Madam Jamilah’s Family Portrait
By Nuraliah Norasid
I: The Glance
Madam Jamilah binte Abdul Ibrahim, aged 37, has taken on her children's upbringing single-handedly all her married life. Her husband, 10 years her senior, can hold no stable job, and has been prosecuted with a number of offences, which includes domestic and substance abuse, for which he still serves a jail and rehabilitation term. Nonetheless, the mother of six – who only has a secondary-school qualification and who works as a nightshift production operator – keeps on a brave front even in the face of the some of the worst economic downturns that the nation has ever seen.
It has been hard for her family, she admits, speaking in Malay with a smattering of broken English. The factory she works at has administered pay cuts and she works with the constant fear of being retrenched. However, her family is no stranger to hardship or sacrifice. Her eldest child, Azman, 15, has had to enroll into a neighbourhood school close to their Yishun home despite scoring an aggregate of 253 for his Primary School Leaving Examinations (PSLE) three years ago, so as to save on transportation. He helps to keep house so that Madam Jamilah may get to sleep during the day. His duties, part of which he shares with sister Asyirah, who is 14 and the second eldest in the family, include waking his siblings up for school and teaching the youngest of them, Nabilah, at home because they could not afford to send her to nursery or kindergarten. Azman and Asyirah are by no means the only ones helping around the house. Madam Jamilah explains that all the children have their own duties around the house.
"Sometimes they fight," Madam Jamilah reveals playfully, "but they are very good children."
All the children, with the exception of 12-year-old Hidayah who had to attend a supplementary class in preparation for the upcoming PSLE, had been quietly watching television when The Straits Times visited their sparsely furnished three-room family flat last Friday. Madam Jamilah, who earns a basic salary of only $1,000 a month, explains that household finances are tight and her children often do not have pocket money but pack lunch from home instead.
Providing for the family has been hard, Madam Jamilah admits. She recalls how she once had only 10 cents in her wallet and for that day, the children ate nothing but biscuits. She is reticent about her incarcerated husband, though she reveals that she will be getting a divorce once he has served his time. She plans to sell the flat which she bought jointly with her husband and either purchase or rent another one where she can stay with her children. Admirably, she seeks no help from the government or from her relatives, admitting that she does not want to trouble her parents who had objected to her marriage 17 years ago. Azman hopes to take up medicine in the future, while her daughter, Asyirah, harbours hopes of being a writer. Madam Jamilah laughs as she says, "Asyirah is always writing love stories."
"I don't discourage her," she adds, seriously. "But I tell her, 'no boyfriends'. I want all of my children to get a good education and be somebody when they grow up. Not someone like me."
Madam Jamilah's children look up to their mother who they describe as sacrificing and caring. "She can be really fierce when she scolds us when we get naughty or lazy," Azman reveals. "But I know she means well."
When they come to the end of the interview, the photographer asks, "Can we have a photograph of all of you?"
Madam Jamilah looks at the reporter who is scribbling Azman's remark very quickly in a small notebook, and then over her shoulder at her children. She knows that Azman does not like to be photographed, although some of his younger siblings are not shy. She asks him and Asyirah, "Take photo, you want?", and they respond with reluctant waggles of their heads. Suriani and Firdaus, her 10- and eight-year-olds only grin, looking at their mother and then at the photographer.
She peers down at Nabilah, and with a nudge to the girl's arm, she asks with a playful, child-like lilt to her voice, "You want?"
Nabilah chews on a fingernail. She has been sitting in Madam Jamilah's lap throughout the interview, her eyes darting from the reporter to the photographer, never lingering on one for a long time. Now, she looks at the photographer. Her answer to Madam Jamilah's question is a shrug, her finger curved into her mouth. Madam Jamilah nudges the girl's hand away and looks back up at the photographer.
"Can," she replies with a cheerful nod. "How you want to take?"
The man glances around the room, thinking how best to portray this impossible family of seven; that is, the impossible family of seven with a daughter not yet home. He would have loved to have the entire retinue of children there because it will make the picture complete, but right then, he must make do with what he has. He looks to the reporter for suggestions and all she can give him is that a picture in the living room will be sufficient, so he turns back to the family.
The elder two of the children are still attentive, watching him from where they sit, quiet unless they are directly spoken to. During the interview, Madam Jamilah will sometimes look back at them and ask them things as if to affirm what she has said and their answers will always be nods, never elaborations. The photographer can sense the self-consciousness they must feel at the idea of being photographed for the paper. It is not too difficult to imagine, if one has been through that trying age, that how they appear to their peers matters acutely to them. It is at this age that most children – for children they are to him who is himself 32 years old – are still not matured enough to know that there are those who can't afford the things most teenagers can. He remembers the carefree attitude, meticulously worn to mask the realisation that life is not either all peachy or filled with teenage angst; and the knowledge that for some families, pain and suffering is real. Suriani and Firdaus, 10 and eight years old respectively, look at him every now and then, but take greater interest in their own games. They would burst into laughter before casting a glance at the strangers and hush themselves – at least until the next idea for a game cross their minds. He wonders how he can then show these children for who, and what, they are.
He decides to keep the children in the background, doing what they had been doing prior to this moment. As it is, Madam Jamilah is already seated on the floor. She will be the centerpiece. He will keep the little one in Madam Jamilah's lap and Madam Jamilah herself in sharp focus by contrast. There is something honest about the child, Nabilah, dressed in a frock that looks like it must have been beautiful once, now faded and much too small for her. She has not taken her eyes off him since the interview began, remaining slumped against her mother's body, her face framed by a shock of curls.
He smiles and tells her, "Not to worry. I will make you look cantik," as he gives her a thumbs up, but she does not smile back.
He takes up his camera and raises the viewfinder to his eye, framing them through it. He adjusts until he gets the composition right. He understands that he will have to take a few pictures from a few different angles, but he still hope to get that one photo. The one photo that will be this family.
Madam Jamilah watches the man ready his camera. It looks big considering how thin and small cameras are becoming these days, and many of them, integrated into mobile phones. Cameras are not uncommon, though no one in her family owns one. However, this camera, about to take her family's portrait, is frighteningly large, with this protruding thing — the flashcube, she suddenly remembers — from which the flash will come.
She is seated on the plain tile floor of the living room of her three-room flat, her youngest daughter, Nabilah, squirming in her lap. The rest of her children are either in various seats around the room or on the floor, arranged such that they will be in frame when the photograph is finally taken; all her children save for her 12-year-old daughter. The girl is right then attending an English supplementary class in school. The PSLE is near. She needs to study; get to a good secondary school. The small television, where it sits on the equally diminutive table, is tuned to the local evening arts channel. Azman and Asyirah are not watching the show the channel is playing. They are looking at the man and his camera, perhaps wondering what is going to happen next. The children have homework to do, but the people from the newspapers have come all the way to their home to interview their mother and take pictures of them — their first family portrait sans one sister and the father they do not like to remember.
Madam Jamilah lifts her hand and tucks a strand of hair behind her ear. She wonders how her hair looks even as she pries Nabilah's finger away from the girl's mouth. Nabilah's gaze could have smote the man should he be looking, but he is not. He continues to fiddle with his camera. Madam Jamilah takes the opportunity to glance at her children sitting behind her to make sure, for what seems like the 100th time that day, that they are at least not wearing those old T-shirts with faded prints and holes in them, which they usually wear around the house. She is relieved to find that they are all wearing their casual going-out clothes — the buy-in-bulk T-shirts and shorts from night bazaars.
The reporter is looking at the things around the room. Madam Jamilah thinks the walls can use some decoration; so plain and faded green. The furnishing is scant and the old, fat television is sitting on an old stool. Madam Jamilah wonders if it is high time she sets aside money to get some things for the living room, maybe a matching chair and coffee table set that is not too expensive, so that at least the living room will look like one, and visitors will not have to sit on the floor. She tries to be polite and cheerful in the face of all this. That's how they are going to portray her in the papers: how cheerful she is despite practically being a single mother with kids to feed in the face of the economic downturn. Madam Jamilah starts to speak of the upcoming PSLE and how stressful it has become for the students nowadays. The reporter agrees.
While speaking, Madam Jamilah worries about how the house will appear in the picture. She gives the living room a quick inspection. At least the floor has been mopped, and the laundry, which earlier has been in a pile on the plastic chair by the window, is now folded and put away. She got the boys to help her wipe the windowpanes and put up the newly-washed curtains. So no matter how sparse the room will look like in the picture, she can be content that it is clean.
Nabilah chews on her finger again, the eldest two of her children still staring at the photographer, while the fourth and the fifth has engaged themselves in a noisy game of enjut semut, trying to see who can last the longest not squealing when pinched hard on the back of a hand. Madam Jamilah starts for Nabilah's hand when the photographer finally speaks: "Okay ready, now you all just look natural."
Azman, the responsible eldest, turns his head to the television. Asyirah, the second child, the eldest of the girls, sits hunched on a plastic stool with her back to the cameraman. She tugs the bottom of her T-shirt over the band of her shorts, suddenly afraid that she might expose something when the picture is taken. It is a pity that Hidayah is not home from her supplementary class yet. She will be sorry to have missed a chance to be in the newspapers. She always loves attention. Suriani and Firdaus stop playing their game of enjut semut, and giggling like the little girl and boy that they are, turn from where they sit cross-legged on the floor to look at the television. Nabilah removes her finger from her mouth of her own accord and slumps further back into her mother's body, continuing to stare at the camera with the fearlessness of a child who does not know what she faces. Madam Jamilah wraps her arms around Nabilah and smiles at the camera, watching the lens as she prepares for the shot to come.
Her heart beats fast and the corners of her lips quiver.
The photographer lifts the viewfinder to his eye and says, "Okay ah", before counting to three.
Just as the flash comes, Madam Jamilah turns her eyes away.QLRS Vol. 15 No. 3 Jul 2016