First in the “Kampung (Capers)
Vignettes” Series: "Stunting up in Klang"
[Click to read the mis-adventures of the author in post-war Kuala Lumpur and London:http://www.viweb.freehosting.net/vilit_Wignesan3.htm ]
(y compris: Duraiappa, Thuraiappah s/o Arumugam, Mathiaparanam s/o Kandiah, Thangamuttu Thuraiappah, T.Ganesan, S. Balasingam, Professor S.S.Ratnam and brothers: S.M. & S.T., Dr. & Mrs. Murugesu, and Thangathurai & Pakiam Thambithurai,and a host of others:
and, in particular, the unknown Japanese officer killed probably by a poisoned dart from a blow-pipe.)
In Memoriam by T.Wignesan
“De mortuis nil nisi bonum dicendum est.”
Chilon of Sparta, tranls. by Digenes
[The question is, Should one distort the truth in order to conform to an age-old adage?]
De : ratha email@example.com
A : Wignesh Wignesh@aol.com
Envoyé le : Dimanche, 24 Avril 2011 0:21
Sujet : Vijayam
To inform you that Vijaya Acca passed away yesterday at 2.02 am 24th April.
Her death was fast and she had a peaceful death.
She was indeed a great woman and she was not just my mother but my teacher and guru.
I feel a great void as I have no one to turn to. I suppose it means its time for me to grow up.
Subject: Re: Re : Vijayam
Hello Ratha !
Deepest condolences ! - if this's any consolation. I know the way you must feel. She was the first feminine person/presence outside my family I got to know, even as a child in the Railway Quarters in Klang, and on leaving school and setting out on my own in Seremban, I renewed this relationship. You know, my first full-time job at 18 [as a matter of fact, I took another full- time teaching post as well in the mornings at the St. Aloysius School in Mantin: See my account hereunder for further details], she obtained for me: we both taught at the Vivekananda English School there. As a teenager, I had my first initiation into the workings of a mature person's mind: we used to talk for hours at a time. Despite her humble status as a "non-divorced" celibate under the harsh scrutiny of the Jaffna-mindset, she took it all bravely as a suffragette. I was surprised then how and to what extent she was really totally drenched in English culture. Her attitudes were those of the Bronte sisters. She read them all, and, of course, the Victorian novelists in particular. The first English song I learnt as a child she sang and sang it well:
The minstrel boy to the war he's gone,
And on the ranks of death
you'll find him;
His father's sword he had girded on,
And the wild harp strung behind him……
and so on.
Her life was after all a long unceasing battle, a quiet, inconspicuous raging war in within herself, and I know now whence she has set forth - to find relief and solace.
Only recently, I thought of her again and wondered how she bore in stealth - as she always did - the cruel fate which consigned her to a non-descript role in life. She was made for better things; alas, that's how the chips fall.
I also recall how I used to pull her leg about her infatuation with everything Bengali: Rabindranath Tagore and Swami Vivekananda, and also Ramakrishna - especially the latter. I used to kid her every time I saw her about the "Ramakrishna Lunch Home" she was planning to set up! - since she read with great relish the accomplishments of the man!
I'm glad when my first book (Tracks of a Tramp: A first collection of poems, 1951-61. Kuala Lumpur-Singapore: Rayirath (Raybooks) Publications) was published in 1961, I was able to take a copy to her. She was speechless or rather spell-bound. "Did you...Is this really your work?" She gave me a look which expressed all she could say or all what I would have wanted to hear. I knew she felt proud of me!
Well, Ratha, this's like the passing of an age. Perhaps, only a few of us know, she was unique, one of a kind.
Every good wish, Vijayacca!
5, Boulevard Pablo Picasso,
Web URL: http://www.cyberwit.net/authors/twignesan
[Note: The above two emails constitute an initial announcement and reaction to Vijayam’s passing. Of course, I had no intimation that what I wrote would be solicited for publication in book form to commemorate her presence on this earth. Since then, Ratha Nadaraj, her niece and ward, has agreed to accept an expanded version of my piece for the printed homage by different hands, so, well, here goes. Since Vijayam was responsible – in no way her fault – in the early course of my literary tastes, I would have to talk about myself in a way that I do not much relish in order to reveal facets of her own personality and our own interpersonal relationship. I’m sure she wouldn’t mind, but to do this, I would have to put things in the proper perspective and context, and therefore much of the account would - of needs - have to evoke the scene and ambience of our pre-and-post-Second World War period, not to forget the intervening years, including sketches of others who interacted with her.]
begin with, I must recount how we got to know each other and how a very special
relationship took shape from the very moment we first met. My father a railway
employee like Vijayam’s had worked for four years
managing the entrepôt goods at the Singapore Station,
which, as we all know, was in Malayan territory in the island colony where my
elder sister, elder brother and I first
began schooling during 1936 to 1940. The railway authorities needed someone to
take over the Port Swettenham cheminement of the incoming and
outgoing goods, and so we were transferred there, but there were no schools big
enough to accommodate the three of us kids. We had to commute every day to Klang, some five miles away: my sister to the French
Convent and the brothers to the
One night, we bedded
down on a projecting half a floor one storey up in a blown-up stone house which
obviously belonged to a British official in the outskirts of the town, on the
main Klang-Kuala Lumpur road. [I’m told by Rajasingam that this road is/was called:
Yet, when I reflect on that incident, I still wonder – given the sort of lives we led since then – if it wouldn’t have been better for us to have perished then and there. I ran several scenarios in my head since then. Say, for instance, if the soldiers were not called off by obviously the patrol chief outside just at the nick of time, our presence up on that precarious ledge would have been betrayed sooner or later by the cries of my youngest baby sister, and the soldiers would have been tempted to ferret us out. If anyone managed to vault himself up the straggly mass of reinforced concrete hanging down, my father would certainly have knocked his skull to a mashed potato, and knowing the rest of us would be massacred, he would have jumped on another soldier and would have met a terrible death. My mother and elder sister would have been at the utter mercy of the ferocious samurais. The rest of us would have been beaten or bayoneted. Let’s say, my elder brother and I joined battle with my father by jumping down: needless to say, we would have, too, met the same fate. And my baby sisters and younger brother would have been left there on that ledge for who knows how long before they, too, would have fallen off to their doom. Quite frankly, looking back, it seems now that would have been a more merciful fate than what we have all had to go through since then.
Not until some form of civil authority took over the actual day-to-day running of the country did we return to the railway compound.
The railway quarters, a dreary collection of two or three room plank houses on cement stilts topped by zinc roofs, with the kitchens, bathrooms and lavatories on cemented ground-level patios at the rear fanned out in an L-shape along Kapar Road and the road that led to the bridge and which split the town section south of the river in half which [again, according to Rajasingam] was named Meru Road. Our railway compound had a low barbed-wire fence all around, but what really separated us from the rest of the world was a deep monsoon drain skirting the roads. Right in front of the quarters was a disaffected near square-shaped field which was overgrown with touch-me-not thorns and lallang and where now and then the peripatetic circus arrived with their underfed animals to rouse the world all around us to a high pitch, and when they were gone, life simply fell back into the doldrums under bare skies speckled with cirrus clouds. All along Meru Road, stone shop-houses composed the main form of urban activity, and I can remember the slap-slap-dak-a-dak of wooden planks early every morning as coffee-shops, sundry-goods vendors, cloths merchants, tailors and grocers opened for business (the jeweller’s had iron sliding gates instead), and the crown piece in this array of a typical Malayan street scene was the Regal Cinema – right opposite our place – where they screened even during the Japanese regime, such films as The Wizard of Oz, Tarzan, and The Charge of the Light Brigade (excerpts of which I saw through the flapping curtains of the entrances by sneaking in once the picture had started as the watchmen-ticket-collectors were obliged to leave them open to ventilate the auditorium). The P.W.D. workers kept the compound lawns well-trimmed before the War. Soon after though the place was invaded by brush, brambles, lallang and touch-me-nots. Trees were sparse except for a rain tree right in front of our semi-detached house, and for another gloriously spanning one in front of the four-house block to our right, separated by a drain.
And where, just under it, the Japanese had set up a sentry box with a soldier armed with a bayoneted rifle. And where I witnessed for the first time what stark senseless cruelty meant. Sai kere in Japanese means an up-to-the-hilt bow. Every one passing the sentry was required to stop and perform the sai kere. One day, a Tamil milkman on a bicycle (straddled with a sack with makeshift bottle containers) who usually took the bridge road up past the Regal cinema sailed past the sentry box oblivious of its presence. I heard a yell: Buggero! Followed by hoarse rasping curses! Somehow pedestrians and bystanders managed to stop the milkman. He had no idea why he was being arraigned. Within seconds the sentry was down on him, thrashing and thrusting at him with the rifle butt and bayonet, kicking and punching at will. All his splintered milk bottles bled like he himself did profusely from top to toe, his veshti and singlet turning into dark crimson patches. I can still never understand how he managed to pick himself and his bicycle up and drag himself away from the scene. The wretched shreds of the defeated cockerel in a cock-fight! I never saw him again.
The overgrown undergrowth was a real feast for
the goats and cows most of us were forced to rear, especially us, after the
Japanese imprisoned my father. Unfortunately for him, or rather for us, his
skin complexion was that of a Kashmiri brahmin
(his mother was a Tamil Nadu brahmin
from Vedaranniyam), and Japanese soldiers never
failed to intern him with the Europeans. Twice someone or other spotted him
with the whites in some cordoned-off area, and the community made
representations to the authorities, and he was released. Then, one day, he
never came home. We – the community leaders, especially my father’s cousin
Clough Thuraisingham – made inquiries, and, finally,
the authorities found him in a jail in Johor. He died
Vijayam, that is, her two sisters: Rasam and Jeevam, and their
father occupied one of the two plank “bungalows” at the
Our railway compound, curiously enough, boasted a ground-level spacious stone house at the back of the L-shape of plank houses. They said it was meant for the Traffic Inspector who was often a white. What a place to put a high railway official! Just imagine the wafting fragrance from the rubber pots! Anyway, during the war, an Indian family with a small brood of tiny tots occupied the place. And the strangest and most disgusting experience of my stunted young life took place then. The Sivapragasams occupied the house next to our semi-detached quarters. Their girls and a whole lot of other kids with whom I roamed insisted that even if all of us had to go without the usual meals, there was one kid – I think he hailed from the stone palace – would never go hungry.
I said: “How can be? Is he got big bank money?”
One kid said: “He eat shit!”
I said, alarmed: “You talkin’ rot, lah!”
And then another bigger girl said: “You wan’ see, uh?”
She looked so tight and menacing in my direction, I simply relented.
“OK, I believe. I believe. No wan’ fight girl. Me man. OK, I see. You wan’ show?”
“You bet how much, huh?”
“No got sen,” I said.
“How many cigarette card you give?”
I had to be clever. I thought for a while, for they all knew I had the best cigarette box card collection in the compound. I knew I had many Craven As, so I said: “Three.” And added: “Craven A.” I made a mental note to part with the dirtiest of them.
“No good, lah. Two Capstan and One Craven A,” came the quick reply.
I was too curious about this shit-eater, I was willing to give up my entire collection.
“OK, Okay. Only after I see eat, I give card.”
And so two or three of the kids ran around in all directions and brought a slightly older and stronger Indian kid to my place. He didn’t look like he was starved like the rest of us though. His eyes were of an olive hue and lively to boot.
I said: “You eat shit?”
He said: “You wan’ see?”
I said: “Sure, I wan see.”
He said: “How many card?”
I realised that there may have been a catch to this transaction. First, the menacing looking girl wanted three cards; now this guy wants cards also. At this rate, I’d go bankrupt, I thought. It looked like the tight big girl with plaits was his manager, so I didn’t try to argue.
I said: “Three card.”
He said: “No, five card. All Capstan!”
I lied: “One Capstan, four Craven A. Wan’, no wan’, same.”
He said: “Two Capstan, three Craven A.”
I was in no mood to argue. The heavy girl looked like she would beat the hell out of me.
“Okay, okay,” I relented.
Then, he said, “Veerr shit? I eat new shit, old no.”
God, I thought, this guy who eats shit was finicky about fresh or faded excreta. Just then, one of the kids pointed to a lump under the house. The ground was cemented over. He took a long look at the lump and said: “Bring sugar. White sugar.”
I was stumped. “You wan eat shit. You wan eat sugar. Which?”
He said: “Both.”
So I had no choice. I had to sneak into the kitchen and bring back a folded paper full of white sugar. He tasted it as if to make certain it was sugar.
I said: “Vat you thin’? This salt?”
He licked his lips and said: “OK, I reddy. Bring box card, first.”
I was just about to change my mind when the tough marauding girl in the tightly plaited and well-oiled pigtails said: “Don’ vorry, lah. I know vhere he keep card.”
The champion shit-eater then volunteered to crawl under the house which was elevated on stilts, and when he had arrived at the spot where there were two rounds of turds, neck to neck, he set about sniffing them, one after another. He chose a round of lighter-looking brown, took a sitting stance like a sumo fighter, brought out the sugar package and freely larded the appetising dish with white sugar. Until then I thought they were all kidding me, just to get at my collection of cards. We, the spectators, were all stooped down at one end, outside on the lip of the drain running round the building. By that time, I was certain they were all in earnest. I didn’t want anything like that to happen, so I shouted out to the lad to come out from under the house. I couldn’t even imagine something like this, and there we were – kids under the age of ten – up to a nasty joke or a nasty deed. I yelled out again when I realised the lad was taking it all in as though he was preparing to eat dinner at the Savoy Hotel. I was in agony by then and yelled at him.
“Don’ do it! Come back. I give card, free.” All to no avail. He looked enthralled. His eyes shone. He was in a trance.
First, he stooped to sniff at the repas. Then, he tried to take a lick with his mouth wide open. It was no good. I couldn’t look in his direction, and yet, I wanted to make certain until the end that all what was happening right before our eyes was not a put up job. No, it did happen. He brought his right hand in a swivelling movement round the excreta and dropped the remains into his open mouth. He repeated the action until there was nothing left. Then, he licked his fingers, the look in his shining eyes verily one of total fiendish satisfaction. I was revolted. I stood up and yelled at them all, but it was too late. I let that happen.
The marauding girl said: “He practise much, much. Yevvry day he eat baby sheet!”
I felt like a cad after that day. More than that, I felt depressed. I couldn’t believe my eyes. At first, I told no one about it at all. I guess from that day on I didn’t have too much respect for the kind of forces which would permit such things to happen. I think I did relate this incident to Vijayam. She was bent over in pain listening to my account. Unless I am making this up, I’d like to think this was so. This was much later of course.
Now I know the cause or at least the phenomenon which characterised the boy’s untoward behaviour. This’s known as coprophilia or scatophilia. A bizarre condition to be suffering from at that age, I’d wager.
For the intervening
duration, I was still running around with all the kids in the compound. The
only other kids I knew and with whom I played at “cowboy and thieves” in the Klang High School grounds was Rasa (Rajasingam:
Rasam’s husband Balasingam’s
brother) who lived on the junction of a Jalan Raja Bot with Kapar Road, leading to
the school, and his neighbour Bede Moreira, and Jeyaratnam, son of
Francis master, and Puvaneswaran, son Thiagarajan master. The latter lived in a
two-storey teachers’ quarters situated at the entrance to the school which
was on a high rise. Bede, who later qualified as a
dental surgeon in
The real reason I didn’t continue the piano classes had to do with something else. The piano was on the stage of the school’s hall. The piano teacher would show me how to play some scales; then, a visitor would appear at the far end. She would tell me to keep practising while she did some kind of practising with the visitor under the stage which they entered by an aperture; all sorts of stage equipment were stored under the stage. I wondered if there was a bed as well in there, for, from time to time, if I stopped practising the scales, she would emerge in her petticoat and shout at me. So I thought it would be better for her to keep her own practice sessions going rather than mine. I couldn’t keep time what with the thumping going on under the stage. End of my classical musical career.
My father was still
absent, and as we now know, in prison, probably being starved and tortured, all
through the months of March, April, and May in 1942. Some said later that he
was taken away for interrogation. He was the only one of three still around the
railway authorities trained to run the Tumpat
Wireless Station, near the area where the Japanese invading forces landed. One
had returned to
In the meantime, things
were happening around the place and which we viewed with alarm day by day. One
fine morning around eleven a right proper ruckus on the high street drew
everyone from the railway quarters out on to their verandas. (You might be
wondering what happened to the school-goers. They were yet to open, and we
enjoyed the long holidays from December onwards. In fact, the teachers were
themselves going to school – to learn Japanese!) An unruly bunch of adults and
street urchins were following and taunting a naked Chinese woman while others
joined the general hooting and cheers going on. [I incorporated this incident
in one of my short stories. See “A Pail of Water” in Malayan Times-Sunday
By that time, our own
economic situation had worsened to such an extent that we had to auction off
everything we possessed. I remember the gossamer, coloured paper on which all
our possessions: settee, brass-ware, jars, books, crockery, and even the
coveted bicycle were up for sale. And my brother and I went from house to house
with these coloured printed announcements hoping the objects would be bought,
but to our great surprise barring a few inconsequential objects and the bicycle
nothing else got sold. A great disappointment and a veritable tragedy it was
for us all. My uncle Mathiaparanam however proved
himself to be resourceful. He used his money to buy a cow which we called “Paapa”. Soon enough Paapa gave
birth to “Ruku” , and we
bought a bearded goat which bred three kids whom we called: “
Right behind the railway quarters, beyond a narrow strip of unploughed ground away from the stone house, ran a road which was the local “industrial” complex. There were shoe factories, mills and other lumber business yards. The one that interested the boys in the railway compound was the ice-manufactory. It was a ramshackle building which made a lot of groaning and wheezing noises. I feared it might even rock itself down to its haunches and collapse. We went there to pick up stray pieces of ice which fell from the blocks they loaded onto lorries with sack covering to keep them from melting. The workers there would use sharp, question-mark type metallic hooks to handle the blocks of ice, and invariably some chinks and chunks got dislodged. We loved the idea of putting these pieces of ice on our heads or rubbing them down over our bodies.
I was always intrigued by the place, so one fine afternoon when the sun baked us all to a fine charcoal brown crust, I decided to go there all by myself to find out how the ice was produced from all that heat circling around. This’s one case of how curiosity nearly killed the cat. I started out by asking all sorts of questions from the workers. Actually, there were only three, and one was inside the “ice box”, by which I mean the enormous thundering and wheezing isolated wooden box sitting precariously on a platform. Several machines kept turning ceaselessly to maintain the freezing temperatures below and behind the “box”. Water kept dripping constantly from the seams of the “box”, and the entrance was a mere safe-size thick door through which the men crawled inside to cut oblong blocks of ice for shipment. The workers took turns to enter the box. The freezing below-zero temperature – if I remember right some minus 14 Centigrade or some faramineuse Fahrenheit – made it impossible for any one worker to remain in there for more than a few minutes. They said “ten”, but I think it was much less; more like “five”. I asked them if I could take a look-see inside. They let me mount the ladder leading to the “safe-door”. One of them climbed past me to a ledge just at the summit. I think he pressed a button which must have rung a bell inside to let the worker inside know they were going to open the door. The door was opened and I took a look, but I was nearly thrown back by the exhaust thrust of freezing air which shot out of the “box” like clouds of thick clear smoke from a mail-train fire engine. What I saw in there I had never laid eyes on ever before. The inside was an enormous block of ice with a passage cut in the ice for one crawling stretched-out person, much like a funnel which curved to the left. There was a little space cut to the right at the turning point. This space was obviously there to permit two persons to pass each other, just in case. They said I could go in. I hesitated. They said that I would have to make up my mind quickly, for the ice might melt. And before I knew what was happening, the man had grabbed me and pushed me gently into the passage. I didn’t object. The man then said, “Keep going”. The sensations I was then going through were so rare and thrilling, I obeyed. To feel ice enveloping your entire body in a misty atmosphere is indeed a rare experience. At the turning point, I saw another worker, a Chinese lying sideways with a pick-axe in his hand and a saw lying by his side. He was so surprised to see me, his eyes simply bloated out. He shouted out something in Chinese to the co-worker at the door, and after an exchange of a few phrases, he dropped his pick-axe and pushed and slid his way down backwards to where I was. Both of them told me to get into the space on the right. I did. The worker worked his way down to the door, and the two of them laughed. They closed the door behind them. I was trapped, but somehow I was enjoying the experience so very much, I didn’t have time to get worried or be frightened. They put the lights out before closing the door. It was so dark in there, I couldn’t even see the mist swirling around, but I could feel it like a shroud enveloping my entire body. Little by little the cold penetrated my skinny body and reached my bones. My feet and hands were the first to freeze. Instinctively, I tried not to move. I guess this left me enough oxygen to breathe. I don’t know how long I was in there. I thought: “ten” minutes, but the workers later insisted it was “fifteen”. When finally they opened the door and let me out or rather pulled me out, I was feeling like salted tuna fish stored in some fridge in a ship for years. I can assure you, I never went down that way ever again.
School had not begun
again. Months passed, and no one knew what was to transpire. My uncle and some
others engaged a chadtambiar (usually a former
Tamil teacher either from
Schools however managed to open later on in the year, but the curricula was not what it was before the War. The main course on the menu was, of course, Japanese lessons, taught to us by teachers who themselves had no proper notion of the language and which they were learning at the same time, so we had to learn by heart Japanese songs, mostly the anthem, military tunes, and one or two love songs. Besides, every morning we had to line up in front of the school and do exercises which was not a bad idea after all, if we could fill our stomachs before going to school. A subsidiary activity, after exercises, was the introduction of sumo wrestling. This art became our primal concern. Sumo mounds had to be prepared around the school, and as we progressed, tournaments were organised at which some Japanese officer presided. Little by little, a diluted version of the old pre-war system came back into force, but never quite though until 1943. Much depended on the teachers who appeared to be disaffected by the rigours of discipline introduced by the Japanese.
In the meantime, we had
to make a living. All of us at home took on extra duties. Our “herd” of cattle
increased, and we had trouble keeping them around the place. During the night,
they had to be tied to trees or pillars. Some broke loose and demolished the
vegetable gardens and banana plants we all had to cultivate. When school opened
up, we had to find someone to look after the cattle for us. He was a bare-foot
Indian Tamil boy of our age who lived on the other bank of the river. He always
came late, and we had trouble being punctual at school. I remember the poor boy
with poolai still sticking to his eyes every
morning, and he was always sleepy, so much so he would take the cows into the
rubber estate behind the shop-houses and fall asleep somewhere in there. He
would turn up for lunch without knowing where he had left the cows and would
now and then get a thrashing from my uncle. You can get some idea from this
that my uncle meted out his own kind of justice with his hands. Then, it was
our turn to go looking for “Paapa”, our milch cow so that she could be milked at four in the
afternoon by my mother. We had to sell milk to supplement our dwindled income.
We did this business right up to 1949 when I was in the eighth standard at the
Victoria Institution in the capital. And mind you, it was the same cow which
sustained us. Everybody knew “Paapa” by name. Even in
One such day, while
bringing the cows home through the abandoned rubber
estate behind the shop-houses, I stumbled[W1] upon the corpse of a fully-clothed
Japanese officer, replete with knee-length shining boots, embroidered
sword-hilt, and fetching uniform. I wasn’t sure if he was dead. His eyes were
open, though his body with one leg drawn up sideways was stock-still. I stopped
by the handsome-looking “young man” long enough to wonder who may have been his
family back in
Once home, I recounted the incident to my mother, and then to my uncle when he returned from work. Both of them told me to keep it a secret. Of course, I couldn’t. I told it to my elder brother. He scolded me, saying: “You fool, why didn’t you take the sword?” He wanted me to take him to the spot where the corpse lay. I wouldn’t, so he got me to tell him where to look for it. By the time, he located the corpse the next day, the sword was gone. He cursed me on end for some time after that. Some four days later, I happened to pass by the place with our cows and made it a point of re-visiting the corpse. I found instead a seething mass of worms and ants and a long pallid coloured snake which made its way from the corpse under the uniform as I approached kicking the dried panoply of rubber leaves in the undergrowth. As I neared the spot, I got a shock. There was nothing but a skeleton left under the uniform, and it seemed to heave and budge. All the decomposing activity gave that impression. One boot had also disappeared. I wondered why only one boot should disappear.
Some of you might be
wondering what would have happened if I had let the mongoose or musang out of the bag. Well, the result would have been a
“shook ching”. This’s how
the scenario would have gone. First, a huge Japanese detachment would have
arrived in several trucks. After assembling in drill formation on the padang in front of the railway quarters, the soldiers would
have dispersed to round up everybody – man, woman and child – in the
neighbourhood, bayoneted rifle in hand, accompanied or not with kicks, until
the entire population in the area where the Japanese officer was found killed
would be assembled. Community leaders would be told that, if those responsible
for the death of the officer, were not produced
instantly, heads would roll. Neither food nor water would be provided to those
on the field. At the end of the day, about ten of the locals, drawn
indiscriminately from the waiting crowd, would be forced to kneel down, their
hands tied behind their backs, and the samurai swords would sever their heads
from the rest of their bodies. Day after day, this process would continue –
granting that there were any still standing after being deprived of food and
water. Of course, this’s only a scenario, but such
occurrences were not uncommon during the war. The
I have recounted all the above anecdotes and happenings to set the scene for what was to ensue thereafter. By that time, I had finished only the kindergarten stage, that is, primary one and two. Whatever education we had during some months in 1942 and 1943 in Klang could not be considered normal school-going activity. In a way, it was some kind of amusement for me: rudimentary Japanese, singing of Japanese songs, regimented physical exercises, drawing, etc.
I must say I was
partially thrilled about it all, but, as I was to find out later on, I went
through the War without actually preparing myself for school after the War. In
1943, my uncle was posted as station master in Sungei
Rengam, one of the stations on the Port Swettenham-Kuala Lumpur line, that is, Klang,
Padang Jawa, Sungei Rengam, Batu Tiga, Simpang
Lima, Petaling Jaya, and
Just before my father passed away, alarm signals went off all over the place one night at dinner. The Sivapragasams listened in on the other side of the patio wall of plank. And they teased me no end at my being caught out. My father had chanced upon my cigarette card collection, arranged in a shoe-box.
“I warned you several times to throw those cards away. Didn’t I?” He raised his voice reproaching me more as a threat to curb my sense of disobedience and/or for my stubbornness than for persisting with the hobby. “It’s a dirty habit. Don’t you know you catch all sorts of diseases picking these cards up from the streets and coffee-shop floors?” My mother thought he was going to strike me, so she drew me to her side. My father then upbraided her for encouraging me with some hobby which was – quite frankly – filthy. “I want you to destroy the collection. Throw it in the dustbin. Better still burn it.” He looked at me even in his debilitated state with anger. Perhaps he was only feigning. I couldn’t be certain. “I don’t want to see that box anywhere in the house from tomorrow onwards. Do you understand?” I shook my head in assent. And he seemed to forgive me, for his looks changed to one of distraction. Perhaps he was in pain.
The next day, I took the
box of cards to Vijayam’s place and asked her to keep
it for me until a later date. She, of course, didn’t know of the interdiction
under which I laboured. When my father found out what I did, he blew his top.
And the Sivapragasams were the first to react with
open unrestrained laughter. I think it was my elder brother who told on me. I
never dared ask Vijayam for the box, and that was
that! I had recounted a version of this incident in a short story I wrote
during my early
Having just then finished kindergarten (i.e., primary one and two), I was barely capable of reading; in any case, I wasn’t in a position to undertake reading books. For Vijayam, I soon became a sort of a guinea pig. She would show me some books and magazines and talk to me about them. It all began with her wanting, I think, to test my intelligence. She had already obtained a Senior Cambridge (or Junior) Certificate before the war while being a student at the Methodist Girls School, though, not counting certain subjects in the hard sciences among her forte, she didn’t manage to get a good enough certificate. This prevented her from going on to higher studies, but, if I remember rightly, she had every intention of taking the examination again. The war came in between her plans for higher studies, which, in her case, would have been normal training.
What I’m trying to get at, however, is that she was possessed of a literary sensibility mingled with a religio-philosophical bent. On the one hand, she was attracted to that far-off world of the English nineteenth century through the novels she read at school, and on the other, the Indian sub-continent’s Hindu savants through her reading of Vivekananda and Ramakrishna. I’m not however trying to say she was widely read or trained in the arts and the philosophical sciences. She didn’t have that kind of critical or creative background, but somehow through the literature she had access to in those days, she managed to acquire a humanitarian breath and understanding which made her both a warm, considerate person and friend as well as a willing teacher of the young and the needy. Her character leant towards the dispensing of charity, and hence the choice of self-sacrifice as a code of life. She would have, I think, willingly accepted the sack-cloth (this would be later on after her estrangement from her husband) if Hindu customs and practices in the country would have permitted such a course for a young educated woman. With the result, there ensued a kind of a tug-of-war – during her youthful days (not later perhaps) – between her infatuation with a world of suffragette strife epitomised by the Bronte sisters, a sentiment which she vicariously identified with and arrogated for herself, and on the other, a world more intimately ingrained in her psyche through her Hindu upbringing and adherence to religious practices. The link between these two extremes of sentiments and standpoints was evidently the element of sacrifice – the need to offer herself for the benefit of others. Corollary: physical surrender soon led to spiritual shacklement in faith, in her case the everlasting role of the lay preacher.
My encounter with her had also its less serious side. Almost from the start she would take me inside, past the ample veranda where there was some seating arrangement into the rather spacious lounge-cum-dining room to the - then what appeared to me as - a huge table where she would set me down beside her. I can see now she would have done the same to a younger brother if she had one. Even Rasam participated in this ritual. She was the most attractive in the neighbourhood, everybody would aver, until Jeevam grew up to pose a threat.
The intelligence tests, I think, she found in some Indian magazine. I remember one which drove everybody up a pole. Watched by the father in his habitually dignified posture, Vijayam, in her usually warm and intimate voice, would outline the riddle – for that’s what they were really. [Whether we spoke in Tamil or English or a mixture of both I can’t quite remember, so the dialogue will be in standard English.]
“Now, let’s imagine you have three animals. One, a tiger; the other, a goat, and the third, a dog. The thing is, you have to take all three safely across a river all by yourself. You have a sampan to row them across. Now, how will you do it?”
“I’ll take a gun and shoot them all first. Then, I’ll put…”
“No, no, Nooo! You have to take them all across safely. Alive! But you can only use the boat twice. No more.”
“Why, only twice?”
“Because, otherwise, the tiger….No, I can’t tell you. You have to work that out.”
“Is the tiger in a cage?”
“No. Wait a minute. I’ll check.” She checked the magazine and said “No”.
“Then, what if the tiger attacks me and then feeds himself on….”
“That’s the point. You have to see to it that the tiger behaves itself.”
“What if the tiger bites me…”
“No, the tiger won’t bite you; only the other animals.”
“What if the dog bites the goat?”
“Dogs don’t bite goats!”
“Just the other day, the Chinese shop-keeper’s dog bit my goat.”
“Yes, in the leg.”
“Because my goat went into the coffee-shop.”
“I don’t know, but in this puzzle, the dog won’t bite the goat.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“I don’t know. Wait a minute. You can tie the dog to the sampan.”.
“Who will row the sampan?”
“Me? I don’t know how to row. Otherwise I’ll cross Klang river myself.”
“Okay, let’s say in this story the man in the boat can row.”
“Then, what do I do?”
“No, you are not…well, let’s say, the man in the sampan and you are one and the same person.”
“How can that be?”
By that time, Rasam was exasperated. She got up and left. Duraiappa sat at one end of the table reading an old
newspaper, and listening with one ear. Jeevam, as
always, sat at the head of the stairs leading up to the house and either mused
with herself or watched the goings-on on
“Well, that’s how it is. Okay, don’t worry about who is who. Just show me how you will cross the river with all the animals. Don’t forget, you can only use the sampan on two trips.”
“So, right. I take it that if I’m present, the tiger nor the dog will bite me or even eat me. But if I leave the tiger with either of the two animals, they will become a mass of flesh and broken bone. Okay. Then, I’ll put a rope around the neck of the tiger and drag it into the water. I’ll tie one end of the rope to the sampan. Maybe, I wouldn’t have to row either. The tiger might swim across, leading our boat and cargo to the other bank. Next, I’ll take the dog and put him at one end of the boat. Then, I’ll put the goat at the other end. And start rowing.”
“Wait a minute. Aren’t you supposed to take two trips?”
“Why two? If you can do it in one go.”
Vijayam thought about it for a while and said: “But, that’s cheating…,” and she would pinch me out of fun. “Besides, I don’t know if the tiger would be able to swim. Like all cats, it might not like the water.”
“You’re joking, of course. If its life was in peril, it will.”
Her father looked up from the paper he was reading and said: “Why not? Why not just one trip?”
Vijayam said: “That’s not how the riddle is solved.” She was stumped but not angry. “Okay, let me give you another riddle.”
This incident, instead of infuriating her, only endeared me to her. I was always a welcome caller. Her father who seemed to evince a streak of “nobility” in him in the way he carried himself, for instance, always made me feel at home. Sometimes, while I was parleying and kidding Vijayam, he would look at me for long minutes at a time. He knew my father, of course, and perhaps commiserated with me and my siblings’ orphaned condition. One thing was clear to everyone thereabouts: Vijayam had found someone to play with or dote on, and I had found someone to commune with at a level which was not trivial.
It was not long before I
asked her if she had any books. I had seen her reading. Without a word, she
brought out Jane Eyre and
As cow and goat-herd and as the general help – together with my elder brother - around the house, time passed by in a whisk, and the next thing that happened was our departure to Sungei Rengam. I only saw Vijayam and family a couple of times, until after the war, in Klang. Once, I tried to make some money. I bought some vegetables and some chillies in Sungei Rengam, put them in a basket, and took a train to market them in Klang. Nobody bought the stuff, not even the Duraiappas. A total fiasco that! Quite frankly, I wouldn’t have bought the produce, myself. They just kept rotting in the heat right under my eyes. End of my one-day business career!
There was no school at Sungei Rengam. And we were too busy to be able to do anything else. The period was also in many ways an adventurous one. My uncle Mathi, as I said earlier on, worked for the I.M.R. in K. L. My father got him the job, for his best friend, “IMR” Kandiah, headed the administrative service over there. Somehow, Chin Peng and the underground movement knew that. Chin Peng, himself, together with his lieutenants, turned up at the station one day to meet my uncle. We were too young to know who was who, but we – my brother and I - played a key role in this intrigue. What the insurgents or M.C.P. wanted were medicines. Every morning, my uncle would take the train out to K. L. in order to procure precisely what Chin Peng wanted: all kinds of medicines. My uncle would return on the last train in with not only medicines but also vegetables or sometimes even meat. My brother and I who ran the station in his absence kept the medicines and handed them over to the messenger-carriers who would call for them. They wouldn’t emerge from the jungle. Instead, they would whistle or call out in a particular fashion. We would then descend the slope at the back of the station, there by a rivulet, and hand the basket over to the gentlemen. Once my uncle asked me: “Did the man with the limp come for it?” I couldn’t tell. They were partially hidden under the thick jungle foliage.
I will not tarry here as
this part of my progression towards the capital had nothing to do with Vijayam. I’ll say one thing though. I never regretted
growing up in Sungei Rengam.
There was no police station, no municipality, no fire brigade, not even the
rubber estate which was the mainstay of the place before the war – only the
railway station, and my uncle Mathi was the virtual
reigning King of the place. I could write a whole book about our experiences in
there between 1943 and 1945. I will also skip the first few years in the
capital, for the same reason. If anyone is interested, I covered part of these
years in my book: Victorian (pen in cheek) Vignettes & Tales (not so
tall) of Timmy, the (not so very polite) Malaya Hall Cat in
I came back one afternoon after school at the Victoria Institution, and there was Vijayam and her husband at my place. I had heard she was married and living in the vicinity, but didn’t quite know where. The husband was a tall, very lanky, rather small-headed dusky Jaffnese who was either a book-keeper or sub-accountant. Vijayam was standing a little removed away from him, as was the custom in public, looking rather subdued. I was overjoyed to see her again, and I guess she felt likewise. She held her silence, of course. They were making the rounds to announce to the community their union, a status which, I suspect, didn’t quite sit well on her. I was later to realise the truth of this divinatory guess.
The couple occupied a
small semi-detached two room plank house on concrete stilts like those of the
railway quarters. There was another identical semi-detached house to the right.
Vijayam’s house had their windows open to the
Pakiam was – to all intents and purposes – Vijayam’s bête noire, and the community’s black sheep. Not very tall to start with, but high in courage and daredevilry, she stood out just by letting herself be whatever she wanted. Of the same age, she, too, had finished school before the war and could not make any headway in any profession during the period of hostilities. To her advantage, she could boast of a fair complexion – the colour of ripe mango, as the lingo within the community would have it – and a tight lascivious seductive physique to go with it all. After the war, she was the only Tamil girl who would dare attire herself in tennis shorts and gear, and walk all the way with her racket to the Y.M.C.A. grounds for a knock. I imagine Vijayam watched her pass her window and wondered what divided them: one a demure, sensitive, suffering soul, and the other a winsome (though with slightly pock-marked cheeks, a reminder of her having fallen victim to small pox), fearless, provocative girl in bob-tail.
Whenever I saw the curtains even slightly parted, I would stop to call on Vijayam. She wasn’t very communicative, though she appeared glad to see me. We would sit sometimes for long minutes without her ever opening her mouth. To my questions, I would get only short answers. It was obvious her marriage was on the rocks. There was an air of defeat written all over her face.
In the meantime, Rasam got married to Balasingham,
Rasa’s elder brother. He had been working for the R.A.F. before the war, and
when the Japanese interned the whites, he was given a choice: renounce the RAF
or be interned with the whites. He opted for the latter and spent the duration
of the Japanese regime in Changi Jail in
In the meantime, there
was a change in the constitution of my family, and all the brothers and sisters
were bundled off to
That invitation actually lasted several weeks. Vijayam was more than delighted to see[W2] me, I thought, and from then on began a relationship on a different plane. I was practically an adult, and we regarded each other as such. We would talk for hours late into the night. Since I didn’t inform anyone in the home town of my departure, the community grapewine must have got to buzzing and ticking furiously. Vijayam’s father must have done the necessary to calm things up there in the home front.
About a week after my
arrival at Vijayam’s place, Bala
drove down from
I’m not quite sure if it
was during that trip to
Someone I met (perhaps it was Vijayam herself) must have mentioned a teaching job going vacant in Mantin. Nobody, it seems, wanted the job. You had to get up very early to go into town to catch the Seremban-Kuala Lumpur interstate bus. School began at Mantin was a one horse-power town. Just a string of dilapidated shophouses on either side of the one and only main road to K. L. The St. Aloysius School, a little down a mud track with palm-fronds swaying from either side, was a one-room stone structure beside the small but Gothic-looking church – all, excepting the spire, in stark white. The Chinese pastor or priest in a heel-length white overall, buttoned in the middle right down to the knees, nearly hit the ceiling when he stood up to greet me. His face was square-ish, swarthy and broad, with straight short hair well patted down. He frowned when he learned that I wasn’t Catholic or even Christian. He said that was necessary since his boys were all baptised. He said I would have to be on time and teach until , with a short break of 15 minutes at 10.30. I had to teach in the annexe, and my students – some twelve of them – were of all sizes and shapes and races. Only a few understood English. At any time I taught, only a few knew what I said. It was impossible teaching under such circumstances. The hundred dollars a month I got for my non-labours were probably only to keep them there. Those who wanted to learn what I knew, I worked hard to impart, but the truth was I was totally bored with the job what with the priest sneaking up on me to see what I was doing. On one occasion, bored with the class I looked out the window opening into a garden and simply gazed at the scenery: the long bean plant climbing and twirling round a pole, the bed or two of greens on the ground, the myna birds and parrots flitting from branch to branch, and the next thing that happened: I heard the voice of the priest pulling me up before all the students and berating me for not teaching. Startled, I always wondered how right at that one single moment of lapse, he could appear on the scene. Bizarre! – as the French would utter in similar circumstances.
The railway quarters in Seremban was of a very different category from that in Klang. Towering above the railway tracks was a flattened surface which bit into the thickly green-clad hill at the back. There were some five or six huge plank-and-stone bungalows of the type the Duraiappa’s occupied in Klang, but nearly twice the size. A gravel path ran down the front. They looked like they were meant for the whites in the railways. Ample and spacious, they had three bed-rooms, huge lounges and deep horse-shoe shaped verandas.
wanted me to teach at the Vivekananda Ashram, in Seremban
town, during the afternoons, I readily accepted, but it meant that I had to
grab a bite quickly somewhere before classes began. This appointment, too, was
loaded with intrigue. Maniam master’s wife who lived
with her family across the low-lying meadow from Vijayam’s
place told Vijayam that her husband was looking for
me for there was a teaching post falling vacant at the King George the
Teaching at the Vivekananda school turned out to be an ordeal for all of us teachers. We had each some thirty-odd students under sixteen. The hall was divided into narrow partitioned spaces, and the students were cramped between those low-cardboard-like walls. If one teacher gave dictation or made his students repeat something or other, the other classes had to adopt some other course like drawing or working out sums in silence. We had some five classes packed into that hall. I remember I had a couple of Malay girls in my class. They were either twins or cousins of the same age: sixteen. They were so beautiful, clean and well dressed, I wouldn’t dare even look at them straight. I was in fact timid with girls then. One fine afternoon, the two girls started quarrelling. They wouldn’t sit still. Every two minutes or so, they would flare up, turn on each other and practically claw each other up. The two teachers on either side came and complained that they couldn’t conduct their classes with the ruckus going on in mine. I went up to the girls and told them to be quiet. No sooner my back was turned, they began the cat and dog fight. I told them that the other teachers had complained about the noise they were making. They kept still till I got to my table. Then, they were at it again. I went up to their desk (a double desk) and separated the girls by putting one of them at a desk across the aisle. I thought the matter was at an end. Nothing doing. They raged at each other even more furiously than before. One teacher came up to me and said I should stop being a teacher if I couldn’t impose discipline in my class. That did it. I went up to the girls and asked them to stretch out their hands. They wouldn’t. I said if they didn’t, I’ll call the head of the school, and they risked being barred from the school. Finally, they relented. I brought the cane down on their palms, and I really was in greater pain than they were. I must say I really had a soft spot for them. They never returned to class. I have to admit I missed them and reproached myself for the caning. Vijayam did mention later on that they were royalty. I could hardly doubt that.
The caretaker at the school and ashram made one feel, I imagine, like being in the The Wizard of Oz film. A Jaffna Tamil some seven feet high and so marvellously chiselled in every muscle and bone, I had wondered about his origins. He had on a shock of silvery hair and his complexion bordered between a blend of ash and charcoal. His feet loomed so large and sturdy he could have punctured any football with just one casual kick. He lived in a small one-room stone structure and did all his washing at a tap beside the place. He said he knew my father, but didn’t want to expatiate on the topic.
It was during those few weeks on first arriving in Seremban that I got to viewing another facet of Vijayam’s personality: she was unduly pious. She spent much time in the “Samy” room, praying in front of a collection of pictures of stylised godly forms, morning and evening, always remembering to mark her forehead with thiruneeru. Her attitude too marked her down as a penitent. More silent than she was in the old days, she seemed to harbour or rather nurture some sort of hurt in the innermost recesses of her heart. I tried to pry, and only got so far as to recognise some form of incompatibility with her husband. I asked her pointedly if her husband beat her or used some sort of violence. She quickly waylaid my fears, by saying he was indeed a good person, and that she held nothing really much against him, personally. It was evident, married life – at least at that stage in her life – did not hold much sense to her.
Perhaps, it was due to this estrangement that she turned to spiritual pursuits more willingly. One cannot say either way with certitude. Perhaps it was in the nature of her own existential misgivings that this turnure in her life came to pass. Whatever the cause, she had amassed around her for her daily consultation several volumes on Hindu scriptures and their commentators, such as, Tagore, Vivekananda, Ramakrishna, Subramaniar Swami [incidentally, he paid a visit to Seremban that year and gave a packed house talk at the K.G.V. school hall] and other lay swamis. Of course, I flicked through these volumes myself and never stopped pulling her leg about it all. I must have appeared to her to be the ultimate Hindu heretic. Our long conversations ranged over all these personalities, including other less salubrious ones in the community. For one thing, I was highly critical of the caste system, especially of the role of the Brahmin caste in Hindu society. She remained on this score an inveterate conservative. All in all, I think it was a good idea she took to seeking spiritual nourishment during her own depressive state. As my teaching life started early in the morning and ended late in the evening, we saw less and less of each other, except during week-ends and public holidays. And when I moved into the hospital grounds, we could only see each other during the afternoons in school.
[I’m going to cut the récit short here, for from this juncture on, we saw less and less of each other. You’ll see why.]
year was coming to a close. I saw Vijayam at the
school every afternoon. One fine day, a Chinese woman married to a Tamil and
who lived in
Just before the end of my relief job, the English course supervisor offered me the post for another year – at M$330, for a mornings’ teaching, six days a week. But they wanted me to teach both English and General Science. The salary was more than what I was getting working from dawn to well past bed-time. I was also offered accommodation gratis in the school premises in town, together with the students. I jumped at it, for it meant I could continue my studies. After a month living with the students, I realised the students were being deprived of an enormous room in which some thirty bedded down, side by side, every night, so I took up digs with an extended Chinese family, just down the road from the school.
about the school was different from what I was used to. The place was spic and
span and airy and quiet. There were playing grounds and numerous basket ball
and badminton courts. Students donned meticulous uniforms and were always
punctual. The discipline was characterised by total silence if they were
learning something new. Or when the headmaster would out of
the blue interrupt the classes with his haranguing through a loud-speaker
system linking the entire school. No one dared even cough during the
tirades – that’s what they sounded like to someone who didn’t understand the
language. I was the only non-Chinese in the entire school. I was accepted into
their midst in a way I had never imagined possible. One other English-language
teacher (who called himself Lee Kuan Yew) befriended
me to the extent of taking me almost every evening for meals in a jewellery
shop kongsi where he lived. The trouble was I
couldn’t manage the chop-sticks well enough to get my fill. The only other snag
was that I didn’t know Chinese. I tried to learn it, though without much
success. I had exams to take:
this period, I evidently saw less of Vijayam than I
would have liked. Since my studies were progressing, I returned to the capital
and took up a job as a reporter with the Malay Mail. One of the first
assignments I had was to interview the Selangor
Social Welfare Youth Officer, and oddly enough, she turned out to be – no other
than – Pakiam Thambithurai,
The interview went on to lunch, and curiously enough, after work - to dinner.
And we continued to see each other throughout my reporting days. Even the
community elders could not discourage Pakiam, for
they thought she was in the process of misleading a minor. Everything was
over-board with us, though she was genuine about her feelings. I left at the
end of November for
my way down to