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]

 

               Vijayam Duraiappa

(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 Laertius

[The question is, Should one distort the truth in order to conform to an age-old adage?]

 

 

-----E-mail d'origine----- 
De : ratha
r_at_88@yahoo.com.sg 
A : Wignesh
Wignesh@aol.com 
Envoyé le : Dimanche, 24 Avril 2011 0:21 
Sujet : Vijayam 
 
Wignesh 
 
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. 
 
Best Regards 
  
Ratha Nadaraj 
 
r_at_88@yahoo.com.sg 

 

 

From: "wignesh@aol.com"  
To:
r_at_88@yahoo.com.sg 
Sent:
Sunday, 24 April 2011 4:02 PM 
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! 
 

Click to see cover of book: http://www.stateless.freehosting.net/Tracks of a Tramp cover 1961.jpg

Click to read the poems in the book:http://www.viweb.freehosting.net/vilit_Wignesan1.htm

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
 
T. Wignesan 
5, Boulevard Pablo Picasso, 
BP 90145
94004
Creteil Cedex
France 
 
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.]

 

         To 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 Klang High School during 1941. This simply meant that my father was transferred again – this time to Klang where he took charge – as goods clerk - of the enormous godowns and goods yard. Vijayam’s father: Duraiappa was the assistant-station master there, so we were all housed in the Railway Quarters across the wide, muddy sluggish river pullulating with crocodiles. No sooner had we arrived there, the Japanese invaders had already overtaken us (December 8 to February 14, 1942), and the first thing every householder did was to find every possible means to hide their womenfolk and teenage daughters. I don’t know what the Duraiappa’s did, but I distinctly remember sheltering in extremely precarious circumstances in broken-down or blown-up bungalows, formerly inhabited by Europeans.

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: Bukit Kuda Road.] It was on the other side of the rubber estate behind the row of shops and the Regal cinema facing the railway compound. We climbed up a ladder, and father withdrew it and kept it upstairs. As there was no access to any other part of the house, we simply had to pee from the broken-off ledge. Just then, we heard a vehicle pull up outside. We could hear voices on the drive in. Through the broken windows and wall, we could barely discern a group of soldiers, judging by their voices. Someone carried a hurricane lamp in front. Within seconds of their entering the house, we could make out the silhouettes of Japanese soldiers in the dark. Our youngest sister, a baby in arms, started to wake and whimper, but the soldiers could hardly have heard the cry with all the noise they were making. Mother had to smother her in her breast to keep the baby from breaking out in a wail. Luckily for us, I think, the Japanese were themselves afraid of the dark and what might lurk in there. Father had a weapon or two in store. As soon as he heard the approaching footsteps, he grabbed a rough plank with nails still sticking out and took a position like he wanted to swing a cricket bat for a six. The Japanese were right under us, and they shone the lantern on the pool of still-steaming hot piss downstairs. Another soldier cried out to the party from outside, and they smartly trooped out, cursing and swearing freely in their fashion, it seemed, to conceal their own sense of discomfiture. The Malayan Peoples Anti-Japanese Army, the British Stay-Behind Parties, and the Communists were already hitting back at them. A close shave that!

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 on June 7, 1942, two weeks after his release. My mother was widowed at 27 with six children in her charge: the eldest at 12 and the youngest under one. If it hadn’t been for my mother’s half-brother Mathiaparanam who was working at the Institute of Medical Research in Kuala Lumpur, I guess your guess is as good as mine as to what might have become of us. He chucked up his job to come to our aid, and the community which over-populated the railways in those days co-opted my uncle, too, into the railways.   

Vijayam, that is, her two sisters: Rasam and Jeevam, and their father occupied one of the two plank “bungalows” at the Kapar Road end, and which was a bit isolated from the rest. The last house, next to Vijayam’s place, was always empty and locked up, though around that end great big rain trees, mango and coconut trees formed a shady dusun. Rumour had it that the house was haunted, ever since the occupants: a Eurasian or a Malay couple were murdered in there. Some said the Japanese soldiers killed the man and raped the woman and left her to die, or something like that. Vijayam and family kept the windows facing the “haunted house” well shut or the curtains well-drawn, unless I’m mistaken. I remember someone or other telling me that, “That was because they heard cries and wailing during the night issuing from the place!” [Well, it’s 4.22 a.m. while I’m writing this; I had better change the subject. I think I would do well to hit the hay, instead! -- I’m back after a few hours of tossing and turning.]

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 Singapore, did not mix much with us, the ruggermuffins of the railway quarters. The Francis family – Jeya had a sister a little older – were a marvellous lot: warm, jovial and bubbly, obliging and really likeable. I sort of adopted Jeya as a “best friend”, though he hardly emitted signs of being aware of the honour.  He later qualified as a doctor in Singapore and went into general practice. Rasa whose father was extremely concerned about his studies used to punish him beyond reason. He couldn’t always come out to play when we called. Once I saw him tied to a post in the back garden with chilli paste rubbed into or around his eyes. Rasa said that was because he hadn’t done his homework or something like that. No wonder he later became the Victoria Institution rugger captain and a police inspector. Jeya and I were class-mates in primary two at the outbreak of the War. They had a piano in the salon, and Jeya and his sister and mother were quite adept at playing the upright Steiner. At one stage, they decided to get a piano teacher lady to give us – Jeya and me – classes during the week-ends. I didn’t make any headway, because I couldn’t practise my scales anywhere else but in the school hall which was bolted after school hours. The Francises offered to let me practise at their place, but I felt shy about just going there. Think of the noise they would have to put up with.

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 Ceylon; the other had passed away. His being away gave both my brother and me a chance to use my father’s bicycle. We used to cycle as fast as we could from one end of the compound to the other, that is, from our place past Vijayam’s to the end and back – taking turns. Jeevam would be seated on the steps. Rasam leant outside on the veranda, elbows on the banisters. We were obviously showing off to the girls our prowess with the machine. At first, nothing happened. Then, little by little, they waved at us, and we waved back and increased our passing rides. From time to time, when we passed, the girls would call out to Vijayam who was always inside. I don’t quite remember if all this took place before or after their mother’s passing – I think after though. I do however remember their mother. She was rather short and rounder than the rest of the family. On such occasions, Vijayam would come running out to wave at us as well. One fine day, they asked us to stop. We would put a foot on the culvert while still seated on the bike and answer questions they put to us which was mostly about nothing really. We made conversation. I think they missed having brothers, and rather wished to adopt us as surrogates. Before long, we were invited indoors. Their father was a genial, upright and dignified-looking man, though he suffered from slight strabismus. He was a man of few words and was soft-spoken like Vijayam. For some reason, he took to me (for he knew my father quite well) right from the start and never failed to praise me to every one – and even within ear-shot. From then on, I enjoyed “open-house” status with the Duraiappas. I could call on them when I wished. Rasam soon withdrew to let me become Vijayam’s pet brother. My brother also withdrew from the scene and let me alone, for my interests were beginning to diverge from his.

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 Magazine (Kuala Lumpur), 27 May 1962, p. 8.] The woman was obviously the victim of gang rape. This episode shows to what extent the Malayans were still to attain maturity. The whole dreary business was going on for an hour or so before someone got the police to take the woman in. (This reminds me of another incident in Kuala Lumpur when I was a reporter there in 1954. A Ceylonese Tamil used to take his sari-clad wife along on his motor-bike to work down Victory Avenue. When they reached the secretariat building, one end of her sari got caught in the spokes of the wheel, and she was instantly reduced to embarrassing nakedness, right in the midst of the heavy morning traffic. Neither the husband nor anyone else thought it wise or necessary to shield her. A passing European stopped his car, took off his coat, put it round her, and with the permission of the flabbergasted husband, ushered her into his car and drove away.)   

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: “Krishna”, “Radha” and “Bhama”. Again, money was short, and there was talk between my mother and my uncle about selling away the goat and the kids. I protested and I think I even threatened to starve to death, so one morning I found the goat gone with Krishna and Radha, but, as a consolation, they left me Bhama, a sleek velvety black as tar kid whom I brought up as a pet. She followed me everywhere, and even slept with me. If I left her to do something somewhere, she would bleat loud and long enough to bring the house and the neighbourhood down. When I visited Vijayam, I would have to leave her just outside to feed on the undergrowth and go out to reassure her of my presence as often as possible. This tie was the strongest relationship of my infancy.

 

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 Ceylon or Tamil Nadu) to give us lessons in Tamil. They managed to rent a small room in the first floor of a stone shop-house along the high street behind the padang, opposite the railway compound. The man was a wiry, thickly moustachio-ed fellow, clad in a white veshti, cheruppu and over-hanging shirt. The motley crowd of local boys and girls of all ages were huddled into this room. We had to sit chappani-wise with our backs to the walls. The oldest among us – two sisters aged around thirteen or fourteen and real smashers to look at – were Indian Tamils. The chadtambiar walked in between the class, whisking his cane. He had a kind of hungry look about him which was not due to want of food. The cheroots he smoked all through class – about two hours during afternoons -  were enough to choke even ten full-grown African elephants, especially because he insisted on closing the windows on account of the noise from the road. We were all made to repeat what he uttered. On a tiny black-board which he held in his hands, he would scribble a line or two of Avvaiyar’sAathisuudi” and flash it around for us to copy on our slates. Then, the loud shouting session would ensue. We had to repeat the aphorisms, first together, then one by one. A few days passed in this fashion. If any of us couldn’t remember the lines we had to learn, he would ask us to stretch our hands out, and the cane would come down on them in a curt swish. After about a week, for some reason which we then couldn’t quite understand, he would set himself down in front of the dazzling looking girls and try to make them repeat the lines while he pretended to hit them with his hands on their thighs. Perhaps, he thought or made believe he was some Tamil Carnatic music teacher, for his hands kept time on their thighs. The girls, it appeared, were too fearful to object. As the days passed, he virtually ignored the rest of us. After making us copy a couple of the aphoristic lines, he would make us all repeat them aloud while he went about feeling the girls under their skirts. After about a couple of weeks, he would call one girl in particular during class and would take her down the corridor and remain with her somewhere for anything between fifteen to twenty minutes. This went on for another couple of weeks. Then my uncle who always consulted me if he wanted to know what was taking place in similar situations, got the truth out of me, for the parents of the girls got into a rage about the goings-on in class. The next afternoon, Uncle Mathi turned up in class, had a few hot words with our Chadtambiar, took him outside. We heard someone go tumbling down the cicatrised wooden staircase and that was the last we ever heard of him. End of studies for us.           Since the boys and girls began roaming around again, my uncle engaged another chadtambiar – this time a young, stalwart sort of fellow with masses of oily hair and beefy limbs. Our veranda was the venue for the class, for safety’s sake, I guess. Only a few neighbours’ children could join us there. This teacher had to come from across the river. The British before retreating had blown up the bridge right in the middle, and crossing the river meant either taking one of the sampans plying the trade – a veritable experience during low tide for by the time we boarded, we were ankle or knee deep in mud – or doing a perilous balancing act on the string and plank patchwork which served as a link between both ends of the severed bridge. At first, class appeared to go well. We had arithmetic lessons and some dictation. A week passed. No mishap. My uncle consulted me again. He was satisfied. The second week was different. The chadtambiar thought up all kinds of excuses to want to talk to my - by then - widowed mother. She would stand at the open door to give him the answers about us or the lessons. He decided then, as the days went by, that he had to talk to my mother, indoors. We didn’t take kindly to that wish of his and made it a point to close the door during class. My uncle got wind of it. The next afternoon, my uncle met the teacher at the bridge when he came over in a sampan, and I’m told sent him back without his veshti and well and properly drenched in mud. End of private tuitions for us – forever!

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 Kuala Lumpur, Sikh policemen would stop me or my brother in the street to tell us where they saw “Paapa” last. They never impounded her. She roamed the streets all over Brickfields and grazed the river banks along Lornie Road with impugnity.

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 Japan. Perhaps he was not that young in age: he could have been older. The Japanese never seem to age easily. The cows had strayed afar, so I left the soldier where he lay and ran after them. There was no obvious wound on his body. His uniform was not stained by blood either.

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 Klang High School grounds, for instance, were used for beheading ceremonies early in the morning. I once saw such a ceremony from afar. The severed heads would then be stuck on poles and planted along the road leading to the bridge, for all to see as a warning. The only thing that can be said at this distance in time is that the entire Japanese period was a period of constant hostilities, so every form of cruelty was permissible.

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 Kuala Lumpur. I guess the Subang Airport is right there where Sungei Rengam had been. With the help of the community elders at Railway Head Quarters in the capital, Uncle Mathi managed to get my age elevated to 18 and my elder brother’s to 20, I think. We were both employed at 10 and 12 as the booking-clerk and porter at the station and actually drew a salary each for the rest of the duration of the War. There were no schools in Sungei Rengam. But before we left for Sungei Rengam, something happened: this had to do with Vijayam. As I said earlier on, she had by then “adopted” me. And this is the next stage of my récit.

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 London days. I published the story under a pen-name in the Malayan Writers Series I edited while I was working for the Malayan Times in Kuala Lumpur in 1962. [Ananga (pen-name), “First Lessons”, Malayan Times-Sunday Magazine (Kuala Lumpur), May 1962, p. ?.]

 

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.”

“Did it?”

“Yes, in the leg.”

“Why?”

“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?”

“You.”

“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 Kapar Road. There was hardly any traffic. Just a bicycle or two. Now and then a rickshaw carrying some towkay’s third wife to the market. Occasionally, Mr. Sabaratnam, the health inspector at Kapar Town drove past in his black Austin.

“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 Wuthering Heights. I had never read a book. In kindergarten, we merely learnt to count, draw, sew, dance and sing a whole packet of nursery rhymes. Vijayam knew a whole sackful of more interesting ones and was always humming some tune or other. She imparted a few of those to me, which I then transported to my home, only to find my elder sister knew some of them also. My big step into serious literature began with those novels. [I may have got the titles wrong, but there was no gainsaying the fact that the nineteenth century novels she let me handle – that is, the books themselves – opened up fresh vistas in my imagination.] She would let me read the books, and I would find that it would sometimes take me hours just to get through a page or two. Far too many words lay obstreperously beyond my ken. Sometimes, when I couldn’t make head or tail of a sentence, she would help me out, but, on the whole, I persevered long enough to get an idea of what was being said and who the characters were in the pages. Rasam, too, would sometimes enter the discussion, for she had also some notion of the period. My appetite for writing, as they say, was whetted. Soon I would notice in a glass case at Francis master’s place, a whole row of Dickens’ novels in solid red binding. Jeya told me they had gathered the lot from the headmaster’s house when he had to leave in a hurry. The H.M.’s place was tucked into an arbour behind the school, adjacent to the Chinese grave-yard and a padang where the executions took place. The Francis family let me borrow Oliver Twist. It took me ages to plough through it all. My first full-length book at nine! I was hooked. I later borrowed David Copperfield and Great Expectations, but never found the time to read them through. After the War, I found a similar collection at Satchithanandan’s place, opposite the main railway station in Kuala Lumpur, and made it a point of thoroughly going through the novels. While in Klang, though, I never saw or got wind of Vijayam’s particular concerns with Hinduism. That was the nether side of the moon, as far as she was concerned.

 

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 London. Allahabad: Cyberwit.net, 2008, xv-207p.

 

Kuala Lumpur: 1946 – 1950. My family, after putting up in the first floor of the block of shop-houses at the junction of Thamby Abdullah Road and Travers Road in Brickfields, finally settled down in Vanar Kampung on the Brickfields Road leading to the Klang Bridge. A thriving Sikh Kampung, too, had sprung up between Vanar Kampung and Thamby Abdullah Road. Quite surprisingly, that area, together with the Hundred Quarters on Chan Ah Thong Street, produced some of the most successful and famous names of the region.

  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 Thambi Abdullah Road. The window curtains were always drawn. On the other side of the road was a group of four two-storey stone houses, the closest of which was occupied by the Sittampalams; the famous three S.S., S.M., S.T. brothers and their proctor sister who qualified in Colombo. So did S.S. Ratnam, the famous sex-change surgeon and professor in Singapore. S.T. Ratnam became the Director of Tourism for a while in the island. S.M. “Baby” Ratnam remained in K. L. as a London qualified barrister. Behind these houses on Travers Road resided the other Ratnam family: “M.B.S.” Headmaster Kanagaratnam’s family – eldest son (and still living) Shanmugharatnam, Professor of Pathology in Singapore; eldest daughter wife of ex-High Commisioner in London A.P. Rajah; former Ambassador to the U.S.S.R., K. T. Ratnam,; ex-Professor and Vice-Chancellor of Sains University, K. J. Ratnam,; youngest daughter, wife of the ex-Meteorologist at Geneva. Next door to the Sittampalams, there was a semi-detached stone house, at the junction of the path leading into the Sikh Kampung and our Vanar Kampung. This was occupied by the Thambithurais: from the first bed: Pakiam, London School of Economics qualified social welfare officer in Selangor; Navaratnam, a Victoria Institution science master, and from the second bed: Thangathurai, a man of all trades.

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 Singapore. His employment was guaranteed after the war, and as a compensation, he was awarded a “Mention in Dispatches” by the King in London. They set up house in a semi-detached plank-cum-stone block of houses further down Thamby Abdullah Road, right in front of the “MulagaiMurugesus’ rather comfortable fenced-off domain. The Murugesu sons also distinguished themselves: the eldest Tharmalingam qualified as an engineer from Imperial College in London and married Minister Tun Ismail’s daughter or sister; the second, Sivalingam, qualified as a doctor from Singapore, and the third Shanmughalingam, went through the University of Malaya, then Harvard and Oxford obtaining a Ph.D. in Economics and finally headed PETRONAS. And the most famous Tamilian of all lived on Well Road, behind the Hundred Quarters: Ananda Krishnan, T., the richest Tamil in the world. I could continue in this vein, but this will give you an idea of the kind of go-getting ferment in which the area was embroiled. To say the least, growing up in this milieu was quite hectic, and Vijayam of course had dropped out. This verve for living so evident in all the youths thereabouts had not infected her, and quite understandably so. She was the odd person out!

In the meantime, there was a change in the constitution of my family, and all the brothers and sisters were bundled off to Ceylon and India. I was allowed to stay as I was preparing for the Senior Cambridge exam in 1950. I noticed that Vijayam’s visit to our house with her husband suddenly ceased; instead, only the husband came once a week to chat for a while. I didn’t realise that Vijayam had by then returned to her father’s place. Somehow Rasam and Bala and Rasa whom I saw quite often then never brought the subject up. The constraints of Jaffna custom: separation of a couple being taboo. I had stopped going to school by February 1950. Then, I too left to join my siblings in Jaffna and Madras where they were studying. When I returned in mid-1951, I had no clue what transpired in between. I was then determined to take the school leaving certificate on my own without attending school. I was giving free private tuitions all over the place. An opportunity to stand in for a lady teacher on maternity leave presented itself. I realised it was something I could do while waiting for the results to arrive. I had been reading a great deal, and the thought of roaming the world like a Conrad hit me straight on. The Cambridge results arrived in March 1952. The Grade One I obtained didn’t satisfy me at all. I decided to go down to Singapore to see if I could get a commission in the Merchant Marine. I wanted to see the world. The sea passage to India and back convinced me of the virtues of solitude and meditation or rumination in the wide open spaces. I liked the sound of waves and the cry of gulls. I thought I would say “hello” to Vijayam down the way and alighted in Seremban where her father was the station master. No sooner had I laid foot on the platform, I bumped into Vijayam’s father who insisted that I accompany him home for lunch.

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 Kuala Lumpur in a small Austin on his way down to Singapore. He wanted me to accompany him, just “for the ride.” I did, but when we got to Singapore, a tug of war took place. He wanted me to bed down in a friend’s house. I wouldn’t. The place had a back garden compound, and he managed to park the car in there. I said I was quite comfortable in the car, but he wouldn’t accept that for an answer, and he kept trying and insisting right past midnight. Neither of us, I think, managed to get any sleep that night.

I’m not quite sure if it was during that trip to Singapore that I visited the merchant marine offices, but I somehow managed to see “directors” of ocean liner companies with my request for an engagement as a ship’s mate. Rather surprisingly, one – the first I saw – offered me a post as a junior officer on a steamship plying the East Indies. I wanted to go West, into the European waters. He said rather disappointingly that his company worked the spice islands. End of my Conrad dreams. So back to Seremban I came. Once there, Vijayam’s father had already arranged for me a private tutoring post in the evenings with the children of the Chief Medical Officer of the State, Dr. Murugesu. The doctor knew my father quite well as they must have grown up together in Ceylon. In any case, my mother later told me, my father had once brought him home to treat her when she was expecting. The good doctor took to me very warmly, and I was wondering later on whether he paid me the hundred dollars to teach his children from 6.30 p. m. to 10.30 p.m., six days a week, mainly because he wanted somebody to talk to - himself. At every opportunity, he would butt in either to talk to me or to query me over the progress of his eldest son who worried him most of all. Soon after we began, he decided that I should teach only the eldest boy, a task which I didn’t much relish. The second daughter who resembled the mother intrigued me. She had class and a forbidding aura of reserve. I would, I must admit, steal stealthy looks at her. She never bothered to give me even a mocking glance. Murugesu and I became quite inveterate conversationalists – he did almost all the talking – that he even took me once on his trips to Singapore to play the horse-racing circuit. He also arranged for me to stay in the hospital assistants’ quarters, close to his own stone mansion, down by the General Hospital. I spent the rest of 1952 with the hospital assistants whom I got to like very, very much indeed, barring a few fights and tumbles.

 

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 7.30 a.m. 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 12.30 p.m., 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.

When Vijayam 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 Vth School where he taught. Vijayam wanted me for the Vivekananda post. And since I was already teaching in the mornings, I didn’t hesitate to accept Vijayam’s offer, though the K.G.V. appointment would have looked better on my C.V.

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.]

 

         The 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 Rasah Square wanted to see me. She was teaching English in the Chung Hwa Middle School, the main part of which was on a hill leading out to K. L. She wanted me to replace her for a little less than a month in December since she was expecting. She offered me M$150. I spoke to the priest at St. Aloysius School about it, and to my great surprise, he said he could take over the class himself. I was going to leave that school anyway at the end of the year. And thus began an adventure which revved up my neurones and tuned up my vocal chords for a full and eventful year.

         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.

         Everything 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: London Bar exams in September and Cambridge H.S.C. in December, both in 1953. They trusted me enough to let me take – together with a couple of other teachers - entire classes to Port Dickson for holidays. I was so involved with the life of the school that I even wrote and staged a play, titled: “The Farmer’s Boy” which was set in China. The school rented a cinema for an evening (which also included some song-and-dance displays by the school children), and we raked in some M$ 13 or 14 thousand for the school’s coffers.

 

A colleague: Lee Kuan Yew in the title role - extreme righthttp://www.stateless.freehosting.net/Scene from The Farmer's Boy by T. Wignesan, Seremban 1953.jpg

Author standing last right with students and teachers from the Chung Hwa Middle School, Seremban, on holiday in Port Dicksonhttp://www.stateless.freehosting.net/Author standing last right with teachers-students, Port Dickson.jpg

Author standing centre with Elias Nakhouda & Gang, Seremban, 1953http://www.stateless.freehosting.net/Author standing centre with Elias Nakhouda & Gang, Seremban.jpg

 

         During 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, Vijayam’s âme-soeur. 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 London.

         On my way down to Singapore, I used to call on Vijayam. Just the way I did later on when I returned from Europe in 1961. She had then acquired a new life of her own. A life which didn’t exclude some of the joie de vivre I thought she was incapable of.

        

Paris, May 8, 2011 © T. Wignesan 2011

 


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