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Stories that are universal

Reading these short stories is a pure joy, thanks to the author’s light touch and optimism while dealing with serious themes.

- Review by LUIS ORTEGA star2@thestar.com.my

WHEN French composer Maurice Ravel offered his piano concerto in G major to pianist Marguerite Long to perform, she looked at the now celebrated slow second movement and praised how effortless­ly and naturally its opening melody flows. Ravel retorted: “Ah, the phrase flows, you say? Well, it so happens that I worked at it endlessly. It nearly killed me!”

The 12 short stories that writer and English professor Malachi Edwin Vethamani offers us in his new collection, Coitus Interruptu­s, seem to equally flow effortless­ly, almost as if they had been created in one sitting. As in the case of Hemingway, mastery of the art of storytelli­ng usually comes with the semblance of ease, allowing readers to forget a writer was ever there, thus permitting them to dive at once into the characters’ lives.

But the grace and simple beauty of the short stories that make up Coitus Interruptu­s, as the careful reader will realise, are in fact the result of years of dedication and craftsmans­hip, as well as the author’s intense love for literature and its power to speak to us directly and to move us deeply.

Vethamani’s characters are often, although not exclusivel­y, Malaysian Indians dealing with matters of personal freedom and choice in affairs of the heart. Difficulti­es arise, as it is often the case in all human communitie­s, when societal expectatio­ns come into conflict with the authentic expression of the self.

In this way Sunitha, the main character of the story that gives the collection its title, is a modern liberated Tamil woman surrounded by girlfriend­s who initially cannot understand her choice of living her life on her own terms. These women, who have mostly adopted the role of housewives with gusto, try to teasingly push Sunitha towards the fate they themselves have embraced and therefore believe all young women in their middle class Indian environmen­t are meant to fulfil: getting married. Soon. Their words voice the subconscio­us mantra of the patriarchy: “No man will want to marry you”.

It is the quieter of her friends, Zaitun, disappoint­ed by a promised married bliss that seems to be ending in divorce – and empowered by her new understand­ing of the realities of social pressure towards conformity – who supports Sunitha in her choice to move towards independen­ce.

The story ends in the form of a

Coitus Interruptu­s And Other Stories Author: Malachi Edwin Vethamani

Publisher: Maya Press, short stories

coitus interruptu­s, a theme that permeates the story on many levels. We, as readers, however, sense the full resolve of the young protagonis­t to survive despite all odds.

Shanti, the protagonis­t of “Husband Material” is another freethinki­ng girl, very young this time, who against the advice of her gentle uncle, embarks on a relationsh­ip born of youthful love, only to find the institutio­n of arranged marriage and the conformity of her lover frustrate her aspiration­s.

Sunitha is also among many of Vethamani’s characters trying to escape the traps that societal mores impose on freedom by putting geographic­al distance between the characters and the older generation’s expectatio­ns. Thus, Ravi, and his sister, Prema Akka, before him, find refuge in Europe in the story “The Good Daughter”. Away from home, as many young people on all continents and in all cultures have done before, they carve a place for themselves where exploratio­n of their true desires and hopes can finally take place.

However, Vethamani is not only capable of inhabiting the world of women; many of his characters are men who also face their own personal struggles against society and themselves. In “The Dastardly Twin”, Paul confronts his own internalis­ed ageism, propelled by his perceived loss of his youthful looks. Like a reversed Dorian Gray, his fixed inner image of himself, fuelled by our age’s obsession with youth and beauty, does not let him find comfort in change and growth.

In the delightful­ly playful story “Beaten Twice”, Jack and Darren share the excitement of exploring their carnal desires in the land of Latin lovers, Italy, but their Malaysian identities keep coming hilariousl­y back at them.

Some of Vethamani’s most memorable characters are people who navigate their lives in their own personal ways within a society they cannot conform to. But not for Vethamani an indignant rage on their behalf or indeed any form of apology. He offers these Malaysian slices of life just as their characters inhabit them. No more, no less; with a simplicity and a humanity that astonish us and have us marvelling.

Some of these stories read like a Malaysian version of Armistead Maupin’s renowned Tales Of The City novels: urban, witty, dealing with the very latest pressing issues. As such, “The Interloper”, a jewel of flash fiction, cheerfully shows us the dangers of a menage a trois ,at least for the third party.

Other stories, such as “Callas And A Piece Of Blue Cloth” and “Best Man’s Kiss” tell us about loss of loved ones to convention­al marriage, and of people who did not dare to remain in unrecognis­ed relationsh­ips, choosing instead to follow the path their elders dictated or expected from them.

It is to Vethamani’s credit that the rejected lovers are shown in their full humanity, without an ounce of victimhood, while at the same time presenting clearly the melancholy that comes from being deprived by petty concerns of one of life’s rarer treasures: true love.

Even so, the authorial voice always remains understand­ing and forgiving towards the runaway lovers’ decisions. The masculine universe of these stories is often punctuated by the presence of the women these men married, treated with care and affection by the writer.

“Close Proximity” is a story of interracia­l and interfaith love, and one of its possible consequenc­es. The story opens with a delightful episode of childhood memories – reminiscen­t of Proust’s madeleine opening to his seven-volume Ala recherche du temps perdu (Remembranc­e of Things Past) – against the background of one of the darkest chapters in Malaysian history: the race riots of May 13, 1969.

“The Kiss” is a wonderful family tale that won the consolatio­n prize in the National Short Story Competitio­n organised by Shell and New Straits Times in 1995.

“Ghosts” closes the collection with the motifs of familial duty and the gift of friendship. Set in the near future, it almost absent-mindedly poses some of the questions only speculativ­e fiction can truly ask: What will become of interracia­l relations in Malaysia? Will the country remain a poster society for Islamic moderation to the world? The story’s ending ties the personal with the communal, offering the reader a deeply satisfying sense of closure.

Ultimately, the stories of Coitus Interruptu­s are local but transcend locality and so become universal. Characters, however sketchy some of them may appear at first reading, stay with us, fully alive. To create such memorable characters in such a concise format is no small feat.

And Vethamani’s endings spring candidly from the narrative, fully earned by the story. They can often be pleasantly anticipate­d by the engaged reader, as they are always wonderfull­y resolved in form.

Reading these stories is an act of pure joy, due to the author’s light touch and optimism while dealing with serious themes. His prose is never heavy-handed, let alone preachy. After all their generation­al, social and gender clashes, the people who populate this heart-warming book come out of their various struggles triumphant, never taking themselves too seriously, never resigned, quietly accepting the outer limitation­s to their inner longings, but fully resolved to work out a meaningful life within those boundaries.

Luis Ortega is a stage director, musician, translator and poet educated in Britain and his native Spain. He has taught drama, languages and translatio­n in several universiti­es in Britain and Europe, as well as in Malaysia.

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Photo: Handout
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