The effects of near-starvation

A few years after the end of the Second World War, I was on board a passenger ship of about 8,000 tons – a quite small ship. It took a long while to travel from Singapore to Sydney – about 2 weeks and more. It is difficult to be precise about such unimportant matters after so long.

On board was a very tall, very thin Dutchman. He had been interned by the Japanese military in Indonesia. During the fight for independence by the Indonesians, he had been interned again.

He sat opposite me at meal times, but had very little to say. That was because he ate every course on the generous menu. That is, he ate 2 entrees, 3 main meals, and 2 desserts – rapidly. I understood. Having been half-starved during the Japanese Occupation of Malaya, I too ate well. But my stomach seemed to have shrunk.

During the Occupation, we lived on some rice, supplemented by tapioca, and accompanied by a vegetable of some kind; occasionally, we had sweet potato. Our meals were extremely frugal. There was no milk or sugar ever, only palm oil for cooking. There was no fish or meat after the first 6 months of the Occupation. What had been available once a month was a palm-sized slice of goat meat, after joining a queue for about an hour on a hot roadside.

With patches on the patches on my shorts, I grew a little taller, but leaner, during my teenage years. The development of my spine was found, at age 32, to have been impaired. This was to be a heavy price to pay for the rest of my life.

I hoped the Dutchman would find a peaceful life in Australia. I put on 7 lbs. (from 8 to 8.5 stone) in weight on board ship. Consuming lots of steak and milk on Australian soil, I was soon able to play hockey – at A-Grade level. I had become strong, fast, and agile, also through some gym work, having reached 9 stone by then. I soon learnt to stop well-built young man seeking to bowl my slim body over; they somehow fell down, and I would ask if they were OK.

I have eaten frugally all my life because my mind will not allow me to do otherwise. I am unable to throw away any food, because I am keenly aware that a mere handful could represent a day’s meal for a child. Having had a fraction of my pay directed to Community Aid Abroad for more than 30 years has not reduced my concern for the plight of those children born only to suffer. Karma? Not credible!

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