Tuesday, January 01, 2013

On Loss and Legacies

SHANTINI SUNTHARAJAH talks to London-based Malaysian novelist SUNIL NAIR, whose first attempt at the novel is a compelling story set against the changing landscape of contemporary Malaysia

“IF YOU STRIP AWAY all the ‘lights and decorations’ of a life, what are you left with that are legacies from your parents; what have you really inherited from them?” In his début novel, When All the Lights Are Stripped Away, Malaysian author Sunil Nair attempts to find the answer to this question.

The novel centres on Anil who returns to Malaysia when he receives an airmail from his father that contains just six words: “Come home. I am dying. Acha”. He leaves behind his carefully constructed city life to go back to Muar, his sleepy hometown in Johor. This physical voyage leads to a deeper, intangible journey when he discovers his father’s ambitious political dreams for him and his mother’s secret love of painting.

Parts of the novel reflect the author’s own life. Like Anil, Nair grew up in Muar and lost his father as a boy but the similarities stop there. “The book started off as a short story of a young man and his father on a rubber plantation. Then it morphed into one about this young man visiting his dying father on a rubber plantation,” says Nair. “My father worked on a rubber plantation and he died of cancer when I was 14. I thought it was too autobiographical in its elements so I slowly began thinking about how to construct this as a longer story, perhaps a novella or even a novel if it had legs, while keeping the central story of a relationship between a son and his father.”

Nair himself was lucky to enjoy a happy childhood despite the lack of wealth. The tenth of eleven children, he remembers a carefree time playing with his siblings and neighbours or meandering through the secondary forests close to his home. Even after the passing of his father, he recalls that the family could rely on the solid support of his resilient mother. “Our family was not well off but my mother kept us together both financially and emotionally, and made sure we were well educated.” Nair, who now resides in London, credits his mother’s emphasis on education as the reason behind his double degrees in physics and mathematics from the University of Chicago and his doctorate degree in mathematics from the State University of New York.

Although it might seem unusual for a highly trained physicist and mathematician to spend his free time writing literary novels, Nair himself isn’t so surprised. “I owe a very large part of what I know and how I think to my time at the University of Chicago,” he says. “It’s a liberal arts university, one that encourages students to get a very broad education and to learn from original sources. I did not concentrate on my major until my third year and took many interesting courses, including a graduate class on Nietzsche and Freud, conducted in German and English! My deep interest in literature and art was cultivated during this period.”

When he’s not moonlighting as a novelist, Nair works as a publisher of mathematics, statistics, physics and computer science books for Taylor & Francis, one of the big four academic publishers in London. “I would have liked to say I wake up like millions of other Londoners and start my daily commute, but fortunately or unfortunately, that is not the case,” explains the author. “I started working from home four days of the week in October 2011, commuting to the office near Oxford a day a week. My wife works at home, too, which is great; otherwise, working at home can get very lonely. I tend to wake up early, spend some time with myself and then get to work.”

Working from home might sound like a dream come true for a novelist but Nair would disagree. Supervising a group of eleven editors, who live all around the world, is by no means a straightforward task. “My editors keep me on my toes—they live from the west coast of the United States to Delhi, and until recently Singapore, too, which spans 15 time zones. It’s a tricky time for publishers everywhere. Electronic publishing brings countless challenges and some opportunities, so you need to be flexible and light on your feet.”

The demands of Nair’s day job keep him busy, which means he doesn’t have much time to write. It took him eight long years to complete When All the Lights Are Stripped Away. “With a very busy day job, it really took forever. I had to steal minutes and hours here and there to write and that is never ideal,” he explains. “I never really had a schedule as such but I can say that most of my best writing took place first thing in the morning because I am a morning person. Sometimes I did not even look at the manuscript for months and when I came back to writing, it was almost like starting from scratch every time.” He admits that his motivation waned from time to time: “Perhaps I was a bit too lazy or did not see this as a publish-or-perish situation. But I persevered. When I got to about 50,000 words, I knew I owed it to myself to finish the book. It finally happened at the end of 2009.” (The novel was published by Marshall Cavendish in March 2012.)

Nair reveals that there is definitely another novel in his future but is a bit vague about the details. “I won’t say any more than this: the novel is set in London and is a literary comedy, or that is the plan at the moment. I have many ideas for novels and may abandon this one for something more serious if it doesn’t work.”

As for When All the Lights Are Stripped Away, Nair hopes readers will reexamine their ideas about legacy, inheritance and art and search for deeper understanding as these are important and often complicated aspects of life. “Legacies and inheritance are complex and intricate and art is powerful even when conducted in the most private and limited of circumstances.”

Reproduced from the April-June 2013 issue of Quill magazine


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