The Other Side of the Tracks

Trying Not to Draw Attention While Crossing the Tracks (Photo: The Telegraph,U.K.)

Last weekend, I made a visit to the other side of the tracks.  The occasion was a sad one.  It was  to attend a Hindu prayer ceremony  for a young woman of 40  who passed away from leukemia after a brief illness.  She was the daughter of M, a  long time family friend of Indian descent.

He worked for my parents on and off for some 45 years,  initially as our gardener and later on in various roles as the need arose.  He watched me and my siblings grow up.  In the same way, we also witnessed his family grow up and his pride as he toiled hard to provide for his four children, giving them education and opportunities in life that he and his wife never had.

I had visited M and his family many years before in their home which was at that time in an illegal squatter village but after saving money and lobbying the government for affordable low cost housing, he and his family moved into a tiny two room, 600 sq feet flat.

This was my first visit to M’s current home.  My wife was very concerned.  It was located on the “wrong side of the tracks” – an area that in the mind of  middle-class citizens like myself is out of bounds; a nasty and unsafe place with gangsters ready to pounce on anyone that doesn’t belong there.

Indeed, there was a feeling of neglect and apprehension when I got there.  M’s home is part of  a series of low cost flats.  There were seven blocks; each block had 20 floors with 20 units on each floor.  But the units are tiny and the corridors are cramped.  The stairwells are dark and dirty.  Everyone was in so close proximity and the walls were so thin that privacy was practically non-existent.  While we were participating in the prayer ceremony, we could hear the neighbors cheering on the national soccer team whose game with rivals Singapore was being telecasted on the TV.

The main prayer ceremony took place in M’s small hall which could only accommodate about 20 people standing packed like sardines around the priest  who sat in a lotus position in front of an altar.  Another 10-15 peered in from the narrow corridor outside the flat and another 30 well wishers sat near a modest offering of food and refreshments that had been placed near the stairwell.  Unlike the flats in Singapore which have a communal hall in each block for residents to use for such occasions, these flats do not have such facilities.

I was very conspicuously out of place.  Firstly, every body else present was of Indian descent; very dark skinned.  Despite my recent attempts at a tan, I was whiter than Snow White by contrast (or should I have said, Prince Charming?).  Next, with the exception of M’s eldest son, I stood a full head and shoulders over everyone.  Almost all of them knew very little English and while they could speak Malay, the national language, most chose to use their mother tongue, Tamil.  Hence, my conversations were limited to polite chatter about the food and the weather.

The weather! Despite the rain, it was stuffy and humid and I stood out again cause I was sweating like a pig whereas, the rest were quite used to the conditions and were perspiration free. (Actually, do pigs sweat a lot?  Just wondering where the saying comes from.)

So to summarize, I was white, tall, sweaty, non-Tamil speaking and clearly not from the hood.

Anyway, the reason for this rambling post is that it was a reminder to me how much the gulf between worlds of the rich and poor in Malaysia has widened.

Don’t get me wrong.  I have seen abject poverty; families living in wooden shacks with leaking roofs, rotting floorboards and in real danger of collapsing.  M is not poor.  He is in the lower income group.  He has worked hard.  His children have all done better than he has in terms of better paying jobs.  He would be proud of his achievements.  But this is what gets me.  He deserves to be living in better conditions than this urban and concrete monstrosity.  I feel he had more space, had more privacy, a cooler environment and a more lively and caring community when all he had was a squatter hut.

I am ashamed to say that I was quite fearful for my safety as I left the flat that night.  It felt like I was on the radar of every predatory gangster as I walked along the poorly lit path back to my car.

This wasn’t always the case.  I remember that when I was growing up, the gap between the rich and poor was not so wide.  I had childhood friends from every tier of society.  I had friends who lived in palatial homes full of marble and rosewood furniture.  I had friends whose mothers would treat us to cake and imported chocolates when we visited.  I also had friends who lived in dark dingy spaces above sundry shops in old pre-war buildings in the centre of town.  Dark and dingy but yet I remember them as cool and welcoming too.  I also had friends who lived in tiny pigeon hole flats but there was much more community spirit in those days.  Why, one childhood highlight was to visit one such friend during Chinese New Year and take part in a fireworks war where we shoot off rockets at other schoolmates who live in the block of flats opposite.  One day, we would visit someone and play with his drum set and the next we would visit someone else and catch tadpoles in the drain behind his shack.

In those days, being rich did not make you separate from the rest of society.  You may build a big mansion but it would still be found in the same neighbourhood with everyone else.  You may be rich but back then you still did your marketing in the same neighbourhood wet market or at the same sundry shop.  You may be rich but everyone enjoyed sipping coffee in a traditional Chinese coffee shop.

In contrast, today, the rich seclude themselves behind security walls and gated communities and the poor are hidden in distant parts of town or behind colourful billboards and hoardings.  The rich today have abandoned the wet market and shop only in high end supermarkets and complexes.  The coffee shop has been abandoned in favour of Starbucks and CoffeeBean.  Their children are now enrolled in private schools where everyone is from some shade of wealthy.

And so, many of the rich have no idea what life is on the other side of the tracks.  Like me, I think we need to go there and be reminded that life is about much more than just money in the bank.

For M, his daughter leaves behind a young son (his father died in a road accident before he was born) and despite M’s advanced age, he may have to keep on working to help raise the boy.    His struggle continues  but so does his joy for he has done much with his life with what he has been given.


16 thoughts on “The Other Side of the Tracks”

  1. May your friends daughter sleep peacefully in the house of her ancestors,.

    That’s why I never left “the wrong side of the tracks.” I know my ‘hood and where the rats are here. I think it’s rather odd when them from the other side speed in here and buy their drugs and then feel free enough to move over a block or two and shoot them up. Then like casual visitors just amble out. They really don’t know when they are most vulnerable.

  2. Good of you to go. I know it is not easy. I have been in similar situations, try being a white woman in India. I don’t know why, in the rural city of Raichur hordes of men slept outside our hotel door and followed us around town like we were rock stars. They did not say anything to me and my two younger, darker-skinned, female companions. A woman asked if my friends (one black, one philipino) were my servants. I said “No, of course not!” they were still treated as such though and I could not persuade the Indian women to treat them as equal to myself or even to them. I have never experinced such blatent racism, sexism and class stratification as I did then. I was a skin color and a symbol, nothing more. My personal identity and that of my companions did not matter.

    I’m sure M. appreciated you being there! It speaks a lot to the friendship you shared and I am sure that some of the other people were likely impressed by this.


  3. You did a great thing for your friend M. Having said that: isn’t it a shame that it couldn’t have been easier to show your concern for a friend. There are more and more people on the wrong side of the tracks in todays world. I think of M as a great man also for doing what he can in his space in this world. I pray that God gives him peace and help with the little boy.

  4. I haven’t experienced quite such a gulf in the rich-poor divide, but I have known (and still know) some people who live in less than desirable areas and are almost apologetic and ashamed that their address suggests their status in society. I much prefer the integrated housing and mixed use neighbourhoods where you don’t know the wealth of your neighbours, unless you actually know them. Our municipal government is spending millions fixing the problems of social housing that were caused partly by the urban design of housing the ‘poor’.

    Sorry to hear about your friend M’s loss.

  5. I was in the Dominican Republic when I was twelve and that was my first encounter with “the great divide.” I remember feeling so blessed to live in a country with a middle class. Now almost forty years later, our country seems to be slowly dividing the middle class into the poor and the rich. It’s very disheartening. I’m sorry that your country may also be headin in that direction. Long live the middle class!

  6. I know these tracks here, and cross them sometimes – in fact I think I am setteled on the “wrong” side nowadays. At least some people make me feel so. Others do ignore these kind of borders. A very interesting, but slightly disturbing situation.

  7. That’s very sad, and good of you to go to the service.

    Pigs have almost no sweat glands and barely sweat at all. Which is why they often use mud or water to cool themselves. I don’t know where the expression came from, except that pigs have always been maligned.

  8. Mark,
    Thanks. I’d feel safe with you cause you are part of the hood…….although I am still concerned about your squirrel eating habits.

    Racism is indeed everywhere but India has the cultural problem of having a caste system that like apartheid separates people into groups of “different” value and it isn’t even along the lines of skin color. And women are so subjugated to men. Change is happening but slowly.
    I was in India once and a female colleague called me in the middle of the night as she was worried about a man sleeping in the hotel corridor outside her room. I went and challenged the man who turned out to be the steward in charge of room service for that floor and it was their practice to sit/sleep in the corridor until someone needs them. Strange, no?

  9. Joyce,
    Town planners should be reducing this sort of polarisation through integrated housing and mixed used neighborhoods but the rich create these slums by buying their way out of there. Thanks for the prayers for the little boy.

    Riot Kitty,
    It is sad especially now that the boy has been orphaned.

  10. Violetsky,
    I am all for integrated housing and so against the trend for gated communities for the rich.

    It is disheartening and such “hoods” become the breeding ground for so much more polarisation and problems. It becomes a self feeding vicious cycle.

  11. Mago,
    I think so much ill can be solved just by not allowing these borders to form. I too have lived on the wrong side many times when i was a student and I am grateful to have experienced it.

    Secret Agent,
    I knew it! Being a fan of conspiracy theories, I strongly suspect that there is a nationwide coordinated campaign to malign our porcine friends. I heard from a friend that heard from a friend that they have rewritten part of Ham-let to read, “Guilty or not guilty” instead of “to be or not to be”. 🙂

  12. Hi, LG: Just read your story. You know, just when I feel sorry for myself, your story comes along. There are so many who struggle. We need to remember. It’s good to see you. D

  13. Good on you for standing by your family friend and supprting him in time of need. I think although it is more subttle here in NZ I recognise a lot of things in your story. I feel sad that the community has dissappeared. We had a strong community feeling and rich worked along poor in the earthquake times but things are starting to go back to “normal”

  14. donnetta,
    Good to see you here. Sorry if I ruined your sorry party. I know how luxurious it is to wallow in self pity every now and then. I too have partaken. But in the end we do need to stop being so self centered and look more to others.

    You may have pointed out an important aspect – that is that community spirit is stronger in the midst of adversity.

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