Chapter 20. On foot to Padang Sidempuan

In February, 1944 Abbas Mohammad’s younger brother, Faiz, together with his two friends, Devi Das and Abdul Gani came to Sibolga on a bullock cart loaded with articles to sell. All three of them were well-to-do cloth merchants by trade, but due to the war they could not get fresh stocks and had been obliged to devise some other means of earning their livelihood. Their bullock cart was loaded with all types of miscellaneous goods that they were taking to sell in Sidempuan. They decided to take me along with them so that a hakim (local doctor) they knew would be able to treat my skin disease.

They approached the chief of the Indonesian police who was responsible for us and as they assured him that they would be responsible for me while 1 was there, I was given a pass to go with them for a week. With Khaleel’s blessings the four of us set out one morning, walking along the bullock cart. We walked the whole morning until 1 p.m. when we reached a place where a Chinaman lived with his Javanese wife and young daughter. Faiz Mohammad knew him very well and asked them to allow us to cook our food in their house. They would not hear of it. Instead, they insisted on cooking for us. They were very hospitable. The womenfolk cooked our meal while we chatted with the Chinaman. A clean mat was given to me for my prayers, and a clean white table cloth was laid out with the best crockery in the house, for dinner. I felt homesick when I saw the white table cloth and napkins. However, we enjoyed the delicious food.

That night we rested in a village-inn run by a Javanese woman from whom Faiz bought fish and chutney. He cooked the rice himself. We slept on the veranda of the inn and early the next morning set off again, passing villages and rice fields on our way. Another stop, this time at a small wayside restaurant and then on again. We took it in turns to sit on the cart and to walk.

On the second night we reached the house of an Indian in Batantarok village. The old man was a Haji and he was blind. He managed to walk around the house on his own. He had a very old wife who prepared food for us and gave us mattresses to sleep on. At the end of the third day, we were close to Sidempuan. The town was much higher than sea level and it felt quite cold when we entered it. The sun was setting and after our evening prayers, Abbas was there to welcome me and take me to his house.

Abbas and Devi Das lived quite close to each other and as the ladies in Abbas’ house observed purdah (seclusion) arrangements were made for me to stay with Devi Das, who was married to a Javanese woman and they had no children of their own. They had adopted the baby of a woman whose husband had been killed by the Japanese. The baby’s elder sister was also staying in the house. Their little three-roomed wooden house, exactly like all the other little Indonesian homes around it, had a sitting room, a bedroom and a combined dining room and pantry. The kitchen, which was also the bathroom, was behind the dining room. At the back of the kitchen, over a drain covered with wooden planks, was the w.c. The sitting room had a cement floor covered with an Indian carpet and in the corner was a wooden bed. I slept here. I was to have my breakfast with Dcvi Das and my lunch and dinner with Abbas.

The day after I arrived Abbas lent me his copy of the Holy Qur’an. As soon as I could, I opened it and to my great joy found that it had an Urdu translation. I cannot express in words how happy I felt; it seemed to me that it had come to me straight from heaven. I remembered how, many months before, I had yearned for a Qur’an with an Urdu translation. I now recalled all the stages that had led me to the Holy Book.

Allah, the supreme Ruler of the universe, who has power over every little thing on earth and in the heavens, had brought me to Sidempuan and to Abbas’s house to learn His message. It could not be His wish for me to return to Sibolga after only one week. Although I had a pass for only a week, I resolved to stay on in Sidemnpuan until I had read every word of the Qur’an. I read it in the morning, I glanced through it in the afternoon and I searched for its meaning in the night. In fact, I opened it whenever I found the time to do so. The moments of revelation increased as I became more and more absorbed in it. There never seemed a second when the verses of the Holy Book were not flashing across my mind. Whenever I went on the streets, in the bazaar or in the company of friends, with every step I took, I thought of the beautiful words of Allah. How true they were! Every word and every sentence filled with wisdom.

This was the first time in my life that I was reading the Holy Qur’an with its translation, the first time that I was beginning to understand Allah’s message. As I continued to read, I felt even more convinced that I had no worry about my safety with the Japanese or the Indonesian police.

A month passed in Sidempuan, without any interference at all from the police. I was beginning to feel that I could not go on accepting Abbas and Devi’s hospitality without doing something for them in return. So, instead of reading the Qur’an all day, I began helping Abbas in his general store in the afternoons.

By that time I had begun to feel at home with many of Abbas’s friends, among them Hakim Ghulam Mustafa Rawal, known to us as Hakim Sahib. He had a shop which was the main meeting place for the male members of the twelve Indian families that lived in Sidempuan. Many a happy evening was spent here and at Devi Das’. In addition to playing chess and other games we were entertained by Abdul Gani, who had a melodious voice and sang very well.

Abdul Gani was a singer of great renown and was in great demand all over Sumatra. Who knows how many hearts had been wounded by the arrow of love while listening to his songs. Gani’s brother-in-law, Hakim Sahib, was married to a Javanese woman, a widow with a 12 year old daughter, Singha. Gani’s mother was Javanese, too — a dear old lady who did all the cooking and whom I never once saw lose her temper.

There was a great deal to do as my friend, Gani, who was the same age as myself, had decided to start a bakery and sell cakes in the bazaar. Gani had a very rough idea as to how cakes were made. I, on the other hand, had become quite experienced after working with Khaleel and Khan Sahib. I felt that Allah had intended me to be of use to Gani and so I gave him all the help I could in his enterprise. Our’s was not a small enterprise. We meant business and very soon we were ordering baking tins and mixing bowls and installing a small oven.

For our bakery, Gani had chosen a corner of Hakim Saheb’s kitchen and it was there, very early in the morning that Gani and I started work. First, there were the eggs to beat and mix with the molasses (sugar was not available) in a small alluminium bath tub. That was my job. Gani, meanwhile, arranged the fire wood underneath the oven and got the fire started. He would then come over to help me beat the eggs, a very exhausting job for a single person to do. Little Singha helped too with the beating of the cake mixture and the greasing of the baking tins.

By eleven in the morning our cakes were ready and we would set out to deliver them to various tea shops in the bazaar. At first, they were frankly, not very good. But, later on, as we became more experienced with the oven, our “kue boloo”, as the people of Sidempuan called them, became extremely popular. After the cakes had been distributed, I was free for a few hours to return to the reading of the Holy Qur’an. The afternoons were spent in Abbas’s shop. Sometimes I went to Devi’s fruit garden, a mile from town, and worked over there. How happy I was in Sidempuan, always occupied and surrounded by friends — Indians and Indonesians.

There was a big mosque, too, very centrally situated and only a few minutes walk from where we lived. I tried my best to say all my prayers in the mosque and came to know quite a number of Indonesian Muslims, some of whom were Hajis. Living in the company of such men, it is not surprising that I began to think and feel the same way as they did.

The thing that impressed me very much about Sidempuan  was the way the Indonesians recited the Holy Qur’an. It was a real pleasure to hear them recite the words of Allah and I envied them, wishing that I could recite as beautifully as they did. One day, while I was returning from the mosque, I stood outside a house where the Holy Qur’an was being recited. There was a large gathering of men and women inside the house and, as I stood outside listening, a young man came up to me. He soon found out, on questioning me, that I was keen to learn to recite the Holy Qur’an like the Indonesians. He very kindly offered to help me and said he would teach me Arabic.

The following day I started my hourly lessons at his house. We were progressing very well when one afternoon my teacher told me that the police were after him. They had warned him not to meet me and never allow me to go to his house. I could see that he was sincerely sorry to have to ask me not to visit him again. In the month of Ramadhan, he said, he would make an exception. He assured me that it would be quite safe for everyone if I joined the people who assembled in his house to recite the Holy Qur’an during that month. My Arabic studies from then had to be fitted in between customers at the general store. Without a teacher I could not hope to make the same progress. However, I could console myself with the thought that Ramadhan was fast approaching.

During the time that I spent in Sidempuan, I never felt the need for anything. I did not get a fixed salary, yet my pockets were never empty. My friend, Abdul Karim, now in the post office in Boekit Tingi, just as the khalasis had told me, managed to send me 20 guilders every month. One day, I was surprised to hear from Karim that Narayan Singh of Han Brothers, Padang, had given him 100 guilders to give to me. Could this be anything else but the Mercy of the Lord, our Maker? I had last met Singh in 1943 and it was now, 1945. During the two years I had had no communication from him, and yet he had sent me the handsome sum of money for my expenses. Am I wrong to say that every minute of every day it was being proved to me that God is Great? And that there is no power on earth greater than Him? He alone provides for all our needs.

One day a Haji invited me to a milad (a religious gathering) which was being held in the girls school. I was told, a scripture class was being held there regularly every Friday for older men and women. The following Friday I started attending the class and learnt quite a few things which I was not aware of. The class began with one of the school girls reciting a passage from the Qur’an and then reading out its meaning in the Indonesian language. The teacher then gave us a sermon based on the passage.

On Fridays, Gani excused me from working in the bakery so that I could attend the class. After class I would pay a visit to the graveyard and then go to the mosque for the Friday congregational prayers.

I visited the cemetery because not long before the young Devi child had passed away. She had been very ill and, although Mrs. Devi Das had done all she could to look after her adopted child, she could not save her. At her funeral it had been unanimously agreed that I should carry her body to the burial ground. I shall never forget that dismal day.

It had rained heavily and the graveyard was very wet. To reach it we had to wade in ankle deep water across a stream. I had made it a matter of routine to spend half-an-hour at the graveyard every Friday. It gave me a great deal of spiritual peace and an opportunity to pray for the souls of the departed. It was a reminder that this was the ultimate reality each one of us had to face — to return one day to our eternal heavenly home. There were occasions when Mrs.Devi Das, her older daughter and Hakim Saheb’s step-daughter would accompany me to the graveyard and sit very quietly while I read verses from the Holy Qur’an.

As was the practice of Muslims all over the world, the approach of the holy month of Ramadhan was eagerly awaited by the people of Sidempuan, the vast majority of whom were Muslims. At long last the new moon was sighted and the month of fasting began. Gani and I had decided that we would work in the afternoon and distribute the bolos (cakes) to various restaurants an hour before sunset. We would get down to work soon after the afternoon prayers — beat the eggs and molasses together, put them in baking tins and bake them in the oven. When the cakes were ready, we would put them in baskets and take them to the bazaar.

With a good days work behind us, we would walk around the town which would come to life around sunset. Those who joined the congregational prayers made their way to the mosque and waited eagerly for the bèat of the drums which announced the time for the breaking of the fast. Gani, his father and I broke our fast and prayed together. Later I would go to the mosque for taraweeh (special night prayer during the month of Ramadhan). A few days later Gani, his father and I performed the taraweeh together at home.

After prayers we would have refreshments and I would go over to the house of the young man who had started teaching me Arabic. He had stopped after he had been warned by the police not to associate with me. His name was Qamruddin Siregar, a school teacher. As he had promised me earlier he welcomed me together with other students to recite the Holy Qur’an. We sat in a large circle. I sat next to him. He began by reciting a few passages and then the person next to him recited a few verses, until it came around to me, sitting on his left. I began nervously, not being sure of my pronunciation, and for the first time reading aloud in the presence of so many people. Qamruddin realised my predicament and after I had recited a few verses took over as it was once again his turn to do the recitation. For almost two hours, the recitation of the Holy Qur’an continued. Each person recited portions and completed a whole chapter or more. Qamruddin kept translating and explaining the meaning of important passages. By the end of a month, not only had my recitation improved but I had a glimpse of the basic lessons the Holy Qur’an conveyed to mankind.

I spent the Ramadhan of 1945 in the company of wonderful people in the small town of Sidempuan. I could continue the study of the Holy Qur’an or perform voluntary prayers late into the night. I would knock on Abbas’ door for him to wake up the ladies to prepare the sehri (the morning meal before the break of dawn). I then joined the congregation for the early morning prayers in the mosque and returned home to sleep. Everyone was considerate and let me sleep until 11 in the morning when I would go to the Mohammad brothers shop called “Toko Pakistan”. (Pakistan shop) I remaind there until it was time to return to the mosque for afternoon prayers and then go to the bakery.

The days in Sidempuan were the happiest and best of my imprisoned life. Only those who have had similar experiences like myself would know what it means to communicate with God and can have any real idea of the glorious happiness that was mine. All others will believe me, I am sure, when I say that something, some power greater than myself, must have sustained me throughout the hardships, the brutality, the degradation and the loneliness of the heart that I had been called upon to endure.

A change in the scene was imminent. The Japanese in Sumatra had become very restless. Large columns of men were being shifted from one town to another every day. One evening, an Allied plane flew over and dropped some leaflets. An Indian living in a village nearby brought us one. From it we learnt of the Japanese retreat and the Allied recapture of Burma.

In Sidempuan, the news was received with mixed feelings. Fear prevailed. There were rumours that the Japanese would arrest all soldiers who had been in the Dutch army, all high Indonesian officials and a number of Indians. I was for certain going to be on that list.

Somehow it did not worry me in the least. One afternoon, it was an afternoon which was to change the atmosphere of the whole town—the news arrived that peace had been restored. All I remember is that Gani and I were beating up the eggs for our cakes when Ishwar Das, Dcvi’s brother, came into the kitchen and whispered something in Gani’s ears. When he left, Gani told me that there was news of peace between the enemy countries. My eyes filled with tears and I felt thrilled when I heard the news. Gani was anxious not to build up my hopes on rumours, and kept saying that it was impossible. I tried to tell him that nothing was impossible in this world.

We learnt later from Abbas that the news was indeed true. The Japanese civil officer had called on the heads of all communities in Sumatra and told them that the Allies had dropped a bomb so powerful that it had wiped out one of the towns. They were afraid that such bombs may be dropped on Indonesia and other Japanese possessions. For the safety of all their subjects, they had voted for peace. There was no doubt that peace was coming, though no one dared to demonstrate the overwhelming delight that they felt. No one dared to hang out flags or decorate the bazaar Yet, Sidempuan was celebrating You could see the happiness of the people in their smiling faces and you could feel it in the air Many Indonesian friends, who for months had been afraid to talk to me, now came up to me openly and congratulated me saying that my fortune would soon take a turn for the better and that it would not be long before I returned to my parents

A few days later an Allied plane flew over and dropped leaflets asking us to remain calm and do what the Japanese told us to do. The leaflet said that we should prepare lists of all the men in the prison camps and that the prisoners should be told to wait patiently.

Eid was approaching and there was great excitement amongst the inhabitants of Sidempuan This was to be an Eid under very different circumstances from that of the previous year. I received a telegram from Abdul Karim in Boekit Tingi asking me to return immediately to Sibolga and prepare lists of our men in captivity

The Indians in Sidempuan had done a great deal for me sheltering me during the bad days, and I felt it a poor return for their hospitality to leave them just before Eid. When I explained to them that the Allies might arrive any day and that it was imperative for me to look after the men in Sibolga, they agreed to my departure. I do not know how I could ever repay those dear and gallant people. God, our Maker, had seen everything and I prayed to Him to look after those who had looked after me during those difficult days.

I discovered later that a new couple who had moved in next door to Devi Das had been sent to spy on me. The Japanese had not trusted me for one moment. Spies, policemen and civilians had watched me but, above them all, was the Lord, the Supreme Ruler of the Universe. He was there forever with me and guarded me against all evils. In Sibolga, in Padang and last, but not the least, in Sidempuan, there had always been the Supreme Master of the heavens and the earth beside me.

I have written so much and yet, I do not feel satisfied that I have been able to find suitable words to praise our Lord. Had I the genius of a Tagore, a Shakespeare or an Iqbal, then, I might put down in words the Greatness and Omnipotence of the Almighty. His true glory goes beyond the boundaries of language and can only be felt in the heart.

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2 responses to “Chapter 20. On foot to Padang Sidempuan

  1. Everyone was considerate and let me sleep until 11 in the morning when I would go to the Mohammad brothers shop called “Toko Pakistan”. (Pakistan shop) I remaind there until it was time to return to the mosque for afternoon prayers and then go to the bakery.sir pakistan was not on the map that time,why that shop was called “PAKISTAN SHOP”

  2. Many thanks for taking interest in reading “Lest I forget”. Admittedly Pakistan was not on the map at the time, but, talk about creation of Pakistan appeared in Newspapers. It did not strike me then, to ask, why the shop was called “Toko Pakistan”. It is most likely that the owner of the shop found it attractive to name the shop “Toko Pakistan”.
    regards,
    Sayeed

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