It reminds you of the smell of fresh cow dung smeared on raw earth. You feel that you are transported back in time - Taken to a picturesque village, where young men work from dawn to dusk, their feet caked with soil. Your journey with the book begins here. From an obscure village in Coimbatore to the rubber plantations of Malaysia.
Muthammal Palanisamy's 'From Shore to Shore' tells the story of a family, which had to migrate to Malaysia, then 'the land of promise.' Set in the early 1900s, the book traces the history of Muthammal's family. Written in lucid prose, the story of love, labour and war unfurls to the reader at an unhurried pace. She spoke to Anasuya Menon on her book and the experience of writing about people dear to her.
"I have a good memory of certain things and I thought I should put it all down in a book," she says. Thus a book was born, chronicling the life of an entire class of people who spent their lives at the mercy of their foreign employers in a land completely alien to them. "I had a difficult childhood. Especially when my family came to India during the Second World War. We had nothing then and we made a living by spinning yarn and selling cakes of dried cow dung," she reminisces.
Muthammal Palanisamy's father was among the group of workers from Tamil Nadu who set sail to Malaysia sometime in 1912 in search of a job. The condition of indentured labourers in Malaysia was deplorable and her family had to bear the contempt of the 'white' plantation managers. "The workers including my father who was the head of the group of labourers who went from India were treated with scant regard and they had to undergo a lot of hardship at the plantations," she recounts. "They were never addressed by their names and were always called 'bloody coolies'. And, the women were not even allowed to wear their "thali" as the 'white' managers saw it interfering with their work with tender rubber seedlings," she explains.
Muthammal also speaks of her marriage to Spence Grant, the son of Robert Charles Grant, the Scottish manager of one of the Malayan estates. Spence and his sister studied in the same school as her. The siblings shared a troubled childhood with their father leaving them and being forced into hiding during the Japanese invasion.
It is hardly a remarkable piece of fiction and as Muthammal herself says, the book is just a spontaneous recollection of the events that made her life what it is. Bringing a tear or two to the eyes of at least some who read it, making them yearn for the days gone by.