be stifled in the fields behind Anson Road on nights when the Japanese carried out joint operations from the air and on the ground. It did cross Ma’s mind that someone could have strangled her baby to death had she not stopped crying. They would not let one baby jeopardise the lives of many, right? Big Sis was a cry-baby, a noisy one, Ma’s neighbours often complained. It is easy to understand why. After all, we all know a hungry man is an angry man. A hungry baby is a cry-baby. During the war years, there was little time to rest or sleep and scarcely anything to eat. Not surprisingly, Ma produced insufficient breast milk to keep her baby contented. No one could afford powdered milk then, and even condensed milk diluted with water was beyond their budget. Condensed milk would become the cause of my elder siblings’ poor dental health later on in their lives. After the war, Ma fell pregnant almost every year for fifteen years except for 1949. That year, she was pregnant three times. Ma never suffered from tokophobia, despite the recurring pregnancies and multiple miscarriages. Prior to carrying me in her womb, she did not once try to abort a pregnancy. She did not try the pineapple solution either. Some of her peers suggested a heavy pineapple diet will minimise the chance of a pregnancy by increasing the acidity of her womb. But, today’s research suggests the enzyme in pineapple, bromelain, is conducive to help women with implantation issues. Maybe, Ma misunderstood her peers. Maybe they meant for her to rub pineapple on her private parts to kill off Pa’s sperm, but that is also another myth. Pa and Ma brought Big Sis to visit Ma’s mum, Ngabo, in Bagan Datoh for the first time in 1946. There, Ma’s youngest sister, Suleh Ahyi made a huge impression on Big Sis. She was so skilful in harvesting sugar cane and stripping the bark of the cane with a chopper. Suleh Ahyi was about 12 years-old then. What impressed Big Sis the most was the way the bare-footed Suleh Ahyi seemed to avoid stepping on any of the dung that littered her pet goats’ pen. That was the last interstate outing Big Sis enjoyed as the only child in the family. Big Sis was a good helper at home even though Ma had Ying Jie as a maid. Her job was to carry basins of warm water for Ying Jie to bathe Ko (my brother) and Neechee (my second sister). Ying Jie was tasked primarily to look after Ko. She resigned in 1951 after Pa showed his dissatisfaction with her sloppy effort in mopping the floor. 1951 was a good year, the start of a mini-boom in his laundry business. His shop underwent a refurbishment – new flooring and new fixtures and fittings. Pa voiced his annoyance at some wood chips and shavings on his new floor – Ying Jie obviously missed them during the first mop. Yung Jie joined our family in 1953. Before that, Neechee was looked after by Suleh Ahyi. Suleh Ahyi left her Bagan Datoh home when she was 16 to stay with Ma. So, in 1948, both Ma’s sisters, Balapai Ahyi and Suleh Ahyi, briefly lived with her. She was their eldest sister, their guardian. Suleh Ahyi was 19 when Neechee was born. That would have been a huge relief for the teenager after having witnessed her sister’s three miscarriages and one neonatal death. Suleh Ahyi and Neechee were inseparable. Suleh Ahyi looked after Neechee 24/7 as if she was her own, and even shared her bed with the baby. Big Sis, 7 at the time, looked up to Suleh Ahyi as her role model. Suleh Ahyi with her bright deep-set eyes and high cheekbones would surely have been a real stunner in her teens. Big Sis said the local boys would wolf-whistle Suleh Ahyi and call out “Champion! Champion!” as she walked past them on her way to the badminton court at the local church premises near the Cold Storage on Friday nights. Suleh Ahyi would glare and smirk at the boys with the haughtiness of a beauty queen. Big Sis’ love for music was sparked by her teenage aunty who sang her bedtime songs from her Zhou Xuan song book. Suleh Ahyi’s favourite evening pastime was sleeping on her back with legs crossed as she mimicked the Shanghainese songstress. Surrounded by music from the “Golden Voice”, Big Sis would grow up to be a classically-trained musician from Trinity College London and a hugely respected piano tutor of the highest calibre in Penang.
In 1953, Suleh Ahyi turned 21 and was married off to a tall, dark and handsome bloke. Her husband, a tough burly guy, reminded me of a young Jean-Claude Van Damme except my uncle was a lot smarter. He could speak Tamil fluently. Both Big Sis and Neechee felt a huge loss when Suleh Ahyi left, the house suddenly seemed quiet without her singing. The following year, my third sister Sehchee, was born. Sehchee suffered from bad bouts of diarrhoea for some four years. Yung Jie asked Ma to pray to the Monkey God as Ma grew desperate. A doctor blamed her for over-feeding Sehchee and another said the cause was irregular feeding. The Monkey God suggested Ma changed the baby girl’s diet from powdered milk to rice porridge and the problem miraculously disappeared. Two more daughters were born after Sehchee before I arrived in late 1958. But, my arrival was preceded by an attempt on my life by Ma. It felt like a mother’s smother.
A Mother’s Smother. Ma told me she tried to kill me. She should have asked me, I would have let her, willingly. Unconditional love, that. But, I didn’t know that was her wish, and so I fought and repulsed the smothers, not knowing they were by her hands. She relinquished, I won. I was not even three months old. I could feel her despair, her remorse. Ma was 35 years old. By then, the scars from ten childbirths, four of which resulted in deaths, would have jarred her. In her mind, they barred her from further unwanted pregnancies. She did not want anymore, the burden of the heavy responsibility was too much for one woman. Six rowdy children already occupied the home plus one horny man who kept wanting the love-making. “Tsk tsk tsk, your Pa. He wanted it even when I was five months pregnant! Do you think he may have caused those fatalities?” Ma asked me. I am no medical professional but I firmly assured her. No, Pa didn’t risk their well-being. As if that too absolved any guilt I may have harboured about my own predilection. I think the amniotic fluid in her uterus would have protected the four siblings who didn’t make it. RIP, my three brothers and my sister. One of the boys was very handsome, your father was very pleased with him, Ma said. Fair skinned, with a constant grin. He beamed a huge smile at Pa when their eyes first met. The midwife inexplicably left the baby near an open window. One ominous sneeze was all he hinted to Ma of his impending demise. She went berserk at the midwife but it was too late to save him. He passed away a brief moment later. Mornings in 1950 Penang were cool and fresh. The sea breeze could send shivers even to young adults. My brother didn’t stand a chance. Whereas I was lucky. By 1958, the devastating effects from WW2 were waning. Food was becoming plentiful, less exorbitant.
In my third month of enjoying a warm safe refuge in Ma’s womb, I came under attack. My world was being destroyed by a vile brown chemical. What the?! Who’s there?! What do you want from me? I’m just a baby. Don’t harm me, I’ll tell my mom. I have six older siblings, you will not dare! Ma took three dosages of that brown liquid, prescribed by her gynaecologist. It was the doctor who gave her the murder weapon. They want to kill me? Oh mother! The Plan: Madam, take a spoonful every four hours during the day. Do not stop until you have the result you seek. This bottle gives you ten dosages. Ample, for what you want. Ma almost died from it. I almost died from it. The pain was so severe she left her chundering all over the bathroom. When she doubled over from one chronic bout of seizure, she almost fainted. The next day, her Second Yiyi (maternal aunt) came to visit. She had heard about The Plan. Silly woman, what if? What if it’s a boy? Ma did not divulge whether that changed her mind or the chundering did.
Ma knew before I was born that I would be a really stubborn child. If that horrible liquid could not kill me, it could only mean I was destined to disobey her in everything else. My will to live was so strong my parents named me Forever Strong. To complete my family, Little Sis was born three years later.