This article was originally published on The Malaysian Insider
I never saw much of my parents when I was younger. My father had fulfilled a lifelong calling of opening his own drug rehab when I was eight years old and my mother was also enthusiastically involved. Father was inspired by the growing number of drug users in Chow Kit. Little did he know that the youngest of his offsprings would end up working with young drug users on the same street that he was once first inspired by 18 years later.
We packed up the little inexpensive but precious belongings that we had, and moved from our remote house in the rubber estate to a beautiful wooden kampung house in Batu Arang. The first things that stood out to us kids — a soaring coconut tree that hovered over our zinc roof and my neighbour, an old witch-like woman who continued to snoop into our every business for the next 12 years.
Being the youngest in the family, I always tagged along with my parents and the rehab soon became my second home. Batu Arang was one of those small towns where everyone knew everything and the police never bothered about people who rode around on their bikes without helmets. I swear that the witch lady knew every time I played along with my brother’s very entertaining fart games — she would look in disgust and give me condescending looks disapproving of my non-Indian-young lady mannerisms.
We were known as the Adam’s family.
There was this oversized tosai-like roundabout in Batu Arang that was the main landmark for visiting urban folks who got lost. To me, the roundabout was the centre of my two homes that would be the foundation of the person that I was soon to become. I would cycle my funny-looking bicycle after school to either my first home, which would teach me independence and solidarity, or my second home, which would show me how beauty is something that your heart allows you to see.
Most of the men in the centre whom I referred to as uncle, were fathers themselves. Some of them were lucky enough to have their family to stick by them throughout their addiction, the rest were there looking for a second chance to feel belonged. Some had hopes for a future, dreams of finding a wife and looking after their parents. Some had lost their drive to live, terminally ill and waiting for their souls to be redeemed; for these people the centre was their family, and I their daughter.
Some uncles I grew particularly fond of, in one way or another; I think it had something to do with them always making sure that I was never hungry in between the hustle and bustle of getting the attention of my parents. Uncle Vedasallam, Uncle Francis and Uncle Raymond — these were my belly uncles. Though my parents were always fixated on giving their last straw of strength to the centre, their presence there was overwhelming and I never really had to miss them. They were everywhere, but yet sometimes, nowhere to be seen. In the centre I always felt safe beside people who once roamed the grounds of prisons and lurked behind dark alleys shooting heroin up their veins.
Uncle Veda died five years ago; I remember his body wrapped up in a black plastic bag, delivered like some meat by the hospital right to the funeral. Standard procedure for the deceased who are HIV-positive. My mother tucked in his white shirt that was blood stained. His teeth stuck out from his slightly opened lips. None of his family members had turned up for his funeral. What Uncle Veda didn’t know was that his real family, the ones who had loved him, accepted him for who he was and stood by his side through his dying days, were all gathered by his casket bidding their last goodbyes.
It has been 18 years now since I first set foot in the rehab. The experiences that my parents gifted to us kids were grounded deep within our roots and bore three young social workers just like themselves. Every now and then I bump into Uncle Francis and Uncle Raymond who are now back on the streets of Chow Kit, best friends whom I had the privilege of reuniting after a long and lonely seven years. The reunion was beautiful. We exchange hugs and had a long chat beside the road. We reminisced about the old times, with them reminding me of how fast I grew up and how little I used to be. The most humbling of all, how I remind them of my parents. Tears flowed down my cheeks as passers-by starred at the unusual bunch; one tall, Chinese mummy-looking man, one thin dark hunchback Indian man and I.
As I enroll young drug users into the centre, I feel an odd shift from a client-social worker relationship to a brother-sister bond. They are now my siblings as we share the same parents, brothers and sisters. On these days I realise that there were never just the three of us kids in the family. I shared my parents with hundreds of people who were orphaned by society. Each passing week, I dream of a better future for my boys as I am blessed to journey with them as they discover hope.
In a tiny wooden house tucked away in a tiny kampung — the old witch lady has died and people have started to buy helmets, but some things never change — the magic still remains. It’s a type of magic that no Houdini can wave off with a wand. It’s the magic that lies in each of us called hope. Many lives were lost to AIDS, many relapsed, some still remain in the centre and some finally found a wife and are living their dream of taking care of their folks. The rehab centre was never really about trying to quit drugs; it was always about finding hope again.
Featured image is Act 1 by suatu ketika.
Katrina Arokiam is currently perusing her Masters in Human Rights.