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Remembering the Chithambaram

IN J Anu’s recent exhibition, Unconditional Love, one of his paintings, Remembering the Chithambaram, depicts his young daughter running across a beach. In the foreground a ship, the SS Chithambaram, rides the crest of a wave, a distant memory of the vessel that first brought her forebears to Malaysia. 

I love this painting. The image of the young girl, the fourth generation in her family born and bred in Malaysia, juxtaposed against that of the Indian liner that plied the waterways between Madras and Port Klang in the early 1900s, symbolises to me all the complexities of being part and parcel of a kaum pendatang in this country.  

J Anu's Remembering the Chithambaram
Anurendra Jegadeva, Remembering the Chithambaram; oil on canvas, 120cm x 72cm, 2008

My own grandfather travelled to Malaya on the SS Rajulla. He boarded the ship from Madras, a newly qualified young doctor who came to Malaya to join the British Medical Service in 1928. He was 29 years old.

On the long journey over, after days of bad weather, the ship medical officer, knowing my grandfather was a doctor, asked him to help with some particularly bad cases of seasickness. Following the medical officer down to the hold of the ship, my grandfather found hundreds of indentured labourers from Tamil Nadu bound for the estates in Malaya.

There was so little space in the hold that the men were packed like sardines, lying head to toe with barely any space to move. There was not a single window in the hold; the air was still and dank with the smell of a hundred unwashed bodies. The men were so ill, they were retching where they lay. My grandfather never forgot the sight and smell of that place — he always said it was the first time in his life that he had been faced with such human misery.

Built on blood and sweat

When the ship docked at Port Klang, my grandfather and the men in the hold parted company; the workers would be sent to the many rubber estates in the country. Many of them would die from malaria and other terrible conditions in the estates — my grandfather often used to say that the wealth of this country was built on their blood and sweat.

My grandfather worked in the medical services for over 25 years, at general and district hospitals all over Malaysia. During the Second World War, he worked at the government hospital in Johor Baru while my grandmother, who was expecting my mother at the time, fled the bombings to Pontian. 

Like many others who came to Malaya in the early 20th century, they had always planned on returning to India eventually. In fact, after he retired, both he and my grandmother returned to their family home in Kerala, but after six long months decided to return to Malaya. Their children, their friends, the life they had built up over the last 40 years were all too deeply rooted in their adopted country. India had simply ceased to be home.

When will Malaysians honour Port Klang the way Americans do Ellis
Island, the historic port for millions of migrants who are now US
citizens? (Source: Ellis Island Immigration Museum) 
My grandfather’s story is not unique; there are many families in Malaysia who share similar stories: those whose forebears left China, or India, or Indonesia, or the Middle East, to find a new life in this country we now call ours. In fact, at least three of our prime ministers have family lineage that can be traced back to Turkey, India, China, Indonesia and Japan.

A point brought home

As a nation, our stories have always revolved around migration. Even now, in times of crisis, friends of mine cling to the possibility of packing up, moving on, starting over. These days, there is a growing sense of disillusionment — even despair — that race politics has reached a new nadir and that there is no future for us in this country.

The truth, of course, is that race politics is not a new phenomenon — the seeds were sown over the last 20 years and we are now seeing the ugliness bear fruit. But migration is an option for the middle class. For others in our country, those who perhaps are the most vulnerable, there is no greener pasture on the other side of the ocean to escape to.

This point was brought home the other day when my family and I were having dinner at an Indian restaurant in the city, and had asked the waiters which part of India their forebears had originated from. They had trouble understanding what we were asking; the fact that one of them kept replying “Banting” summed up the situation really eloquently.

They had no clue which town or village their families had come from, and had absolutely no connection with the mother country. This is the only country they know. Their past, present and future is, and continues to be, deeply entrenched in Malaysia, the land of their birth.

The past is, truly, another country.

When people say things like “Go back to China / India / (take your pick)”, I think, go back to what? And why? Malaysia is our country — it belongs to all of us — and I think it is time we insist that this is our history and our heritage. Our forebears have worked too hard, contributed too long, and sacrificed too much for it to be any other way. End of Article

Rahel Joseph has over 10 years’ art management experience in both performing and visual arts. She is currently employed at a leading contemporary art space in Kuala Lumpur.

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3 Responses to “Remembering the Chithambaram”

  1. Fareen Ali says:

    We have people from some of the greatest civilizations in Malaysia. Are we taking the worst of each and combining them to make it our own? Malaysia is still a young country, barely half a century old. The problems we have are part of growing up. Malaysia is still attracting more migrants and foreign workers from countries like Bangladesh and Indonesia. Will they be the ‘pendatangs’ of the future?

    It’s interesting to see this issue from a game theory perspective. It could be that we are moving from a classical prisoners’ dilemma to an iterated prisoners’ dilemma. We could be on the road to cooperation. Just hope the players are not spoilsports.

  2. gregwar says:

    Beautifully written piece. Yes, most of us whose ancestors arrived here from overseas have forgotten from where they originated. To most it’s just a vague place in some far distant shore. To many it is just “Banting”. To ask them to go back to is like asking them to drown themselves in a sea of desolation.

  3. padmini solomon says:

    This is a wonderful story of how much Indians have contributed to the development of this country – so much of the infrastructure of this nation was indeed built on the blood and sweat of Indian labour. When will our history books do justice to this story and enlighten our fellow ignorant Malaysian people, including our arrogant politicians and MPs who have time and again told us to go back where we came from.

    I was so touched by Rahel’s account of the story of her grandparents and what misery her grandfather found indentured Tamil labour in during the ship journey as well as afterwards in their lives as slaves in this country.

    Not only should the story of the migration to Malaya of Indians under British rule be memorialised in Port Klang but it should find its way into our museums as well. Too many came from India on false promises from the British.
    Recently I was in Malacca and visited the Stadhuys museum. It was very shocking to see the extent of the distortions of our history, not even to find mention of the Indian presence in the written explanations except in some vague manner and among so many omissions, hardly even a mention of the name ‘Parameswara’.

    Is it that easy to rewrite history?! Please continue to do all you can through your pages to set these records straight! Whole generations of school children in this country are being brought up in complete ignorance of the multicultural nature of this country’s past history. It is so important to reclaim this history so that all our different contributions will be appreciated and the young people will grow up wih a more balanced view of what makes Malaysia what it is.

    Thank you for that article Rahel!

    > Padmini Solomon

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