Wednesday firmly gave me a lesson on the fragility of life.
My father had to report to the headquarters of his office in Kuala Lumpur to inform them of his whereabouts. And there, his British boss requested that he give him the use of the faithful Austin 7 so that he could go to Singapore. He had a car of his own but it wasn’t enough to accommodate all his family. Rumors of Japanese atrocities towards women, children, and people in general had grown to such an extent that everyone just wanted to move from where they were to anywhere that they thought would be safe.
Malayans were more than shell-shocked. Their whole movement away from the advancing Japanese army was in a state of disbelief. They could not believe that the mighty British army was falling and that their “Tuans’ or British bosses were just as vulnerable as them, maybe even more. Many unwittingly believed that Singapore was a safe haven because it was the stronghold of the British forces. The thought that it would fall did not enter our minds. Little did they realize that the Japanese had taken pains to study the people, their thoughts and the thoughts of their colonial rulers by slipping into the land as barbers, dentists, toy shop and hotel owners. By the time they invaded, they could even speak a little Malay, the local language. They used every vehicle they could find over and above the few military vehicles they had and rolled in by land from the north. Many vehicles, including bicycles were taken by force from the public. But some Japanese officers were honorable enough to give the owners receipts for the cars that they took. The owners were told to retrieve their vehicles in Muar, about a 100 miles south of Kuala Lumpur.
Since the boss needed the car, my family and I had to travel by a taxi to Muar where my uncle lived. The general faith was in the strength of numbers, “The more we are in numbers, the safer we will be,” was the general thought. So my father went in the morning to find us a taxi. Everyone fled in any vehicle they could find. Many hopped on to lorries (trucks) traveling south with their family and belongings. In my father’s absence, we hastily got ready to leave. Just as we finished a spartan lunch, the ominous sound of the siren tore through the air again. My mother, baby brothers, cousin and I were alone in the house. With pounding hearts we dashed under a staircase, the only shelter available, and hoped for the best.
This time the bombing was so severe that even I, as a twelve or thirteen year old, realized that death was a very real possibility. We covered our heads and ears and clung to each other as the ground that we stood on shook and trembled. My mother, as the only adult with us at that point, was truly the personification of strength, urging us to be calm and brave, and to pray. And, pray we did, fervently. Obviously someone heard those prayers because we survived. The explosions sounded so close that every breath we took was a miracle. We didn’t realize how unbelievable our escape was until we saw the hundreds of pieces of sharp metal, shrapnel, stuck on the walls on the outside of the house, the deep craters where the bombs had fallen and burning buildings all around. The Railway depot that was just about 600 meters away from where we stayed was razed to the ground, parked train carriages destroyed and tracks torn apart. Fortuitously, or calculatedly, the railway station was intact. The Japanese were very strategic in what they hit. It appeared that the intention was to terrify and not as much to destroy.
The thirty minutes of bombing, before the all clear signal was given, felt like an eternity. We stepped out from under the staircase thankful but nervous about my father’s whereabouts. We had no clue where he was. Luckily, he arrived soon after in a taxi, relieved to find us safe. He had been safe in a shelter. We gathered the few belongings we had and made our way to Muar. Arriving, at about 7 pm in the evening and reassured at the sight of our relatives, we felt safe. Or, so we thought.
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Part 2 - Storm
Part 3 - Calm but murky waters