We gathered at our usual playground which was a construction site for the new “Kapitol” cinema. Back then in the late 60s, designated playgrounds were unheard of. We made do with whatever available within 50m radius of our homes, our world, our universe then. We led a carefree life. We played as if there was no tomorrow or until the growls in our stomach were unbearable or when summoned by our parents waving the cane at dusk.
Play was the only agenda on our young innocent minds. Pre-schooling was an unknown concept. We lived to play! We ran around neighbourhood, climbed trees and jumped from scaffoldings with an agility of macaques. Cuts, scratches and abrasions were common, earning some bragging rights the next day as battle scars when salved over with the purplish Gentian Violet war paint. For the more serious injuries, just apply the infamous white “Lark Kow Sar” or 693 in Hokkien powder, now banned for containing the poisonous arsenic.
We fashioned tools & weapons of war from the mud excavated, built sand castles on the sand mound, played “police & thieves” and even dared one another to jump off the 2nd floor onto the sand or aggregate mound below. Yes, we were already stuntmen before Jackie Chan. The record set with no injury was a jump from the 3rd floor. I may be brave but not that dumb to attempt such feat. At times, we mischievously threw pebbles onto the neighbouring townhouses and ran for cover once hollering started.
One of the more memorable games was defending our imaginary castle. We defended our castle with our lives. Spare no quarters, expect none. Sticks served as swords and halberds, and mud balls as stone missiles against imaginary attacks by imaginary foes. Our vocal cords provided the sound effect of fearsome battles. Bravery & cowardice, death & injuries, shouts & screams, victories & yes always victories were as real as epic battles of old. Victories were always on our side since we were the authors of our imaginary battles.
No celebrations for hard battles fought and won even imaginary ones. Images of victory quickly receded and faded on time, every time, at dinner time. We were usually welcomed and honoured with 2-3 stripes on our buttocks for muddying our pants & cloths, which we took in great stride as battle scars. Our thoughts were already on another epic battle tomorrow.
Our castle was always protected by moats filled with water. Pits excavated for foundation which were perpetually filled with water due to high ground table, served as moats around our imaginary castle. Quite an imagination for pre-schoolers, I must admit.
During the heat of the final battle, I slipped and fell into one of the moats when avoiding an imaginary arrow aimed straight at my heart. I however splashed into not an imaginary pit filled with muddy water. I did not know how to float much less swim. My feet could not touch the bottom. I struggled and splashed about to stay afloat. I was in trouble. I was gasping for air and had drunk a lot of mud water, I was drowning. I was fast fading into the dark watery night.
It was at that moment, as if by some divine providence that I saw the face of my brother amongst our petrified and helpless friends, his face calm and resolute pleading me not to give up. As if fortified by his will, I propelled myself one last time. I managed to grab onto a protruding reinforcement bar. I summoned every last ounce of my fast receding strength to pull myself out of the watery pit. The air never tasted so fresh, so alive.
I survived but fell feverishly sick for weeks. Western medicine proved ineffective. Some ritual prayers and burnt offerings at the pit by my grandma to appease some watery spirits broke my fever. Thereafter, we abruptly abandoned our imaginary castle to ruin. Actually, all the pits were refilled after the foundations were constructed and the floor slab was cast over them. We were warned not to provoke the malevolent spirits still prowling there unsatisfied after I escaped from their deathly grip. The place was haunted, and so I was told.
My family moved the following year, and my near death experience was soon a distant memory. I did not fell into a cesspool as rumoured by many but a foundation pit. Anyway, over 44 years have gone by, Kapitol had seen her glory days and still stands today not as a cinema though. I can still remember vividly the calm and resolute face of my late brother that fateful day. He saved me. Did he save me to give up his a few years later, I wondered? He gave me a second lease to live, I guessed. I pondered why?
Those fond memories flooded back recently when I stood in Merdeka Stadium on 12 Jan 2013 together with 60,000 of my fellow Malaysians. I chuckled but momentarily turned solemn. We were no longer making an imaginary stand or imaginary fight against imaginary foes. We were making our stand to fight for real freedom, justice and equality for our beloved “Tanah Air”, Malaysia. Now, I understood why I did not go into the night that fateful day. I had an appointment with destiny.