Ghostly Guests and Vanquished Warriors
It was somewhere between 1943 and 1944. We had a new member in our family by this time. My sister, was born and we had settled gingerly into our uncertain future. We didn’t know where our lives were heading and if I would go back to school again. We weren’t even sure if we would survive the occupation given the poor living conditions and lack of so many essentials. While there were indignities suffered when the British were the masters in the form of snubs and slights, people could at least look forward to stability and security. They could expect decent, even affluent lives. Their children could look forward to quality education and brighter futures.
Under the Japanese, the children didn’t have clear futures, and the sacrifices made by immigrants when they came out here appeared to be in vain. When the Japanese occupied Malaya they dealt a hard blow to immigrant dreams in the same manner as they dealt stinging slaps when they perceived disrespect to them. Warriors were held in very high esteem back in Japan and the Japanese soldiers in Malaya expected the same reverence from us. We had to stop, stand still and bow when passing a soldier. Errant Malayans who didn’t bow were hauled up and slapped hard.
Having said this, I would say that there was much to be learned from the Japanese just as there is always something to be learned from less advantageous situations. They were hard taskmasters with a strong sense honor and demanded the best at all times. There was no room for mistakes or slackness. They themselves strove to be the best and worked untiringly towards perfection. My poor father discovered this the hard way when he once confessed that he didn’t know something to his boss. I watched aghast as his boss barked “Ta tau, ta bole chakap. Blajar! Potong kepala, lain kali!” “You cannot say don’t know! Learn! I will chop of your head next time!"
They were very resilient. I have heard that they could continue to fight while nourished with little more than grass. They were loyal to their ruler and country till death and that was something that was foreign to us at that time. We were not familiar with that kind of emotion towards a country or its rulers. One more thing that was admirable was their proficiency in Malay, the lingua franca in those times. Like us, they had learned it when they had ridden around peacefully as barbers, dentists and toy shop owners in the early days and the soldiers that came out to Malaya could speak it pretty well.
I continued to work at the airport construction site. My boss Pat or Mr Parthasarathy, decided to put me to work at the workshop because the foreman there needed help. I had barely commenced working there when theft was reported. Apparently, someone had stolen some spare parts from the workshop in the dead of night. What was worse, was that the night watchman (security person) swore that he had seen some apparitions and insisted that he could not continue working unless the administration did something about giving him some security!
Pat, our boss, drew up a duty roster for all subordinate staff. We all had to take turns to be on duty at night with the Mustaffa the night watchman once a month. I was so excited when my turn came. I felt like a hero to be protecting a grown man. After a couple of months, Mustaffa, and I became good friends and chatted while we watched the store. On one of those occasions, Mustaffa who was a rather small and timid man began to show some nervousness. I was a little drowsy and I tried to stay awake by looking around the workshop. When I casually looked towards the back of the building, I nearly jumped out of my skin.
Something like a white specter was moving towards us. There were two more ghostly apparitions behind it. Mustaffa grabbed my arm and said “Ikut saya lari” or “Lets run.” “Mana mau lari?” I whispered terrified or “Where can we run?” “Rumah saya dekat saja,” he said or “My home is nearby.” We ran as fast as we could and as soon as we reached his house, he banged on the door and a small woman opened it. We ran in and he bolted the door. I slept on a bench in his house that night. Early next morning, I got a ride back home on one of the trucks and promptly related the matter to my father.
Not long after that, everyone in the office got to know about what had happened and Pat decided to investigate. The following week, he called a meeting and explained that the soil behind the workshop contained a large quantity of peat deep inside. At night, when the temperature cooled, the gas from this substance surfaced and what we had seen was most probably the gas that wafted into the workshop. He managed to convince the educated staff but there were many who refused to buy the story. A ‘bomoh” or “Malay medicine man” was brought in to do some chanting and sacrifice of a chicken to appease disturbed spirits of the living and the dead.
For about a month after that everything was back to normal. The airport was almost ready. But it was gradually becoming evident that the Japanese were beginning to lose their grip on Malaya. The most telling proof of this was the fact that the Three Star Liberation Army, an army made up of communist guerilla fighters, was becoming bolder every day. Previously, when their operations were very covert, they were never seen outside the jungles. But slowly, they started coming out and actually telling the people that the time of the Japanese was over. The people were not afraid of them since many had friends and relatives in the army. They were comfortable with them.
Tables were turning and it was now the turn of the Japanese to be nervous. There were reports of attacks on Japanese soldiers traveling alone. Talk was rife about how the Allies were winning the war in Europe and that it was just a matter of time before the British would come to claim their colony. The Japanese themselves were becoming less demanding, less exacting and less interested in what they were doing. Just like before the war when rumors were rife about the advancing Japanese, now too rumors were swiftly making their rounds about their defeat. Palpable proof that the Japanese were losing the war appeared when businesses refused to accept Japanese currency. They wanted British currency. Japanese currency had become “banana notes”, completely worthless. Even plantation workers who sold vegetables and fruit refused to accept Japanese money. Fights broke out when people had to buy food and then discovered to their dismay that the money that they had could not buy them anything. And, the Japanese themselves did nothing about it. Fortunately for us, my parents had saved some amount of British currency in the form of a few notes and lots of coins which added up to about twenty to thirty dollars. This was enough to carry on for several weeks, in fact till the British came back about a month later and restored law and order.
One fine day, our Japanese bosses announced what we already knew, that they were leaving. Interestingly they didn’t admit that they had been defeated, and no one dared to ask because of the image of the Japanese soldier, clutching his katana firmly with both hands and charging with a blood curdling yell was clearly, deeply and unforgettably etched in everyone’s mind. Soon after that, our Japanese bosses announced that they were rewarding us for our hard work. They opened up the store and distributed the rice, sugar and salt and whatever other groceries they had.
Then within a couple of days, two four engine propeller planes landed on our airstrip. Our Japanese bosses arrived with their luggage and asked us to assemble on the tarmac. They simply waved goodbye and boarded the planes. Lingering memories of resounding slaps and the still lurking memory of bayonets and swords made the staff bow as the doors of the planes closed and the planes took off for Singapore. I must say though that despite our fear of them, some of us had developed an attachment to our gruff and growling masters. There were some who shed tears at their departure. I for one, quite liked them because as I said earlier, they were kind to children.
Our bosses joined General Itagaki in Singapore who surrendered to Lord Louis Mountbatten in 1945. After this, the British took charge and restored law and order, and very quickly we got our lives back. I went back to school and my father returned to work. And thus ended two to three years of my life. They were a difficult two or three years but interesting and enjoyable for me, personally, because I saw it as an adventure right out of the many adventure books that I loved reading.
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Part 2 - Storm
Part 3 - Calm but murky waters