18 Aug 2013

Imaginary Homelands: Kisah Dari Siru Kambam

The final story in the Kisah Dari Siru Kambam anthology (Uthaya Sankar SB; RM30), “Chitra Paurnami”, is a subtle tale of family and forgiveness.

An elderly woman and her grandchild celebrate a festival together. The true meaning of said festival day, Chitra Paurnami, is discussed at length: held in honour of Chitragupta, the God of Death’s assistant, a family invites the visiting divinity into their home and serves him a sumptuous feast — in hopes that when it is their time to be judged in the afterlife, he will plead on their behalf.

But that tradition is considered passé, and most of Grandma’s family prefer to celebrate at the temple, with “kavadi, berjalan di atas bara api, dan pembawaan rata” — needless ostentations, she says, “Saya tak boleh terima.”

So only Grandma and her one doting grandkid are at home when a mysterious young man comes around for a meal.

This man’s identity is never revealed. Who is he? Is he Chitragupta? Or someone more down-to-earth, though equally remote? At the start of the story, complaining that she’d prepared too much food, Grandma offhandedly mentions that:

“Kita sebenarnya ada saudara-mara di sekitar Taiping. Tapi tentu ayah dan ibu awak tak benarkan mereka datang berkunjung ke rumah kita kerana masalah lama … ”

Bahasa Malaysia vs Bahasa Melayu

Kisah Dari Siru Kambam presents a broad overview of Uthaya Sankar SB’s career. Its contents — 20 short stories — are ordered chronologically: the last, “Chitra Paurnami”, was published in February 2013; the first, “Nayagi”, appeared in 1992.

Uthaya is a rarity, an Indian-Malaysian author who writes exclusively in Bahasa Malaysia.

His style is formal, closer to the pages of Dewan Budaya than the post-modern urban grit of Fixi’s stable of writers. This suits his work just fine; for Uthaya, crossing the linguistic divide is a patriotic mission, to be fought out in the national mainstream.
“I regard Bahasa Malaysia as my first language.”

“Bahasa Malaysia is our national language,” he has said. “I regard Bahasa Malaysia as my first language.”

Uthaya’s choice to write in Bahasa Malaysia has pitted him against the race-obsessed literary establishment. In 1999, he got into a “little war” with Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP) after the government body insisted he use the term “Bahasa Melayu” in one of his collections. More recently, the publication of “Chitra Paurnami” was delayed for six months; a magazine editor had accused it of “seeking to spread the Hindu faith” — because describing Hindu beliefs counts as proselytising, apparently.

Engorged Metaphor

Among the stories of this collection, Uthaya’s activist streak is most obvious in the allegorical “Interlok dan Siru Kambam”.

An old temple receives a new statue of the god Shiva. Unfortunately, this new idol is unintentionally offensive: “berbogel bulat dan alat sulit ditonjolkan secara berlebihan”.

Hijinks ensue. Ordinary folk are outraged; the Perpena is unrepentant; politicians get involved; an expert iconographer puts forth a 16-point amendment list that must be carried out on the idol “sebelum ia layak diangkat sebagai berhala”.

Sound familiar? In the course of events, a character points out that Siru Kambam’s Shiva scandal mirrors the national debate over Abdullah Hussain’s Interlok — Gapena, the Education Ministry, the 106 proposed amendments (that Uthaya himself was instrumental in compiling), etc.

To which locals reply: “Ini cuma isu setempat … mustahil dapat disamakan dengan suatu isu nasional.”

That’s a deft criticism of the Malaysian tendency to keep to and defend our social and/or communal pigeonholes, our refusal to acknowledge that, yes, an issue affecting one community inevitably actually affects all of us.

Moral Judgement

Not all of Uthaya’s commentary is so masterful. Some of the book’s other pieces veer into preachiness.

Datuk Datang ke Kampung Kami” is a bitter excoriation of the ethnic-Indian community, unable to appreciate Indian writers writing outside the Tamil-language ghetto. The sweepingly-monikered “Wanita” has its protagonist berating a married female colleague for her decision to be “trendy” and take on her husband’s name:

Kaum wanita tidak akan mendapat tempat yang mulia di mata dunia … selagi mereka masih menganiaya diri; mengikat diri pada amalan kolot yang tidak berasas.”

Which sounds like a feminist call to arms — “Women, stand up for your rights!” — but the protagonist giving this authoritative lecture is male, and pooh-poohs his colleague’s dissenting opinions at every turn; he is yet another man trying to police a woman’s behaviour.

A Model Malaysia

Siru Kambam is fictional: a mixed, Indian-majority district, close to Taiping. All of the stories in Kisah Dari Siru Kambam feature it as their context, and life there is an idyll of peace and mutual respect.

Uthaya tends to employ his imagined township as a foil — a microcosmic lab into which Big Malaysian Issues may be dropped and their effects felt.

But the best works in this volume are the ones that focus on the people of Siru Kambam; the ones that invest in them as characters, not just as author-surrogates; the ones where socio-cultural anxieties function as mirrors to personal triumphs or tragedies.

Like “Chitra Paurnami”, my favourite story, “Jangan Pandang Sang Bulan”, also features grandparents and a Hindu festival.

An elderly couple describes Vinayagar Chaturthi to their grandchildren, and explains the taboo against looking at the moon on Ganesha’s holy day — because it dared laugh at the elephant-headed god, the moon is punished by averted gazes.

But grandfather’s lively, jokey storytelling and grandmother’s sweet modakams mask a terrible fact: the two don’t talk to each other any more.

Only obliquely referenced in the text, “Jangan Pandang Sang Bulan”’s silent, domestic pain — unexplained and empathetically considered — rings louder than any declamation or judgment.

A Softer Struggle

Uthaya wears many big, important hats. He writes columns for four separate media publications; he founded Kavyan, a Bahasa Malaysia literature appreciation society; he was a central figure in the Interlok controversy. It’s clear he views himself as a crusader — in the forward to this latest collection, he quotes Gandhi and says that the anthology’s publication:

“meneruskan pendirian, perjuangan dan jati diri saya.”

All that nation-building can get a bit strident. It is in his less “important” stories that Uthaya’s artistry shines through. His sensitivity; his ear for the quiet, easily-missed moments that define human relationships — these are the attributes that make Kisah Dari Siru Kambam such a pleasure to read.

[This review was published in Kakiseni on 15 April 2013. Zedeck Siew is a fiction writer and freelance critic. He is currently working on his first book and blogs sporadically on zedecksiew.tumblr.com] [BUY THIS BOOK]