“He was not a good husband at all.”
Those were the first words that came out from the mouth of a middle-aged lady who sat across me at the kopitiam. Somehow, I’ve got a strong feeling that this person would make my Sunday afternoon interesting.
Her name is Santakumari, but everyone calls her Santa-ma. Most people mishear it as Santana. Unlike the guitar legend, though, Santa-ma’s expertise was talking. And talk she did.
Santa-ma was born a Singaporean. In her youth, she was an aspiring nurse working in Tan Tock Seng Hospital. It was her goal in life to not just be known as a laborer’s daughter, but someone with a good job, good credit rating with the bank, and a good life.
The beginning of the end
But, even the best-laid plans often go awry. She met and fell in love with a Malaysian man who claimed to be an international businessman. When asked how long they knew each other before she accepted his proposal, she giggled and replied, “One month. Maybe a little less.” She admitted that wisdom was not her best attribute at the time.
“Nobody in my family agreed with the wedding. They didn’t like him at all. Papa died of a broken heart.” And for a moment, she was 18 again. Young and carefree, her father still alive.
After the marriage, they bought a house in Johor Bahru and lived there. Her husband’s behavior started to change. He became moody, and was a far cry from the charming man she used to know. He forbade her to see her friends, and would admonish her loudly when she returned even several minutes late from the market.
Eventually, she learned that her husband was a drug smuggler. Back in the 80’s, her husband would go on numerous trips to smuggle cocaine into Australia. It was a lucrative job, but Santa-ma didn’t like how her life turned out.
She was constantly living in fear, worried she might hear that ominous knock on the door. As if her husband’s drug business wasn’t worrying enough, he had another side to him – the charming man who convinced a young lady to marry him was also an abusive husband.
“I beat you because I love you!”
The abuse started after Santa-ma had her first son. Her husband’s mood became even more foul. The beatings became a daily routine. He would corner her and unleash his wrath on her defenseless body. No amount of pleading would stop him.
“You think I hit you for fun? I beat you because I love you!” He would yell as he dished out lashings with his leather belt. She could only sob while a part of herself looked on stoically, almost as if she deserved all the abuse as punishment for what she did to herself.
For Santa-ma who was alone in a foreign country, and with a newborn son, it was deeply shameful to return back to Singapore and face her family after eloping. This kept her confined in the rapidly closing metal cell of abuse.
A brief respite from pain
Her nightmares came to stop for a while after her husband was caught by the authorities. He was sent to prison but unfortunately, his crimes weren’t severe enough to keep him away. Instead, he received a two-year prison term.
“I was very stupid,” Santa-ma mumbled. “I should have just ran across Kastam with my boy but I hesitated. I was afraid he would find me in Singapore and kill me there.”
Fear is paralysing. As a result, Santa-ma was caught in an emotional prison. It didn’t occur to her to escape. She continued punishing herself by staying.
For two years, the diligent lady survived on part-time jobs. Her son grew up into a delightful little toddler. She was happy and cared for him without constantly being in fear.
Then, after his sentence was up, Santa-ma’s husband was released. He was diagnosed with liver cancer. He couldn’t go to work, so she had to be the sole breadwinner of the family. During that time, Singapore was hit with the 1999 Asian Crisis, so she couldn’t get a decent office job which paid enough.
The only option left was to take up a position as a cashier at a Cold Storage Supermarket. Santa-ma was able to earn only SGD700 monthly. Thankfully with the exchange rate of around RM2.40 to every Singapore dollar at the time, it was enough to bring home a sufficient income for her household.
You’d think that with her husband’s deteriorating condition, he would have been kinder. Nope, that didn’t happen.
“My life settled into routine: wake up, go to work, come back, get beaten and sleep.” She chuckled. Again, she makes a joke out of it.
Seizing her second chance
Throughout her entire 12 years of marriage, there were only a handful of sweet memories which kept her going. The rest of the time, she wished that she didn’t survive the night.
As her husband became more and more frail, Santa-ma slowly became more confident. She grew less afraid of him. He became bedridden, couldn’t chase her, and tired out easily. Her fear melted and she was able to see what her husband had become – an empty, bitter shell, whose body was ravaged by cancer.
“One day, I woke up feeling different. Good different. I went to the hospital to visit my husband, and the doctor told me that he wouldn’t survive for long. That was all I needed to hear. I’m going to leave that idiot today.”
She left her husband alone in the hospital, and with her son in her arms, she grabbed a taxi and headed straight towards the Kastam complex. There, she received her second and final chance at freedom. And this time, she grabbed it ferociously, never even looking back.
She found a new job as a clerk job at a local hospital and rebuilt her life. She bought a small house and even started going out with her colleagues.
Still, she felt guilty abandoning her sick husband. For his final year, she hired a maid to tend to him.
“The day my husband died was the day I was supposed to get my first house keys from the HDB Board. But, I’d used up all of my money to buy the house. Where got money to pay for his funeral-lah…” she said, in a more comical tone. “I don’t know how I got the money, but I managed to borrow from a lot of people just to burn that idiot.”
Santa-ma went back to Johor Bahru to attend the cremation. In her hand were the bunch of keys to her new home. She carried it with her like an amulet, to remind her how she’s changed. She wasn’t the same old scared Santa-ma, who got beaten for spilling a drop of soup.
As she stood before her husband’s body, she looked upon his dried-up, disease-ridden physique. One of the crematorium’s staff opened the piece of cloth covering her husband’s face. As his ashen face was revealed, time stopped.
To her own surprise, she cried, screaming shrilling and hitting her chest and pulling her hair in distress. Her arms wrapped around her husband, tears flowing freely. For one last time, she tried to smell her husband’s scent, hoping to keep one last memory of him. All his crimes on her were forgiven. The more she thought about the handful of sweet memories between them, the more she loved him.
On that very day, after the last time she set eyes on him, she lost her house keys. And she blames that idiot.