25 Apr 2021

Stories for Everyone

For writer Uthaya Sankar SB, sharing Indian folklore and classics with fellow Malaysians is a joy.

HE’s a man of many talents, and when he begins talking about his colourful career, writer Uthaya Sankar SB’s eyes light up and he becomes very animated. He is obviously passionate about sharing stories, as well as the joys of language and communication, with those around him.

“I grew up in the 1970s in Aulong Lama, Taiping, Perak,” he told this writer [Ann Marie Chandy] one morning over a kopi tarik at a local Indian restaurant in Petaling Jaya.

Bahasa Malaysia was the medium in school then. I went to a co-ed convent (one of only two co-ed convents in the country, he said) and it was just natural for us to use Bahasa Malaysia to communicate with each other. Even among my Indian friends, we always spoke in Bahasa instead of Tamil. That is the beauty of Bahasa Malaysia for me – it is the language of every Malaysian!”

Though his mother tongue is Malayalam, and he is fluent in Tamil and English, Uthaya made the conscious choice to write books in Bahasa Malaysia. He has several publications under his belt to date – Thirukkural dan Megha Duta (2018), Ramayana dan Mahabharata (2019), and Vetalam dan Vikramaditya (2020) – through which he hopes to introduce Indian classics to Malaysian readers.

“I wanted to retell all these tales I loved so much for Malaysian readers,” he said in a charming earnestness.

His latest venture is the retelling – not a translation, he emphasises – of the Bhagavad Gita, the sacred Hindu scriptures which are part of the epic Mahabharata, dating back to 200CE.

While it may shock some who would deem it an overwhelming task, Uthaya has managed to retell the epic, originally presented in the form of 701 slokas (Sanskrit poems), in prose form.

The Bhagavad Gita has been translated into more than 75 languages worldwide, and in English alone, there are reportedly over 300 different versions, according to the writer.

“I really want the multiracial Malaysian community to be able to read, understand and enjoy the Bhagavad Gita. It is widely available in English and Tamil, but I would love to see Malaysians appreciating a Bahasa Malaysia version,” said Uthaya, who managed to complete the writing of this book in a record 25 days!

Retelling Beloved Tales

The writer – formerly a news editor at RTM, Bernama Radio 24 and Sinar Harian as well as a part-time lecturer at private colleges – said his books are simple enough for anyone to read.

“I remember reading these classics when I was a kid. There were these children’s magazines, Chandamama and Ambulimama, which we could get here in Malaysia, in English and Tamil. I loved reading them but my family couldn’t afford to buy these. So every time we visited a relative who had them or every time we went to a bookshop, I would spend all my time reading these magazines.

“Later on, when I attended University Malaya, I found an English version of the Vetalam story and so I reread it. I found that each version of the story varied a little and so when I wrote my own Vetalam dan Vikramaditya, I decided to cook up some of my own stories using the framework that was already in place.”

Vetalam dan Vikramaditya, a frame story (meaning there are stories within the story) features a phantom and a King. Before this book, Uthaya tackled Ramayana dan Mahabhrata, in which he wrote a prequel of sorts. Also part of his “Karya Klasik India” series was Thirukkural dan Megha Duta.

Megha Duta is a Sanskrit poem by Kalidas, and details how a yaksha (or nature spirit) has been banished, separated from his wife. Megha Duta in Sanskrit means Cloud Messenger. So it literally is about a cloud that has to deliver messages of love to the yaksha’s wife. Cloud messaging back in the day!” he laughed.

Uthaya’s desire to write these stories was simply to inspire people to read and gain knowledge.

Ramayana and Mahabharata may be commonly known among all Malaysians, and the Indian community in particular. Rama, Sita, Hanuman are all well-known characters, after all. But not many people have had the chance to read these stories in depth, and in simple language. I use very simple Bahasa, so my books can be read by the whole family,” he explained.

“There’s also a feeling of nostalgia for those who have read these tales in their childhood which I hope my books will rekindle.”

Uthaya has made it a goal to publish at least one book a year. He also conducts workshops for writers in both Bahasa Malaysia and Tamil.

The Bhagavad Gita manuscript which he completed at the end of February is slated for a June release. It is a retelling of the dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna (the avatar of Lord Vishnu), in which Krishna gives his spiritual teachings directly to Arjuna, right before the great war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas in Kurukshetra.

[Bhagavad Gita in Bahasa Malaysia]

“The Bhagavad Gita is considered a religious text by many. I have enjoyed these texts all through my life, and in many languages including English, Tamil, Malayalam and Bahasa Indonesia. I have also read interpretations by various gurus and scholars. You need to know a lot of the back story and terms used to fully understand the text. In my retelling, I have tried to stay true to the original content and teachings of Krishna, but I also have taken the liberty to slip in another character and add a slight twist,” revealed Uthaya.

When Uthaya casually mooted the idea of retelling the Bhagavad Gita on Facebook in January 2021, there was some backlash from religious groups who felt that it was not right for the sacred text to be tampered with. However, many others came forward to support this project.

“As a full-time writer, I have had to depend on social capital, pre-orders and donations to cover my printing cost. The initial support was so overwhelming that I was very motivated,” said the writer who has been self-publishing his books since 2000.

“I had planned to finish the text in 28 days. Every morning I would read a chapter (there were 18 chapters in total), as well as different interpretations online and listen to YouTube videos to help me understand and digest the text.

“Then in the evenings I would write out the chapter. The framework was already in place, and so I was able to complete the project quicker than I thought. I can’t wait for the book to be out in June.”

His parting words at this interview? “Baca, ya?”

(Interviewed and written by Ann Marie Chandy. Published in The Star, 23 April 2021 for World Book Day.)