Personal Is Political
Sharon Bakar reviews Preeta Samarasan’s Evening Is the Whole Day
(This review first appeared in the July 2008 edition of Off The Edge, Malaysia’s leading arts and culture magazine)
IT’S TWENTY TO TEN on a September morning in 1980, and the Rajasekharan family of Big House, 79, Kingfisher Lane, Ipoh, are assembled to pack their disgraced servant girl, Chellum, back on the bus to Gopeng. Lawyer Raju Rajasekharan (known throughout the novel simply as Appa) stands at the gate in the rain with Chellum’s wheedling, drunken father, while the two youngest children, Aasha and Suresh, are kept at the breakfast table to bear witness to their mother’s scarcely contained fury as the hapless girl bumps her three-wheeled, broken-strapped suitcase down the stairs.
We don’t immediately know Chellum’s crime (though Amma plants the rumour that she may be pregnant), but we are told that a year from now Chellum will be dead. This is not at all the spoiler it may at first seem because this is a novel entirely concerned with excavating the past: the narrative seeks causes, and causes of causes, moving backwards in tiny increments of time, even while unveiling the larger story of an immigrant family’s rise from humble beginnings.
We soon learn that there’s been a death in the family. Appa’s formidable mother, Paati, has died under mysterious circumstances in the bathroom, and Chellum is to be blamed for it. But just as the 1980 TV series Dallas (much loved by Malaysian audiences) invited viewers to ponder “Who killed J.R.?” so it appears as the novel unfolds that Chellum isn’t the only one complicit in her death. And as it turns out, this isn’t the only skeleton rattling round in the family cupboard. As the layers of lies and evasions are peeled away, no one (not even Paati, not even sweet little Aasha) is entirely innocent, and convenient, face-saving fiction is invented to hide uncomfortable truths.
Since the powerless are always the most convenient scapegoats, carrying away in a metaphoric sense the sins of the rest, and so it is with Chellum and Appa’s brother (the quaintly named Uncle Ballroom). Both are unceremoniously packed off baseless pretexts when their real crime was actually to have been witness to much more.
Despite the god-like authority of the narrator, the narrative stays closest to six-year-old Aasha, the latest in a long literary line of child protagonists drawn into an adult world in a way they cannot understand or really cope with. (There is, incidentally, a beautiful nod to Ian McEwan’s Atonement in the scene where the children put on a play for their parents.)
Watchful and aware, Aasha is the main witness to the novel’s events and the keeper of secrets. She is even on speaking terms with the Big House’s ghosts, the most permanent of which are the daughter of the previous owner of the house, forever trapped in her last memory of being pulled into a mining pond as her abandoned mother committed suicide, and the ghost of Paati, who returns from the ashes of her funeral pyre even more grotesque and lizard-like than when she was alive.
The dispatch of Chellum is only the last in a series of events which have rocked Aasha’s world. The most painful has been the sudden change in her once-doting older sister Uma before she leaves to study in America, and the child’s heartbreak is palpable.
Although on the surface a story about a particular dysfunctional family in Ipoh, the novel must also be read on a higher level, the personal and domestic reflecting the national and political, for just as Saleem Sinai in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children is born at the exact moment his country gains independence, and his own fortunes closely parallel those of India, so too the events taking place in the house on Kingfisher Lane echo those of the wider nation. On Independence, the house is taken over from Mr. MacDougall, a dyspeptic Scottish tin-miner, and on the stroke of midnight of August 31, 1957, Appa’s father, Tata, switches on the light for the first time. Appa himself has great schemes, both personal and political, and in 1959 sets out to find a bride as “the first part of his five-year plan”.
Chapter seven is the only part of the novel where the action moves beyond the claustrophobic atmosphere of Big House, opening the novel up to light and air in much the same way as a garden courtyard serves an old Malaysian mansion. Uma and her mother make a trip to visit family in Kuala Lumpur. Amma is heavily pregnant with Suresh. Riots break out in the city, preventing their return home, and Amma is about to deliver and needs to get to hospital. The date: May 13, 1969.
May 13 has left deep scars on the Malaysian psyche, yet the race riots and their causes have remained the great unwritten about in Malaysian fiction. The only other author willing to enter this territory was Lloyd Fernando with Green Is the Colour, and even then the actual conflict remains largely in the background. Samarasan plunges her characters into the thick of the action and exposes the racist sentiments of the various groups in a way that Malaysian readers may indeed find unsettling.
So much remains unanswered about this dark incident in Malaysian history and so it is fitting that the author handles this part of the story using personified Rumour (in a red dress) and Fact (in coat and tails) dancing a grotesque tango in the streets. “Some events and emotions are so huge that they don’t seem to be governed by the laws of realism,” Samarasan has said. Malaysian readers will of course know only too well that Rumour and Fact will continue to dance in a country where press freedoms are limited.
Samarasan is clearly critical of the insularity of her characters. Despite living in an ostensibly multicultural society, the Rajasekharans have little contact with Malaysians of other races, and don’t even deign to learn the national language. It is ironic, of course, that at the same time the children’s frame of reference includes so much that is imported from the west, such as Wrigley’s chewing gum, Hawaii Five-O, The Wind in the Willows and Simon and Garfunkel. Malaysians of all racial backgrounds will recognise the phenomenon of the cultural cocoon.
Just as we have our scapegoats in the foreground of the novel, so too they appear in the background. Appa is involved in the conduct of a murder case of one Angela Lim found stuffed down a manhole near Tarcian Convent School. Is Shamsuddin bin Yusof really the murderer, or has he been conveniently framed? Malaysian readers will of course immediately spot the anachronistic references to more recent murder cases and tabloid scandals which have captured the national imagination.
Not only is Evening Is the Whole Day an extremely intelligent novel which works on various levels, it also explores a variety of themes—and the writing is simply stunning. The style, while evocative of other Indian authors influenced by the exuberance of Rushdie, such as Arundhati Roy and Kiran Desai (against whose work comparisons are bound to be made), also draws on the darkness of the Gothic, and as far as I’m aware, no other writer has managed to better use absolute misery for such comic effect since Stella Gibbon’s Cold Comfort Farm.
There’s a playfulness and a sensual love of the language which means that every sentence, every single paragraph, gives an almost physical pleasure and must be fully savoured, and the imagery is fresh and frequently surprising. There is also a sharp eye for the tiniest of details and Samarasan delights in long lists, with one object piled onto another, which not only achieve a kind of a poetry, but also add to the cluttered and claustrophobic atmosphere of Big House.
Samarasan has moved away from the frangipani and jasmine scents of much Asian fiction, confounding perhaps a Western audience’s expectations of a certain kind of exoticism. There are, to put it bluntly, an awful lot of scatological references: excrement seeps into many of the scenes, whether the stench from Amma’s mother’s improvised chamber pot doing battle with the smells of the family dinner, or Chellum’s “volcanic attack of diarrhea, all rapid fire bangs and squeaks and liquiescent bursts”, or the anonymous “sly lingering fart” on the platform of the Ipoh railway station.
Perhaps more remarkably, in a novel published overseas and aimed at an international market, a great many local words, both Tamil and Malay, are woven into the dialogue in the way that Malaysian speakers actually do speak. These words are not italicised, not footnoted, not explained in a glossary and not in any sense apologised for. This is as much a political decision as a literary one. As Samarasan has pointed out in an interview with Quill magazine: “Schoolchildren studying literature in the colonies had to navigate Cockney speech patterns, imagine for themselves what toad-in-the-hole might taste like, picture moors and bogs and fens and determine the emotional significance of each of these landscapes. Now we get to tell our own stories, and this requires your dealing with my rubber estates and char kway teow and cursing in Tamil. In the long run, this will be good for all of us. A little cultural immersion never did anyone any harm.”
Samarasan is an astonishingly self-assured young author who seems to have hit the ground running at first attempt. She plays with our expectations of an Asian novel in Evening Is the Whole Day, revisiting the well-worked genre of the Indian family saga with a freshness that easily transcends all the stereotypes. And for a Malaysian reading public hungry for fiction that explores political and social issues unflinchingly, Evening Is the Whole Day will be seen as a fearless burst into new territory.
Perhaps we’re getting a little blasé these days, but our Malaysian authors have done enormously well on the world stage recently, winning and being nominated for major international awards. I think we can expect Samarasan to add one or two more to the national mantelpiece.