This short story is about my maternal grandmother Patsy Pinto, and her own father, Valentin Sequeira, when he went to Bahau during the Japanese Occupation. I’d love to hear your own family’s stories about experiences during WWII.
While my great-grandfather’s time in Bahau was very real, the other characters in this story, besides Bishop Adrian Devals, are fictional.
It watched the first arrivals struggling to unload a piano from the lorry. They smelled of iron and driedsweat and pig. The mosquito watched as day by day, the trees of the Malayan jungle were felled, roots attacked and burnt, branches piled high and set afire. One by one, the skeletons of huts rose and the community moved into these cubes of timber and attap.
There were a great many places to hide in these huts. The cool gaps between cupboards and walls, the corners of roofs, the dark underneaths of tables and chairs that were a respite from the afternoon swelter.
The humans toiled in the day, struggling to eke vegetables and grain from the yellow clayey soil.
“Ideal arable land my foot! The bloody Japanese really swindled us good and proper!” a man grumbled as he walked past the hut where the mosquito dozed.
It must be difficult, to have to labour so to fill their bellies. For the mosquito it was easy. It only had to follow the plumes of carbon dioxide and scent unfurling from the host. Then it would slide its proboscis into a capillary and suckle nourishment. How fragile these humans were; how precariously their supremacy hung in the balance.
It had all started with Bishop Adrian Devals’ announcement at Saint Peter and Paul’s Church. The Japanese occupiers were inviting Singaporean Eurasians and a few Chinese Catholics, as well as so-called ‘neutrals’ like the Swiss and Danes to resettle in Bahau, up in the western coastal state of Negri Sembilan in the Malayan peninsula. The invading force seemed to believe that setting up self-sufficient farming communities was not only possible, it would solve some of the problem of a population they could not feed. A group of Singaporean Chinese had already settled in Johore, in some jungle backwater called Endau.
Valentin Sequeira was intrigued. They had been subsisting on powdery rice and tapioca since the British had abandoned them over a year ago. But what did they know about farming? They were mostly clerks and administrators for European firms or the former colonial government. As superintendent of the MacRitchie Reservoir, patrolling its surrounding jungle for illegal loggers, Valentin was fitter than most, but he was no agriculturalist.
While the Bishop spoke, another advantage presented itself to the minds of the listeners. Anyone who volunteered would also be free from the ever-watchful gaze of the kempetai, the Japanese secret police. The Eurasian community were regarded British sympathisers. There were stories of how the Japanese torturers rammed bamboo shards underneath fingernails and set them aflame, how they pumped water into stomachs till the sacs burst. Just last week, they’d caught wind that Bertie Neubronner hadn’t surrendered his radio and was listening to BBC broadcasts. Bertie still hadn’t been heard of since he’d been bundled away to the kempetai headquarters at Stamford Road in broad daylight.
“Perhaps it will be fun,” murmured the man sitting on the pew next to Valentin. “A tropical Eden.”
Hacking away at tree roots to clear the ground for planting under the broiling sun left every muscle in Valentin’s body depleted at the end of the day. He had been part of the first batch of people — mostly single men — who had moved there in December 1943, just after Christmas, tasked to prepare the land before the others arrived.
Now, like the other 2,000 in the Bahau Settlement, he was starting to realise how naive he’d been. The hill rice had sprouted encouragingly into a mist of green but for some reason, shrivelled after two weeks. They had also planted red-skinned sweet potatoes, papayas and French beans, but these seedlings had been ravaged by caterpillar, locust and crow.
Some enterprising women refused to starve to death waiting for food to grow. From their meagre rations provided by the Japanese, they pooled handfuls of flour, spoonfuls of oil, and bartered for potatoes and spices with others in the settlement to make curry puffs to sell at Bahau town eight kilometres away.
The first time Valentin rolled coriander and peppercorns on the batu giling borrowed from Mrs Hogan next door, the aroma took him back to his wife preparing curry keema. As he moved the granite rolling pin across the spices on the stone board, the first step in making the fried pastries with the curried potato filling, the motion calmed him. He noticed he’d become increasingly on edge in the recent weeks. He wondered what his six children were doing at this very moment. He hoped Patsy, his youngest at five, hadn’t gallivanted out of their house again to the shop at the bottom of the hill. He’d only just managed to get there in time with his rifle that occasion she’d been intercepted by the loggers.
“What’s Father doing now?” asked Patsy as her mother stood by the kitchen sink, skinning the tapioca that looked like pale, fat worms.
“Growing lots of food for us.” Mother sounded angry, and Patsy wondered if she had done something wrong she’d forgotten about. But her mother just began rinsing the vegetables without another word. Patsy reckoned it was probably her brother Charlie, the eldest, who had gotten up to some mischief as usual.
Dinner, Patsy guessed, would be tapioca. Since the grown ups had started being scared all the time, they hardly ate rice any more. Mother would sometimes buy rice secretly from the people who set up stalls early in the morning along the road at the bottom of the hill, but this was mostly broken grains in some powdery stuff. Patsy didn’t particularly like rice. She preferred noodles. They were much tastier, especially the fried noodles with prawns wrapped in a big leaf that Father used to bring home as a treat. But even she missed rice now.
“When is he coming back Mother? And when will he take us to Bau-hau with him?”
“Go and wash your hands. Dinner will be ready soon.” Mother began slicing the tapioca on the wooden cutting board. Patsy stood there with her hands behind her back, waiting for Mother to answer her question, or at least look at her and smile in that friendly way she did when she used to cook the grated tapioca cake with sugar and coconut for them to take on picnics, before the Japanese people arrived. But she just kept on cutting and sliding the chunks into a bowl with the knife blade, as if Patsy weren’t standing right in front of her. After a while, she realised Mother wasn’t going to answer, so she wandered off to see what her sisters and brother were up to.
As she sat at the dining table later with her four sisters and brother, Patsy swallowed the grainy boiled tapioca and imagined the rice growing where Father was. Would it be right in their own garden, sprouting on bushes? Trees? No, she was quite sure rice grew from the ground, rather like grass. And there would be carrots and potatoes and tomatoes and cucumber and corn. Perhaps there would even be chickens. And goats! It would fun to have a pet goat. She was sure most children had pet goats in the country, in places like Bau-hau. She smiled at her second eldest sister, Theresa, across the table. Theresa made a flared-nostril monster face back at her when Mother wasn’t looking.
Night was when the mosquito reveled in the glory of its kingdom. How laughable to hear them cry out in their sleep or in the throes of lovemaking as it slipped through the fissures of the netting, circling ears and faces in a taunting dance. The invincible humans, reduced to swearing impotence. Then it would retreat, allowing them a deceptive sense of relief. From the opposite direction, a second approach, silent this time, towards the exposed toe or thigh. With the bloodmeal settling warm in its stomach, the mosquito often liked to try for one final buzz around the face, until the victim jerked up in bed, swatting and shouting like a madman.
“What’s this?” asked John. “Didn’t know you were so good at women’s work.”
Before Valentin could reply, eighteen-year-old John Cordeiro had snatched a curry puff from the enamel dish.
“Rayu! That’s for selling!”
“But I’m hungry.” A spray of crumbs flew from John’s mouth.
“Youngster making a nuisance of himself again?” Hubert Westerhout, limber-jointed for his sixty years, stepped into the hut the three men shared.
“Depleting the supplies, what else.” Valentin fished another curry puff out of the oil on the smoky wood fire contained in a clay bowl on wooden legs. He laid it on the dish.
Hubert’s glasses flashed as he tricked the curry puff out of John’s greasy fingers. “Can’t you make yourself useful boy? We’re winning the prize for worst farmers in history, you know.” He turned to Valentin. “The other day you were telling me we’re all going to die in this – what did you call it? – ‘this bloody sham of an Eden.’” Hubert bit off a corner of plaited pastry and chewed. “If I’m going to hell I might as well go there on a full stomach.”
Mrs Hogan’s husband was the first person in the settlement to die of malaria. As the funeral service began, the setting sun cast emaciated fingers across the hill slope before them. The tiny community had no idea that until they boarded the first train back to Singapore after the Japanese surrender, the row of crosses would stretch from ten, to twenty, to fifty, until the wooden sticks marked over a quarter of their number.
Up in the rafters of the attap and bamboo hut where Valentin, Huber and John lived, the mosquito dozed.
That night, in the girls’ large shared bed, Patsy’s sisters Theresa and Emily were whispering.
“Yo jah drumi kon gatu. Jah murdeh na ku,” they chanted the words of the rhyme, giggling at the idea of the house cat biting their bottoms.
“You know what Father’s said, we’re not supposed to speak Kristang,” scolded Margaret, the eldest.
“Father isn’t here,” said Therese.
Patsy’s whisper was fierce. “But he’s coming back.”
The movement across the bed subsided and a hush crept over the girls.
“Well,” said Margaret, clasping her hands over the rag doll on her chest in a prim posture, “goodnight.”
Patsy turned to face the window so her eldest sister wouldn’t hear her. “Bong anoti Papa,” she whispered, wishing her father goodnight. She thought about how during the day, the forest outside was full of shadows but at least there were some cracks where the light tumbled through. Night was when the trees merged into a terrifying wall of darkness.
John stared at Hubert lying on the bed. “What’s wrong with him?”
“I don’t know. He’s been shivering and saying he’s been feeling cold since last night. Now he’s burning up.”
Hubert turned his flushed face toward Valentin and John. His cheeks and forehead were shining with damp. “Stop fussing like two old ladies, both of you. Go and see to the long beans. They’re not going to water themselves.”
Valentin and John exchanged looks. After a few seconds, John said under his breath, “You know we’re out of nails? Brother Herman was asking you to come by to talk about supplies.”
“Okay. I’ll just sit with him a few more minutes, in case he needs anything.”
Giving Hubert an uncertain glance, John shrugged then went out of the hut. When Hubert seemed to have drifted off to sleep, Valentin went over to the box under his bed and took out the wooden figure he’d been working on. Resuming his seat by Huber’s bed, he began whittling.
“Val!” Hubert started. He let out a high-pitched scream.
“What? What is it?” Valentin bent over him and tried mopping his brow with a wet twist of rag.
Hubert shoved his hand away with the strength of a man half his age. He shuddered a sigh then his tone gentled. “Ah, Rosie. As beautiful as she was on our wedding day.” His eyes glazed into the distance, out the window. “She loved that silk camellia, you know. Wore in her hair for special occasions. I saved up for three months to buy it from Whiteaway.”
Valentin glanced in the direction where Hubert’s blood-shot eyes were fixed, but in the frame was only the usual square of lalang waving in the breeze.
For two whole weeks before she turned six, Patsy prayed every night before bed that her father would return and take them to Bau-hau. On the morning of her birthday, they were seated at the dining table. She knew there would be little chance of a birthday cake, and she didn’t know what exactly she’d been hoping for, but she couldn’t help feeling slightly disappointed when she saw only the usual boiled tapioca for breakfast. Then she happened to look out the window. A dark shadow was making its way through the jungle beyond the compound.
Before Mother could stop her, she pelted out of the house and ran down the driveway. She leapt into his arms.
““Father! You’re here! I knew you’d come!”
“I’m in Singapore to buy nails. And for your birthday, of course. Here, I made something for you.”
Father reached into his pocket and pulled out a wooden doll. Patsy squealed and hopped around in circles. “What’s her name? What’s her name?”
“That’s up to you.”
“Bunky? That’s an unusual name! And what does ‘Bunky’ mean?”
Patsy giggled. “She likes bunnies and monkeys like me, so her name is Bunky!”
Father laughed. “That’s a very good name in that case.” He picked her up easily and as he carried her along the driveway to the house, he began to tell her a new story. There was a magical tree that grew all sorts of food – roast chicken, ham, curry, fruit, cake. “Imagine, like a Christmas tree and gingerbread house put together. You can pluck off the decorations like roast chicken and eat them!”
“Did you bring us any?”
“Of course not!”
“Because if I did then you wouldn’t come and visit me in Bahau, would you?”
“No, I’ll go, I promise. Even if there’s no roast chicken tree. Can I go back with you to Bau-hau Father? Please? On the train?”
Father paused mid-stride and looked like he was considering it. Then he shook his head.
“No.” His face was solemn.
“But why? Please Father? I promise I’ll be good.”
“Because I know a faster way.” He scooped her up and pretended to toss her in the air. “We’ll fly!”
Later that evening, as a birthday treat, Patsy got to go with Father and Mother all the way into town, to the grand Tanjong Pagar Railway Station. They waited at the platform, crowded with people. Some were carrying cloth bundles on their heads, others lugged worn suitcases. They all looked like they were in a great hurry and would be very annoyed if anyone stopped them for any reason. Patsy kept a tight hold of Bunky in one hand and of Father’s hand in the other. As the nose of the train slowed along the platform with a screech, the excitement she had felt earlier about being the special one allowed to see him off had faded.
“Don’t go Father! Take me with you please, I promise I’ll be good!”
Father squatted so he looked her straight in the eyes. “Patsy, you must be patient. You’re a big girl now, six years old. Before your next birthday, all of us will be in Bahau together.”
“Of course I promise.” He wrapped his arms around her and kissed the top of her head. At that moment, Patsy believed him.
Back in Bahau later that day, John leaned on his shovel and slid the back of his forearm across his brow. “Do you think that’s deep enough?”
Valentin regarded the hole in the ground. He had no idea. He had never dug a grave before.
Later, they buried Hubert Westerhout just as the sun was dipping over the edge of the hill and the crickets were beginning to chirp.
In Singapore that night, after her sisters had fallen asleep, Patsy crept out of bed and went to sit by the window. She held Bunky close. Through the blackness outside, she tried to make out the road leading from the house into the knotted tangle of forest, the road they had taken earlier that day, all the way to the railway station. She imagined the railway track that ran over the Causeway bridge into Malaya, up, up and up until it reached Bau-hau, where Father was preparing a place for all of them.
In Bahau that same night, as Valentin Sequeira lay in deep slumber, the mosquito circled his ear. He smelled of driedsweat and underneath that, the perfumed cake humans washed themselves with. The mosquito hovered out of the reach of swatting hands and settled on his inner ankle, gleeful in the knowledge that the negligible weight of its body didn’t register on the human epidermis. Its proboscis pierced the skin. The surge of fluid into its belly sent it to ecstasy.
batu giling – (Malay) a heavy rectangular granite slab with an accompanying granite rolling pin used to grind spices
bong anoti – (Kristang) goodnight
rayu – (Kristang) rascal, naughty
Yo jah drumi kon gatu/, Jah murdeh na ku – (Kristang) I was sleeping with the cat, and it bit my bottom