There was excitement at the fine brick residence on Forest Office Lane in Chundikuli. Shadrach Samuel was expected in town as the guest of his relatives, the Newtons of Old Park View.
Mrs Charles Newton (nee Anne Rose Perinpanaygam), his mother’s first cousin, was also Aunt Rebecca’s sister-in-law. Anne Rose was famed for her culinary expertise and Charles — her husband — was a hospitable man who needed no excuse to turn an occasion into a party.
Their two daughters — Grace Nesaratnam and Mercy Sugirtharatnam — were young women now. Petite Grace, a studious bookworm, was married to Mutuvelu Fred Aiyadore in 1924. Fred Aiyadore was attached to the Civil Service of the British Government, in the employ of Ceylon Railways.
Old Park View was part of the substantial dowry Anne Rose had received from her father, the wealthy landowner, Joshua Perinpanayagam. The property was signed over to Grace as her dowry when she married.
Mercy, four years younger than her sister, was a student at Chundikuli Girls’ College, steps away from her home, Old Park View. She, like her sister, had acquired the skills required of a genteel lady of her time. She played the piano, was a proficient dressmaker and had learned the finer points of cookery from her mother. She was also a gifted artist.
The infant Shadrach once held in his arms, was now sixteen. She was tall, slim with a distinctive beauty spot above her upper lip. She scaled the fruit trees in the orchard surrounding her home and roamed the grounds of Old Park View barefoot, engaging with gusto in the boisterous pastimes of Victor and Arthur, her young brothers. She still found time for her dolls. Life was lovely and uncomplicated. There was no hurry to grow up.
There was something about the marriage-market game that brought sparkle to the humdrum of day-to-day duties. Rose Newton’s spirits rose as she oversaw the dusting and sweeping of the home and issued orders to yard and kitchen staff.
Her husband and she were to accompany the young man, Shadrach on his visit to the home of the prospective bride. Rose had picked a suitable saree for the occasion.
The rice boiling on the wood stove was from her paddy fields, delivered yesterday by bullock cart and piled up in gunny (burlap) bags on the kitchen floor. There was fresh Seer fish which she would spice and cook to practised perfection. Oorukai prepared with limes from the kitchen garden, dried on the back porch and pickled last week, would be the tangy accompaniment to the afternoon meal, along with several side-dishes of curried vegetables simmering in clay chatty pots. Water was drawn from the well in the yard outside — northern water that was famously known to tinge Jaffna cuisine with a distinct flavour which would make the two-hundred-mile train journey from the south well worthwhile.
A feast of special things awaited the guest.
Shadrach didn’t seem inclined to rise from his seat at the Newtons’ table. Though gravy-stains spattered the white tablecloth and lunch was long consumed, he chatted about inconsequentialities while his gaze strayed through the open window to linger on the slender form of a boisterous girl, a pretty tomboy blooming into womanhood. Her braided hair askew, Mercy clambered up a tree in pursuit of a mischievous brother whose bare legs dangled from the branch above her.
The buggy waited outside, the driver at the ready.
The wall clock chimed the hour.
Charles Newton glanced at his wife and cleared his throat. “We have to leave in a little while. They’ll be waiting.”
“I changed my mind. I’m not going,” Shadrach announced flatly. He eyed his host and declared, “I want to marry Mercy!”
Husband and wife succumbed to seconds of stunned silence.
“Mercy?” Charles rasped. “She’s sixteen. Still at school!”
Shrewd Rose gathered her wits to take stock of the situation. Young Samuel was an up-and-coming entrepreneur, they said. He hadn’t made a fortune, of course — not yet — but his prospects were good, she’d heard.
The busy northern grapevine was rarely wrong.
There was discussion around the table in the course of which the surprised pair agreed that a union between their younger daughter and Shadrach Samuel was something to be desired. Despite the fact that she was a teenager and he sixteen years older.
Rose stepped onto the front porch and called to her daughter. “Mercy, come inside. We have to talk to you!”
One can’t help but feel bad for that young woman who would have been attired in her best and put on display, coached on the etiquette of serving tea to the visitors and speaking only when spoken to. Some unfortunate individual would have had the unenviable task of informing her parents that the eligible bachelor from the city of Colombo would not be visiting their home as arranged.
For the first time in her life, Mercy had a saree draped around her frame. A formal engagement ceremony took place the next day, with an exchange of gold rings and an Anglican minister officiating. A guest at the occasion later reported that she looked tall and grown up in her unaccustomed attire.
Childhood was now officially behind her.
The Newtons made it perfectly clear that their younger daughter would not be given a dowry, their unusual reasoning being that the bridegroom-to-be was a businessman and should well be able to make his way in the world unassisted. This was an unprecedented decision at a time when it was expected that a father would bestow property and jewellery on his daughter. Still on the precarious cusp of acquiring financial stability, he had fallen so much in love that it never occurred to Shadrach to protest or argue the matter.
Why the wealthy Newtons decided to act in this manner is a mystery.
Shadrach returned to Colombo with a band of gold on his finger, excited to share his news with his youngest siblings– Anna and Solomon — who were living in his home at the time.
He was caught off guard by the twins’ unexpected reaction.
To be continued …
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click here for part 4 – the newtons of old park view
The orphans spent their childhood shuttling between foster-homes and boarding school. It would be years before some of the six siblings set eyes on each other again.
Early one morning in 1905 Shadrach Samuel, aged twelve, stepped off the platform at the Fort Railway station in Colombo and into the open arms of his mother’s youngest sister, Rebecca (Danvers) Perinpanayagam.
Aunt Rebecca’s husband, Samuel Alfred Perinpanayagam, was an accountant in the employ of Bousted Brothers, the agents for Colombo Electric Tramways and Lighting Company. Their residence in Messenger Street, Kotahena became home for the next several years and Shadrach was the unofficial eldest child of the newly weds. He called his aunt Amma (Mum) and thrived in her care. His siblings later followed suit and accorded her the same honour when they addressed her as they would their mother.
The family grew when the babies came. Cousin Stephen Edgar Rasasingham arrived when Shadrach was fifteen then baby Donald Edwin Balasingham who died before his first birthday, and finally George Walter Kulasingham.
Aunt and Uncle also adopted a little girl they christened Anna Mae Gnanmonie, who didn’t survive her teens.
As he grew into manhood the twelfth birthday letter from his grandmother remained Shadrach’s most treasured possession. He found quiet moments to feast his eyes on the elaborate handwritten curlicues of the Tamil script. The notepaper was fragile from frequent handling, the stamped, addressed envelope frayed and falling apart. He could recite the words off by heart —
May you, little one, go from strength to strength, and become a millionaire (Chinnavan aigiramum siriyavan palaththa seemanum aavaan) …
The passage of time ushered Granny Harriet Danvers into eternity, but the prophetic power of her written words lingered to become a compelling, guiding force in her young grandson’s life.
The years in Aunt Rebecca’s home were happy ones, but the memory of his paternal uncle’s betrayal was an unrelenting, plaguing presence . As soon as he reached the age of legal majority, Shadrach filed action against his father’s brother, the man who robbed his widowed mother of her home and property in Vavuniya. He laid claim to the house and the surrounding property, but was – perhaps unwisely – uninterested in taking on the burden of farming the extensive acreage of paddy fields extending beyond.
The court ruled in his favour. Shadrach had the land divided equally, earmarking a sixth for himself and his five siblings. These parcels of property would later be passed on to the oldest son of each Samuel brother or sister.
In 1918 bereavement came to the home in Messenger Street with the death of Uncle Samuel Alfred Perinpanayagam. Aunt Rebecca was prematurely widowed after fourteen years of marriage. Shadrach slipped into the role of surrogate father-figure to his two young cousins.
His fascination with scrap-metal (which he salvaged and sold for pocket money during the boyhood years of World War I) and the years in the service of his employer, made him an authority in the hardware business. He rose from the ranks at the British firm of Hoar and Company — from apprentice errand boy and general dogsbody — to the position of Store Manager.
Shadrach learned to speak Sinhalese, the language of the south, with the flawless accent of the native. With wisdom unprecedented for a man of Tamil heritage, he taught himself to read and write the language as well. The latter was an unusual move which would stand in his favour in a nation that would experience ethnic unrest and bitter division in the troubled post-colonial decades to come.
As Shadrach approached his thirties, his unerring business acumen guided him to purchase a home on Messenger Street in close proximity to his beloved Amma. Shortly thereafter, when Hoar & Company wound up their business, he took a massive leap of faith to invest in the firm’s unsold stock — steel and miscellaneous hardware — which was delivered to his address and piled up in the yard around the house.
And so commenced the era of the entrepreneur and the birth of a business that was first named Ceylon Hardware Stores.
Shadrach operated a shop out of a shed at his residence and hired Cousin Stephen Edgar Perinpanayagam, a teen-aged student at St Benedict’s College, to walk over from school and mind the store. On weekdays, clad in school uniform, Stephen Edgar held the reins during his lunch interval while Shadrach took a break to eat and attend to other matters.
There were advantages to living in the vicinity of the Colombo harbour. When commercial vessels sailed into port, Shadrach scoured the ships’ cargo for bargain merchandise for his store shelves. He also kept a sharp eye out for unique items he would acquire as gifts for his family. An elderly niece remembers the German clock which, for decades, took pride of place in the home his sister, Anna Chinnathangam.
When Shadrach purchased his house on Messenger Street, his brothers and sisters had an official family home in Colombo. One by one, they found their way to the capital city and took up temporary residence at the bachelor abode. Anna Chinnathangam, now a young schoolmistress who lived in a boarding house in Jaffna during term-time, looked forward to the school holidays and the train-ride south. This thrice-yearly exposure to city life influenced her style and sense of fashion in a way that made her stand out amongst her provincial contemporaries up north.
The business began to grow and Shadrach got his older brother, S.V. Chelliah on board as manager of Ceylon Hardware Stores.
Graduates of the American Missions schools of northern Ceylon were highly sought after in Colombo and in the British colonies of Singapore, Malaya and Burma. Young Tamil men in search of employment flocked to Colombo or sailed off to Far Eastern ports to enlist in the service of the colonial government. One such ambitious hopeful was David Sinniah Kanagaratnam, who journeyed south from Jaffna to the capital city. He obtained an introduction to Shadrach Samuel, who, in the northern circles, was making a name for himself as an up-and-coming businessman.
Shadrach, in the absence of a father, had assumed the responsibility of procuring husbands for his three sisters. When the tall, good-looking young Kanagaratnam presented himself, Shadrach hired him to fill a position in the bourgeoning business. The offer, however, was conditional.
“If you became a Christian,” Shadrach suggested, “and married my sister …”
David Sinniah raised no objection. The bride in question was pleasant, petite and pretty. He agreed to give up the Hindu faith to marry his future employer’s older sister. The couple exchanged their vows in church under the auspices of an Anglican minister, and Sarah Chinnamma Samuel, the oldest child of Samuel Vethanayagam Subramaniam and Mary Chellamma Danvers, became Mrs. David Kanagaratnam.
The steam engine rattled northward along the coastal tracks leaving plumes of smoke in its wake. The passenger grew drowsy as he peered out at the dark forms of swaying coconut palms and flying pin-pricks of light dotting the shadowed landscape. He was stocky and slightly short of average height, with a thick shock of jet-black hair and dark line of neatly trimmed moustache grazing his upper lip.
Shadrach Samuel was riding the rails all the way up to the northern tip of Ceylon. He’d been summoned home by the relatives who’d located a suitable candidate on the local marriage market. It was time, they said, to marry and settle down. Thirty-two years old, a self-made man of modest means, Shadrach had no reason to object. After a flurry of letters and telegrams he packed a suitcase and boarded the overnight train to Jaffna.
He was going to stay at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Newton of Old Park View, Chundikuli.
Charles MacArthur Thambithurai Newton was a fine-looking fellow, a dapper dresser, impeccably turned out at all times. His appreciation of quality clothing and polished footwear was legend.
The son of Gladwin Ponniah and Victoria Nesamma Newton of Puloly West, young Charles commenced his career as an assistant teacher at his alma mater, St John’s College, Chundikuli (Jaffna). Charming and youthful, he became popular with the students and well respected by fellow members of staff. Charles, who possessed a scholarly knowledge of the Tamil language, was an acknowledged pundit among his peers.
Young Mr. Newton of St John’s College was also known for his love of English drama and lent his wholehearted support to the school’s theatrical endeavours.
There came that inevitable moment in this young man’s life — as in the lives of all young men for generations before and after him — when his elders commenced discussions on his matrimonial prospects and the family matchmakers began screening potential candidates.The young lady presented for his consideration was Miss Anne Rose Thangamma Perinpanayagam, daughter of a wealthy landowner, Joshua Perinpanayagam of Perinpanayagam Lane. Miss Anne Rose’s hand was backed by the gleaming promise of a substantial dowry.
The dashing dandy, Charles Newton, was permitted a glimpse of the wife-in-waiting before he agreed to the nuptials. Miss Anne Rose sat demurely in her chair, directly beside her brother, Samuel Alfred Perinpanayagam’s wife. Her sister-in-law, Rebecca Ponnamma (Danvers) Perinpanayagam was a tall, pretty lady of striking appearance. Charles, who did a walk-by and was allowed to take a quick look from a distance away, assumed that the attractive young matron, Rebecca Ponnamma, was the proposed bride-to-be. He declared a definite, delighted, “Yes!”
So the match was made, the details decided on. The date was set.The next time Charles Newton set eyes on the woman he’d pledged to marry was at the altar at St John’s church in Chundikuli, as she walked up the aisle on her father’s arm.
He was perturbed to note the stature of the veiled bride. She appeared much shorter than he remembered. Then, when guazy fabric was moved aside to enable the bridegroom to secure the traditional marriage thali around his bride’s neck, he observed that her skin was some shades darker than his recollection served him.
Too late for second thoughts …
They exchanged their vows and Charles MacArthur Thambithurai Newton and Anne Rose Thangamma Perinpanayagam entered the state of Holy Matrimony. The pair were now man and wife. Oral family history recalls that the disgruntled new husband made no effort to hide his dissatisfaction.
“In those days, there were no honeymoons,” an elderly great-niece-by-marriage chuckles as she remembers the story her mother told her. “They went straight home and were sent to their room. He ignored her completely. The relatives had to intervene. They told him it was too late to do anything now that the wedding was over. They advised him to make the best of the situation.”Her eyes gleam with amusement. “They set the stage when he walked by. He was tricked into agreeing to the marriage …”
Posterity will never find out who the culpable ‘they’ might be …
The circumstances surrounding the nuptials of this theatre-loving thespian was comic drama worthy of Oscar Wilde and others whose plays his students performed on the stage of his beloved school, St John’s College.
“What to do?” as the local saying goes — which really means … there’s no solution to the situation, so grin and bear it!
Despite the inauspicious commencement to the marriage, the couple eased into a life of domestic comfort, although history doesn’t remember Anne Rose Newton as being a lady of exceptionally cheerful disposition.In addition to several acres of paddy land that was part of her dowry, Joshua Perinpanayagam, Anne Rose’s father, presented his daughter with a handsome property in Forest Office Lane in the fashionable Jaffna suburb of Chundikuli. The neighbouring block of land was given by Joshua to his son, Samuel Alfred Chellathurai (Anne Rose’s brother, who married the pretty Rebecca Ponnamma Danvers).At a time when homes were constructed of wattle-and-daub and coconut thatch, old Joshua Perinpanayagam, they say, built the first brick-and-tile residence in Jaffna – such was the vast extent of his wealth.
Chundikuli, in the early nineteen hundreds, boasted modern homes with flower gardens and shady trees, built in the Dutch and colonial styles and was where the residence of the British Government Agent was situated. It was the posh part of town.
Charles Newton was placed in charge of a satellite school of St John’s College in Urumbrai, which was later consolidated with the main school in Chundikuli. He also served as the college bursar.Charles was a gregarious man. He adored company. Married to a woman who was famed as a great cook, he made every occasion an excuse for a party. Old Park View was a place of regular entertainment and his guests often received a gift at the end of an evening of jollification at his residence. He marked the milestone of his fiftieth birthday with a special handkerchief that he presented to every gentleman who attended the celebration.
Charles was fond of animals and set up a mini zoo in the large grounds surrounding his house, with iron cages housing deer, peacocks and exotic birds. Tales are told of Charles’ talking parrot and the pet squirrel who slept in his bed at night and answered to the name of Ganapathy. (One sad morning the squirrel was found dead. The creature’s life was snuffed out when his sleeping master rolled over him.)
RIP little Ganapathy …
Charles delighted in agrarian pursuits and had dreams of planting every variety of fruit tree native to the island of Ceylon in the orchard around his home. The juicy karuththa kolumban mangoes harvested on this property were, in later years, carefully boxed by Anne Rose and dispatched by overnight train to the grandchildren in Colombo.
Charles and Anne Rose Thangamma Newton had four children — two daughters and two sons — Grace Nesaratnam, Mercy Sugirtharatnam, Victor Joseph Jeyaratnam and Arthur Samuel Selvaratnam.
After the solemnization of the union between Charles and Anne Rose Thangamma, a marriage was arranged between Anne Rose’s brother, Joseph Alfred Thambirasa Perinpanayagam, and Charles’ sister, Jane Ponnamma Newton.These unions were termed inter-marriages, where a brother and sister were married to a brother and sister of another family. Such marriages forged strong family ties, lessened the pressure of dowry demands and kept property and wealth within clans.
To the Newton household at Old Park View, so the story goes, for a short while in the early years of their marriage, came Shadrach Samuel, the young orphan from Vavuniya. Anne Rose Thangamma (Perinpanayagam) Newton was his late mother’s first cousin. Her sister-in-law, Rebecca Ponnamma (Danvers) Perinpanayagam, was his aunt (his mother’s sister) who welcomed him into her home where he lived in the capital city of Colombo. Shadrach and his two brothers had been sent to Jaffna to be educated as wards of the Anglican Church. The boys were fostered by various relatives while being schooled at Saint John’s college. Shadrach was twelve years old when he made the bold, independent decision to terminate his formal education and take the long journey from the northern province to the south of the island of Ceylon, to seek his fortune and help support his siblings. He might have been on a visit from Colombo some years later when the second Newton daughter, Mercy, was born. The teen-aged Shadrach is reported to have held the infant in his arms. He would have been sixteen years old.
Kanthar married Thangam (circa 1790) and settled in Tellippalai. They had 4 children. One son, Kathirgamar Danvers (b. 1809) graduated from the Tellipallai English boarding school and the converted to the Christian faith in 1834.
Kathirgamar Danvers fled to Pandeterruppu after the villagers, angry that he had turned away from his Hindu beliefs, burned down the Tellipallai Church. The American missionary, Rev. Daniel Poor, arranged a marriage for him with Anna Saveriyal of Pandeterruppu, a student at Uduvil Girls’ School. Kathirgamar and Anna Danvers had seven children – David, Jane Elizabeth, Daniel, Gabriel, Samuel, Solomon and Joseph.
Their son, David Danvers, married Harriet Theivanei. Their daughter, Jane Elizabeth Danvers married Joshua Perinpanayagam (b. 1837) Their son, Solomon Danvers, married Thangam Vethanayagam (sister of Vethanyagam Subramaniam Samuel)
David Danvers and Harriet Theivanei had three daughters – Mary Chellamma, Elizabeth Annamma and Rebecca Ponnamma.
Mary Chellamma Danvers married Vethanayagam Subramaniam Samuel. (Solomon Danvers, Mary’s uncle, married Thangam Vethanayagam, her husband’s sister. Her uncle her became her brother-in-law.) Rebecca Ponnamma Danvers married her cousin, Samuel Alfred Perinpanayagam.Elizabeth Annamma Danvers married Jacob Arumainayagam.
Perinpanayagam Family Line –
Joshua Perinpanayagam married Jane Elizabeth Danvers (daughter of Kathirgamar Danvers, sister of David Danvers). They had 2 sons and a daughter — Samuel Alfred Chellathurai (b. 1892), Anne Rose Thangamma and Joseph Albert Thambirasa (b. 1879)
Samuel Alfred Chellathurai Perinpanayagam married Rebecca Ponnamma Danvers.
Anne Rose Thangamma married Charles MacArthur Thambithurai Newton (b. 1883). Joseph Albert Thamirasa (b. 1879) married Jane Ponnamma Newton (sister of Charles Newton).
Samuel Alfred Perinpanayagam and Rebecca Danvers had three sons – Stephen Edgar Rasasingham (b. 1908), Donald Edwin Balasingham (b. 1909) and George Walter Kulasingham (b. 1912). Donald died in infancy. Their adopted daughter, Anna May Gnanamanie died in her teens.
Samuel Family Line –
Vethanayagam (from Kaithady) married Seeniachchi (from Urumpirai). They had 9 children – 6 daughters and 3 sons.
Their son, Vethanayagam Subramaniam Samuel married Mary Chellamma Danvers.
Their daughter, Thangam Vethanayagam married Solomon Danvers (Mary Chellamma Danvers’ paternal uncle).
Vethanayagam Subramaniam Samuel and Mary Chellamma Danvers settled in Vavuniya. They had 6 children – 3 sons and 3 daughters – (1) Sarah Chinnamma, (2) Subramaniam Vethanayagam Chelliah, (3) Shadrach Chinniah, (4) Elizabeth Thangamma, (5) Anna Chinnathangam and (6) Solomon Chinnathamby.
Sara Chinnamma Samuel married David Sinniah Kanagaratnam.
Subramanian Vethanyagam Chelliah married Annam (neé?).
Shadrach Chinniah married Mercy Sugirtharatnam Newton.
Elizabeth Thangamma married Godwin Wesley Sittampalam.
Anna Chinnathangam married Albert Kathapoo.
Solomon Chinnathamby married Mercy Atputhanayagam Gnanaratnam.
Shadrach Chinniah Samuel married Mercy Sugirtharatnam Newton.
They had 6 children – (1) Pearl Ratnaranee, (2) Ruby Ratnadevi, (3) Peter Ratnarajah, (4) Daniel Ratnadeva, (5) Beatrice Ratnajothy and (6) Elizabeth Ratnamalar
A seventh child, Bertie, didn’t survive childhood.
Gladwin Ponniah Newton (son of Robert Newton and his wife, a Miss Phillips) married Victoria Valliamma.
They had 6 children – (1) Charles MacArthur Thambithurai , (2) Jane Ponnamma (who married Joseph Albert Thambirasa Perinpanayagam), (3) Isaac Alagaiah, (4) Ranji , (5) Julia Rasamma and (6) Helen Nesamma .
Charles MacArthur Thambithurai Newton married Anne Rose Thangamma Perinpanayagam.
They had 4 children – (1) Grace Nesaratnam, (2) Mercy Sugirtharatnam, (3) Victor Joseph Jeyaratnam and (4) Arthur Samuel Selvaratnam.
Grace Nesaratnam Newton married Muthuvelu Fred Aiyadore.
Mercy Sugirtharatnam married Shadrach Chinniah Samuel.
Victor Joseph Jeyaratnam Newton married Selvamalar Thayalam Arulampalam.
The little cemetery in the St John’s churchyard where some of the ornate, Victorian-style tombs have been refurbished after the war, while others are disintegrating into crumbling mounds of rubble. On this site, the writer and her husband discovered the graves of ancestors and others on their respective family trees –
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[ To get caught up on this story Click here for OUR PRESENT PAST (1) / CLICK HEREFOR OUR PRESENT PAST (2) ]
Pink streaks of dawn stained the sky when the overnight train from Jaffna ground to a halt at the Fort railway station in Colombo. Clutching his small bag of belongings, the boy stepped out of his carriage,overwhelmed by the noise and bustle of the waking metropolis. Aunt Rebecca Ponnamma was waiting on the platform, her husband — Uncle Samuel Alfred Perinpanayagam — at her side. She waved to catch her nephew’s eye. Rebecca Ponnamma wrapped her arms around her dead sister’s boy and Shadrak heaved a quiet sigh of relief. This was his mother’s flesh and blood. His own. He was home.
Rebecca Ponnamma Danvers was an intelligent young woman, as beautiful as she was bright. She conversed fluently in English, a bright star at Uduvil Girls’ College where she was awarded a Queen’s Scholarship in 1901 when she obtained her Calcutta University Matriculation Certificate.
School teacher, evangelist, lifelong friend and ally of Dr. Mary Rutnam, Rebecca Ponnamma Danvers was a woman beyond her time.
In 1904 Rebecca married Samuel Alfred Chellathurai Perinpanayagam who was a first cousin. They were both grandchildren of Kadirgamar and Harriet (Theivenei) Danvers. (Kadirgamar Danvers was the first in the family line to convert to Christianity). The couple moved to Colombo where Samuel Alfred was employed by the British firm, Messrs Boustead Brothers. They settled in the then fashionable suburb of Kotahena, where they purchased a home in Silversmith Street (now Bandaranaike Mawatha)
Shadrak found shelter in the kind maternal presence of his aunt and was happy in the home in Kotahena. Barely into his teens, the boy was apprenticed to the British firm, Hoare and Company. Here he was initiated into the hardware business. The job called for hard manual labour and his duties often included heaving heavy bags around on his back. Young though he was, and now a cog in the wheel of big city life, Shadrak never gave up the daily discipline of a quiet early morning time alone in prayer and scripture-reading. He clung with steadfast determination to the early discipline of his grandmother’s teaching,From time to time he paused to open the twelfth-birthday letter from his granny to refresh his memory and savour the words of the blessing scrawled in Tamil script.Continue reading “Anna Goes To School (Our Present Past 3)”→
“Tell me about Singapore,” I said. “During the war. When you were a child.”Dad set his fork down, a rush of memories spilling into his eyes.
“My father was a radio communications officer. He worked for the British government in Singapore …”
“He was a highly intelligent man, but he had a volatile temper! He was my hero, though it was frightening to live with someone like that. He flew into a rage one day and struck me with the radio wires he was working with. My mother had to apply a hot fomentation on my back for days until the marks subsided.I don’t remember my mother ever cuddling or kissing me. But there was plenty of food. A laden table. She was a good cook. My father was a hospitable man. The house was always filled with people and she fed them gladly.
“We lived in a sprawling home on Mount Rosie, surrounded by a large compound. I remember climbing fruit trees and playing for hours outside.”
“The Japanese considered their monarch a god. They worshipped him as such.
The West was distracted by Hitler and Stalin. It was the perfect time for the Japanese to leap in with their own agenda. They worked their way through the East, carving out an empire …”
“When the Japs bombed Pearl Harbour, the Americans got involved. This was the beginning of the Pacific War.”
“The tanks rolled into Singapore.
It was one of the worst defeats in British military history …
“Pretty much everyone was labelled a traitor. They shipped them off to POW camps. By the thousands.”
“So how did Grandpa survive, Dad?” I asked.Dad’s tone was matter-of-fact. “My father worked for the Japanese,” he said.My jaw dropped.
“After the surrender of Singapore, the Japanese generals stood at our doorstep with drawn swords. They threatened to cut off his head if he didn’t work for them. There was no other option.
On our way to school, we’d see rows of traitors’ heads impaled on the walls.”
“The Japs began losing ground after America entered the war with a powerful fleet of fighter planes and bombers. I remember them. There were the B-27s, B-23s, B-24s and B-26s.”
The Chinese and Japanese were hostile to each other. If the Chinese had been for the Japanese, the Americans would never have won the war.”
“I remember watching the Japanese bombers flying overhead in formation with anti-aircraft units hot in pursuit.”“The air raid sirens could go off at any time of day and you were supposed to seek shelter immediately in the bunker, under a staircase, or under furniture. Our bunker was in the basement of the house.”
“I remember the dog fights in the air, when the Japanese bombers came in V-formation and the American fighter planes went after them.”
“I stood outside one day and watched as a Japanese plane got shot down. It caught fire and made a nose-dive to the ground. It crashed into our compound, its tail pointing upwards. There was a huge crater in the ground.
After the flames burned out, the gardener ran up. He was an eccentric Indian man. We were all convinced he was mad. He dragged the dead airman out, pulled off his boots and pillaged the corpse. He pocketed the wrist watch and searched for gold fillings in the teeth.
Then I saw the allied planes pass overhead – massive aircraft, gleaming in the sun. You could hear them from miles away.”
“One day my father was shaving upstairs, when a shell came flying in through the bathroom window and rolled down the staircase. Thank God it didn’t explode. Our home was like a refugee camp for the Ceylon Tamil community – injured boys and girls were brought there. Providentially, Mount Rosie was never bombed.”
“We attended an Anglo-Chinese school. There was a Tamil priest on the teaching staff. The Singaporean teachers were compelled to learn Japanese and then teach it to their students.
Our formal schooling was sporadic through the war years. English was forbidden.
My father taught us in the basement bunker at night.
We had to memorize poetry and I was able to read far beyond my years.
I remember reciting The boy
stood on the burning deck …
The Japanese soldiers had funny uniforms – long, long khaki shorts and hats with elongations at the back from the brims, covering their necks.”
“The officers wore white shirt, khaki jacket and leather boots.I remember coming down the hill, one particular day, where the school was situated. There were steps going up the hill to the school building. The students were all lined up on either side of the road to greet and wave flags at visiting Japanese army dignitaries. They came in a convoy of lorries and military vehicles. A boy standing across the street called out to me. Without thinking, I dashed across the road to reach him, cutting through the oncoming parade. A lorry hit me and I was knocked unconscious. They drove on. They didn’t stop. The entire convoy passed over me.
When the parade was done, the Tamil priest — the teacher from my school – picked me up and took me to the government hospital. Miraculously, there was no serious injury and I recovered.”“How old were you, Dad?” I queried.“I must have been about 7 or 8.”“That was nothing short of divine providence,” I commented.Dad nodded. “Yes,” he said. “And I used to collect all the shells and metal fragments I found lying around. That was my hobby.”
“My mother carried her jewellery in a pouch tied around her waist, under her saree. She finally buried it all outside in the garden. When the war was over she wasn’t able to find the spot to dig it back up.”“You mean she lost all her jewellery?” I asked.Dad shrugged. “Many people buried their valuables and never found them again.”“The Americans bombed Singapore before the Japs surrendered. I remember Singapore harbour up in flames.”
D-Day came and the Germans surrendered, but the Japanese hung on until the American bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. That was when they finally gave in.
“Japan would never had surrendered if not for the atom bomb. America was the only nuclear power in the world at the time. The bombs were dropped two days apart.”
My father had a radio hidden in the basement. He tuned in at night to listen to the BBC news. There was no other way of knowing how the war was progressing. Suddenly one day, the war was over. Everything fell silent. The Japanese forces vanished.
“A Ceylonese Burgher gentleman who was a friend of my father’s – his name was Mr. Garth, an educated man, slightly brownish in complexion — ended up in a Japanese POW camp. After we knew for sure that the war was over, my father took me with him to the POW camp. I remember sitting in the car as we drove there. The camp was a place of the living dead. Men, women and children had been starved and made to do hard labour. We found Mr. Garth. He had been a prisoner for four years. He was plain skin and bones. We brought him back home. My mother had cooked a good meal and set it on the table. Mr. Garth sat and stared at the food for quite awhile. Then he ate slowly, savouring every mouthful. He saved the boiled egg for the last.”
The war ended in September 1945.
“The British returned.Many Ceylon Tamils who lived in Burma had walked to South India to escape the invasion. They were found and rescued.Everything was in a mess. A new administrative system had to be set up. All residents of Singapore had to get their British citizenship renewed. Those who were not originally from Singapore were given the option of staying or receiving a free passage back to the country of their birth. Mother wanted to stay, but Father had no choice. He had worked for the Japanese during the war years and was declared a traitor to the British Empire. His name was on a formal list of Traitors To The Empire that appeared in the newspapers directly after the war ended.The British arranged for our repatriation. We travelled in a massive ship which had been used as a troop carrier during the war. It was called the SS Arundel Castle.”
Our passage was paid and they provided us with clothing and food. With a load of over one thousand passengers – all Ceylon Tamils – the vessel set sail soon after the war was over. The voyage lasted five to six days before we docked at Colombo harbour. I remember being loaded onto a boat and coming ashore, where there was a big reception committee awaiting the home-comers.
My mother’s sister’s daughter — my cousin, Mabel — came to meet us at the dock. We slept the night at her home in Maradana and caught the train to Batticoloa the next day.”
At breakfast the next morning, a heavy-eyed Dad informed me that he hadn’t had much sleep the previous night. “The horrible scenes kept playing in my head,” he said. I picked another subject for that evening’s conversation.
A year and a half in later, after the birth of his youngest child — a son — Grandpa James returned to Singapore. He approached the British authorities in anticipation of being reinstated into his former civil service post. Representatives of His Majesty’s government grimly reminded my grandfather that his name was etched on the infamous traitor list. They concurred that Grandpa’s only other choice would have led to the instant annihilation of himself and his young family. They graciously granted him a pension for his service to the British Empire. Then they showed him the door.Grandpa sailed back to his native Ceylon. He disembarked at the port of Colombo and rode the railway back to Batticoloa in the east, where his wife had inherited extensive acreages of profitable paddy land.
The new baby symbolized the end of an era in their lives.Old dreams dead and buried, life commenced anew and in earnest. The three youngsters, foreigners in the land of their parents’ birth, were constrained to learn a fifth language. English, Malay, Chinese, Japanese and now … Tamil.
If Grandpa was granted his pardon, if Granny obtained her heart’s desire, Dad wouldn’t have met Mum and allied himself with a new country and people. And I wouldn’t be here to tell the tale.
An interesting thought which strengthens my conviction in the knowledge that life is directed by an unseen hand that masterfully orchestrates circumstances in such a manner as to bring an undeniable destiny to pass.
Until next time,
P.S. Dad meets his bride in Matchmaker, Matchaker! (click here)
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Life changed with the grisly demise of her husband, Vethanayagam Subramaniam Samuel. In ways Mary Chellamma never imagined. The breadwinner struck down in his prime, she was left alone to raise month-old twins amongst six young children. There was neither time, nor expertise to tend the land which was the family’s only source of income.
Mary turned in desperation to her brother-in-law, her husband’s brother, who cultivated rice and raised cattle on the adjoining property. He agreed to take on the management of her farm. Mary was relieved to be rid of the burden.
Blood is thicker than water, after all, and they were neighbours …
Harriet (Theivanei) Danvers – Mary’s mother, the children’s maternal grandmother – a widow herself, lived in her own home, a stone’s throw away. This pious woman was a bottomless reservoir of strength.
The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw evangelical activity at its height in northern Ceylon. The numerous schools and hospitals in the region bore witness to the presence and commitment of the American and British missionaries. Mary Chellammah, a young woman still, found employment with the CMS Missionaries in the area, who offered her a position as nurse’s aide at the local missions hospital.
Disaster struck again. Neighbour-brother-in-law turned perfidious predator and assumed ownership of the widow’s property. By unscrupulous means he had changes were made to the the title deeds and the cattle were re-branded accordingly.
Grandma Harriet – Paatti to the little ones – was a woman of prayer and unshakeable faith. She was known to sit in her house for hours by herself, lost in prayer. Her hands one upon the other, palms facing heavenwards, she pleaded with tears for heaven’s favour.
Subramaniam Vethanayagam (S.V.) Chelliah, her oldest grandson, looked in through an open window one day, and heard the old lady praying out loud in Tamil: “Heavenly Father, what am I to do about these children? Open the windows of heaven and bless them, I pray.” (“Aandavaney, intha sinna kulanthaihalodu naan enne seivan? Vaananthin palahanhelai thiranthu intha chiruvarhalai aasirwathiyum.”)
Irreverently tickled by the pious woman’s fervour, Chelliah summoned his brothers and sisters to witness the peep-show. The amused youngsters gawked at their grandmother while she made her petition to the unseen Almighty.
“Look at how her hands are open and reaching upwards,” he snorted with laughter. “She’s waiting for heaven to open and blessings to fall into them.”
The yield from the land continued to be purloined by the greedy uncle. Mary and her little ones lived in a home, which, according to the doctored deeds, was theirs no more.
Life was a struggle.
The stuff that ugly fairy tales are made of …
When the twins – Solomon and Anna – were six years old, Mary Chellammah took ill and was confined to her bed. Grandma Harriet, who carried on as best she could, was out of earshot when young Chelliah complained, “The food is not good (chaapadu chari illai).”
“Be patient, my son,” his ailing mother urged. “I’ll be up and about to cook tasty meals for my children (porungo rasa, naan elumbitu wanthu, nalai chamaichchu kudukiren pillaihalukku)”
Mary was unable to keep her promise. Fate struck another foul blow when she succumbed to her illness and died a short while later. The six fatherless offspring of Vethanayagam Subramaniam Samuel were now orphans.
Grandma Harriet was left to raise the children on her own.
The children became unofficial wards of the Anglican Church.
Elizabeth Thangamma, who showed no particular interest in academic learning, was constrained to give up her schooling in order to remain at home and help cook and care for her siblings.
The boys were fostered out to benevolent families in Jaffna, sixty miles north of Vavuniya. The providential intervention of the church enabled them to continue their education at the reputed CMS Missions boys’ school, St. John’s College , Chundikuli (Jaffna).
On Shadrack Chinniah’s twelfth birthday he received a letter from his grandmother (who remained in Vavuniya with his sisters), mailed to his new address in Jaffna. The single sheet of notepaper was laced with weighty words of blessing written in the Tamil language.
Granny wrote: May you, little one, go from strength to strength, and become a millionaire (Chinnavan aigiramum siriyavan palaththa seemanum aavaan).
This birthday proved to be a milestone marking the end of Shadrach’s formal schooling. He bade farewell to Saint John’s College where he learned to read, write and speak with the polish and ability of a highly educated individual. His dreams lay beyond the confines of the arid northern province, far away in the colonial metropolis of Colombo.
The landscape shifted from dusty-dry to lush-verdant as the tracks snaked inland and the train rattled on its way, two hundred miles down to the capital city in the south of Ceylon.
In his shirt pocket, pressed to his heart, was the precious birthday letter.
The memory of his mother grazed his thoughts. The grim ghost of his uncle’s unthinkable actions haunted these quiet moments.
Shadrach pressed his face to the train window. Coconut-thatch huts and green fields flew by.
The new life beckoned. World War I was still to come