Leela Devi Panikar

Top Story Competition

South China Morning Post

Second Prize

A Special Gift

My brother was six and I was eight and we were Indians, the dark variety. We still are Indians and dark. Our mother is gently persuasive. Our father, well, he is father and knows best and no one heeds him.

In the early days we spoke no Cantonese and very few of the Dao Fung Shan villagers spoke English except the Siu family who lived close to us. The Siu children, Suk-yin, older than me, eleven, and her young brother, seven, spoke no English but we managed to play together.

When our parents were looking for a school for us, the Sius suggested the only school in our vicinity: Shatin Cantonese School. The headmaster of the two-class school kindly accepted my brother, Siva, and me -- two totally non-Cantonese speakers.

Suk-yin and her brother, and I and my brother were to walk together from Dao Fung Shan where we lived to the foot of the hill where the school was. Suk-yin, the oldest, was put in charge. She marched us down the hill in the mornings and marched us back up at noon. But right from the start Suk-yin had it in for me. Her order was single file. Every time I strayed to look at a butterfly or pick a wildflower, she hit me on the head with a glass water bottle. The excitement of going to school for the first time was soon replaced by reluctance and dread.

At school my brother and I got along wonderfully with other students. Gestures and the strange sounds of Tamil, English and Cantonese made a language. But soon Suk-yin went round telling children not to play with me because I was black. The children avoided me. Everyone was afraid of Suk-yin. She, being rather stout, never took part in any games but stood by and watched the rest of us skip or play hopscotch on the concrete quadrangle. At lunchtime she snatched my packed lunch and threw it on the ground, calling me dirty.

Each day she found new ways of bullying me and I grew more and more afraid of Suk-yin. One morning I refused to go to school.

'Aren't you well, Darling?' mama said.

'Mama, I hate school.'

'Do you want to tell me why you hate school?'

I did not. I shook my head.

About a week later, when mama was shampooing my hair, she felt a large lump on my scalp and questioned me.

'Suk-yin hit me, she hits me every day.' And between sobs I told her the whole story, about not being able to play, about being called black and dirty, and about what happened to my lunch.

Mama said, 'don't worry; it is only a temporary phase. I'll fix it.'

I was comforted. I expected my mother to go and give Suk-yin a good thrashing or, failing that, tell her parents to punish her.

When she told papa what had been happening he said, 'We'd better tell the parents about this. The headmaster ought to know, too.'

Smile was all Mama did.

The next day when we got home from school there was a tray containing a plastic whistle, a set of hair clips, chocolates and homemade Indian snacks. During our festivals, my brother and I took over trays of special treats to our neighbours and they did the same for us during the Chinese festivals.

I rushed to the tray. 'Today's a special celebration?'

'Yes, Suri,' Mama said. 'Don't start eating those. They're for the Siu family. Take the tray over.'

'What? No, Mama, no. I can't.'

'Why not?'

'Mama, I'm afraid of Suk-yin.'

'Don't be, Sweetheart.'

I could see no way out. When Mama tells us to do something we do it.

'Can I take Siva with me. He can carry the umbrella.'

'No, it has stopped raining.'

I shuffled with the tray along the path lined with tall pine trees. Drops of water fell on me. I imagined the trees cried. I wished for it to rain so I could return with a soggy tray not delivered. I arrived at the door and rang the bell. As I stood quivering, the door opened and Suk-yin stood before me like a large ogre. I nearly dropped the tray. Fortunately, her mother was there behind her.

'A present for Suk-yin,' I blurted out quickly. 'Erm, er, for taking us to school, for taking care of my brother and me.'

Suk-yin's cheeks turned scarlet. When she saw the chocolates her eyes lit up and her hands shot out. She snatched the tray, not looking at me.

'What do you say?' her mother said.

'Thank you,' she mumbled.

'Thank you what?'

'Thank you, Suri.'

Her little brother ran out singing Suri, Suri - the only words he knew to communicate with.

'Would you like to come in and play?' said the mother.

'No, I have homework.' Then, remembering, I said, 'No, thank you, Auntie.'

I walked away quite tall and fearless.

That evening my father said, 'So, what news of the bully?'

'Oh, nothing new,' said Mama. 'Tea ready, we have some lovely savouries. Sent a tray over to the Siu's, too.'

He laughed. 'Soft-soaping them, that's not going to work. That Suk-yin, she's a tough cookie.'

Sometime after that, Suk-yin stopped hitting me but her bullying in school did not cease. If anything, it increased.

A week later, Mama said to my father, 'I'm thinking we'll invite the Sius over for tea this weekend.'

'You think that's going to work?'

'We'll see.'

I was furious with my mother. I thought, How could Mama be so cruel to her own children? How could she still be friends with that family?

'Are you inviting Suk-yin, too?' I asked.

'Darling, she is part of the Siu family.'

'She is my enemy. I don't want to play with her.'

'You don't have to if you don't want to. Stay in your room. But you will be missing some fun games I'm arranging.'

'I don't care.' I stomped off.

In the end, I did not stay in my room. I scowled at everyone from the corner of the garden until my mother called me over to join the games. We ended up having a lot of fun, especially at musical chairs when parents tried squeezing onto children's chairs. Suk-yin and I managed to secure our chairs much faster than the others did and we squealed with laughter. But I did not like it when the music stopped and I could not dislodge Suk-yin from the last chair. It really was too small a chair for her and she looked quite funny trying not to fall off it.

A few days later, Mama sent us over with half a watermelon and four skipping ropes. I was a little nervous.

Suk-yin's mother opened the door and said 'Come to play?'

My brother and I nodded and entered hand-in-hand. My heart beat too loudly.

That night Papa said, 'Are you bribing them? Well, I wish you success, my dear. I still maintain we should talk to the adults.'

I looked at Papa with large approving eyes. I was sure he had the right idea about solving my problem.

'How are things at school?' Papa asked me.

'Better,' I said. And I realized they were better, much better.

The next week the Siu children came over to play with us, bringing a basket of fruit and mushroom dumplings.

A strong friendship grew between the families and especially amongst the children - we were inseparable. By the end of a couple months, Suk-yin and I were best of friends. We often walked to school holding hands. We shared toys and chocolates and school lunches. Sadly, our friendship broke up a couple of years later when we had to leave Shatin. Papa and Mama decided to move to Stanley so we, the children, could attend an English-medium school. Suk-yin's parents remained where they were in Shatin but sent their daughter to a different school in Causeway Bay. Our parents kept in touch but we children had new friends and new interests and in the strictly English-speaking environment I soon forgot most of my Cantonese.

When I was older, I asked my mother, 'Mama, did you bribe Suk-yin to stop bullying me?'

'You were children. Those were little gestures to woo the children. Scolding would not have worked, and I don't believe in punishing children, either.'

As I was thinking about this, Mama said, 'Everyone can be won over with love. Watch, listen, and most of all feel. Put yourself in their place.'

After university I travelled and met a wide variety of people. My mother's gentle ways of dealing with adversity stayed with me, teaching me not to burrow into myself but to look into others, and to love.

I was in Wales with a family of my own when I received a letter from my mother telling me Suk-yin would be visiting London. Mama had kept in touch with the family. She gave me the dates and the address of the hotel.

We met in the hotel lounge. Suk-yin brought her four-year-old son, large sheets of paper and two packs of coloured crayons. My daughter, five, was thrilled to meet my old friend and her son. The two children sat on the carpet and started drawing, as comfortable as if they had always been friends.

I said, 'You're a good mother, Suk-yin, remembering to bring something for the children to occupy themselves. I hadn't thought of the children.'

'It will keep them amused while we reminisce,' she said.

The two children got on really well for a short time, and then a fight broke out. The little boy had broken his red crayon in half and wanted my daughter's which she refused to hand over.

We looked at each other, remembering our squabbles and began laughing.

Suk-yin said, 'I haven't begun teaching my little one to share yet. I never forgot your mother's kindness when we were kids. I was scared of you.'

'Of me? You're joking. I was terrified of you.'

'I hated you because you were more attractive and clever in school - the other children liked you more. Later I was ashamed of what I did, but I never got around to saying sorry.'

'No sorry required, we were good friends in the end.'

'Your mother gave me a very special gift, the gift of love. I would like to pass that on to my son.'

We watched our two children, now contented, stretched on the floor, having discarded the whole red crayon. They were both drawing umbrellas, each with a piece of the broken red crayon.


Copyright 2017 Leela Devi Panikar