Ammu’s Story: Part 1
It rains heavily this morning. Ammu and her brother Ravi leave their house, sharing one umbrella that is as old as their little sister who is still sleeping very soundly on her thin, blue mattress. Their grandmother will come later to babysit her. The room the three siblings and their parents sleep in is the only room usable for sleeping in the house; the other room is used as a store and as a dressing room.
Their house is small. Quite fitting when one considers the monthly rent. RM150, an affordable sum for Ammu’s mother. Ammu’s father rarely pays rent. Two rooms, one kitchen and one bathroom, with one tiny living room where the children sit in to watch the television and do their homework after returning back from school. It’s also where they sit to wait for their mother to come back from her shifts. These days she often takes the evening shift, leaving at 5 or 7 o’clock in the evening and returning at 5 o’clock the next morning. Which means these days, the sibling aren’t allowed to wait for their mother since they have schools. Lately, Ammu notices her thin mother looking more and more gaunt. Her brother notices too; and they worry. They worry, but there isn’t much children their age could do.
Ravi is eleven years old, Ammu nine. Their little sister Meena will be three years old in September. Meena came as a surprise. A good surprise. She’s loved dearly by her older siblings, by her mother, even by their father. He never forgets to bring back sweets or crackers for Meena, even when he comes home drunk. He forgets Ammu, and mostly ignores Ravi, but he dotes on Meena. Not that his two children care. As long as he comes home in a good mood, they are quite happy. But nowadays, the man almost never comes home anymore. Ammu wonders where he’s staying at sometimes, but Ravi soothes her by saying he has lots of friends. Drinking friends especially.
Since they only have one umbrella, they have to squeeze their legs together while walking, so that they will be less wet during their journey to go to their waiting spot. That waiting spot is somewhere two rows of houses across their own, near the public phone booths that have been completely vandalised now. One of the phone booths has the ‘phone’ part missing, the cable hanging loosely, half of its length lying on the ground. The other still has everything intact, albeit with vulgar pictures doodled on every available surface. Ammu doesn’t really care how they look like. She thinks taking shelter in there will be a great idea, really.
That spot they are heading to is used by people wanting to catch the bus too, since the nearest bus stop is further away, almost to the entrance of their housing estate. Nobody in their right mind will go wait for the bus over there, since you’ve got to have some sort of vehicle to get there in the first place. Half of the housing estate’s inhabitants still don’t own one, hence the bus. Ravi mutters a curse under his breath when he notices his left shoulder is soaked. ‘Walk quicker,’ he says. Ammu tries, her teeth chattering. But it’s hard to walk quickly when you’re freezing cold and you have to squeeze your legs together to stay under the umbrella. She senses her brother’s annoyance, but Ravi doesn’t scold her.
Soon, their wet and tedious journey comes to an end. They have reached their waiting spot at last. Five schoolchildren are already there. Two Malay girls in typical school uniform, aged nine and twelve are standing near the phone booths, the smaller girl wearing a yellow raincoat, while the other holding a pink umbrella. Another Malay girl who is waiting there with her mother raises her hand and waves at Ammu. Her mother, who is holding the umbrella for her daughter smiles at Ammu. Ammu smiles back, teeth still chattering.
‘I told you he’ll be here, it’s just the rain,’ a Malay boy, Amir is his name, says to the boy next to him. Ahmad, the other boy just shrugged. ‘It’s cold. I wanted to just skip school today. If it’s not because my mum came in with a clothes hanger into my room, I think I’d have skipped Subuh prayer, even.’ he replies, grinning when Amir rolls his eyes. Ravi grins back. The three boys are classmates and best friends. ‘You’re not scared your Allah will get angry?’ Ravi asks. He tells Ammu to stand in one of the phone booths near the two girls. ‘I’m more scared of my mum.’ Ahmad seriously said, to the laughter of his friends.
Ravi glances at the twelve-year-old girl in white baju kurung and headscarf and dark blue sarong (typical school uniform, really) who is giving his sister her handkerchief before swiftly ducking his head. Ahmad and Amir give a knowing smile; Ahmad, that damned menace taking it a step further by bumping his friend’s shoulder and whistling. Ravi has a crush on the girl, but he’s too shy to ask her her name. Plus, she’s one grade above him. The girl is quiet, but he thinks she’s very good to Ammu, and to her little sister too. Sometimes, she gives Ammu biscuits, bread or candies. Even their father doesn’t give Ammu any of those things.
Five minutes later, the van they are waiting for arrives. The schoolchildren make a beeline for it. Uncle Velu, the driver asks if they are all inside the van, and counts the children to make sure. Then he starts the engine again and proceeds to send them to school. Just like any other day.
*Baju kurung: A traditional wear for the females in Malay culture