By ELROI YEE
THE first time we visited Shanti, she wasn’t home. It was around noon, and we were standing at the gate of her small terrace house calling out to her. From the doorway, a cheeky face appeared, then quickly disappeared. A cheerful commotion ensued inside the house. Urgent voices and bright laughter, mixed with the sounds of moving furniture, drifted out from the house. We looked at each other, bemused.
A moment later, four smiling faces appeared at the door. They belonged to four of Shanti’s five children, aged between eight and 12. They explained that they were cleaning up the house before letting us in. We later learned that some of the children sleep in the living room, so they had to clear the mattresses and pillows before allowing us in.
We stepped into a sparsely furnished but cosy living room, with the children running circles around us, asking to shake our hands. The boys lifted a brown puppy to our faces, telling us its name was “Fatty”. The girl showed us the kitchen, where she and her older brother prepare the children’s meals, usually rice with curry or dhaal, but sometimes nothing at all. In little more than four strides we walked the length of the house to the back door, where one of the boys, shirtless and unabashed, was chatting with a neighbour. We had come to witness urban poverty, but instead found unrestrained, childish happiness.
We returned a few days later to meet Shanti. Local singer/guitarist Russell Curtis brought his family along to sing carols for the family and passed them some gifts on behalf of R.AGE. Our small entourage only arrived when it was nearing 10 at night, which was when Shanti usually comes home from work. Seven days a week, she cleans homes for RM500 a month. At night, she peels onions for additional income. Her husband left the family seven years ago when her youngest son was a year old, leaving her the sole breadwinner and struggling to put two square meals on the table for her children.
It is a familiar situation to Mageson Muniandy, a local pastor and community coordinator, who organises aid provisions for the urban poor in Kapar. He tells us men are often the source of problems in Kapar. They get involved in triads at a young age, which often leads to drug or alcohol abuse. These influences result in them being irresponsible husbands and fathers later in life. “We usually give up on the men,” said Mageson. “We just focus on the children, making sure they steer clear of bad influences, so the next generation will be better off.”
Shanti did not talk much of her husband, perhaps because some wives prefer to fight their husbands’ corner regardless of their behaviour. She did, however, complain of her children: “A few nights ago when I was going to the toilet, one of the boys put on a tiger mask and hid in a corner to scare me.” We ask if she fell for it. She laughs and nods.
The visit to Shanti’s home shook Russell to the core, and he immediately set out to help — by writing and producing ‘Remember’, a song to highlight the struggles of urban poor families in Malaysia.