Monday, February 7, 2011

Interlok revisited

I have not been following the controversy over the usage of the Abdullah Hussain's book, Interlok, in Malaysian secondary schools. I was, however, aware that the peeve was over the usage of the "P" word that offended sections of the Malaysian community. 

I just read an opinion on the impugned book by Raman at his Silverfish blog

It appears that the "P" word was used only twice.

More importantly, here is Raman's take on Abdullah Hussain's book. It is a view that I subscribe to largely because I have the utmost respect for Raman who is a publisher of books and a very important facilitator for English-language writers in Malaysia. Without the likes of Raman, Malaysians who have an urge for literary expression in written English will suffer from interminable lexicographic constipation. Anyway, here's Raman@Silverfish's opinion:

I was going to write about something else, but two things happened that made me change my mind. First, was this gentleman I met who asked me what I did for a living? Then when he heard that I was a publisher, he immediately asked my opinion on the Interlok controversy. I started cautiously by saying that I had read the book, both the Malay and English versions, but before I could continue he asked:

“You mean you have read the book?”

I stopped in my tracks. It was a bizarre question and a bizarre moment. Why was he asking for my opinion if he thought I hadn’t read the book? If he wanted a hysterical uninformed opinion, there was plenty going around. Perhaps, he thought I would abandon scholarship for tribal loyalty and salute the flag he was waving, without a second thought. Perhaps, he was surprised that I could read Malay and, worse still, admit it. Perhaps, he was shocked that, in these days of self-righteous chest-thumping, I dared to look at an issue from another angle.

Second, was this email from one person (whom I shall leave him unnamed): DOES A LOYAL MALAYSIAN INDIAN DESERVE THIS KIND OF INSULT IN A COUNTRY HE CALLS MOTHERLAND ?????????? (Yes, all in capitals, 18 point fonts and in red colour, to boot).

My opinion of the book in question is that, though wobbly in (many) parts and a little naïve, it is certainly one of the better Malaysian books I have read. It is, basically, a story of the human spirit. Abdullah Hussain’s empathy with his characters (whether it is Seman, Cing Huat or Maniam) is quite admirable. Read the following, for example:

Kadang-kadang dia masih lapar. Bau roti yang dibakar dan disapu serikaya menimbulkan rangsangan dalam kepalanya untuk makan, bau makanan yang di masak oleh penjual nasi di sudut kedai itu menimbulkan nafsu untuk makan dan kadang kadang dia melihat daging babi yang tergantung dengan lemaknya yang berminyak-minyak itu, menggoda dia untuk makan. (Interlok, page 156)

(Sometimes he (Cing Huat) remained hungry. The smell of bread being toasted and spread with serikaya would stimulate his brain to eat, the smell of rice being cooked by the food seller next door triggered his appetite and sometimes when he saw the  (roast) pork hanging with its fatty oil dripping, it would entice him.)

A Malay writer talking about the smell or lard from roast pork? No, Abdullah Hussain is not afraid to go where no one else dares, if it serves his art. I hugely admire his research, his craft and his courage. And he is, certainly, no racist.

As for the offending “p” word it appears twice in the book:

Satu perkara besar yang membuat mereka senang bergaul ialah mereka itu tergolong dalam satu kasta Paria. Mereka tidak takut mengotori sesiapa kalau bersentuhan dan mereka bebas lepas bergaul. (Interlok, page 251)

(One thing that made it easy for them to mix around was the fact that they were all from the same Pariah caste. They had no fear of polluting anyone they touched and were free to mingle.)

One feels for Maniam. Yes, this is how he would have felt, coming from a background of centuries of oppression and suppression. Abdullah Hussain got it right. (Mulk Raj Anand would have applauded, too.) Taking the “p” word out would be doing injustice to the Maniams of the world. It would have been precisely because of his caste that he would have been considered untouchable and unclean, and he would have had every reason to be nervous.

Di sini, Maniam dapati perbezaan perkerjaan menurut kasta, seperti yang masih berlaku di negerinya, tidak ada.

Pertama kali inilah yang ditanya oleh Maniam kapada Muthu, seorang kawan dari desanya yang sudah lama tinggal di Pulau Pinang. Muthu seorang dari kasta Paria, seperti Maniam juga, dia berkerja sebagai kerani di sebuah gudang orang putih dekat perlabuhan. (Interlok, page 257)

(Over here, Maniam noticed that working according to one’s caste was not in practice.
That was the first thing that Maniam asked Muthu, a friend from the same village who had lived in Penang for a long time. Muthu was from the Pariah caste, just like Maniam, and he was working as a clerk at the godowns belonging to the white people near the port.)

There is nothing negative about this section either. It is a statement of fact. To a person like Maniam, this would have been a big deal indeed. He could do any work he wanted, even become a clerk like his friend Muthu, his Malaysian Dream, his ticket out of hell.  According to an article in the Malay Mail on Monday 24th August, 2009, 65% of MIC members belong to this caste although they now refer to themselves as Namavars – our people. Again, Abdullah Hussain’s research cannot be faulted.

Interlok is the story of three people and their trials. Seman is devastated when he learns from his father on his deathbed that the land they have been tilling all these years does not belong to them but a Chinese towkay, Cina Panjang. Chin Huat leaves his mother to come to Malaya with his father to escape an impending famine in China. Maniam travels to Malaya, the land he keeps hearing about, leaving his wife behind to escape crippling poverty. And in the end, they all get together and live happily ever after (which, in hind-sight, is the actual fairy tale).

The first part about Seman is, probably, the best written. Cing Huat’s section is good, too, though Abdullah Hussain does not say how or why this personable Chinese lad transforms himself into the predator businessman, Cina Panjang. The Maniam section is the weakest part and is riddled with minor and major errors. It is as if the author, tired of research, resorted to watching a few Tamil movies for the right cliches -- complete with the long suffering hero, the unfaithful wife, the totally evil villain (Suppiah), the mandatory rape scene followed by the suicide of the victim, and the long lost son who discovers that the prisoner in his police lockup is really his father. Corny to the max.

Then, the final scene is all Malaysian TV during elections: sugared to the hilt to induce terminal diabetes in the entire population of a small country.

But, one thing remains unclear, though. By some accounts, the version to be used in school is an abridged one (and not the 503-page original). If that is the case then all my comments above could be completely off the mark, because I have no idea what has been taken out and what remains. Knowing the track record of our gomen pen-pushers over decades past, I am aware that they are capable of being quite jahat about it.

Anyway, the cabinet has appointed a committee to look into the matter. This, normally, means that nothing will happen. Some new crisis will emerge and we all forget about Interlok. We are, after all, Malaysians.

The one good thing to come out of this crisis is that many people are reading the book, and Interlok is sold out in most bookshops. Good on you, Abdullah Hussain.


walla said...

Perhaps the reason why there is an interlok issue in this country is because our peoples have yet to interlock.

One would think that after so many years of coexistence with one another there would have been an easy insouciance on all matters historical, social and cultural which would automatically disqualify in the minds of all any attempt at stereotyping, whether intentional or otherwise.

That we are still in a fragile inter-communal state in our society points to some underdevelopment in the arena of interracial relations.

To be generous, let's assume this underdevelopment could indeed have but not necessarily be ascribable to some nationally-administered policies whose sum effect has been to divide our communities in order to maintain a certain political profile so much so the resultant effect is to make people scramble for the past in order to shore their present. Bodies like the BTN may be able to throw their special and hallowed light on this assertion.

However, if this assumption rings true, then the content of not just literature but also history and social science in the education systems of this country should be delivered to show how stereotyping in a modern world of coalescence is regressive for the final objective of education in the first place. To make globalists out of all.

But that would be too high a hope to place seeing that mono-racial and silo-minded designers of such content are still emplaced in the present circles of those who just because they think they can pull out some official-sounding excuses are therefore in the right to continue their prejudices in all but name.

For instance, all it takes is one second to ask this simple question:

"isn't marginalizing an entire community just as bad as casting human beings as untouchables?"

walla said...


This country is young; a break from the past may be necessary if only to disabuse some the monopoly to national profile when the country is a rojak of diversity.

This salad is not just a goulash of local fruits and veges. The pineapple, mengkuang, sour mango, jambu, keropok and so on need something to perk up their individual flavours. That special prawn paste sauce enhanced with peanuts and sugar is what creates the unique coalescence of this country which in turn contributes to the bigger and more holistic global coalescence of mankind, thus making the whole bigger than the sum of its parts.

If this be so, those who object to the objectors should be able to understand their sensitivity for raising their dismay in the first place which itself is predicated on this logic:

"if we don't object to this now, how will we know that our silence won't encourage others to expand on it until it becomes mainstream, bad as it already is our communal situation?"

In the end, it's all about knowledge. And the real reason why there will be other interlok issues is because we don't have a national learning curve. We don't learn one new generation to the next what we must be careful about which hampers our march towards becoming more universal in our outlook in order to multiply our options in the world.

Since today we are talking about a book for young minds, that observation should rake some cause for concern.

Meanwhile, do indulge me for suggesting this as a good read for young minds:

Complications: A Surgeon's Notes On An Imperfect Science


" The junior resident picks out a spot for the stick. The patient is so hauntingly thin. I see every rib and fear she will puncture his lung. She injects the numbing medication. Then she puts the big needle in, and the angle looks all wrong. I motion for her to reposition. This only makes her more uncertain. She pushes in deeper and I know she does not have it. She draws back on the syringe: no blood.

She takes out the needle and tries again. And again, the angle looks wrong. This time Mr. G feels the jab and jerks up in pain. I hold his arm. She gives him more numbing medication. It is all I can do not to take over.

But she cannot learn without doing, I tell myself. I decide to let her have one more try."

If you google its author, Atul Gawande, you will know why i suggest this book instead. He can be a role model for those of our youths whose minds have yet to be contaminated by the dross that has leavened our national rubric.

Don't believe me? Ask our med interns who are given only one day off in a month and have to scramble to find specialists to understudy.

etheorist said...

Another perspective on this important subject: