Heart and Soul: Growing up in a coastal village in Butterworth


The writer (seated, middle row, second from right) with his football teammates in Bagan Ajam, Penang, in their younger days. Photo: JM Purushotham

Bagan Ajam, in Butterworth, was once a quiet little village along the Butterworth-Alor Setar trunk road. It was a small lndian settlement just behind the market, with a few clusters of lndian houses across the road, along the seaside.

Most of us stayed in wooden houses with attap roofs. Coconut trees could be seen scattered all around our houses; our village offered proximity to nature.

The beautiful sight evoked a sense of serenity and happiness. We had ample space in the surroundings to play about on the sandy ground and lots of wide areas to relax in and be left with our own thoughts.

Though we had no proper amenities, devoid of electricity and pipe water, but we led a simple life free from the hustle and bustle of a city life. A community standpipe along the roadside was where we fetched water for cooking and drinking. Each house had its own well from which the occupants hauled water for bathing and general washing.

In the 1950s, kerosene and gasoline lamps were used to light up our houses, while firewood and charcoal were used as fuel for cooking.As teenagers, we would sneak to the Bagan Ajam seashore, without our parents' knowledge, to swim in the sea.

The seaside was then a spectacular sight with tall casuarina trees standing majestically along a splendid, clean, sandy beach. The sea was a clear turquoise blue – an idyllic setting with a panoramic view which we miss today. The fishermen would arrive in their boats with the day's catch and sort out the fishes under the scorching sun to sell to a small crowd surrounding their vessels.

Most of our parents worked either in the nearby Australian Airforce Base in Teluk Ayer Tawar or in the Province Wellesley Municipal Council. The bicycle was their only mode of transport. Times were hard and resources were limited.

Despite their meagre wages, they were able to support their families comprising four or five children and some even more. They struggled to make ends meet but they took every opportunity to be jolly rather than moan over their plight. Our fathers were loving but showed no mercy when we were naughty.

Arul's sundry shop also served as a meeting place for the elders who gathered in front of the shop to chit-chat in the evenings. In the 50s and 60s, our homes were built illegally so we had no numbers for our houses.

Arul's sundry shop No.3706 was used by most of the residents there as their correspondence address until they were given a temporary occupation title with a house number.

There was a "Kaka" shop (lndian Muslim shop) of delightful ambiance. Most of the Indians especially the elders would patronise the coffee shop. We could get a piece of roti canai for 20 cents and teh tarik for 15 cents filled into an empty condensed milk tin with a string tied to the lid to hold the hot tea.

We had a wonderful time playing games like spinning tops, flying kites, rearing fighting fish, playing kabbadi, hide and seek, and football. There was a field where we enjoyed the evenings playing football even after sunset only to abandon the game when night fell.

We were "great" footballers too. We travelled to places like Padang Brown, Kepala Batas, Sungai Puyu, Sungai Dua, Butterworth Dewan Bandaran public field and even to places in Kedah – Padang Meha and Padang Serai – to play friendly matches. We are proud to say that we had a formidable team of Kabbadi players who triumphed as champions in several competitions.

In our village, the people were polite, friendly and close with one another and their hospitality towards guests was praiseworthy. They valued and respected for each other. We gave importance to customs and traditions which we followed religiously.

The spirit of brotherhood can still be observed among us, although most of us are now grandpas, spending the last part of our lives playing happily with our grandchildren. The personal interaction we had during those days was far healthier and heartwarming than the present-day contact we have through social media.

Village life taught us to be in control of various challenging situations that helped to develop a healthy and positive outlook in our lives. Today, most of us are involved in social work, and some of us are leaders of various social organisations.

At the age of 71, I am the chairman of Pertubuhan Tamilavel Ko Sarangabani Pulau Pinang, an Indian social organisation that caters for the development of the Tamil language, tradition and culture. The village we lived in taught us about commitment, self-discipline, communication, team orientation, integrity and respect.

I would say that the essence of the village spirit is crucial and must be resurrected. It nurtures our well-being and our capacity to be a stronger society that reflects our values.

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