30 Oct 2011

Speaking in Tongues: Part 1

In The Beginning

Abdullah Abdul Kadir, better known as Munshi Abdullah, was perhaps the earliest Indian to produce creative works in Bahasa Melayu, commonly known as Malay. But since the father of modern Malay literature is not widely recognised as an “Indian” writer, we might have to go by the record and accept some Nagalingam as the first “Malay(si)an Indian” writer to write in Bahasa Melayu. His story, “Cerita Orang Yang Menerima Syukur” (Story of a Thankful Person) was published in 1932.

There was a long gap before names like Joseph Selvam, N. S. Maniam, A. Nagappan, P. Palaniappan, Ignatius Dev and G. Soosai surfaced in 1960’s and 1970’s – especially with the introduction of the term “Bahasa Malaysia” following the 13 May 1969 racial riots. Non-Malay writers were encouraged to write in the national language, now known as “Bahasa Malaysia”.

These writers too did not stay in the field long enough or, perhaps, did not produce enough quality work to be recognised as a “Malaysian Writers’; let alone as “sasterawan” (laureate). The best they could make was to be known as “Non-Malay Writers” (Penulis Bukan Melayu).

Enter the New Breed

In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, a group of Bahasa Malaysia educated Indian writers began to make waves. Among them, Saroja Theavy Balakrishnan and I have proven ourselves to be serious writers, as often mentioned by the late Dr Othman Puteh in his papers presented at various seminars and conventions in Malaysia.

A few others followed suit. Unlike the earlier batch, this new breed of writers have a better command of Bahasa Malaysia and do not shy away from writing about Malaysian Indians in their stories. Indian culture, Indian beliefs and everything Indian are presented beautifully in Bahasa Malaysia.

Even then, there still are writers who cannot differentiate between “language”, “culture” and “religion”. This might be a surprising remark but there are a few Malaysian Indian writers who believe that since they are writing in “Bahasa Melayu”, they have to write about “budaya Melayu” (Malay culture) and “agama Islam” (Islamic religion). Or perhaps these are the new breed of pretenders who really know how to get their works published. What more, they prefer “Penulis Bukan Melayu” (Non-Malay Writer) to “Penulis Kaum India” (Malaysian Indian Writer) because, as they themselves put it, “this term puts me closer to the Malays”. Enough said. – To be continued tomorrow [HERE]