Life and work progressed as usual at the construction site. An endless stream of trucks carrying culverts, cement, sand, earth and other raw materials drove past the entrance of our office, back and forth, from dawn to dusk in a cloud of dust. Almost every evening however, between 5 and 6pm, large trucks covered with tarpaulin would go past the office, out of the plantation and return empty and uncovered. This was strangely unlike the other trucks which brought materials then drove out with mud or stones, all completely visible to everyone. My curiosity about what was under the cover in these strange trucks was so piqued that one day, I stood by the road as they slowly proceeded, just to peer inside as much as I could. Imagine my horror when I saw human arms, legs and heads sticking out from under the tarpaulin. They were the dead bodies of workers being transported to a mass grave in a jungle that was close to the site. Scores of workers were dying almost every single day.
Workers were dropping dead like flies due to accidents, fatigue, diseases, alcoholism, malnutrition, starvation and lack of medical facilities. People were dying of typhoid, tetanus, and even diabetes that had not been managed. Workers who got hurt on the site, and many did because of poor safety measures, did not get any kind of suitable medical treatment. Many died of infection. Some of the medications prescribed for common medical conditions were sadly hilarious. Two star fruits for high blood pressure, onion juice three times a day for conjunctivitis, and a foul smelling Japanese made lotion for skin rashes were some of the remedies that were provided. The lotion smelt like a long dead rat. I had the misfortune of having to endure the last two treatments. Malayans, whether they were Indians, Chinese or Malays were basically rice eaters. Many did not quite care for the millet that was the alternative. But the rice that was scarcely available was soaked in lime for preservation and that exacerbated serious stomach disorders that sometimes resulted in death.
While my family and I were fortunate enough not to be badly affected by the occupation, there were many who experienced inexplicable horrors. The Chinese for example, suffered perhaps a little bit more than the other races because many were rabidly against the Japanese. Communism was beginning to spread just about the time the Japanese occupied Malaya. People were disillusioned first with the British and then by the Japanese. Over and above that, the Japanese were attempting to occupy China and were committing atrocities there.
The Three Star Liberation Army under the leadership of Chin Peng was virulently against the Japanese. While going home to the village of Chaah, about ten miles from the construction site on one of the trucks, I saw a young Chinese man waving something at us. As we drew near, I realized he was waving a revolver at us. Initially, I thought it was some sort of a joke. But when the truck came close to him, he forced the driver to stop, and as soon as we stopped, several men wearing the Three Star Liberation Army uniform ran out fully armed from the jungle on both sides and forced us to get out because they wanted the truck. We watched them drive away as we stood helplessly in the middle of nowhere and waited for the next truck to take us home. Rumors were rife about young Chinese men like the ones that I had seen, being taken away by the Kempetai, or the Japanese secret service to be tortured or bayonetted.
The point is that while the period during the occupation was not particularly unpleasant for me personally, except for my disrupted schooling, many unfortunate people suffered due to a variety of issues. Nevertheless, many still had mixed feelings about the Japanese. While they were hoping for some kind of rescue from the hardships they suffered, the feelings against the occupiers was not all negative. When they left, there were some who shed tears. But definitely the image of the British was shattered forever. Their esteem had fallen drastically. The only option seemed to be independence and hence, the call for it was slowly but surely gaining volume.
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Part 2 - Storm
Part 3 - Calm but murky waters