His hands, veined and coarse, began to pick tiny insects from pest-infested leaves with deft fingers.
From our favourite haunt, under the old colonial house which stood on concrete stilts, young curious eyes followed his every move. He flashed a broad smile, displaying a set of gleaming white teeth, when he caught us stealing glances at him.
We did not know his name. To us, he was just 'Ayya’. Ayya was a part-time gardener who worked for our next door neighbour, an Indian family. The family had converted the small plot of land beside their house into a vegetable garden and within the fenced area, Ayya had planted a variety of tropical trees and vegetables. Banana, coconut, papaya, and drum-stick trees vied for the small space. Under their green canopy, vegetables grew on well-tended plots while bean plants and other creepers coiled and intertwined the link fence, veiling the garden with their thick verdant foliage. A creeper with succulent stems and purple berries that grew along the fence became our favourite plant, as we used to pinch a few leaves for our masak-masak while the purple juice from their berries became our improvised ink. From a wooden pergola, gourds hung like long, lifeless snakes, their ‘tails’ tied with strings from which dangled tiny stones.
|Snake gourds weighted with small stones|
“Those are snake gourds, and they must be weighted with stones or they will coil like slumbering snakes," Ayya explained to us.
While our next door neighbour could boast of a small lush garden beside their house, all we had to show was a vacant lot with a hard-beaten dirt track. Father would not allow the area to be fenced, as he believed it should be left vacant to enable the residents to have easy access to the nearby Kuala Pilah town and for the schoolchildren to take short cut to their schools.
During his lunch break Ayya would sit patiently beside a drain at the side of our neighbour’s house with a small piece of banana leaf spread before him. Through the half-obscured mass of vegetation, we watched as an elderly lady began heaping rice onto the leaf and topping it with daal curry. Seeing him eat the simple fare with relish, our stomachs began to growl and we hurried into the kitchen.
Ayya would come to our house when mother needed him to clean the drain, split firewood or mow the grass.
Whenever Ayya appeared at our house bearing a scythe with a long curved blade attached to a wooden handle, we knew it was time to mow the grass.
From the front steps, we watched as he mowed the grass with a wide sweep of the scythe. Except for the sound of the razor- sharp blade cutting through the grass and the faint whiff of freshly-cut grass, the morning was still and quiet.
|Mowing grass with a scythe|
At regular intervals, the tranquillity of the morning would be broken by the cadence of grating metal as Ayya paused from his work to sharpen the blade with a whetstone and to wipe the beads of perspiration from his face.
At lunch time mother would serve him rice on a plate piled high with rice and generous amount of food. Mother would often ask him to have his meal indoor, but each time he would politely decline her invitation. She remembered the first time she had asked him to have his meal in the kitchen.
“Amah, this place is good enough for me, I am used to …," he replied, voice trailing off. Touched by her kind gesture, he had accepted the food with watery eyes and sat at his customary place beside the drain, next to a standpipe.
Often, we would wait for him to take his drink, just a glass of plain water. The way he drank his water always fascinated us. He would raise the glass above his head and let the water cascade into his mouth, glass and human lips hardly touching each other. He would then reach for his shirt’s pocket and fish out some kacang putih. Tossing one nut at a time high into the air, he would catch it in his wide-opened mouth.
We waited eagerly for the kacang putih seller to make his round and purchase the kacang putih which were neatly wrapped in paper cones fashioned from used newspaper. We were soon putting Ayah‘s 'juggling act' into practice, but to our dismay we discovered most of the nuts landed on the floor instead of in our mouth.
|A 'kacang putih' seller|
“Do you want to get choke on the kacang?” a voice came from a room at the top of the stairs.
We looked up to see mother gazing sternly down at us and our performance came to an abrupt end.
Early one morning we woke up to the rhythmic tinkles of cow bells and the crunching of wheels, followed by a rumble like the sound of rolling thunder. Out on the front lawn, sawn logs from old rubber trees came tumbling down like ten pins from the rear end of a tilted ox-cart.
Later, in the evening, the silence of the neighbourhood echoed to the sound of loud, regular thuds and intermittent creaks, as Ayya began splitting the logs. We watched, enthralled, as Ayya raised the axe above his head and brought it down on the log, striking the upright log with measured precision that it split neatly into two like a knife slicing through a cucumber.
|Splitting log with an axe|
Later cradling the firewood in his sinewy arms, he carried them to the detached kitchen where they were stacked under a concrete platform on which rested the wood burning cook stoves. While Ayya slowly removed the previous month’s firewood, we waited with a twinge of excitement and anticipation.Were the creatures there? Then as Ayya lifted the last few pieces of firewood we saw them. Scorpions!
There was a solitary, big, black scorpion with menacing claws and venomous stinger at the tip of its tail and next to it, under another piece of firewood, was a colony of much smaller brownish scorpions. Startled and dazzled by the sudden brightness, they moved around in circles, disoriented. We cringed in fear at the sight.
|Black and brownish scorpions|
Ayya told us the black one was not that dangerous.
"It is the small ones that are poisonous," he said.
We were not sure, but we believed him.
One morning, as my eyes fell on the few remaining logs on the front lawn and recalling the ease with which Ayya had split them, I was tempted to follow his act. Remembering, the small axe behind the store-room’s door I crept surreptitiously to retrieve it from its secret place. I had just taken a few steps when I felt the axe slip from my grip and land on my right foot. I looked down. The fourth toe, its white tubular tendon clearly discernable, was hanging by its skin. In a state of shock not a shout or a whimper came out of my mouth, but mother had heard the loud clang of the falling axe and rushed out of the kitchen. Mother re-attached the toe, applied some flavine and had it bandaged. Gradually, the wound healed, but the scar remained until today, perhaps a reminder about the folly of my youth.
|With my brother, Chwee Guan in front of our childhood home,|
Note the bandaged toe.
There were evenings when Ayya would appear at our house attired in clean, white dhoti and we knew he was going to the Hindu temple. Mother would hand him some money to donate to the temple and occasionally we would follow him to the temple which was located just across the field in front of our house.
One day, just before the beginning of the school’s term, my sister, Janet and I had to leave suddenly for Melaka, as we had been enrolled in our new schools, prior to father’s retirement.
We had no opportunity to bid farewell to our classmates or to Ayya.
Through the years, I sometimes wonder what became of Ayya and his well-tended garden.
Then one morning in December of 2008, after more than fifty years, a few of us managed to make the much awaited trip to our childhood home in Kuala Pilah.
We were happy to discover that out of the three houses that were still occupied, one was our childhood home. We waited on the front lawn for the house's occupant to come back from a temple across the field and when she offered us the sweetmeat from the temple, my nostrils tingled with the remembered scent of vibuthi and the fragrance of jasmine, as I recalled the trip to the temple with Ayya.
|The untended side lane|
Later as we walked down the lane beside the house, I noticed with a tinge of sadness, that weeds, creepers and shrubs were slowly, but relentlessly encroaching onto the lane.
|All that is left of the lush garden|
Our neighbour’s garden was no longer in sight. Where a garden once displayed its luxuriant vegetation only a pathetic-looking drum-stick tree and a few neglected coconut trees with dried fronds stubbornly clinging to their trunks, stood in its place. The front lawn where Ayya used to mow the grass with his scythe and kept it well-manicured was now covered with ankle-high grass.
It was a dismal sight. Only three houses were still occupied, while others had already been demolished or were just empty shells. Deep inside our hearts we knew it would not be long before the remaining three occupied houses too would be reduced to a memory.
|My sisters on the front steps|
In 2010, three of my sisters took a trip to see their childhood home. They came back sad and disappointed for all that was left of our childhood home was the front steps _ the steps where we used to sit and watch Ayya mow the grass.