The International Writers Magazine:
morning sometime in the early 1900's, so the story goes, my great-grandfather
woke up in his hometown of Guruvayur, in the southern Indian state
of Kerala, and decided that life was boring. Throwing together
a bundle of clothes, he slipped out of the house before his wife
and children awoke, and made his way up country toward the coast
to board a ship bound for Malaya.
Three years later,
my daredevil great-grandfather had a job as an accountant on a British-run
rubber estate some miles from Kuala Lumpur, the Malayan capital. He
returned to Guruvayur to pack up his family and move them across the
And so it came to be that my great-grandparents, their three daughters
and one son (my grandfather) set sail for Malaya, thereby sealing my
familys relationship to the country now called Malaysia. Decades
have passed since that initial voyage and members of my family have
traveled far and wide to settle in other nations. But since I was a
child, my father has regaled me with tales of my forefathers, and in
my mind I have always imagined their lives.
This summer when I went to Malaysia to renew my passport, I decided
to accompany my father on a journey back through his childhood, in order
to see for myself the places where the people I have only heard about
in stories and seen in pictures lived and went about their business.
We rented a taxi, a smooth white Mercedes, which made its way silently
across the wide, modern roads that lead out of Kuala Lumpur so
silently that it was hard to imagine a time when these same roads were
coarse and muddy, surrounded by jungle through which tigers roamed,
wild roads along which my adventuring great-grandfather often traveled.
My great-grandfather was one of many Hindu Brahmins from Kerala and
Tamilnadu who made their way over to Malaya in the early part of the
20th century. In photos, he looks belligerent, a stocky man with glowering
eyes, sporting a white veshti (a type of sarong) and, as
was apparently the style in those days, a silk turban on his head. Earrings
adorned both his ear lobes. They say he was fearless once when
walking through his land in Guruvayur, a snake bit him on his big toe.
Quick as a flash, he whipped out his knife and sliced the toe off, so
as to stop the venom from spreading through his body.
My grandfather was a big, fair man, given to light suits and panama
hats. On one of his wrists he sported a thick Rolex watch and on Sundays,
he liked to play badminton with his British bosses and was popular with
his Chinese and Malay colleagues. For many years, he served as chief
accountant on a large rubber estate called Tanah Merah, which lies somewhere
between Kuala Lumpur, and the town of Seremban, where my father was
born in 1934.
Today, the Tanah Merah estate is a palm oil plantation (palm oil has
replaced rubber as Malaysias chief export product), and there
is not a single rubber tree to be found. As we drove through Tanah Merah,
we tried to imagine acre after acre of rubber trees blowing in the hot
afternoon breeze; we tried to envision the dark wooden house of my fathers
boyhood sitting atop a hill, and the rows of shacks in which rubber
tappers and their families lived. We looked for someone, anyone who
would remember Tanah Merah in the glory days of rubber, so that we could
find a trace of the past that my father can relate to. But there was
nothing, no one. The only link to the past was the board at the entrance
of the estate with the words TANAH MERAH painted in thick black, standing
where it stood back in the day. We placed ourselves in front of it and
took a picture with my father.
My father is now 70 years old, and has traveled extensively. But he
clearly remembers his boyhood on Tanah Merah Estate in that big wooden
house. His was a lonely life, cut off from everywhere and everything.
The hot days were long, there was nothing to do but read or watch time
go by on a grandfather clock, and count the days between the weekends
when my grandfather took my grandmother and my father to the nearby
town of Seremban. Dressed in their finest, they would go to a South
Indian restaurant for savory snacks and good coffee, then go on to visit
the Tamil and Kerala Brahmin families of the town.
At that time, my grandfather knew all the Brahmins around Malaya, and
some of their names are part of our household mythology. There was Shanker
Iyer who had a brood of kids; Bombay Life Uncle (he worked
for the Bombay Life Insurance Company) and Dr. Rama, the ophthalmologist
who prescribed my fathers first pair of glasses and was brazen
enough to defy the Japanese during their occupation of Malaya by hiding
a radio in his basement, so that he could listen to the BBC. Had he
been caught, he would surely have lost his life. Dr. Rama worked at
the Seremban Hospital, which still exists but is now housed in a modern
building. His bungalow no longer stands where it once did, it was demolished
long ago, and in its place stands a neat row of modern townhouses.
The same goes for a plot of land that once belonged to my grandfather,
a snatch of rubber plantation that he had staked out for himself in
the wild lands outside Seremban, and christened Guruvayur Estate out
of nostalgia for his birthplace. Sold off at the end of the Second World
War when my grandfather needed money, there is not a whisper of evidence
today that Guruvayur Estate even existed on the land where neat apartment
buildings and shops now stand.
it is tough to think that Malaysia was ever the place my father
remembers it to be. This country is a first world nation, with smooth,
modern roads, glitzy shopping malls and tall glass buildings that
speak to the 21st century. It is increasingly difficult to find
the old life, one can only get glimpses of it in pictures or in
the memories of those who lived it.
father is blessed with a strong memory and an ability to retain details.
In Seremban, we took a picture outside Samuel Klinik, the small nursing
home in which he was born. It stands in the same place as it did on
the day he was born, and though it has been repainted and Samuel Klink
is not its original name, my father could point out the second floor
room in which he was born in.
He then pointed to a low building across the street from the nursing
home, some sort of a shop selling mobile telephones. There stood a restaurant,
he said, a place his father would often take him to when he was a boy.
He remembers these outings with a great deal of fondness. He asked us
to take a photo of him in front of the building. The final stop on our
trip was the Subramaniam Temple, where in 1954, my father had his sacred
thread ceremony (the rite of passage through which Hindu Brahmins become
members of the community). The temple had just been redone, some worshippers
told us. It had cool new marble floorings and the deities shone golden.
This was my three year old sons first visit to a Hindu temple
and he was excited, full of questions. For lack of a better explanation,
I told him that this is Gods house.
Like God Bless America? he immediately asked me (he recently
learned the song at his school in the States).
I was about to correct him, tell him that this is different. But I stopped
and I thought: There we were, a million miles away from the old
days. Our lives are far, far removed from the Malaysia of our ancestors.
I was raised in Switzerland and I live in New Jersey. I have never been
to Guruvayur, I can barely speak Tamil and my husband, waiting outside
the Temple, is an Iranian Zoroastrian from Bombay. How much farther
can this family possibly travel?
At the end of the day, though, the voyaging did not make any difference.
What counted most was that we were standing with my father in a place
that is part of his life and by extension, a part of ours, though we
might not always be conscious of it. More important than any technicality
was the happiness on my fathers face at bringing his children
and grandchildren to see where he came from, and the magical, albeit
momentary , connection between past and present.
So, Yes, Sasha, I told my son with a smile: Like God
And as I watched my son walk hand-in-hand around the shrine with my
father, I hoped my ancestors, my great-grandparents, my grandfather
and my grandmother, who died on Sept. 13., 2004, were watching us. I
wished for my father to have many more years with us.
© Savita Iyer April 14 2005
savita iyer" <email@example.com
Guttenberg, New Jersey
Travel Stories in Hacktreks
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