Her­itage nov­els

Th­ese writ­ers use in­ter- and in­tra-eth­nic con­flicts to point the way to a cul­tur­ally more in­clu­sive fu­ture.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Reads - By CHUAH GUAT ENG star2@thestar.com.my

MALAYSIAN nov­el­ists of South Asian (ie, In­dian and Sri Lankan) de­scent have long dom­i­nated the lo­cal English-lan­guage lit­er­ary scene. This is hardly sur­pris­ing since most of them are se­cond- or third-gen­er­a­tion de­scen­dants of English-ed­u­cated im­mi­grants who came to Malaya to fill ad­min­is­tra­tive and professional po­si­tions in the colo­nial gov­ern­ment.

To a large ex­tent, how­ever, they dom­i­nate by be­ing more pro­lific than the nov­el­ists of other com­mu­ni­ties, and by be­ing there­fore bet­ter known.

Among those who have pub­lished mul­ti­ple nov­els are Lloyd Fer­nando, K.S. Ma­niam, Marie Ger­rina Louis, Rani Man­icka, and Shamini Flint.

Keep­ing to our theme of “writ­ing the na­tion”, we shall look at two lesser-known nov­els: Uma Ma­hen­dran’s The Twice Born (1998) and Aneeta Sun­dararaj’s The Banana Leaf Men (2003). Both au­thors deal with their cul­tural and his­tor­i­cal her­itage from their present per­spec­tives, and their nov­els rep­re­sent two dis­tinctly dif­fer­ent lit­er­ary ap­proaches to the prob­lems of so­cial in­te­gra­tion and na­tional unity faced by Englishe­d­u­cated mem­bers of an eth­nic mi­nor­ity.

A fairly com­mon crit­i­cism of South Asian women nov­el­ists is that they fo­cus ex­clu­sively on their own com­mu­ni­ties and show no in­ter­est in na­tional is­sues.

A more care­ful read­ing will show that this crit­i­cism is base­less. In nearly all the nov­els, the fic­tional world por­trayed is multi-eth­nic, char­ac­terised by the fre­quent pres­ence of non-South Asian food, clothes, friends, lovers, and spouses.

It can­not be as­sumed from this, how­ever, that the nov­el­ists take in­ter-eth­nic har­mony and na­tional unity for granted. No, the pres­ence of other-eth­nic friends, lovers, spouses, food, and clothes serves to drama­tise the dif­fer­ent worldviews and cul­tural bi­ases of the older gen­er­a­tion on the one hand, and the cul­tur­ally di­verse way of life of the younger gen­er­a­tion on the other.

In­deed, a sub-theme run­ning through the nov­els is that the younger char­ac­ters are of­ten in con­flict with the older mem­bers of their fam­i­lies.

The theme of na­tion-build­ing is thus pre­sented as ex­plo­rations of how the younger, “Malaysianised” gen­er­a­tion has to ne­go­ti­ate a space for them­selves be­tween the “oth­er­ness” of their an­ces­tral tra­di­tions at home and the “oth­er­ness” of their fel­low Malaysians out­side the home.

In Ma­hen­dran’s The Twice Born, the theme of in­ter­gen­er­a­tional cul­tural con­flict is ex­plored from the per­spec­tive of the older gen­er­a­tion. Dr Vis­vanathan, a Jaffna Tamil Malaysian and pae­di­atric psy­chi­a­trist in a teach­ing hos­pi­tal, is es­tranged from his fam­ily be­cause he re­fuses to ac­cept his daugh­ter’s in­ter-eth­nic mar­riage.

While treat­ing an autis­tic boy, he suffers a car­diac ar­rest and falls into a coma, dur­ing which he re­lives his pre­vi­ous ex­is­tence in In­dia at the time of the Aryan in­va­sion of the In­dus val­ley, when he was the tu­tor and spir­i­tual men­tor of the present-day autis­tic boy.

Through the ac­count of the clash of civil­i­sa­tions caused by the in­va­sion, the novel deals with many is­sues that are fa­mil­iar to Malaysians be­cause they have to do with na­tion build­ing: con­flicts aris­ing from dif­fer­ences in phys­i­cal ap­pear­ance, lan­guage, gods, ways of wor­ship, and ethics; the strug­gle for cul­tural and po­lit­i­cal supremacy lead­ing to so­cial di­vi­sions, dis­crim­i­na­tory laws, lim­ited so­cial mo­bil­ity, and the marginal­i­sa­tion of mi­nori­ties; and, ul­ti­mately, the need to find ways to co-ex­ist peace­fully.

In Sun­dararaj’s The Banana Leaf Men the same theme is ex­plored with hu­mour, irony, and wit in the lan­guage and voice of Avan­tika (Tika), a young, con­tem­po­rary, English-ed­u­cated, up­per mid­dle­class wo­man.

Ap­proach­ing the age of 30 and thor­oughly dis­en­chanted with cor­po­rate life in Kuala Lumpur, Tika re­turns to her home in Alor Star.

Aware that her chances of meet­ing a prospec­tive hus­band are lim­ited in the small town, she de­cides to have a mar­riage ar­ranged for her in the tra­di­tional way.

On hear­ing of Tika’s de­ci­sion, her aunt Nir­mala takes charge. Thus is set in mo­tion a se­ries of comic events re­lated to In­dian match­mak­ing prac­tices, which the au­thor uses to launch a cri­tique of the English-ed­u­cated, up­per mid­dle­class, not only of the Malaysian In­dian com­mu­nity but also of the whole na­tion.

Through Tika’s nar­ra­tion of the match­mak­ing en­deav­ours and her jaun­diced ob­ser­va­tions of her var­i­ous suit­ors, we get an in­sight into the Malaysian In­dian com­mu­nity’s lin­guis­tic, cul­tural, and eth­nic di­ver­sity; the sus­pi­cion and dis­dain with which each group looks upon the oth­ers; and the con­fus­ing anom­alies and con­tra­dic­tions en­su­ing from their cling­ing to poorly un­der­stood an­ces­tral tra­di­tions.

And through the por­trayal of Tika and her char­ac­ter flaws, the au­thor’s crit­i­cal eye scans the whole na­tion, zoom­ing in on racial prej­u­dice, ig­no­rance of one’s his­tor­i­cal and cul­tural her­itage, ram­pant ma­te­ri­al­ism, the prej­u­dice against those of other eth­nic­i­ties and those who have em­i­grated, and the “un­leashed” ob­ses­sion “to put Ev­ery­thing [sic] in Malaysia down”.

In th­ese two nov­els, then, we find that although the fo­cus is com­mu­nal, the dis­course is na­tional. Each in its own way is con­cerned with ex­pos­ing the in­ter- and in­tra-eth­nic con­flicts that be­set the na­tion and point­ing the way to a cul­tur­ally more in­clu­sive fu­ture.

In the run-up to Merdeka Day on Aug 31, we cel­e­brate lo­cal lit­er­a­ture with a fort­nightly 10-part se­ries on how home­grown English lan­guage nov­els fit into the na­tion’s story; this is the fifth in­stal­ment.

Chuah Guat Eng is a Malaysian au­thor whose works in­clude two nov­els (Echoes Of Si­lence and Days Of Change) and three col­lec­tions of short sto­ries (Tales From The Baram River, The Old House And Other Sto­ries, and Dream Stuff ). She cur­rently teaches fic­tion writ­ing at two uni­ver­si­ties in Malaysia.

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