K. S. L. Narayanan
His Life Tracks
by Mohan Iyer
His life history is an integral part of KTM (Malayan Railway) history. Today, at 91, K. S. Lakshmi Narayanan lives a simple life in Kepong near the Kepong KTM Station, from which, as an ex-employee, he still travels free on the Komuter. Rake thin but still active, his jovial nature and mimicry skills make him a joy to talk to.
Narayanan was born in 1920 in Palghat, Kerala, India. His father, Sri Seetharama Shastri, had arrived in Malaya in 1908 to work as a resident priest at the Malacca Sri Subramaniaswamy temple. In 1923, his father moved with Narayanan to Kuala Lumpur to work as a full-time freelance priest. At the age of five, Narayanan frequently accompanied his father to weddings and religious activities.
In 1928, when the time came for him to be admitted to a school, Narayanan found that he had a handicap. Mrs. Cooke, the Headmistress of Maxwell Road School (now a secondary school), rejected him as he was foreign born and had little knowledge of English. Narayanan was dejected at not being admitted to school and, as his family was poor, he took up odd jobs running errands and looking after children which earned him about $1.20 a day.
Narayanan’s father then approached Mr. R. Gopal Iyer, then Selangor Assistant Commissioner for Labour. Mr Iyer, who had earlier been a mathematics and English teacher at the V.I. for four years, sought the help of Mr. M.C.ff. Sheppard, the Under-Secretary for the British colonial government. At the same time, a Standard 5C teacher at Maxwell Road School, Mr. T. Ramachandram (who later taught at the VI), appealed to Mrs. Cooke. She agreed to accept Narayanan’s application if he passed the Standard 2 English test in a months’ time.
Then came an amazing offer: Mr. Iyer’s eight-year-old son, G. Sreenivasan, who was then in Standard 1 at the Batu Road School, volunteered to coach Narayanan. This extraordinary lad was actually one year younger than his pupil and would one day become Malaysia’s well-known nephrologist and founder of the National Kidney Foundation. So under his eight-year-old tutor’s strict discipline and coaching, nine-year-old Narayanan fared extremely well in his English test, and a baffled Mrs. Cooke had to accept him into Maxwell Road School.
After passing the Standard 5 exam with flying colors, Narayanan gained admission to the Victoria Institution in 1933. Too poor to afford transport, he would walk to school from his home which was opposite the present Sentul Chettiar temple. Starting out at 6 a.m. he would follow the railway line to the Kuala Lumpur Railway Station and thence up Petaling Hill to the V.I.
Narayanan was outstanding in mathematics and his ability came to the knowledge of a Chinese businessman in Bukit Bintang Road who asked him to give tuition to his two sons. For this Narayanan was paid $30 a month, a big sum then. There was another Chinese businessman who ran a shop near the present Madras Café in Sentul. He had three sons studying in the V.I. who were very weak in mathematics. One of these sons was Narayanan’s classmate and was allowed to borrow Narayanan’s exercise book to copy his homework. In return Narayanan was given a small sum of money by the grateful father. Narayanan also earned a free ride daily to school on the businessman’s hired rickshaw - a luxury those days - squeezing onto the narrow seat with the man’s three sons.
Narayanan was in Treacher House and the Headmaster then was Mr F. L. Shaw. He recalls some of his teachers: Lim Eng Thye who taught science, Mr Ganga Singh, his class teacher, Mr. M. Vallipuram and his Form 5 teacher, Mr. Ng Seo Buck. He vividly recalls one of Mr. Eng Thye’s revision classes in Form 5 when he was asked to define "surface tension." Now, Narayanan was an excellent mimic and for some strange death-defying reason that morning, he sang out the definition in the same sing-song Chinese tone that Mr. Eng Thye used: "Der foss weech cosses the sarface of a liquid to act like an ee-lastic skin is called sarface tension."
Eng Thye was definitely not amused and retorted, "You are so clever to talk like me, eh?" Still imbued with some aura of immortality, Narayanan boldly replied, “You are clever, sir, but not steady as you work by (showing your) fits.” The entire class burst into laughter. “You goblok, sit down!” Eng Thye roared. For his impudence, Narayanan was sent straight to Detention Class.
Narayanan was busy in extra-curricular activities. Inspired by the dedication and humility of Mr. Chan Hung Chin, he joined the V.I. Cadet Corps, run by this young teacher, who also taught English and English Literature. He played cricket, badminton and football. Narayanan was V.I.’s top badminton player, a talent that saw him through his working career. He recalls going swimming in the Public Swimming Pool near the Lake Gardens. One day, after a swim, he was walking home with wet clothes along the railway line when he passed the Maxwell Road School field. The V.I. team was playing football there and they were short of a goalkeeper. Spotting Narayanan, they called to him to fill that position. Narayanan, who had never kicked a football in his life, reluctantly agreed. During the match, the football flew at high speed at this fill-in goalkeeper hitting him so hard that both he and the ball landed behind the goal posts much to the laughter of all players.
After passing his Senior Cambridge examinations in 1936, Narayanan joined the Malayan Railway Sentul Workshop at the salary of $1 a day. As he had potential talent, the railways sponsored Narayanan for a course in Mechanical Engineering at the Technical College in Kuala Lumpur (now part of UTM in Jalan Maktab). However, as he was about to complete the final year in 1941, the Japanese occupied Malaya but Narayanan managed to complete the course with a Japanese qualification and continued working with the Railways. When the British reoccupied Malaya in 1945, that qualification was not recognized. So Narayanan re-sat his final (interrupted) examination and passed with a Class 1 distinction!
The Japanese Occupation was a harrowing time. Some person jealous of Narayanan complained to the authorities that he was a British spy. As a result, he was arrested together with three of his colleagues. He was held in Pudu Jail in a cell that was meant for two but was packed with almost 10. He recalls: “We had no place to sleep. Each took a turn and slept one to two hours.” Hailing from an orthodox Brahmin family food was an issue for Narayanan. He refused to eat non-vegetarian food in his cell and ate just plain rice!
Then was the infamous water pump torture. Water was forced from a hose into a person’s mouth and as his stomach bloated, Japanese soldiers would stomp on it. Many prisoners died due to severe pain and internal bleeding. Narayanan went through it and survived: “I think because of my father’s piousness and good heartedness, God spared me from almost certain death.”
But that was not all. The surviving cell members, including Narayanan, were tried by a Japanese court and sentenced to death for supposedly working against the interests of the Nippon Government. The date of hanging was fixed and Narayanan accepted his fate. Fortunately, his father’s friend and a priest in Scott Road Kandaswamy Temple, Mr. Somaskantha Kurukkal, called upon the hangman who was a fellow Ceylonese and asked him to delay the hanging.
When the fateful day came, Narayanan and the other prisoners were herded to a court and asked their last wish. While the others became emotional and cried, pleading to see their next of kin, Narayanan boldly spoke out, “My last wish is a retrial with a judge who can speak and understand English.” The judge delayed his execution. Perhaps it was God’s grace that a Japanese official speaking fluent English had just arrived in Malaya.
In the retrial, Narayanan stood up boldly and said, “Your Honour, I am a man in charge of the railway locomotives. I assisted in ferrying workers for the Nippon Government’s Burmese (Death) Railway and I ensured all maintenance of locomotives was carried out. My father is a priest.” The new judge, Chief Justice Motoi Kusaka, was baffled that a man who served the Nippon Government was punished. He released Narayanan and all his cellmates. Even today Narayanan says that he does not know how he had suffered the near death expereinces under the Japanese and still lived to tell the tale.
In the early 50’s, Narayanan was promoted as Head of the Locomotives Section. In 1957, he was sent under a Colombo Plan Scholarship to train in Diesel Engine Management in U.K. as locomotives had begun the switch from steam to diesel engines. In 1960, he was sent to Australia for further training under the Colombo Plan. In the early 60’s, Narayanan recalls a visit by H.R.H. Raja Muda of Selangor, His Royal Highness Sultan Sallehuddin to the Malayan Railways to view ‘rail tyres.’ Narayanan showed him around and in the course of conversation His Highness found out that Narayanan was an Old V.I. boy and gave him a pat on the back.
Narayanan’s job came with high risk. There was an occasion when the failure of several engines was attributed to a certain fuel tank and it was necessary to enter the tank to check things out. When all his fellow staff hesitated as there was a danger of inhaling toxic fumes and accidental fire. Narayanan took the risk upon himself. Being slim and thin, he entered the tank himself and fixed the problem.
On another occasion when Narayanan was on vacation in Gemas, news reached of a train derailment. He left his wife alone in the Rest House and headed on the Gemas-Mentakab route. There he was almost bitten by a venomous snake that had slithered into the coach.
Narayanan was an active social worker. He served the Sentul Indian Youth Committee whose leader Mr. S. Sivasailam was instrumental in getting all Indian organizations in Malaya together in the Sentul Chettiar Temple which saw the birth of MIC. In 1946, Narayanan had the privilege of meeting the late Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter, Indira Gandhi, at the home of a Dr. Selvam, then an Indian activist. In 1947, Narayanan went to India to be married to Kamala, a full-time housewife. Narayanan served the Indian Medical Mission in the early post-war period. He also served the Sentul Railways Sports Club where he was National Railways Badminton champion and as Honorary Secretary of the Railways Cooperatives.
After his retirement, Narayanan continued to serve the Railways as an advisor and when it was later privatized he joined the company that supplied new locomotives that took KTM into the era of electric trains. He continued serving this company till 2007, at the age of 87 years! Narayanan recalls that his most memorable moment was when he was invited to the Centenary Celebrations of KTM in Taiping in the 1990’s where he had the privilege of meeting the then Prime Minister, Dr. Mahathir.
He served the Sathya Sai Baba Movement in the later years after his retirement and recalls having met Baba personally too. He has two daughters, one a doctor and the other a dentist. His grandson is completing a Medical Degree in Nottingham University. Narayanan’s wish is to be duly recognized by the Government and his alma mater before his death.
Mr Narayanan (second from right) at the VIOBA dinner, May 2012
Mr Narayanan was a Guest of Honour at the VIOBA dinner on May 12, 2012. He passed away on November 17, 2013.
Last updated on 18 November 2013.