Growing up in the 80s meant endless get-togethers, sports events, variety shows such as Onam Night and watching Malayalam plays staged by local artists. In an era where the number of Malayalees fluctuated between 12,451 in 1980 to 16, 329 in 1990, one hardly met a fellow Malayalee in school. The only chance to speak Malayalam outside of the home was when one met up with the community at these events usually organized by Singapore Malayalee Association, Singapore Kairalee Kala Nilayam and Naval Base Library to name a few.
It was at these events that I met Shanti Menon and her family. Her father Mr P Menon was well-known drama artist in the Malayalee circles. He had even taken on female roles in the 60s and 70s before women started acting on stage. His good looks and ability to deliver any character made him a crowd favorite. Following in her father’s footsteps, Shanti Menon too in many ways ‘grew up on stage’. The community watched her host shows and sing both Malayalam and Tamil songs.
But like many of the young members of the Singapore Malayalee community, she left Singapore after marriage. We reconnected after several years when I interviewed her parents for another project. Shanti Menon’s story adds another piece of the puzzle to the voices of the Singapore community who have moved across to Malaysia and other parts of the world after their marriage.
Could you tell us about your family?
My grandparents are from Kerala. My paternal grandparents are from Narakkal, Vypin and my maternal grandparents are from Chennamangalam, Ernakulam. My grand fathers with their families came down to Malaysia to work. My parents Mr Prabhakaran Menon (Mr P Menon) and Mrs Rema Devi Menon were both born and raised in Malaysia.
After retirement, both my grandparents went back to Kerala and settled down.
In 1959, my father started working in Singapore. After marriage, my mother accompanied father to Singapore. I was born in Singapore. My family members like my uncles, aunts and cousins are all still in Kerala and so I still maintain a strong connection with my family in Kerala and do make trips down to visit them.
What was it like growing up in Singapore?
Growing up in Singapore was fun! There was a great blend of all the races and cultures. Although I am an only child, never did I ever feel lonely! I was always surrounded by friends, some of whom I still keep in touch with!
We spoke a mixture of Malayalam and English at home and celebrated the Malayalee festivals without fail. I would always look forward to preparing the altar for the‘ Vishu Kani” and my mother would make a wonderful Ona sadhya during these occasions.
Did you participate in the Malayalee community events?
My father, Mr P Menon, joined the Singapore Kerala Association (now known as the Singapore Malayalee Association) in 1962. My father acted in many Malayalam plays. He was Raja Ravi Varma in a historical play Ummani Thangga which was staged by Singapore Kairalee Kala Nilayam. I remember another one of his plays where he played a dashing police officer in a play staged by Singapore Kerala Association. Of course, my all-time favorite role of my father was the one for which he won the Best Actor award in a competition in 1993. The play, Kochu Kochu Pinakangal, was written by a veteran playwright and actress Mrs Sarojini Chandran on behalf of Singapore Kerala Association.
My mother, Mrs Rema Devi Menon, joined the Women’s Committee of the association in 1969. They were both very active members in the association. The Singapore Kerala Association was part of my growing up years.
Haneefa Uncle, Surendranath Uncle, Sarojini Aunty, Mrs. Hameed, Dr G.Raman Uncle, Sivaraman Uncle, K.J.Nair Uncle, K.O.George Uncle were all active members of the association and people I knew from a very young age.
Later, I joined the the Youth Commitee of the SKA and subsequently became a member of the Womens’ Commitee. I used to be actively involved, both onstage and off stage, during their cultural shows and dramas.
During those days we would put in our maximum effort and help, working together like one big family, to promote local talents and make the show a success. Those are memorable moments for me!
Why did you leave Singapore?
I got married in 1991. My husband, Hari, is a Malaysian and so I moved to Malaysia after my marriage. Both our families go a long way back and we knew each other well before marriage. Our kids, Arathi and Ajay were born in Malaysia. My parents still live in Singapore so I do come back very often.
How did you remain connected to the community over the years?
We travelled a lot as a family for my husband’s job. We were in Oman for five years, Syria for three years and Canada for four years before we moved back to Kuala Lumpur.
Wherever we went, we still celebrated Vishu and Onam with prayers and of course, the Ona Sadhya!. We always had lots of Malayalee friends in all our postings.
You know, it really doesn’t matter where you are in the world but the moment one Malayalee meets another, there is a certain glow and a smile that comes on in recognizing someone who speaks your mother tongue.
The next question is “ yevadaya naadu?” (Where are you from in Kerala?)
The knowing smile and the question connects us right away. That is pure magic right there!