A Tale Worth Telling (Part 3)

This is a story as yet unpublished, which the author has offered to Ipoh Echo’s readership, with the hope to keep alive some eminent Perakeans’ history, hopes and memories for the younger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 3 of a 5-part series. 

A Tale Worth Telling (Part 3)

by Prema Arasu

“So after Standard 7, I went to the All-Girls Convent Light Street School which was on the street named after Sir Francis Light, the founder of Penang.” Aunty paused for a bit as if collecting her thoughts to get her chronology just right. “From my home, I would catch the bus which was very cheap. For 2 cents, the bus would take me straight down to the Mitchell Pier in Butterworth. Oh, Mitchell was the District Officer for Butterworth and many places were named like that, after prominent British officers of the time. At the Pier, I would just show my one month ticket which my father had bought for me and the ferry would take me over to the Francis Light Pier. On the ferry, I was the only girl; the other students were all boys and they went to a different All-Boys school once we got across. After the ferry reached Penang, there were no buses. So I had to walk from the pier to the Convent. It was about a 20-minute walk. I had no umbrella and although it was fine on a nice sunny day, I got quite wet if it rained. It didn’t matter though, we were so young that it didn’t matter at all if I got wet. 

“I remember the day vividly that Uncle told you about just now. It was December 11th, 1941. We were in school and suddenly heard a loud unusual noise, the sound of big engines. The Japanese airplanes were zooming overhead and the engine sounds gave way to other sounds. Bombs were falling. It was a terrific and terrible noise. 

“Many of our teachers were nuns who came from Ireland and France to teach us and of course, also to propagate their religion.  They were ordered by the Pope to go to different countries and convert as many people as they can to Catholicism. If they could convert even one person, they felt that the gates of heaven would be opened for them. That’s what they believed. Anyway, they were good teachers and we studied hard.“ 

At this point, Uncle sauntered back into the dining room where Aunty and I were seated, and he said, “You need to tell her about that Japanese fellow. She doesn’t need to hear all the details about your school and you don’t need to convert her either.” And Aunty again laughed easily and said “Alright, he knows more than I remember now because I’ve been telling him this story many, many times. It all happened more than 70 years ago and I’m not sure how good my memory is these days.” 

And she picked up the thread again. “So, on the 11th of December, we were in school and we heard the planes flying overhead. They were very loud and one after the other, we heard and felt the vibrations of the bombs. The nuns and other teachers told us, ‘Go and hide yourselves.’ But there was nowhere to really hide and it didn’t look like hiding under the desks was going to be of much use—but that’s what we did.

Doom! Doom! Doom! We were so frightened.

“Then we heard a siren, ‘Whoooo.’  We knew that was the signal that the planes had gone and we could come out. I came outside.  My classmates were all girls from Penang, and their parents and relatives had rushed to the school to meet them. I saw how they held their hands and took them home. I was left by myself, the only one from across the causeway in Butterworth. I didn’t know what else to do except to follow my daily routine. So I walked along the pavement; I remember passing the shop, M.S. Ali and Company, as I walked.  It was so frightening! There were corpses and people on the ground bleeding and dying. I was numb and just walked on to the Pier. There were no boats. The ferries were all bombed. I was desperate and didn’t know what to do. I noticed a raft with two men and they had two oars and they just waved and said, ‘Come, come, come, whoever needs to get across to Butterworth.’ 

“Several of us got on the raft. We had no money but they said, ‘Never mind.’ We finally reached the Mitchell Pier and again, no transport, no buses. And so I walked all the way to our house. It took a good half an hour to get to C5 Bagan Luar road, my home. I could see my parents waiting outside and that my mother was crying. My father was consoling her and as I got closer, I heard him saying ‘Don’t worry, Poovayee is a brave girl, she will be alright.’ Suddenly they saw me coming and the joy on their faces was incredible. My mother rushed up and hugged me and asked, ‘Are you alright? Are you alright?’ and I remember my father saying, ‘See I told you, she’s a brave girl, she’s a brave girl. I knew you would come back.’ It was such a happy reunion. 

Then the war came.”  

To be continued…


About Prema Arasu:

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

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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