Lottery Ticket

As Aboo Bakar Maraicar said his prayers that rainy Friday afternoon, he found it more difficult than usual to concentrate. The voice of the imam seemed so distant and his words had about them only a vague ring of familiarity. Not that Aboo Bakar was a scholar or even moderately educated in religious matters. He was just an ordinary Muslim, neither pious nor yet completely ignorant of Islamic tenets. He was familiar with some of the Hadith and the stories of the prophets; he knew a few verses from the Holy Quran but, even he had to admit to himself, not quite enough to get him through prayers. Thus his attempts to pray were not entirely successful.

Like most Muslims he ritually omitted the five obligatory prayers every day, but he made sure he went to the Kapitan Keling mosque on Fridays for the Jumaat communal prayers and for the two Eid prayers every year. Somehow that had been the pattern of his religious life since he first started going to the mosque with his now deceased father, Abdul Kadir Maraicar more than thirty-five years ago in his little village outside Nagapattinam. Always, the concentration was not complete. He did not speak or understand Arabic, and so the prayers and the Quranic verses were no more than pleasant sounding words with an aura of the sacred. Some, of course, like the Kalimah Shahadat and other constantly repeated phrases including Astaghfirullah and Inshaalah he had, even as a child, come to understand and to take seriously. But the longer doa and passages from the Holy Quran meant very little to him, their sonority apart, for even he, in his ignorance had to admit that the language had a strange beauty about it, particularly as recited by the imam in the Kapitan Keling mosque, the wellknown Hafiz Mansoor Avargal.

For him it had been the fashion or rather the habit to attend these gatherings for they were sunnat and because his companion salesmen and coworkers from the neighbouring shops did so. He sometimes wondered, though, where all this want of concentration and even more, his near-complete lack of understanding of ritual texts was to lead him, especially when it came to Hari Qiamat, the Day of Resurrection and Judgement, when he would come face to face with his Maker, Allah. He must try to become more familiar with the prayers both in their content and in their method of performance, he once again resolved, realizing too, suddenly that his ankles hurt with his whole weight placed on them for some time now, as he listened to the khutbah. He shifted his weight to the other foot, establishing himself comfortably, removing the tightness in his white sarung. He wished the sermon would end. It seemed interminable.

While for Aboo Bakar Maraicar concentration during prayers had always been a problem – his mind tended to move from one thought to another, today it was proving even more difficult than usual. This was because he had only that morning looked into the Tamil Nesan and made the pleasant discovery that he had won a lottery. His Social Welfare lottery ticket entitled him to a sum of $25,000.00. Feeling elated since the discovery, he wondered how much greater, how much more intense, the excitement would have been if he had won the first prize of $450,000.00. When he reflected upon this figure his mind reeled. He could not even imagine such a big sum of money.

He was certain that if he ever won first prize he would go insane or die from the shock of it. He had heard stories derived from friends or occasionally published in newspapers in which winners of such huge sums of money had died out of shock o completely uncontrollable pleasure.

Others had to go into hiding or even go overseas for fear they would become victims of robbers and murderers intent upon getting their hands upon the money.

So he was glad that his prize was neither the first, nor the second nor the third but just one of the consolation prizes. Reverently, closing his eyes for a moment, he thanked Allah for the gift, the first he had ever received though the two or three Social Welfare lottery tickets that he had made it a point to buy every month without fail. With Bismillah he put his right hand into his pocket, took out the ticket for examination, and placed it back quickly, realizing that he was being observed by several pairs of curios eyes. He smiled, and nodded at one or two persons seated near him. Yes, he was unmistakably a winner.

Hafiz Mansoor’s voice rolled on sonorously. Today’s sermon was on avarice, and the need for good Muslims to avoid greed for it led to behaviour contrary to Islamic teachings.

He wondered if the acquisition of the lottery money could be equated with avarice; if his act of buying lottery tickets every month could be considered an act of greed. Hope and expectation there certainly were, but greed? He was not too sure.

A part of the money, he decided, would be sent to India, to assist his family. The regular remittances out of his salary of $350.00 were small. He saved every cent he could on food and clothes-just an occasional new sarung or a shirt, and that too usually at the time of Hari Raya. He paid a mere $40.00 a month for a place to lay his mat each night in a room with five others, just a few shop-houses away from where he worked. He never allowed himself any luxuries: a couple of Tamil or Hindustani films every month at the Royal or Paramount theatres, usually on Sundays, and his beedi. His family needed the rest of his earnings; and so every two or three months he sent them whatever he managed to save, keeping aside a little for his return ticket to India and some shopping at the end of his present tour of work in Penang. He had already completed slightly more than two years. Another eighteen months to two years at the most and he would leave, sailing on the Chidambaram or perhaps taking a flight, if he could manage that. Sometimes a good annual profit by his firm, Ghulam Mustapha & Sons, meant a generous gift from his employer. He had been fortunate enough in the past to receive a big enough bonus to buy his air ticket. Yet, he had to be prepared for the worst.

He preferred to sail, for that way he could carry much more luggage, besides the usual gifts, including some jewellery for his family members. Typically his additional luggage, like that carried by many of his companions who, like him, returned to Tamil Nadu for family visits once in every two or three years, would include a large tin of biscuits, several tins of Milo or Ovaltine, Japanese slippers, some clothing, a transistor radio or two, an electric iron, watches, ballpoint pens and dark glasses, sometimes a shirt or two, came in handy as gifts for the Customs officers at Madras. It was an investment, for by giving these gifts he could get away without paying any duty, or by paying just a small amount. Dark glasses usually served this purpose pretty well. Once in Madras he could make some profit selling items he did not need.

Yes, any additional money he sent would be of help to his family, and now, through the lottery ticket, Allah had given him the opportunity to make some preparations for any unexpected situation that may rise. His children were growing up, and his two daughters Aminah and Ayesha, named after wives of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, would have to be married off in the coming years. He had to provide for their sarees, jewellery and the wedding feast. There was also the dowry to be paid. These matters would be settled when he next went to India, he decided. His son, Pakeer Mohamed, was not doing well in school and would probably one day join him in Penang, or start a small business in Nagapattinam. Aboo Bakar was thankful that with the winning of the lottery he would be better able to settle at least some of his family matters. God has indeed been kind and merciful to him, Alhamdulillah.

Hafiz Mansoor was still going on about the dangers and pitfalls of greed, quoting profusely from the holy Quran and the Hadith to substantiate his points, translating these passages into Bahasa Malaysia, and even occasionally into Tamil for the likes of our hero. Aboo Bakar Maraicar did not realise until now that there was so much in the Holy Quran and in the Prophet’s sayings about greed and avarice. He had believed that the Holy Quran contained mainly injunctions about prayers, fasting and the pilgrimage to Mecca besides the stories about the series of prophets from Nabi Adam to Nabi Muhammad. What a pity, he thought, that he could neither read nor understand the Arabic of the Holy Quran. The only religious instruction he managed to obtain was on Fridays during these khutbah.

He closed his eyes, trying to listen intently, to concentrate. This exercise worked for only a minute or two. He found, as usual, that his mind kept wandering. Sometimes, when hungry, he imagined what awaited him at lunch after prayers. Friday’s lunch at Jabarullah’s dingy restaurant, at the corner of Market Street and Queen Street, was always special. There would be chicken curry and vegetables to go with nasi minyak, or if he was lucky, it may even be nasi beriani. Friday’s lunch made up for all the unpalatable food during the remaining days of the week.

True, there were all sorts of tempting dishes available, but the likes of him could not afford them. He and others like him– salesmen, port workers, coolies–invariably made special arrangements with the Mamak restaurants in the Little India area. For a fixed monthly payment they would get a meal at lunch time and again at dinner time. There was no limit on the rice but the curry and meat dishes were rationed. What more, the curry was always watered down and dalcha made its appearance much too often. But Aboo Bakar knew that considering that the amount he and his companions paid was only $100.00 per month, they could not expect much better food. Well, at least today was Friday. Overall, he decided, he had no reason to complain.

Once in a while he got invited to his employer’s house for a meal, a privilege not enjoyed by many of his friends who served other masters, and occasionally there were weddings when the food turned out to be quite good, even superb. Yes, he could not afford luxuries, but he had no real reason to complain either, especially now that he had received the unexpected bonus.

Aboo Bakar Maraicar decided that after a portion of his windfall had been sent off to India by the usual black market arrangement, he would place the rest in a savings account at a local bank until it was time for him to return to Nagapattinam. This money he would invest upon reaching India–perhaps he could buy some land in his village and lease it out, or he could buy a house or two and become a landlord . . . there were numerous possibilities. To each he gave a minute or two of his time while his mind raced about in other directions imagining the most lucrative manner in which his money could be utilized . . . he could start a restaurant and then there would be no need to return to Malaysia to work as a salesman; he could become a mudalali with his own textiles business or a partnership with someone in Nagapattinam. He could sense the excitement building up inside him as these schemes raced through his head.

The sermon ended, and the imam now descended from the pulpit to take his place at the head of the congregation. The words of the azan were recited again. The worshippers stood up to get into long straight rows, pushing against each other in preparation for the prayers. Silence descended upon the congregation.

Allahu_Akbar. He raised his hands and placed them on his belly, the right over the left, his shoulders touching those of the young Malay in red baju Melayu on his left and the older, bearded and heavily perfumed Mamak like him on his right. The mosque was crowded, as it usually was during Friday prayers.

Hafiz Masoor’s voice was mesmerizing as he read the Surah al-Fatihah and a much longer passage from the Holy Quran, a section Aboo Bakar was not familiar with. Aboo Bakar listened, but he could not get his mind off his lottery ticket. He was tempted to put his hand in his pocket to make sure the ticket was safely in place, but resisted the temptation, tried to draw his mind back to the prayer.

Allahu Akbar. He prostrated himself for the ruku. Allahu Akbar. He stoop up straight again. Then, with another Allahu Akbar, he went down for the Sujud with the rest of the congregration.

After what seemed like an eternity the prayers came to an end with a long final supplication. Aboo Bakar shook hands with his immediate neighbours. The rush out of the mosque began, and the mosque itself now noisy with the sounds of greetings and conversation. Aboo Bakar was still sitting on the floor. He became conscious that people were pushing him, walking past him. It was time for lunch. He became aware of his sore ankle, and stood up, limping for a moment to gain his balance. He shook hands with several of those he recognized in the crowd, but then waited for the rush at the Pitt Street exit to thin out before leaving. Limping slowly towards the mihrab he waited his turn to shake hands with Hafiz Mansoor Avargal. This was not his usual practice, but this particular Friday he made it a point to greet the imam. It was after all, no ordinary Friday, and who knows whose blessings had been responsible for his good fortune?

Still inwardly jubilant he left the mosque, crossing Pitt Street and passing the row of jewellery shops. The nasi minyak or nasi beriani awaited him in Jabbarullah’s restaurant. He looked forward to a good meal. It was almost two o’clock, well past his non-Friday lunch time when there were no Jumaat prayers to attend. Today he had to eat fast for he had an important mission to complete.

Earlier in the day he had decided that after prayers and lunch he would make inquiries about the manner in which his ticket could be converted into cash. This was, for him, an entirely new situation. He considered it important at this point to keep his good fortune a secret even from his friends and companions. During lunch he remained silent, relishing both the chicken beriani and the though of better things awaiting him in the near future.

“Aboo Bakar Annai, what’s the problem? You are so quiet today, brother.” It was the voice of his regular eating companions, Shahul Hameed. Shahul Hameed was a salesman like Aboo Bakar Maraicar, only much younger. There was a gap of more than twenty years between the two.
“Oh, Shahul Hameed, nothing. Nothing is the matter.”
“You’re so quiet. Hope everything is alright. Any news from the family in India?”
“Yes, they’re all fine. I received a letter from the village only three days ago. And how are things with you?”
“Nothing special. You know there’s no much excitement in the life of a salesman. Its work and work and work six days a week and then the Sunday off … a Sunday you don’t know what to do with. I have not been to the cinema for the past month. Just work and then a walk to the Esplanade to ogle at the passing women; dinner and back to the room. That’s life for us, and soon, before we realize it, we will be dead. At least I hope I die in the village in India and not in this alien land, so that the family can perform the last rites. This poor, stinking life and yet people in Tamil Nadu believe we are minting money here. There’s no end to their increasing demands.”
“But you don’t have to worry. You’re not even married; so you don’t have a family to support back home.”
“Well, yes, But Annai, I have my old parents to think about, and a pair of younger sisters to marry off. So something has to be sent home every now and then, you know.”
“Don’t you ever plan to get married yourself, here or back home?”
“No, I haven’t even thought about it, although my parents have been hinting in their letters that they may have someone in mind for me in India, a distant cousin. But what’s the point? If I do get married, my wife will have to stay in India while I live here in Penang, going back once in every two or three years. What kind of a life would that be? Well I don’t have to tell you. You know much better about these things than I do.”

“Yes.” Aboo Bakar knew a great deal of the struggles, the hardships involved, he had been living in that manner–going between Penang and Nagapattinam–for longer than he could remember. Today he was in no mood for an extended conversation, but he could not altogether brush off Shahul Hameed.

“These days to get married and to support a family one needs a fortune. The salaries we earn–well you know how far they can be stretched, and inflation is making things worse each day. I sometimes wonder how married people like you manage.”
“One just learns to be thrifty.”
“I, suppose one can only pray for a prize in the Social Welfare lottery.”
“Lottery? Ah yes, lottery.”

Aboo Bakar Maraicar felt his hand going towards his pocket, but he restrained it. He wondered if Shahul Hameed knew that he had won a prize. No. Highly unlikely, he concluded, for he had told no one. He looked around at others seated at the table as if to ascertain if anyone knew. He was certain that the reference to a lottery prize by Shahul Hammed was altogether coincidental and had nothing to do with the ticket he had secure in his pocket. He did not doubt that in time the word would be out, but as of now, he wanted no one to know.

Aboo Bakar Maraicar washed his right hand in the plate and wiped it on a soiled rag which lay on the table. He was full. The lunch was food, but both the thought of the ticket in his pocket and the conversation with Shahul Hammed had deprived him of some of the pleasures of the meal.

“What does it matter?” he thought to himself. There will be other Fridays for beriani and with his prize money he could afford beriani everyday at the best eating houses in Madras.
“No, Allah forgive me. I did not intend to be arrogant.”

Aboo Bakar genuinely regretted his thought. He must be modest, most of all in his thoughts, for thoughts can be really dangerous things, particularly with Satan’s instigation. The win was a gift from Allah and he should thank Allah for it while asking for guidance as to how the money should be spent. He had no right to become proud or arrogant. That would be sinful.

“What’s the hurry Annai?” It was Nagore Maideen’s voice.
“Nothing. Nothing in particular. I just have to go back and write a couple of letters,” he lied. In the present circumstance a lie suck as that was necessary. He was sure God would understand. He bid a general farewell to all at the restaurant.
“Assalamu Alaikum.”
“Wa Alaikum Salaam,” came the response from several of the regular eaters at Jabbarullah’s shop. Aboo Bakar lit a beedi and left the premises, for he was in a genuine hurry.

Emerging into the blistering afternoon sun, Aboo Bakar Maraicar walked as casually as he could towards Beach Street. He felt awkward, wondering if the casual onlookers noticed anything strange about him. He did not wish to convey the impression to anyone that he had something urgent to handle. The throbbing in his temples became almost unbearable. His mouth felt dry.

Aboo Bakar soon reached the entrance of the United Asian Bank, Beach Street branch. He stood outside the class door which, as it opened and closed, allowed the coolness of the air-conditioned interior out in whiffs which struck Aboo Bakar. He became hesitant, not daring to push the glass door leading into the cool interior, and to a world of riches. He puffed heavily on his beedi, the third since lunch. Ghulam Mustapha & Sons had an account at this particular branch of the United Asian Bank. He had at some time or other met some of its clerks. He even had a nodding acquaintance with the manager, Mr. K. Viswanathan. No doubt Mr.Viswanathan. would still remember him, vaguely, if he introduced himself.

But all of a sudden Aboo Bakar Maraicar began to have doubts about cashing his ticket at the United Asian Bank. No, he decided. That would be a certain way of letting people know that he had won a prize worth $25,000.00. Tamil Indians–Hindus and Muslims alike–were, as a race, addicted to gossip. This he knew for a certainty. Thus if he did cash his ticket at the United Asian Bank, chances were the word would soon leak out through the bank clerks. For a while he was confused, uncertain of himself.

He decided to take a walk, think again, come back in a few minutes. There was still time before the banks closed for business. He even thought of the possibility of settling the matter the next day, but then realised that this would probably cause him even greater anxiety. He would have the added agony of having to ensure the safety of his ticket. No, he must get the matter settled once and for all this very day.

During the following few minutes, while pretending to look at the textiles, the cassettes, the foreign currencies and a host of other articles displayed at the shops and stalls along Beach Street, he made a decision that it would be unwise to return to the United Asian Bank. There were too many Indian workers there, and too many Indian customers to boot. It would be safer to find a bank at which he was completely unknown.

Right across from where he was standing at the corner of Beach Street and Union Street near Barkath Stores stood the old grey building of Chartered Bank. Yes, it would have to be the Chartered Bank, rather than some local one owned by Chinese businessmen. There would be greater security, perhaps better service at a bank which, though now operated by locals, inherited a British tradition.

Crossing the street, Aboo Bakar Maraicar stood at the Beach Street entrance to the bank. There was a crowd inside. Perhaps because it was Friday; perhaps because the banks would be closing soon for the day. He wondered how many of the bank’s customers had come to cash lottery tickets. He felt awkward, dressed in his white sarung and cream coloured baju Melayu, his white kepiah haji still on his head. But he had little choice. He had to go in. Summoning enough courage, and taking off his kepiah haji, thus exposing his balding head, he entered the stately old building. He approached the burly Sikh security guard with the name tag Bachan Singh. Bachan Singh has a graying beard and there was an air of seriousness about him. Aboo Bakar approached him after some hesitation.

“Bhaii Saahib, where is the Manager’s office?”
“You wish to meet the Manager?” Bachan Singh looked up and down at Aboo Bakar as if to assess his worthiness as a customer. The latter felt small and uncomfortable beside Bachan Singh.

“Y..yes, Bhai Saahib.”
“First go to counter no.4, and talk to the lady there.”

Bachan Singh pointed in the direction of a counter where several customers were lined up.

“Thank you Bhai Saahib.” He felt nervous. He knew that Bachan Singh was probably still staring at him as he moved away. He wished all this was not necessary. But the matter of the ticket had to be settled before the bank closed at 3.00 p.m. He too had to be back at work that hour. It was already 2.25 on the Chartered Bank’s ancient clock.

Approaching counter no. 4 he joined the short queue, making a strange figure amongst the others in his sarung and baju Melayu, his kepiah haji held in his left like a book.

“Pak Cik, can I help you?” It was his turn.
“Cik, I would like to meet the manager.” He managed to half stammer the words, while wondering if the young and pretty short-haired lady behind the counter was Malay, Chinese or Eurasion. Her name tag read Roslina.

“The Manager, Pak Cik?”
“Yes, Cik.”
“About what?”
“Something private,” Cik.”

He wished the interrogation would end. The whole thing was really getting on his nerves.

“I see. Alright. Muthu, Muthu.” She called an attendant in a khaki uniform like that of the security guard. She directed Muthi to guide Aboo Bakar to the manager’s office.
“You can follow him, Pak Cik.”
“Thank you very much, Cik.”

He was certain the clerks at the United Asian Bank were not as gentle, softspoken or helpful as Roslina. He was glad he decided to enter the Chartered Bank instead. Soon he found himself at the door to the Manager’s office. After knocking twice, the attendant pushed the door. Aboo Bakar found himself looking at a rather drab and unimpressive room. Behind a large table sat a flabby bespectabled Chinese man of about fifty.

“This gentleman would like to meet you, Tuan.”
“Yes, come in Encik” said the Manager, without even looking up at Aboo Bakar, who made his way to the table.
“Please take a seat. Give me just a minute while I finish signing these documents.”

This time the Manager looked at Aboo Bakar. A plaque on the table indicated his name– Lee Kam Chye. Aboo Bakar sat down, uncomfortable. Completing the documents. Lee Kam Chye rang his table bell. The attendant came in again.

“Please take these to Encik Chong.” The documents were handed to the attendant.
“Yes, Encik, what can we do for you?”
“Tuan… Tuan, its like this” My name is Aboo Bakar… Aboo Bakar Maraicar and…and…” He struggled for words.
“Yes, what is it, Encik Aboo Bakar?”
“It’s about…about a lottery ticket…”
“Lottery ticket?”
“Yes, Tuan. You see, I checked in the Tamil newspaper this morning. I have the ticket which won a consolation prize.”
“Ah I see, I see. You won a prize in the Social Welfare Lottery.”
“Yes, Tuan.”
“Congratulations, Encik Aboo Bakar.”
“Tuan, I don’t know how to go about…”
“I understand, You want to get the ticket cashed, is that it?”
“Yes, Tuan.”
“No problem. That should be easy enough..”

Aboo Bakar felt relieved. Things were working out rather well. He had always admired the efficiency of the Chinese, even though as a race he was not particularly fond of them. He was glad he had entered the Chartered Bank.

“You can bring the ticket to us and we will send it for encashment. It will take a few days.”
“A few days?”
“Yes, Encik Aboo Bakar, that’s quite normal. But don’t worry. We will give you an official receipt, and when the money is ready for collection, we will inform you.”
“You will contact me?”
“Yes, we will write to you, or if you can give us your telephone number we can call you.”

Aboo Bakar was getting worried again. He was wondering if the ticket would be safe, if he could trust the Manager. He had no doubts that the Chartered Bank was alright, but what about the manager? After all he was Chinese. All this confusion about writing to him or calling him by telephone–somehow it seemed rather complicated.

“Don’t worry, Encik Aboo Bakar. Everything will be alright. That’s the normal procedure.”
“Yes, Tuan.”
“Well then, bring the ticket in and we will do the rest for you.:
“I have the ticket with me right now, Tuan.”
“Good. Then, we can start the process straight away.”

Aboo Bakar hesitated for a moment; looked at the manager as if trying to gauge him. Mr. Lee did not appear to be amused.

“Well, would you like us to do it for you? Or do you need more time to think about it? You know, there is no other way in which you can cask the ticket except through a bank.”

He sensed the irritation in Mr. Lee’s voice.

“Perhaps you had better think about it first, Encik Aboo Bakar. You can always come back tomorrow or next week, if you wish.”

“No. no, let it be today. Let it be today, Tuan>”
“Good. Can I have your ticket and your identity card, please.” He rang his table bell again.
“Muthu, please call Encik Chong for me.”

Aboo Bakar’s head was spinning with a mixture of excitement and anxiety; excitement at the prospect of at last being able to cash the ticket; anxiety at the though that he was leaving it the hands of total strangers, a couple of Chinese men at that.

The cashier, a jovial man of about forty-five came in, and sat on a chair next to the one Aboo Bakar was occupying. Encik Lee explained to Encik Chong the nature of the business at hand. Encik Chong shook hands with Aboo Bakar, his jovial nature effusing from him. Aboo Bakar felt concerned, but forced a smile, now that he had little choice in the matter. Things had begun to work too fast, for him. he seemed to be losing control of the situation.
Aboo Bakar Maraicar uttered a silent Bismillah and putting his hand into his Baju Melayu pocket, felt for the ticket. A sudden chill went through his spine; his head reeled with panic. He felt again, removed everything from his pockets–his identity card, some cash in notes and loose coins, his room keys, an aerogramme he had reveiced a few days earlier from his daughter Ayesha–but there was no sign of the ticket. Perhaps he had moved it into his upper pocket. He hoped and prayed that this was the case; that he had been mistaken about his pocket.

The search for the ticket in the upper pocket proved equally futile. There was nothing in the upper pocket.
“Ya Allah, where have I put it?”
“What happened, Encik Aboo Bakar?” this time it was Encik Chong.
“I…I can’t find my ticket.”
“Perhaps you put in your purse, or left it at home.”
“No, I…I had it with me. I…I had it with me, in this pocket, in this pocket. O my God. What could have happened to it? What could have happened?”

Aboo Bakar Maraicar’s voice turned into an almost inaudible hiss. His eyes brimmed with tears; he shut them and a teardrop found its way down his right cheek. Placing his arms on the Manager’s table, he rested his throbbing head. He was sobbing like a child.

Realising that the business with Aboo Bakar Maraicar was not going to materialise, Encik Lee Kam Chye began to dial a number.

“Hello, hello. Encik Vincent Tan, please.”

Comforting Aboo Bakar by patting him on his back several times, Encik Chong left the room it was getting close to three o’clock.

Soon after the azan for maghrib prayers, when Aboo Bakar Maraicar regained consciousness he found himself in the third class ward of the Penang General Hospital.

He had no idea why he was in hospital, and how he had found his way there.