Down Northam Road, past the stately Runnymede Hotel and then, Hardwick House on the corner, they cycled for their lives.
Pursued by Japanese soldiers on the small island of Penang, the next few moments would very literally determine the rest of their lives.
Flee or hide? Cycle or run? Surrender or resist?
In her debut novel, first-time author Viji Krishnamoorthy tells a tale of identity and migration spanning three generations against a backdrop of war-torn Malaya.
The story is anchored at number 912, Batu Road – a home in Kuala Lumpur where the Iyer household put down roots. (The present-day street name for Batu Road is Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman.)
The address, which gives this book its title, is an actual and significant location for Viji, though one she may not be personally acquainted with.
“It was the house my father was born in and it was a government house my grandparents and their young children lived in while my grandfather served as Assistant Labour Commissioner from 1912 to 1948.
“They moved out sometime in 1948 when he retired from government service,” says Viji.
Currently, it is believed to be the site of a MARA building, quite a throw from the fictional centre of a sweeping story where two families are linked by friendship, love and war in 912 Batu Road.
You’ve got mail
The story begins in modern times, in the midst of an energetic frenzy of a morning before a wedding.
The first chapter, written over 20 years ago, was a half-joking birthday present Viji presented to her husband as an ode to their courtship, which had at one point been centred in letter writing.
“Long after we got married, I decided to revisit that long lost art of letter writing and wrote him a story as a very lame birthday gift. That gift, with some tweaks and reworking is chapter one,” says Viji, who is in her mid-50s.
This experience with the written word plays a big role in 912 Batu Road as letters exclusively support the narrative of the first generation featured in the novel, released by Clarity Publishing.
Geeta, a modern, 27-year-old Tamil Brahmin living in KL, seeks solace in the letters of her grandfather who first migrated from Tanjore in Tamil Nadu to Malaya thus, beginning a new chapter in their family’s history.
“So much of my childhood and adulthood is distilled in the letters I wrote home. This is the reason why letters feature so much in the book. Letters are holding spaces for wishful thinking, hopes, good and bad news, tying yesterday to today while optimistically drawing tomorrow in,” says Viji.
Caught between two worlds, Geeta participates in the festivities of her cousin’s wedding – an arranged marriage.
“The first chapter is bristly. It is that sticky and fractious relationship between mother and daughter, and allegorically the dichotomy of tradition and modern, constant and change.
“Geeta wants to pick and choose the traditions and customs that suit her modern life; she is disenchanted with the idea of arranged marriages, cultural taboos and the injustices in the caste system. There is such contradiction and a chasm between Geeta’s mindset and perception and that of her parents’ and by extension, that of her community and she is struggling to straddle both worlds,” explains Viji.
Tamil Brahmins in Malaysia are, in essence, a rather small community numbering only about 300 families, she continues, and possess a strong motivation to preserve unique traditions and culture.
“I think the further away a diaspora is from the sub-continent, the stronger the need to keep the ties and a reluctance to move away from what is familiar and comfortable. Change always rattles, is unsettling but unavoidable,” adds Viji.
Love and war
While Geeta’s life is set in modern Malaysia in this historical fiction novel and her grandfather docked at Swettenham Pier in October 1922 to begin work as a junior clerk at St Xavier’s Institution, the generation that links them is plagued with bombs, strife and war.
From just before the surrender of Penang to Japanese forces in 1941, the book follows the Iyer household and their close friends the Tans who take shelter in their home.
Viji’s narrative of WWII as experienced by those in Malaya is raw, uninhibited and haunting.
Through the despair, slivers of light break through, carried by narratives of the heroic exploits of real-life wartime heroes like Sybil Kathigasu and Gurchan Singh.
“Gurchan Singh’s role in the war effort against the Japanese is not talked about enough in our history books. The Singa Organisation was responsible for the morale-boosting Singa posters that gave Malayans a true picture of what was happening in the war at large.
“Likewise, Syblil Kathigasu took such brave and life-threatening risks to treat wounded members of the resistance.
I thought it important to celebrate their bravery and patriotism,” says Viji, adding that other historical figures from Force 136 and the Malayan Peoples’ Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA) were also featured in the book.
Through war or peace times, Viji says 912 Batu Road is, at its heart, a human story of migration, identity and roots.
“I hope with this book, you get to smell tart tamarind broth mellow with the addition of soft cooked dhall, feel the crunch of appalam and come up close to customs that are alien and unfamiliar to you.
“That when Tochi and Gurchan are on their bicycles, you are urging them to peddle faster, that you want to interfere with the decisions these characters make. That’s the experience I look for in a book. When that happens for me, magic takes over,” she concludes.