The chatter was nonstop as the group of former primary school classmates reminisces about their halcyon days in Kuala Pilah, Negri Sembilan 60 years ago.
“Remember Mrs Paul with her cigarette in one hand and cane in the other?” asks Tunku Datuk Nazihah Tunku Mohd Ros. “We were all so terrified of her.”
“Oh yes,” Lee Ching Ling, pipes in. “Once, we were late for school and she packed all seven of us in her Morris Minor and drove us home, one by one, to face our parents. She was scary but we loved her so much. We loved all our teachers and our friends who were like family. Those days were so beautiful and we were all so carefree.”
These old girls of Tunku Kurshiah School (now Sekolah Tunku Kurshiah) have known each other since they started school in 1953.
They are gathered in the home of their classmate, Tunku Datuk Zahiah Tunku Sulong in Petaling Jaya, for a reunion (and a scrumptious lunch).
It’s their third reunion in the last five years but they are thrilled to see each other, sharing warm embraces and uproarious laughter.
“We don’t know how many of us will be around for our next reunion. Or, if we are, we may not remember much or even each other,” jokes Datuk Zainon Aishah Ahmad who was the former director-general of the Malaysian Industrial Development Authority (MIDA).
This time, they have gathered to meet with their classmate, Lady Monjulee Webb, a watercolour artist (and former High Sheriff of Glamorgan in Wales) who lives in Britain and is back in Malaysia for a short visit.
“Most of us had actually lost touch for many years,” explains Tunku Nazihah, a retired diplomat who has served as the Malaysian ambassador to France, New Zealand, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka among other countries.
“But with modern technology and WhatsApp, we got reconnected, one by one, a few years ago. Our first reunion took place in 2015 when another of our classmates, Zabedah Yusof who now lives in London, urged me to round everyone up on her trip back to Malaysia. I think about 30 of us turned up.
“After that, we started our ex-Tunku Kurshiah WhatsApp chat group and we’ve had small gatherings every now and then.
“It’s not easy to get a big group together we all now suffer from back aches and knee pains and all that.”
This time, about 20 or so ladies showed up.
“Tunku Nazihah is really good at getting things done,” shares Siti Zaharah Musa, a retired senior assistant. “Even in school, she was always top of the class.”
Monjulee remembers the “friendly rivalry” between her and Tunku Nazihah back in school.
“The teacher would come in and ask the person with the best handwriting to write on the blackboard and it would always be Tunku Nazihah because she had the best writing,” she shares, her hands up in the air in mock frustration.
The women, all in their early 70s now, impeccably dressed and exceptionally well-spoken, have long since gone their own ways. Though they lead separate lives, their shared history of growing up together in the sleepy hollow of Kuala Pilah is a bond they treasure.
“I would not have forgone this reunion for anything,” says Rajeswary Kanagasabai, a retired matron who now resides in Klang.
“These friendships really mean a lot. These are lasting friendships that I will never forget. Growing up, we all lived not far from each other and every morning, we’d wait for each other in front of our houses so that we could all walk to school together.
“It isn’t just my schoolmates that I am fond of. I grew up in the kampung and still go back to visit the old kampung folk. When my son got married, I invited them all for the wedding. We are all still really close,” says the soft-spoken mother of two.
Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, after the second World War, was difficult, shares Tunku Nazihah, but it built resilience in them that has shaped the women they all became.
“We don’t come from rich families and we went through a lot of hardships. Movement in those years after the war was restricted as there were road blocks everywhere because of the communists and all that. There were the Australian, Kiwi, Gurkha and Fijian soldiers everywhere and they were scary. Those Fijian soldiers were really big!
“There were no school buses or taxis and we had to walk to school. And we worked hard. That is why, I think, there are so many successful leaders who came out of Kuala Pilah,” shares Tunku Nazihah, proudly.
Nodding in agreement, Rosnah Manaf chimes in.
“Yes, we all had to work really hard to make sure that we did well and made something of ourselves. And I think this shared struggle is another thing that binds us,” says the retired school teacher.
Tough as it may have been, the women all remember with fondness how blissfully simple and happy their lives were, centred around their easy friendships that transcended cultural and religious differences.
“We grew up as one. There was no polarisation among the races at all. We went in and out of each others’ homes as if it was our own. We ate in each others’ homes without hesitation. Everyone was uncle and aunty to us,” shares Monjulee.
Adds Tunku Nazihah: “Back then, there was never any fuss about whether the food (in our friends’ home) was halal or not. Everyone was respectful of each other and sensitive to each others’ cultural and religious differences. It was unspoken. Race was never an issue back then and till today, all of us share the same bond.”
Although Kuala Pilah was a sleepy town, they recalled some exciting days.
“Remember the circus? We had such fun when the circus and funfair came to town. And our picnics! We’d cycle to Ulu Bendol, a popular picnic spot which was about 13 kms away from Kuala Pilah. Along the way the tyres of our bicycle would get a puncture and we’d just change the tyre in a nearby village and carry on,” relates Rosnah.
Adds Uma Devy Kandiah: “And our parents let us go out because in a small town, they would always find out if we got up to no good anyway.”
The reminiscences were endless.
“Remember the ice balls we used to enjoy? With the syrup,” asks Uma, her eyes lighting up as she thinks about the treat she once enjoyed.
“And the dancing! Remember our dancing classes? Oh! Those were so much fun. During our physical education classes we alternated between sports or dancing. We learnt the Scottish (Highland) dance, the Pas de Basque and we had costumes and all that. I think I still remember some of the steps,” says Lee as she demonstrates a few moves while balancing her plate of food.
The women exchange memory after memory, often laughing at the hijinks they got up to all those years ago.
That is the magic of old friendships, muses Dr Indon Lajin, a consultant paediatric nefrologist.
“Old friendships are very different from new friendships. They are special. You know, we shared many of these same stories in our last reunion but it’s still wonderful to relive them. Even though some of us only knew each other for a couple of years we all share that sense of belonging which is really meaningful,” says Dr Indon.
For Monjulee, her childhood values remain the guiding force in her life.
“This is the foundation of my life. I may live abroad but this is the Malaysia that I remember. The country may have changed but I still have these memories of my Malaysia which are so precious to me,” she says.