On 31st August 2008, we celebrate our country’s re-birth as a nation. Rebirth? Our land is much, much older and ancient and here, we recall the continuum of history that is preserved through the very legends of the land.
Our history spans more than a millennia. Our legends, ancient.
There is certainly a continuum of history that is preserved through the very legends of our land…and through our even more ancient jungle. That is why there must be effort and emphasis to preserve our legends and our million year old forest land, subjective purpose to many, but crystal clear in fact.
Researchers and historians worldwide accept that The Malay Annals, Hikayat Hang Tuah and Hikayat Seri Kelantan are clear indications of historical governance. Ruud Spruit, Director of the National Museum, Denmark recounted the Malay Annals as ‘a mixture of classical romance and factual description.’
When Tomes Pires, the visitor in Malacca in the late 1500s, recounted in his Somu Oriental the story of the Hindu prince Parameswara from Palembang who commanded his Orang Laut circa 1400s, his version closely corresponded to that of the Malay Annals. The records of the Raja of Perak, Johor and Pahang continue from this legacy.
Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa chronicled the Kedah Sultanate, arguably the earliest in our history.
These legends, are every bit as historical in value as many great monuments of history. The Ancient pyramids remained as meaningless structures until Francois Champollian unleashed the language of the Pharaohs in the 17th century and the world over became familiar with the feats of Isis, Heracles and Cleopatra. It is high time we brought our legends forth to be recognised as they offer a glimpse of the rich heritage and diverse legacy we share. For instance, the Chinese Princess, Hang Li Po, gave birth to the unique Peranakan legacy in Malacca which survives until today. Our legends are our very own legacy that preserves the idea of a country…our land that is old, cultured and civilised.
In the past, travellers like the legendary Admiral Cheng Ho were charmed by what they found in our land, most of all our people’s character and gentlemanly conduct. How unfortunate that the great Admiral’s records were destroyed by the Tang dynasty. Writers like Rudyard Kipling, Joe Conrad and Somerset Maugham and historians like R O Widstedt, who researched the Malay Annals extensively, were equally fascinated by the people and the rich history, the tapestry of life that was Malaya.
The Golden Era
For one thousand years, our land has been the choice destination of the world.
The busiest natural waterway in the world was, and still is, our very own Straits of Malacca. This has remained undisputed for the last five centuries, if not longer. Along this wonderful route, people have tasted our hospitality and loved our people. Some stayed on, many returned to their own lands with stories and tales ever fascinating. Ptolemy, the Greek geographer and astronomer circa 150 AD, named this land, Chersonese Aurea – The Golden Peninsular based on the description and stories of navigators and travellers then who constantly sought new worlds.
And stories, the favourite pastime of old were shared throughout the region. As such, there are quite a few art forms that transcend boundaries and belong to the whole Nusantara and beyond – the Wayang Kulit, Mak Yong and the art of Storytelling are among the few. It remains that these stories are generally Malaysian legends, differing from those told in its originating country. The Wayang Kulit’s version of Hikayat Maharaja Wana has undergone layers and layers of assimilation from the original Ramayana chronicles, a far, far spin-off from the original..
For many centuries, all cultures converged in the melting pot that was the trade routes to Malacca. At one point, close to 90 languages were spoken in Malacca by all the different people who populated or visited the ancient cosmopolitan city. The peninsular was a bridge, geographically and rhetorically speaking to all that was the Nusantara – in other words, South East Asia! All forms of daily aspects, rituals, entertainment and business converged here to evolve into our own identity for centuries.
Malaysia is truly the land of a thousand legends, a million people, of infinite smiles. And let us celebrate the millennia that has made our country the unique and beautiful land it is.
A book is destined to be a wholly satisfying read when its first opening paragraph grips you with vise-like wonder and enchantment. Normally, this first encounter encourages one to immediately buy the book, rush home, sit in favourite corner with cup of tea and chocolates ready, and begin to devour its content immediately, tea and chocolates left untouched until the first few chapters are over and the tea too cold to savour.
Evening Is The Whole Day is such a book. From the moment I read Preeta Samarasan’s first penned line which is a lovely and graceful description of Peninsular Malaysia “There is, stretching as a bird’s head from the thin neck of the Kra Isthmus, a land that makes up half the country called Malaysia,” I was hooked. One thing for sure, I would never look at the map of Malaysia the same way again, so lyrical and poignant was the rest of Samarasan’s prose in describing our land. Etched in my mind is the image of a graceful swan.
STORYLINE The story begins with the sacking of a young servant girl at THE mansion on Kingfisher Lane, Ipoh, The Big House – very blue and meandering house at that. Though the reader is told her tragic end, her dismissal is full of innuendoes which set the stage for the unfolding story with shocking and surprising secrets - revealed as matter of fact. The author employs extremely effective staging and build-up of the ordinary to often extraordinary conclusion.
The setting alternates between Malaysia of the 1980s and pre-Merdeka days from the time Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Ipoh were burgeoning into existence in the 1890s.
The characters , all equally provocative and well-conceived with depth, centred around a very well-to-do Indian family from the time ‘in 1899, Appa’s grandfather sailed across the Bay of Bengal to seek his fortune under familiar masters in a strange land...’ The household was coming to grips with its place in Malaysian society and surprised by the ideals, perceptions and political ramifications surrounding them.
Samaresan weaves fact and fiction seamlessly creating a wondrous and believable story, which is why it continues to draw its reader deeper and deeper into the story. One is very much aware that the story is full of interweaving plots as such the reader tends to read the book very carefully, so as not to miss out any nuances for what might come next.
PROSE It is by pure coincidence that I sat down to read EITWD on the very same date the book started its narration of Malaysia in the 1980s. Therefore, the descriptive certainly rings true even today, “the afternoon rains...aglow with winding lines of watery yellow headlights that go on forever.” But then again, it is not this familiarity alone that kept me spell-bound. Many a book had this effect before – Wuthering Heights by Charlotte Bronte, Cave of the Clan Bear by Jane M Auel, Dune by Fank Herbert come foremost to mind, not to forget, God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy to which this novel has been compared to, time and again for more than one reason. The evocative prose strike at the very heart of an avid reader.
Samarasan’s strength lies in her command of the narrative, her prose plays with all senses, cajoles one to look at things in a new way altogether.
She has woven her characters so well that when Aasha peeps under the curtain, I peep too. When Mr Mc Dougall’s daughter’s ghost describes her death, I see the very last light she saw, when Patti feels her shame at her body’s refusal to behave with dignity in old age, I feel her shame and a slight apprehension of the future. This is a very sensual experience, sensual in the sense that the book embraces its characters and their lives thoroughly, the good, the ugly, the inevitable. Not to mention the beauty of life and the horror of one's falling from grace at times so closely bound together.
The author is generous with her unique metaphors that bring to mind the rich visual and the emotive surroundings for the characters. Her interplay between the real and the perceived world is seamless.
Nevertheless, the assault of the senses can be quite overwhelming at times. There are scenes where the author takes you from the innocent to abject sadness and brutality, then straight into Kafka-like ridicule. It is almost as if Samaresan wants to force a rollercoaster emotional ride onto the reader. Here is where one takes a sip of tea, the need to pause is so strong, then to carry on with the rest of the book.
The pace is well-timed, alternating between the going-ons of the Big House household and that of the nation, back and forth, tunnelling through time-machines. It is both languid and descriptive so that we can appreciate the characters, also fast and driven so that we are thrown into the chaotic circumstances. The effect is certainly compelling.
INSPIRING Evening Is The Whole Day is a mesmerising and inspiring read. It has all the ingredients of a one-of-a-kind novel moving in tandem with its historical background - despair , comic, innocence – and a certain kind of magic needed to pull it altogether.
As a writer, I can almost feel all the dedication, love and most of all creative genius that Preeta Samarasan has poured into her first book. I am sure it was a process of ‘menatang minyak penuh’. I imagine her excitement, calm research, sleepless nights, and yet her confident execution of each word, the purpose and journey of the book until the last page marks the end of this adventure. I cringe to think of her upcoming days as an author after such brilliance, page after page. The fact that Samarasan has her roots in Malaysia certainly adds but does not detract from her powerful work. She is a talent unleashed, a world class writer.
Having said that, Samarasan has certainly captured the very essence of our country’s milieu, issues and coming of age like no other. It is a book that is actually painful for a Malaysian to read, the author has pulled out all punches to be true to the story and is unapologetic if the truth hurts. She chose to portray the general hatred that was the platform of the terrifying 1969 riots instead of highlighting the inspiring few who acted beyond the racial divide. As I said earlier, the truth hurts. At the same time, it is a book that Malaysians should read with an open mind, with a readiness to eat (being Malaysians), grow up, love, hate and live in their neighbour’s shoe truthfully – not with tolerance.
Simply a sensational debut for an author as ready as ever to take on the literary world.
ninotaziz ninotaziz is the author of several books, specialising in Malaysian heritage and legends, including ‘From The Written Stone’ and ‘From The Gathering’. ‘From The Written Stone’ was one of the BITARA AWARDS recepients – 2007. Her work is inspired by the beauty of the Malay language and the folklores her mother and grandmother tell throughout the years.
Her current book projects include ‘HIKAYAT - From The Ancient Malay Kingdoms’ which comprises her works on ‘ Heroes and Princesses’, ‘From the Ancient Arts’ and ‘Tales From the the Jungle Deep’. She is also finalising a series of Malaysian legends specifically for young children.
Her claim to writing reviews, according to her comes from,’a life-long inherited passion for reading and the world of books.’The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or at www.ninotazizpurplemusings.blogspot.com