A Deeply Remembered Family in a British Colony

Growing up in the then British colony of Malaya, my closest friend in elementary/primary school was Jeswant Singh, from a Sikh family living in our neighbourhood in Kuala Lumpur (KL).

The Singh family was large. Jeswant had several siblings—as I recall, 7 brothers and 2 sisters. Each went by their nicknames—Jeswant was Googi, older than him was Bangsa, and older than both was Umber. I can’t remember the names of the older siblings. Only Jeswant’s real name was known to me.

The oldest sibling, a male, who did well in school, was sent to study law in London. When he returned, he worked his way up in neighbouring Singapore to become a judge. The family, understandably, was immensely proud of him. They always regarded him as a totemic figure.

One of the two sisters, clearly a family matriarch-in-waiting, was nicknamed “Queenie” by her younger siblings.

I never knew what her actual name was— she was Queenie, and that was that.

Jeswant and I did our homework together, after which I usually sat down with the family for a delicious Punjabi meal.

Jeswant and his brothers were immensely athletic, with Jeswant probably the best of them all (especially in soccer and field hockey, the latter being a sport for men in many countries).

After we were together in elementary school, Jeswant’s father retired, and the family moved to a then far-away town (the smaller and quieter Ipoh).

There Jeswant sustained a serious back injury, and botched epidurals prior to equally substandard back surgeries left him permanently incapacitated.

I last saw Jeswant just before I left for the UK in the mid-60s. When he visited me in KL, Jeswant, an all-round hard nut, was in tears as he described the pain of his botched back surgeries.

In those days, in a very recently independent British colony, with a not fully-established legal framework for suing those incompetent and negligent, litigating against Jeswant’s surgeons for their substandard work was not really an option.

I suspected later that Jeswant was being used as a guinea pig for surgical techniques imported from the (modern and state of the art) west, but utilized by surgeons not competent enough, or without the full repertoire of medical tools from the west, to execute them properly.

Jeswant and I had no contact after I went to the UK, in the mid-60s, as I said.

I do have indelible recollections of Jeswant and his family.

There was a time when a burglar entered their house in the middle of the night. The burglar probably soon regretted his decision, because the 6 male children in residence (all of whom played field hockey), picked up their sticks and clubbed him until he was bleeding all-over before tying him up and summoning the police.

Apparently, the police said the Singhs had done a good job in roughing-up the intruder.

If the Singhs had not done this, the burglar would have had the shit beaten out of him by the cops when he was taken to the police station, before being hauled in front of a judge.

My guess is that the unfortunate burglar, if given the hypothetical choice, would have declined the options posed both by the Singh brothers and the cops.

The bully where we lived was Raymond, the offspring of an Indian and Chinese marriage (they are called Chindians in Malaya/Malaysia).

Raymond was called “Raymond Kutti” by the Singh brothers– I later discovered “kutti” means itch or bitch in Punjabi– but have no real clue why Jeswant and his brothers gave Raymond this nickname.

Raymond Kutti was a menace for those younger than him in the neighbourhood.

The Kutti once barged through our bamboo hedge during office hours, when he knew my parents were not at home, and plucked what he wanted from our fruit trees. I happened to be there, and remonstrated with him. The Kutti raised a fist at me and told me to “fuck off”.

I mentioned this incident to Jeswant and his older brothers, who said they would “take care” of the Kutti.

I’ve only a rough idea of what might have transpired, but I was never troubled by Raymond again, and neither were our fruit trees and hedge.

The Singh brothers were also (unintended) environmental conservationists before their time.

Their father owned, proudly, a car which he drove only on special occasions— he went to work daily on the local bus. His children called him “the old man”, though most certainly not to his face.

When the time came to wash the old man’s car, the youngest Singh brothers, about 3 of them I recall (Jeswant, Bangsa, and Umber would hop on the roof of the vehicle with their shorts on, and hose-down and soap themselves. The tropical heat made this a pleasant experience for them.

Neighbours would look out of their windows to behold this proto-conservationist spectacle.

Baths over, and the accompanying water saved by doing double-duty with the car wash, my Singh friends jumped off and gave dad’s car the finishing touches it merited.

A family deeply influential for, and indelibly remembered by, this young Surin.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.