The Short Stories of S. Rajaratnam
S. Rajaratnam was born in 1915 in Jaffna, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and was raised in Seremban, Malaysia, where his father rose from being a supervisor of rubber estates to a plantation owner. He attended the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus for six months and was transferred to St Paul's, a boys' school. He continued his education at the V.I. and then at Raffles Institution, Singapore. In 1937, He went to King's College, London, to pursue a law degree.
Cut off from Malaya during the Second World War, Rajaratnam turned to journalism to earn a living, never returning to university to complete his degree. This was the time of his short stories which he would scribble while seated together with his Hungarian-born wife, Piroska, after dinner, either talking or listening to the radio.
On his return to Singapore in 1948, he joined the Malayan Tribune. In 1950, he was appointed Associate Editor of the Singapore Standard. He joined The Straits Times four years later. He was the secretary of the Malayan Indian Congress and a founder member of the Singapore Union of Journalists.
A chance meeting with Lee Kuan Yew nudged his career path into politics. Rajaratnam became a founding member of the People's Action Party, and was one of the original PAP Big Three together with Lee Kuan Yew and Dr Goh Keng Swee. In 1959, he resigned from The Straits Times to run for a Legislative Assembly seat. S. Rajaratnam is recognised and recognises himself as the theoretician and ideologue of the People's Action Party. In his own words, "the ideas man," "a public relations man… who projects the PAP image."
In the Singapore Cabinet, Rajaratnam served as Minister for Culture (1959), Minister for Foreign Affairs (1965), Minister of Labour (1968-71) and second Deputy Prime Minister (1973). He was appointed Senior Minister in 1988 after he retired from active politics. He passed away in February 2006.
After the drought came the famine, so that it was like walking out of one nightmare into another still more fearful. In the rice-fields, where the harvest should have rustled, heavy and golden, was only the half-burnt stubble of their crops. The farmers stared at the dust and ruin in their fields, and searched one another's faces for an answer, their eyes becoming deep and dull as the days passed by. At night, when the hungry children whimpered in their sleep, a hopeless anger would seize their hearts. Sometimes the wail of a woman would rise above the whimperings and groanings, and they would know that Death, which had stalked noiselessly among them, had found another victim; but after a while they forgot even to shudder at Death.
This obscure village was so remote, and the famine universal, that there was no possibility of any immediate relief. They had to survive as best as they could till help came. When their stock had dwindled away they scoured the country for food, eating any kind of birds, roots and animals they could find. Soon even these grew scarcer. Only the vultures wheeled high above the sky and scanned the earth and flapped their wings, while down below rats grew fat and sleek.
As always, a calamity brought the villagers nearer to one another. They sought food together and saw to it that the misery of one was the concern of all.
When the earth failed to provide them with the food they needed, the villagers, good Hindus though they were, slaughtered their cattle. The very thought had nauseated them. They had looked uncomfortably at one another as they contemplated this act of sacrilege, but hunger was an uncompromising tyrant.
After a while when they had slaughtered all their cattle they were hungry again.
"My little son kept crying the whole night and I had to slap him hard .. ."
"Perhaps the relief train ... I dreamt it last night. There was so much to eat. Bags and bags of rice there were."
"Fool's dream!" cried an old woman with wild eyes, "I too dreamed. But there were dead men everywhere and God came and talked to me about death. Wretches! He is punishing you for your wickedness. There is no hope. I know God . .."
"Shut up, you old hag. You will frighten the children with your wild talk."
The village priest motioned to be heard, the well-fed sleekness having long gone out of him.
"There is no food," he said, "except what the mercy of brother Murugasu can give us. Yesterday evening I saw him drive his bull to the shed. If we could persuade him then we will have food for a few days."
Farmer Murugasu lived half a mile away, isolated from the rest because he was both rich and unfriendly by nature. There had been much ill-will between him and the village. He was a dark, muscular creature, whose strength made him an object of fear and hatred. He kept very much to himself, working his field with as little help as possible, and at the toddy-shop he would gaze gloomily into his toddy mug oblivious of the shouts and laughter around him. Ever since his mother had died people had hoped that he would marry a woman who would bring some friendliness into his heart, but he had not so much as even nodded at the village matchmaker. When the famine came he had stood aloof from the others, and had not participated in the organised search for food.
The priest had to argue with the villagers before they agreed to go with him to plead with Murugasu.
"Would it not be simpler," suggested someone, "if we just went and stole it without asking him?"
"It's better that we should ask him first," said the priest. "He cannot refuse."
"Why not?" objected the other. "We know him only too well."
"Anyway we shall ask him first," said the priest firmly. "Besides he locks his bull away in the shed every night."
Murugasu was busy at his bullock-cart when the villagers came to see him. He lifted his face, with its protruding yellow eyes, and regarded them silently for a moment. Then he returned to his work chopping at a log of wood with a heavy axe. A few yards away the bull lay under a withered lime-tree.
The priest coughed and walked slowly towards the broad shiny back of Murugasu.
"Brother," he said, "you haven't asked us why we have come."
The axe flashed in the sun, but Murugasu said nothing.
"We have come to ask your help," said the priest, "the women and children are hungry."
Murugasu stopped hacking at the wood and faced the priest.
"What has that got to do with me?" he said gruffly. "I have none to give."
"You have a bull, brother . . ." said the priest.
"And look how fat he is!" called out someone.
Murugasu faced the crowd, his eyes glinting like a blade flashed in the sun.
"So I have. And what of it, eh?"
An angry murmur rose from the crowd. The priest bade them to be quiet.
"Can't you forget your hate just now, brother," said the priest soothingly, "the people are hungry. These are times when we should help one another."
"Ho! Ho!" said Murugasu, mockingly, "that's funny. So even a priest is hungry enough to sin in the face of God. A Brahmin priest inciting these people to eat the flesh of a sacred animal!"
The priest flinched under this taunt, but with all the quietness and dignity he could summon he answered :
"These are difficult times, brother. What matters is not whether one eats horse-flesh or beef, but whether one lives. Even a Brahmin is human enough to fear death."
"Die then!" said Murugasu angrily. "Better that than be reduced to the level of pariah dogs. I've seen how you stained the earth with the blood of sacred animals and ate their flesh without shame. Anyway I shall not be a party to such a sacrilege. As long as I have strength left in my hands neither you nor your starving children are going to kill my bull for food. I shall not become a pariah dog to please you all. At least I have the courage still to be a good Hindu."
"Your hate, brother . . ."
"Yes," said Murugasu, "I hate you all much as you hate me even now. Only much more than hate, I have contempt for you all, first because you want to eat the flesh of a sacred animal and secondly because you come cringing for my help."
Angry murmurs rose from the crowd and Murugasu gripped tight the handle of his axe. The priest, fearing that violence might result, begged of the crowd to keep calm.
Murugasu returned to his work and, after a while, the villagers left him. Murugasu spat on the ground and rubbed his hungry belly.
A few days later the priest led the people in the direction of Murugasu's farm. The pinched, haggard faces of the men were quiet and determined this time. The nightmare of the last few days, when death had moved among them more frequently, had become intolerable. It had become a matter of counting one's life by the hour and listening to the rumours of approaching aid.
The crowd, among whom were women and children, advanced slowly through Murugasu's gate. Lean ribbed, hungry eyed, they looked like some fearful procession of the dead. Silent, except for the crunch of the loose soil beneath their feet.
Murugasu was squatting by the door of the shed, and he lifted his head as the crowd stopped in front of him. He had changed completely within the last few days. The body was still broad and muscular, but it did not radiate the strength which they had always feared. His eyes moved lifelessly in their strangely hollow sockets, whilst his hair was almost grey.
The priest hesitated a moment before he spoke.
"We have come for your bull, brother. We mean to have it this time."
"Bull? What bull?" said Murugasu. as if to himself, and his forehead puckering as though he wished to remember things. "Ah, the bull? Of course the bull. It's in the shed."
"Then we must kill it and share it among ourselves," said the priest. Murugasu's restless eyes steadied themselves as he stared at the priest.
"Food. Ah! Ah!" he said haltingly. "That cannot be. Because . . . because, let me think. . . . You cannot eat the flesh of a sacred animal. I told you so before. I won't let anybody eat my bull."
A dribble of saliva escaped his mouth and trickled slowly down. Half a dozen men stood around him and stared.
"But you must, brother," said the priest. "There is nothing else to eat and the people are desperate and hungry. Have you no heart ?"
"That I have," said Murugasu, looking at a boy, "but the bull is a sacred animal."
“Mind you, brother," said the priest angrily, "we intend to have your bull even if we have to use force. If you don't give us the key we shall break open the door."
He held out his hand for the keys. Murugasu stood up and pressed his back against the door.
"I won't let you eat my bull. Keep back! I'll . . ."
He lashed out with his fist and the men struggled with him and in a little while had him pinned to the ground. He screamed and struggled, and then became quiet all of a sudden as he heard them break open the door of the shed.
The doors were flung open and the crowd moved eagerly forward.
Then they stood still and stared at what they saw.
The bull lay half buried in the straw, its body stiff and bloated. Here and there were red weals where the rats had nibbled.
The crowd held their breath and stared. One of them moved forward and touched the glassy eyes of the bull. He drew back startled, as a dark swarm of flies rose in a buzzing, angry cloud.
One night there is a dull roar in the heavens as of a demon seized with an agonising gripe. There is a rumble to the east, which moves slowly to the low-lying wooded hills to the west, screaming its fury as it passes over the huts and houses huddled in the darkness below. The trees bend and lift their shivering branches upwards, their leaves hissing and their roots struggling to hold on to the soil. Flashes of lightning dart like swallows in the sky.
Until now the village had feared a drought. The men had scanned the sky and seen only wisps of cloud wandering like lost souls. The countryside had been browned and blistered; the mango-blossoms, which flowered like stars, had withered. Because of this dread in their hearts people had quarreled over trifles. Nadasen, the potter, had so beaten his wife that she had run screaming to take refuge in her mother's house. Subbrayan, the barber, armed with a razor, had laid seige to Kumarapa's house, because the latter's wife had squirted pan juice into his pumpkin patch.
Now that the rain has come a new mood comes over the village. Nadasen's wife is running in the rain back to her husband. She laughs. Subbrayan folds his razor and says with a sigh, "Ah, what's the use of slitting the rogue's throat now. The rain will wash away the pan juice from my pumpkins."
In his shop Thulasi sits and listens to the rain and smiles. Yes, yes, everything will be different in the village now. There will be work to do tomorrow. The fierce patter above reminds him of a leak in his thatched roof. "Ay, woman!" he calls out to his wife, "a bucket, quick! No. No. The biggest one you can find." He limps away with the bucket, for one of his legs is crippled. He returns, lies down on his straw mat, and thinks that it was about time he had his roof thatched.
The drip, drip, drip, drip of the rain into the bucket soon puts him to sleep.
The next morning Thulasi wakes up to find his wife complaining that the bucket has overflowed and made a mess of the dung floor. Outside he finds that the sun is already out, and has given the wet leaves and grass a rich sparkle. The air is full of the exciting smells of the flowers and the earth. Even his crippled foot feels a strange tremor.
The womenfolk are already washing at the well; the children jumping into puddles and screaming their lungs out. Annamal, the milkmaid, passes by with an earthen vessel balanced on her head. She holds herself erect and plants each foot slowly but firmly forward. The graceful swing of her broad hips makes him wish he were young again.
"Ah, my sweet Annamal," he says with mock gallantry, "how beautiful you have grown this morning! Will not the wedding drums beat for you this season? Even Uncle Thulasi's heart has succumbed to your charms."
Annamal is so seized with embarrassment that she nearly drops her vessel of milk.
"Let me be. Uncle Thulasi," she says, "I nearly spilt my milk."
Then she walks away with the grace of a goddess, thinking of Surian whose match-maker had already talked matters over with her father. After the harvest the wedding drums will throb for her.
Thulasi chuckled after her. Everything about him was so full of new life and sounds that his heart could not contain the ecstasy he felt.
"Where does all this happiness come from?" he said to himself. "Yesterday and the day before and before that there was bitterness and sorrow. Today there is so much of joy that I want to sing and dance like that crazy cow-herd Vellaii. Yes, where does it all come from?"
"From the heart," he told himself.
"From the richness of the earth," he said as he neared the fields.
Before him stretched a sheet of white, scintillating water, broken only by the dark mud-dykes which separated one field from the other. Far away the hills were tinted blue, and overhead the clouds, light as milk foams, tumbled and spread in the sky.
Men were already at work. The warm water came up to their knees, and they were splattered with mud. They struggled with the wooden ploughs as pairs of bullocks went round and round. He saw the men, small and dark against the vast sheet of water, sky, and shining mud, moving like so many silent, lonely souls. One man halted his plough, looked up at the sky, and wiped the sweat wearily off his brow. Here and there men scattered their seeds from baskets as they struggled through the mud.
A nostalgia seized him. Ah, if he only had land of his own to plough, and sow, and reap! Once he had worked on his father's land, but his father had to sell it to pay his debts. With the little that was left over of the money, Thulasi's father had opened the shop which, after his father's death, he now ran. In his shop he sold dal and salt; ghee and oil. He even had tinned stuffs which had come from far-off lands, but, since not very many of the farmers could afford to buy them, he kept them as decoration, taking care to blow the dust off them. Some of the tinned food had even gone bad. Once the washerman's wife had bought a tin of fruit for her son and complained that the boy had convulsions.
He sold clothes too, most of them cheap foreign materials which the farmers bought. The native kadhar was too expensive for the villagers, but he was proud of his kadhar stock which, too, collected dust with his tinned goods.
"Expensive?" he said. "But think of it, brother! It's real kadhar. Made in our own country, in our own mills, by our own people. You wait, brother, and see if one day the Europeans will not buy their clothes from us."
But now as he looked at the fields and smelt the earth he could not forget that he was still a farmer.
"The earth is rich, and when men sweat it will pour its riches into their laps," he said, as he walked back to his shop, already crowded with women who were sure that the harvest would be good this year.
Within a few weeks there was a splendid harvest. The whole countryside was ablaze with yellow streaks of fire. When the wind ruffled the cornfields there was a pleasant hum in the air.
"Ay Nassapa!" called out Thulasi one morning. "I hear you are harvesting today."
"Yes. Can you not hear them? They are singing already."
"It will be hard work, eh?"
"Hard and very hot," said Nessapa, one of the best reapers.
When Thulasi limped towards the fields he heard the children, caught in a wild impulse, run shrieking through the yellow mass of corn.
Knives and scythes flashed in the sun.
"Oh, hum, hum," breathed the men. Everyone was astir. "O, hum, hum."
The corn-stalks fell. The women followed and tied them up in sheaves. Behind them the ground was a brown stubble. The hours passed.
Thulasi heard someone shout. Men collected together, and there was a loud commotion.
"Oi, brothers," he called out as he limped towards the men. "What is it? Has the sky fallen down?"The men did not laugh. One of the men held a large, reddish insect between his fingers. It was evil looking, with sharp greedy mouth, and furry legs. It struggled, kicking its legs, and moving its hungry jaws. Overhead the birds were already after the few of the stray locusts that flew about. Far away over the hills was a dark, apparently unmoving haze.
"So!" he thought. "Was all the toil for this?"
He was thinking of the acres and acres of unreaped fields. He looked at the drawn, tired faces of the men, helpless before the merciless invader, and a vast aching filled his heart.
The man crushed the red insect between his fingers and threw it away. The men set to work feverishly to save what little of the crops they could.
The dark haze over the hill grew and spread. There was no more singing in the fields.
By next afternoon there was a drone. Louder and louder. Women began to wail. Old men muttered prayers between their long, white beards. The reapers stared silently at the vast tracks of ungathered corn.
"What shall we do? What shall we do?" cried the women.
"We shall starve. Who will feed the little ones?"
"Mercy, O God! Mercy! Mercy for Your wearied children."
There was mercy. For the locusts cast their shadow over the fields and passed without alighting on their crops. When the drone had died away the people whooped with joy.
Thulasi laughed and laughed till the tears ran down his cheeks. It was as if his own crops had been saved. He was happy, happy for his comrades. Now there would be plenty for the hungry, wearied people.
"God has been merciful," he said as he walked back to his shop. "The earth has been merciful. Yes, even the locusts have been merciful."
He was so happy he did not hear Naga Mudaliar call out to him.
"O forgive me, Mudaliar," he apologised, "I was so engrossed I did not hear you. The locusts might have ruined these poor people."
"The locusts might have ruined me, too," said Naga Mudaliar, who owned most of the lands in the village, and was greedy for yet more. "Shiva be praised for that! Otherwise these rogues would have cheated me out of my dues….. What is the matter with you? There is a strange look on your face."
The happiness went out of Thulasi's heart. He was suddenly thinking of Sangran, the moneylender, and of the tax-collector, of the Brahmin priest. . .
"Nothing, Mudaliar," said Thulasi. "I was thinking of one of the locusts a farmer crushed between his fingers yesterday. He crushed it and threw it away."
"What are you talking about?"
"Forgive me, Mudaliar. I was just wondering."
She entered through the yawning mouth of the hut and stood wiping her hands on her cotton skirt, regarding first the flickering oil-lamp which stood in a smoke-blackened niche in the dung wall, and then her husband. He sat on the floor, his face buried between his hunched-up knees and his broad, smooth back against the battered, heavy wooden chest. There was a smell of sweat, smoke, and soiled linen.
She stood there saying nothing, but watching her husband who was apparently unaware of her presence. He seemed like a man in a deep sleep. Then she moved towards the far end of the hut and, unrolling the mat, prepared the bed.
Her face was bloodless, the skin transparent, and her movements had a wearied, lifeless quality about them. Her hands, especially, were so thin that they looked like dry twigs. Only in her black sombre eyes was there a suggestion of that other strength which came from within.
She lay upon the mat without undressing, but could not sleep. Her eyes were fixed on her husband, who still sat there quiet, and hugging his knees.
"Husband!" she whispered, "are you asleep?"
She had to call out a few times before he raised his head. He looked about him dazed, as if he had not completely recovered a grip on his surroundings. Even in the half shadow she could see the dull, glazed film over his eyes.
"Umm!" he mumbled, looking about him.
"The bed is ready."
He rubbed his face. It was a lean, young face, neither stupid nor intelligent, nor particularly brutal. The hands were strong and square, with the nails black and broken.
"It's very late," she said.
"Is it, Leela?" he mumbled, without looking at her. "Don't wait up for me, please. You go to sleep. I'll come in later."
"But you were asleep when I called out to you. Why don't you come to bed now instead of sitting there? You look tired."
"I'm not sleepy really. I'll sit up for a while. You put out the light and go to sleep, Leela."
Leela sat up and pushed back the coarse, red blankets.
"What is it, my husband? What is ailing you?"
"It's nothing," he said wearily. "There is nothing the matter with me. I don't feel like sleep at the moment, that's all." He smiled feebly to reassure her.
"But there is something the matter," she cried, moving towards him. "I know that you are worried about something. You have been sitting like this the whole evening, and the night before and the night before that. I can't get to sleep wondering why! I thought it was some passing mood, but you seem to be getting deeper and deeper into it. Won't you trust me and tell me? Please!"
She was almost in tears. She leant against him.
"But telling you won't make any difference. Perhaps it will only make things worse. Especially now that you are with child, it will be better if you don't know."
His arm which she gripped was without life.
“But don't you trust me enough?" she pleaded. "Have you not told me your troubles before — troubles which were not easy to bear? When we lost our land it was a terrible blow, but it was easier for you when you told me - Won't you trust me and tell me now?"
He stared at her, his eyes suddenly becoming bright and hard.
"Yes, Leela," he said slowly, his voice an even flow. "Yes, I can trust you. . . . You remember our first baby . . ."
"It is not that baby you are worried about!" said Leela. "Why, it was not even ten months old when it died! But that was six months ago. You are not still grieving for the child?"
She looked at his face, wondering whether he was telling a tale just because she had pestered him. The child had been a sickly thing with wheezy lungs. He had not even the strength when her cousin Meenachi, because Leela's breasts could not feed him, had cajoled the child to take to her own breasts. Her husband, too, had been disappointed in the shrivelled tiny creature, but had done everything he could for his son. The child had, however, grown worse and worse till one day it died. She never fully understood why the merciful death of the child should have affected her husband so much. It was some weeks before he could forget about the child.
"Is it the child you are worrying about?" she asked again. He sat erect and rigid, staring straight ahead at the struggling shadows on the wall.
"You remember how happy I was when you told me that I was going to be a father," he said, slowly.
"I was like a schoolboy expecting a promised gift and making plans what he would do when he got it. You grew weak and sickly carrying the baby, but I was too happy to notice that. Even when I heard you cry in labour I was waiting impatiently for the howls of the baby and praying, God make it a boy. A lusty, strong boy . . . Then the midwife handed me a tiny shrivelled thing instead, which whined like a sick dog. O Leela, how I hated the tiny thing right from the very start! I could not bring myself to hold it even. Holding it I felt the smell of death which hung over it. ...
"When I thought perhaps if I took it to the dispensary the doctor sahib could do something for it. Perhaps it could grow strong with the doctor's medicine. You know what the doctor sahib said? He said, 'There is no medicine to cure this child. It was born ill.' That's what the doctor sahib said.
"You know the rest. Yes, it was a sickly baby and grew uglier and uglier every day. When I saw the sores come up on the poor mite's body and heard it trying to breathe, I wondered why it was born in the first place. Every time I looked into the mite's eyes I could see so much of pain and misery that I had to look away. You know, Leela, sometimes I wanted to put the child out of its misery. Many times I had my fingers curled round the tiny throat and thought that I had only to squeeze once and all would have been over in a moment. Only I had not the courage. But I swear, had the child lived longer I would have killed it. I knew that every day the child lived it would become harder for me to bear its growing misery. You don't know what a relief it was when the poor thing died."
He paused to wipe his face with the back of his hand. There was a film of perspiration on his forehead.
"God, forgive me that I should talk like this," he continued. "Sometimes I wonder if I have a stone for a heart! The day when I saw my own child dead the tears in my eyes were of joy and thanks. I tried so hard to love the child, but all I could give was pity. From the time it was born till the day it died I suffered with the child."
She put her arms around his shoulders.
"My poor, poor husband," she said softly. "Did I not know how you felt? Everything you went through I had also gone through. If it had pleased God to give us such a child it is not for us to question the ways of the Creator. What has to be will be! But what good will it do to think about the child now? It lived and it died, and no amount of brooding will change the past. Besides this . . . this other child which is to come soon, it will be as you want it."
She heard him grind his teeth, and the expression on his face terrified her.
"It is not the dead child that has tormented me these last few days," he cried. "Don't you understand, Leela? Don't you understand why our child died? The doctor said that it was ill before it was born."
She did not comprehend him at first, until she saw his rigid accusing stare. Suddenly she was conscious of the sick emaciated body of hers, and of the child struggling to live within.
She groped her way towards the mat, aware of a looming dread for her unborn child.
With the permission of T.Wignesan, editor of Bunga Emas:
[Published in the Malayan Times: Sunday Magazine, p. 2, (Kuala Lumpur, Malaya)
May 21, 1962, in the “Malayan Writers” series edited by T.Wignesan.]
(Note: I wouldn’t today say the same things in the same way as I did then of the short story writer nor of the politician, of course!)
[S.] Rajaratnam: His Land & Rural Folk Themes