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July 12, 2008

Review of Evening is the Whole Day, by Preeta Samarasan

This novel by Samarasan is one of those rare debut pieces which take the reader by surprise with its confidence, elegance, and polished finish. Malaysian Indian writers in English are few and far between, and to find one producing literature at such a high level is to discover a veritable gem, more than worthy of being showcased. (Samarasan was born in Malaysia and raised there till her teens, when she moved to US. She currently lives in France, so perhaps it is more accurate to say she is a diasporic Malaysian Indian writer.)

Her novel features a wonderfully dysfunctional Indian Malaysian family, at the time when Malaysia is taking shape as a new nation (set in the 1960s to the 1980s). This narrative contextualizes the political and social position of the Indians, by class, by era, and by region, including a backdrop of the May 13th race-riots in 1969.

The cast consists of 7 main characters: first, there is Appa, the ‘big lawyer’ Saar, Oxford educated, son of an Indian immigrant to Malaysia who had built up a veritable fortune. He chose to marry his lower-class and much poorer neighbour’s daughter, who struggles with class-angst, suffering continuous feelings of being the interloper, as well as Appa’s infidelities. Opposing this marriage is Appa’s widowed mother, Paati, who disdains Amma, and enjoys her role as “dowager-dragon”. Paati builds a strong relationship with Uma, her eldest grand-daughter. Uma, at the narrative’s present, is on the verge of departing (escaping?) Malaysia to attend Columbia University, on full scholarship. Uma is watched and shadowed by her adoring, despairing 6-year-old sister, Asha, who is too-aware of ghosts, who sees too much, hears too much, knows too much for her tender years, and is consequently, infused by a confusion of guilts and hopes and fears. The most unaffected – comparatively speaking – member of the family is Suresh, the middle child, who is perhaps the most natural in his behavior, and given his positionality, the only one who can remain relatively unaffected. The last ‘member’ of the family, is Chellam, the ill-fated servant-girl (“Chellamservant”), hired to look after an increasingly decrepit and incontinent Paati, and about whom rumours circulate as unhealthily as a swarm of flies. The supporting cast are no less interesting: Chellam’s toddy-drinking father, Uncle Ballroom (Appa’s spendthrift younger brother), Amma’s own family members, and so on. Each character is well drawn, skillfully depicted, with piercing clarity and a sarcasm which rangest from the light to the biting.

Samarasan has a very distinctive writing voice already, and develops her tale slowly, but with impressive degrees of authorial control. There are strong echoes of Arundhati Roy’s stylistic influences in this novel; for example, the particular kind of word play:

“BrotheROARsister, BrotheROARsister.
That was the noise that echoed in the baby’s little red ears as it swam around in Amma’s belly, fingers and toes splayed like a frog.”

Samasaran also creates hyphenated words, like “Amma’s wrath-for-visitors”, which is reminiscent of Roy’s bus railings with their “sour-metal-smell”.

Samarasan does not play with words to the extent that Roy does, and there is only a light sprinkling of such instances in this novel, but they are there, and quite charmingly so. Occasionally, the Roy-echoes are heard in the way she constructs her thoughts and sentences, in the nuance of them, the brittle humour, the ironic tone:

“Perhaps there is a new hopelessness in her eyes. Or fear. Or disgust. Then again, perhaps it is just the old hopelessness. Hopelessnesses are so difficult to tell apart these days, particularly when one has no help from the hopeless.”

Like Roy, Samarasan also comes up with phrases and words that are loaded with extra meaning; Amma’s “please” is very like Ammu’s “Jolly Well” (in The God of Small Things), which hints at dire consequences.

“Can you please get up and bring your grandmother a tumbler of hot water, please?
Please once is bad enough. Please twice, in the same sentence, is terrifying.”

Like Roy, Samasaran also uses her sharp wit to neatly peel back and expose a society’s hypocrisies and self-righteousness, serving this up with cutting humour and uncompromising candour. Some of Samasaran’s political comments, although ostentatiously spoken in the 1980s in this instance, are topical, particularly in the light of the series of Indian protests in Malaysia in 2007.

“Wait, wait, don’t tell me – you’re back because of Visit Malaysia Year 1980, aren’t you, Balu? You must’ve seen the ads. In New York London Paris wherever you came from? The only time you’ll see Indian faces on TV. Local colour, what? The Bharatnatyam dancers and the teh tarik sellers and the Thaipusam crowds. The rest of the time we’re supposed to shut up and hide our faces.”

Samarasan unhesitatingly utters oft-thought, commonly held, but politically sensitive views at point blank range:
“..as Appa has oft explained to all who will listen, the Malays get all the government jobs, the Chinese have their businesses, and the stupid donggu Indians are left empty-handed to slog in the factories and ditches and rubber estates…”
Her novel depicts the racial tensions and mutual suspicions of the multi-cultural nation, the classist discriminations within races, the minefield which is the country’s inheritance from colonial days. Her political comments are barbed, hilarious, and uncompromising, making for a riveting read.

Stylistically, the novel contains many sentences which catch at the reader’s consciousness and linger there, extremely quotable, quite original, and beautifully expressed. Samarasan demonstrates a real knack for delicately picking apart and unpacking complexities:

“In all of these graces billow something flimsier than an invitation but more substantial than a dream.”

Here is another example of Samarasan’s mastery over the language and fresh, skilful use of imagery:

“…her [Amma’s] growing dislike of Chellam, which continues to acquire layers of varying color and density, like a rock formation: on the bottom, her diamond-hard anger at Chellam for stumbling upon secrets she has no right to discover; in the middle, her distaste of the girl’s alleged dalliance with Uncle Ballroom; on top, the soft surface of everyday annoyances.”

There are also fantastic instances of the peculiarly Malaysian-English, or Malaysian slang, which are authentic and quaint enough to make one laugh aloud:

“You want means you go and give them to her lah.”

“Want to lie also cannot lie properly,” Suresh sneers.

A telling passage occurs when Uma, who has not been taught any Malay because English was the language of the rulers at that time, comes across a sign which reads, “Keretapi Tanah Melayu”,
“What does it mean, Amma? Uma asked. “Carry-Tuppy Tanah Me-lay-oo?”
“Uma, don’t start,” snapped Amma, You know I don’t know all that. I didn’t study their wonderful Malay language in school.”

“Keretapi Tanah Melayu means railway lah thanggachi,” the man went on. “Means Malay Land Railway. Malay Land that means Malaysia lah, thanggachi, that also you don’t know-ah? Looking at me with eyes so big, your own country also you don’t know the name, is it? Aiyo-yo thanggachi, your own Na-tio-nal Language also tak tahu ke? No shame ah you, living in Malay Land but cannot speak Malay? Your mummy and daddy also no shame ah, living in Malay Land and never teaching their chirren Malay?”

Samarasan accurately sketches the lingustics tensions of that period, which parallel the racial tensions.)

The consciousness in this writing is an Indian one, but a Malaysian-flavoured Indian consciousness, as rich and deep as the best of Malaysian-Indian dishes. There is a strong colonial/postcolonial element in the writing which rings out clear and true. The mentions of Malaysian places, dishes, common-brand names, social and cultural norms, etc, are particularly pleasing to those who have experienced the same.

Overall, it is an excellent piece of writing, charming, insightful, controlled, deeply intelligent. This is a novel which merits re-reading and would reward close analysis. I would recommend this novel without hesitation, and salute Samarasan as one of the most promising of the current Malaysian literary talents.

Posted by Lisa Lau at July 12, 2008 03:30 AM

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Posted by: Anonymous at July 12, 2008 03:30 AM

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