November 4, 2010

The Devil Doesn't Play Games

Who are you?” she whispered with trepidation, daring to believe a straight answer would come from a homemade glass board with chalky, handwritten letters.
But it hadn’t failed her before.
Its answers had revealed a quickly approaching war in the early 1940s, and the Japanese invasion of Singapore, which led to the abrupt closure of her medical school.
Slowly, frighteningly, and haltingly, the downturned shot glass moved first to the letter “I.”
But it didn’t stop there. Completing its evil thought, it continued.
“T-H-E D-E-V-I-L.”
And then it stopped.
This wasn’t a silly slumber party story exchanged around a room of sleeping bags, junk food, and giddy teenage girls. My grandmother (Granny) had been filling my mind with this tale regularly since I was 8 years old. It would intrigue and terrify me at the same time, and though I stared wide-eyed at her while I listened, wanting to hide under the covers and yet ask more questions, I understood.
She wanted me to know. Not just to have the hair on the back of my neck stand up, but to warn me. To scare me straight.
Family Ritual
Lying beside her at night was a treat during her visits. Tha, as I used to call my grandfather, was happy to bunk elsewhere since it was impossible to sleep through his snoring. When Granny came to town I never slept alone. Instead I would snuggle next to her for the grandest of storytelling sessions—with stories she inked on paper for me many years later.

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Family Portrait: Stella poses with her husband and daughter (the author's mother).

Granny had a nightly routine of reading her Bible, and then praying for what seemed like an endlessly long time. She would make me pray beside her and sometimes we’d sing. Usually hymns—“On a hill far away, stood an old, rugged cross . . .”—both of us super-high soprano with a tiny bit of falsetto thrown in (from Granny, not me). And sometimes there would be an occasional Japanese lullaby—something, she told me, she was forced to learn during the World War II occupation of Singapore.

Her prayers were uttered in a hushed, almost mumbling cadence, as Granny named every relative and every problem that afflicted them. We had a large family with many problems. When she finally finished, she’d loosen her hair from the falsie bun she’d trapped it beneath, taking special care to put every precious bobby pin in its spot on the dresser, alongside the fake hair. She’d take off her “duster coat” (as she called her thin bathrobe) and drape it across the dresser mirror.
This last step in her nightly routine had its purpose.
Granny would dream. And her dreams weren’t always nice dreams. So in the middle of the night, especially when she aged further, waking up with a start and looking into an uncovered mirror sometimes revealed images she didn’t want to see. Frightening apparitions, eerie faces, reminders of the “games” she used to play.
When everything was in its place, she would finally snuggle in beside me and the stories would start. I loved to press myself close to her because she smelled like Yardley English Lavender powder and coconut oil, and was soft and cuddly even though she was thin. Sometimes, if Granny felt particularly adventurous, we’d have a bedtime treat of a chocolate mint or two. On a school night, when I should have been asleep hours earlier, this was pure bliss.
The subject matter of each nightly story was mine for the choosing. “Gran, tell me about the soldiers. Were they scary?” I’d ask. Or “Why do you sing Japanese songs? You’re not Japanese.” Ever the inquisitive child with an unusual love of history, hearing my grandmother’s stories of living through World War II in Southeast Asia and surviving the Japanese occupation riveted me.
Something New
My grandmother went to medical school in the 1940s—one of only three females in the entire class and the only Indian woman. This was almost unheard of at the time and something I consider to be a testament to the person she was. Her stories of her studies and adventures in medical training and life during that time were so fascinating.
But when the Japanese invaded Singapore and the British surrendered to the Empire of the Rising Sun—something thought impossible—Granny’s medical school closed indefinitely and all students were sent home.
Her devoutly Lutheran family—a father, mother, five daughters, and two sons—moved around frequently during the occupation to safely distance themselves from a Japanese military force well known for barbaric cruelty.
In one location the family grew their own food to survive, relying heavily on yams, sweet potatoes, and tapioca as a substitute for rationed rice. Granny, five feet two at her tallest, shrank to 80-85 pounds from a restricted diet and her daily chore of hauling buckets of water from a well, up 200 hand-carved steps over the hill to their house. Yet she stayed healthy.
Granny’s family members were musical people, and for a time during the war, they had a piano. “We enjoyed singing old folk songs,” she said. One afternoon they heard a knock at the door. “We opened it, and there were three Australian soldiers around the ages of 20-25—weary, worn-out, and tired.” Knowing that in war a group of uninvited soldiers at your door is rarely a good thing, Granny and her sisters prepared to hide.
The soldiers, however, had been separated from their battalion in an ambush and had walked some 300 miles from North Malaysia to the South. They were exhausted and famished. “The sound of English music attracted them to our little home,” Granny recalled. “We told them about the surrender [of British-held Singapore to the Japanese], and they had a meal.” After their rest they asked Granny’s father to take them to the main road to the city, certain they would find their comrades there.
The next morning while Granny’s father was in town, he saw those same soldiers loaded into a Japanese prisoner of war truck bound for certain trouble. One of the soldiers locked eyes with him and smiled in recognition and gratitude. Then the truck rattled off.
“There lingered a feeling of sadness in our hearts when my father came back and told us what had happened. We thought so much of the suffering and separation and tragedies. From that day, we hardly sang and played any music until we all returned to our own homes,” said Granny.

It was hard for me to fathom that not too long before war came, Granny had been just an incredibly diligent medical student—a young woman who worked hard but always had time for a good laugh.
In a Land Far Away
“It was in the year 1941, and one of us had a birthday and we all gathered together to have a party—a small one, for it was in the middle of final exams,” Granny remembered.

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Doctor in Training: The author's grandmother, photographed about the time the incidents in this story took place.

“We all had a good time with lots of games and good eats. It was getting late—9:00 p.m. in those days was considered late.” But then a classmate suggested one last game—“Table Talk.” Out came a thin round glass on which every letter of the alphabet was carefully inscribed with chalk.

Granny had never seen or heard of such a thing, but in the spirit of good fun, she readily joined in. “Everybody place your index finger on the glass and keep quiet,” a classmate instructed.
“Several minutes passed, and some started laughing and went off with their books, leaving just four or five of us,” said Granny. “We waited, and then, the glass moved.
“‘Don’t push’ said one.
“‘I’m not pushing.’
“‘I can’t believe it! It moves!’”
“‘Ask a question,’ said our leader.” They were all aware of war news and daily political unrest going on in other parts of the world. So they asked it to tell them what would happen. And it obliged. “There will be war,” it said.
“What about our exams?” the girls asked.
“No exams,” it spelled out clearly.
“What about us?”
“You will all be sent home,” was the answer.
And it happened. On February 15, 1942, Singapore, as a colony of the British Empire, capitulated to the Japanese, the school shuttered its doors, and most students went home. The more Granny thought about the “game” the more she wanted to experiment with it, but life intervened, and she forgot it for a while.
There were, however, some students who remained at the school for clinical training. “War did break out that year, and of those students who remained behind, 11 of them were killed when Singapore was bombed (December 8, 1942),” Granny said. “One of them, a girl, was a dental student. She was my best friend and her name was Mabel Luther.”
Granny returned to her family in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia—just over the small causeway from Singapore—and joined them in day-to-day wartime survival. There were no newspapers and no access to accurate radio news—any information was spread word of mouth.
“I wanted to know what had happened to all my friends, my colleagues, and others,” Granny said. “I remembered the game Table Talk. When all were asleep, late at night, I took out a glass tabletop, a piece of chalk, and a drinking glass, wrote the alphabet, and with my finger on the glass, concentrated. It started moving.”
Granny asked about her classmates and learned that 11 were dead. Next she inquired about Singapore’s fate and was told of the surrender. And it went on.
The next morning Granny shared her experience with her father and uncles, but they laughed at her, saying she made it up. So she gave the family a demonstration, but they accused her of rigging the thing. “I did put it away for a time,” she remembered. “I would occasionally start the game for my own information, but not talk about it to anyone.”
But then, in 1944, something good happened in the midst of war.
A young man whose father was an Adventist missionary pastor from India sent to spread the gospel to the many Indians living in Malaysia and Singapore needed a wife. This young man had trained as a pharmacist in the Philippines, was the eldest of seven, and was one of only two sons. He was a perfect match for Granny. Before her marriage Granny studied the Bible with her soon-to-be father-in-law and was baptized.
A wedding was set for January 26, 1944.
When the big day came, however, a bridge that served as part of the main road to the wedding was bombed, making everyone involved hours late to the event as they navigated treacherous detours. But in spite of all that, Granny and Tha were married that day and remained so for 57 years.
After her wedding Granny moved in with her new husband’s family, as was the custom, and joined in late-night conversations in which the adults pondered the uncertainties surrounding the war. The topic of conversation somehow went to spirits and the dead. “I said, ‘I can call up the dead and speak to spirits.’ So my in-laws challenged me,” Granny recalled.
The “game” reappeared.
Granny set it up, requested the name of a dead person, and using the board and glass, asked if that person was there. “The glass started moving and spelled, ‘Y-E-S.’” At that moment, her father-in-law came into the room and gathered the family for their evening prayers. She quickly packed up the game, and afterward, everyone went to bed.
But Granny wasn’t done. “It was past midnight. The hair on my skin stands on end when I relate this part because I was scared,” she said. “I sat down on the floor in my room and started my ‘game.’ This time, I wanted to know the truth underlying all this. I said, ‘Spirit, are you there?’ And out came the answer Y-E-S, spelled very fast.”
She summoned up her courage for the next question.
“You have been giving such accurate answers to all my questions. Tell me, by what power, and who are you?”
“The answer shocked and frightened me,” Granny said.
“I T-H-E D-E-V-I-L.”
Game over.
The next morning Granny came clean to her husband and father-in-law, who asked for the contraption, destroyed it, and told her to never, ever touch it or anything like it again. And she obeyed for the rest of her days.

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Three Generations: The author poses with her two children and her grandmother.

Lesson Learned

In the darkness of my room at night, surrounded by my Cabbage Patch Kid and Little House on the Prairie books, only the nearness of her body to mine abated my shivering after hearing this story. I would creep closer to her and burrow deep into the blankets before saying silent prayers and finally drifting off to sleep.
Granny went further than just telling me these tales at bedtime. Years later, she entrusted her handwritten stories—an autobiography of sorts—to my husband for safekeeping, as if she knew I would someday need them to tell this story. And I know this particular tale of her introduction to evil personified is one she never wanted me to forget.
“This is real,” she would tell me. “Don’t play with it because it is not a game.” The written account of this story was signed off with the lesson she most wanted us to remember: “My dear grandchildren,” she wrote. “Keep the Lord ever before you, for the devil is always ready to deceive you.”
It is a story—and lesson—I’ll never forget.
My grandmother, Dr. Stella Rao, returned to medical school, graduated in 1952, and joined the staff of church-run Youngberg Memorial Hospital in Singapore. She served there—alongside my grandfather, John, who directed the pharmacy and helped start up that hospital—until her retirement.
Wilona Karimabadi takes care of KidsView, Adventist Review’s magazine for children.