The School Principal’s Wife: An Appreciation.
Forty-six years ago, Mrs Teerath Ram, the School Principal’s wife died on a Tuesday night of 2nd February 1965, at the age of 52 years. I had just turned nineteen. In my world at that time it should have been a happy day because it was the First Day of the Chinese New Year.
I had gone up to Ipoh from my hometown Kampar on that day specially to pay her a visit. She remarked upon seeing me that I looked spick and span. She was always quick to make one feel at ease. I had no inkling then that I was to be the sole schoolboy to see her on the last day of her life. Her sudden and tragic demise has left a lasting impression on me. It is a sad loss of a good life no doubt. However it is for all the good things that she was to me that I most grief. The year in which she died was also memorable as the beginning of my University days which I had been led to happily anticipate from her encouragement.
As a school boy I looked up to her with utter respect. Now at 67 years old, I am a good 15 years older than her age when she died. In the years that followed my school days I concluded that she was an excellent teacher by any standard and my first adult friend in life. As indeed I have become an older person, I tend to think of her as someone much younger than me. She has in a curious way become unchanging in time. Now she is forever younger than me. She would enjoy this strange equation and find it funny. From both aspects of view, being her junior and now her elder, she was a most decent woman. It is decent as defined in my old school dictionary: “modest, considerateness, sense of what may be fitly expected of one”.
She was intelligent and intuitive in her understanding of people. Her command of the English language was exceptional. When she spoke out her manner was never abrasive and you would accept that she was right if she said so whether it referred to a moral value or grammar. She had her own collection of literary books underneath her house; an area which ought to be the air space of a bungalow built on legs but was enclosed to form air-conditioned basement rooms. She gave me free reign to read those books. When I see some of those books which come out under Penguin Classics these days, I would say to myself that I had read them at eighteen but add that without any depth of human understanding. No doubt she also wrote beautifully but to my utter astonishment she told me one day that she had burnt all her writings and scattered them like dried leaves before the wind. That was the sad and impulsive side of her nature that got in the way of a better destiny.
Mrs Teerath Ram’s maiden name was Harbax Kaur. She was born on 18th February 1913 in Amritsar, of Punjabi parents who were Sikhs. Her father originated from a village in Punjab which sounded like “Kantalingal” according to her eldest daughter. I failed to find such a place on Google. I don’t know what she was like when she was girl. I see the path she took as a young woman to become an impeccable teacher of English. When her elder sister, much her senior, was admitted to Raffles College in Singapore, she insisted that she too wanted to go to College. Her father had no choice but to arrange for her to go too. In Colonial days, there were no Universities in the country. Raffles College in Singapore was deemed then to be of University level, the only local institution for higher studies unless one had the means to go to study in England. Harbax and her sister Gurbaksh were the first Punjabi girls to attend Raffles College. Harbax, perhaps the brighter one, went on a scholarship award from the Education Office in Taiping. She graduated from Raffles College with a Diploma. At College she met her future husband Teerath Ram, a younger man from a Brahmin family in Pusing who cut a dashing figure on the rugby field in his green and white shirt that had a brand name “Turtle” and the words “will not run”. I know that for certain because she gave that shirt to me. Maybe it was a gesture to cast off a reminder of the past. I was certainly not an athletic person and that shirt willy-nilly soon went from my custody too. No doubt their different religious backgrounds caused havoc to the families. In true romantic tradition they eloped and got married under Christianity. It was not unexpected of a young Harbax fresh out of College. By that act of defiance and compromise she demonstrated free choice and her independence.
In 1954, after she had all her children, Harbax went to the University of Malaya in Singapore, which Raffles College had become. This time she obtained an Honours Degree in English. Her career from the start after the initial Diploma qualification had been in teaching. Chronologically it is listed as beginning from Convent Teluk Anson, to Anglo-Chinese School Kampar, Anglo-Chinese Girls’ School Ipoh, Anglo-Chinese School Teluk Anson, and finally Anglo-Chinese School Ipoh. At one time she was in the Federal Inspectorate as an Inspector of Schools. She must have been eager to convey an image of a modern woman. Her youngest daughter remembers her wearing western pants and dresses in the mid-50’s and not the dress norm of Punjabi ladies. I myself seldom saw her in any kind of dress other than the sari. She had become settled in both character and habit I suppose by the time I entered ACS. She was approaching 50, wore little make-up and regularly applied to her neck a scent of fresh sandal from a stick of sandal wood which she grounded with a little water on the rough bottom of a dish. She was also beginning to look more regal with a tuff of white hair swept to the left of her forehead. Indira Gandhi had that too. If she had lived longer she would become an ascetic I am sure. She asked me to try eating papaya seeds to savour the taste. What would that be like? She said papaya seeds tasted like “ants and bees”.
I knew Mrs Teerath Ram from Sixth Form. She was the Head of the Arts Department and taught English Literature. The Principal, her husband to his great credit had built for the school a big swimming pool and the most extensive school library in the country. Mrs. Ram made me the Head Librarian of the School and its library became to me an extension of that under the basement of her house. A big library with all the books in English that school funds were able to buy was so necessary to the learning of the language in schools then. Hearing from teachers would not be enough; the student must develop a motivation and love of learning on his or her own. To the ambitious mind there was a chance in the quiet of the library to even surpass the teaching of the teachers! Nothing seemed more wondrous than to find books of all varieties waiting to be taken out through a simple loan system in the library. I owe it entirely to Mrs Ram for showing me and others the lanes of knowledge found within bounded pages that opened out to worlds beyond ken.
Respect for another person is better shown in acts rather than lip service. Mrs Ram treated young people as all good and mature people. She didn’t impose any barrier. She would speak to you directly as if she had known you all your life. She taught things as one friend would to another, in a spirit of camaraderie. I have a letter from her dated 11th December 1963 when I was sick. “For goodness’ sake,” she wrote,” get rid of your cold. Just keep yourself warm, sleep a lot, eat a lot and it will disappear. Just common sense you know, though funnily common sense is a rare thing and it’s a fallacy to think of it as common.” In the very next paragraph of the letter, in a somewhat severe tone she wrote,” You did not show me your speech, you elusive pimpernel, but I know it was also my fault for being away, invigilating etc. Let me see it before you deliver it, however.” You see, that was how she addressed a young person as if she was your confidante and not someone 32 years older from an adult world which you had not yet entered.
(If Dr Chan Shick Chin is reading this, he would be greatly interested to know that in the same letter mentioned above, Mrs Ram said that she was writing to me “in the non-fiction section (of the Library) invigilating – Shick Chin is doing a Cambridge Entrance Exam. I hope he gets it – he’s a fine lad and full of promise”).
The first time I ever made a speech in public was on the stage in our school Hall, the one which had Rev. Horley’s picture. Mrs. Ram in a matter-of-fact way told me to get onto the stage and move the standing microphone more to the centre before speaking. I did so and that motion put me in charge of the situation. It ended the flight of butterflies. Later in my professional life I spoke with ease before wide audiences in the many countries where I sojourned and once lengthily before the UN General Assembly. I am so glad I had her as a friend to remember in this way.
Mrs Ram corrected all the important speeches of her husband when he was active in the Teachers’ Union. I remember seeing her in the sitting room of their house, calmly poised in an easy chair and Mr Ram standing at the other end, with glasses sliding down his nose, reading aloud a speech. Every now and then, Mrs Ram would make a suggestion for change, either in the flow or choice of words. It was she who encouraged him to fight for Equal Pay for Women Graduate Teachers. He succeeded.
She herself although reserved by nature could rise to an occasion. When Nehru visited Kampar in 1946/47, she was chosen to make a speech to the public in his presence. In ACS Ipoh, our school, she was an active participant in the yearly Drama Presentations. She was in charge of stage make-up for all the plays in her time.
I shall always remember her for simple things that showed her generous and humane nature. She owned a Triumph Herald convertible and sometimes would take me along for a carefree spin. The most unnerving were the drives up Bintang Range. She would sing to the winds with the hood down but I could never make out what she was singing. One morning, it must have been a weekend; we drove to the wet market in Old Town, the back of which overlooked the Kinta River. We parked the car and sauntered among the vendors, looking for nothing in particular. Mrs Ram picked up a small watermelon and paid the man fifty cents as asked. I think that would be almost five ringgit by today’s rate. On the way back to the car with that single purchase, I ventured to ask Mrs Ram whether she had noticed that the melon she picked had a nasty hole on the hidden side. I had already noticed that damage to the fruit at the stall but said nothing, for I trusted that she knew what she was doing. But I still needed to follow up on such apparent carelessness.
Mrs Ram said quite innocently, ”Yes, I know.”
“Why then did you buy it?” I asked.
She said thoughtfully,” I can afford to pay fifty cents, but the man cannot afford to lose it.”
“Will you eat it?” I persisted.
“No”, she said.
Charity is best done with a gentle heart, unheard and unseen.
Come to think of it, Mrs Ram might have made mirth at young people without meaning to hurt anyone’s feelings. She had a sense of humour and she was mischievous in inventing words for the devil of the sound in them. She swore when annoyed and once used a word I had never heard of even in the boy’s latrine. The word was “TARDED!” I asked her whether it meant exasperation shortened from mental retardation. She repeated vehemently, “TARDED! TARDED! It’s the sound of wet cow dung dropping to the ground and that’s what all this is about!” She laughed and laughed, casting an arm widely. I think she was too genteel a person to say “shit”.
Etched in my mind is the following limerick which she liked. I remember feeling mortified because I thought that it was about me.
“There was a young man so benighted
He never knew when he was slighted
He would go to a party,
And eat just as hearty,
As if he’d been really invited.”
Dato’ Choo Siew Kioh (Cohort: 1964 Form 6 Upper Arts)
(Dato’ Choo Siew Kioh’s diplomatic career began in 1968 in the time of Malaysia’s first Prime Minister, Tengku Abdul Rahman, who was also at the same time the country’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. Up to his mid-career, he had served in the Philippines, the Kingdom of Thailand, the Federal Republic of Germany and Japan. As an ambassador Dato’ Choo had postings to thirteen countries in the areas of West Africa, Scandinavia, Baltic States, and the Indian Sub-Continent. Upon his retirement from the diplomatic service in 2003, Dato’ Choo was appointed Commissioner in the National Human Rights Commission of Malaysia for six years in three consecutive terms.