A Tale Worth Telling (Part 5)

This is a story as yet unpublished, which the author has offered to Ipoh Echo’s readership, with the hope to keep alive some eminent Perakeans’ history, hopes and memories for the younger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

A Tale Worth Telling (Part 5)

by Prema Arasu

Uncle was clearly eavesdropping on her narration and walked back to join us. He wanted to provide some context for some of the aftermath of the Japanese occupation. “We knew of one or two Japanese soldiers who did hara-kiri, committing ritual suicide by pushing a sword into their stomachs since losing the war was a dishonor to their Emperor. Also as the Japanese were leaving, the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army with a Chinese leader, Chin Peng, came out and took over Batu Gajah. They held open courts, they brought people who they thought were collaborators. They convicted a woman as well. Those were difficult times.”

Aunty chimed in again to take back control of her narrative and told me a little more about how her own path unfolded. “I continued my studies when the British came back and finished my Senior Cambridge. I was studying several subjects including English Language, English Literature, Mathematics, History, and Geography. Our papers were sent to Cambridge, England, for grading and the results were posted back to us. We also had to do a foreign language and most of my friends took French but my parents had taught me Tamil and my father said I should do that as my foreign language requirement. So I had 6 As and also passed Art and Drawing. I got a Grade 1 and with the Cambridge certificate, many went to Singapore for University but my father said, ‘you go to Penang Normal Class and train to become a teacher.’ 

“About that time, my oldest brother was studying in Singapore at the Raffles College, and Uncle was his roommate. That’s how we got connected.” She paused and added “He’s such a wonderful husband; I couldn’t have found a better one. And for all that, I must thank my brother, that he went to Singapore to study and that they became great friends. There was such a physical distance between our home towns if you think about it. Uncle was from Batu Gajah and I was in Butterworth. We wouldn’t have met if it was not for my brother showing photos of our family. Uncle had asked my brother, ‘Who’s this?’ and he replied, ‘My sister. She’s a teacher at the Bukit Mertajam Convent.’ Uncle wanted a wife who would work and also be able to teach his children when she came home from work. But his family wanted him to marry one of his cousins, some of whom were waiting, hoping that one of them would be chosen as his bride. Fortunately, my father-in-law said, ‘Let him finish his studies and marry whomever he chooses.’  My mother-in-law was not happy with that, but she abided with Uncle’s decision to marry me. Our wedding was in 1952 when I was 23 years old.

“And of course, we shared everything and I told Uncle all about Aoyagi Masau-san. Then sometime around 1973 or 74, we got an interesting phone call. Someone from Japan had written to the District Officer, the D.O. in Butterworth, asking if he knew an Indian family by the name of Navaratnam who lived on Bagan Luar Road. The D.O. thought this was an interesting query and mentioned this to a friend saying, ‘You’re Indian, do you know who this family might be?’ Lo and behold, that person he asked was my brother who replied, ‘That was my family! We were the ones at that house.’

“When we got this news, we were so elated. Uncle was of course just as excited to meet this Japanese man who had so captured our hearts. So our family all got in the car and drove to Penang to a small reception at the Metropole Hotel. Aoyagi Masau-san had written to say that he was coming with a group of people and unfortunately couldn’t stay for more than a couple of hours. We were all so excited and eager to see him and have a happy reunion.”

Uncle now felt compelled to add his account of the meeting. “I was so curious to finally meet this man because I think he would have married Aunty if he could have. He was a young boy himself at the time. And there at the Metropole hotel, coming towards us, was a short, old and tired looking man, his body frail. He had several missing front teeth. It was a little sad to see him, his face lined and weary. He must have been thinking of the glorious days of the Japanese army. He was overjoyed to see everyone and he held Aunty. He brought six Japanese dolls and ceremoniously gave them as a gift to each person. We still have the doll. The whole time we were together, I could see the tears rolling down his cheeks; he was choked with emotion and could barely talk. He just shook everyone’s hands. He asked about Aunty’s father and mother and said how much he liked her mother and how much he had enjoyed her meals. It was a short visit and he shared a little about his family, his daughter, and son.” 

There was no contact with him after that visit. 

Some years later, Aunty told me that she was on a flight back from the U.S. after visiting her daughters who had migrated there. “I had a long stop-over in Tokyo and thought it would be nice to visit Aoyagi Masau-san and his family. But there was no reply to the letter I had written much earlier which provided all my travel details. So when I got to Tokyo, I phoned and reached his daughter, Michiko. I asked, ‘Where’s your father, Oto-san, Dou desu-ka, How is he?’ and I just heard her cry. I asked, “Nan desu-ka, What is it?’ and Michiko told me that her father had died of a ruptured stomach ulcer a week after returning from his visit to Malaysia to see us all those years ago. He had been very ill but wanted very much to see me and my family again because we had meant so much to him.  I think the feeling to see us had held him up, and we too were happy that we were able to see him before he passed away. I remembered him as just a very wonderful person.”

As an intellectual and keen mind, Uncle shared some final thoughts about the conflicting interests from the time of the Second World War and extending to the present time. “With the Second World War, General Tojo had an expansionist idea about attacking China and then going on to India to bring all of the East Asian countries under a common authority. The two atomic bombs dropped by the Americans, in turn, were an injustice against humanity. Things haven’t changed. Greed. Greed is an underlying motive in many things, for money, for power, oil, what have you, always with underlying selfish interests,” he added. 

Uncle and Aunty smiled lovingly at each other as we reached the conclusion to their story, one of many rich experiences in their shared lives which they had dedicated to education and their children and community. I saw them as role models of the righteous, moral path towards a higher, uplifted sense of humanity. 

Sadly, Uncle passed away at the age of 93 and Aunty misses him a lot, as we all do. And, as for their daughter and me, we are still good friends. She became a medical doctor and I became a professor, with our own stories to tell someday. 



Author’s acknowledgement:

I am grateful to Datuk Seri N. S. Selvamany and Datin Poovayee Selvamany nee Navaratnam for allowing me to interview them and write this story. Datuk reviewed and approved the draft in May 2018.


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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