Supramaniam: The Man Who Constantly Cheated Death To Bring Life To Others
He was barely 20. Yet, death looked almost certain to his eyes as the B-17 bomber headed menacingly in his direction, ready to decimate any target in its view in the Japanese-occupied territory of Malaya.
He raised his hands in prayer, squeezed his eyes shut and waited for the bullets or explosion that would end his life. The terrifying drone of the aircraft grew louder, then trailed off.
Slowly he opened his eyes, too scared to breathe. In a moment of conscience – rare during those times of war – the pilot of the bomber had spared the young man standing in the roofless toilet of the village he had come to strike.
It wasn’t the only time Supramaniam Thalakasami had stared death in its face, and lived to tell about it.
SURVIVED THE “DEATH RAILWAY”
The next two years, he watched hundreds of war prisoners, including Britons and Australians, die from disease and malnutrition while being forced by the Japanese to construct a 258-mile railway line between Bangkok and Rangoon, a project now infamously known as the “Thai-Burma Death Railway”. Building stilts on rivers, and clearing forests and mountains with machetes and sometimes bare hands, the men suffered wounds that turned septic and fatal, and lived in unsanitary conditions that brought other deadly diseases.
Supramaniam miraculously escaped all these while working on the same railway. He was saved by his knowledge of the Japanese language, which he became quite fluent at while serving at the railway camp. The Japanese commanders at the camp needed to communicate with the prisoners under their charge. They needed people who understood their language and that of the detainees. Supramaniam offered himself as translator for the Tamil- and English-speaking prisoners at the camp, becoming an useful ally to his captors.
In the process, he became a supervisor of sorts for the detainees and avoided the hard labor they endured.
LOST PART OF VISION, SURVIVED ON WITS
While his own younger brother died of malaria working on the Death Railway, Supramaniam lost only part of his vision, due to an eye infection. He had survived purely by his wits.
So, it’s not surprising this man would live on till he was almost 90, becoming a model of character and admiration during his lifetime, and a lasting legacy for his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren to follow.
Born in 1923 in India’s Madurai district, in a village called Kathikulam, Supramaniam was the second of five children to the headman of the village.
At the tender age of 3, he was put on a ship called Akhbar, which reached Malaya after a grueling 21 days of voyage. As he grew up in his new land, the highly-studious Supramaniam aspired to become a teacher, and achieved excellent grades in the “GCE” examinations to attend Teachers Training College at the age of 17. He graduated two years later.
BEGAN WORK AS TEACHER
Barely had his career as a teacher began when World War II broke out and Japan invaded Malaya.
When the war finally ended in 1945, Supramaniam was 22. Returning to Malaya from his post at the Thai-Burma Death Railway, he went back to teaching. His passion for education was so great that it was the only job he ever held, rising from a teacher to headmaster over a period of 30 years. Even after his retirement at 55 as headmaster of the Tamil Primary School in Sungei Besi, Kuala Lumpur, he was missing the job so much that he volunteered to come back and teach Tamil as a Pupil’s Own Language (POL). He did that for another five years at the Bukit Bintang Secondary School in Kuala Lumpur, before completely retiring from teaching at the age of 60.
He may have been content with a life of just students and books had he not agreed to his mother’s wishes to be married by the age of 25. His bride, Jayaletchumi Vairamuthu, was just 13 then – too young to be in love by today’s standards, let alone be married.
OBEDIENT SON FIRST
But Supramaniam wasn’t one to question his mother’s wisdom or ideals. To him, a son’s duty was to obey his parents. There was no parallel to the devotion he had for his mother, to the extent he neither smoked nor had a drop of alcohol – even coffee or tea – till the day he died because of a promise he made her.
“From what I know, he made that vow to his mother at a very young age because she was so worried, seeing the effect of alcohol on so many youngsters at that time,” Supramaniam’s third eldest son, Gnanasambathan, recalls.
“The amazing thing is not only did he promise to stay away from cigarettes, beer and liquor, he also promised not to touch coffee and tea because those things were addictive too.”
“One would imagine that he would have lived life differently after his mother died, but that never happened with my father. To him, his mother’s wisdom was a given and not to be doubted. So, he stayed true to the word he gave her. That’s how disciplined he was with his life.”
LOVING HUSBAND NEXT
In Jayaletchumi, Supramaniam’s mother saw the perfect companion for her son, despite his bride not even being a teen.
She could not have been more right.
The couple had six children in their 65 years together, raising each to become a respectable citizen. Being 12 years older to his wife, Supramaniam was more than a husband to her. Jayaletchumi’s father, one of Malaya’s first postmaster generals, had returned to Jaffna, Ceylon, when she was a toddler, abandoning the family. Supramaniam became her father-figure, mentor and best friend as she learnt everything she knew about the world from him.
Even after his retirement at 60, Supramaniam refused to live the idyllic life. He turned towards politics, not to beget some position in society but to serve the poor and destitute in any way he could. For 20 years, he did community work for a political party, helping many quietly and never taking credit for it.
BIG ON ASTROLOGY
When he wasn’t serving the public, he was reading. Astrology was one subject that fascinated him. When his sons and daughters called upon him, it was not unusual for them to find him engrossed in some study of the planets and stars.
While he lived as proudly as he could for his age, his body was slowly surrendering to the ills common for someone of his seniority. Not having a single vice, including drinking and smoking, had kept him healthier than people who were 30 years younger. Until 82, he could move around without the aid of a walker, and only began using a stick when he turned 85.
While most of his faculties were failing in the last days of life, his cholesterol and sugar levels remained surprisingly normal – testimony of the strict diet he had maintained all life. He was admitted to a nursing home for 2 weeks before being brought home in his last three days, to pass in the care of his beloved wife.
PARAGON OF VIRTUE
To his family, Supramaniam Thalakasami will remain a paragon of virtue difficult to emulate in their lifetime.
Third eldest son Gnanasambanthan still remembers every life lesson learnt from his father: “I remember three things he taught us never to do – Don’t lie. Don’t steal. Don’t beg.”
“He said you would never progress in life if you do any of these.”
Youngest son Sundarason says his success as a businessman is partially due to a simple ideal adopted from Supramaniam.
“WHO’S THE RICHEST MAN?”, HE ONCE ASKED
“My father once asked me who’s the richest man in the world?,” said Sundarason. I thought for a while and said, ‘Is it Bill Gates?’
“He said: ‘No. The richest man in the world is he who owes no one anything.’
“I have been a businessman all my life and this is the most valuable business lesson I learnt from my father who was just a government servant.”
* Supramaniam Thalakasami was born in 1923 and returned to Shivaloga in 2013.
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