Commemorating the centenary celebrations of the Church of St. Michael in Alor Setar, Aneeta Sundararaj remembers the Catholics who played an important role in the community.
‘kɒnvənt ɡɜːl’. If you’re a former student of St. Nicholas Convent, Alor Setar, you must recognise these words, know what they mean and how they’re pronounced. If you do, you’re a credit to the Sisters who once taught us. If you don’t, shame on you! Remember those lessons in Phonetics? In case you’re still confused, ‘kɒnvənt ɡɜːl’ means ‘Convent Girl’.
The memory of my lessons in Phonetics taught by Sister Alphonse Coombs pales in comparison with what happened one sunny day in 1980. It was just us in the airy classroom next to the vast playing field.
Stop it, Sister. I can’t even look at you right now.
I wanted to scream, but no sound came out. Mercifully, the bell rang. I gathered my books and escaped from this torture chamber.
“What did you learn today?” Mummy asked during our drive back home.
Wanting only to wipe out the memory of what was said, I ignored her. It was some years later before I shamefacedly admitted the real reason I refused to return to those one-to-one lessons with Sister Alphonse. In 1980, I was all of seven years old and didn’t know how to tell Mummy that Sister Alphonse had explained that to know if something was male or female, I needed to know its gender or sex. My dilemma was how could she, a nun, who was the best and most wonderful of all the Sisters, say this bad, awful word? Sex. How could Sister Alphonse do this to me?
After this, the time lapse between my sins and the act of confession increased. In one particular case, it was twenty-five years.
Imagine. It was a dreary day in September 1981. At about 10.25 am, an announcement was made over the PA system. The unfriendly voice said, “Aneeta Sundararaj in 3 Green, go to Miss Sibert’s office now.” Classmates who dared to, looked at me as though they were commiserating with a death row inmate about to make her final journey to the gallows.
Five minutes later, I stood before our headmistress. On Miss Sibert’s table, that horrible thing called the Report Card was open as she scanned my marks for the month. I swallowed the lump in my throat, aware that I couldn’t plead for mercy on account of the fact that Mummy and Miss Sibert were previously classmates in Light Street Convent, Penang. Was it true that Miss Sibert ate naughty girls? Maybe, she’d cane me instead. But there was no rotan in sight.
She looked up, pushed her straight hair behind her ears and said, “Aneeta, are you interested in learning Mandarin?”
Huh? Interested in Mandarin? A question? No scolding? I stared at her and cocked my head to one side, puzzled.
She turned the Report Card so it was the right way round for me, pushed it closer and pointed to the column marked ‘Mandarin’. That month, I’d achieved a grand total of 10 marks out of 50. Previously, my average was 45 marks.
I can’t remember how I answered Miss Sibert. In fact, I wonder if I said anything at all. Decades later, though, it was time to confess my sins and seek absolution.
“Miss Sibert,” I said during a visit to her home in Penang, “I didn’t dare tell you that the girl who used to sit next to me wasn’t there. She was sick and didn’t come to school that day. So, I had no one to copy from.”
She looked at me with a benign smile and said, “Yes. I knew. I just wanted to see what you would say.”
Oh, dear God. I was mortified.
Reflecting on all these stories reinforced my long-held belief that these women, though cloistered and unmarried, were not dumb, stupid or out of touch with reality. Street-wise, knowledgeable and quite business savvy, they were strict with us, but incredibly kind.
In fact, Sister Alphonse comforted me whenever I was lonely because Mummy travelled outstation for work. Almost every day, my classmates and I, a group of precocious girls, each born into religions that were so far removed from Catholicism, visited her at her home, Sisters’ House. She guided us to the Chapel where we dipped tiny fingers into a bowl of holy water, bent the knee at the altar and made the sign of the Cross. She listened intently as we shared our grievance of the day which was invariably something monumental to us like who used whose eraser without permission.
The highlight of my school years was the celebrations for the Golden Jubilee in 1984. One of them included a production of The Sound of Music at Stadium Dato’ Syed Omar in town. Although the entire school was involved in this, I recall that members of the larger Catholic community in Alor Setar, such as the Rao family, also gave of themselves to help make this a joyous occasion. For a few days in August 1984, Kedah Royalty and the public watched as we morphed into Maria von Trapp and serenaded everyone about the hills being alive, momentarily forgetting that Alor Setar was completely surrounded by flat paddy land.
In spite of these happy memories, many at St. Nicholas Convent, Alor Setar during the 1980s bore witness to a brutal reality. For one, the large Cross above the office building was pulled down because the very sight of it might influence students to embrace Catholicism. New school badges were engraved with a forgettable motto to replace the one that Convent Girls the world over knew – Simple in Virtue. Steadfast in Duty. The spirit of the Sisters of the Infant Jesus who served at our school was whittled away until one day, fighting back tears, one of the Sisters said, “We have to go. Our mission is over.”
By the mid-1990s, the nuns left the home they’d known for more than 50 years and Sisters’ House was razed to the ground. Gradually, all the buildings in the school were also destroyed. Today, the site of what was once the premier school for girls in Alor Setar is a non-descript supermarket.
The legacy these women left lasted long after the dust settled. For example, family friendships such as mine and Shanta Rao’s, which were forged while we were still at school, continue to this day. I often tease her father, Uncle Rao who is a stalwart of the Catholic community and tell him that most of us refer to him as the Bishop of Alor Setar. And his wife’s hospitality is legendary. I mean, Aunty Leela’s delicious cakes…sigh. Do I need to say more?
There is residual sadness at what happened to our school. That said, no truer is a statement than the verse from the Holy Bible: And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:13). I speak for the majority of former kɒnvənt ɡɜːls of St. Nicholas Convent, Alor Setar when I say that we carry in our hearts an immense gratitude and love for these Catholic women who made it their mission unto God to shape the women we have become. I pray that the intangible values they inculcated in us will live on in future generations.
(30 September 2018)
Aneeta Sundararaj grew up in Alor Setar and was a student at St. Nicholas Convent in the 1980s. Decidedly a Hindu, she chose to read law and practised for five years before pursuing her dream of writing and created a website for storytellers called ‘How to Tell a Great Story’. Aneeta shares more stories about Sister Alphonse, St. Nicholas Convent and life in Alor Setar in her latest collection of stories, Two Snakes Whistling at the Same Time (MPH Publishing).