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Farewell Uncle

  • 17 August 2022
  Memories of his much-loved flea-colonised Spitz of ill-temper, and his medical practice in Kuantan in Malaysia, linger like soft moss and morning dew. Uncle Boda was a figure who managed to tease out an image at one mention with his humble and unambitious doctor’s practice, for which he worked for years to obtain. He had read medicine in India, and to this day it remains unclear how long he spent trying to earn his degree.

Uncharitably, he was also known to have a demon wife, patrolling and guarding him against his famous flourishes of vulnerable generosity.  The locals in Kuantan might have been harsh to her, but she fought hard to protect him from what she regarded as unwarranted milking.

A visit to Kuantan, where he lived before moving to Penang, is still a picture of sleeping on hot floors, warnings about getting cockroaches or other insects in ears, and wondering whether one should keep a cross under the pillow. ‘Take this,’ he offered. ‘It will ward off the spirits.’  He was syncretic and un-doctrinaire, his religious faith an amalgam of beliefs that accommodated Judaeo-Christian notions with a heavy dash of Hindu inspiration. 

This view would have scandalised the fire and brimstone types, the monotheistic religion swashbucklers who had tried to influence this part of the world. Uncle was merely succumbing to an acceptable reality: any supposedly conquering religion will, in time, come to be assimilated locally and eccentrically. The animist will dance with the monotheist; rigid dogma will feast with the flexible and elastic, shrines becoming common to all.

The modest clinic was not just dedicated to understanding whether local insects had found their way into ears, or whether hypertension had made its unwelcome visit. As was the tradition in this part of Malaysia, where skull worshipping witchdoctors known as bomohs receive audiences and issue curses, and where ghosts still have their say at tables and temples, the doctor acts as banker, counsellor and reassurer. Uncle did so even as the ghosts supposedly moved through the clinic, leaving taps running, floors wet, ceilings moist.

'When word came of his death last month, there was little by way of explanation. His mind had already been burgled by nature’s workings, explained as dementia. He had been moved from home to home, a desperate wife unsure about how to deal with a desperate situation.' 

In Uncle’s case, this generosity became a bank worthy of the European families Fugger