The true story of my father and his family in Japanese occupied Malaya. The story begins before the Japanese arrive, when languid streams filled with goldfish meandered gently through placid plantations. Then a storm unceremoniously shatters the peace when the Japanese arrive without much warning and send Malayans scrambling for safety in all directions. Finally, when the British concede defeat and the Japanese are the new masters, a new existence lies beneath murky waters.
Part 1 - Languid Plantation Streams
I was born in 1929, two years after my father arrived in Malaya aboard the Rona, a steamship, around 1927, as a somewhat ambitious young man of twenty-seven. Some years later, the Rona which had been one of the steamships which plied the India to Malaya route, the other being Rajullah, carrying many eager and starry eyed young men, to what was then known as the land of milk and honey, would be bombed by the Japanese. My mother would have been about twenty-four at that time when parents arrived in Port Swettenham, Malaya. They had by then already been married for twelve years, since my father married my mother when she was all of nine and he, just twelve.
I am certain early immigrant life was hard and traumatic for both my parents but perhaps it was a little harder on my mother who was from a privileged home in Mysore, a city in Karnataka, India, where the arts and music thrived. My mother sang and played the violin and had been tutored in music by some of the finest teachers in Karnataka, India. Unfortunately, in those early years in Malaya, the only music she heard was that of her own lone violin and that of my father’s harmonium, melting into the inky darkness of the dense jungles of Malaya.
A question that would probably come up in any sensible mind would be, what drove those young men to leave the familiarity and comfort of settled and comfortable homes back in India and come out into what was then sheer, thick, dark Malaria infested jungles? Many of the jobs that were open to these men were positions in rubber plantations which were of course in the center of these jungles. Obviously, the more senior and better positions were reserved for the British. The jobs that were open to the young men who came out in droves from India, mainly south India and Ceylon, were jobs in plantations and the railways. What drove these young men to Malaya was perhaps a combination of dreams and disillusionment, disillusionment with their lives back home and dreams of a better life in a new environment.
My father’s first job in India was in Calcutta, a city which influenced my parents so much that my mother named one of my sisters Ananga, after a protagonist in a Bengali novel. Apparently they were both huge fans of Bengali literature. It was from here that my parents moved to Malaya, to a small town called Bruas in Perak, in the north of Malaya. I have never been to Calcutta and have no idea at all about what it looks or feels like but I can only imagine how their life must have changed when they moved from what must have been a large, bustling city, alive with literature and the arts, to a little sleepy, quiet, very quiet, little town where my father had obtained employment as a clerk.
I was born in this little town in 1929, two years after their move. Obviously, I don’t remember much about those early days as I was too young. What I do remember is that we moved from Bruas to Taiping probably when I was about five or six years old. Taiping, which is also in Perak, was bigger than Bruas. We were there for a couple of years until one fine morning when my father took us to Singapore to leave us with my mother’s sister and her family. He wanted to interview for better paying jobs in different plantations and that required him to travel around a bit. Leaving my mother and me alone in Taiping, was not an option. So for about a year or so, while he looked for another job, my mother and I stayed in Singapore, in River Valley Road. The Peranakan or Straits Chinese style shophouse (house that sat on top of a shop) in which we stayed was one among a row of houses of the same style that still stand today, beautifully remodeled. I just can't remember the exact house in which we stayed.
Singapore was obviously awe-inspiring to the little boy that I was because it was already a bustling city in comparison to the many towns, big and small, in other parts of Malaya. It was by then a busy port that brought in various and colorful cultures. Boat Quay, which bustles with high end dining and entertainment activity today, was an opium den in those days. Bumboats would bring in rice and grain delivered by ships from India and China, along the Singapore River to the rice godowns (warehouses) that lined the quay. Chinese and Indian laborers or workers toiled all day, carrying enormous sacks of rice from the bumboats into the godowns. Exhausted, drained and starved for some form of relaxation in the evenings, they would turn to opium which as history proves was made readily available to them by the guile of the British administrators. The laborers would smoke opium all night and fall into a drugged stupor, forgetting the wretchedness of their lives, only to wake up to more toil and misery. Slowly and steadily, many would die in debt because of their addiction or of tuberculosis caused by deplorable living conditions and the lack of money for good food.
Most of my evenings were spent running around on the grounds of the Sri Thendayudhapani or better known in Singapore today as the Tank Road Chettiar temple. My favorite memory of Singapore is the Great World Amusement Park to which my uncle, my mother’s sister’s husband, would take me and my two cousins, Uma Sundari and Thripura Sundari. It was a fantasy world filled with attractions like “ghost trains”, ferris wheels and skating rinks. Live dramas were staged as well. A truly unforgettable experience was watching what was for those times, the spectacular Indonesian Bolero stage shows. One of them had a volcano spewing smoke from its crater, right on stage. As a young boy of about six or seven from a small town, I could only watch this with open mouthed wonder. The icing on the cake for those trips was my uncle’s treat to well..cake and Ovaltine in a restaurant under a huge replica of an Ovaltine tin.
Like all good things, our stay in Singapore came to an end one day when my father came back for us, having secured a well- paying job in Jerantut in Pahang, again in the north of Malaya. We were all happy for him since a better life and prosperity was why the early immigrants endured so many hardships. The only downside was that this well-paying job in a rubber plantation, set in the heart of the Pahang jungle, required more endurance and adjustment especially for the adults since everything was welcome as an adventure for me as a young lad. But even for me, life in Jerantut certainly was a far cry from what it had been in Singapore.
Chapter Navigation Links
Part 2 - Storm
Part 3 - Calm but murky waters