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Jerantut (circa 1935)

Picture this. A lone wooden bungalow, sitting on stilts, embedded in dense darkness made thicker by tall trees and wildly growing undergrowth. All of a sudden, a strange sound, completely incongruous in those surroundings, pierces through the night. It was the sound of a leg harmonium which my father played as he belted out the Tamil and Hindi hits of the era. As if on cue, a dog would start howling in the distance. My father and the dog in the distance were accompanied by a chorus of cicadas, owls, night jars and an assortment of nocturnal creatures. I swear I could see some of the trees swaying with the rhythm. To a six year old lad, this cacophonous performance was bizarre, even ghostly, when there was moonlight, to say the least, but to my parents, this was entertainment for the evening. There was nothing else for them to do.

My father was employed as the chief clerk in the plantation. His job was to keep accounts. It was pretty much a humdrum life for him and for us. He would walk over to his office at about 9am in the morning and remain there till about 5 in the evening. My mother and I remained at home. There were other houses nearby but not too close to the house and so it was a pretty isolated existence. Given the mindset of those times, mingling with the children of the workers was not encouraged and the only school was about 50 miles away in Kuantan. Therefore my regular companion and tutor for that period was my mother who wore many hats in those days. She didn’t have any house help and so everything that had to be done in the house fell to her.

I kept myself busy with books. I read a lot and thankfully we had quite a collection of books. I took walks by myself and remember being chased home by a swarm of hornets one time. Sometimes I was allowed to walk with Chitthan, the son of one of the workers. Chitthan was much older, about eighteen or nineteen and so my parents trusted him to keep me safe from the creepy crawlies and snakes that abounded. He would take me fishing once in a while. Actually the danger that lurked was much greater as we saw pug marks of a tiger around the house. We never actually saw any tigers but sometimes we could smell them when they were close at night. We suspected that one was resting on our verandah one night because we heard some soft grunts and sounds, and the smell was strong. Of course, we were safely behind bolted doors. My father was given a shotgun for protection but I never ever saw him take it out of its corner in the house where it stood like a broom or a mop. I don’t think it was quite his cup of tea.

One advantage that we had was that fresh produce was abundant as it grew on the plantation grounds, and a small store run by an Indian Muslim man offered the dry groceries that we needed. So we didn’t have to travel very much for food. Once in a while, we would take a bus or hire a car to go to Kuantan which was the biggest town nearby. A trip to Kuantan was always a welcome respite from our secluded forest existence as it was a bustling town with grocery stores, restaurants and other shopping.

We could not continue living in Jerantut for too long mainly because there was no school for me. Soon it was time to bid farewell to Chitthan, the jungle, the bees, the owls, the cicadas, the snakes and of course the tigers. Thankfully my father obtained a better paying job in Rinching Estate in Selangor, a much, much more urban area.

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