By Malachi Edwin Vethamani
Johan sat very still. His head was bowed low. His fingers were clasped together tightly. As he heard Brother Felix say, ‘Amen’, his fingers relaxed and slowly disengaged. He slowly raised his head. He saw Brother Felix’s radiant, happy, glowing face. Brother Felix’s gaze fell on him and he seemed to smile a little broader. The other boys were already leaving their seats. Johan wanted to linger a little longer. He felt a calmness within him. Johan knew where he ought to be and slowly made his way out of the chapel and headed to the mosque. Today, he had lingered a little longer than he should have.
Johan knew he was not supposed to attend chapel. At the sound of the last bell on Fridays, his Muslim classmates would leave school and head for lunch or sometimes go directly to the mosque for Friday prayers. Johan was a loner and did not go with his classmates. They found him aloof and different. Soon, they found out that he went for chapel at school before going to the mosque for Friday prayers. They were amused and did not care what Johan did. They did not say anything to the adults.
When his first year at his new school ended, Johan longed for the Friday chapel. Johan yearned for the music, the songs and the stories he heard each week. When Brother Felix mentioned certain prophets, he would recognize them as Adam, Ibrahim, Musa and most of all, Nabi Isa. He had been taught about all of them by his Al-Quran and Fardu Ain teachers.
Brother Felix had often talked about Jesus or Nabi Isa, as Johan had first known of him. Johan did not tire hearing stories of Jesus’ miracles or the parables with their teachings. Soon Jesus was rarely Isa to Johan. He did not go beyond these stories. Johan did not want to hear about the Jesus who was crucified and was said to have risen. He did not want to hear about the Jesus who was resurrected from the dead and whom the Christians called god. The Jesus alive and preaching love was enough for him.
Johan was drawn to Jesus, the man. He was drawn to Brother Felix. Brother Felix told the stories Jesus had. Stories about love, kindness and forgiveness. Soon, Johan wanted to be like Brother Felix. His young mind could not have comprehended the ramifications of his desire. Johan did not see in his young, innocent mind the transgressions he would be making by just desiring to be like Brother Felix.
Brother Felix treated Johan as he did all the young boys under his care. He was aware of the complex and complicated racial and religious situation in the newly formed Malaysia. He was glad that a missionary school like his could continue to operate in a Muslim country.
Brother Felix enjoyed playing football as a young man and continued to play when he found time. He had broad shoulders and a well-built body, a soldier’s body. He was strong and had felt ready to go to a distant country in Asia. Brother Felix heard his calling to come to Malaysia in his thirties. He did not have to wait long. One of the other Brothers who had just returned from a short stint in Malaysia informed him of a teaching position in a secondary school in Malacca and he immediately applied for it.
He arrived in Singapore and made his way to Malacca. He was welcomed by the other Brothers and Sisters who were already there in this small town. He was to teach English in the only school set up for boys by the Catholic church. His first day of teaching went by quite uneventfully. What struck him was the different colours of his students. They were certainly quite different from those in Dublin. However, the colours meant little to Brother Felix. They were all the same in his flock.
It did not take long for Brother Felix to discover that they were certainly not the same and a few had to be treated slightly differently. In his induction to Malaysian life, Brother Felix discovered the religious mosaic in the country. The main concerns were to be with the Muslim students. They were to be set apart and given different religious instruction in the Catholic School. Brother Paul, the Headmaster, had been very clear about it when he met Brother Felix for the first time. Brother Paul, now in his late 50s, had arrived on Malayan shores just like Brother Felix. Over two decades he had learned the ways of the local authorities and adapted accordingly. ‘There will be no preaching or conversion of Muslim students to Christianity,’ Brother Paul had instructed Brother Felix. That would be at the peril of closing down this school and the Brothers’ Provincialate. The La Sallian Brothers certainly did not want that to befall them, he was explicitly cautioned.
Brother Felix, however, wondered why Muslim parents would want their children to attend a missionary school. A local teacher gave him the answer. One day, a young twenty something Chinese English language teacher, Miss Esther Lim, informed him, ‘They want their children to learn English well and be able to go overseas for further studies.’ With that Brother Felix’s lessons on Malaysia and Malaysians, especially Muslim Malaysians, had slowly begun. It was made clear to him that Christianity was out of bounds for Malay boys in missionary schools. There was no compromise on this matter, none whatsoever ever.
Brother Felix was in his eighth year of teaching when Johan joined the school in a Form Two class. He was a precocious young boy. Johan was in Brother Felix’s English language class. Johan was a keen reader and his language proficiency was the highest among his peers. Johan had breezed through Enid Blyton stories and gone on to the more adventurous Hardy Boys mysteries. Brother Felix could not help but take notice of this young boy. He wrote excellent compositions but spoke only when called to answer a question. Johan did not enjoy sports, and this kept him very much on his own. He chose to sit in the last row in the class and was often by himself.
Johan was a fair-skinned lad. His facial features were not typically Malay. When he spoke, it was always in English. He looked like some of the Eurasian boys in the school. Johan did not join the Malay boys in his class, either. They spoke both English and Malay but seemed unwelcoming towards this new kid who spoke only in English. Most people did not think him to be Malay. Brother Felix was one of those who did not think of Johan being Malay, either until he saw the young man’s full name in the class register.
Brother Felix was given the task of conducting the weekly lessons from the Bible during Chapel. The students arrived for the sessions with mixed feelings. Most seemed reluctant to attend. It took a while for them to settle down. The other Brothers were present to help the boys settle down. Soon the chapel was almost full. Johan was among the last to enter the chapel and as usual, he sat alone and in the last pew. Brother Felix only noticed Johan after a few Fridays. Just as in the English Language class, Johan sat there quietly, listening with a faraway look. Lost in his own world. Brother Felix chose not to say anything.
Johan listened to Brother Felix’s Bible stories but rarely waited for the moral lessons that followed. His attention would wane as the stories drew to a close and as soon as the pedantic part began, his mind would switch off and he would quietly slip away before the others could notice him.
Johan’s thoughts often lingered on the stories he heard during Chapel. Many of these stories he had heard before about prophet Ibrahim and Ishak, Musa and Adam. Just the names had been changed here. He was fascinated when he heard the stories that Jesus had told. Johan understood sibling rivalry and envy in the tale about the prodigal son. In his gentle heart, he glowed on the kindness of the good Samaritan. These were new stories to him.
A desire slowly began to grow in Johan. He wanted to read and hear more about this gentle prophet who preached love and was later scorned by some of his own people and the Romans. Johan scoured a few history books in the school library and found the historical Jesus mentioned in passing. Then one day, by sheer chance he found a Bible stories series in the fiction section. And over the next few weeks, he managed to read the twenty-five titles in the whole series.
Brother Felix prepared for his English language classes with the same enthusiasm as he did for Chapel. In both, Johan remained seated at the back and Brother Felix thought it best to leave the boy alone. He sensed Johan was different and he was not sure if there was something troubling the lad.
During the double-period English language classes which were towards the end of a long school day, Brother Felix would play a game with the students. He would tell them a story and ask them to give an ending or ask the students to give a lesson they could learn from the story. These stories were short enough to hold their attention and the class would listen intently. The students would respond rather enthusiastically, knowing someone would get a small prize from Brother Felix. Johan listened intently like the others. He enjoyed the stories and knew the lessons they taught. He had read many of them in the books on the library shelves. His heart warmed when he heard Brother Felix now re-tell these stories. Yet, Johan felt no desire to raise his hand to answer Brother Felix’s questions. Hearing the stories was gift enough from Brother Felix. He also did not want to draw any attention to himself.
Soon there were only a few more weeks before public examinations. Johan and his classmates were busy with their preparations for the examinations. The school Chapel sessions continued as usual. One Friday, just as Johan was slipping away from the chapel and rushing off to the mosque for the prayers, his Bahasa Malaysia teacher saw him. The teacher called him aside and asked Johan what he was doing coming out from the chapel?
“Listening to the Bible stories, sir,” he replied in Malay.
The teacher gave him a stern warning, “Stop going to the chapel. It is not for you. If you go again, your parents will be informed.”
Johan nodded, thanked his teacher and fled. He knew why the teacher forbade him to go to the Chapel. It broke his heart that he had been caught. He sobbed all the way to the mosque, knowing he could not return to the chapel anymore. His mind was troubled throughout the Friday prayers. He found it hard to pay attention to the sermon that was being preached. As the prayers drew to a close and the worshippers began to leave, Johan remained seated in his place. His eyes were closed, and he tried to clear his mind. But the troubling words from his Bahasa Malaysia teacher continued to ring loudly in his head. After a few minutes, finding no solace, he got up and left for home.
Johan was back at his seat in his classroom on Monday. Classes went on as usual. Brother Felix was his usual self, completely unaware of what had transpired for Johan on Friday. The Bahasa Malaysia teacher came to class and taught his lesson. Just as the bell rang, and Johan was about to sigh a relief, the teacher called out Johan’s name and said, ‘Johan, jangan lupa apa yang saya kata pada kamu (Johan Don’t forget what I told you)’, reminding Johan of his warning. His classmates however, paid no heed to what the teacher told Johan.
As Friday drew close, Johan longed to go to chapel. He had grown accustomed to it. The whole of that Friday morning was a struggle within him. He could not see the problem of attending Friday Chapel, then rushing off for Friday prayers. Attending chapel had not turned him away from his religion. After the final class on Friday, Johan walked slowly to the mosque. He knew the chapel routine well and that by the time he reached the mosque, Brother Felix would be giving his weekly lesson to his schoolmates. Johan did his ablutions and joined the men in the mosque.
The last week of class finally arrived. There were a few revision lessons and “spotting” of exam questions for the examination. Brother Felix walked into the classroom with his usual bright smile. Johan knew that this would be the final class with Brother Felix. They would have a few days of study leave before the examination began the following week. Like the other teachers, Brother Felix gave tips for the examinations. Unlike his regular way of ending his lessons, today, Brother Felix had no time for a story for his students. He ended his class in an unusual manner. He looked at all his students and bid them farewell, “You have my best wishes and God bless each one of you.” He beamed at the students, picked up his books, and waited for their practised reply. The students shouted out, “Thank you, Brother Felix.”
Johan felt a sadness descend upon him. He saw the end of something he had treasured. This second year in the new school had been trying. His parents had demanded excellent grades from him so that he could enter the Science stream the next year, in a new school overseas. Brother Felix had been a beacon in his lonely life. English language classes had not just been learning the English language but listening to Brother Felix’s Bible stories, listening to his calming voice.
He remembered his English language teacher in the previous school. Puan Halimah taught English using so many Malay words, it frustrated Johan. He felt his Bahasa Malaysia was improving but not his English language. His classmates were generally weak in English and were quite happy with Puan Halimah’s style of teaching. Johan’s parents wanted more for him and got him transferred out of the school.
Johan knew this day would come. It had been scheduled and was expected. Not the way his attending chapel had suddenly been terminated. That had been unexpected and painful. He thought it cruel, even. He felt something he enjoyed and loved being snatched away from him. His young mind was completely oblivious of what could have happened if his Bahasa Malaysia teacher had made a complaint to the religious authorities.
Johan wanted to see Brother Felix. He wanted to say thank you for all that Brother Felix had done for him. Johan feared he might not see Brother Felix again, unsure when he would be leaving for England.
Johan knocked on Brother Felix’s office door. On the door, he saw Brother Felix’s name and job designation. It read, Brother Felix and beneath it, Senior Assistant. A familiar voice answered, “Come in.” Brother Felix was seated at his table. Johan had never been into this office. Brother Felix gave him his familiar warm smile.
“Ah, Johan! Wasn’t expecting you to be coming to see me. Sit down.”
“Good afternoon, Brother Felix,” Johan replied.
Johan sat on the chair in front of Brother Felix.
“Sir, I wanted to come and thank you,” he said.
Brother Felix was not accustomed to having students drop by his office to thank him. Most shied away from his office and some dreaded being called to see him. It often meant some disciplinary issue needed to be addressed.
“Johan, it’s been a pleasure teaching you. You should speak up more in class,” Brother Felix said.
“Brother Felix, I really liked your stories, too.”
“They are not my stories, they are stories from The Bible, Johan.”
“Sir, I know. I read a few in the library…. Brother Felix, could you give me a copy of The Bible?” Johan asked. Johan could not believe what he had just said. He had merely come to thank his English language teacher. And now, he had blurted a request for a copy of The Bible.
Brother Felix sat in front of Johan with the most perplexed look. No student had ever asked him for a Bible. And there sat in front of him a Muslim boy asking for a Bible. Brother Felix remembered Brother Paul’s words, “There will be no preaching or conversion of Muslim students to Christianity.”
Johan sensed a change coming upon his favourite teacher’s face. There was no anger welling up. Just some confusion and a sadness.
“Brother Felix, I’m not sure why I suddenly asked you for a Bible. I just came to say thank you for the English classes and for the stories during Chapel on Fridays. I will miss both.”
Johan quickly got up, gave Brother Felix a bow and fled from his office. Anyone seeing Johan leave Brother Felix’s office would have thought that he had just received a punishment from the school Senior Assistant.
Brother Felix sat at his table for a long time thinking of Johan and all his wards. He began to weep silently. He did not know why he wept.
Malachi Edwin Vethamani is a Malaysian Indian poet, writer, editor, critic, bibliographer and academic. He is Emeritus Professor with University of Nottingham. More details in: www.malachiedwinvethamani.com
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