The night was dark, warm and sultry. The men had just finished playing cards, the only entertainment available to them as homeless evacuees. 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. All of a sudden, Somu’s low growl exploded into ferocious barking, jolting the men out of their deep slumber. The household stirred and voices called out in the dark, asking if something was wrong. Before anyone could 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. Before the men and I could stagger up to our feet there was harsh shouting in Japanese. We were instantly awake and attentive, 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 were frightened out of our wits with rumors about Japanese cruelty flashing in our minds. We watched frozen not knowing what to do or 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. He instead began to whine and then followed his master’s example and did exactly the same. 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 amazingly funny that even the fierce sergeant couldn’t keep a straight face. He started chuckling and that was enough to for the rest of us to start laughing. The pudgy soldier, chuckled “Yoroshe!” or “Good!” The scene seemed to have softened him. He looked around at all of us and reached out and ruffled my hair, saying, “Kodomo thachi, yoroshe!” or “Young fellow! Good!” The tension disappeared and the mood lightened. We all began to breathe easily. 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 and 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 to you 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 in disbelief. We didn’t know what to make of what we had just witnessed.
Thus ended my harrowing ten days leading up to the conquering of Malaya and the Straits Settlements by the Japanese. Even I, as a young lad, knew that many things had changed forever. 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 to run for their lives relying on the kindness of their local staff. My dad’s boss, who had told him off in front of me, just some months before all of this, for allowing me to use some scrap paper in the office, needed my dad to transport him to safely to Singapore. All that pride and arrogance brought to its knees by soldiers who had even come riding in on bicycles. I learned that Japanese soldiers were among the hardiest on earth, sustaining themselves on grass when necessary.
The road to a normalcy was a long and laborious one. But after that last night, at least we could make the first step back to our lives, different but more stable.
Chapter Navigation Links
Part 2 - Storm
Part 3 - Calm but murky waters