Chapter 1: Across The Sea
By Dato’ Saroja Dev Param, JP
Dr. Chowdhury who was working in Malaya was a good friend of my father. It was arranged that we would travel with them to Malaya. My father too was working there for some time. Just imagine, I would be seeing my father for the first time. I just can’t remember whether the news aroused any emotion or excitement within me but I know my mother would have been waiting for this wonderful opportunity when she could meet father after such a long time. I was about four years when I left India for Malaya. It was a long voyage, soon we struck on a friendship that continued through the years. Ma, and Kakima listened intently to all the stories Dinesh Kaku told them about life in the strange land where they would make their homes.
Their conversations were quite interesting as we could see them laugh and sometimes mother and kakima looked surprised at what Dinesh Kaku was relating to them. After such long hours in the cabins, we spent the evenings on the deck. Noni and I too enjoyed being on the deck and looking out at the wide blue expanse of water. One such evening while we were on the deck we saw a beautiful scene out there in the ocean. Both Noni and I were fascinated. ‘Dekho, dekho,’ (Look, look) we said in a loud voice pointing out towards the sea. It was a magnificent display of about five or six dolphins leaping in a line. We jumped up and down in our excitement much to the worry of the adults. Dinesh Kaku rushed up to us and held us by our hands. Henceforth we were not allowed to stand near the bars. It was a long and tedious voyage, especially for those who became sea-sick.
Travelling during those early days was difficult, but it was indeed an exciting adventure for many. Transportation on land was mainly on land was mainly on routes used by carts and carriages which were pulled by horses. The brave and adventurous people crossed the oceans and rivers in sailing boats which were improved from time to time. With the arrival of steam came the steamship which made voyages shorter and safer than those in the earlier days.
It was much later in life I remember one of my friends had asked me, “By the way, Saroja, how did you come from India?” “Well, I had a long and interesting voyage from Calcutta in India to Penang in Malaya.” My friend was excited to know more about the voyage. “Well, we sailed in a B.I.S.N. ship – the British India Steam Navigation company which was formed in 1856. The sea-voyage took us almost seven days,” I replied. “It was one of the largest companies in the British Mercantile marine. It was finally absorbed into P & O shipping line – Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation company in 1972,” I continued. “That was how trade was carried on between countries in the early days.”
After seven long hectic days, some hills were sighted off the island of Penang. It was such a relief for the tired and sick passengers. We were looking forward to disembark from the ship. Dinesh Kaku sorted out things while Kakima and Ma arranged the things and helped with the luggage while waiting for the porter. The next thing I remember is that we were on a train leaving for Seremban. The rest of the journey didn’t matter much as I knew that we were on our way home and my father would be meeting us at the Seremban Railway Station. Noni and I were comfortable seated near the window. It was indeed a long and tedious train ride. It was neither exciting nor interesting. Luckily, we had a good rest in a hotel for a day and a half while waiting for the train schedule.
Nothing appeared interesting any more. I was just waiting for the long and tedious journey to come to an end. Sometimes we looked out through the window, the green landscapes fleeted past as the train chucked forward in its monotonous rhythm across the land. We had sips of drinks now and then to refresh ourselves and ate biscuits and buns when we were hungry.
Soon we saw some of the passengers arranging their bags and things. It was clear that we were approaching our destination – Seremban. Dinesh Kaku, Kakima and Ma too soon sorted out their things and arranged them neatly on the seat. It was a great relief. The train whistle blew as it came near the railway station and gradually slowed down as it moved into the railway station. It was time to get off the train. We waited for a while as porters came into the coach to take out the passengers luggage. Dinesh Kaku had to hire them and we followed them down to the platform. There was another stop and another check of the luggage as they were carried out to the waiting area where relatives and friends were anxiously waiting for their loved ones. Kaku was indeed a wonderful man and a great friend. He single handedly managed everything during the whole journey. It was indeed a remarkable service which I think brought our two families closer than ever. I as a little child admired his gentle ways and the affection he showed us all. He would look into your eyes and speak softly. You were then bound to listen to him carefully.
Father and he were very good friends and father knew Kaku was a capable and responsible person. As we walked into that area Father walked up with a contented smile “Dinesh Babu, wonderful, wonderful,” he said and rushed up to meet us. I think I would have gazed at him, as he was a very handsome man. I didn’t know how long it was since he came to Malaya and how long we were apart. Then we had to travel another 16 miles in a taxi. Now that we had reached our destination we were anxious to reach our home.
Father had to hire two taxis as besides people there was the luggage. After a long and winding drive we reached the house which was by the main road. It was a double-storey wooden bungalow. We went up the flight of stairs and soon sat on the chairs in the spacious bright and breezy verandah. After some light refreshments and exchange of news, they sorted out their things and discussed their plans.
Kaku, Kakima and Noni would leave for their own house in Chembong Estate which was about two miles from our house. Thus began our days with the Bengalee community in Malaya.
My Father And My Mother
The first time I saw my father was when I met him at the Seremban Railway Station. I think he came near me and touched my head, I just looked at him. He had met my mother after a very long time.
In later years I often used to wonder how was it that my father and mother who were from different villages quite a distance from each other had been happily married. You had to go by boat for at least one whole day. In my mother’s family she and her elder brother were the only siblings whereas on my father’s side, there were five brothers and one sister. It must have been an arduous task for my mother to do the household chores knowing that she was only fifteen years of age when she got married to my father who was twenty-two years of age.
She managed quite well she used to say. The four brothers-in-law were sometimes quite entertaining although cooking and feeding was a heavy task. Her sister-in-law tried to keep her company, she couldn’t be of much help as she was blind.
She had numerous stories to tell. She did so with a light heart relate all the experiences of living in a large family.
Heading To Rembau
Imagine, in a land thousands of miles away from the country which we called home. The most interesting things were the changing scenes of the countryside through which the taxi drove along. I was looking out through the open window of the taxi. Miles and miles of the roadside were covered with trees. Suddenly, I heard Father say, “We will soon be reaching our destination, I mean the house.”
I looked at him wondering what kind of a house could it be. Just then as if he had read my thought he said, “Oh yes, it is a double-storey wooden bungalow, and it is on the right side of the road.”
Nobody asked any questions. Mother, Kakima, Father and I were in the taxi. We just listened when Father said anything.
Mother, Kakima and I were is a new country and conversation was difficult for us. Things around us seemed to be a bit strange, people, places and of course the language spoken. We were just waiting to reach our bungalow house.
Just then Father told the taxi driver to slow down. He slowed and gently turned to the right of the road and drove down an earth road for a few yards right to the front of a wooden double-storey bungalow house.