Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Rooted in Malaysian Soil

SHANTINI SUNTHARAJAH speaks with down-to-earth PAUL CALLAN who travelled all over Perak panning for nuggets of history for his début novel, The Dulang Washer

PAUL CALLAN can tell you why reading the book is always better than watching the movie. “When you watch a movie, you’re being told how to be entertained, but with a book, you have to use your own imagination.” Callan elaborates: “If you read about Aisha from my novel, you’ll have an image of what Aisha looks like straight away. If there were 10 people sitting at a table together, every single one of them would have a different image of Aisha, and that’s the creative power of the imagination.”

Aisha is the protagonist in Callan’s first novel, The Dulang Washer, a historical novel set in Malaya in the late 19th century, when tin was as good as gold. “It’s a love story involving a miner who was a rogue, an overseer from Britain who becomes an opium addict, and a recovering opium addict,” he explains. All three characters are enamoured with Aisha, the lovely Malay dulang washer.

Although Callan’s story essentially revolves around Aisha and the men who pursue her, The Dulang Washer is not just another love story set in an exotic locale. “It’s also the story of the Chinese coming to Malaya, and it tells of the brutality and deprivation they endured and their commitment to Malaya and Malayan culture,” he says.

Digging into history
The first-time author says he specifically set out to capture a snapshot of Malaya in the 1890s. “I spent about two and a half years just doing the research for this book,” Callan states. “I must have driven up to Ipoh about a hundred times—day after day after day.” He was seeking an old tin mine to get a feel of it for his story, but discovered much to his dismay that the Kinta Valley is now devoid of mines. “I couldn’t find a real tin mine because there aren’t any, but I did find a life-sized replica of one in a little museum in Ipoh.”

Callan’s meticulous research also led him to the vast halls of the National Library in Kuala Lumpur, where he spent hundreds of hours poring over old history books about Malaysia. “A lot of the stuff that’s in my book is not on the Internet. I spent months on end at the National Library. The librarians looked through their archives time and again; without the National Library, the story would not have been written.”

Callan’s painstaking research unearthed some fascinating facts that many Malaysians will find surprising, even shocking. “I found out that over a period of 80 to 90 years, a great many Chinese men died in the tin mines. They couldn’t cope with the terrain,” he reveals. “You go up to Perak today, there’s no jungle, it’s all gone, but a century ago it was nothing but jungle. There were also other problems like malaria and beriberi which were particularly nasty diseases then.”

He also discovered that tin mining involved not just the Chinese but the Malays and Indians as well. “I discovered during my research that Malay farmers used to augment their income by working in the tin mines. The dominant labour force were the Chinese (comprising the Cantonese, Hakkas and Hokkiens), and all the transportation in and out of the mines through the jungles were controlled by the Indians.”

Callan’s determination to write an account that is as accurate as possible about old Malaya rises from his passion for the country that it has become today. “I adore Malaysia; I think when God created the world, he took a little rest before he finally put his thumb on Malaysia. I think it’s the most beautiful country on earth,” he declares, without reservation.

Destined to write
It might seem a little odd for a blue-eyed Irishman to admit such love for a country that is half a world away from the one he grew up in, but then, Callan is nothing if not unusual. The youngest son of a father who was a successful Irish painter and a mother who was a tapestry artist, Callan seemed destined, from the very beginning, for a life involving some sort of creative art form. “By the time I was nine, I was reading a book a day,” he says, blue eyes lighting up with the memory. “I read all the classics—I couldn’t put them down! My favourites were Alexandre Dumas’s The Man in the Iron Mask and Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty.”

It’s easy to assume that Callan enjoyed a charmed childhood in Ireland, a childhood that was filled with the comfort of books and the love of talented parents, but things are not always what they seem. “My father was a drunk—an alcoholic. He was a successful painter and exhibited in places like Paris and so forth, but he was a rogue—a charming rogue and my mother had a hard time with him,” he evenly admits, his expression giving nothing away. The avid reader, who enjoys reading and writing books that feature strong emotions, doesn’t believe in dramatising real life. “Whenever people ask me about my childhood, I can give a very dramatic story which would be true, but I wasn’t born hungry in Ethiopia,” he says. “I could have been born with far less, so I don’t feel a right to complain about my early childhood.”

Callan is forthright about more than just his childhood; he is not afraid to share his true feelings on other matters as well. “I hate literary snobs,” he states, wrinkling his nose. “I have a real anger towards snobbish writers who come up with all the rubbish under the sun.” He offers an example: “Why do some writers use the word ‘bourgeois’? Why not just say ‘middle class’? It’s snobbery like this which makes young people think they’re not good enough to read books.” He does admit that good writing sometimes requires stylish language and complex words but believes that some writers take it a little too far. “If writing was just plain simple words, one following the other, it would be very dull and boring. You must have a mix of simple and complicated words but the mix has to be controlled. Otherwise, it’s just absurd; no wonder young people don’t read!”

A people person
While Callan’s feelings for—or rather against—literary snobs are unmistakably strong, the writer, who also owns a successful healthcare centre for the elderly in London, generally exudes an easy-going charm. He is the type of person who will enter a room full of strangers and leave it a room full of friends. “I love people, I love interacting with people, and I’m always talking to people. If I walk past someone and they smile, I have to respond, I just can’t walk away,” he says, flashing one of his quick grins.

Even substantial obstacles like language barriers don’t stop the self-confessed ‘people lover’ from making friends. The Dulang Washer is peppered with Hakka, Malay and Tamil words, which he learned during impromptu conversations with strangers. “I started learning Tamil from people I met around Kuala Lumpur. Now, when I say Kaalai vanakkam (‘good morning’ in Tamil) to Indians, I get lots of smiles.”

Callan, who is married to a Malaysian, says one of the reasons he chose to write a Malaysian story was because of a strong urge to show his gratitude for being allowed to live long-term in a country he loves so much. “I’m very serious about this, I’m not being corny. I want to say ‘thank you’ to Malaysia for letting me live here and that’s why I wanted to write a book about Malaysia for Malaysians—a book that they would want to read.”

So, what does the Irish writer want his readers to take away from his book? “The desire to read another book,” he says, without hesitation. “I want them to get so much pleasure from reading The Dulang Washer and from being able to opt out of this pressure cooker we call life that they’ll want to go out and read more.”

SHANTINI SUNTHARAJAH is a great Enid Blyton fan. She was inspired to become a writer after reading her mother’s early edition of The Famous Five: Five on a Treasure Island when she was nine. Life, however, had other plans for her, and she ended up becoming an engineer, but the call of the written word proved too strong. Through circuitous and unexpected circumstances, she eventually became a journalist and then an independent writer. She loves nothing more than to spend hours seeking out words that will perfectly convey what she wants to say.


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