Love and Duty

by Suyin Karlsen, Guest Writer

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. Furthermore, Jane Austen would have added — In the early 20th century, it was a truth universally acknowledged, that if such a man lived in British Malaya, he would go to the Convent orphanage located in Penang, to find a wife.

Such a man did arrive in 1917, looking for a wife at said Convent. He came in a Jinrikisha, hand-powered by a puller, running bare foot with such speed one thought his passenger was desperate to meet a departing train. In fact, the passenger was having second thoughts about arriving there at all. Life as a merchant trader and the required travel would be compromised surely if one’s single status changed. He loved those endless days on the high seas with nothing but sea and sky and his own thoughts. He favored the quiet rather than the frivolity which he imagined would descend when the wife came, then the children, and endless visits by his mother and aunts. He stared at the raincoat gray fortress in front of him, heavily secured with two very large metal-rod gates buttressed by nine-foot walls on either side. Absolutely no chance to find a free spirit within. Before he could bolt, a young, rosy-cheeked nun appeared from nowhere. She heaved one side of the gate open and beckoned him through it. Then she stepped on the first rung and swung herself and the gate back into place. Goodness, maybe a chance to find free spirits here, after all!

In the deepest recesses of the Convent a familiar drama was unfolding. A man had arrived to secure a wife, which meant, an orphan girl could possibly today, be found a husband. Code Bride had swung into action.

The orphan girl, potential bride, had been told nothing. Ushered with urgency into Reverend Mother’s office, she was instructed to stay there until Reverend Mother arrived. There she sat in a lone chair, perplexed and anxious, staring at an oversized mahogany desk that dwarfed everything else. Its size gave a sense that very important business was conducted sitting behind it. On the desk, was a telephone with a small pad next to it, and a fountain pen; a small bottle of blue ink sat demurely on a white blotter. Behind the desk, on the wall, were two pictures, one of Jesus Christ, the other of Pope Benedict XV.

The sound of the door opening signaled someone was entering. Turning quickly in her chair, she saw it was the Reverend Mother herself. She jumped up and then sat down again, when instructed to do so, crossing her legs, and then uncrossed them, tidying her skirt over her knees. Beginning to feel faint from worry, she was thankful for the open french windows and the plumeria-perfumed sea breezes that wafted from the shoreline treed with profusely blooming frangipani.

After what seemed a long while, Reverend Mother finally spoke from behind her big desk. She leaned her gaunt figure forward, and still maintaining a very erect spine, she spoke in English but with a strong French accent, “Dear child … Ana …you have a suitor. He’s waiting down- stairs. He has been writing to me. It is important to him that his wife is educated. He is Ceylonese, like you, but he was born in Ceylon. He is a trader who travels back and forth. He is 27, ten years older than you but it means he is also mature and has life experience. His family owns tea plantations and a lucrative spice trade back home in Kandy, Ceylon. But he intends to build a home here too, that is, after he gets married.”

Alarm and disbelief robbed Ana of speech. What was she hearing? Specifically, that there was a total stranger, a man, here in the building, that she was expected to marry! Jumbled thoughts of fear, confusion, shock, elation and surprise climbed over each other to reach the surface of reasoning. Indignation also, that such collusive conspiring had gone on all the while without her knowledge. What folly a day could bring just from getting up!

Before she could remonstrate, Reverend Mother, led by her own strong sense of moral duty to her young charge and the suitor, stood up and said, “He has come such a long way, you should at least see him, tu ne crois pas?” What choice did Ana have? Arising on unsteady legs, she followed Reverend Mother on the long silent long walk to The Parlour downstairs. As they got closer, Ana felt less apprehensive because she could always say, No. She became more intrigued by what she was going to be confronted with. Truth be told, in secret, she and her orphaned girlfriends still clung to Cinderella tales, and if the Bennett sisters, Lizzy and Jane could find true and miraculous love, why not she. On arriving at The Parlour, a Sister sequestered Ana into an adjoining enclave where orphan girls could view potential husbands through a camouflaged window.

Reverend Mother entered The Parlour where the suitor Ananda had been waiting patiently. Immediately, he got high marks for appearing clean and shaven and wearing gentlemanly clothes. There were some that had presented themselves odiously, in her opinion. What was that saying about Look At What the Cat dragged in? Those types were shown the door directly.

As detached as she appeared to her charges, Reverend Mother viewed them all with regard and even some fondness that neared something like love. That kind of sentimentality was of no use to her in her kind of work. It was dangerous, individualistic, and clawing. Duty and selfcontrol were what kept any ship, all ships, steady and afloat. Ana could not hear what Reverend Mother and the suitor were saying. But what she saw she liked very much. From her spy box, she watched entranced. He was handsome and had a kind face. She liked how he maintained a respectfully “bowed” demeanor before Reverend Mother, the same way courtiers stood before their English monarchs. He wasn’t brash or loud but appeared shy and soft-spoken. His smile melted her heart and whatever strength she had left in her legs. Just then, Reverend Mother fingered the crucifix she wore around her neck. It was the signal that the suitor had passed The Examination.

The Sister who had also been surveying the calm but intense tableaux, asked kindly, “Do you want to meet him?” Wordlessly, Ana sucked in a full breath and nodded. When my grandfather Ananda saw my grandmother Ana for the first time, something like a symphony struck up within his soul. All icy reservations he had about marriage thawed with each blissful note. Later, he would joke, he swore he heard a heavenly chorus too. Misgivings about a marriage forced upon him by tradition, namely his mother, gave way to surprise, delight and desire. Besotted and smitten by hat individualistic and dangerous sway, to quote Reverend Mother, he nevertheless allowed himself to be conquered by the Princess of his Dreams. Willingly and enthusiastically.

In 1917 when WWI still tore and ripped nations around the world, on a gem of an island called Penang aka the Pearl of the Orient, happy-ever-after Cinderella tales of Prince and Princess were still unfolding, nonetheless.