A Tale Worth Telling (Part 2)

This is a story as yet unpublished, which the author has offered to Ipoh Echo’s readership, with the hope to keep alive some eminent Perakeans’ history, hopes and memories for the younger generation.

*This is Part 2 of a 5-part series. 

A Tale Worth Telling (Part 2)

by Prema Arasu

“This small little girl was just going on 14…she was born in 1928. Her home was not in Penang. She had to get back across the water causeway to her home in Butterworth. So, with no other options, she started to walk across the streets and saw dead bodies and people injured and dying. She walked in a daze, like in a dream, hoping to just reach the ferry that she always took to get to school and to go back home. She finally reached the wharf and there were no ferries in sight. They had either been stopped or bombed. But she saw a barge. Some good Samaritan had brought a barge and said ‘Siapa mahu pulang rumah ke Butterworth? Who wants to go home to Butterworth? They can get on this barge. So, without thinking, she just jumped on—reflexively, I think, as she wouldn’t have consciously done it. 

“As she has told me this story many times over the years, I feel that I’d experienced it myself. She got off at the Butterworth wharf and then started to walk home to her house at Bagan Luar Road.”  

Aunty quietly interjected, softly but firmly, “It was C5. C5, Bagan Luar Road.” 

Uncle acknowledged her interruption and added, “Yes, C5,” and continued. “Her parents, as you can imagine, were so worried and were anxiously waiting outside wondering what might have happened to their daughter. And then they saw her coming. They were simply overjoyed and hugged her. They were so glad to see she was well and had made her way safely home.“

He wasn’t ready to stop talking in relating her story. “Meanwhile, they could see that there were droves of soldiers coming, they were Japanese soldiers. They came on bicycles, an incredible and perhaps marvelous idea, with two to three men on one bicycle, one fellow in front, one fellow at the back. Whenever they spotted a bicycle anywhere around, they hopped off, confiscated it and that’s how they got more and more bicycles and kept going. During this time, the Japanese captured and occupied several key places in the country which included some major clashes. Finally, they occupied Singapore and General Wavell had no choice but to take the white flag and surrender. The Japanese took over the whole of the peninsula in addition to Singapore and they were making their way westward hoping to capture India and other East Asian countries towards their vision of one world order and an Asia for Asians.” 

Uncle looked over at Aunty and said, “Now we’re coming to where I can hand the story over to you to continue with your own words and memories.” But, no, he wasn’t quite done yet and added, “See, the Japanese had set up one of their military headquarters in Butterworth. Whenever you saw them, they were always dressed in their brown and green uniform and cap.”

 To Aunty, he said, “OK, now you can start your story,” as he turned and looked at her impishly. “You can talk about how that Japanese soldier came to your house, how you became friendly with him, how he helped your mother and loved your whole family, how you studied the language from him and liked him so much, how you got all your qualifications in Japanese and then taught Japanese, and all that Aoyagi Masau did for your family, how he didn’t want to commit hara-kiri when the war ended…now, you can continue, Ma’am.” Those were his exact words, said with so much affection and endearment as well as the pride that he had gotten the prize. He got to marry her, she was his one and true-life companion, not the other guy from way back then. 

He pushed his chair back and slowly walked out towards the main living room. I suspected that he wanted to give Aunty the physical and mental space to share her own views and for him to not be tempted to interject and interrupt her recollections. 

Aunty laughed and I could sense the love and familiarity they shared, of really knowing someone as your spouse with many years of shared experiences together. She picked up the thread from where her own thoughts had been as she listened to his recount of past events and his memory of what she herself had shared with him many times over their 65 years of marriage. Earlier I had learned about how they met and got married. Uncle had been a roommate with Aunty’s brother when they were both studying in Singapore. Uncle had already decided that he wanted to marry someone who had her own professional interests and who wanted to work at something rather than being a housewife. Seeing photos of his friend’s family, admiring her beauty, and learning about Aunty’s academic excellence left no doubt in his mind about whom he wanted as his future wife. And so it transpired.

Aunty began her narration. “I was at the St. Theresa’s Convent School in Butterworth, it was named after Mother Theresa. I studied there till Standard 7 and it ended there because they didn’t offer higher standards towards the junior and senior Cambridge examinations. So after the Standard 7 exam, you had to transfer to a school that offered these higher-level classes. I had many friends whose parents didn’t want their children to travel every day from Butterworth to Penang by the ferry to go to school there. Most of my friends who were Chinese and Indian—there were no Malay girls in my batch—didn’t continue their studies; they started to work or they got married.

“My father, on the other hand, said, ‘My daughter is only 14.’ See, I had been a good student and skipped two classes, going from Standard 2 directly to 4 and then I also skipped Standard 5. I was first in all my classes in spite of being the youngest because of the two double promotions; most of my friends were 16 and 17. So my father didn’t want me to stop studying. He said, ‘It doesn’t matter, there’s a ferry, my daughter must go on studying and she can take the ferry across to the school in Penang.’”

To be continued…


Author with Uncle and Aunty (Datuk and Datin Selvamany), circa 2017

About Prema Arasu:

Prema was formerly a student at the Ipoh Main Convent. She retired as a biomedical research scientist and professor from the U.S. academic system. She currently enjoys yoga, being out in nature, and doing short term projects related to science and global health.

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