Evocative debut tale of social divisions, family dynamics (IANS Book Review)September 12th, 2008 - 11:41 am ICT by IANS
Book: “Evening is the Whole Day”; Author: Preeta Samarasan; Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers; Price: Rs.395″Evening is the Whole Day” is an absorbing and richly embroidered tale about the life of an Indian immigrant family in Malaysia. The title is drawn from a Tamil song and the story revolves around the dynamics and relationships within lawyer Rajasekharan’s family, their hopes, aspirations and disappointments.
The book travels through an era in Malaysian life encompassing the pre-independence phase, birth of a new nation, the race riots that divide the ethnic groups and migration to the land of hope - America.
Preeta Samasaran’s prose is exuberant with vivid, evocative imagery of ordinary, daily happenings, which makes the Malaysian scene come alive. It leaves you invigorated and looking for more. Her characters talk in Malaysian English and frequently resort to Tamil words and phrases for emphasis which fit into the cadence of speech even if they are not readily understood by the reader.
Samarasan’s unfamiliar words are neither italicised nor explained in the book, in the same way as Amitav Ghosh’s characters in “Sea of Poppies” use archaic Indian English, Lascari (the dialect of the sailors) and Bhojpuri without lengthy translations.
Explaining her use of language in a recent interview, Samarasan said that schoolchildren in the colonies had to navigate Cockney patterns of speech and imagine unfamiliar things.
“Now we get to tell our own stories and this requires your dealing with my rubber estates and char kuay teow and cursing in Tamil. In the long run, this will be good for all of us. A little cultural immersion never did anyone any harm,” she said.
The story slowly reveals the dark secrets, deceits and bitterness hidden in the depths of the dysfunctional family, while providing glimpses of the class ridden society around them.
Rajasekharan’s grandfather sailed across the Bay of Bengal in 1899 to a strange land to work on the docks, sleeping in a dormitory with five others to save money to send back home.
Rajasekharan’s father Tata is exhorted to study well, for it is education that will take him away from the life of hard toil. Tata goes to work as a clerk in the shipping company where his father toiled and by the time Tata retired he owned a shipping company as large as his old employer’s. He had also bought a large house from one of the departing Scottish expatriates.
Rajasekharan, the London returned lawyer, marries awkward Vasanthi from the house next door, much to his mother Patti’s dismay. Bitter about her class origins, Vasanthi hides her angst behind a facade of a society lady, but the bitterness infects the household. Chellam is the lowly, plantation Tamil maid who is turned out of the house after Patti’s mysterious death. Running through the family’s story are the developments in a murder case that Rajasekharan is prosecuting in the trial court.
The book explores political and social realities as well as issues of identity in a rich and vivid Malaysian setting. The story is multilayered and moves back and forth in time, sometimes in a circular fashion. Present-day events are seen through the eyes of Aasha, the youngest of the three Rajasekharan children, and many of them are connected to past events, linkages that Aasha does not understand.
Significant events in the story are linked with major points in Malaysian history - the Big House in Ipoh town is bought by the Rajasekharan family at the time of independence in 1957, Rajasekharan has a short-lived spell of idealism when he plans a career in politics but the race riots in 1969 quickly bury that dream.
Samarasan makes use of an interesting device to portray the racial riots of May 13, 1969, as two humanised forms, Rumour and Fact, one wearing a red dress and the other dressed in coat and tails, and the two of them dancing a macabre tango in the streets.
It is a story about class, race and power in a complex society. It shows the power play within the family and in a society with its racial and class divide among the Chinese, Malays and Indians.
It is a society where the elite Rajasekharans do not feel the need to learn the Malay language. But where Malaysia’s affirmative action, bhoomiputra polices that give pride of place to sons of the soil, force the immigrant communities to go overseas for educational and work opportunities. Samarasan has interwoven a number of themes in a colourful Indian-Malaysian family saga.
(Shubha Singh is a writer on the Indian diaspora and international affairs. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)