When fighting finally ceased, John Kuruvilla and Balan Nair decided to return to Pelam Estate.

John Kuruvilla, who was living in Bukit Asahan Estate walked some four miles to Tanah Merah Estate, where he met Balan. From there, the journey on foot to Malacca town took them three hours for the distance of 15 miles (24 km). Public transport had ceased and Malacca was basically a deserted town. Most of the shops had been looted. The brutality of the invading Japanese army was all over the place. Human heads were thrust onto poles and exhibited at road junctions as a warning to anyone who dared to challenge the authority of the Japanese Army. “Until today, I can still visualise the one human head that was placed at one road junction,” John Kuruvilla recounts his experience during the Japanese Occupation. “That man must have been executed a few days earlier.”

            From Melaka, they then rode on a cargo train to Gemas in Negeri Sembilan. The whole journey to Kuala Lumpur took almost two days. During the war, many of the bridges had been bombed, and the journey was interrupted at different points. The whole journey was about having to get down from one train, and going across broken bridges on sampan boats or on improvised temporary pedestrian bridges to wait for the next train.

            From Kuala Lumpur, it was another two days of travelling on the train, a long and tedious journey before they reached Bukit Mertajam. Depending on a private taxi, they finally made it back to Pelam Estate in Kulim, where they stayed for three months, without a job. Everything had come to a standstill during the Japanese Occupation, and World War Two was still raging in Europe.

            Before long, the Japanese Military Authority under one Nagano-San took over the management of estates once owned by the European companies. The Syonan Gomu Kumiyayi, or the Singapore Rubber Association, was formed, and under Nagano-San was C.A. Panicker, who became the Superintendent. He was assisted by two other Assistant Superintendents, Mammen John and T.A. Menon. Soon, people were again being employed, and John Kuruvilla continued on with his work in Pelam Estate as the Hospital Assistant for one year before being transferred to Badenoch Estate Hospital.

            Things appeared promising, but it was only for a short time. The Japanese could not sell the rubber that was produced in Malaya. This was partly due to the war and partly because the United States Government had invented a new alternative – the synthetic rubber. By 1944, a total of 50 factories were already manufacturing synthetic rubber; Malayan natural rubber had lost its lustre. The estates in Kedah had to be closed down, and unemployment rate shot up again. There was no money to pay the wages of employees. When fuel became scarce due to the war, some estates were distilling rubber into fuel oil. Although fuel oil from rubber was considered a poor substitute, it was a matter of necessity and survival. At the worst of times, Malaria, Dengue, Anaemia, Dysentery and all sort of diseases set in, and the people were suffering. Many were dying due to lack of medical treatment. The situation got worse in a year’s time. John Kuruvilla recalls how he was personally involved in helping to elevate the health condition during the Japanese Occupation:

 

“People were suffering from Malaria and Dysentery in that estate where I was, and I used to help them with whatever medicine I could get. I have treated a lot of people with the available medicine. Some who had cash paid me for the cost, and those who could not afford, I gave away free medicines.”

 

John Kuruvilla was subsequently transferred to Badenoch Estate, where he had to work in the estate hospital.

 

Under Japanese Occupation

 

It was estimated that prior to the Japanese Occupation, the annual population growth rate of Malaya was estimated at 100,000, but by the end of 1945 when the war ended, Malaya was dwindling by approximately 10,000 people a year. People of all races suffered under the Japanese rule.

            Living conditions under the Japanese were brutal with frequent reprisals against the ethnic Chinese population by both the occupying Japanese army and the Kempeitai, the greatly feared secret police set up by the Japanese Military Authority to snoop on anti-Japanese elements. They were probably the most atrocious of all the Japanese for their vast spy network. The life of every young person was hanging on the balance. At any moment, an innocent person could be accused of being an anti-Japanese element and be tortured by the Kempeitai. To be known later as the Sook Ching exercise, all Chinese males, between the ages of 18 and 50 were rounded up, screened through to examine their background, and if found to be anti-Japanese, these suspects were immediately executed. Under the Japanese rule, the Chinese were the ones who had suffered the most.

            A number of Malays were also arrested from the streets by Japanese soldiers and sent to Thailand to build the Death Railway over River Kwai from Thailand into Burma. It was the most dreaded place to be sent to. It was believed that some 180,000 Asian labourers and 100,000 Allied Prisoners of War (POWs) had worked on the railway. Of this, some 9,000 Asian labourers and another 16,000 Prisoners of War had died, in the course of building the bridge across River Kwai. Such was the brutality experienced by the people of Malaya during the Japanese Occupation. The local Malays were not spared if they did something wrong as the Japanese did not hesitate to beat them or chop off their heads. The Japanese also wanted the Indians to rally behind the Indian National Army (I.N.A.) to fight against the British in India. Many Indian soldiers (mainly Sikhs) and the Gurkhas in the British Army serving in Malaya who refused to join the I.N.A. were killed. Like their fellow Malay brothers, the Indians, too, were not spared from the Death Railway.

            By now, there were many stories of tortures attributed to the Japanese soldiers. The Japanese sentries were everywhere. They bullied the people passing by the roadblocks made out of barbed wire that was put across the roads. Sometimes, they would make the victims kneel on the roadside for hours for no obvious reasons other than to humiliate their subjects. Decapitated heads of their enemies were put on display on poles to warn others from trying to put up a fight against the Japanese Military Authority. Suspected anti-Japanese agents were tortured during hours of interrogation. History has recorded many other incidents when people were brutally treated for failing to show respect. Once, a cyclist was caught while trying to ride away when the Japanese guard was not watching. He was made to kneel down and was then hit on the head until he fainted. The Japanese soldiers wanted everyone to obey them and to show them respect. Whenever anyone passed a Japanese soldier on guard duty, he had to bow to him. If he did not do so, he would be slapped, kicked or punished in some other way. John Kuruvilla had his close encounter with a Japanese sentry. He writes:

 

“One day in 1943, I was cycling past the front of the Government Hospital in Sungai Petani. There, I forgot to bow down to a Japanese sentry. Immediately, I got down from my bicycle and bowed profusely. He just laughed and allowed me to proceed. On a second incident, while crossing the ferry from Penang to Butterworth, my hat was on my head. One had to take off the hat when buying ticket and when boarding the ferry. The Japanese man supervising the jetty kicked off my hat, which flew into the sea. He and his colleagues were laughing. I just came away without a word or sign of reaction to avoid further trouble.”

 

John Kuruvilla miraculously escaped the Japanese brutality on several occasions. “As I reflect back, I can only thank God for His protection,” he reminiscences. “But many others were not as fortunate. They became the victims of Japanese cruelty.”

            The order of his own name was also changed during the Japanese Occupation. Keerikkattu was his family name. John was his given (first) name while his middle name Kuruvilla was his father’s name. So, his original name was supposed to have been Keerikkattu Kuruvilla John, or K. K. John, in short. “But, since there were too many Johns working in the estate at that time of the Japanese, my name was changed to K. J. Kuruvilla to avoid being mistaken for the wrong John,” he explains how he became known thereafter by that name. Others later addressed him as John Kuruvilla.

            During the Japanese Occupation, there was also a scarcity of food everywhere. Starvation was rampant; essential foodstuffs such as rice, salt and sugar were controlled items. The Japanese themselves had the best of everything: rice, sugar, meat, fish, whisky and cigarettes. But, for the local population, ration cards, which limited the amount of food for each person, were distributed. The Japanese authority started a programme to urge the public to grow more food. School students were not spared; they had to look after vegetable plots within their school compound. Those were the hard times during the war.

            Within a short span of time, tapioca, sweet potatoes and vegetables were mushrooming everywhere. People were depending more on tapioca than rice for their staple food. To make matters worse, Imperial Japan was issuing its currency with the motifs of banana trees on 10 dollar banknotes to replace the Straits dollar and Malayan dollar. The money was printed on poor quality paper and had no serial number, and the authorities were printing more notes whenever they needed more money. It was a good case of how an economy was wrecked by over supply of money in the country. When the Japanese left Malaya, the value of the “banana” money went through a freefall. Overnight, the money became worthless. All the hard work to earn the Japanese notes came to naught. Meanwhile, the sharp drop in the currency’s value also caused prices of things to skyrocket. Inflation was high and people were hard-pressed for food. No amount of banana money could buy enough food. In fact, a used towel could fetch as much as M$300 worth of banana notes!

            In the ensuing months, the prisoners of war who were forced to work under the supervision of the Japanese army were dying of starvation and improper diet. John Kuruvilla records another of his own experiences with the Japanese authority:

 

“In the main division of Badenoch Estate labour lines, where I was in charge, a death had occurred. It was reported to me. Without suspecting anything amiss, I issued a death certificate to be submitted to the Police Station at Batu 7, Kuala Ketil Baling Road. The police, without further investigation, issued the permit to bury the dead body. But that turned out to be a suicide case and someone else had reported to Baling Police. A Japanese Military Officer came with the senior Hospital Assistant from Baling Government Hospital to carry out a thorough investigation. They found out the truth and fortunately the case ended without implicating me. For two months, though unemployed, I continued staying in the estate. The condition was pathetic; many were sick with malaria and other diseases. For the many lives I had treated and saved, I received thanks and praise, and a few food gifts. To most of them, I gave free treatment and those who could afford, paid for the cost of the medicine which I had bought elsewhere.”

 

 

In 1943, due to unemployment, John Kuruvilla decided to move on to Bukit Lembu Estate, where he met up again with his cousin, K.A. Abraham and his brother-in-law, Mammen John, then staying alone in a bungalow with a few of his relatives. Mammen was the assistant manager of the estate before the war. Little did they realize that Mammen John was accumulating firearms from around the estate, left behind by the fleeing British army, until the Kempeitai came knocking on the door one day. A Japanese officer with two Malay assistants came to ransack the house after receiving rumours that there were firearms in the house belonging to the British Army. Fortunately, Mammen John was not around. He had gone away for the day.          Without a search warrant, the Kempeitai and his assistants went about ransacking the house. “My cousin, K.A. Abraham tried to explain to them that they should not go into the house in the absence of the owner. The officer was enraged and slapped Abraham on his face that he swayed at the impact. M.J. Varughese and I were scared to death. In Malayalam, I whispered to my cousin to keep quiet and let theKempeitai take what they wanted,” writes John Kuruvilla in his journal. “When they finally left, they gave us a warning to surrender any firearms to them when they return, after inspecting another house nearby. We were, in fact, keeping a gun in the house, left by the British army. Thankfully, the Kempeitai did not find it. It was used only to scare away thieves. Burglary and looting was rampant, because no law and order was established as yet under the Japanese rule. We got hold of the gun and it was disposed off immediately into the toilet pit hole. On that same day, the Kempeitai returned to the house and found nothing.”

            The following day, when Mammen John went to the Sungai Petani Police Station at the instruction of the Kempeitai, he was immediately handcuffed and detained in the lockup for three days. No bail was allowed.

            However, with the help of one Ceylonese health inspector by the name of Arumugam, Mammen John was finally released from the police lock-up. Arumugam had a Senior Japanese officer as his friend, who also knew Mammen John. When the officer came to know of Mammem John’s plight, he immediately went to the police station and demanded to read Mammen John’s case file. He furiously tore away the pages from the file and discarded them into the waste paper basket. An order was issued to immediately release Mammen John. This incident is still embedded in John Kuruvilla’s mind even as he approaches 90 years old.

 

 

Business Ventures

 

In the worst of the country’s economic situation, John Kuruvilla ventured into business. His sharp mind had by now noticed that there was excess ragi, a substitute to rice, which was cultivated by the people at Pelam Estate. His intentions were not solely to make money but to help the estate people, who had excess ofragi, but lacked in other essential items. With some cash capital borrowed from Mammen John, he bought a hundred bags of ragi from the people of Pelam Estate and transported them by hired bullock cart from the estate to Modern General Store at No 48, Jalan Ibrahim, Sungai Petani, owned by Mammen John and Co. By getting himself involved in the business, he was able to make the ragi available to people who needed it, as well as helping the people who had excess of it. The sales of the ragi could have made a handsome profit for John Kuruvilla, but the business eventually failed, leaving behind some very tough lessons for John Kuruvilla. Through it all, God’s grace was sufficient, as he recalls it, for him to move on in life.

Maybe, it was not God’s will for John Kuruvilla to be involved in the ragi business. At that juncture, he had realized that God had a bigger plan for him. It was almost by divine providence that later, John Kuruvilla bumped into a personal friend, who asked him to buy a basketful of medicines. John Kuruvilla, who was by now a Hospital Assistant, was keen not to let go of the opportunity of making some money, by making available the medicine to those who needed it the most. In those days, people had the money to buy the medicine, but medicine was often very scarce. So, within two weeks, he managed to sell off the entire basket of medicines with the help of a friend, Abdul Rahman Muneer, who had introduced a medical doctor friend of his, Dr. Mustapha Osman. Dr. Mustapha was then the Chief Medical and Health Officer for Kedah State, stationed at Alor Star, Kedah.

            With one word of assurance from Dr. Mustapha that the hospital would purchase any amount of medicine available, John Kuruvilla left with his heart dancing away. “I started to collect medicines from town pharmacies and dispensaries, from stocks of medicines in estates, which they were not using, and through friends and contacts from other states. In the first year, the business was already profitable, and with the money, I invested in a house in Bedong, which I stayed until 1946. My cousin, K.A. Abraham and his wife, together with their sons, Sunny and George, were also staying with me until the war ended in August 1945. In 1943 and 1944, Balakrishnan Nair and his children also stayed at the house. As a gesture, I did not charge them any rental. The business was done out of a compulsion to make available medicine where it was most needed.”

 

 

Reminiscences of the Japanese Occupation

 

The years under the Japanese Occupation were probably some of the worst times in John Kuruvilla’s early years in Malaya. As a 23-year-old young man, when Japan captured Malaya, to when he was 26, all forms of education had stopped, except for the schools set up to teach the Japanese language. Food was scarce. People were suspicious of each other. Betrayal of fellow brothers was something that people had to live with. At any moment, his life was in danger of being taken away by the fearsome Japanese sentries.

In the meantime, the Malayan People's Anti-Japanese Army (M.P.A.J.A.) was aggressively fighting the Japanese by carrying out guerilla attacks on the Japanese officers and their men. Force 136, a secret British organisation, was also formed to recapture Malaya and Singapore from the Japanese. Force 136 was working hand-in-hand with the M.P.A.J.A. in its fight against the Japanese. One of the leaders in Force 136, Lim Bo Seng, a Singapore businessman, was however captured in March 1944. Lim, despite being tortured severely, had refused to reveal the names of those who worked with him. He finally died in prison in June 1944.

            The sufferings that the people went through during the Japanese occupation also taught the people to see the need to get rid of their foreign masters. In the words of Lee Kuan Yew, who later became the first Prime Minister of Singapore:

 

"My colleagues and I are of that generation of young men who went through the Second World War and the Japanese Occupation and became determined that no one - neither the Japanese nor the British - had the right to push and kick us around. We were determined that we could govern ourselves and bring up our children in a country where we can be a self-respecting people."

 

The brutality of the Japanese army which lasted three long years has also made such an impact on the mind of Datuk K. J. Kuruvilla that in his journal, he writes and remembers to this day:

 

“Just to say that the three and a half years under the Japanese Rule was a very difficult period does not tell of the many dangers, the uncertainties, the scarcities. No transactions, no communication with foreign countries. No jobs, no medicine, not much food to eat. Furthermore, the Japanese were cruel. For even a slight mistake, like not bowing down fully to a Japanese sentry, was punished with a tight slap to the face, or felt the butt of his rifle or hard boots. Petty thefts were met with harsh thrashing; decapitation of the head for even small crimes. If their informers told them about somebody under any pretext, they interrogated using every form of human tortures that some innocent victims did not even survive.”

 

 

Had he chosen to stay back in Kerala, John Kuruvilla would have a different story to tell. Today, as he reflects back to his years as a bachelor, he can only be grateful that God had spared his life, and not only preserved him during the war, but allowed him to establish his roots in a land he now calls his home.  

 

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