Going to the beach when I was a kid was an elaborate event. Mum hated it because she had to wake up before dawn to prepare the Indian picnic for dad. While we begged for sandwiches and Tang juice, dad demanded the full Indian treatment – puli soru, a tamarind flavoured rice dish and thairu soru, a spiced yoghurt rice dish. All dad had to do was fit into his retro tiger-print Speedos – and he’d pull it off, or maybe I was just so in awe of him that he could do no wrong, not even an unashamed fashion faux pas.
And he should be allowed to. The man’s had an incredible life. He came to Singapore from India at a very young age with his father and his very first job would become a labour of love in his later life. He made teh halia in a drinks store at a school canteen run by my late grandfather. Dad was learning the ropes to the art of creating the perfect ginger tea. The sweet nectar is a combination of milky goodness and a tinge of gingery spice that begs you to dip all sorts of sugary cakes and biscuits into it.
He would later juggle a newspaper delivery job with his tea making, then teach Tamil at a primary school before moving on to teaching the language and its literature to orphaned boys at the Ramakrishna Mission. Then he’d do a 180, getting involved in fiery union meetings whilst working gigantic cranes at a shipyard. He would eventually discover a nose for business and combine his love for nature and a passion to succeed. Plantations of rice, coconuts and the juiciest of Indian mangoes grown in his humble South Indian village of origin would enable him to fulfil his ultimate “I have arrived” dream – the Mercedes Benz.
In his jungle Speedos on Changi beach, however, he was still just a shipyard man. The majesty of planes flying so close over the water to the landing strips of Changi Airport was too much for my little brother. Using his fingers like a clothes peg, he’d squeeze his nostrils close and “hide” under the water. Dad and I would giggle at his ludicrous habit and I would hop onto his back as he swam to the deep end of the sea. When my fluttering legs couldn’t touch the floor bed anymore, I’d dig my fingernails into his shoulder. He’d tell me to relax but I’d get that feeling that I’ve come to recognise as stomach elevator.
It was the same feeling that engulfed me when my brother told me my father had fallen critically ill on his recent visit to India. My father and I had lost touch over the years. Throughout my teenage years and even into adulthood, it felt like we were two different species trying to sign language our way into comprehension. Like a broken record he’d give me the same advice about hard work and quote instructional proverbs he’d memorised from spiritual and literary books. The stories from Malgudi Days that I would yearn to be read to before bedtime were replaced by repetitive lectures littered with moral-of-the-day endings.
Then we just stopped. There were no more conversations or monologues, only the occasional, “mum has dinner for you on the table”. I reciprocated his unkindness with my cruelty. I had no tolerance for his values as he me, and we both refused to meet halfway. We stopped wanted to know each other.
So when I thought I may lose him, I locked myself in my room and thought about our Milo mornings. He’ll gently wake me up for school then go to the kitchen. And the performance begins. Scoops of Milo powder, sugar and milk and the perfunctory clinking of the spoon on the inside walls of the mug – so loud my sleepy head rang till I had no choice but to wake up. I thought about how our Milo mornings had turned into teh halia afternoons in my adulthood. On Sundays, he’d bang, rattle, clink and smash the kitchen up before bringing me the tea of unspoken love. A flawless inch of feathery froth icing a mug full of silky brew.
We’d watch television and sip on our spicy tea without uttering a word to each other. He didn’t not want to know me, he didn’t know how.
Our unkindness towards each other stemmed from being stranded in unfamiliar grounds. I’d become an emotional teenager even I wouldn’t have wanted to know back then. Although I inherited his love for literature and language, I discovered the beauty he found in Tamil in English. He believed in hard work and I in travel. Fuelled by his rags-to-riches story, he wanted to see my success and wealth reported in the papers and I wanted to be the pauper that reported it. He wanted a sign that I was going to be ok.
After two months of hospitalisation and home remedies, he finally went back to Singapore. When we spoke on the phone, I gathered my practiced words and in broken Tamil told him that I had to come home soon for his teh halia. And I did, but he was no longer the shipyard man whose back I’d clung onto. He was a greying shell of the Speedos man I once sort of knew.
We drank countless cups of teh halia and ate too many vadais. I listened to his words like a court stenographer. I watched him kiss my nephews as his raspy beard tickled them as it did me when I was a child. And then one day he handed it to me. The recipe to his velvety concoction.
I never attempted to make it. After all, it wasn’t really about the teh halia. But whenever I’m on the phone with him, I tell him I tried to make it several times, but always insist that it never quite tastes like his.