Some thirty years ago, when climbing into a pair of Levi’s was still not yet an act tantamount to a do-it-yourself vasectomy, I went for a trip to Singapore with my friend, S. The reason for this trip was for S to meet his father, Uncle Bidin, for the very first time. They were separated the day S was born and had never met each other even once in the sixteen years they were apart. It was a minor miracle that they even managed to find each other again.
The story began when S’s father and mother met in the romantic post-war Singapore of the mid-1950’s. What else could they do? They duly fell in love and eventually got married. Like all real-life love stories, things began going downhill drastically soon after that.
Theirs was a relationship that many would consider as a disaster waiting to happen. She was a teacher, and as such, was part of Singapore’s upper crust (teachers were still held in high esteem in those days). Uncle Bidin, on the other hand, was a lowly lorry driver who struggled just to keep his body and soul together. It was not exactly a pairing that guaranteed the absence of strife on the domestic front.
But the young couple fought the odds instead of each other and managed to stay together. While she taught at a local school, he drove his lorry by day and competed in the semi-professional boxing circuit by night (yes, they had a semi-professional boxing circuit in Singapore back then). It was a tough life. But their love proved to be even tougher. Then one day, S was conceived.
As luck would have it, the very day before S’s mother went into labour, Uncle Bidin was scheduled to compete in a series of boxing matches in Jakarta. In his mind, he didn’t really have a choice. Money was tight and the arrival of a newborn meant that there would be even more bills that he would have to attend to. If he won the big money in Jakarta, it would be that much easier for junior and the wife. So, off he went to Jakarta, intent on winning big.
And win big he did! He rushed home with his winnings only to find an empty but hastily vacated house. His beloved wife was nowhere to be seen. And worse, there was no sign of his eagerly awaited first born son. Frantic, he hit the streets of Singapore and demanded answers from anyone who might have known what had happened. What he found out devastated him right to his core: his beloved wife had died in labour and his in-laws had taken his son, uprooted themselves, and made off for Kuala Lumpur. There was no forwarding address.
Eventually, after 15 years of trying to find his son, Uncle Bidin located his in-laws. They agreed to meet with him but did not allow him see his son. Uncle Bidin pleaded his case as any father would for a chance to see a long lost son. Eventually the in-laws relented. However, Uncle Bidin had to return to Singapore first; they would send S to him later.
That was how we found ourselves in Singapore. After an awkward welcome and stilted hugs at the railway station, Uncle Bidin took us to his home. He showed us to our room so that we could rest for a while. He slowly closed the door behind him and went straight to the kitchen to prepare dinner.
“This looks suspicious, doesn’t it”, mused S
“What does?”, I asked.
“My dad says he never married again. But what are all these children’s clothes doing in these drawers?”
I took a quick peek, and sure enough, there were all kinds of clothes – ranging from infant clothing to things that teenagers like us would have worn – stacked neatly to the brim in all the drawers. It didn’t look good to me. Uncle Bidin had probably married again but didn’t know how to break the news to his long lost son. As a result, he lied about not having another family. He probably had sent his family away for a few days so that S would not have to meet them. Why did he have to lie about something like that? I wasn’t about to wreck a long awaited father-and-son reunion by confirming S’s suspicions. But I was at a loss to explain all those clothes.
“These probably belong to his nephews who come and visit him here often”, was all I could offer.
“Yeah… they probably are”, replied S. There was no hiding the feeling of disappointment in his eyes.
But what did he expect? Was Uncle Bidin to remain celibate for all those years? Let’s get real here!
A few minutes later, Uncle Bidin knocked on the door and asked us join him for dinner. It was a simple affair with loads of rice, some fish, and a few vegetables. But what struck us as odd was that the table had been set for four. There were only three of us.
Unable to contain my curiosity, I asked Uncle Bidin, “Are we expecting company? Who is the other setting for?”
“That’s for my wife”, he replied calmly as we all took our places.
“And when is she coming?”, S asked with a hint of sarcasm in his voice.
Uncle Bidin looked at his son for the longest time and explained, “Son, that setting is for my wife, your mother”.
In a burst of insensitive enthusiasm, I blurted, “You mean you never married again? Then who does the clothes in our room belong to?”
Uncle Bidin smiled and looked at the ceiling as he fought his tears. Then he slowly spoke, “They belong so my son”, gesturing toward S. “I may have failed to find him all these years. But I’ve never failed saving those clothes in that room for him, just in case he ever came home”.
Uncle Bidin passed away some 15 years ago. At the funeral, I recall thinking that the world just doesn’t make men like Uncle Bidin anymore. Even if it did, would there still be a place for people like him?