75 years of give and take

K. JANARTHANAN

He lost his parents at the age of seven, started working as a labourer the next year and toiled for more than 60 years for his family.

Last Saturday, centenarian Suppaiyah and his 90-year-old wife Kamalam celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary with family and friends at the Civil Service Club in Bukit Batok.

The couple have six children, 11 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

In the 1930s and 1940s in Kota Tinggi, colonial Malaya, Mr Suppaiyah had to fend for himself after the death of his parents.

He does not have any memory of them and does not have a surname on his NRIC.

He worked as a rubber tapper but during the Japanese occupation was forcibly taken to work at the Death Railway project in Thailand.

The young man saw people die in harsh conditions and "buried in mass graves". Mr Suppaiyah managed to return to Kota Tinggi after the occupation ended.

In 1947, he got married to a woman who grew up in the same estate.

"My father and brother saw that he was a hardworking, responsible man," said Madam Kamalam, who was born in Vellore, Tamil Nadu.

Her family moved to Kota Tinggi when she was a child.

"My family also thought it would be easier for me since there were no in-laws," she said.

In 1955, Mr Suppaiyah moved to Singapore with his wife and one-year-old daughter.

He worked as an odd-job labourer and the couple had five more children, all boys.

Mr Suppaiyah did not have much money at the time but he managed to build a house on his own in the Ten Mile Junction area in Bukit Panjang, with the help of his wife and brother-in-law.

He cleared a piece of land and built a small house over two years, housing his family in a rented house in the meantime.

"We had neither water nor electricity in the new house, so we struggled for a while," recalled Mr Suppaiyah, adding that he dug a 9m-deep well for water.

The couple's third son Bala Kerisnan, 64, said: "My mother dedicated herself to looking after the children while my father took on several small jobs in addition to being a tailor at the British Ordnance Base in Keat Hong.

"Later, he also worked at several construction projects, including the land reclamation project in Changi. Eventually he became a security guard before retiring in his 70s.

"Through his hard work and sacrifice, my father earned my mother's lasting respect."

Mr Suppaiyah was thrifty, cycling everywhere instead of taking the bus. He also sewed all the clothes for the family, including the school bags.

Mr Kerisnan said his father was against his mother working but relented in the 1960s and approved of her becoming a part-time helper.

"While some of his views were old-fashioned, his dedication to providing the necessities and comforts to his family earned the respect of everyone," he added.

Madam Kamalam said that, although the family did not have much money, her husband would still try to pamper her.

"He would ask me if there was anything I wanted and he always did his best to provide for the family. He is also honest and a man of his word," she said.

Mr Suppaiyah described his wife as patient and caring. "Through thick and thin, we maintain a deep level of understanding and we trust each other wholly," he said.

Of course there were disagreements throughout their marriage, said Madam Kamalam, but "when one of us refused to budge, the other would give in. It is a matter of mutual give and take".

She added that her respect for Mr Suppaiyah grew over time as she began to appreciate the sacrifices he made.

"Everyone respects him, he's a man of principle." she said.

The couple's daughter Madam Valli, 69, said her parents' strict approach was overbearing at times but it ultimately instilled discipline in her and her brothers.

And her parents are accepting despite their principles.

"My parents, who are staunch Hindus, accepted my husband into the family despite him being a Roman Catholic," she said.

"They understood the importance of letting me marry someone I love. I'll never forget my engagement ceremony - my father himself cooked for over a hundred guests."

Mr Kerisnan's mother-in-law Lokanayaki Esther, 85, marvelled at his parents' unity. "Mr Suppaiyah is a good person, peaceful and steady for his age," she said.

"They are a devoted couple and extend their compassion to others readily. They always ask my family and me if there's anything we want. They treat my daughter very well."

Mr Suppaiyah and Madam Kamalam are generous even to their neighbours.

Former staff nurse Vasanthi Sokalingam, 61, said Mr Suppaiyah treated her father Sokalingam Krishnan, 88, like a brother.

"In his youth, my father was not very disciplined," said Madam Vasanthi.

"Mr Suppaiyah and his wife would often be peacemakers between my parents and gave them guidance on important matters such as housing."

 janark@sph.com.sg

"He would ask me if there was anything I wanted and he always did his best to provide for the family. He is also honest and a man of his word."

- Madam Kamalam "Through thick and thin, we maintain a deep level of understanding and we trust each other wholly."

- Mr Suppaiyah

 
 
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