Sunday, June 25, 2006

With All Thy Faults

Sammy was nestled between two men – George Grenier and Law Joo Ghin – on the floor of the cell. This way, he got some sleep, while they fended off the rats. The rats in this dank basement were particularly bold. They fought you for your food and gnawed on your fingers or toes when you drifted off to sleep. Sammy knew it was just a matter of time before they would start on him. He shivered and forced his eyes shut.

His family were arrested on October 15, 1943, five days after the Double 10th Massacre in Singapore. Some Allied guerrillas had managed to penetrate the Japanese net of security and attach limpet mines on the ships in the Singapore Harbour. The Japanese went crazy for a while, arresting people on the slightest suspicion of complicity.

For unscrupulous Malayans, it was a time to settle old scores and gain brownie points. Nicol de Fonseka, a particularly noxious brand of collaborator, who prostituted his beautiful wife to the Japanese officers, informed the Kempeitai, that the Gunaratnes must have had something to do with Double 10. After all, their two eldest sons, Richard and John were in the Royal Airforce, fighting for the British.

James Gunaratne was a Sinhalese immigrant who had worked his way up from a prison guard at Pudu jail, to become one of the most prosperous businessmen in the country. By the time Dickie was born in 1930, his father lived in a huge mansion on Golf View Road with more than two acres of garden and some 15 servants. Theirs was also the first residence in Kuala Lumpur (other than the Governor General’s) to have flushing toilets. In Ceylon, he had been a poor boy of the dhoby caste, swimming to the British men-of-war, with newspapers on his head, to support his mother and sisters. His meteoric rise and subsequent importance were looked on askance by some members of the local Sinhalese community.

The day before the arrest, Sammy and his four remaining brothers – David, Eldred, Henry and Bob – had been playing a particularly raucous game of Monopoly. The room reverberated with screams of “go to jail” whenever anyone landed on that square. Later, the Japanese would want to know who had tipped off the family about the intended arrest.

They were awakened at 3.30am by a loud thudding on their backdoor. Someone was trying to axe it down. James, who thought it must be robbers, pushed 18-year-old David out of the upstairs window, telling him to slide down the drainpipe and run to the Japanese police for help. They were startled by a sharp voice that barked: “If you make one more move, I will shoot you.” David hastily scrambled inside and the whole family went downstairs.

“Open in the name of the Japanese Imperial Army,” the same voice shouted. It was Colonel Koda of the Kempeitai,. James, on hearing this, released the bolts and his son Eldred, who had a room above the garage, was pushed in first with his hands tied behind his back. Eldred was the wild child of the family and his mother, Martha, immediately leapt to the conclusion that he had managed to get himself into another mess.

“What have you done now, Eldred?” she exclaimed.

“Nothing, Mother. I was sleeping and they came in and tied me up,” he answered aggrieved.

The family were pushed into the front room and Henry, who was a year younger than 13-year old Sammy, opened a window. “Look Mom, there’s Jupiter,” he said, pointing out at the night sky.

“Why don’t you cooperate?” Colonel Koda shouted. He was referring to the fact that James who had organised the reinstatement of the power and water supply as well as the collection of sewage in Kuala Lumpur after the Japanese invasion, had retired after a month, leaving it to others to run the town.

“I am a sick man, sir, and cannot work anymore,” James answered.

“Pack some clothes. You are going to be away for a while,” Colonel Koda ordered. “Not more than three days.”

They were herded into a lorry and driven to the Pudu jail. When they got there, they saw that some 159 others, many of them, friends of the Gunaratnes, had been arrested. Many were soon released, including the two youngest Gunaratne boys, Henry and Bob. Martha and her three remaining sons were sent to the Kempeitai headquarters on High Street for interrogation. James escaped due to ill-health. He would not have survived a Kempeitai “interrogation”.

They were placed in separate cells, all of which were infested with rats and lice, at the basement of this building and each one was hauled up in turn for questioning. Sammy, being the youngest, was not tortured as brutally as his mother or elder brothers. They simply strung him upside down and beat him with a rubber hose demanding to know if his family were British spies. He was aware, even when they beat him, that they were not using their full force, meaning to frighten rather than hurt.

The fare was meagre, even by prison standards – some rice, rotten saltfish and a few strands of wilted spinach. The starving prisoners hated their fat Hainanese cook who fed them scraps and stole their food. Great was their merriment when the Kempeitai disovered he was selling the prisoners’ rice on the black market and pulled out his toenails with a pair of pliers.

Sammy was only at the Kempeitai headquarters for two weeks and every day, while he was there, he would see his mother being led out in the morning and limping back to her cell late at night. The Kempeitai reserved their cruellest torture for her. She was beaten until she passed out after they would apply cigarettes to her body to see if she was faking it.

David was soundly thrashed and the lice in his cell infested the wounds on his back so that he was in perpetual agony. Even when he was transferred back to the Pudu jail about two months later, he had to sleep on his stomach. Sixteen-year-old Eldred was not beaten as badly as David but he never got over the experience. Soon after the war, he quit school and took off for America, becoming the family’s ne’er-do-well.

Some would say the Gunaratnes got off easily. Although cruelly beaten, they did not have their fingernails pulled out and their hands dipped in saltwater. They did not have their stomachs pumped with water, after which a Japanese officer would stand on it to expel the water forcibly. And they were not subjected to electric shocks. The Kempeitai were extremely sadistic and, if physical pain did not do the trick, they never scrupled about resorting to emotional violence.

In a particularly telling incident in Ipoh, one Sergeant Ekio Yoshimura, tied a seven-year-old girl from a tree and started to lower her into a fire while her mother, who had been tied nearby, watched. These tortures were mostly reserved for the Chinese dissidents.

This is because the Communists, who lived in the hills and provided the greatest resistance to the Japanese, were mostly Chinese. Later, these same freedom fighters would terrorise the newly liberated Malayans, themselves, leading to 12 years of what became known as “The Emergency”. A particularly ruthless Indian Communist leader, Perumal, cut open his mother’s belly in front of his followers, to demonstrate what he was capable of when it came to turncoats.

By December, all the Gunaratnes were back in Pudu jail. Although it seemed like a company house in comparison to the basement cells, conditions were still deplorable. Prisoners were starving and there were 16 deaths a month, on average. The bodies would be stacked up in fours in a box and taken by handcart to be deposited at the nearest cemetery. The rest of the prisoners knew that the Japanese were still debating on whether or not to hang them. That month, 72 people were hanged in Pudu for suspected involvement in the Double 10th Massacre.

Some 16 months later, on the morning of March 11, 1945, the prisoners were summoned to line up outside the prison - a ragged, diseased, emaciated lot. They wondered if they were finally going to be executed.

“On the occasion of the birthday of his imperial majesty, Tenno-Heika,(they bowed) it is the pleasure of the Japanese Imperial government to release you from prison (they bowed again). But we have to warn you that, if you make a false step, you will be back here. You are not allowed to stir from your homes between six at night and six in the morning.”

These words were spoken by the officer in charge and translated by a Japanese civilian with a marked American accent. Two months later, the family watched in glee as the Allied forces bombed the Japanese.

After the country had been liberated in mid-August, 1945, Mrs Gunaratne gave an interview to the Ceylon Times, describing her ordeal in jail. This was the first time the rest of her family heard about what she had endured as she had remained silent about it before.

Her favourite son Richard was dead. His plane had gone down in France where he had been bombing German tankers. Her husband had lost all his money. She would limp for the rest of her life. Nothing would ever be the same again for her family. But this is how she chose to sum up the experience:

“England, with all thy faults, I love thee still.”


not-so-young un said...

Lovely story telling! :)

goldennib said...

I read this yesterday. I just can't get the mother out of my mind. Some people go through such horrors. And I wonder why they do and others don't. And then I hate myself for whining at my stupid little problems.

Jenn said...

Not so young un - why don't you just settle for "whippersnapper" and have done with it? :)

Nessa: Yes. I think her story is unbearably tragic. Not just because of what happened during the war (although she never recovered from the death of her son and the tortures inflicted on her) but because the family split apart and she ended her days in a nursing home.

Grey Shades said...

So i'm cheeky and presumptuous? :( Ok i'll agree with the cheeky!

A thinker said...

Wow. That's an amazing and beautiful story.

It's incredible what depths of cruelty people are capable of stooping to, to achieve their ends. Evil is still alive in this world.

And yet, the amazing ability of the human spirit to survive. Great story.

Jenn said...

Grey: You know I was kidding! You know I adore you!

A thinker: Thanks. Yeah, war is sort of a no holds barred kind of time. Terrible cruelty, infinite compassion, amazing heroism...

Grey Shades said...

Awww... {{{hugs}}}