Fleeing to Uncertainty
My father and his family’s scramble to safety in the last ten days before the fall of Malaya is often food for teatime conversation with my parents. But it was his ability to detail their journey that inspired me to write about it. Born in 1929, in Bruas, Pahang, my father’s beginnings were quite similar to the numerous other sons of early Indian immigrant parents from South India. My grandfather arrived aboard the Rhona, with my young grandmother, starry eyed and full of hope in Malaya, perceived then as the land of milk and honey. After some early struggles to find a suitable position in a strange land, he managed to secure a reasonably well-paying job on a rubber plantation in Perak, Malaya which bought him and his family a few luxuries like an Austin 7. He had in his mind and heart, securely put himself and his family on the route to comfort and well-being. Little did he realize, like so many others who blindly believed in the invincibility of the British, that they would be literally running for their lives, their world turned upside down and all that he had won, lost. Probably what is different about this tale is that it is through the eyes of the lad that my father was, no more than twelve or thirteen and who saw the scramble, alternately, both as a page out of the adventure books and comics that he voraciously read and as a startling brush with death.
“My first sense that my secure and placid world was experiencing some tremors was when I was waiting to take the train back home after school one Friday afternoon in 1942. People were moving around hurriedly with packed bags and faces etched with tension and worry. I was puzzled when a man walking past urged me to go home quickly. “Jepun datang. Lekas balik”, he said in Malay. When I reached home, a small detachment of Indian soldiers, attached to the British Army, had assembled in our compound much to the chagrin of my mother who felt that they were encroaching into our home. My father though, brushed off the happenings and the murmurs as the work of rumor mongers, assuring me and my mother that the British will prevail. And so, we went about our lives as usual on that day completely unaware that change was waiting to happen, more abruptly then we had ever imagined. I remember spending the day reading my favorite Rainbow comics and playing with my baby brothers. I knew of Mussolini from some of my comics as the ridiculously pompous “Musso the Wop.” Hitler in the Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” had been portrayed as hilariously comic. Perhaps it was these depictions that had lulled us into a false sense of security.
The next day, Saturday, dawned deathly quiet. Strangely the detachment of soldiers in our compound had disappeared. My father left for work as usual and my mother and I stood talking and playing with my baby brothers. The uncanny ambient tenseness that heightened the quietness even in our voices on that still morning was suddenly exploded by my father’s sudden return in his Austin 7. We watched aghast and completely confused as he drove up like a madman, gesticulating wildly. He screeched to a halt and jumped out of the car yelling, “Pack up! Pack up! They are here! They are here!” It didn’t strike us immediately that he was talking about the Japanese. He rushed around gathering what he could, telling us to do the same while explaining that the Japanese was gaining ground. Given our shock and confusion, we could only grab frantically at what was most valuable which was money, my grandmother’s jewelry and a small bag of clothes each. Everything else that we treasured as memorabilia was left behind. And among those things were a prized gramophone that had provided hours of entertainment on lonely evenings, and my Hornby clockwork train, a gift from my uncle.
As the little Austin 7 driven by my father could only accommodate my mother, my baby brothers, a female cousin and the baggage. I had to travel with a trusted family friend and his family to Kuala Lumpur, about 200 miles from Sungai Siput where we lived. As I watched my parents drive away, I was both thrilled at the prospect of being in the thick of one of the numerous adventures that I had only read about and fearful. Half of me wondered if I would see them again. People laden with belongings, children, pets and chickens scrambled towards the waiting train that they saw as their ticket to safety. Men, women, children, young and old climbed over each other trying to get into a train that was already over-flowing with fleeing Malayans. When the train finally lurched forward into life, it looked like it was going to burst at its seams. Throughout the night, the train chugged slowly towards Kuala Lumpur, picking up more people who packed in like goods. Finally in Kuala Lumpur at about 5am the next morning, we literally fought our way through the hundreds of passengers pouring out of the train. Staying together was a struggle as hands, elbows, legs and bodies, pushed, pulled and grabbed at belongings, children, animals and squawking chickens. Suffocated and breathless, we gasped with the rush of fresh air when we finally got out of the train. It was so refreshing and renewing that for a minute or two we forgot the gravity of our predicament.
As agreed with my father, my guardians dropped me off at Lakshmi Vilas, the most famous Indian vegetarian restaurant in those days, in Kuala Lumpur, on Ampang Street. Alone now, I anxiously searched the crowd and the different faces in the restaurant and the street outside for a glimpse of my father. As my eyes nervously darted here and there, a loud, “Wooo!” sound ripped the air and the hearts of all who heard it as it rose to a crescendo. It was the sound of the siren warning us of an air-raid. Pandemonium broke out and people ran screaming, shouting and yelling for safety in the shelters. I stood rooted to the ground. I hadn’t been briefed on what to do, and none of the numerous stories that I had read on battles and adventures had prepared me for this.
While standing frozen with despair, I felt a heavy hand rest firmly on my shoulder. I looked up into the eyes of the manager of the restaurant who, at that moment, appeared like a superhero. He grabbed my arm and ran into the shelter just as the first blasts ripped through the air. It was a full ten to fifteen minutes before the “All Clear” signal sounded. Many who had been holding their breath, sighed loudly with relief, thankful for the fact that they were still standing even if it was on shivering legs. The manager of the restaurant who had saved me led me out of the shelter into the blinding sunlight. While there were damaged buildings, some more severely than others, and evidence of the bombing was strewn everywhere, the restaurant like some other buildings, had inexplicably escaped. There were many casualties as well during this raid and unfortunately among them were the wife and two sons of the man who had accompanied me to KL. News of this reached us later. When my father finally appeared, obviously my relief and joy knew no bounds.
My father had to report to the headquarters of his office in Kuala Lumpur to inform them of his whereabouts. And there, his British boss requested the use of the faithful Austin 7 so that he could go to Singapore. The boss had a car of his own but it wasn’t enough to accommodate all his family. At that time, belief was firm that Singapore, the stronghold of the British, could not fall and was hence the safe haven. And since, faith still lay with the British and their unassailability, the “Tuan’s” demands had to be met. When morning came, my father went in search of a taxi for us. In his absence, my mother, my cousin and I hastily got ready to leave. Just as we had finished a spartan lunch, the ominous sound of the siren tore through the air again and sent us dashing with pounding hearts, under a staircase, the only shelter available. This time the bombing was so severe that it finally dawned on me, a twelve or thirteen year old at that time that death was a very real possibility. We covered our heads and ears and clung to each other as the ground that we stood on shook and trembled. My mother, the only adult with us at that point, was truly the personification of strength that urged us to be calm and brave, and to pray. And, pray we did, fervently. Obviously someone heard those prayers because we survived.
We didn’t realize how miraculous our escape was until we saw the hundreds of pieces of sharp metal, shrapnel, stuck on the walls on the outside of the house, the deep craters where the bombs had fallen and burning buildings all around. The thirty minutes of bombing, before the “All Clear” signal was given, felt like an eternity. But we were truly relieved only when my father appeared safe and sound with a taxi. Gathering our few belongings we made our way to Muar and arrived there at about 7 that evening to be reassured by the sight of familiar faces. But our respite was brief.
The next day, at about 4pm, after tea, my father and I decided to take a walk. The cloudless blue sky and the calm afternoon were so beguilingly attractive that we actually began to relax. But our harmless exercise was short-lived. Looking up squinting at the sun, I spied, in the distance, some glinting silver objects falling from the sky. I nudged my father and pointed upwards. My father took one look at the direction in which I pointed before he grabbed my arm and started to run. As we dashed back into the house we heard the drone of low flying planes. All of us dived under a bench in the store room in the kitchen. Clearly, we never thought about how a staircase the day before or a bench that day could provide us with any kind of protection. Logical thinking had no room in our terror struck and desperate minds. Trembling under the bench, we heard the bombing of Muar town and river. The assault sank a cargo vessel which was going upstream with supplies for the settlements on the banks, and whipped up panic and frenzy among the gentle folk of the small town. Once again the attack that was meant more to frighten and to warn the people of an advancing superior power than to destroy, lasted for about thirty minutes.
As soon as the blasting stopped we and several other Indians in the small town assembled together. We all decided to leave together in a big group. It just felt safer to move around in large numbers. This time we chose to move inland and away from the main thoroughfares. But once again, despite the life and death predicament of his own family, duty called my father. He had to proceed to Singapore to meet his boss. So the rest of us journeyed without him towards Batu Pahat as part of a convoy of cars driving slowly south and vaguely towards Johor and Singapore. The tension and the fear of the rumored atrocities and cruelty served to heighten our desperation. We did not know where to go to be safe. As the convoy proceeded, different cars moved in different directions. Some moved towards Yong Peng, while others moved towards Pagoh and Segamat and some others went inland into remote villages. Enroute to Batu Pahat, we crossed a small river by a ferry while still in their cars. Just as we began our journey across the river our hearts sank at the sound of planes again. Thankfully we crossed the small river quickly and sped madly towards my uncle’s friend’s home in Batu Bahat. He very kindly accommodated all of us. The most wonderful thing about those times was that people were absolutely willing and ready to throw their homes open to accommodate those in need. The silver lining around the gray cloud that hung over our heads was that long lasting friendships and relationships were forged in those troubled times because we were all thrashing about in the same murky waters.
Almost immediately after we arrived, bombs rained down again and sent us scurrying for shelter. The bombing stopped after one large explosion which sounded so close to that it felt like it was right inside the house. We crouched as low as we could clutching our heads and ears, our hearts pounding. When silence finally crept back, we gingerly stepped out of our hiding place and peered out through the window. A few bodies were strewn on the street. We also saw a huge crater just about fifty yards away from the house. The last bomb had just missed us. Clearly, we were not safe here as well. The friend then suggested that we move to Sankokoshi Estate, a Japanese owned oil palm plantation. His convincing rationale was that since it was Japanese owned it would be safe from attacks. As soon as we arrived in the estate we occupied one of the abandoned houses, a Japanese style house with sliding doors and mats everywhere.
Peace finally reigned and we could breathe a little easily after six days of anxiety and fatigue. I was obviously not privy to the thoughts and worries of the adults, or even my mother’s fears about my father who had not returned from Singapore. My mother was a stoic and strong woman, and so she was probably resigned to whatever destiny had in store for her and her three young children. In any case, oblivious to the cares of the grown-ups, I spent the next few days exploring the beautiful estate. Fruit trees laden with guava and mangoes, a crystal clear stream with goldfish swimming and abandoned railway trolleys meant for palm fruit were enough to keep me and the other children happy. The camaraderie amongst us, both adults and children, was inspiring with everyone helping in different ways. The women helped each other with cooking while the men worked with each to fortify the place as best as they could. They gathered sticks, homemade spears and other weapons for protection and bicycled to nearby villages for supplies, produce and groceries. A couple of days later, as if to signal the end of the war and the fall of the British in Malaya and the Straits Settlements, a squadron of low flying Japanese planes flew over the estate. We watched the Singapore bound planes that were on their way to consolidate Japanese victory over the British. The war was over...but our troubles? Not quite.
The night was dark, warm and sultry. The men had just finished playing cards, the only entertainment available to them while the women were either chatting or attending to their nodding children. Soon the adults began to wander off to their mats in their usual spots. The women and children slept indoors in the rooms as families, while the men slept on the verandah that surrounded the house. Somewhere about midnight, Somu, a Dr. Sharma’s dog, began a low, long growl which suddenly exploded into ferocious barking, jolting the men out of their deep slumber. The household stirred and sleepy but concerned voices called out in the dark, asking if something was wrong. Before anyone could stagger up to their feet to determine what had triggered Somu’s angry outburst, we heard a clatter of boots and heavy footsteps coming up the short flight of stairs that led to the verandah and harsh shouting in Japanese. We were instantly awake, attentive and frightened, very frightened.
“Kara Kura!” snapped the man who appeared to be the sergeant. By now we knew enough Japanese to know that he meant, “Hurry up! Pay Attention!” He was a short, squat, pudgy fellow with a ferocity on his face that matched Somu’s bark. Somu was barking his head off by now, much to Dr. Sharma’s consternation. The good doctor was desperately holding the wriggling dog and trying to calm him but in vain. In a split second we saw a glint of steel and a sword pointed at the terrified doctor. The rest of us watched frozen and at a loss about how to help the doctor who immediately fell at the feet of the sergeant begging for his life. And then the most amazing thing happened. As if on cue, Somu stopped barking and began to whine and followed his master’s example. He too crawled up to the sergeant on his stomach in total supplication while the rest of us watched open-mouthed.
The scene was so funny that even the fierce sergeant started chuckling and that was enough to for the rest of us to start laughing. The pudgy soldier, chuckled “Yoroshe!” or “Good!” He appeared to have softened. He looked around at all of us and reached out and ruffled my hair, saying, “Kodomo thachi! Yoroshe!” or “Young fellow! Good!” The tension evaporated and the mood lightened. The Japanese soldiers were not the monsters that they were rumored to be, at least, these ones weren’t. The women quickly busied themselves with making coffee for the nocturnal guests. But we relaxed a little too soon. It appeared that the stocky soldier was a little temperamental and erratic.
“We want borrow car! “You give?” asked the sergeant in broken English. He seemed to know a bit of English and Malay. When Dr. Sharma responded, “no petrol”, he flew into a rage. “No petrol, all die! Boom!” he snapped loudly while gesticulating wildly. When two canisters of petrol were miraculously produced, he seemed to calm down again. “We borrow car and give receipt. We return car in Muar,” he promised. “Ok! Arigato gozaimasu!” he barked, and all his men packed themselves into the cars and drove off into the night, leaving us dazed and reeling with both relief and disbelief.
After that last night, we began our long and laborious journey back to normality which was not the same as what we had enjoyed before the war. Many things had changed forever and even I, a lad of twelve, could see that. The “tuans” were not as invincible as they had made themselves out to be. The superiority with which they had conducted themselves now seemed laughable. Many had had to run for their lives relying on the kindness of their local staff. My dad’s boss, who had reprimanded him in front of me, just some months before all of this, for allowing me to use some scrap paper in the office, had desperately needed him to transport him to safely to Singapore. All that pride and arrogance brought to its knees by Japanese soldiers, who I had heard, were among the hardiest on earth, sustaining themselves on grass when necessary.”