In the Name of the Father? Maybe Not.

In July 2018, soon after the manuscript for my novel, The Age of Smiling Secrets, went to print, I wrote a story about the prevailing position of the law in Malaysia where both parents must consent to the conversion of a child to Islam. It stemmed from newspaper articles about a high-profile case involving the unilateral conversion of a child to Islam and the jurisdiction of the courts in Malaysia. It is now commonly called the ‘Indira Gandhi decision’.

Why was this case such a big deal in the first place? Quite simply, under Malaysian law, once you embrace Islam, your identity changes forever. You retain the right to seek redress in the Civil Courts, but you’re subject to the laws and jurisdiction of the Syariah Courts. This was confusing for the simplest of minds. To understand how it all worked, I set about studying this real-life case from the Indira Gandhi decision. The following is some of what I wrote.

***
Real Life
The story began in 2009 when a Hindu man, K. Pathmana­than, embraced Islam and took the name Muhammad Riduan Abdullah. Without the knowledge or consent of his now ex-wife, M. Indira Gandhi, he converted their three children under the age of twelve as well. A legal tussle ensued and culminated in the Indira Gandhi decision which was delivered by the apex court, the Federal Court of Malaya, on 29 January 2018.

The Federal Court’s decision questioned the method of conversion and said that, ‘the issue before the court wasn’t the conversion itself, but the process and legality thereof.’1 The Registrar of Muallafs, who issued the conversion certificates, hadn’t complied with the mandatory requirements for conversion of the child.

What generated sensational headlines like Unilateral Conversion ‘Null and Void’2 was that henceforth, in a civil marriage, the consent of both parents must be obtained before a Certificate of Conversion to Islam can be issued for a child. This wasn’t always the case

Parent or Parents?
In 2007, there was a similar case involving R Subashini, her ex-husband, T Saravanan, and their children. The apex court there stated that a unilateral conversion of a child to Islam did not violate the Federal Constitution because the word ‘parent’ in Article 12(4) of the said Constitution was meant to be read in its singular form. Effectively, this meant that the consent of both parents was not required. Invariably, the non-Muslim parent had no redress.  An attempt was made to address the issue when the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) (Amendment) Act 2017 (LRA) was first drafted. The idea was to include a clause called ‘Clause 88A’ which stated that the religion of a child ‘shall remain as the religion of the parties to the marriage prior to the conversion’. After the child turns 18, he or she can, with the consent of both parents, convert to Islam. Clause 88A was subsequently withdrawn for contravening the Federal Constitution since, once again, the word ‘parent’ must be read in its singular form.

With the Indira Gandhi decision, there was a clear statement by the Federal Court that Article 12(4) requires the consent of both parents for the conversion of a child. Indeed, the Federal Court endorsed an extra-judicial comment by a former Lord President of the Federal Court made in 1982 who said: ‘In a multiracial and multi-religious society … we strive not to be too identified with any particular race or religion … so that the various communities especially minority communities are assured that we will not allow their rights to be trampled underfoot.’

There is now talk to reintroduce Clause 88A. Should this happen, the effect may be to ban unilateral conversion of a child altogether. Not everyone is happy. Some argue that even though the apex court is not bound by its previous decision, with the Indira Gandhi decision comes inconsistency. What shape or form such inconsistency takes remains unexplained.

Perhaps, a hypothetical situation will give some perspective. In the future, if my ex-husband converts my child to Islam in Malaysia without my consent or knowledge, the first question I should ask is, “Where should I go for help?”

“Where Should I Go for Help?”
For a start, as a non-Muslim, I cannot seek redress from the Syariah Court since ‘[i]t was trite that the Sya­riah courts did not have jurisdiction over non-Muslims and non-Muslim parties have no right to appear in the Syariah Courts.’4 However, as a Muslim, my ex-husband is subject to the rules and regulations under Syariah Law. Furthermore, Article 121 of the Federal Constitution stipulates the jurisdiction of the Syariah Court should not be disputed even though they are not constituted as superior courts. This means that I go to the Civil Courts and he goes to the Syariah Courts.

To solve such issues of jurisdiction, there is movement afoot to urge state governments to amend their state’s constitutional laws so that the Syariah Courts are on par with the Civil Courts. This is already the case in the eastern state of Terengganu, but only Muslims are allowed to seek redress there.

The problem is that even if we make both the courts equal and allow non-Muslims to seek redress in the Syariah Courts, what happens to the Civil Courts? Do they become superfluous? If both courts are equal, it is possible that I can seek redress in both courts and so can my ex-husband. We may have four different decisions. Which one prevails? And how on earth will we reconcile all this with our Federal Constitution?

Perhaps, it isn’t wise to be so pessimistic. Instead, let’s forget what may happen in the future and enjoy the present. Today, no longer will a child in Malaysia have something as monumental as his religion changed without the consent of both his parents. The Indira Gandhi decision has ended the unnecessary suffering of families torn apart prior to this. It is a triumph. For now.

***
An Added ‘Ingredient’
Fast-forward two years and, in February 2020, we have a new ‘ingredient’ to add to this mix. So far, all the children in question were born when the marriages were still registered under the Civil Law. What happens if the child is deemed illegitimate?

On Valentine’s Day in 2020, it was reported that the highest court in the land had ruled that a Muslim child conceived out of wedlock cannot bear his father’s name. Legalities, legalese, dissenting judgements and lawyers aside, I found the entire story interesting and alarming in equal measure. This was especially so when I read this sentence: The child was born less than six months after the parents’ marriage, which is seen as being illegitimate under Syariah Law.5

Once again, my imagination raced ahead to think of another area of confusion that could arise because of our concurrent legal jurisdictions. Take the following rather melodramatic scenario. Say a child is conceived out of wedlock to a non-Muslim couple. During the sixth month of pregnancy, they enter into a civil marriage. When the wife is seven months pregnant, the man leaves her and converts to Islam. When the child is born, what is his status?

Even if the wife converted together with her husband, under Syariah, the child will be illegitimate because it was conceived less than six months after the marriage. It is possible that this same child, under the Civil Law, will also be deemed illegitimate. This is because the parents’ marriage can be declared null and void upon the man’s conversion to Islam. It’s as though the civil marriage never existed. If the marriage didn’t exist in the first place and the child is born two months later, isn’t the child born out of wedlock and, therefore, illegitimate?

What are the problems with illegitimacy in Malaysia? Knee jerk reactions usually focus on the property the child may or may not inherit. There are more pressing problems, though. An illegitimate child may not have access to education, healthcare and, sometimes, child protection services. Circumventing these is easy in cities where there are private institutions and one doesn’t have to be born to parents who are legally married to gain admission. What of those in rural Malaysia, where private schools and hospitals are few and far between?

In light of this, the sense of triumph is waning from the Indira Gandhi decision. Is it time to become pessimistic?

References

  1. Maizatul Nazlina. The grounds of judgment in the Indira Gandhi ruling. The Star Online. [https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2018/02/09/the-grounds-of-judgment-in-the-indira-gandhi-ruling/]
  2. Khairah N. Karim. Federal Court rules unilateral conversion of M. Indira Ghandi’s children to Islam null and void. NST Online. [https://www1.nst.com.my/news/crime-courts/2018/01/329867/federal-court-rules-unilateral-conversion-m-indira-ghandis-children]
  3. Gurdial Singh Nijar. Review of the Indira Gandhi decision.my. [http://www.thesundaily.my/news/2018/02/12/review-indira-gandhi-decision]
  4. Maizatul Nazlina. The grounds of judgment in the Indira Gandhi ruling. The Star Online.[https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2018/02/09/the-grounds-of-judgment-in-the-indira-gandhi-ruling/]
  5. Federal Court also orders NRD to remove ‘bin Abdullah’ from birth certificate. [https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2020/02/14/federal-court-also-orders-nrd-to-remove-bin-abdullah-from-birth-certificate]

The Age of Smiling Secrets is the latest novel by Aneeta Sundararaj. Set in contemporary Malaysia, it is about a family torn apart when a man converts to Islam and, without the consent or knowledge of his wife, converts their child as well. One of the chapters from this novel, The Legend of Nagakanna, was accepted in an anthology called, We Mark Your Memory published by the School of Advanced Studies, University of London in 2018. Aneeta trained and practised as a lawyer before she decided to pursue her dream of writing. Read more stories like this on her website, ‘How to Tell a Great Story’. (http://www.howtotellagreatstory.com).


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The Wedding Estate

Flame

One of the things that caught my attention early last month was a story about the wedding photos of the Hollywood couple Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds being removed from websites. Why had those photos caused such offence? The answer was because the wedding had taken place at a US plantation which was ‘a site that holds deep traumatic historical meaning for the African American community’. (1)

I set about investigating this story a little more and found an online article about it in The Guardian where it was stated as follows: ‘In a letter, Color of Change wrote that “plantations are physical reminders of one of the most horrific human rights abuses the world has ever seen. The wedding industry routinely denies the violent conditions Black people faced under chattel slavery by promoting plantations as romantic places to marry…’ (2)

How fascinating!

Why? Because my immediate thought was that this can’t happen here in Malaysia. Off the top of my head, there are times we’ve gone on trips to an eco-resort built on an estate. Two years ago, I attended a traditional Indian dance recital in a state-of-the-art multi-purpose hall located on a hill in another estate. My cousin’s wedding was inside an estate temple because the bride used to worship there. If we cannot have our celebrations and holidays in places that were formerly estates, then where would we go?

Hmmm…

Today, oil palm is cultivated in many of the estates in Malaysia. At one time, the main product exported from these estates was rubber. I allude to this ‘conversion’ from a full rubber estate to sectioning it into different parts to create an oil palm plantation and establish a resort in my novel, The Age of Smiling Secrets.

LIFE IN THE ESTATES
What fascinated me about how offensive it was to have a wedding at a former plantation was that, as a descendant of someone born and brought up in the estates, I don’t recall suffering from any sort of trauma when recounting the history of Foothills Estate. In fact, I was deeply amused by observing my often-subdued elderly uncle become excited after reading my novel because he recalled playing near the stream I wrote about.

Although I grew up in the sleepy town (now city) of Alor Setar, I know many people who knew well what life was like in the estates. My father was one such person. He told me fascinating stories of his life in Foothills Estates, Kulim. When it came time to craft my story, I chose to set it in the Foothills Estate that he spoke of. Of all the characters in the novel, the one that is closest to the kind of people my father described was Nagakanna. Made a ghost in the novel, Nagakanna features heavily in the edited version of Chapter 9 of the novel which was submitted for an anthology about indenture that was published in 2018 (please see below).

Still, I am aware that historical accounts state that life in the estates wasn’t rosy. In a story that was published in the papers in Singapore, which one of my cousins very kindly saved for me, there is an edited excerpt from the book called ‘Journeys: Tamils in Singapore, 1800 – Present’ by Nirmala Murugaian. (3) She wrote:

The system of indentured labour in Malaya was different from that in the other British colonies… [I]n Malaya, the employers carried out direct recruitment through private agencies in India. The Malayan government’s role was to ensure that the employers adhered to the terms of the contracts. But even this was not always done.

The method of recruitment and arrival for Tamils was also different from that of the workers from China….

…According to documents in the Government of Madras Proceedings in the Public Department 1870, the traffic [from India] was so profitable that recruiters kidnapped boys and women as well. …

Unlike the Chinese labourers, who could move around freely on the island, Indian workers were isolated from the rest of the local population, housed in barracks and severely punished for acts of disobedience or for not doing sufficient work. Toddy shops and cinemas were opened for them, and many became addicted to toddy, known as the poor man’s whisky, and sought escape through Tamil films with themes of romance, betrayal and violence.

This seems to echo every harrowing account of what happened to those who were taken as slaves from Africa to America.

HAPPY AND CONTENT LIVES
Scrolling through the rest of the article in The Guardian I came across this: ‘There’s also persistent trope that black people were happy slaves. But most African Americans don’t find much joy in seeing plantations glorified and their human histories deemed a niggling inconvenience.’

Suffering from the kind of insecurity that only another writer will understand, I wondered if I’d glorified life in the estates? Had I dismissed this version of the human history of Foothills Estate? Had I glossed over all this suffering in telling the tale? After a long and protracted time of reflection, I came to two conclusions.

We Mark Your Memory: Writing from the Descendants of IndentureThe first was a reminder of something that came to mind during a discussion about indenture that took place in Kuala Lumpur last year. I was part of the panel and the event centred around the publication of an anthology called We Mark Your Memory: Stories from the Descendants of Indenture. (4)

One panellist had a simple point to make: if we were going to help the poor, their colour, creed or faith shouldn’t matter. Another panellist, however, vehemently disagreed and insisted that we should concentrate on helping the Indians of Malaysia. Past governments had done very little for them. Marginalised, they had neither food, education nor a means of living. They were poor and miserable.

Hopeless at public speaking, I said nothing. Had I the courage, I would have pointed out that if I were to guess, neither of them had what I’d call ‘personal history’ behind them. Their surnames gave me reason to believe that they were probably descendants of Indians born and brought up in the city. Their forefathers hadn’t come to work in the estates, but the Malayan Civil Service. I, on the other hand, had forefathers who had spent their entire lives in estates. I should have said this: “My father once told me that the estate people didn’t know they were poor, marginalised and badly treated until those from the city came and told them this.”

If only I’d had the courage …

Second, I have never heard any descendant of indenture describe their forefathers as ‘happy slaves’ – in this case, ‘happy indentured labourers’. On the contrary, those who took the opportunities offered to them when Malaya gained its independence, prospered. They adapted to their new home and made happy and secure lives for their progeny.

As for wedding photos, those sepia-toned and black and white ones of my relatives, together with modern coloured ones from the progeny of said relatives, taken at the same venue almost 80 years apart, share this – everyone looks rather content.

Perhaps, it is wiser to continue to quietly contemplate this matter about abuses in a past era. For a start, I will choose to stick with the first-hand truth told to me by my father about his life when he was growing up. I will remember, always, how he half-scolded me when I told him that part of the story in my novel was set in the place where he once lived – “Don’t write bad things about Foothills Estate,” he said. “It was a very nice place to grow up.”

Aneeta Sundararaj
20 January 2020

References
1. Preston, S. Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds’ Problematic Wedding Photos Are Basically Banned Online — Here’s Why. December 8, 2019. [Accessed January 2020]

2. Jabali, M. Plantation weddings are wrong. Why is it so hard for white Americans to admit that? The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/dec/11/plantation-weddings-are-wrong-why-is-it-so-hard-for-white-americans-to-admit-that [Accessed January 2020]

3.   How Malaya became a ‘death trap’ for early labourers from India. The Straits Times. https://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/how-malaya-became-a-death-trap-for-early-labourers-from-india [Accessed January 2020]

4. The legacy of indenture in contemporary times.  https://commonwealthfoundation.com/events/the-legacy-of-indenture-in-contemporary-times/  [Accessed January 2020]

***

Aneeta Sundararaj is a freelance writer who contributes stories and articles to many publications, both online and offline. Read more stories like this on her website, ‘How to Tell a Great Story’. (http://www.howtotellagreatstory.com).


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Miracles Made

There is no winter to speak of in tropical Malaysia, but on 18 December 2019, all that came to mind was that it was a bleak midwinter. In the last few weeks, I’d managed health issues of dear ones, the shocking death of a friend too young to die, assignments to submit, deadlines to meet, the flu, severe allergies to the point of developing painful welts all over and the stress of travel. Certainly, it was a lesson in time management and focusing the mind on the tasks before me. There were many low moments, none more so than when I arrived home and switched on my phone to read one sickening message. Even now, I hurt reading the caustic criticisms and cruel judgements that showed an utter lack of empathy for all I was going through.

Nonetheless, as I unpacked, I began to unwind and slowly, happier thoughts filtered through. One was about a successful project I’d worked on which was a recently published book called Making Miracles for the Self by HH SwamiGuru. Essentially, the book is a practical guide for all readers. Through the ideas and techniques in this book, readers will create unique paths that will help them lead lives filled with much happiness.

Long before the author submitted his manuscript to the publishers, he agreed when I insisted that we work with a professional editor and, more importantly, someone who was so far removed from our world. I wanted to know if such a person would understand what the author was writing. If the editor couldn’t, I wanted ideas about how to make this book appeal to a global readership.

With the help of those from Jericho Writers, we commissioned an editor called Sam Jordison. The initial email gave a brief explanation of Sam’s career and that he was co-director at Galley Beggar Press. I didn’t pay much attention to all this because, at the time, it didn’t matter. All I was interested in was the honest feedback he’d give. True enough, Sam’s comments, ideas and suggestions were valuable and gave us a way forward for the manuscript. As such, the current version of Making Miracles for the Self is the best it can be.

Soon after the books were printed, I was keen to send a copy to Sam. So, I surfed the internet for a postal address. That’s when I discovered that Galley Beggar Press were the publishers for Lucy Ellmann’s novel Ducks, Newburyport. This novel was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2019. I duly subscribed to their newsletter and became a ‘Galley Buddy’. In the process, I was fascinated by what Sam wrote about the prize in the aftermath of the winners being announced. But that’s a different story and the subject matter of another post.

After dinner on 18 December 2019, while I was clearing a few emails, one from Galley Beggar Press popped into my Inbox. Some of the more pertinent parts of it read as follows:

…I’m sorry to tell you, is that it has put Galley Beggar Press under threat. The Book People owe us over £40,000 – and that is make-or-break for a small company like us.

One of the painful things about this is that we would never normally take the risk of having someone owe us £40k. We entered into a partnership with the Book People as part of our involvement with the Booker Prize this year.

The Book People offer hardback versions of the shortlist to their readers, and as soon as we learned that we were longlisted, we were put in touch with the Book People and made to understand that everyone on the shortlist would need to supply an edition.

They wanted 8000 books, and would pay just over £40,000.

It was a sizable undertaking. It’s the sort of money that we never normally play with, but it was part of the schedule and the competition and we did it.

It also involved designing a whole new edition (which we put together in four days, working around the clock), complicated negotiations with printers, and a lot of work. But it should have been a good thing. If the money had arrived. We were actually due to be paid right after Christmas – and it would have allowed us to pay the many print bills that the Booker has involved, shore up against trade returns (inevitable, when a novel soars in popularity), and set us straight for the New Year.

But, we’ve been on the phone to the Book People this morning. They will not be paying us the money in the immediate future, and possibly not at all.

Which leaves us with a £40,000+ black hole. … And has turned what should have been the best year of our little company’s life into its worst – and something that might kill it. …

After I confirmed that this was a legitimate plea, I donated what I could and switched off the computer. As I prepared for bed, I wondered how long it would take for Galley Beggar Press to recover from this financial setback. Now, I’ll let Sam explain to you what happened next.

‘I find it hard to explain actually! A company we had supplied a lot of books to went into administration – which meant that the £40,000 they owed us wasn’t going to be paid any time soon. For a small company like ours, that’s a huge amount of money and it could have sent us under. In a panic, we set up a crowdfunder to make up for some of the shortfalling and, incredibly, within 24hours over a thousand generous people had donated and made up for the entire shortfall. I hope you can imagine the relief and gratitude I felt. I still feel rather dazed now, just a few days later. It felt incredible to see so much good in the world – and humbling that it was being directed towards Galley Beggar Press. I hope we can honour that faith in the future.’

If I may, I’d like to add to this. I recall that the initial amount requested on the GoFundMe page was £15,000.00. Once the plea was sent out, in about two hours, people from the publishing industry, the world over, gave them the much-needed support. In 24 hours, they raised all £40,000.00 they needed.

Coincidentally, two days later, Sam wrote to say that he’d received his copy of Making Miracles for the Self. While I sipped coffee and scrolled through the thousands of comments about this whole matter on various websites, Twitter and the online version of The Guardian, I came to the conclusion that Sam said it best when he wrote: ‘It feels like we’ve been granted a miracle…’

It soothes my soul to know that at the point I was about to make the first resolution for the new year, which was to close my heart to the kind of people who thought nothing of sending such brutal messages, I was granted this moment when I bore witness to a miracle unfolding.

Aneeta Sundararaj
(21 December 2019)


Aneeta Sundararaj is a freelance writer who contributes stories and articles to many publications, both online and offline. Read more stories like this on her website, ‘How to Tell a Great Story’. (http://www.howtotellagreatstory.com).

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Contact and Connection. And Empathy?

[Note: This story was first published in CLARITY (15 August 2019). It is published here with permission.]

The scene is familiar: It’s Sunday evening and a family of four come into a restaurant for dinner. The waitress shows them to a table and before they even sit down, all four of them – father, mother, son and daughter – place their phones on the table. Orders are placed and while waiting for the food to arrive, they are glued to their phones.

Maybe, there’ll be some respite when the food arrives. Maybe, they’ll put away their phones for a while. Maybe, they’ll even look at each other for a moment.

When the plates of fried rice, fried vegetables and steamed fish are placed in front of them, all four people adjust their positions. Having to use their hands for something other than holding their electronic gadgets, they scramble to prop their phones against glasses. Soon, they’re entertained by watching the programme on their phones uninterrupted as they shove food into their mouths. Once they finish, the father takes a 30-second break to pay the bill and the family leaves the restaurant.

This complete disconnect with life is echoed by Dr. Swagata Roy during a recent panel discussion at 7C Life RealiZation Centre called ‘Cyberworld’s Psychological Impact: The Unknown Reality’. This educator and life observer recounts a story of giving an assignment to her students to write three words about what the internet means to them. Of all the answers, the one that stirkes her as odd is when one young man wrote, ‘Disconnect. Disconnect. Disconnect.’ Worried about him, she guessed that he must have been so bothered by what happened on Facebook. “When I spoke with him,” she elaborates, “he explained, ‘I have contacts, but we’re not connected.’”

CONTACT V CONNECTION
This rather bleak statement falls squarely into a story that HH SwamiGuru told us a few weeks ago. It is a conversation between a journalist and Swami Vivekananda. Here is a paraphrased version of this story.

A journalist asked the monk, “Sir, in your last lecture, you told us about jogajog (contact) and sanjog (connection). It’s really confusing. Can you please elaborate on this?”

The monk smiled and replied with a question: “Are you from New York?”

“Yes,” said the journalist.

“Who is at home?”

Although he felt that the monk was avoiding answering his question, he still said, “Mother has expired. Father is there. Three brothers and one sister. All married.”

“Do you talk to your father?”

Frowning, the journalist stared at the monk.

The persistent monk then asked, “When did you talk to him last?”

Pursing his lips, the journalist said, “Perhaps, a month ago.”

“Do your brothers and sisters meet often? When did you last meet as a family?”

Sighing, the journalist said, “Christmas. Two years ago.”

“How many days did you all stay together? How long did you spend with your father, just sitting beside him? Did you have your meals together? Did you ask how your father was? Did you ask him how he passed his days after his mother’s death?”

Tears began to flow from the journalist’s eyes.

The monk held the hand of the journalist and said, “Don’t be embarrassed, upset or sad. I am sorry if I have hurt you unknowingly. But this is basically the answer to your question about contact and connection. You have contact with your father, but you don’t have a connection with him. You are not connected to him. Connection is between heart and heart. Sitting together, sharing meals and caring for each other, touching, shaking hands, having eye contact, spending some time together.”

The journalist wiped his tears away and said, “Thanks for teaching me a fine and unforgettable lesson.”

SOMETHING MORE?
Certainly, this story shows how important it is to go beyond having someone as a ‘contact’ in your world. You need to have that connection with other human beings. Are these two enough, though, for the entire relationship to be a meaningful one? Should there be something more, especially within the family. What is this ‘something more’? Can there be more? Should there be more? Is it healthy to have more?

“Being connected to one another is not only to understand one another, but to empathise with the other person,” said our second panellist, Professor Dato’ Dr. Andrew Mohanraj. “The cornerstone of being connected is to show empathy to the other human being. And when you do that, it enriches both your life and the life of the person connected to you.” Also, once we appreciate the fact that everyone is somehow interconnected, life is far more meaningful.

So, what is empathy? The dictionary definition states that it’s the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. HH SwamiGuru elaborates on this by saying that, “Every single person in this world has the same goal of being appreciated. That’s what they look for, consciously or unconsciously. In everything that we do, we seek an endorsement unknowingly. When we receive it, we feel good. Empathy paves the way for this to happen successfully each time.” He shares some examples of empathy which include sitting with someone and praying with them in their times of trouble, holding someone’s hand when they feel alone or simply being there for someone.

The last word on this subject belongs to HH SwamiGuru who adds, “When you do something for someone with empathy, there is a bond created that results in their appreciation or their acknowledgement of what you do. That closes the loop created in the heart. [You already have contact and contentment.] Empathy leads to appreciation which leads to contentment.” And that, really, is all we need to find our happiness in life.


Aneeta Sundararaj is a freelance writer who contributes stories and articles to many publications, both online and offline. Read more stories like this on her website, ‘How to Tell a Great Story’. (http://www.howtotellagreatstory.com).

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Making Miracles With the Subconscious Mind

[Note: This story was first published in CLARITY (15 July 2019) and is posted here with permission.]

When my aunt was diagnosed with cancer, one thing struck me as odd. Convinced that she’d lived a fulfilled life, she was resigned to her fate and said, “My doctor told me that if you get cancer, you’re just unlucky.” I wanted to tell her about the many people I’d met who’d gone into remission and, miraculously, lived long and healthy lives. However, I stayed silent because I knew better than to challenge her. My aunt died within 24 months of making that statement.

Since then, I’ve wondered about all this. Do we make our own luck? Does our mind have anything to do with it? Or are we victims of our circumstances and environment? It all came back to me about three weeks ago when HH SwamiGuru and I discussed optimising the power of our subconscious mind. The scientific basis of our discussion was based on a book by Dr. Bruce Lipton called ‘The Biology of Belief’. A former professor of medicine at Stanford University, Dr. Lipton explained the results of his research in an interview published in Awareness Magazine. 1

The basic premise is this – we are not victims of our genes. Just because you have a family history of developing cancer does not mean that you’ll develop it. You control your genome rather than being controlled by it. “When we change our perception or beliefs,” said Dr. Lipton in the same interview, “we send totally different messages to our cells, causing a reprogramming of their expression.” This is epigenetics.

AT A CELLULAR LEVEL
In our bodies, information from the environment is transferred to our cells via the cell membrane. We used to think that the nucleus within the cell was its brain. Dr. Lipton discovered something altogether different. He believes that it’s actually the membrane that’s the brain of the cell. The nucleus is the reproductive centre of the cell.

What this means is that the cell membrane monitors the condition of the environment and then sends signals to the genes to engage cellular mechanisms. These, in turn, provide for the cell’s survival and growth.

What interferes with this survival is stress. When the cell membrane receives information that the environment is stressful, the cell adopts a defensive protection posture. The body’s energy resources are diverted to systems that provide protection instead of survival or growth.

Stress information can come to the cell from the two separate minds that create the body’s controlling central voice – the conscious mind and the subconscious mind.

40 V 40 MILLION
The conscious mind is the creative mind that expresses free will. It’s the equivalent of a 40-bit processor which can handle input from about 40 nerves per second. The subconscious mind is a super computer loaded with a database of pre-programmed behaviours. It is a powerful 40-million-bit processor, interpreting and responding to over 40 million nerve impulses every second.

The subconscious mind acts on autopilot mode, as though it’s a record-playback machine. The insidious part of this mechanism is that the subconscious behaviours are programmed to engage without the control of the conscious mind. It cannot discern if a subconscious behavioural programme is good or bad. Consequently, you rarely observe these behaviours or know how they are engaged. The moment your consciousness lapses, such as in the case of being asleep, the subconscious mind will automatically engage and play its previously-recorded, experience-based programmes.

How did our subconscious mind become programmed with all that data in the first place? According to Dr. Lipton, it happens during the first six years of life when our brains operate predominantly in delta and theta EEG frequencies. This, he said, is the hypnagogic state during which a child’s programming happens by observing parents, siblings, peers, teachers and his environment. The child also downloads beliefs relating to its Self. Whatever the child is told – that he is sickly and stupid, or lovely and successful – is downloaded as fact into the child’s subconscious mind. These acquired beliefs constitute the central voice that controls the fate of the body’s cellular community.

REPROGRAMMING FOR SUPER-LEARNING
What happens when you become aware that the facts you were told were untrue? How can you remove all that unnecessary data that’s been downloaded into your subconscious mind? Can it be removed and replaced with ‘good’ data so that you can grow? The answers to these questions lie in a two-step process that leads to ‘super-learning’ and the work we do at 7C Life.

The first is to become fully conscious of what we’re doing, i.e., to practice mindfulness. We do this by regularly meditating to help us achieve the necessary clarity of mind.

The second step is a 7-week voluntary programme that ‘enables a rapid and profound reprogramming of limiting subconscious beliefs.’ It starts with cleansing the body and mind from inside out. With a clean slate, we then rewrite the programme in our subconscious minds and, thereby, release the limiting perceptions, beliefs and self-sabotaging behaviours.

What makes this entire process special is that, with the support of HH SwamiGuru, the super-learning here becomes magical. The possibilities are endless for not only do you achieve realisation of the Self, you become liberated. Living that liberated life brings with it experiences beyond your imagination, joy and happiness. This is the science of making miracles.

References:

  1. Butler, M A. A Romp through the Quantum Field. A dialogue with A dialogue with Gregg Braden and Dr. Bruce Lipton. https://www.brucelipton.com/resource/interview/romp-through-the-quantum-field(Accessed on 1 July 2019)

Aneeta Sundararaj is looking forward to the publication of HH SwamiGuru’s latest book, ‘Making Miracles: Happiness to Life’. It is a guide to right living for your Self and will be in bookstores by December 2019. Read more stories like this on her website, ‘How to Tell a Great Story’. (http://www.howtotellagreatstory.com).

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Time and the Moment of a Smile

Retreat to Nature

[Note from Editor: This story first appeared in CLARITY (15 June 2019). It’s published here with permission.]

In these last few months, many of us at 7C Life RealiZation Centre feel that time has gone by too fast. Just last week, one of my colleagues said, “Oh my God, the second quarter of the year is almost over.” Indeed, many of our projects have gained a stronger foothold and we’re on track.

In moments of quietude, however, I wonder about it all. What do we mean when we say ‘last few months’? How long is this time? For those of us who are ambitious, time is running out. For others, it’s too slow. What, in fact, is this thing called ‘time’? Is it possible to achieve everything we want in this short space of time that is the human life?

More often than not, we measure time in terms of hours, minutes and seconds. Is this accurate? Is there another way to measure it? Does time run differently in different planes of existence? What happens in different dimensions? Indeed, this was something we had to consider during our Mindfulness Masterclass Programme (MMP) last year. Quite simply, is a day restricted to 24 hours?

One of the first theories that challenged this was a story I read as a child. In a faraway kingdom, there was a king called Kakudmi. He had a beautiful daughter, but didn’t think that anyone on earth was worthy of her hand in marriage. He decided to take his daughter to the abode of Lord Brahma to seek his advice. When they arrived, Kakudmi presented his shortlist of suitable potential sons-in-law. Lord Brahma explained that by the time Kakudmi returned to his kingdom, none of these men would be alive. Time runs differently in Brahma’s abode. One day there was equivalent to several centuries on earth. Kakudmi and his daughter returned to an earth that they didn’t recognise. Nonetheless, the story does have a happy ending for they did find a suitable groom for Kakudmi’s daughter.

So, back to this question of how do we measure time?

The normal method is this:
60 seconds = 1 minute.
60 minutes = 1 hour.
24 hours = 1 day.
It is a convention that a new day begins at midnight.

Now, in Indian philosophy, it’s a little different.
60 seconds or vinadi = 1 minute
24 vinadi = 1 naligai
2 naligai = 1 muhurta
30 muhurtas = 1 day
The first muhurta of the day begins at sunrise.

It is said that one of the most auspicious times in any day is Brahma Muhurta. It starts 2 muhurtas before sunrise. In other words, it starts approximately 96 minutes before sunrise. So, if the sun rises at 7.00am, then Brahma Muhurta starts at 5.24am and ends at 7.00am. During this time of Brahma Muhurta, the Universal Energy, which is described as ‘the energy that sustains life, providing vital energy to all living systems’ 1 is said to be at its peak. It follows, therefore, that any spiritual activity carried out during this time has a greater effect than any other part of the day.

Now that we’ve established that in Hindu philosophy, a day is not necessarily restricted to 24 hours, it becomes interesting when we consider larger numbers. While we’re now in the year 2019 and, technically, in the second millennium, in Indian philosophy, we have already endured grander cycles and more millennia than one can count.

Referred to as ‘yuga’, an epoch or era lasts four cycles namely, Satya Yuga, Treta Yuga, Dvarpa Yuga and Kali Yuga. There are books upon books written about how long each of these yugas last, the characteristics of people who live during these eras and how they relate to one another.

In very simple terms, during Satay Yuga, a human being is 100 per cent virtuous and only dies when he reaches 100,000 years. During Treta Yuga, our life span is all of 10,000 human years. It lessens to 1,000 years during Dvapara Yuga and, in Kali Yuga, we live for no more than 100 years. Without doubt, during Kali Yuga, the human being consists of being 25 per cent virtuous and 75 per cent sinful.

All this and more were explained to us by HH SwamiGuru in a discourse during the last Maha Shivaratri. He explained that one day in Brahma’s abode would mean that eons of time would have passed on earth, to be precise, about 8 billion years. Taken further, Brahma needs to go through 20 million lifetimes for one day in Vishnu’s abode. And Vishnu needs to go through 10 million lifetimes to amount to a moment when Lord Shiva smiles. This effectively means that as a human, you will need to live through all these uncountable number of lifetimes to see Shiva smile and receive His grace. He is light years away from us.

Here comes the twist.

Lord Shiva is beyond time; He has transcended it. All you need to do is go within and look for His smile there. To receive His blessings, even if it is for a moment, is to understand that His power is immense. In that moment of Shiva’s smile upon you, whatever you are limiting to the boundaries of your thought disappears. What happens then is beyond your imagination.

As HH SwamiGuru said, “Evolution of mankind and the self is only through happiness. We may think that it is difficult to find happiness, but it begins with a simple smile. When you smile, you are already a moment closer to the Lord of Ultimate Happiness (Satchitananda), Lord Shiva. When you make every moment of your life just about the smile and bring inner joy to yourself, you will become the embodiment of happiness. That’s the only moment in time to live. No other time can be more valuable and meaningful. You will be in the ananda state.”

Taken as a whole, this reinforces one of our lessons from MMP – as humans, our understanding of time is that it is cyclical. When you accept that such physicality can dissolve, there is no time. Everything happens in a timeless dimension. You become free from the cyclical movement of life and experience liberation. It will be possible to achieve everything you desire, and so much more, in this space with no time, but a smile.

References:

  1. 8 Signs You Are an Empath Sensitive to Universal Energy https://www.learning-mind.com/universal-energy-empath/ (Accessed June 2019)

Even though she understands what timelessness means, Aneeta Sundararaj still worries that life is going too fast. Read more stories like this on her website, ‘How to Tell a Great Story’. (http://www.howtotellagreatstory.com).

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5 Elements in Bandung

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This gallery contains 11 photos.

Here are some photos from ‘Retreat to Nature – a ‘5-elements’ experience’ in Bandung, Indonesia (3-5 May 2019).


Read more stories like this on her website, ‘How to Tell a Great Story’. (http://www.howtotellagreatstory.com).

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The Journey of a Flower

The Journey of a Flower

[Note from Editor: This story first appeared in CLARITY (15 May 2019). It’s published here with permission.]

You wait with anticipation for your date to arrive. On tenterhooks, you pace up and down in your flat. You rush to a nearby mirror. Is your hair in place? Is the outfit the right colour? Maybe, the outfit is not right. Perhaps, you should change.

The doorbell rings.

Oh no! There’s no time. He’s here.

You open the door and there’s this man standing on your doorstep. All suited and booted, he looks debonair. But what’s this he’s holding?

It’s not a rose. Or even your favourite, orchids. Surely, he’d have made more of an effort than this – a single sunflower with a pretty red ribbon.

All manner of thoughts run through your head.

This man doesn’t care for me.
We’ve known each other for so long and he brought me this?
A sunflower for God’s sake.
Surely a rose wouldn’t have cost that much.
Oh my God! This man is poor.

You look at the gentleman’s face. He’s grinning.

Idiot!

You move to shut the door, but he puts his hand up to stop you. He tells you a story and your heart skips a beat. Then he says something and you practically fall into his arms.

What did this gentleman say?

Well, this was the cliff-hanger moment that Brenda James presented us with at the start of our Speaker Series (‘Making Your Money Work for You’) on 11 May 2019. She told us, instead, her history. Born and brought up in Ipoh, Perak, Brenda completed reading Law before she began her career in the corporate world. Although she became financially secure, she felt miserable. By 2008, she made the decision to start Nook Flowers in Bangsar South. With the realities of running her own business were also painful and humiliating lessons. Throughout, the one quality she retained was her optimism.

One of the most wonderful stories that Brenda shared echoes our focus on being happy, spreading such happiness through the work we do and the people we’ve become. Straightening her shoulders, Brenda gives a bright smile and explains that when she’s done with an arrangement, she’ll holds it in her hands and whispers, “Go, make someone happy.” Saying these words, she believes, results in the transmission of happy thoughts and feelings to those flowers. In turn, the final recipient receives not only the flowers, but the sentiments too.

As expected, generating such happiness always has a spill-over effect on other aspects of one’s life. Even though Brenda was barely making ends meet, she remained determined to look at the brighter side of life and joined the Philharmonic Society of Selangor. Having derived much contentment from this activity, Brenda smiles even brighter when she reveals that it’s through the choir that she met her husband.

Perhaps, the most synchronous moment of this Speaker Series session came about during the Q & A session. The questions ranged from ‘Is it OK to use white flowers for Mother’s Day?’ and ‘Why do we like lilies when they are flowers used during funerals in the West?’ to a point about chrysanthemums having a bad reputation because they were regarded as ‘prayer flowers’.

It is when Brenda said something along the lines of, “How amazing is it that a flower can be used to glorify the Divine,” that many of us who’d gone on the recent retreat to Bandung, Indonesia felt a shiver run down our spine. This was precisely what HH SwamiGuru had alluded to on 5 May 2019, during the last discourse of the retreat. In His words:

“The journey of the flower is meant to enhance the understanding of learning to live as naturally as possible without having to compare your life with that of others. It is only then that you’ll understand the greatness of creation, the creator and creativity. With that understanding, you will realise that life is all about being yourself and not someone else. You have been endorsed by the Divine to be ‘you’. Don’t be someone else and don’t seek some else’s endorsement for who you are. This journey can only be successful if you first make an effort to find your true non-contaminated self. In so doing, you will also realise the power of gratitude and the blessings of life.”

Incidentally, the flower of choice during our retreat was a genus of sunflower. Now that we’re back to talking about this giant yellow palmful of sunshine, let’s return to the tale of the gentleman who brought his lady love a sunflower.

The story he tells her before she falls into his arms is that in Greek mythology, Apollo was the Sun God who rode his golden and ivory chariot from east to west every day. A water nymph called Clytie was in love with Apollo, but it was unrequited. For nine days, unblinking, she watched him move across the sky. Eventually, she was turned into a flower which came to be known as the Sunflower.

The gentleman then looked into his lady love’s eyes and said, “The sunflower is the only one that follows the movement of the sun. Even if there is the slightest glimmer of light in the sky, the sunflower will turn its head to find it. And that’s how I feel about you.”

Sigh!


Quite simply, Aneeta Sundararaj loves flowers. Read more stories like this on her website, ‘How to Tell a Great Story’. (http://www.howtotellagreatstory.com).

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Parent or Parents?

In Malaysia, both parents must consent to the conversion of their child to Islam. For now.

Many years ago, in a provincial court, I began to panic. The judge had refused my request for an adjournment. I wanted to wait for my boss to arrive so that he could start cross-examining the witness who was an engineer. No doubt, everyone in that courtroom with mould-stained walls and creaky furniture was aware that I knew next to nothing about construction law. My opponent smiled, certain of success.

I took a deep breath then summoned every ounce of optimism and courage in my being. In the next few hours, I asked the engineer basic questions to determine if he’d followed procedure. As his face became redder by the minute, it soon became clear that he had cut corners and caused damage to our client’s property. The matter was settled out of court.

I recalled this whole episode on the morning of 29 January 2018 when I opened the Malaysian newspapers and read about a high-profile case involving the unilateral conversion of a child to Islam and the jurisdiction of the courts in Malaysia (the ‘Indira Gandhi decision’). And once again on 30 October 2018, when The Star reported that Datuk Seri Dr. Mujahid Yusof had said that efforts were being made by the government to streamline and coordinate Syariah laws nationwide.[i]

Why are these issues such a big deal in the first place? Quite simply, under Malaysian law, once you embrace Islam, there is no going back. You are Muslim for life and your identity changes seemingly forever. You retain the right to seek redress in the Civil Courts, but you’re subject to the laws and jurisdiction of the Syariah Courts.

Confusing? To understand how all this works, let’s look at this real-life case from the Indira Gandhi decision.

Real life 
The story begins in 2009 when a Hindu man, K. Pathmana­than, embraced Islam and took the name Muhammad Riduan Abdullah. Without the knowledge or consent of his now ex-wife, M. Indira Gandhi, he converted their three children under the age of twelve as well. A legal tussle ensued and culminated in the Indira Gandhi decision which was delivered by the apex court, the Federal Court of Malaya, on 29 January 2018. The Federal Court questioned the method of conversion and said that, ‘the issue before the court wasn’t the conversion itself, but the process and legality thereof.’[ii] The Registrar of Muallafs, who issued the conversion certificates, hadn’t complied with the mandatory requirements for conversion of a child.

What generated sensational headlines like Unilateral Conversion ‘Null and Void’[iii] was that henceforth, in a civil marriage, the consent of both parents must be obtained before a Certificate of Conversion to Islam can be issued for a child. This wasn’t always the case.

Parent or Parents?
In 2007, there was a similar case involving R. Subashini, her ex-husband, T. Saravanan, and their children. The apex court there stated that a unilateral conversion of a child to Islam did not violate the Federal Constitution because the word ‘parent’ in Article 12(4) of said Constitution was meant to be read in its singular form. Effectively, this meant that the consent of both parents was not required. Invariably, the non-Muslim parent had no redress.

Things continued in this fashion for a long while and I used the legal uncertainties in all these cases to craft my novel called The Age of Smiling Secrets. It explores the heartache that comes when families are torn apart in this manner. Incidentally, one of the chapters from this novel, The Legend of Nagakanna, was accepted in an anthology called, We Mark Your Memory: Writings from the Descendants of Indenture published by the School of Advanced Studies, the University of London in 2018.

An attempt was made to address the issue when the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) (Amendment) Act 2017 (LRA) was first drafted. The idea was to include a clause called ‘Clause 88A’ which stated that the religion of a child ‘shall remain as the religion of the parties to the marriage prior to the conversion’. After the child turns 18, he or she can, with the consent of both parents, convert to Islam. Clause 88A was subsequently withdrawn for contravening the Federal Constitution since, once again, the word ‘parent’ must be read in its singular form.

With the Indira Gandhi decision, there was a clear statement by the Federal Court that Article 12(4) requires the consent of both parents for the conversion of a child. Indeed, the Federal Court endorsed an extra-judicial comment by a former Lord President of the Federal Court made in 1982 who said: ‘In a multiracial and multi-religious society … we strive not to be too identified with any particular race or religion … so that the various communities especially minority communities are assured that we will not allow their rights to be trampled underfoot.’[iv]

There is now talk to reintroduce Clause 88A. Should this happen, the effect may be to ban unilateral conversion of a child to Islam altogether. Not everyone is happy. Some argue that even though the apex court is not bound by its previous decision, with the Indira Gandhi decision comes inconsistency. What shape or form such inconsistency takes remains unexplained.

Perhaps, a hypothetical situation will give some perspective. In future, if my ex-husband converts my child to Islam in Malaysia without my consent or knowledge, the first question I should ask is, “Where should I go for help?”

“Where should I go for help?”
For a start, as a non-Muslim, I cannot seek redress from the Syariah Court since ‘[i]t was trite that the Sya­riah courts did not have jurisdiction over non-Muslims and non-Muslim parties have no right to appear in the Syariah Courts.’[v] However, as a Muslim, my ex-husband is subject to the rules and regulations under Syariah Law. And Article 121 of the Federal Constitution stipulates the jurisdiction of Syariah Court should not be disputed even though they are not constituted as superior courts. So, I go to the Civil Courts and he goes to the Syariah Courts.

To solve such issues of jurisdiction, the idea was conceived to urge state governments to amend their state’s constitutional laws so that Syariah Courts are on part with Civil Courts. Now, Datuk Seri Dr. Mujahid Yusof has confirmed this. In actual fact, this is already the case in the eastern state of Terengganu, but only Muslims are allowed to seek redress there.

The problem is that even if we make both the courts equal and allow non-Muslims to seek redress in the Syariah Courts, what happens to the Civil Courts? Do they become superfluous? If both courts are equal, it is possible that I can seek redress in both courts and so can my ex-husband. We may have four different decisions. Which one prevails? And how on earth will we reconcile all this with our Federal Constitution?

Perhaps, it isn’t wise to be so pessimistic. Instead, let’s forget what may happen in the future and enjoy the present. Today, no longer will a child in Malaysia have something as monumental as his religion changed without the consent of both his parents. The Indira Gandhi decision has ended the unnecessary suffering of families torn apart prior to this. It is a triumph. For now.

Aneeta Sundararaj
9 December 2018

***

The Age of Smiling Secrets, a novel by Aneeta Sundararaj, was published in August 2018. It explores the heartache when a family is torn apart because a man converts to Islam and, without the consent or knowledge of his wife, converts their child as well. It is available in all MPH Bookstores and mphonline.com

***

Endnotes:
[i] Syariah laws to be streamlined, says Mujahid. The Star Online [https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2018/10/30/syariah-laws-to-be-streamlined-says-mujahid/#34h5QZwZJhQ6Gl4B.99]

[ii] Maizatul Nazlina. The grounds of judgment in the Indira Gandhi ruling. The Star Online. [https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2018/02/09/the-grounds-of-judgment-in-the-indira-gandhi-ruling/]

[iii] Khairah N. Karim. Federal Court rules unilateral conversion of M. Indira Ghandi’s children to Islam null and void. NST Online. [https://www1.nst.com.my/news/crime-courts/2018/01/329867/federal-court-rules-unilateral-conversion-m-indira-ghandis-children]

[iv] Gurdial Singh Nijar. Review of the Indira Gandhi decision. Thesundaily.my. [http://www.thesundaily.my/news/2018/02/12/review-indira-gandhi-decision]

[v] Maizatul Nazlina. The grounds of judgment in the Indira Gandhi ruling. The Star Online. [https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2018/02/09/the-grounds-of-judgment-in-the-indira-gandhi-ruling/]

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kɒnvənt ɡɜːl

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.

Programme Booklet

‘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).

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