Once I finished tying up my right ankle to his left with the handkerchief, we put our arms on each other’s shoulder. I looked into his eyes, which by then were already filled with the vision of victory.

Pakrisamy hailed from a rubber estate south of my hometown in the then god-forsaken southeastern corner of Negri Sembilan. It was a time long ago, when the plantation company with the very English name of Harrisons & Crossfield still owned large tracts of land there.

It was in the early 70s when Pakrisamy’s road to destiny and mine reached a fork where our different callings sent us in separate directions. I have never seen him since, and wondered where he might be on that late afternoon when I drove by the plantation he once called home.

I stopped the car, looked towards the spot where his house once stood and struggled to remember a period now consigned to some obscure part of my memory, and vaguely recalled cycling with him around the place on his father’s rickety ride, which during the latter part of the mornings always had two large metal pails attached to it.

There were four of us then, Pakrisamy, Matthews Jacob, who now dishes out his culinary skills somewhere in Australia, Shum Sin June, the son of a hardware store owner in town and I. Sin June, when I last heard of him slightly more than a year ago, was losing his battle with cancer. He died not long after.

The nation was still healing wounds from the 1969 racial riots when I arrived at the one-street town. But, as a 10-year old boy, what little I knew of the sad episode had long escaped my thoughts and neither did the very Chinese town try to show me any signs. Whenever my late father sent me there for livestock feed for the chickens, the Chinese shopkeeper would almost always give me a pat on my back after he helped secure the sack onto my bicycle.

The four of us at times cycled to one of the many vegetable farms around town and often took dips in ponds from which the farmers got their water for the crops. Sometimes, we had to run for our lives from gnarling packs of dogs watching over the plots. It was our age of innocence and, as I recalled a bit more of the times that day when I stopped by the plantation, it was probably that, too, for the united society we once knew.

But, that dreaded final day when we had to part ways eventually came. It was the last day of our primary school and of a bond of friendship which, in our carefree days, we thought would never arrive.

I remember the four of us sitting by a drain at the back of our classroom that day, me telling them of my impending departure for Seremban to continue with my education, and Sin June’s admission to a boarding school also in Seremban, leaving Pakrisamy and Matthews to carry on with their lives in that small town. The most we could do was to promise to write to each other. We were in tears and were lost for words. Life in that little town wasn’t all that sophisticated then and each of us barely had enough to get by to think about getting gifts to remember our times of inter-racial brotherhood.

In the end, Sin June took out a handkerchief from his pocket and handed it to me, asking me to keep it as a souvenir. I gave him a half-used pencil and, for Matthews, a green pencil sharpener, the size of a 50 sen coin, with a small mirror at its back.

I reserved my own handkerchief for Pakrisamy. It was the same handkerchief that bound my right ankle to his left on our final sports day some months earlier, the last time we ran the three-legged race which we had mastered so much that no other pair could come close.

The sky was turning crimson when I took one last look at the plantation where he once lived, vividly recalling our final race and remembering him looking back at me as he tightened his hold around my shoulder, and then telling me that we would win as in the past years.

Pakrisamy was an Indian boy who once lived in that plantation, and I, a Malay living in a kampung north of the town. But, once our ankles were bound together, we were one. When the whistle blew, we moved in unison, and, just as in the previous years, got to the tape victoriously.

I told my daughters of those glorious years I had as a boy the other day. They asked me what it was like having friends of different races. I didn’t know where to start in answering them, except to say that they don’t know what they have missed.

  

The writer is the newspaper‘s group editor. The profession has taken him to all corners of the globe.