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Morbidity, the stuff of life

Hercules (Source:

MY father was, and still remains, a good storyteller. When I was a child, he used to tell me bedtime stories every night. These stories included some of the popular fairy tales of yore, such as Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood.

But others he culled from various sources, including Greek mythology, the Arabian Nights, and popular legends. It was from him that I marvelled about the heroics of Hercules in his search for the Golden Apple; about Sinbad’s hair-raising adventures; and more Asian-flavoured stories such as The Curse of Malin Kundang.

My mother too, was gifted at telling stories, and from her lap I imbibed various tales from the Mahabarata and the Bhagavad Gita. She also incorporated tales from Tamil folk songs, singing them to me and my sister on lazy Saturday afternoons.

Sinbad (Source:

One tale I remember vividly is that of Nallathangal. There are slight variations in the story, depending on the storyteller. The version I remember is this: The beloved sister of a wealthy king, Nallathangal is married off to a prince from a neighbouring city. When the kingdom is struck by prolonged drought, Nallathangal and her seven children make the perilous journey back to her brother’s kingdom in search of some relief.

But her brother is away, and she gets no welcome from her sister-in-law, Mooli. The queen is determined to get rid of Nallathangal, and pours sand into the pot of rice the mother had been boiling for her starving brood.

Hurt and distraught, Nallathangal resolves to leave, but cannot bear the shame of returning home with the news of how badly she was treated. Instead, she decides death is preferable, and throws her children and herself into a well.

She is rescued and survives long enough to tell her brother about Mooli’s despicable behaviour. The incensed sibling then seeks revenge, shaving Mooli bald and tarring her, before banishing her from the kingdom. Other versions of the story have the king murdering his wife and then committing suicide.

Realities of life

Okay, I admit the story is a tad morbid for the consumption of a seven-year-old, but then again, my parents never tried to shield me from the realities of life. For instance, my parents spoke a lot about their experiences growing up during the Japanese occupation. My father, especially, has a particularly good memory, and can still recite the Japanese songs he learnt in school during the war years.

Cover art for Chin Kee Onn's Malaya Upside Down

But he also took great pains to explain the hardship people back then had to undergo. My father remembers how he and his siblings were constantly hungry for rice, and anything that was sweet or salty. He remembers licking with relish a lump of salt he found during those difficult times, when families had to survive on ever dwindling supplies of food and basic necessities.


As poor nutrition took hold, the chances of recovering from infected wounds and common diseases became next to impossible. Heading to the hospital provided little relief as there was little, if any, medicine available. My father ended up in hospital with an infected leg wound. He stayed in the overcrowded ward in the Kuala Kangsar Hospital for over a month and watched as those around him died.

One other story my father used to tell me was of an epic 17-mile journey his family undertook from Chenderoh to Kuala Kangsar. They walked the entire distance with only the shirts on their backs and some boiled tapioca to keep them going — all to attend his aunt’s wedding. My father was just nine years old at that time, and he remembers having to drink drain water during the long walk.

Death for rice

cover art for Sybil Kathigasu's book, No Dram of Mercy

My mother, on the other hand, told me stories about her family members in the estates who were taken by trucks to the Death Railway in Siam. Lulled by the promise of an abundance of rice in Siam, some went willingly for their families’ sake. Still others were conscripted by the Japanese — each family had to volunteer one person to go.

But once there, they faced unending labour under harsh conditions. Some, like my great-great grandma survived to return home, but many thousands — some say up to 100,000 — didn’t.

My parents and the generation that lived through the war years are now in their 70s or older. With the exception of a few books, such as Malaya Upside Down by Chin Kee Onn and No Dram of Mercy by Sybil Kathigasu, and Turunnya Bendera by Usman Awang about the Emergency period, most of our knowledge of those turbulent times comes from western sources.

Usman Awang's Turunnya sebuah bendera

Though riveting, these firsthand prisoner-of-war accounts from the West offer little perspective about ordinary peoples’ lives. The stories of the farmers, the utility workers, civil servants, storekeepers, estate workers and tin miners have not been chronicled in any systematic manner yet. This is a cruel and unforgivable oversight. Once this generation is gone, these stories will be lost forever. And we will all be the poorer for it.


For my part, I’ve started recording these stories on tape, and hopefully someday, when I have enough material, I’ll be able to compile them into a CD and translate them into the written word. There are lessons about survival, of courage under fire, and the tenacity of the human spirit bundled in these stories.

One day, instead of just fairytales, I’d like to tell my nieces and nephews real stories of real people, just like my parents did for me before, so that these stories live on and are not ever forgotten.

N Shashi Kala believes in the power of stories to heal hurts and renew hope.

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One Response to “Morbidity, the stuff of life”

  1. Argus says:

    My dad came home with two precious duck eggs which a kind Japanese officer had given to him at their farm during the Occupation. My mum, though skinny as a rake, insisted that my dad eat them “because he had to go out to work in the fields.” Such was a devoted wife’s sacrifice. Until today, once in a while after “hard work” at the gym, I still savour a boiled egg like edible gold.

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