Changkat Salak (circa 1940)
A war was beginning to kick up a storm in Europe and specks of its dust were slowly floating into and settling in our sleepy hollows. It was 1941 and I was just about eleven or twelve. I now had a two year old brother whose welcome arrival provided me with respite from my solitary life with just books and my favorite Rainbow comics for company. Life was quiet but good. I had so much fun playing with my brother and keeping him entertained.
By now we had moved to Changkat Salak Estate, six miles from Sungai Siput in Perak. Just about two years later, in 1943 or 1944, Sungai Siput which was mainly a tin mining town would become a communist hotbed. The Three Star Liberation Army which was bent on driving out the Japanese was very active there. But when we lived there between 1940 and 1942, it was just a tranquil little place. The memory of our move there from Rinching Estate by the KL-Butterworth mail train is still fresh in my mind. Lime stone hills dotted the landscape between Sungai Siput and Ipoh. Homes and even stores were embedded in these hills. I was fascinated by the sight of lights that shone from homes in the caves which had regular water and electricity supply. The children from these caves waved to me as the train sped past.
Our home, on a hill in the estate, was bigger than the one we had in Rinching Estate. My father had obtained a better paying job here and that bought us a slightly more affluent lifestyle. Insurance had replaced my father’s Austin 7 which had been destroyed in the accident that we had earlier. We bought a gramophone and I had fun winding it up whenever music was called for at home. However, my interest in it ended there because it had been bought mainly for my mother’s entertainment. She listened to her devotional and Indian classical music records in which I had no interest. My interest as always lay in my books and comics. Once in a while my father would take me to the movies in Ipoh to Lido, the one and only air-conditioned theater, where I could watch swashbuckling heroes like Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks. My favorite Tarzan movies, starring Johnny Weissmuller were so popular then that fights would break out for tickets. My lifelong love affair with Hollywood movies began there.
School was about ten miles away. I would ride my bicycle to Salak North, to Muniandi’s store where my parents regularly bought groceries and then take the train with his two sons, Marimuthu and Kolandaisami. The train would halt for just about two minutes and so sometimes it would be a scramble to get in before it pulled out again. One time, I had the misfortune of witnessing a horrible accident where an old man trying to get into the train at the last minute, missed and fell onto the tracks. The horror that I saw on that day has stayed in my mind all these years.
After school at 1pm, I would take the train back to the store and bicycle back home. This was about the time the laborers in the plantation would head home as well. Just about the time I entered the plantation on my bicycle a drum would sound, marking the end of the work day for the workers who would have started work at about 5am. Many would head home but many would also make their way towards the local toddy shop. Fermented toddy was a favorite alcoholic beverage among the workers, worn after a hard day’s work. This was the only option that they had in the form of entertainment which was otherwise non-existent. Unfortunately, a lot of their hard earned wages would end up filling the coffers of the toddy shop contractor. Sometimes fights would break out in the toddy shop. Once a month or so the plantation management would treat the workers to a Tamil movie in the community hall. Movies like Ambigapathy, or PU Chinnappa movies which were big hits in Tamil Nadu, South India would take the community of workers on a nostalgic trip home to the land that they had left behind, for a few hours.
While life strolled along in this manner, a little chatter about war began to make its rounds in coffee shops, grocery stores and anywhere that groups gathered for a little chat. Even my parents’ guests would talk about an impending war since it was happening in Europe and it was only a matter of time before it spread to the rest of the world. My teachers talked about a war that could happen. Local newspapers ran articles about the Nazi party and even my Rainbow comics had stories about the war. Only in movies and my comic books the Germans and the Italians were depicted as funny figures, a far cry from the truth. Mussolini appeared in my comics as “Musso the Wop.” In the movie “The Great Dictator” Charlie Chaplin played Hitler, depicting him as a blithering fool. I suppose belief in the Allies was still strong.
If belief in the Allies was strong overseas, faith in the British in the placid towns of Malaya was blind. My father would declare, “The British will emerge ever triumphant. No one can shake them.” No one imagined that the Japanese had an agenda for creating a new South East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere and had already sent their spies as benign barbers, dentists and owners of toyshops years before they actually struck. Ignorance was truly bliss and so other than healthy debates among congenial friends over a cup coffee or tea, no one actually took the Japanese threat seriously. Everyone felt secure in the firm belief that the British were invincible. The British themselves believed so much in their indestructibility that they had their guns pointed to the sea while the Japanese made their way by land from Kota Bahru in the north, all the way to Singapore, systematically conquering every town and completely occupying Malaya.
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 afternoon. People were moving around hurriedly with packed bags and faces etched with tension and worry. When I asked a man walking past he said, “Jepun datang. Lekas balik” in Malay or “Japanese coming, go home quickly.” I was puzzled by his response and didn’t know what to think. 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. She shooed them away when they tried to settle into our verandah. When I told my father about what I had heard and seen, he merely brushed it off as the work of rumor mongers, assuring us that the British will prevail. We went about our lives as usual on that day, taking comfort in that thought, idyllically unaware that change was waiting to happen, more abruptly then we imagined.
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. I now had two brothers. My second brother was born in the Changkat Salak Estate, at home. He was delivered by a midwife brought by Mr. Veerasami Pillai, a close friend of my father, who I remember as a jolly and helpful man, always dressed in a shirt, a jacket, a sarong and leather shoes with socks. His son V.T. Sambanthan, one of the founding fathers of present day Malaysia, later became my cousin, Uma Sundari’s, husband. Our lives in those days were an eclectic mix of experiences, not unlike the attire of many immigrants who stuck to their traditions while adopting the nuances of their adopted home. They spoke their native language with each other but easily slipped into what was known as bazaar Malay or a sort of pidgin Malay with friends and acquaintances who were Chinese or Malay. Frequently used Malay and Chinese words like “sewa” for rent, “janji” for promise, “pinjam” for borrow, and “kusini” for kitchen were quickly woven into every day Tamil. Likewise connections and friendships which were forged by immigrants on the ships that they arrived in or in the towns that they lived in, often lasted a lifetime.
Getting back to my story, the 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. My mother and I watched aghast as my father drove up like a madman, gesticulating wildly. We couldn’t make out what he was trying to say and just stared puzzled. He screeched to a halt and jumped out of the car yelling at us, “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 and that they had arrived. Given the fact that we were still in a state of shock and confusion, we grabbed frantically at what we could but we still lost almost everything that we had saved over the years. We only managed to save our money, my mother’s jewelry and a small bag of clothes each, other than the clothes on our back. We had to leave behind some prized possessions like the gramophone, a Hornby clockwork train, a gift from my uncle, and some other items of sentimental and emotional value.
As we drove away, relieved that we had saved ourselves, we didn’t realize that we were driving away forever from the tranquility of a simple and uncomplicated life on the plantation. Our lives would change drastically in the next few weeks and then more so in the months that followed. The Japanese had arrived and the British were departing.
Chapter Navigation Links
Part 2 - Storm
Part 3 - Calm but murky waters