Historical Fiction

Letters from Borneo


British North Borneo

9th December 1941

Dear Appa,

My respects and namaskarams to you and Amma.

You may perhaps be wondering why I am writing to you so soon after my last letter, to which I have not yet received your reply. Appa, a big event occurred recently that I have to tell you about.

Neelakantan came home yesterday morning. I had just put baby to sleep, when he came rushing in. "The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor," he shouted.

Well, I couldn't really understand what the issue was. "Where is this Pearl Harbor?" I asked him. "And how does it matter to us what the Japanese do?"

Baby started crying and I had to hush him to sleep. But it was hard, with my husband excited and yelling. "Pearl Harbor. That's in America. That means the Americans will join the war."

I looked out from our house and saw groups of people talking excitedly. Now that America was in the war, it would be a very bloody and prolonged war. Or maybe not. Some thought the war would end soon.

I asked him if we Indians who were under the British would now get our freedom. That's what Neelakantan always wanted, like all of us. But unlike you, Appa, who believes in Gandhiji's peaceful methods, Neelakantan thinks only violence against the British will get us our freedom. He thinks if we follow Gandhiji, we won't get freedom for another thousand years.

Appa, I am really not sure how this Pearl Harbor attack is going to affect all of us Indians here in British North Borneo. The British officers in Neelakantan's company are secretly getting frightened. They are planning to return to England and leave some Indians in charge of running the company. This is just to be on the safe side, they say. They think the Japanese are no match for them. Neelakantan thinks otherwise.

Well, this is my news and this is a very short letter to you.

Otherwise I am well, and baby is doing well too. He's started crawling and looks at me and smiles. He loves eating mashed rice with milk. He also loves bananas. We are still getting our supplies of food and provisions from the ship from Singapore that docks here every other week. Thank goodness I filled the larder with rice and dals and all the spices. I needn't worry for the next two months in case the ship doesn't come.

I must end, and I hope this letter sees you both in good health and cheer. Please give my love to Elder Brother Krishnamurti and little Kausalya and Subhadra.

Your affectionate daughter,



Tamilnadu, India

1st February 1942

My dear Lakshmi,

Hope you are keeping safe and well. We are very worried about you, your husband Neelakantan, and the baby. You are so far away. Amma constantly reprimands me and says I should never have sent you so far away. She says there were enough grooms in Tenkasi itself and we could have found someone here instead of a foreign groom. But I know we could never have found a better man for you than Neelakantan.

Of course, we heard immediately of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Here too, there is a great uproar as the British have claimed both Britain and India are at war with Germany without taking any of our leaders' permission. But I have full faith in Gandhiji. He and the Congress leaders have agreed to support Britain provided they give us our independence. Let us see if they keep their word.

I am hopeful that, in case the Japanese attack the British in Singapore, Borneo and Malaysia, they will be making the biggest mistake. The British army, I am told, is a formidable force. No one can defeat them. They are invincible.

Prices of essential goods have gone up a lot here. There's a shortage of rice and dals and the shop-keepers are hoarding goods to sell at a higher price. Even the prices of vegetables have gone up. Thankfully, we grow all our vegetables and, apart from potatoes, we get all the fresh produce from our garden.

There is another piece of news for you. Your elder brother Krishnamurti has joined the Royal Indian Air Force as a meteorologist. His pay is very good for a fresh graduate. He will also get extra supplies as he is now in the air force. More butter, more biscuits, as well as extra rations of rice and ghee. That will help us a lot. As you know, my monetary situation has not been very good ever since I retired. The pension of ten rupees I get every month is barely enough to keep our family from starvation. So we were all very happy when Krishnamurti was selected, although he will now no longer be living with us. He is being sent to Poona for training, and after that he may be posted anywhere in India. But he can visit us every few months when he gets leave.

We are happy to know Baby is doing well. We are longing to see him. I don't know when that will be, but now that America has joined in the war, I hope it ends very soon, and we can all get back together again.

Please take care of your health. Our enquiries to Neelakantan and love to Baby.

Yours affly,


PS: I don't know when this letter will reach you as I hear there's some fierce fighting going on there. Amma is performing prayers every day in the temple for your safety.


British North Borneo

15th June 1942

My dear Appa

I received your letter only yesterday! I am happy to know you all are well, and that Elder Brother has joined the RIAF. This is a proud moment for all of us.

So much has happened since I last wrote to you. The British in Singapore, who considered themselves invincible, have been defeated roundly by the Japanese. The Japanese have even come all the way here, to Borneo, and have taken the English as prisoners. They have been moved to some prisoner-of-war camps on the outskirts of Jesselton.

The Japanese have now occupied Malaysia and Borneo and are very good to us Indians. They say they will help us get our independence from the English if we support them.

They are very strict rulers. No one dares disobey them. They have taken away all our money and said they will give us new money minted by their government. One of our neighbors hid some money in a tin, but they found out and beat him badly. They are quite ruthless. They have told all captured Indian soldiers that if they support the Japanese, they will be safe and treated well. Of course, we heard that some of the soldiers refused to cooperate with them and they were brutally killed.

We are facing a big food shortage. There is very little rice left. Many of the Chinese have also left. Neelakantan and I, along with Baby, go around the countryside looking for vegetables at abandoned farms.

Appa, I want to come home. I miss you and Amma. I hope and pray this war finishes quickly.

My love to all at home.

Your loving daughter,



Tamil Nadu, India

3rd September 1942

My dear Lakshmi,

We received your letter of 15th June only yesterday. Many parts of your letter were blacked out. It must be the censors at work. We have heard so much about the war going on in your part of the world. We are all very worried about your safety.

Elder Brother came home last week and brought gifts for all of us. He brought home a big tin of Huntley and Palmers biscuits and a big box of chocolates for your sisters. We had to stop them from eating too many chocolates. Elder Brother was looking ever so smart in his khaki uniform. He has one stripe on his sleeve because he is a pilot officer. Right now, he's staying with the other recruits in some barracks in Poona. He says the accommodation is satisfactory.

Amma and I are very worried that you are not getting rice and vegetables. I think the censor forgot to cross out that part of your letter.

Please be very careful. Do not say or do anything that will bring attention to you. The best thing to do in wartime is to lie low.

Gandhiji and his followers have launched the Quit India movement. It is ridiculous that the British are still sitting on the fence about giving us our freedom. They say until the war is over, no freedom for us. In the meantime, so many of our brave soldiers have lost their lives on foreign soil.

Rice has now become outrageously expensive. It is two rupees a kilo. Amma now ony drinks rice-water. She has become very thin and weak, as all of us have, only that she is now skin and bones. She insists we eat a little rice, but she forgoes her share.

Otherwise, we are as well as we can be in the circumstances.

I hope Neelakantan and Baby are doing well. Baby must be a year old. Is he walking now? Amma continues to fast and pray for your well-being.

Take care.

Love and good wishes,



British North Borneo

30th December 1942

My dear Appa

I received your letter of 3rd September only today. This may be the last letter from me for many months. We have been told to evacuate as they are expecting some heavy bombing here. Neelakantan is sending me and Baby to a small village called Papar because he says we will be safe there. He has to go to another town, Beaufort, along with the other Indian men. He says it is not very far from Papar and he can take the jungle train and come to see me every other week. I will not have access to a post office while in the village so you may not hear from me for a while. But don't worry. As soon as this war is over, I will contact you.

Please keep safe.

Your loving daughter,



Tamilnadu, India

!5th April 1944

My dear sister Lakshmi,

I am writing to you with a heavy heart. Yesterday, Appa passed away. I did not tell you as I din't want to unnecessarily worry you, but a year ago, Appa had a massive stroke. He was recovering, so  we never expected him to die so suddenly. Every day, for the last year and a half, he'd sit outside waiting for the postman to come with your letter. He could barely speak, but would keep calling out your name, "Lakshmi, Lakshmi." He died with your name on his lips.

We cremated the body today. I had to rush down from Madras, where I'd been posted, as soon as I heard the news. It took me a day to reach Tenkasi.

Amma is speechless with grief. Your sisters have been crying so much that there are black circles under their eyes. I have to be brave for the family. It is good that I earn a handsome salary. It is enough for our family's needs.

Sister, I am sorry to be the messenger of this devastating news. I hope you are safe. I hope this letter reaches you. It seems the war is not going well, and Germany and the Axis powers may win.

I hope we all can meet soon, although our meeting will be bitter-sweet with Appa gone.

Your loving brother


British North Borneo

21st May 1945

My dear Appa,

I have not heard from you all for so long, I've lost track of time. I'm not sure if this letter will ever reach you. I am sending it through someone who is going to Jesselton. He has promised to post it. I have to trust in God.

Amma, Appa, I am very very afraid. The American bombers are flying low over the countryside. There are so many planes and they are dropping bombs everywhere, even on empty fields. Thank God Neelakantan is with me. He came crossing the jungle from Beaufort. He told me the Japanese have lost the war and are now running helter-skelter. He begged to be taken on one of their trains but they point-blank refused. So he had to walk through the thick jungle. One of the jungle people he befriended helped him cross safely. He has lost so much weight, Appa! I was shocked to see him. I quickly boiled some rice and fed him as if he were a baby.

Yesterday, an American bomb was dropped in a nearby field. It went off with such a loud noise that our eardrums were almost shattered. Baby, who is now four, screamed and ran about. I was so worried for him. I had stuffed his ears with some old pieces of cloth from a torn saree as I'd anticipated this happening. But nothing prepared us for that loud bang and the destruction we saw later when we ventured out.

Appa, the war is almost over. We will be going to Singapore as soon as we can, and once we get permission from the English authorities, we will sail back to India. I think that will take place only after three or four months.

The only thing that matters is that we are all alive. We have to thank our gods above that we are safe and well. Finally, this war is getting over. The Americans have almost taken over British North Borneo,  so we can return safely.Venkatesh (he objects to being called baby) has heard all about you, his grandparents, as well as his big uncle and his small aunts. We can't wait to see you all in person.

My love and best wishes to all.

Your loving daughter,


August 23, 2023 18:42

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