Ramayee walked briskly through the winding path. She needed to get away from the row of house soonest. Those were estate workers’ quarters. It was 4 p.m. and most of them would have returned from their rubber tapping work. There would be hoots and catcalls if they see her, so she wanted to avoid that.
At 18, Ramayee was a very pretty slender girl with curves at the right places. There was only one problem – she was fair-skinned. The estate workers were mostly from South India and generally were dark skinned. But Ramayee was not, though she was said to have been born to a South Indian mother. Her mum passed away when she was a baby; her maternal uncle took upon himself to raise her and his three children. They were all dark skinned, Ramayee was not.
There were rumours in the estate that Ramayee’s mother was secretly married to a Chinese man from a nearby new village. New villages were formed by the British post Japanese occupation to stop the Chinese community from providing any form of support to the Malayan Communist Party, whose members moved around in jungles. Many Chinese had moved closer to jungles during the Japanese Occupation of Malaya to avoid harassments, raids and death by the Japanese soldiers. When the British returned, they had wanted to curb the influence of the communists, thus new villages were born. There was practically one new village near each estate. The Chinese were generally traders, though some worked as rubber tappers.
Some mocked her because no one knew who her father was. Ramayee felt very embarrassed.
`Hey, white face!’ Ramayee was shocked. She had entered the housing row and a young man who was perched on his bicycle called out to her. She looked down as she walked as fast as she could. Not seeing her respond, he took his bicycle and started peddling behind her. Ramayee broke into a slow run. She hated it when the menfolk in the estate follow her in their bicycles.
The estate folks made her feel like an outsider. All because she was not dark skinned like them.
`Why am I unlike the rest?’ she remembered asking her uncle. Her uncle looked at his wife. Her aunt was also silent.
`Can I see my mum’s photo?’ she asked again.
`We don’t have any,’ her uncle said.
`You are lying,’ she accused her uncle.
`No, we never had any photos of her,’ her uncle tried to convince her.
`Why?’ Ramayee asked.
`We have to go to town to take photo. Town is very far away,’ he tried to explain. Most estates were located miles away from nearest towns. Ramayee was silent for a moment.
`Was my mother like you?’ she asked?
`Yes,’ said her uncle.
`Then, why am I like this?’ Ramayee went back to the beginning.
Her uncle became silent again.
Girls of her age at the estate were getting married and settling down. The way things were going, no man was expected to propose to her because she was fair skinned. And there were questions about her father's identity.
The young man who followed her on his bicycle stopped as she turned into the lane that led towards her house. The men in that estate knew better than to be caught harassing Ramayee.
Ramayee’s uncle was a burly man. That was not all. He also had good relationship with the British management that owned the estate. So, almost everyone knew that it would be safe for them to not to pick a fight with Ramayee or her uncle’s family. But that never stopped the catcalls.
As she neared her uncle’s house, she saw one of her cousin’s walking in with a bottle of soft drink from the only grocery shop at the estate. Some guests must have come, she thought as she made her way through the back of the house. True enough, she heard foreign voices, but she could not understand what was talked about. But she heard her uncle in the conversation.
She washed her feet before stepping in through the kitchen door. Her aunt was cooking something while her two cousins were sitting around the only table in the kitchen. It was not a real table but something her uncle had put together to resemble one.
The cousin who had brought in the bottle of soft drink poured the contents into two small glasses and set them on a tray. Then he handed the tray to Ramayee.
`No, you go and give,’ Ramayee said as she picked up a knife and started dicing carrots for her aunt.
`Amma asked you to go and serve,’ said the cousin as he set the tray next to her.
`Ramayee, go and serve the drinks to the guests’, her aunt said from the other end of the kitchen.
`Why?’ Ramayee asked. Her aunt turned and gave a stern look.
Without a word she picked up the tray and started walking but stopped. She adjusted her long skirt and blouse, brushed her hair with her hands and picked up the tray again.
She walked out of the kitchen into the main room and stopped. There were an old man and an old woman sitting on the only bench in their house. Her uncle was standing by the door, arms folded. The old woman stood up when she saw Ramayee. Her eyes started tearing. She held out her hand to touch Ramayee who stepped back alarmed.
Her uncle quickly ran over and took the tray from her hands. The old lady held Ramayee’s hands and said something, tears flowing down her cheeks. The old man also stood up and walked towards Ramayee. They were both saying something which Ramayee could not understand.
`These are your grandparents,’ her uncle said.
`What? Who are they?’ she asked.
`They are the parents of your father.’
`I have a father?’
`Yes, you had a father, but he had died when your mother was pregnant with you.’
`Uncle, I don’t understand,’ Ramayee said, by then she was also crying. She looked from the old lady to her uncle. The old lady hugged her and patted her back softly. The old man touched her head.
They brought her to the bench and asked her to sit down. Then they said something to Ramayee’s uncle. He gave the glasses of soft drinks to the old couple and set the tray down.
`Your mum - my sister, was the only educated one in our family. She finished class 7 and then she said she wanted to work. Girls were not allowed to work, but we allowed your mum because she was a capable girl. So, she worked at the office (estate management office). The office was run by David Mc Dermott. These two people are his parents. Your mother and David fell in love and David asked to marry your mother. We gave our blessings though David was a foreigner. He also informed his parents in England. But before the marriage could take place, David was shot dead by the communists during one of his estate rounds. My sister - your mother, was very distraught. She wanted to die as well, but she was already pregnant with you. But she died after you were born because she could not endure the pain of losing David. Your aunt and I raised you for eighteen years. David’s parents are very old. They have decided to come to Malaya to see their only granddaughter, that’s you. They would like to bring you back to England with them.’ By the time her uncle finished, his eyes were moist.
Ramayee stood at the window of her cabin, watching the port disappear as the ship sailed towards England. It has been three months since she met her father’s parents. All formalities were completed and Ramayee was now in a voyage towards England. At least now she knew why she was unlike others at her estate and why she was called white face. She was born to a British father.