Tuesday 18 June 2013

What Mak did at home, my father did for nation

By Lee Wei Ling, Published The Sunday Times, 16 Jun 2013

I woke at 4am the other day, and as is my usual habit, checked my BlackBerry.

A friend had e-mailed to tell me that it was duanwu jie (or Dragon Boat Festival) that day, and as he was flying back from Taipei, he would bring me some rice dumplings.

When I went back to sleep, I dreamt of the duanwu jie of my childhood. My paternal grandmother, or Mak as we called her, was in my dreams.

Days before the actual festival, which falls on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, she would start buying the ingredients and make bakchang (rice dumpling).

Since I was supposed to learn how to cook from her, I would write down the recipe. But Mak knew I would never make a good cook, so much of the cooking lesson consisted of just her demonstrating how things were done, followed by a feast.

I did try to wrap the dumplings on occasion, thinking that I could not do much damage to what had already been properly prepared by Mak. Perhaps she thought I would learn that what seemed so simple in her hands in fact took a great deal of skill.

The zong zi (as such dumplings are called) is made in the shape of a pyramid - or at least the Peranakan zong zi is.

Wrapping the leaves around the four corners of the pyramid is not easy. The consequence of an unskilfully wrapped zong zi is that when you boil it, water would seep through the corners. After a few attempts, I decided to leave the making of zong zi entirely in Mak's hands. I helped only in their consumption.

Mak died on 1980. The next few Chinese New Year eves and duanwu jies were melancholy for I would invariably think of Mak on these occasions. But the years have taken away the pain and sadness of losing my favourite grandparent. I now remember her with sentimental fondness.

I can best describe her temperament as one of aggressive kindness. She would try her best to help if she thought help was justified - and she could be very pushy in delivering her help.

I think my father Lee Kuan Yew resembles her in this respect. Of course, he occupies a totally different position in society compared to his mother. But it can be said that he did nationally what she did domestically.

Just as she tried to improve the welfare of her children and friends, he tried to improve the welfare of Singaporeans. And just as she was pushy in offering her help, he could at times almost force Singaporeans to do what is right though it may have caused them temporary pain. I would describe that as being "aggressively kind" too.

Mak has been dead for 33 years now, and as I said, time has taken away the pain of her loss. But my own mother has been gone for less than three years now, and the pain of her loss still remains.

My father and I have stayed on in the same house we had shared with her, and my father has moved back into the bedroom that he had shared with Mama for their entire married life until the devastating stroke she suffered in May 2008. From then until Mama's death, he had slept in his study so as not to disturb her. Sometimes, when I see or read something that I know would interest Mama, I would automatically head into my parents' room to tell Mama about it or pick up the phone to call her - only to recall, with renewed shock, that she is no longer with us.

There are many things that are not within our control. The wisest way to handle distress is to accept the inevitable and carry on as best as one can. That is the rational thing to do. But reason and logic are sometimes helpless in the face of emotions.

My father is an exceedingly rational person. But even his capacity for rational thought is helpless in the face of his deepest emotions. Since Mama died, his health has taken a turn for the worse.

It may have done so in any case for he is nearing 90. But I am certain that the grief of losing his lifelong love, friend and partner played an important part in causing his health to deteriorate.

The writer is director of the National Neuroscience Institute.

No comments:

Post a Comment