What does a retiree do with plenty of time on his hands? Well, 77-year-old Joe Ratnam, a Singaporean, finds contentment in writing. He began writing an online book, about his family, in 2011.

The book, Singapura At The Last Turn Of The Century, is a true story of an Indian immigrant family. “I want to write a book of about 30 chapters and complete it by the end of the year,” muses Joe, who has so far finished six chapters.

Before this, he had worked as the country representative for an American telecommunications company for over 23 years. Two years ago, Joe became wheelchair-bound.

The book is a tribute to his late mother Josephine Lucas who died at the age of 78 (in 1998), as well as a legacy to his three children (aged between 45 and 50) and nine grandchildren.

Joe said: “In the beginning, I planned to write a book and have it published. But it was a hassle looking for a publisher.” Then American CEO Prashant Jain, who is married to his grandniece, informed him that he could write a book online.

Prashant told him “the world is going online” and that he would probably “get a million readers”. A very close friend further coaxed him to “go for it” – so Joe took up the challenge.

In the beginning, his eldest child Sheila Katherine, a project and event executive, helped with research and tracing the family tree.

Health Issues

Writing does not come easy for Joe, who has been a diabetic for almost 50 years. “It’s hereditary,” he said. Two years ago, he was diagnosed with bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome in both hands, which caused deformity in his fingers.

“It affected me very badly. I cannot use my hands, particularly my right hand, as the fingers are unable to function. My wife has to help me with feeding, washing and other chores,” he said.

On June 21 last year, Joe went for surgery. He was diagnosed with Vaughan-Jackson Syndrome of the right hand where the tendons of the last three fingers were ruptured at the wrist. He said: “Now, I have 70-80% functionality of my right hand.”

Also, Joe cannot stand for long or walk due to problems in his knees; they tend to buckle because of osteoarthritis. Initially, he found it very difficult to accept that he had lost his mobility. But his faith has lightened his heavy heart.

Days Of Hardship

Joe’s late father Kandasamy Ratnam (1896-1943) was a devout Hindu and his mother, a Catholic. He recounted: “My father’s first wife, Meenacheem, bore him five children – a daughter and four sons (who have since passed away). My mother was the second wife, and I am the only son.”

After marriage, Joe’s mother was stopped from attending church and had to follow her husband to the temple.

“About three years after my father’s death, my mother returned to Catholicism, and I was converted at seven years old,” said Joe, who was given a Hindu name, Davindran Joe, after birth.

Joe’s mother was the only daughter of a poor Tamil-speaking immigrant family doing odd jobs for survival. She was left in a convent at the age of 16. At 17, she was granted approval to leave the convent to marry the widowed Kandasamy.

But the marriage was not blissful. Joe’s father, who was jobless, was in constant dispute with his first wife’s relatives and children. Joe said they eventually kicked his father out of the house after he remarried.

Thereafter, they moved from place to place and once even stayed at Joe’s maternal grandmother’s home.

“During the Japanese Occupation, she had no money to buy milk for me. As I did not have proper nutrition as a child, I contracted beriberi, due to thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency. Until today, I have to take vitamin B for my nerves.”

In those days, Joe and his mother lived like vagabonds. “We wore tattered clothes and had no permanent home. Our bed was a ping-pong table,“ he said.

Before Joe’s mother remarried, she washed clothes to earn a living and put Joe through school. At seven years old, he studied in St Anthony’s Primary Boys’ School in Singapore. After completing Standard 8, he studied in St Joseph’s School until he was 18, after which he started working.

His first job was as a trainee teleprinter operator. He switched employers and worked for two other companies, each for over 20 years. His last job prior to retirement in 2006 was with a local Internet phone service provider.

Tracing Long-Lost Friends

Besides completing his online book, Joe also expressed the wish to trace a friend whose family he lived with in Batu Pahat, Johor, some 70 years ago. He said: “The head of the family was a dispenser named Mr Joseph. This family was wonderful and generous, and they had a son named George Joseph.”

George’s other siblings are Dr Martin Joseph (Kuala Lumpur) and Willie Joseph (the United States). Joe wants to relive those good old days and share his story with them.