Passing away of a Doyen: Mr Bala Subramanion
Passing away of a doyen: My memories of Mr M Bala Subramanion
By Nilanjana Sengupta, author of Singapore, My Country: Biography of M Bala Subramanion
It was I think early 2015 when I started writing Singapore, My Country. One of my first encounters with Uncle was sitting on his open veranda at his La Salle Street residence, while the bell of a nearby church tolled and Uncle recited lines from Omar Khayyam’s poem, “And that inverted bowl we call the sky/Whereunder crawling coop’t we live and die…”
Thus, I was introduced to a man of a philosophical bend of mind, who had drunk deep from the cup of life. He had risen from the humblest background, made it to the top in a difficult, war-torn world with little in terms of family support. And yet, he had not given up – neither surrendered at the feet of destiny his sharp sense of beauty, nor the ethical cannon by which he lived. For me that was the most remarkable aspect of Uncle, something I learnt from him. That your back is never to the wall, unless you think it is. It is in embracing what is difficult that life yields its most gratifying, enriching blossoms.
Highlights of his life that drew me the most? Well, there are many. Uncle watching boxing matches at the Lion City Ring from atop a tree on the banks of Rochor Canal, him playing football bare feet on the outer ring of the Race Course at Serangoon Road, him standing for hours sorting mail when he joined the GPO’s Mail Branch as Probationary Clerk in 1936. And just when life seemed to be getting a bit easy, war struck and yet he managed to wrest some precious learnings from the onerous times – his beautiful friendship with Kanda (G Kandasamy) which lasted a lifetime and introduced him to the idea of dissent, his closer connection with the Indian community as it struggled to keep afloat in the difficult times, his love for the Japanese kanji script which he practiced till the time of the Covid pandemic. And so, a life was forged, going against the tidal current most of the time to rise to the very top of the ladder as Singapore’s first Asian Postmaster General, to continue to make significant contributions to numerous community organisations like the Singapore Indian Association, SIFAS, SINDA, HEB, the Tamil Representative Council and so on.
My last interview with him was I think the most painful, when we discussed the passing away of his only son – Arjun. Gone suddenly, at the prime of youth! Life had apparently never given up on throwing Uncle a googly just when everything appeared to be settling into a comfortable pattern.
I had asked him, “How did you ever manage to cope with it, Uncle?”
He had answered with the same wise smile which held not an iota of bitterness or distrust towards the beautiful gift that is handed to us called life, “What can one do but carry on? Just carry on lah!”
Within a week of the incident, he had returned to the project he was working on with the Singapore Indian Education Trust, a short history of the SIET, which incidentally was the organisation that was closest to his heart. For the next years he had continued to plan as meticulously for the education of numerous others from the vast underclass of the Indian community as he had once done for his own children.
That last day he had also quoted to me Ben Jonson,
“In small proportions we just beauties see;
And in short measures life may perfect be.”
Writing about Uncle was taking a close, hard look at life, a life where nothing, not even a moment could be taken easily, only because nothing, not even the smallest of good fortunes came easy.