24 Apr 2021

Going Against The Grain

Uthaya Sankar SB rubs many people up the wrong way by writing in Bahasa Malaysia. But he persists so everyone can read his books. Tan Gim Ean writes.

* * *

One could do better than try to tarnish author Uthaya Sankar SB’s image by plucking details from a stereotypical story about Malaysian Indians in an estate. Such as: His father was a drunkard and his mother, a cripple. Troubled by his difficult past, he turned towards sexual assault.

Tell Uthaya “worms” crawl out of the woodwork when readers do a search on him and he laughs, then casually explains why. In 2015, when incidents of women being made to drape sarongs over their skirts before they could enter government departments made the news, he commented on social media that the sarong is a part of both Malay and Indian cultures. Suddenly, people who equated that item of clothing with being Malay and Muslim accused him of being pro-Islamisation. “They called me the Sarong Warrior,” he says.

One disgruntled person went to the extent of editing Uthaya’s biodata on Wikipedia with the said details, and then snapping a photo of the false information as proof. Wikipedia did not approve of what he did, but as often happens with falsehood, it spread fast.

Less damaging but more frequent are words like “arrogant” and “brash”, which readers tell Uthaya they have heard used to describe him. That happens because he insists people introduce themselves when making friend requests on Facebook, and does not hesitate to unfriend whoever misuses language, whatever language, he explains.

“When people meet me in person, they’re surprised that I’m an ordinary guy,” adds Uthaya, who is married to a teacher and has a 19-year-old daughter studying accounts. Home is in Shah Alam, Selangor, and his mother-in-law lives with them.

Hearsay, dissent and criticism come with the territory for this Indian who chooses to write only in Bahasa Malaysia, for more than 30 years now. He takes it all with a shrug. “Well, it’s good to entertain such guys for awhile. Boleh lah, sikit-sikit... it makes life fun lor. From time to time there will be people condemning my works.”

When he published Pulau Pendatang in 2015, there were allegations that he had insulted Indian as well as Chinese immigrants. A collection of essays on Malay-related issues [Malaiur Manikam] was considered sensitive and controversial and suggestions were posted on Facebook to ban it. Articles he wrote highlighting flaws in the education system in Tamil national type schools raised outcries that he had no right to do so because his mother tongue is Malayalam.

Uthaya is working on retelling the Bhagavad Gita, a part of the epic Mahabharata, in Bahasa Malaysia. Already there are rumblings that the work must “remain” in a language of Indian origin. And how can he write about Indian culture and Hinduism when he is not a Hindu scholar?

The fact that he insists he writes in Bahasa Malaysia, not Bahasa Melayu, provokes the ire of certain factions. Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP), which coordinates the use of the Malay language and Malay-language literature in the country, once asked him to change instances where he used the former term in a manuscript submitted to DBP to the latter. He said no, and took it back.

“Bahasa Malaysia was introduced in 1970 to unify the people and I just want to maintain my right to use it. I have nothing against Bahasa Melayu; when a story is set in the 1960s, for example, I still use it.”

He knows detractors perceive things differently: This guy supports Bahasa Malaysia, so he is against Bahasa Melayu. Therefore, he is anti-Melayu.

There are liberal and open-minded people who understand, he notes. “I have Malay friends who say the term should be Bahasa Malaysia because [the language] belongs to every Malaysian.”

On the plus side, controversy sells books. Uthaya has published 20, the first, Orang Dimensi, in 1994. His purpose has not changed: “I want to portray Malaysian Indian culture in Bahasa Malaysia through fiction because that’s what we are lacking. I write about everyday things – what the Indians go through, their problems, hopes and pain. I make sure I write in very simple Bahasa Malaysia so everyone is able to read them.”

He takes heart from National Laureate A. Samad Said and the late Dr Othman Puteh, who both said, “Yes, this is exactly what we need for our national literature!” when he first told them what he aspired to do. They met in 1991 at a Youth Writers Week [Minggu Penulis Remaja] organised by DBP. “Pak Samad likes to watch Tamil and Hindi movies. Othman became my mentor and motivated Kavyan, an association of Indian writers who produce work in Bahasa Malaysia, to be active.

“What they said was true. When I started analysing stories by Indians before me, I found they were Malay-centric. Even those who wrote about Indians did so generally – characters with Indian names but nothing on their cultural identity. When I asked why, they said, ‘We want the Malays to accept the stories’.”

He founded Kavyan, whose tagline is Bahasa Malaysia, Bangsa Malaysia, in 1999 expressly to encourage people to use the language and love it, and highlight the point that “Malay literature is not just about Malays or by Malays”.

Kavyan – Malayalam, Tamil and Telugu for writer – has 30 odd members under its fold; in comparison, there are about 1,500 full-time Tamil writers in the country. Among its activities are workshops and brainstorming sessions where participants motivate each other and guide the younger ones on how and what to write, and ways to get published. Members sometimes join activities organised by other groups, such as Readings @ Seksan, to network and gain a new audience.

DBP brings out 11 magazines monthly and Uthaya, who is familiar with what the various editors expect, edits beginners’ manuscripts to make sure they are good enough to be published. The writers get paid and are happy to see their work in print.

Uthaya was born in Aulong Lama, Taiping, in 1972, the sixth of seven siblings. He was a typical kampung boy who enjoyed playing with friends and watching TV at a neighbour’s house because there was no set at home. His was an Indian neighbourhood and the youngsters spoke  Tamil. “But the moment we stepped into school, we switched to Bahasa; it came naturally to us.”

There was no pressure to study and he was an average student. He loved to read but books were never on the shopping list because his family could not afford them. So Uthaya looked forward to the weekly library period at SRK Convent Aulong.

“I was there from 1979. The medium of instruction had switched to Malay [in 1970] but teachers were still using lots of English. I personally think that was good for me because I got the best of both worlds. I think in English but, automatically, I write in Bahasa.”

His love for reading continued at Sekolah Menengah Darul Ridwan, Taiping, where he was active in co-curricular activities involving language. As students could only borrow one library book at a time, he would finish his the same night, return it the next day and pick another. He did Form Six at Sekolah Menengah King Edward VII, Taiping and obtained his bachelor’s degree in media studies from Universiti Malaya. Last November, he submitted his MA thesis on the contribution of Indian writers towards national literature: an analysis of short stories from 1985 to 2019.

Reading led to writing, and mentoring by various established writers pointed him in the right direction. “When I started, I just wrote because I wanted to tell stories. Later, I realised there is a market for what I write,” says Uthaya, who published his first story in 1992.

This fan of thrillers, which keep him engaged, names RK Narayan, John Grisham, Jeffrey Archer and Jeffrey Deaver as among the authors he likes. Books in English make up the bulk of his collection because “if you read 10 of them, you get 10 different adventures whereas Malay books tend to tell and retell the same stories in different ways. But publishers like Fixi are bringing out more open and liberal stories and reading new writers is like a breath of fresh air.”

Uthaya worked with RTM between 1996 and 2010 as editor and newscaster (January to July 2008) for Bahasa Malaysia TV News, and was head of Unit Bencana RTM for a spell. He also trained newscasters, reporters, anchors and newspaper reviewers. The certified HRDF trainer conducted creative writing workshops in Bahasa, edited and translated works, and contributed short stories, essays, poems and articles to mainstream papers and magazines.

Between 1999 and 2007, he taught in various private colleges, then worked for a year as an assistant editor at Sinar Harian before deciding to write full-time in 2011. Uthaya has won various prizes for short stories. In 2019, he received the Anugerah Citra Sahabat from DBP for his contribution towards national literature.

He is especially proud that he can conduct writing workshops in Tamil, an ability honed from learning the language the hard way. “RTM2 aired its Tamil news at 5.30pm daily. I would try to understand what the newscaster was saying. At 6pm, I then listened to the Bahasa news on RTM1 to check whether I got the content right. When listening to the radio, I’d speak along with the deejay. That was how I improved, to the extent that people assumed I was from a Tamil school.”

Uthaya self-publishes his books using modal sosial (social capital). “When I announce that I have a new book coming out, friends – I don’t consider anyone as my fan – place pre-orders because they know I will deliver what I promise.” He collects enough for half the costs of a print run of 1,000 copies. 

Similarly, he gets writers to contribute towards the publication of anthologies because “we can do it in six months, whereas DBP may take three years”. This pro-active approach is in keeping with his belief that instead of blaming politicians or the community for not doing anything for them, Indian writers can strive to obtain available allocations from the state or central government and help themselves.

Uthaya writes a column for Utusan Malaysia called Bicara Budaya. Beyond that weekly deadline, he does not stick to a routine. “I edit, do translations, read, watch movies, sleep. Can survive lah. Live simply,” he says.

“I enjoy writing and will continue to do so. Sometimes people tell me they read my stories or that I inspired them to love Bahasa. One girl said a talk I did at her school gave her the motivation and courage to master another language other than her mother tongue. It’s nothing big and there’s no monetary return, but these things make us feel we’ve done something of value. Indian readers are happy too: around 50% of them go to national schools and may not be able to read Tamil. Now they have access to know their culture.”

The fact that people spend so much time on social media means they have the time to read, he thinks. It is a matter of priority. Short attention span? “We have even shorter stories that you can read in five minutes. At workshops, we tell writers to make sure their opening para has a narrative hook.”

Readers still want stories about people and emotions – family, friends, relationships, the work environment, love, hate, jealousy, he says. The themes and core values are the same but characters face contemporary situations and use technology.

“Many Indian writers are still talking about Indians in the estate – stereotypes that are no longer relevant as many have moved out. We want to know the challenges they face after coming out. What is happening to their children, the urban poor? All the information is there from social studies but people are not using it. The environment has changed but the problems are still the same: no house, no work, no skills, gangsterism and domestic violence.”

Uthaya gets joy from reading and listening to what others write. He read the simplified version of the Mahabharata as a kid and then the full-length work countless times, in English and Bahasa Indonesia. He has listened to audio versions in Tamil, English and Malayalam. “Every time I listen to it, I understand something better. I get a different perspective and can relate it to what’s happening in our life or country.

“The Mahabharata was originally written in Sanskrit, in sloka (verse form). I already know the content but I want to stay true to the story and retell it in simple Bahasa for my book on the Bhagavad Gita.”

Who could find fault with that?

(Interviewed and writen by Tan Gim Ean and published in The Edge Malaysia: Options on 12 April 2021. An optional online version is also available here.)