The year was 1938. Georgetown already was a bustling town. Penang – dubbed the Pearl of the Orient – was a busy port in those days, with traders congregating here from various parts of the world. The island, founded by Sir Francis Light in 1786, had become known for over a century as the Prince of Wales Island. The Western world knew more about Penang, Melaka and Singapore in those days than Kuala Lumpur, which started off as a tin-mining village. As a trading port between the East and the West, Penang was the focal point of the Hokkien-speaking Chinese community from South China and the Indian and Arab traders from the subcontinent of India, and beyond.

Over in Venmoney in the State of Kerala, India, a young man was already making preparations to venture abroad to earn a living. Malaya was his greener pasture. It was a prosperous country, and expectations were high as people were told that they could get good jobs in rubber plantations owned by the British.

That young man, Keerikkattu John Kuruvilla arrived on the island of Penang in December 1938, after a five-day voyage on board the famous passenger ship, the S.S. Rajula.

At the length of 462 feet, the S.S. Rajula was an astounding sight to behold in those days. The ship had a capacity for up to a total of 30 First Class, 30 Second Class, 92 Third Class and 5,113 Deck Passengers. It was one of the best known ships built for the British India Steam Navigation Company Ltd in 1926, which had been providing services between Madras and Singapore via Penang and the Straits of Malacca. When John Kuruvilla arrived in Penang, being the month of December, the weather was cooler. Penang was a natural harbour and anchorage for trading ships belonging to the British East India Company. The island was also used as a naval base to check on the growing French ambitions in the region. Although the island was originally under the Sultanate of Kedah, it was given away to the British, in exchange for military protection from the Siamese and Burmese armies, which were threatening Kedah, and between 1849 and 1941, it came under the rule of the British Resident Councillor. Within the span of slightly over a hundred years, Penang was already a more developed state than most parts of Malaya.

The island was a well-known destination to the Malayalee community in Kerala. Even the grandfather of former Malaysian Prime Minister, Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad was a Malayalee Muslim who had migrated from Kerala. The word `Malayalam’ comes from two root words – namely, `Mala’ which means ‘Hills’ and `alam’ which means ‘Depth’ – referring to an Indian ethnic group living in the deeper side of the Sahiya Hills in South India. Later, the word Malayalam became known as the language spoken by the Malayalee people.

Prior to Independence, Kerala was made up of three provinces, namely Travancore State (which was ruled by a Maharajah), Cochin (also ruled by a Maharajah) and Malabar (which came under the British rule). After the independence, all three provinces became the State of Kerala.

Family Background


John Kuruvilla was also born to a Malayalee family on Monday April 7, 1919. He had three other brothers and two sisters. Being the fifth child in the family, he remembers his father, Kerrikkattu Itty Kuruvilla as a man of prayer. He was the headmaster of the Evangelical Association Primary School, a mission school in nearby Changamala, while his mother, C.J. Mariam was also a teacher. Being educators, they were considered very stately people in Venmoney, and Father was a very pious man. As a lay leader in the Mar Thoma Church, he was in charge of the church service. His grandfather, Kuruvilla Itty Vaadhyaar was also a teacher from the Keerikkattu Family, while his grandmother, Aleyamma Varughese came from the Kaleckal Family at Cheruvalloor in Kerala. Grandmother Aleyamma’s father, C. John was an agriculturalist and a well-respected person in the community.

            But, life was tough for the family despite both parents being fully employed. For the young man from Venmoney, it was a tough decision to leave his family, but as job opportunities in Kerala were scarce then, it was never a question of choice.

            John Kuruvilla’s father was always interested in making sure that his four sons and two daughters had a good education. All the brothers, including John Kuruvilla, made it to the Matriculation level. It was the equivalent of a Form Six education in those days. John Kuruvilla has vivid memories of his father being a strict disciplinarian that in the later part of his life, he penned in his journal:


“I cannot recall what naughty thing I did, but there was once when I was about 10 or 12 years old, my father was angry with me for something I had done. He caned me. And, when he left the room, I was sulking to myself: “So you are the Big Man and Headmaster. After beating up the son, you put on a big a coat and tie, and go straight to school.” “


The Journey Begins


After completing his studies, John Kuruvilla had applied for a post in the Indian Navy in Bombay. When he failed to enter the Indian Navy, his first thought was to venture abroad to Malaya. His cousin, K. A. Abraham was already working as a supervisor with the K.M.S. Estate, owned by Guthrie Rubber Plantation in Sungai Petani. Abraham was four years older than John Kuruvilla, and they were already corresponding with each other for some time. Abraham had on several occasions written to invite John Kuruvilla to join him in Sungai Petani.

         After his father reluctantly gave his approval, John Kuruvilla went about to raise his own funds to cover the travelling expenses, estimated to be around 100 Rupees. After much effort, he managed to raise 50 Rupees from his father’s savings, and Uncle Calluvilayil, Uncle Kochuppappen and another uncle who was living in Kaleeckal contributed a total of 10 Rupees, topping all up to 60 Rupees. With the money he had, John Kuruvilla made a whole new pair of trousers and a new shirt for 10 Rupees, leaving him with a balance of only 50 Rupees, half of what it would have cost him to travel comfortably from Venmoney to Penang in those days.

         He was now all set to travel. Packing his belongings neatly into a 3-feet-by-2-feet metal trunk, John Kuruvilla was ready to face the challenges ahead of him. He was to leave the comfort of his own home for a foreign land, where he knew little of the language of the local people.

The journey from Venmoney to Chengannur was not easy, although Chengannur was the nearest town away from home. To save money, he had walked a distance of eight kilometres on the road, carrying his suitcase with him. From Chengannur, he took a bus to Kottarakara, where he caught the next train to Madras. The whole journey cost him 15 Rupees, leaving him with just 35 Rupees to last through the whole journey.

Looking back at what was left after purchasing the one-way ticket for the ship and paying for the obligatory vaccination and inoculation, John Kuruvilla had in his pocket the remaining two Rupees. “The ticket in those days cost 30 Rupees from Madras to Penang, and the vaccination and inoculation cost another one and two Rupees each,” he recalls. “All that was left were only two Rupees.”

            After some minor purchases on board the S.S. Rajula, he had only one Rupee remaining, by the time he reached Penang harbour. “I have always trusted that God would be my provider,” he enthuses. “Even to this day, as I reflect back on my journey to Malaya, I see His providence in my life.”

            On arrival in Penang, he had to spend a few days at the Quarantine. His cousin, Abraham who came to pick him up, had to return home to Sungai Petani. A few days later, a friend of Abraham returned to Penang to fetch the young John Kuruvilla to Sungai Petani.

            That one Rupee was all he had to begin a new life in Malaya.


The Challenges in A Foreign Land


In those days, Malaya was still under the British Rule. Far from the expectations he had, it was not easy to get a good job without a proper qualification or the necessary experience. John Kuruvilla’s education in Venmoney was only until Form Six (Matriculation) and he was only 19, when he arrived in Sungai Petani.

For some time, he was given a job as a trainee Hospital Assistant (known as Dresser in those days) at the Estate Group Hospital in Sungai Petani. It wasn’t long – in fact, just eight months – before he experienced the first of many trials. He writes in his diary:


“As a trainee, I was not being paid any salary or allowance, not to mention I never had the weekly day-off either. For eight months, I worked there and one day, I fell terribly ill. On the following day, the Chief Hospital Assistant, a Telugu man, for reasons of his own had a grudge against the Malayalees. He was apparently waiting for an occasion to get rid of me. He made a false report about me to the British medical officer, Dr. A. L. Dunlop, and got me dismissed.”


In such hurting situations, John Kuruvilla could only rest his case with God. “God is always the Judge at the end of the day,” he recollects his thoughts. “There is nothing we can do to take revenge for ourselves.” John Kuruvilla continued to pray and trusted God. Before long, a new door of opportunity opened for this hopeful young man.

            As it happened unexpectedly, he did not even know that God had answered his prayers. Little did he realize until much later in life that it was God who was directing his every step, bringing him onto higher ground.   


“I have directed you in the way of wisdom;
I have led you in upright paths. 
When you walk, your steps will not be impeded;
And if you run, you will not stumble.”

                                                                        Proverbs 4: 11-12


After losing his job at Estate Group Hospital, John Kuruvilla saw God’s providence working in a miraculous way. He had gone to see Thyil Joseph, who was working in Baling Estate. Thyil was a former student of his father while in India.      

A brief handshake took place between John Kuruvilla and the manager of Baling Estate, whom he only recalls by his first name, Mr. Shannon. Shannon was also the chairman of the Estates Baling Road Group Hospital Board. At his recommendation, John Kuruvilla was engaged by Dr. D.D. McIlvean as a probationer to train as a Hospital Assistant at Kuala Ketil Estate Hospital. This time, he was receiving an initial allowance of M$7.50 a month, which was subsequently increased to M$9.00 a month.

            By around this time, the world was embracing some of the greatest challenges, as Japan, then known as the Land of the Rising Sun, was posing a great threat to the world. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was the president of the United States of America. The events leading to World War Two were already unfolding. On December 7, 1941, Japanese planes attacked the United States Naval Base at Pearl Harbour, destroying the U.S.S. Arizona and the U.S.S. Oklahoma, killing more than 2,300 American troops. More than 180 aircraft were also destroyed.

            It was in the midst of all these events that John Kuruvilla managed to pursue his Grade Three Hospital Assistants Examinations and completed it in 1941. When a Grade One Hospital Assistant at Kuala Ketil Rubber Estate owned by Sime Darby went on leave, John Kuruvilla was given a one-month relief job acting on his behalf. For that, he was paid a fat salary of M$110 a month. That had, in many ways, motivated him towards completing his Grade One Hospital Assistant examination. In those days, it was a big amount for John Kuruvilla, and he could never forget the day when he received the pay packet in his hands.

            After his one month stint, John Kuruvilla continued to work in Pelam Estate in Kulim as a Third Grade Hospital Assistant, earning a salary of M$68 a month. Being a loyal Malayalee son, he never failed to send money back to his aging father. Half of his salary was sent back to support the family. “In those days, the exchange rate was nearly one-and-a-half Rupee to a Malayan Dollar, and with this, I was able to send back 50 Rupees to my father. With 50 Rupees, they could live well and was enough for a small family of four or five people per month,” he recalls. John Kuruvilla worked in Pelam Estate for nearly six months – then, the Second World War arrived on Malaya’s shores in December 1941.


The War Breaks Out


While the First World War happened mainly in Europe, this time, it was East against West, and West against East. The Nazis were raging ferociously across the continent of Europe, heading towards Russia. The British was busy at war with the Nazis. Taking advantage of the situation, Japan invaded into many parts of China, and their troops were marching down south into South East Asia. Their strategy was to push through to the west coast from Thailand and invade Malaya, beginning from Kedah whilst their eastern forces from Vietnam would attack down the east coast and into the interior of Malaya from Kota Bharu. It was obvious that the Japanese Army led by General Tomoyuki Yamashita was moving fast and ferociously, killing even the civilians. Word about their brutality was spreading.


“Japanese invasion was a terrible blow to everyone and all their Asian Co-Prosperity talks, also announced through leaflets dropped from aeroplanes, turned out to us to be mere propaganda to lure the public to cooperate. In December 1941, Japanese planes bombed Sungai Petani town, after hitting other towns earlier on. There was no mercy. The Europeans were evacuating to Singapore. Our manager, Mr. D.F. Grant told us that the Japanese soldiers were already in North Kedah and that the Europeans were all moving to Singapore. He advised us to leave the estate for safety. Some staff members sent off their wives and children to India earlier at the threat of war and those remaining moved to interior villages. Some of the estate staff decided not to go anywhere too far away, but to hide somewhere in the local villages nearby. Those of us who were single decided to evacuate down south to the state of Johor.”


Thankfully, D.F Grant, the manager of Pelam Estate had provided a lorry to facilitate their escape. The roads were rugged, but there was no time to complain. Together with ten others, John Kuruvilla escaped with their belongings to Batang Kali Estate in Selangor on the same day. “Our Senior Conductor, Sukumaran had some relatives living in Batang Kali,” recalls John Kuruvilla. “A week later, together with Balan Nair, the estate chief clerk, we travelled to Malacca, where I was totally lost, not knowing who to get in touch while staying in the hotel.”

            In those days, the Malayalee community in Malaya was closely knitted. In times of crisis like this, relatives were the best people to approach for refuge. After staying in a hotel at Malacca town, the name of M.C. John flashed across his mind. He was the brother-in-law to John Kuruvilla’s cousin sister, and was at that point in time, employed as Chief Clerk in Bukit Asahan Estate. The two relatives met each other, and John Kuruvilla was given shelter for one month, while Balan Nair proceeded to stay at his relative’s place in Tanah Merah Estate in the north of Johor. John Kuruvilla kept in close contact with Balan over the telephone.

It did not take long for the Japanese Army to run over Malaya and Singapore. From the moment the 25th Army led by Lieutenant General Tomoyuki Yamashita attacked Kota Bharu on December 8, 1941, to the downfall of Singapore on Chinese New Year February 15, 1942, within a span of only two months, Malaya and Singapore had fallen into the hands of the Japanese. The war had cost the lives of some 50,000 Commonwealth troops, who had been captured or killed during the battles. The Battle of Malaya resulted in a comprehensive defeat for the Commonwealth forces and their subsequent retreat from the Malay Peninsula until after the war.




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