Every year I aim to read a work from Malaysian author in conjunction with the Malaysia National day which falls on the 31 August. This year I pick this book however I was on holiday so I didn’t get to read and write about it in time for the national day.
Set in 1980s Malaysia, the Rajasekharans look like a normal family. Wealthy and privileged, living in the biggest house in Kingfisher lane, their lawyer father, Appa, is a pillar of the community. The books open with Rajasekharan family’s servant girl, Chellam, is dismissed from their house for unnamed crimes, it is only the latest in a series of losses that have shaken six-year-old Aasha’s life. Her grandmother has passed away under mysterious circumstances, and her older sister Uma has become distant and is planning for life abroad, with no plans to return. But what was Chellam’s unforgivable crime? And what is Appa – the respectable family patriarch hiding from his wife and children? And how did Patti, Aasha’s grandmother died?
As the layers of guarded secrets are peeled away, I read with intrigue of the many hidden intentions and misunderstandings between the family members. Amma, Appa’s wife, the poor girl who married the rich lawyer and bore his children, secretly suffers the abuse of Paati, her mother-in-law. Because Amma is not highly educated, her eldest daughter Uma considers her own mother to be beneath her. Aasha goes about in the household observing and seeing scenes that she is not suppose to see, a little like Bryony in Ian McEwan’s Atonement, albeit possess a special gift (or a curse!) to communicate with ghosts. Suresh is the only son smacked in between his sisters Uma and Aasha, spout of wry humour ocassionally, not very much of his character shines through. And then there is Uncle Ballroom who seems to be the family’s black sheep who prefers to dance his way around the world and arrive unannounced in the Rakasekharans’ household one day.
The story is told in a reverse chronological order which I thought was a rather refreshing format. It is no secret by page 4, the author disclosed that “A year from today, Chellam (the servant girl) will be dead.” I gather the author wrote the novel in chronological order and then rearranged the chapters from end to the beginning, or wrote it from scratch from the end to the start of the story. Still it requires high creative writing skills to be able to pull that off.
It is a very ambitious book which aims to be a little bit of Atonement, A little bit of Kiran Desai,a little bit of Arundhati Roy and the birth of Suresh coincides with the nation’s racial riot with a writing style, quite similar to the birth of the protagonist in the birth of India as nation in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight Children. The book risks of being derivative. The novel also make used of a lot of native Malay language and localised English, which non-natives may find a little hard to grasp.
Malaysia permeates Samarasan’s novel without didacticism about the country’s identity politics. It shows the symbiotic and separate relationship between Malays, Chinese and Indians. Jo Kukathas, the gifted satirist, once joked that in Malaysia “the Chinese do the work, the Malays take the credit, the Indians get the blame”. In 13 May 1969 Incident, a racial riot between the Chinese and Malay broke out. Officially, 196 people were killed between 13 May and 31 July 1969, as a result of the riots, although journalists and other observers have stated much higher figures. Other reports at the time suggest over 2,000 were killed by rioters, police and Malaysian Army rangers, mainly in Kuala Lumpur.
This riot was a result of Malaysia’s preferential policies, which benefited Malays over Chinese and Indians with the Malay Supremacy and preferential right which are not to be questioned under Article 153 in the nation’s constitution. Over the years post-independence, there is an undercurrent of discontentment between races but as a front all races appears united. The non-Malays who want to live on a more equal rights and terms are forced to seek educational and employment opportunities abroad thus resulting in massive brain drain in the country.
I find this review hard to write because it is something close to my heart.
In our family, this incident is a taboo and is not openly discussed lest one gets charged and risk imprisonment without proper trial. It is like an elephant in the room where no one talks about it, but it is there. Over the 55 years of independence, the policy has since created a lot of insecurities amongst other races and this feeling of spitefulness, hatred and jealousy is reflected through each and every character in the novel. Even Chellam the servant girl is not spared (I hate to spoil the story a little for you), Chellam is not innocent in this whole web of deceits although she represents the lowest caste in the society and was framed as a scapegoat. It means I ended up cringing at every character’s verbal abuse, spiteful remarks and atrocious acts quite often. I cringed at the remarks because it is so horrible as deemed unnecessary and it was as if none of the family members in the book has any blood ties with one another! Uncle Ballroom is perhaps the only likeable character in the entire book.
Ambience wise, “You won’t find India’s heat and dust here; you will sense the moist warmth of South-east Asia” as the Independent UK said. Samarasan’s inventive prose is stunning, but the overall effect is oddly disjointed. It is a novel which deserves to be admired, and in my case, relate closely to, but hard to love. What ruin it for me was the crew of horrible characters and frequent reference to “things” which is so gross that could make your stomach churn and fight to keep your dinner down.
The plot gets complicated as it attempts to interweave private miseries with public histories, shifting the story backwards and forward at the beginning, especially poignant was Appa’s father’s, Tata, migration to Malaysia. Sailing from the Bay of Bengal where he starts his humble beginning as a dock hand at the Penang port. But theirs is a house of secrets and manipulation, and of caste and racial prejudices that the author clearly sees as a mirror of the Malaysian society.
“There is, stretching delicate as bird’s head from the thin neck of the Kra isthmus, a land that makes up half of the country called Malaysia. Where it dips is beak into the South China Sea, Singapore hovers like a bubble escaped from its throat. This bird’s head is a springless summerless autumnless winterless land. One day might be a drop wetter or a mite drier than the last, but almost all are hot, damp, bright, bursting with lazy tropical life, conducive to endless tea breaks and mad, jostling, honking rushes through town to get home before the afternoon downpour.”
Remember Malaysia that way, as a peninsula and tropical paradise. It is much better than trying to understand the country. It is complicated, as this book would testify to it.
Paperback. Publisher: Harperscollin 2000; Length: 339 pages; Setting: Ipoh, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Source: Own copy. Finished reading on the 1st September 2012.
It is about an Indian family but not set in India, hence not qualified for the South Asian challenge!
About the writer:
Preeta Samarasan was born in Malaysia and moved to the United States to finish high school. She was enrolled in a Ph.D. program in musicology at the Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester, and had begun work on a dissertation on Gypsy music festivals in France when she left to complete her novel. She earned her MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan, where an earlier version of Evening Is The Whole Day won the Avery and Jule Hopwood Novel Award. She also recently won the Asian American Writer’s Workshop/Hyphen Magazine short-story award.
“Evening is the Whole Day” is longlisted in the Orange Prize 2009.
Despite the frivolity of the style deployed, her end of the book summary titled “The Deepest Wounds” and a short interview with the author demonstrates a depth in thinking and inspiration behind the book. It writes about Samarasan’s hurts and obsessions and wanting to get this important message of inequality across to the world. There are words of hurts that rings true that almost reduced me to tears. If there is a possibility of finding a digital copy somewhere I’ll share it after this.Time is a luxury to attempt to type out every single word, maybe I’ll try scanning it and share it to you after this post.
I think Preeta Samarasan has a promising career ahead of her. I look forward to her next book.