26th August 2021 Ms Lo Yen Nyuk
On 22/8/2021, Ming, my sister who lives in New Zealand, Whatsapped the above image to me with the message “Nyuk, do you remember this?”
Of course, I do! I replied to her, “The Pakhribas fireplace! But you were never there. Did Yen paint it?” Yen is my youngest sister who visited me over one Christmas in Pakhribas, Nepal. She’s a sketcher and doodler and later trained as a graphic designer.
Ming then sent another image of a handwritten message which said “Happy birthday, Ming. From the “artist” and owner of the fireplace.” She said the card was beautiful and she had kept it in a book on Corot since 1986.
That means I painted it! In truth, my painting experience was restricted to my fourth and fifth year in primary school in what were draw and paint whatever you like sessions. I was mortified to read that I had called myself an “artist” – who was I kidding? Anyway, the inverted commas say it all.
Pakhribas, Nepal, seems like another age to me now. I lived in a well-appointed house overlooking a valley at the Pakhribas Agricultural Centre (PAC) for close to two years about 35 years ago. PAC was established by the British government in the 1970s to resettle retired Gurkha soldiers back into the farming community by training them in agricultural practices, providing them with seeds and livestock, and supporting their activities through agricultural extension work.
At just over 6000 ft, it was cold enough to warrant a fire in the house at night in the winter months. But the winter days in Nepal are clear and sunny with a crisp, refreshing nip in the air. The monsoon months are altogether different. As a Malaysian, I am familiar with the torrential rain of our monsoon season. The Nepali monsoon at 6000 ft was a revelation. The days were overcast and cloudy and the rains came but gently. It was the fog that truly amazed me. I could see it rising up from the valley below towards the house. When it finally arrived, it was like clouds rolling into my front door and into the house. I learnt what dampness meant. During the monsoon months, the pages of some of the glossy pages of our books would be stuck together and damaged when we later tried to prise them apart. I soon made sure all windows and doors were closed in the late afternoons.
We were very fortunate to have a beautiful fireplace that is modeled after a traditional English wood fireplace complete with mantel, fire tongs, spade, brush, poker, and fence. The ceramics, carriage clock, and photos on the mantelpiece now sit above bookcases in my Kuching house.
At that time, I often had pangs of guilt at the luxury I enjoyed from that fireplace and the house with its proper sanitation and piped water. Nepal was and still is a very poor country and we were in rural Eastern Nepal. To put it into perspective, PAC was then accessible only on foot. When two of my sisters from Singapore visited, after landing in Kathmandu, they had to take an internal flight to Biratnagar in the lowlands, then a one-hour car journey to Dharan, a small town where there was a British Military camp. They spent a night there and continued the next day in a Landrover. Dharan’s altitude is about 1000 ft. The road snaked all the way up through a breathtaking landscape of ravines and cultivated terraces to about 6000 ft and ended at Hile Bazar where, at that time in 1986, the road ended. It was a quaint little town with a Tibetan monastery, a lodge for an overnight stay, and a few ‘cafes’ serving the famous local tongba, a fermented millet alcoholic drink. There were usually lots of porters hanging around, ready to carry all sorts of goods and supplies further into the interior. Here, my sisters got out of the car, hired some porters to carry their luggage, and started the 2-3 km walk to PAC. It was a very scenic and interesting walk through farmland and rustic white and ochre-coloured farmhouses with thatched roofs. Such farmhouses, charming they may be to us urbanites, would be a real challenge for us to live in. They did not have a proper fireplace let alone toilets and plumbing. The fire was both for cooking and to keep warm. The houses were built to keep the heat in, so windows were often few and small and my own experience often left me longing for fresh air in those smoky confines.
My birthday card to Ming would have travelled the route my sisters took in reverse. It got into a British Forces Post Office bag at Dharan and onto Kathmandu and to the Hong Kong British forces base before being released somehow into the universal postal service stream. Considering this rather troublesome mail service, I would have thought that I would remember having made this great effort to produce a birthday card from scratch and sending it to my sister down under. But no, I have zero memory of it. It was certainly a very pleasant surprise when Ming whatsapped me the painting out of the blue. However, it niggled me somewhat that I had no recollection of it and even thought somebody else had painted it. The frailty of my memory rather frightened me.
What is it that makes us forget certain things while holding on to others from the past? I thought I should be so proud of my creative effort as to remember it forever, but obviously not. I comfort myself by thinking that it’s good that I don’t store up in my mind these small, good and thoughtful deeds that I’ve done; I’m smiling wickedly at my lack of modesty and self-congratulatory tone here. It is honestly so much better that others remind us of it. I tell myself that I should do more of this – remind friends and family of the pleasure or enjoyment of whatever they have given me in the past. On the same note, it’s best we don’t hold on to unpleasant, hurtful things from the years gone by. Life would be a lot happier.