My first impressions of Josh told me that he was not a pretentious man. He looked neither tall nor short, thin nor fat. Neither was he stylishly dressed nor posh in the way he spoke. He came across as genuine and confident. Respectful and respected. Time-tested, battle-hardened, eyes wide-opened. A man who would not offer lame excuses; in fact, a man who would not accept excuses. He was destined to fail, like the rest of his gang members. Yet, today he stands tall, flawed in his youth but in old age, spoken of in voices awed by his tenacity and drive. After knowing his story, I was reminded of Marcus Aurelius’ wise words.
If you find something very difficult to achieve yourself, don’t imagine it impossible.Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 6.19
Joshua Paul is a worthy addition to the Urghhlings Marsh Brotherhood, a group of old schoolmates with eclectic ideas, opinions and varied mix of political and religious ideologies. A diverse group of people who grew up in the same town and were schooled under the one big umbrella of Lasallian brotherhood. His wonderful story is one of grit, determination and either luck or divine intervention, depending on your belief or lack of. In trying to reflect the struggles and adventures of the heroes in my stories to that of the outlaws’ of Liangshan Marsh in the Water Margin novel, I was hard-pressed to find the one character in that epic Chinese classic that best resonates with Josh’s. I mean, he was nothing like the military man, Major Lu Da who rendered the bully, Butcher Zheng, into a crumpled mess. The bully’s crime? Extortion from a singsong girl and her frail old father. He was nothing like Lin Chong either, another military man whose fighting skills were legendary. Lin Chong, a sworn brother of Lu Da’s got into trouble with the law after he rescued his pretty wife from being raped by the play-boy adopted son of Grand Marshal Gao Qiu. Josh was also nothing like Li Kui, although both were very dark-complexioned and endowed with a solidly-built body that hinted of bovine strength. Their natural look was serious with fiery-looking roguish eyes matched with lips that refused to smile. Possessing none of Li Kui’s bad temper and bad habits such as his fondness of gambling and killing people, Josh unfortunately got into as much trouble with the law though. It is who we mix with in life that can ultimately unravel us or save us.
Perhaps I could make a case for likening Josh’s early days to Shi Qian’s who was also known as ‘The Flea on a Drum’. Shi Qian, a small-time burglar, had a knack for stealing things. In the brigands’ stories, stealing is of course, not always a bad thing. In an earlier chapter, we learned that Shi Qian was the bloke who, while stealing valuables from graves, witnessed Yang Xiong killing his adulterous wife, Pan Qiaoyun. Shi Qian was also the one who duped Xu Ning, a highly admired imperial guard instructor, into joining the gang so that they could learn from him the skills of using the hooked spear or halberd. Shi Qian firstly had to steal Xu Ning’s precious impenetrable armour which was made of gold rings coated with swan feather.
Josh was born in Nazareth, but not the Nazareth that was made famous in the best-selling book of all time. His birthplace was not the Nazareth just 90 miles from Bethlehem, Jesus’ birthplace. Yet Jesus was to touch Josh’s life and transform him into the wonderful person that he is today. Josh’s Nazareth is at the southern end of India, approximately 630 km from Chennai, an arduous and stuffy eleven-hour bus ride. India’s Nazareth was a Christian-majority town, created by missionaries, primarily through the work of Canon Arthur Margoschis (1852-1908), reputedly the ‘Father of Nazareth’. Josh’s father left Nazareth for economic reasons and when Josh was six, his elder brother brought him to Penang. Life was great for the kid in Nazareth but once he left his hometown, he had to grow up very quickly.
His dad, John Paul Ponniah, could not hold a permanent job. His income came mainly from giving private tuition in English, math and Tamil to children of business traders and hawkers but occasionally, he was asked to teach rich adults in their homes. Tall, lean and muscular, his dad stood straight and walked with an easy stride. Always seen in a white shirt and white pants, he was a handsome man with a promising future. His monthly tuition fee of $5 seldom varied unless a student had extenuating circumstances. Josh was the only non-paying student in his father’s class of maybe ten to twelve students. The classroom was where his father cooked during lessons and also served as their bedroom at night. For a short time, they catered lunch from a woman who lived on Church Street. Her tiffin carrier had five tiers, but Josh did not have fond memories of the food that was provided. On rare occasions, his father gave him 30 cents to buy a delicious meal of mee goreng and ice kachang at the esplanade. Living with his dad was not pleasant for Josh. He couldn’t handle the constant pressure from his father’s grand expectations.
“My dad visited my class teacher at least three times a year. Needless to say what happened when he found out how bad my results were,” Josh said, twitching as he hinted at the scars from the early beltings.
“I don’t remember enjoying my childhood at all, my father was a very strict man and expected me to pass all the subjects,” Josh said.
School was boring for young Josh. The boy had his priorities all wrong, he was more preoccupied with the paltry sum of ten cents for his pocket money. Usually, he had to save up the money for a few days before he could afford to order from the canteen. The proud boy would not be seen in the queue for the free food either. During school recess, he would watch the others eat. One day, a foreign-looking boy with blue eyes and long curly eyelashes bought him a coconut candy. A candy bar all for himself! The joy the boy gave Josh was so foreign it made a lasting impression on him.
“Thank you, Richard Lim or Blue Eyes, as we call him,” Josh said with a fondness in his heart.
“My escapades running from home started when I was 9 years old,” Josh said, his voice turning serious.
“One evening when I was in Std 4, I decided to leave my father for good,” he continued.
He took a ferry to Butterworth and then walked on the railway tracks towards Kuala Lumpur. Hitching a train ride without a ticket, he pretended to sleep or locked himself in the toilet whenever he saw the ticket inspector approach the carriage. He did this repeatedly till he reached Kampar railway station in Perak. At Kampar, he begged for money unsuccessfully from many people until one kind man stopped to help. Josh still remembers the man’s name as Subramaniam.
Subramaniam brought him to his house and after providing a meal to the hungry boy, he surrendered the well-fed boy to the local police station. When questioned by the police officers, he told them his name was Joseph so that he couldn’t be traced back to his strict father. By that time, the angst-ridden father had placed an advertisement in the local newspaper about his son’s disappearance.
The police did not know what to do with Josh, so they transferred him to Selibin Boys’ Home. There, he made several attempts to run away but after repeated warnings, the wardens finally sent him to Asrama Sentosa, another boys’ home in Kuala Lumpur. During the May 13 riots, Josh spent some nervous days there. He impressed the warden who made him the gatekeeper. The gatekeeper’s duty was to open the gate for visitors and government officers. This arrangement was fine for some time till he got fed up. So, he packed his bags and escaped but was caught a few days later walking alone in the middle of the night on the railway track heading towards Penang.
After severe interrogations, the obstinate boy told the truth and confessed to the authorities that his real name was Joshua. He was brought to the juvenile court in Kuala Lumpur (KL) and handed over to his rather angry yet relieved father. After missing STD 4 and 5, Josh was surprisingly allowed back to his school, St Xavier’s Institution. The teacher was Louise Barbossa, an excellent teacher who made Josh feel accepted. Josh’s poor grades did not make his father happy so he was again routinely caned. His father’s resolve finally broke one day and he handed Josh to the welfare home. How does a father give up on a son? What goes through a man’s mind before reaching such a sad decision? Surrendering one’s child, denying him of love and security, admitting failure, giving up on a loved one? What does a son feel upon such abandonment by his own father? Guilt? Remorse? Anger? Cynicism? Hatred?
“Did his act break the bonds of trust and love forever?” I asked.
“Were you permanently damaged?” I asked again.
Josh remained glum. Sullen in his own thoughts. The welfare home sealed his fate that year when they sent him to the Paya Terubong Boys’ Home. This home was different from all the other homes that Josh had been to. The guys there were hardcore gangsters, thieves, and robbers but surprisingly they were mostly Josh’s age, about 14 or 15. Many of them were just ‘doing time’, waiting to be transferred to their final destination, Henry Gurney’s School in Malacca. Josh recognised immediately that his life had changed forever. His dad had forsaken him – found him too hard to handle and beyond saving. He knew he was on his own. He knew that to survive, he had to be brave, tough and decisive. Josh lived in that home whilst attending Form 2 at Scotland Secondary School.
Form 3, like all his other years in school, was boring for Josh. So, he asked his dad to arrange a one-way ticket for him to return to India. Josh packed all his belongings including his precious stamp collection and set off for Nazareth. He boarded the Rajula, a vessel that plied between Singapore and Nagapatinam in South India. The journey took six nights and seven days. The Rajula was not your luxurious cruise liner. Many passengers, including Josh, had to literally run to secure a place to sleep on the deck as soon as the gate was opened. During those days, the customs guys in India were very strict. Almost every item brought in by the passengers was taxed. Whatever they did not tax, they stole. So, Josh was dispossessed of all the gifts for his mother and other relatives that were entrusted to him by his dad.
Nazareth was a small dusty place of no more than a few thousand people. The town was hard to keep clean since it did not rain for most of the year. For a good five months, Josh enjoyed the simple life with his mother, especially her delicious food. Very soft-spoken, considerate and kind, Kirubai Paul was a housewife, a simple woman from a village not far from Nazareth. There was only one entry and exit point for all vehicles into and out of the town. An artist could paint Nazareth quite accurately with one police station, a very old post office and about a hundred small shops scattered all along the main dusty road. Make it very very dusty. The St John Cathedral tower would probably be the tourist attraction. For reasons unknown to Josh, the schools there were well known all over the south of India. Just before the expiry of his re-entry permit to Malaysia, Josh decided he wanted to return to Penang. His dad promptly sent him a second-class berth ticket which meant he did not have to sleep on the deck again.
Life in Penang was even more miserable for Josh; his mother’s delicious food had become just a memory, with only roti chanai and lousy tiffin carrier food to look forward to each day. By then sixteen years of age, he had become more argumentative, more stubborn, and less amiable. John Paul Ponniah, a domineering man who could not hold his temper well, was unpredictable and filled with anger at life. The two did not get on well at all. After a heated argument with his father, Josh was told to return to school or find a job. Josh decided he would not return to school. He started work as a salesman in a bookstore in Chowrasta Market. His wages was a meagre $80 a month plus ten cents for tea break which was always spent on a cigarette and a Hacks lolly to mask the tobacco smell. After work, his life was his life to live and his father had no say in the matter even though the old man was well aware of the bad company Josh was keeping with gangsters who menaced Lines Road and its neighbourhood.
“I was so naïve and ignorant of the danger by getting involved with the wrong company,” Josh said.
“Dad was right, I could have been easily killed during the gang fights, and there were plenty of fights!” Josh admitted, without any prodding from me.
“It was the mercies of God that saved me,” Josh said, finally revealing to me his faith in God.
Soon, it was time to leave Penang for good. His father’s income as a tuition teacher had dropped drastically due to the change in the school syllabus from English to Malay. Through a friend, John Paul had found a better job for Josh, in a book store in a quiet town called Kuala Lipis. Work meant starting at five every morning, selling newspapers on a train as the book store was in the railway station. Gopal, the store owner, never had a smile on his face. A mean boss, Gopal did not look after his employees or showed any consideration for them. So, most of them, in turn, did not look after Gopal’s interests. Josh copied the others and the teenager started to put his hand in the till for his breakfasts and other expenses. Oftentimes the shop would be left to the young employee to manage. Not a brilliant idea, boss! Within a few month, Josh was sacked.
“Not a brilliant idea indeed,” Josh confessed that stealing did not pay. Not knowing what to do next, he went to the only church he knew to pray, the Pentecostal Church in KL.
Within a month of staying in the church, he found employment in a carton factory in Petaling Jaya but his joy of finding employment at age eighteen came to a screeching halt as his work permit was not approved. In those days, if you were an Indian citizen with a red identity card, you had to have a work permit to work in Malaysia. Having exhausted all avenues to find employment, he sought help from a rich uncle in Malacca. Uncle Isaac was a good man who owned several rubber estates in the surrounding areas.
“But my aunt was a lunatic,” Josh said.
“She had this crazy idea that I had gone to take over my uncle’s estates, and accused me of all sorts of things,” Josh said.
Josh frequently cried himself to sleep because of her wild accusations. His uncle by then had no choice but to send him back to Penang. He drove Josh to the railway station, bought him a train ticket to Butterworth and shoved an ink-smudged letter into his trouser pocket. “Only for your father to read,” he said to the boy. But, Josh sneaked out of the train and went back to the church in KL.
A parishioner found Josh a good job cleaning swimming pools three hours a day. His monthly pay was $100. During this time, Josh found some new Malay friends who were living in Kampong Pandan. One of them was a popular Malay cyclist, Mokhtar Yousuff. He influenced Josh to become a serious cyclist as a way of getting his Malaysian citizenship. Josh participated in several races but never won any medals. Within two years, he lost his job at the swimming pool. Money was scarce, so he went without food on some days. It was at this juncture that Josh’s life was to change dramatically again. He received a letter from his father who had migrated to Singapore to seek employment there. Josh sold his only property then, a Raleigh bicycle for $100 and headed to Singapore to join his father.
Josh found freedom in Singapore. He had plenty of money for movies, cigarettes and good food. But, he found the factory jobs there boring. Very boring. One of those casual jobs was working for a shipyard contractor for $25 per day. Maybe it was from boredom that Josh stole watches, binoculars, calculators, anything that could be stolen from the ships’ crew. One day, a friend stole a video cassette and not owning a VCR player, he gave it to Josh. To Josh’s shock and amazement, it was a blue film. When the friend asked him what movie it was, Josh said it was a Mickey Mouse cartoon. To his surprise, he discovered many Sri Lankans, Bangladeshis and Thai nationals were willing to pay $5 per “screening”. So, Josh finally showed some entrepreneurial flair and borrowed a HDB flat to use as his “movie theatre”. Pretty soon he was raking in thousands of dollars. After many such screenings, the police were soon aware of his illegal activities and had hatched a plan to nab him. Realising the danger he was in, he quickly sold the rented television and the VCR player to a gullible third party. That night, Josh left everything behind and caught a bus for KL. His next plan was bigger again. He was going to Italy.
Josh and Eric, a Singaporean friend, bought two return tickets to Italy on Aeroflot. On the first night in Rome, Josh lost all his money to a conman. Without any money left, he sought help from Eric’s friend in Milan who very kindly gave him a hundred pounds. Eric left for Germany to look for work but within three weeks, he quit and returned to KL. Josh stayed on and found employment in a transport company. He was paid 50-60 lira per day. Within a few months, he had so much money he went holidaying on the island of Lipari. It was on the journey to Lipari that Josh found a cute girl named Loredana. They fell in love. It was also in Lipari that he befriended a psychologist by the name of Wolfgang Link. Till this day, they remain good friends.
Milano became his home for the next twelve months. Influenced by his new boss, Josh began to smoke hashish, marijuana, heroin and cocaine. As he had overstayed his visa, he decided to burn his passport and reported it as lost, but kept a copy of his re-entry permit to Malaysia. Just a week before he was due to leave for Malaysia, his apartment was busted by the police for organising a drug and booze party. Josh was arrested by the Milan police, but he managed to get bail after spending a few hours in the lock-up.
Finally, the day arrived for Josh to leave Milan for good. The sobbing Loredana held him tightly at the airport, and would not let go.
“Why did you not stay instead?” I asked.
“Here was a great chance to make a new life with the beautiful Italian lass,” I pressed further.
Instead, Josh made a terrible mistake that day to go back to the same seven friends in Singapore and because of the heavy usage of marijuana, he had become completely delusional. Less than seven months later, his life was in shambles. A misunderstanding took place among the old friends. Hallucinating and imagining he was going to be set upon by the friends, Josh lashed out and a fight broke out. Majid, an Indian Muslim friend, took out a knife and stabbed Josh. The stab needed several stitches to his abdomen. When Josh woke up from his deep slumber, he felt great remorse and a huge disappointment in himself. He gave up on drugs that same day. He had finally woken up. He realised those people were not his friends but his enemies. He parted company with them and promised himself never to walk their path again. That year was 1983. The year he gave his heart back to Jesus and God gave him a new life. Josh felt he was finally delivered. Except for Majid, Vijaan and Rajan, none of those other friends survived. Raju was hanged in Singapore prison for trafficking heroin. Rama died of a heart attack. Raja died of an overdose, and Ah Lam died in a motorbike accident.
“How are those who remain?” I asked.
“Rajan still treats the Changi prison as his second home and Vijaan is suffering from diabetes,” Josh said.
I found myself in a hole, so I stopped digging.Joshua Paul
Having left those fellows for good, Josh was determined to succeed, having found employment as a contract worker with a tower crane company. His daily salary was $30 but he made the wrong choice again, supplying illegal Indian workers to a palm oil factory in Pandan Gardens. He lost the contract and became jobless once more. In November 1985, he met Raj, a rich commercial art dealer. Raj had kindly stopped his Volvo at the causeway for Josh who was hitching a ride in the middle of the night after renewing his visa at the border. It was a chore he had to do fortnightly for the eight years living in Singapore. Raj introduced Josh to the world of fine art reproductions from China. In just two weeks, Josh sold all the remaining paintings that Raj had. It was a good deal for Josh, as he got to keep half the proceeds. Like most things in life, good things do not last long. Raj had already decided to close his business and migrate to America. Josh was left with no paintings to sell but he had pocketed several thousand dollars. Not knowing where to source those art reproductions, Josh gambled and picked Hong Kong as a likely source. Choosing to stay in Kowloon Mansion in Tsim Sha Tsui also proved a good guess. Josh found commercial paintings were being sold everywhere there. In his first two years, Josh made about fifty thousand dollars as his paintings sold like hot cakes. Looking at life through the lens of Christ suddenly felt rosy – he bought his first property in KL. It was at this time he was introduced to an art historian and lecturer from the National University of Singapore, the much respected TK Sabapathy.
TK Sabapathy talked Josh into holding a major art exhibition in Singapore, the first of its kind. Josh solely organised and funded the major Indian art exhibition. As the curator, he bore all responsibilities and all expenses including purchasing all the art works that TK Sabapathy selected from the nine Indian artists from Chennai, Mumbai, New Delhi, Kolkatta and Manipal. His 1991 event at the Singapore Museum was called ‘Joy and Despair’. It was more despair than joy. ‘Joy and Despair’ was a failure. TK Sabapathy, a committee member of the Singapore Art Gallery, convinced them to buy three of the works for about $35,000 but it took them over a year to pay Josh. Dr Earl Loo, a very good man, bought one work for the La Salle School of Art.
“90 % of all the artworks bought for the event are still in my possession,” Josh said.
“Hopefully, I will sell them to some serious art collectors in India one day,” the ever hopeful Josh said softly.
Josh couldn’t continue residing in Singapore with a two-week visa forever, so he applied for a business visa as an art gallery owner, but his application failed. In 1997, at the peak of the Asian Financial Crisis, Josh returned to KL with his savings all tied up in the remaining paintings. Joshua Art Gallery closed after three years due to poor sales. As the money noose tightened around his neck, Josh became more and more desperate. Whilst struggling with his financial disaster, he received news that his mother was in her last days of her life. He went back to India to see her one more time. His mother managed to whisper three words to him.
“Are you alright?” she asked.
Josh could not stay long to comfort his mother, and upon arriving home in KL, he heard the news that she had passed away.
It was on that last night with his mother that Josh decided to move on, from being an art dealer to a dealer in law books. He opened his law books bookshop in 2001, selling law books, custom made trolley bags, souvenirs & legal caricatures. It was a very difficult job to relocate from a 1,700 sq ft gallery to a 200 sq ft store at Wisma Denmark. There’s no turning back, I have to make this little book shop work! With no experience and no money, Josh said to himself. In 2004, his father died. Josh fell on hard times again. To help make ends meet, he contrived a plan to pass off copies of some legal prints from London as originals. His conscience as a born-again Christian bothered him so much that he quickly stopped the fraudulent activity. He called the printer in Brickfields to stop and had him shred all the prints in front of his eyes.
I must move quickly when the clouds move.Joshua Paul
The commercial courts were shifted to Sultan Abdul Samad Building. So, Josh moved his shop also. He found an empty lot at the Straits Trading Building and continued running his business there till 2007. That’s the year when the floods came and destroyed a lot of his stock including some original works of famous Malaysians and some very old documents dating to the 17th century. Well, the flood was a blessing in disguise, for when the income tax officers came knocking at his door, they saw that all the documents and computers were destroyed. There was no further investigation after that.
The new High Court was relocated to Jalan Duta in 2007. Realising that his business would not sustain without lawyers around, Josh got a lawyer friend, Sanjeev Kumar, to draft a letter to the law minister Dato Nazri. The letter worked. Dato Nazri made sure Josh got a shop at the new building. Joshua Legal Art Gallery has been in operation for twenty two years with a branch in Kota Kinabalu. Josh is glad he no longer suffers the roller coaster rides that was much of his early life. Happily married, he is close to his two sons and a daughter and no longer looks at the rearview mirror with guilt and remorse. His grit and determination to drag himself out of the dungeon of misery and crime should serve as a source of inspiration for those with ‘woe is me’ and defeatist attitudes. Josh’s story is a truly inspirational one of turning darkness to light, agony to charity, failure to success, and above all, crime and punishment to salvation. Joshua Paul is indeed a worthy addition to the Urghhlings Marsh Brotherhood.
Comforted by these words from the hymn ‘He Abides’, Josh asked to share them.
Once my heart was full of sin,
Once I had no peace within,
Till I heard how Jesus died upon the tree;
Then I fell down at His feet,
And there came a peace so sweet,
Now the Comforter abides with me.