The End And The Beginning
The lives of Rangan and his sister, like the lives of many others Malayans, were rudely disrupted by the war. Blackened shells of buildings and houses stood as solemn reminders of vanished lives and destroyed livelihoods, painstakingly built over years of sweat and toil. Friends, neighbors, and acquaintances lost contact with each other because they moved away to places that they thought were safer. Even Swamy and Savithri had left their home, most of their belongings and their store and had gone to live with Venkateshan and Mangalam in the estate which employed Venkateshan.
Late one night, Swamy had rushed home and instructed Savithri to pack all their essentials. “The Japanese are here! They have begun bombing the place. Pack a few things. We need to leave,” he had yelled from the car to a startled Savithri. She had never seen her husband flustered, leave alone as rattled as he was on that day. “Where? Where do we go?” Savithri had questioned, her voice quivering more at the sight of her normally composed husband now obviously nervous. “We will stay with my brother. They won’t harm that estate since it is owned by Japanese,” he had replied, randomly grabbing at things to take with them, perspiration dripping down the sides of his face. Savithri watched bewildered for a few minutes, and then she too started gathering things that she thought they would need. They chose to leave behind a beautiful British made train set which had been Natarajan’s birthday present from his father. Natarajan would talk about it for many years after the war.
What probably shook the people of Malaya more was that many of the friendly dentists, cheery, bicycle-riding Japanese barbers and toy-shop owners suddenly became fierce, bayonet-wielding soldiers who slapped them or yelled at them for not bowing when they saw them on the streets. Venkateshan was one such victim. Lost in thought and walking home one late evening from a provision store near the plantation, he failed to see a group of soldiers standing around the outskirts of the estate. The stinging slap that he received from the sergeant and the humiliation that he was subjected to when he was made to kneel in front of the group, lived with him forever.
Japanese soldiers in Malaya were known for their brutality. Swamy would recount over and over again, long after the war was over, about how he had watched helplessly as a Sikh watchman, who guarded his estate office at night was made to kneel all day, from morning till night, sweltering under the midday sun, holding over his head the bag of rice that he had stolen. Many stories circulated about the soldiers and their cruelty terrified the gentle people of Malaya. For example, for days on end, people talked about villages that had been burned down with its screaming villagers forcibly trapped inside.
Luckily for Swamy and his family, the destruction did not affect them as much as the inconvenience did. The business that they lost was still small and so its loss was not devastating. It hurt Swamy to have to work for someone again but he consoled himself by promising to start again as soon as the time was right. Food was not as readily available and so they either had to pay high prices or make do with low quality. Rice was scarcely available and Savithri and Mangalam concocted different ways in which they could cook millet, tapioca or sweet potato just to appease Natarajan, who was a fussy eater.
Since she had always lived on a plantation, Mangalam put to good use some of her knowledge on growing vegetables, millet and a bit of rice. They even managed to buy a cow for milk through a contact in the estates. Unlike many other people whom they knew, who suffered from malnutrition, scabies and other stomach ailments arising from eating rice that had been coated with lime for preservation, Swamy, Savithri, Venkateshan and Mangalam, and their children pulled through reasonably well. Although the Swamys lost quite a bit during this time, in terms of possessions, they would look back at this dark period in their lives and think of it as the time when they had also gained by making several life-altering decisions. One such decision was to take Mei, a Chinese girl, into their household. It happened one afternoon when Swamy and Natarajan, who was now a teenager, had gone into town when they thought the bombings had stopped.
They had gone to Karutha Nayakkar’s provision store, one of the few Indian stores in town that still sold decent provisions like salt, tamarin, and essentials for Indian cooking. Most of the food items and spices that were available elsewhere were of very poor quality due to scarcity. Karutha Nayakkar’s shop was also a sort of meeting place for many Indians to exchange news about the latest developments in the war or what was happening at home. This was where friends and neighbors narrated stories of their various hair-raising encounters with the Japanese. Some related late night visits from soldiers demanding cars and petrol. They took the cars in return for receipts that ensured the return of these cars to their rightful owners in Segamat, a little town down south. The soldiers kept their word. People actually got their cars back when they produced their receipts in Segamat.
One man narrated a story where soldiers had banged on his door late at night and demanded petrol. When the man had lied and told the soldiers that he had run out of petrol they had threatened to set his house afire, with him and his family locked inside if he did not produce the petrol. Thankfully, the man had the good sense to give in to their demands so that he could live to tell his story. A recurring story was about how each family took great pains to hide their womenfolk, especially teenaged daughters, during these late night visits from loud and brutal soldiers.
Another man had been viciously butted in the stomach with the back of bayonet when he had stood in the way of a Japanese soldier attempting to enter his home to get to the cowering women. Fortunately for that man, the squadron leader of that group of soldiers was more interested in his car than in killing him or getting to his womenfolk. The man lived to show off his ugly bruise while embellishing his act of courage to his friends at Karutha Nayakkar’s shop. This shop was also the place where many learned that the Rhona, the ship that had brought so many of them to their new lives and in some cases prosperity, had been sunk at sea. Many had fond and lasting memories of relationships and bonds that had been forged on board the vessel.
On that afternoon, Swamy, like many others who were out and about that day, looking forward to running into old acquaintances or friends, did not foresee the fresh round of petrifying blasts. It happened so quickly and so unexpectedly, that people literally scuttled under and into anything that they could find as soon as sirens suddenly ripped through the afternoon. Much to his dismay, Swamy was separated from Natarajan in the bedlam that erupted. When the explosions stopped, just as abruptly as they had begun, Swamy desperately tried to find Natarajan; dashing from one damaged and blackened area to another, refusing to even look at the charred bodies that lay around for fear that he would recognize one of them as that of his son. As he ran around looking, he stumbled upon a terrified young Chinese girl of about eight or nine, lost, confused and weeping amidst people running for their lives.
At first, Swamy too did not look too closely. But something about the way the child was running from person to person, grabbing their hands and screaming unintelligibly made him stop and forget his anxiety about his own lost son. Everyone shook her off without stopping to listen or ask her anything. It was quickly clear to Swamy that she was lost but it gradually dawned on him that she was also dumb and that was why she was unintelligible. He watched a little as she ran around like she was searching for something or someone, her little red face, streaked with tears and contorted in frustrated agony and fear. He ran up to her and caught her hand and asked her in Malay where her parents were. Her response was merely a heart-ripping cry.
Torn between wanting to continue his search for his son and trying to help the child, he impulsively grabbed the child’s hand and ran off in search of Natarajan, whom he found shortly after that, safe in an abandoned shophouse, with some other people. By this time, the child has calmed down a little but tears were still streaking her face and she was breathing heavily as she tried to keep up with Swamy, who was almost running with Natarajan. “I found this child lost in that mess. I didn’t have the heart to just leave her there,” he explained to Natarajan as they ran, hoping that the old Fiat that they had driven in was still standing where they had left it. Miraculously, it was.
The near-death experience shocked all three of them into a disturbed silence during the drive home. Swamy was tense and kept throwing worried glances at the girl, who sat with Natarajan in the back. He didn’t know what he was going to do with her. She was not crying anymore but she still looked frightened and looked about her as the car drove on, like she was still searching. Natarajan looked straight ahead of him, visibly shaken by his experience, barely noticing the child. Swamy drove as fast as he could but he had to stop three or four times during the journey home to clean out the latex that frequently choked the carburetor. The shortage of petrol during the Japanese Occupation forced people to resort to using rubber oil or oil extracted from scrap rubber. The residual latex in the oil clumped with the heat to form the blocks.
As soon as they arrived home, Swamy and Savithri asked the little girl again if she knew where her parents were. They were not sure if she understood them and they certainly did not understand the desperate sounds that she made. Clearly agitated, the child started to cry all over again until Savithri’s maternal instincts soothed and calmed her. It was after she was somewhat composed that they realized that she probably had not eaten or bathed in days. She hungrily grabbed at the food that Savithri offered her. Her dress was torn and dirty while her arms, hands, and legs were full of cuts and bruises and streaked with mud. When asked for her name, she simply stared blankly at them and then stammered something that sounded like, “Mei” to them. At a loss about what best to make of it, they decided to name her that temporarily.
Swamy did his best to locate Mei’s parents by telling anyone and everyone he knew that he had found a Chinese girl who had been lost in town. He told all the Chinese traders that he had bought from, when he owned his little store, to spread the word but to no avail. Days, weeks, months and then a whole year passed and no one came to claim Mei. By this time, she had stopped crying and had grown accustomed to everyone in the household. She became Jayalakshmi’s constant companion and playmate but she was most comfortable with Savithri, whom she obviously saw as a mother figure. She followed her everywhere and slept on a mat next to her at night. Savithri, for her part, slowly began to treat and dress Mei as the daughter she had never had. Mei became Meena, and thus, a lifelong bond was born. When Rangan heard that Savithri had taken to calling Mei, Meena, he laughed and said, “Finally Amma has found her way back to you.”
One other decision that the Swamys made, other than to adopt Mei, now Meena, as their daughter, was to move out of Penang and go to Singapore so that they could be near Rangan. “There is strength in numbers. We will have more people in Singapore should there be any trouble,” was all he would tell Savithri. Swamy’s brush with death had deepened his worries about what Savithri would do, should anything happen to him. As the years passed, he had become more and more aware of the fact that he was so much older than her. He would sometimes look at the tall, still beautiful and youthful figure of Savithri in her late thirties with her thick, almost jet black hair, now coiled into a unique coiffure that perched like a crow on the top of head, and feel guilty all over again about having married someone young enough to be his daughter. When he looked at himself in the mirror all his sixty-odd years stared back at him with a vengeance. His snow white hair had now become sparse at the crown and the years under the sun in the estates, the disappointment of having lost his little store, and just the business of living had deeply etched their lines on his tanned face. He looked old and was beginning to feel that way as well.
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