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It's the little things that count


UNFORGETTABLE MEMORIES: Toh Puan Umasundari Sambanthan talks to Balan Moses about how her husband,Tun V.T. Sambanthan, and Tunku Abdul Rahman were the kind of people who gave so much and expected little in return

THE little things in life have always made an impression on Toh Puan Umasundari Sambanthan, even as the larger things made their own mark on history.

Few usually remember the minutiae, but the 83-year-old wife of the fifth president of the MIC does -- and in vivid detail.

Uma delves into her vast repertoire of stories and tells me of how independence for Malaya could have been in 1959 and not 1957 if not for Tunku Abdul Rahman and the dream he had early one morning.

Apparently, the Tunku had dreamt of being at the top of a plateau with a large crowd below cheering him.

He took the dream to Datuk Mohamad Ali, the father of Tun Dr Siti Hasmah, who told him that it was probably related to independence and that he should ask the British for freedom in 1957.

He also advised the Tunku to visit the shrine of a Sufi saint, Moinuddin Chishti, in Ajmeer, India.

And that was how the Tunku came to be in London with MCA leader Tun Tan Cheng Lock and Tun V.T. Sambanthan (Thirunyanasambanthan Thevar s/o Veerasamy Thevar), at a sprightly 36 years of age, to lobby for independence in 1957.

But the story of the dream does not end there.

In 1962, Tunku wanted to visit the shrine but could not simply fly to India on a state visit as Pakistan insisted on him visiting the country first as he was a serving Muslim prime minister.

"The Pakistanis had also heard of how Tun Sambanthan would wear his Indian dhoti and jibba and did not want him to do so. But the Tunku told my husband to wear his Indian outfit to show that Malaya was a multiracial country," she says with pride at the Tunku's obsession with multiracialism.

She also talks of how the nation celebrated the 10th anniversary of independence in 1967.

At 2am the following day, she and her husband had followed Tunku's car until it reached his residence at Jalan Dato Onn, and then headed home.

At 7am, the Sambanthans went to see Tunku "where Mak Engku (Puan Sharifah Rodziah and later Tun) welcomed us with radiant smiles".

The Tunku walked down the stairs and greeted Sambanthan, who asked if the prime minister had managed to get any sleep.

"How to sleep lah Sambanthan? I came back home from the function and after watching those wonderful people there, I have been praying for them until now," she quotes the man she has always regarded as a father figure, as saying.

Uma, whose prodigious memory produces dates, names and events at will, speaks with exceptional fondness for the Tunku as she does of her husband and in so doing, unconsciously alludes to the fact that they were cut from the same block of wood.

To her, the Tunku and Sambanthan (who she married after a whirlwind courtship of three months) were people who gave and expected little in return.

There was an instance when someone sued him as MIC president and the party had to pay the person RM20,000, which Sambanthan gave from his personal funds as the party had little money.

"My husband was a man of principle. He could not have lived any other way," the University of Madras first-class honours chemistry graduate tells me at the spacious government bungalow she shares with her daughter, Deva Kunjari, off Jalan Lembah, Petaling Jaya.

How many know that there was a delay of a few seconds in the declaration of independence as the Tunku was swarmed by the crowds gathered at Stadium Merdeka?

"I was standing with a feeling of awe with my husband behind the Tunku as he declared independence. My hair stood on end," she says in the impeccable English she learnt as a child.

Her house is cluttered with photographs of the Tunku and Sambanthan, as well as a life-sized poster of the MIC leader greeting visitors.

Uma, colour-coordinated in a red saree with bright red bangles and light-red earrings, leads me on a tour of the living room before a vegetarian breakfast which she personally coordinated.

Another story she tells me relates to how Sambanthan, 10 years her senior in age, never spoke of his contribution to the lives of others.

On a visit to India, they met a man who had studied with Sambanthan at the Annamalai University. This man told her that the MIC leader had saved his life.

"Apparently, they had taken part in a rally and my husband had shielded his friend from the strikes of the police," she says, remembering how she had sometimes asked him about the deep scars on his shoulders but had received no replies.

She quietly speaks of the day that Sambanthan died on May 18, 1979 at home, just short of his 60th birthday, of a massive heart attack.

"When I pass away, I want to do so with the name of God on my lips," says the politician's wife, who always remained the homemaker, never assuming a political role for herself.

Toh Puan Umasundari Sambanthan reminiscing over a vegetarian breakfast she helped prepare about the days running up to Malaya’s Independence. Pic by Surianie Mohd Hanif

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