Seasons of Life: My Late Mum

1) Early Childhood

Hitler had invaded Poland under his convoluted pretext of lebensraum or living space for the Aryan race. German Wehrmacht steam rolled over the Polish Army. Armored Panzer bombarded while Luftwaffe Stukas dive bombed before the mechanized infantry thundered across the country in a newly developed combined arms tactics of unprecedented speed and devastating brutality in what was called a Blitzkrieg (lightning war). Imperial Japan had annexed Manchuria, pounded and rolled over most if not all coastal cities in China. The thunders of War reverberated across the globe.

In the tropics far away from both theaters of war only minute ripples could be felt as Imperial Japan’s Day of Infamy at Pearl Harbour was still 2 years 2 months and 2 weeks away. Time stood idyllic still in a very small village of Guar Chempedak in the Northern State of Kedah. The tranquil night was cool with mild breeze, the new moon peeking surreptitiously among the gem-like stars twinkling in the cloudy dark heaven. Nocturnal crickets were chirping merrily courting in the bushes and an owl hooting nonchalantly on a rambutan tree behind the house.

Young Nien Ci

Frantic blurry shadows danced in the canvass of the night of hurried footfalls cast by dancing kerosene light flickering in the gentle breeze through the windows. Hot water boiling was in the kitchen. Hush anxious and urgent encouragements in anticipation could be heard from the room, laborious panting and muffled pain. One final push and a gusty cry pierced the night, a sigh of relief.

A new life was born, full of future and hope. She was thoroughly cleaned, carefully wrapped in clean sheet and gently handed into the waiting arms of her anxious mother. She comforted and soothed her with whispered blessings and embraced her tightly to her bosoms. She smiled in spite of her exhaustion but her feelings mixed. She was glad for the birth of another healthy and beautiful baby but also a bit disappointed for her newborn was another girl, just another mouth to feed when times were not plentiful.

She had hoped for another boy to carry the familial line. After two sons, she had three daughters and now another daughter. She glanced at her husband who nodded imperceptibly in agreement and named her new born, Nien Ci (Sweet Memory), for she was truly sweet and beautiful in their sight.

Pearl Harbour was bombed, Japan’s appointment with infamy. Imperial Japanese Army had landed off Kota Bahru and Singgora, and were rolling south in a pincer attack towards Singapore. Operation mini Matador failed to delay the Japanese advance from Singgora.

Sooner than expected, vanguard of the Imperial Army were sighted in front of the British fortification at Jitra. The fortification was merely shallow defensive trenches stretched over 23-km of flat terrain, hastily prepared and thinly manned by the 11th Infantry Indian Division. The defensive trenches were stretched, over stretched, to counter any flanking maneuver by the Imperial Army. However, they lack depth, too shallow to absorb any concentrated attack and too straight for any enfilading fire.

The Imperial Army immediately went on the offensive without even waiting for sufficient reserve to catch up. They quickly punched right through the British line. The much touted Jitra Line simply collapsed. The defenders, out flanked, out maneuvered and out fought, were swiftly routed.

She was being cradled on the hip of her oldest sister watching her brothers flying a kite that fateful evening when her father rushed home as if he had seen a ghost, pale and troubled. He did not stop to give any of his children his fatherly hug or pat. He just headed straight for his wife. He whispered something to her, “Jitra had fallen”. She cupped her mouth in dread and they quickly retreated into their room. Frightened sobs could be heard through the thin wall. The distant thunder of War had finally arrived.

WW2 Battle of Gurun-Guar ChempedakThe 11th Indian Infantry had hastily fallen back to the next strategic line of defense at Gurun-Guar Chempedak where the north-south trunk road and railroad funneled into a natural bottle neck. With Kedah Peak on the left and impenetrable jungle on the right, forming a much narrower 3-km front, Gurun-Guar Chempedak front was strategic and ideal for defensive enfilading fire, a nightmare killing field for the Imperial Army. Her home, her backyard, her playground and her universe was right in the middle of the two British defensive flanks.

Nien Ci was too young to understand what was happening. Her older siblings watched in wonder, mouth and eyes wide-opened, her parent in horror at the frantic flurry deployment of turbaned soldiers, their eyes downcast, shoulders hunched and footsteps wearied as if the impending battle were already lost. They dug trenches and fortify firing positions at the railroad crossing, the right flank, further down the road from her house. The left flank, along the main trunk road, was more heavily fortified and manned as the more likely route of attack for the Imperial Army.

Her older siblings were herded home early that night by her nervous parents. Doors were tightly shut and windows securely shuttered early. The atmosphere was ominously thick with fear and trepidation.  They waited with bated breath.

They did not have to wait long for in the twilight of the next dawn, 14th December light Japanese tanks began to probe down the trunk road. They were met with sporadic shots of rifles, staccato burst of machine guns and deafening explosions from hand grenades and mortars, and immediately all hell broke loose. The Imperial Army spearheaded by the light tanks advanced down the trunk road, quickly punching through the British left flank. The defenders did fight valiantly but watched in horror when their bullets were merely ricocheting off the lightly armoured tanks. They were simply out gunned for they had no anti-tank guns.

Further, the promised air cover could not take off from its base at Sungai Petani in the twilight for lack of fuel for the fuel depot was indeed hit on the very first of the invasion. In all likelihood, they had hightailed away even before the first bullet was fired for fear of facing Japanese Zeros in a turkey-shoot dogfight.

The British defensive positions quickly crumbled the following day, but not before ordering the right flank to abandon their trenches and withdraw to avoid being cut-off. The mauled Division then hastily withdrew in utter confusion, hightailing more than 250 km all the way south to the next defensive position at Slim River, Perak.

Had General Percival decided to fortify the defensive positions at Gurun-Guar Chempedak earlier instead of Jitra, the Imperial Army would have been given some bruising. They may even be stopped on their tracks with a few well placed anti-tank guns and some air cover, and the Battle of Gurun would have gone down the annals of history as Malaya’s very own Battle of Thermopylae.

Nien Ci did not understand what was transpiring but food was growing scare. She had lost weight and gone to bed hungry many nights. Her hair was cut short, boyish, all the time. Her father was away most of the days, always in disguise as a Malay farmer even nicknamed “Awang”. He was hiding in the surrounding villages from the notorious and dreaded Kempetai. Her lonely mother gradually slid into melancholy, lost in her own thought staring into the distant. She would however snap back to her old lively self on the few occasions when her husband managed to sneak home. She was again alive when she found that she was miraculously expecting for the last time for she was already past her childbearing age. She was overjoyed, filled with hope and prayed constantly for a son.

That fateful day arrived when she did indeed bore another son. Her heart leapt for joy when she heard the midwife congratulating her but quickly sensed something amiss when the midwife abruptly stopped mid-sentence. Something was wrong with her son. Her joy for finally bearing a son was short lived, so cruelly snatched away by the capricious whims of fate when her youngest son was diagnosed a quadriplegic. She just turned and stared into the distant unseeingly. Her heart was so broken that she had no strength or desire to embrace her new born son. Exhausted by the difficult child birth and overwhelmed by disappointment she finally succumbed to grief and passed away.

After a season of weeping and mourning, her father married his late wife’s chambermaid as in the dictate of customs of that time. She quickly bore him a son. With so many mouths to feed from the little available, she persuaded her husband to give one or two of his daughters for adoption. Her father deferred his decision for as long as he could but he finally relented to his young wife’s insistence.

Nien Ci stood wide-eyed with her sisters. She fidgeted, trembling feeling uncomfortable standing in front of a young couple, strangers. Her third sister put her comforting arm over her shoulder to draw her closer, to calm her. Both looked very much alike, almost twin-like. There were whispers and nods.

Her father could barely hold back his tears from the anguish of giving his daughter away. He seemed to have aged almost instantaneously. He retreated into his room to be alone, to weep, as he could not bear witnessing her daughter being led away.

Then the couple took hold of her sister’s hands and led her away. Nien Ci did not understand what was happening but when she saw her sister glancing back with tears streaking down her cheeks, acute pain shot through her tender heart bringing tears to her eyes. She remembered vividly the desperate sadness when both their teary eyes met. She was told later she was too young and her eldest was too old while her second sister was too wild. A lifetime would pass before they met again.

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