Latha’s elderly woman mourns her lifelong friend and the lost Indian immigrant community of their childhood.
Tekka is the colloquial name of an old Singapore precinct located around the area where Serangoon Road becomes Selegie Road after intersecting Sungei Road and Rochor Canal Road. Although the name comes from the Chinese dialect of Hokkien and means "the foot of the bamboos," the area has always been associated with the island's Indian community due to its proximity to Little India. The area holds special significance for many older Singaporeans because it used to be home to one of the most vibrant wet markets on the island and the former Kandang Kerbau Women’s and Children’s Hospital, where many of the island’s residents were delivered.
My breathing becomes more labored as I walk past the Selegie Road traffic light. I chalk that up to the years finally catching up with me. Even gentle slopes are a challenge for me now. I didn’t feel anything at first but it strikes me after several steps that something is different. I stop and look around, leaning on my walking stick, and then it dawns on me. The bridge is gone. The river is gone.
The area had undergone many changes over the years but Rochor River had always been left untouched. And now it’s no more. The river has been rolled up and tossed away leaving no clue as to how it was moved or where it might have been moved to. No one can tell that a river had once flowed there. In its place is a patch of grass. They have replaced a river with just grass. Well, it’s not as if they will grow jasmine in Tekka. Even if they do, will our people allow the plants to flower and thrive? They have added sand and leveled the ground. The road has been widened. It is as if the river has never existed. Looking at the landscape, one will think that it has always been like this. People are walking around casually, as if they have always been treading this level soil. No one seems to notice that there’s anything out of the ordinary. Not a single person pauses to stand there to look, to ponder. You get used to these things, I guess. Given time, everyone gets used to them. The mind tends to forget what things were like in the past.
The last time I was here, they had just started digging the road to construct an underground train line. Now, without even looking around, my body and my breath tell me that the bridge and the water are no more. The wind that circles around me brings the news that the water has been paved over and everything has been covered up.
Previously, one entered Rochor Canal Bridge by crossing the Bukit Timah traffic light after it turned green. Along the middle of the bridge were square stone tiles, laid next to each other with gaps in between. As one walked over those tiles, one had to be mindful of these gaps or risk having the heel of one’s shoe caught in the opening. That had happened to me once but fortunately I did not fall.
One climbed the slight incline onto the level surface along the middle of the bridge and then down again at the end of the bridge. By the time one completed the crossing, the traffic light at Serangoon Road would just have turned from green to red. One would have no choice but to wait for the next green light. I would always stare at the water flowing along the canal as I waited. There was a time when making one’s way across the bridge felt like traveling from one country to another country. Sometimes, the green light would change to red and back again to green while I stood there just staring at the water. At high tide, or if it had just rained, the river would be full. Actually, it was just a big drain for storm water runoff but in those days, we called it a river.
I remember that the water level was high that night. The current flowed as though it were a real river. Even though it was still dark, one could make out the swirls of little white ripples as the wind blew. Dawn had not yet arrived but one could make out the shimmering currents moving along quickly in all their glory. It had rained heavily for a week before the skies had finally cleared up. There was just enough chill in the air for your bones to feel it.
My Akka had not asked me to come along. I had trailed her without her knowledge. I had spotted her just as she left the house. I was never one who could fall asleep when my head touches the pillow and I wake up at the slightest sound. That night, I heard a noise but saw that everyone else was fast asleep. When I went out to investigate, I could sense that someone had just left the house. I walked out a bit more and saw Akka. I wondered where she could be going this time of night and followed her, until she stopped at the river. I froze. I had no idea what she was going to do. I thought of calling out to her but no sound emerged. I stood there behind her, out of sight.
The first thing she did was to toss the shirt she had draped over her right arm into the river. Then she took out a pair of pants from a bag and threw that in. A pair of slippers went next. After that, she unbuckled the shoulder holster with the gun and threw that into the river too. She flung them the same way one would throw prayer items used for last rites into the ocean. Lastly, she removed the cap from her head and tossed that into the water. It was only then that I realized that she had a cap on. As soon as she disposed of everything, she turned abruptly to leave. She didn’t even pause to give these items a final farewell or take in their loss. It was as if they were nothing more than rubbish to her.
It was then that she saw me. I met her gaze straight on.
It was dark, but I could see her blank face clearly beneath the streetlamps. Her eyes were expressionless and gave nothing away. Mine must have been just the opposite. I struggled to ask what I so desperately needed to know. How could she so easily discard these things that had once been part of her?
Do you expect me to get into trouble with the British? Do you have any idea how many people have been detained for resisting them? There’s a trial going on now in India. If we are captured, they’ll take us to India too. Do you want to rot in an Indian prison? Such a sacrifice would at least have been worth it had they treated us better in Netaji’s army.
I had never seen that anger in Akka before, but it subsided as quickly as it came. By the way, I heard that your husband recently bought another cow. So now he works with four cows, if we include you, she said.
She knew just what to do to get me to laugh. And just like that, all my pent-up sadness vanished like darkness leaving at the break of dawn.
Akka must have been eighteen when I was sixteen. She was already married by then. There used to be a small newspaper shop along Race Course Road. Even though the shop sold magazines and other daily items along with newspapers, everyone always referred to it as the newspaper shop. That was where Akka’s husband worked. There was a Tamil association next door where many people gathered during the evenings. Akka’s husband taught English and mathematics at the association after work. He possessed a Higher Secondary Certificate and read widely, learning a great deal about many subjects in the process. He was the one who read the newspapers out loud to the illiterate to keep them up-to-date on current affairs. He would listen to the English radio station and translate the broadcasts into Tamil for the benefit of those who knew no other language. Singapore was under Japanese occupation and no foreign books or newspapers could be imported. Delivery of letters from overseas was also suspended. However, Akka’s husband could always get his news somehow. The audience for his evening news updates grew. Because the association had a license to teach the Japanese language, there were never any problems with the occupying authorities.
One evening, Akka’s husband reported that Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose would be addressing a crowd at the Padang the next day. The Indian nationalist had arrived in Singapore two days earlier and was recruiting an army to rid India of British rule. The evening audience at the association was enthralled as Akka’s husband repeated the words of the great man. Should India gain independence, we can all return to India. We need not toil here. There would be jobs for everyone. We would be able to live freely in our own land.
Akka and I were not present. Akka’s husband never brought her to his place of work. We heard about it from the boy next door, who had been in the audience.
The following day, Akka and I went on our own to listen to Chandra Bose speak. The Padang was packed with bodies. Netaji spoke with fiery passion. The crowd hung on his every word, riveted. His address was like a divine discourse, causing every fiber of our being to resonate with a desire for action. It was at the Padang that day that he promised, “Give us your blood, and in return, I will give you your freedom!” At the end of his speech, cries of Jai Hind rose from the people, becoming one voice. I was shouting, too. I had no idea what India was like, but that did not matter. Aren’t we all Tamils? As soon as Netaji spoke of the need to prepare for war, many people came forth to pledge or donate cash or jewelry to the cause. My Akka contributed her bangles and her earrings. I gave up just my earrings, for they were the only item of value that I had on me that day. No one thought twice about giving up their most valued possessions.
When we arrived home, Akka’s husband was silent but furious. We couldn’t tell whether he was angry because we had attended Netaji’s speech or because we gave away our valuables for the cause. Akka kept quiet, too, and went about her daily routine. We always knew when Akka’s husband was angry because their home grew completely silent. We all lived in a shophouse at Race Course Road. The shophouse was long and narrow with adjoining rooms, each housing an entire family. Not so much as a peep could be heard by the families in the neighboring rooms. There was one kitchen at the rear where everyone cooked. The people who lived in the shophouse mostly worked as day laborers. Before they came home from their work each day, Akka would finish cooking and bring dinner back to the room for her and her husband.
Akka had returned to the room that day with the rice and salted fish curry she cooked, but she ate her share alone since her husband had refused to acknowledge her at all. But salted fish curry was his favorite dish and the smell must have been hard to resist. He quietly wolfed down the food and left. Akka never asked him anything. We lived in the room opposite theirs, eight of us in a single room.
I left our room to go to the toilet at the rear, but it was occupied. I came back to find out from Akka what happened. She effortlessly sidestepped my question, casually asking what I thought of the embroidery she was working on, as if there was nothing out of the ordinary. It was July 5. The year was 1943.
Within a week, Chandra Bose announced that he was going to start a women’s army. The day he made the announcement, they started recruiting soldiers. Akka, myself, Kaali, and Pavunu all went. Sathiyavathi joined us as well. Akka was fluent in several languages, including English, Malay, Hokkien, Bengali, and Japanese. However, Akka only spoke to the recruiters in Tamil that day. They turned us down at first, when they heard our names and realized our caste, relenting only when we gave the name of our family friend, Uncle Veerappa. The name Veerappa Thevar still carried enough weight to challenge an age-old prejudice, at least in Singapore.
On his way home that day, Akka’s husband was stopped several times by people who wanted to congratulate him. Everyone was filled with praise for his wife’s actions. No one knew what was on his mind. As soon as he arrived home, he took the radio and flung it to the ground, where it broke into several pieces. It had taken him a long time to save up to buy that radio, the source of the news that he would translate so that others could know what was going on in the world. It was one of his most treasured possessions. But blinded by fury, he had destroyed it with his own hands before proceeding to slap and kick his wife. Akka did not make a single sound throughout the beating. After that, she went about her chores as though nothing had happened, cooking and then serving dinner.
As for me, I was afraid but excited. I started imagining what it would be like to carry a gun and fight in a battle. I thought about how wonderful it would be to see India free from foreign rule. If the British lost, who would rule Singapore? The island would belong to the Japanese. We would all have to learn and speak their language. It would be hard surviving under their rule. There would be neither jobs nor food. But we would have an India of our own to return to.
Father refused to sign the consent form even though he was a staunch Indian patriot. Father had never been to India before. His father had come from India as convict labor and Father used to brag to everyone that it was his father who had paved the streets of the island. After my grandfather was freed, he married my grandmother, who had also been brought by the British to Singapore as a convict. Father had long desired to visit India to see the relatives he had never met. He also had deep respect for Chandra Bose and attended all of his speeches in Singapore. Father was a well-built man, a manual laborer who worked tirelessly. He never joined the army but volunteered his services in the kitchen because Chandra Bose’s cook was a friend of his. He would spend entire days volunteering there. Yet he refused to sign the piece of paper that would allow me to join the Indian National Army. But I knew what I wanted. I managed to get Mother’s thumbprint on the form since she had never learned how to sign her name. Mother was very different from Father. A highly intelligent woman, she always believed that girls ought to have an education and be independent. It was Mother who fought with Father so I could go to Balestier School. Two years ago, after I came of age, Father wanted me to stop schooling, but Mother disagreed. She continued to support my education. All this came to an end when the Japanese occupied Singapore. All local schools were converted to Japanese schools. Mother had wanted me to become a teacher one day. That’s why she gave her thumbprint the moment I asked.
That was how I joined Akka without Father’s approval. The famous Dr. Lakshmi, who had joined the Indian National Army earlier, oversaw our training. Female recruits had to run while carrying a gun and a full backpack. A few of us were assigned different duties, cleaning the training grounds and hauling equipment for the trainees.
We had only basic comforts in the camp, which was an old school building. Training began early in the morning and when the recruits returned at the end of the day completely exhausted, we would serve them thosai and a cup of tea. Contributing in these simple ways brought us joy. In those days, Akka’s face was always radiant. She was tall and her long hair was always neatly plaited and tied up in a bun. Without a gun or a backpack, she still cut an impressive figure. At first, the other people in our battalion were not friendly toward us. They protested that we shouldn’t be allowed to serve them food because of our caste. They stopped only when it became clear there were not enough hands in the camp to help out. But Dr. Lakshmi liked Akka a lot. She was the one who got her into a proper regiment to undergo military training. The number of Tamils training to be soldiers quickly grew, as people joined us from Johor, Seremban, Malacca, Kedah, and other parts of Malaya.
Soon after completing our training, we were deployed to Johor. Father came to send me off, his eyes brimming with tears. Mother was almost jubilant when she said good-bye, confident that I would return home victorious. However, Akka’s husband was conspicuously absent. He had not visited even once after she joined the army and was refusing to speak to her. Akka never mentioned this, and she didn’t appear perturbed at all.
We would sing as we marched. We had learned several patriotic songs, mainly in Hindi. It was only then that I realized what an amazing singer Akka was. She would always be in the front so she could lead us as we sang. Her voice could fill us with courage and make our hunger and thirst disappear. Hearing her energized us and made us almost eager to do battle.
Once we put up a play at Victoria Theatre called “Chalo Delhi” to raise funds for the war. Akka was the star of the production, which drew a large audience. The play featured a song titled “Good-bye Mother and Father.” Hearing Akka sing this song on stage was so overwhelming that I could not hold back my tears. Akka, on the other hand, delivered the song flawlessly, seemingly immune to the hurricane of emotions that the song conjured.
Our unit was sent to Seremban first before proceeding to Thailand and then Burma. We traveled at night by train. Akka, I, and a few others were assigned a train compartment without seats. We had to sit on the cast-iron floor for hours at a time. There was no room to stretch our legs or to lie down and sleep. It was torture for the body. Jungle training was equally arduous, forcing us to deal with mosquitoes, leeches, and snakes at every turn. It was particularly terrifying for us since we were housed at the edge of the camp.
A battle was raging in Imphal and our unit was supposed to join in the fight. However, we received word that the Japanese soldiers and the Indian National Army suffered heavy casualties. We were outnumbered by the British forces and defeat was imminent. Furthermore, our supply of food and medicine had not yet arrived and there was no other aid. In the end, Chandra Bose decided not to deploy our troops.
We stayed put in Burma. Dr. Lakshmi, now known as Captain Lakshmi, was extremely disappointed and disobeyed Netaji’s orders. She set up a makeshift hospital to provide medical treatment to our wounded soldiers. Akka and I would clean and dress the wounds. Some of the injuries were incredibly gory. We saw legs broken and abdomens torn apart by bombs. We would see scores of wounded at a time lying there covered in blood and sores. Sometimes, I couldn’t even bring myself to drink water after attending to them.
It was there that I first spotted Akka’s husband. He had sustained a head injury and was brought to our hospital in critical condition. We had no idea when he had joined the army. However, he eventually ended up on the warfront at Imphal. Tears streamed down his face when he realized it was Akka. He tried to lift his arms but they refused to obey. He had problems keeping his eyes open and the tears continued flowing even when he closed them. Captain Lakshmi informed us that he needed an operation. Akka prepped him, displaying the same tenderness and concern that she showed all the other wounded soldiers. She never wept even once. She had always been stoic even in the face of the most horrifying injuries and death. I would sometimes wonder how hardened and numbed her heart must have been. With her husband critically injured nearby, she continued to perform her duties, almost nonchalantly. She caught me weeping and reminded me, impassively, that we were giving our lives for a free India before walking off.
I remember a time, long before the war, when I had stood at this spot on the bridge with Akka. We enjoyed standing here watching the world go by. Every now and then, vendors would spread a piece of cloth on the pavement where they would display their wares. It was evening and the river had been reduced to a mere trickle. Rickshaws scurried past the few stalls that had been set up to sell household items and towels.
Akka had gazed at the moon while talking to me. When my father came from India, she said, he sold books on this bridge. I used to come here to be with him. He would tell me about his homeland. He would often mention how much he wanted to take me to India, she said. Well, that’s that. I wasn’t sure if she meant her father’s death or their never having visited India.
As time went by, it was I who stood firm on buying Indian brinjal and Indian ponni rice. Akka was never particular about things like this. She always bought rice from Thailand and whatever local vegetables that were sold in the wet market near her home.
The first time I traveled to India, I went with a large group. We wanted to visit the temples and the markets. Akka refused to join us. I invited her to join me on all my subsequent trips but she always declined. She only went to India after her son was involved in an accident while on a trip there and was admitted to a local hospital. Her son and daughter-in-law had asked her to travel with them to Tamil Nadu before but she had always refused. This time, the circumstances were different. She knew that all that had come before in her life had equipped her better than anyone to deal with this crisis. She immediately made plans to fly to India so she could calm her distraught daughter-in-law and ensure proper care for her son.
Akka and I had come to this part of town to buy her airplane ticket. The rain had been pouring down and the roads were slick with water. Even though we were careful, she slipped on the bridge and twisted her ankle. She turned down offers of help from passersby and hailed a taxi home. That was the last time I saw the bridge or her.
She flew off to India with her injured ankle. After her son recovered, they decided to give thanks to the deity at their ancestral temple in their hometown, located next to Puthukottai. That was where Akka’s father had been born and her husband, too. They invited all their relatives in India to partake in the offerings. It was nearly nightfall when they reached Puthukottai. The plan was to spend the night in town and set off for the village the following morning. Akka went to bed that night and did not wake up when dawn came. Her son completed the funeral rites in the town itself and brought the ashes back to Singapore. He sprinkled some of her ashes in the sea at Changi and cast the rest of her ashes in Rochor River, a request she had made when she was still alive.
I was ill in the hospital at the time and couldn’t even go to give my condolences to her family. It has become much harder for me to move about after my release. If I want to go anywhere, I need to ask one of my two daughters to drive me or take a taxi there and back.
It has been a long time since I’ve taken a bus and walked on my own like this. All I want is to gaze at the water that Akka is now part of. But the river has been buried and the bridge is no more.
© Latha. Translation © 2016 by Yamuna Rajoo. All rights reserved.