Demure and unassuming at 90, Meenachi Perumal is not your everyday image of a trained suicide bomber.
But she is a reminder of what a woman will do for a cause to which she is steadfast. Her cause: to bring down the British flag in colonial India.
It started in 1942, when she was 16, at home in Port Klang. In the Tamil papers were accounts of Indian nationalist Subhash Chandra Bose delivering rousing speeches in Ipoh and many parts of Malaya.
Today, a bust in memory of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose was unveiled at the Indian Cultural Centre in Vista Sentral, Brickfields.
Speaking after the unveiling, Meenachi said that one morning in 1942, she saw an advertisement in the Tamil Nesan of the Indian National Army recruiting people to fight against the British.
“I was married by then. My husband and I decided to join them.”
With only one saree for change and just clothes on their backs, they boarded the train next day from Port Swettenham, (now Port Klang) to Ipoh Road in Kuala Lumpur.
As a teenager, Meenachi Perumal, now 90, was trained to be a suicide bomber against British rule in India
“We registered ourselves at the Ipoh Road camp. We were separated. The Indian Army put me and 28 other women on a train to Singapore, but my husband remained in camp,” she said.
She said the women were given a set of uniform and toiletries. “We had to cut our hair short. And that was the very first time I held a rifle, I was fearless and never backed down from a fight,” she said. “I didn’t realise I was good at shooting.”
After the arduous training, she and others were handpicked to be suicide bombers. They were shown how to place bombs on their bodies and how to release it to explode. “Blowing my body to pieces, that did not bother me.”
From Singapore, she and other women were told to go to Thailand, on to Burma and sneak into India. “Every day was a new day. We would travel by night and hide during the day”.
Some died along the way, shot by the British. “Many of my friends died. Some of the others had sold the secrets of our journey to the British to save their lives.”
Bose told them to retreat, to avoid being killed. “We tried to talk with Netaji to allow us to continue our journey but he told us it was too dangerous. We went back to Jalan Ipoh camp, disappointed.”
Another freedom fighter, Rasammah Bhupulan, 90, said she first heard Bose speak in Ipoh. She was 16 and knew her calling was to defend her motherland, India.
She said she had realised that she was not going to sit quietly in Greentown, Ipoh, after finding out about the Amritsar Massacre (or the Jallianwala Bagh massacre) in April 1919, when hundreds of nonviolent protesters and Baishakhi pilgrims were shot dead by the British Indian Army.
“If you read about the Amritsar Massacre in Punjab and what happened in many parts of India, how could you just sit and do nothing?” said the 90 year old.
Rasammah said she and her sister Ponnammah, 18, joined the Rani of Jhansi Regiment, an all-women militant wing of the Indian National Army and were sent off to the training camp at Waterloo Street in Singapore where they picked up survival and fighting skills.
“We were trained by women from Rani of Jhansi Regiment. Our training was no different than that of the men.”
She was sent to Burma but contracted malaria while in Rangoon and returned to Malaya in 1945 to continue her secondary education.
But then, exposure to Bose and the INA had inculcated a belief in standing up fearlessly for the rights of the people.
She graduated from the University of Malaya in Singapore in June 1953, and began her teaching career at the Methodist Girls School in Penang.
In 1957 when the Education Ministry introduced the Unified Teaching Service Scheme, with unfair wages for women, she began her struggle for women’s rights, inspiring people to demand equal pay and campaigning for an end to domestic violence and rape.
Asked if she would do it again, without hesitation she replied: “Yes. What is life if you do not fight for justice. Don’t be afraid. ”