Walking, Walking, Long Time Walking – POWs 13

After constructing the Wampo Viaduct, Barry and the remaining men of 27 Line Section started a very long march up the river Kwai during the rainy season (early summer) of 1943. Barry had been born in Malaya and before he became a prisoner had been studying the language. This led, as he remembers, to a random encounter:

During the march after Wang Po, on the way up river towards 211 kilo, the weather became gradually worse and we were slogging through rain and mud with no comfort at the end of the day’s journey. I often passed the time by talking to myself in Malay and repeating some of the pantuns that I could remember. On this particular occasion I was marching beside a stranger whom I recognised as probably a Dutchman as his dress was different from ours, but he had no rank badges or any other recognition signs. I started to say aloud a particularly apposite pantun, which goes:

“Jalan, Jalan, sa-panjang jalan,
Singa menyunga di pagar orang,
(Walking, walking, long time walking
Looking over neighbours’ fences)

At this moment, half way through the pantun, the man beside me joined in and recited the last two lines,

“Pura pura men-chari ayam,
Ekor mata di-anak orang.”
(Is he perhaps searching for a lost chicken?
But the corner of his eye is looking at his neighbour’s daughters)

At the same time he put a finger to the outer corner of his eye, which was exactly what my munshi had told me that a Malay would do.

Most real Malays know hundreds of these pantuns and by saying a key word from them can indicate a meaning to another Malay, which might not be apparent to someone else. That “ekor mata”, the corner of the eye, is a hint that some one is on the prowl and that girls, and wives too, should be on the look out. This episode cheered me up very much during a wet and miserable period of our long march northwards, and we spent the rest of the day talking Malay to one another; mine very stumbling and uncertain, his accurate and fluent. I lost touch with him and found no other Malay speakers in our group.

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