Sometimes it takes a long way from home for a person to learn a lesson. That's what happened to me. I've learned how it is felt to be a minority when I moved to this city more than a decade ago. As a Malay, I was born, grew up in Malaysia, I never saw anybody as minority or majority. People are referred to their ethnicity: Malay, Chinese, Indian and Native people.
When I was seven years old, I was at my grandmother's house when I witnessed something that embedded in my brain for a long time.
Grandmother's house was built on two acre lands. Behind her big typical Malay house she had almost a hundred coconut trees. My mother said, those coconut trees were planted when she was a young girl. Every three months, a matured coconuts were plucked down. Grandmother sold the coconuts directly to a small coconut oil manufacturer.
One Sunday morning, I saw an Indian man talking to my grandmother at the bottom of the kitchen stairs. He stood with his back straight. He had no shirt on, his dark skin was as dark as velvet night glistening under the morning sun. He was skinny as stick but he had a pair of legs I never saw a grown man posessed before. Many years later I understood why he had a well shaped legs with muscles at the right places. It was from years of climbing of thousands of coconut trees.
I went back to the kicthen to ask my mother who the Indian man was. "Oh......that Muthu, he's been climbing your grandmother's coconut trees for many years."
I was on the ground before my mother finished her sentence. I never saw a man climbing coconut trees before. This is going to be fun, I thought. When we lived in Kelantan, they used monkeys to pluck off the coconuts from the trees.
My mother called out from the kitchen door asking me not to stand too close to the trees. When Muthu saw me, he nodded his head, "Kichi..,"(little one) . His teeth sparkled.
My curious eyes watched every move he made. He moved to a nearest tree, picked a worn out rope as big as my arms. Both ends were tied together. He dropped the rope on his right foot. He flicked the foot and the rope nestled on his ankle. He slid his left foot in it. With an ease he jumped off the ground, and both of his feet planted on tree. The roped held his feet together. His hands clasped the tree trunk. Before I blink, he was already half way, teen feet above the ground. He looked down at me and said, "Little one, go away from the tree, please." I moved two phases. He shook his head. "A little father, little one." He pointed to the mangosteen tree. At the same time I heard grandmother sharp voice telling me stay away from the coconut trees.
Within two hours, Muthu already cleared half of the coconut trees. Everytime he got to the ground, I ran over to him. "Do you climb the trees everyday?" "How many trees you climb?" "Do you have a daughter like me?".
"Not everyday, some weeks I climb more trees than other weeks."
"Maybe thousands, I don't know."
"Yes, I have a daughter, she likes to ask questions like you too." When he told me his daughter, his eyes gleamed.
Then I heard my mother called out my name. I ran back to the kitchen stairs. My mother was standing at door. She had a tray in her hand. A pitcher of of ice water and a glass. My mother came down the stairs and handed the tray to me. "Give this to Muthu and ask him if he cares for roti chanai later."
I walked back to Muthu. His sweat dripped from his body as he'd just came out from a bath. He was drying his back when I got back to him. He dropped the cloth and took the tray from my hand.
He poured the ice water into the class.
"Little one drink ice water?" he asked.
"I don't like ice."
"Uhh...,uhh.." I shook my head.
Muthu brought the glass near his mouth, at the same time he looked up as he was looking at the sky. Without touching his lips to the glass, he poured the ice water into his mouth. His adam apple moved up and down while the ice water flowed without a spill.
I watched with my mouth opened.
He emptied the glass and put it down in the tray. "Hmm...the water is sweet, little one."
Finally I found my voice. "Why did you drink like that?"
"Drink like what?" His eyes twinkled. He knew what I was talking about.
"Why you didn't touch the glass. The glass is clean."
"Little one, I'm pariah, you ask grandmother, she will tell you."
"What is pariah?"
"Your grandmother will tell you." He nodded his head and moved to another tree. "Go back to your tree little one."
I ran back to the house and dashed up the stairs, breaking one of many grandmother 'don't' she set for us. Never run up or down the stairs. My mother sat on the floor mat, slicing the eggplants.
"Mak, what is pariah?"
My mother put down the knife and looked at me. The combination of horror and worried crossed her face.
"Where did you hear that word?"
"Muthu told me he is pariah." I told mother what Muthu did when he drank the ice water.
That morning I learned about the caste in Indian culture for the first time. My mother told me, grandmother had repeatedly asked Muthu not to do it. "Malay don't practice caste." Grandmother told him. "I don't care what they do out there, but when you are here, you are like us." My mother repeated what grandmohter said to Muthu.
"So, why he still drink ice water like that?" I wondered.
"He's used to it. It's not easy to break what we use to do everyday." My mother picked up the knife and continued to slice the eggplant into a bowl of water. The water rippled when the eggplant fell into it.
Before I got up, my said something I remember until this day.
"We come from the same source. When we die we will become the earthcreatures meal."
I didn't really understand then, but over the years, my mother's words have rooted in my brain.