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The International Writers Magazine

Malaysian Memories
Savita Iyer

One 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 Indian Ocean.

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 family’s 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 Malaysia’s 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 father’s 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 father’s 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.

Old Malay
Indeed, 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.

Fortunately, my 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 son’s 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 God’s 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 father’s 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 Bless America.”

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" <
Guttenberg, New Jersey

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