- I am particularly delighted to be here this afternoon for many reasons.
- Among them, my most personal one is that Dato’ Dr Shan and I go back a very long way, since our student days in Oxford, where I was an undergraduate and he a postgraduate student in the late 1970’s.
- Secondly, even more auspicious, I was present when Shan’s first short story Birthday was published in ISIS in 1977. I should clarify promptly that this ISIS is a literary magazine in Oxford University and has nothing to do with the more recent organisation by the same name! Shan started off with a bang; winning the second prize in the Oxford University Short Story Competition judged by the esteemed novelist Iris Murdoch and her husband, Professor John Bayley.
- Shan once told me that whereas in certain parts of the world, leaders launch missiles, I launch something even more deadly, namely books. These books are usually non-fiction: economics, biographies and history. This is my maiden launch of something even more deadly, namely fiction. I am particularly pleased that the first book of fiction I am launching is Marriage and Mutton Curry because of my historical links with the author. This connection is certainly not fiction, historical or otherwise!
- The book contains fifteen stories, nine of which have been published before, and six new ones. Shan has even re-written the previously published ones. Set in Malaya, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and Singapore, the stories are organised by theme, and use common motifs and characters to make up a cohesive whole. They delve into intimate domestic spaces as well as the wider community, whether at school or at work. These are intriguing stories, concerned with patriarchy, rebellion, and power, where the often female main characters struggle with abuse, manipulation and conflict. The climactic conflicts are dramatic and strong, the dialogue sparkling, and the endings ironic and surprising.
- Quite apart from it being a wonderfully entertaining collection of stories, I particularly welcome the publication of Marriage and Mutton Curry for the insights it provides into our country’s history. As an economic historian, I am always keen to gain deeper and different perspectives on important aspects of our past. While economic history gives us the vital data, historical fiction such as Marriage and Mutton Curry not only contributes to our understanding of the past, but it also enables us to empathise directly with the people who shaped and were part of this history.
- History tends to be written by winners, so understandably their focus is on themselves and their viewpoints. Historical fiction broadens this record to include the many non-winners who make up the vast majority of us. It thus fills an important gap in our knowledge of the past, by giving us the stories of people who fought much smaller battles, whether domestically or professionally, and who sometimes lost them. It helps to make us more conscious of the experiences of others, and more sensitive to their perspectives.
- Shan’s writing is based on his childhood in government quarters, his school days and his time in the civil service. His stories are based in three major eras in our history; the British colonial period, the Japanese Occupation and the first years after Merdeka. The characters that populate these stories illuminate different aspects of the country in those days, through their hopes and ambitions, and the various challenges they faced in fulfilling these. Shan gives us the viewpoints of his characters from all sides, weaving seamlessly between British Malaya and the Japanese Occupation in the first two stories which are set during this difficult period.
- The author gives us the setting of how his own ancestors came to British Malaya:
‘Ramanan was a proud son of the enterprising offspring of Jaffna Tamils in Ceylon. His forefathers had crossed the seas in the late nineteenth century on the strength of a telegram: “Work Arranged. Come.” Armed with an English education, these workhorses helped to develop this land of coconut milk, rubber-tree milk, tin and tinned milk, buffaloes’, cows’ and goats’ milk. They manned the junior ranks of the education, public works, railways and telecommunications departments, for the honey of a regular salary, government housing and a pension that nourished pride more than the family.’
- After these first stories, we head off into a very different, post-Independence world. Money Man is about negotiations between a World Bank director, the Finance Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Prime Minister, a formidable foursome! The next story, even more satirical, develops the themes of communication and negotiation with hilarious results. The National Arts Council of Singapore used an adapted version of this story as an example of humorous writing in their ‘Asian Literature for the Language Classroom’. The third civil service-based story takes us inside the mind and heart of a Treasury official who fails to get the promotion that he feels was due to him, and speaks volumes about the trials and tribulations faced by professionals, both then and now.
- The next set of stories confront head-on the challenge between tradition and modernity. Instead of philosophical debate, we see the tangible wrestling of this issue between the protagonist and her suitor. Rather than a barefoot doctor, helping out in a developing country, here we have a barefoot suitor ! In the next, title, story, we again confront the gap between proposal and outcome, promise and reality. We see how the protagonist copes or not with the transition from a metaphorical glittering Saturday night in Jaffna to the stark realities of Sunday morning in Kuala Lumpur. This trilogy ends with two of the major features in this book, doctors and food, in the form of dodol, a favourite dessert. In between we have deception, dreams crushed, desperation and loneliness which bond a friendship flawed by betrayal and ingratitude.
- In ‘Free and Freed,’ from which Shan has just read some extracts, we are reminded hilariously that things are not always what they seem to be at first sight. The final story, ‘Rani Taxis Away’, is set just after Merdeka in 1957. This tale wraps up the book neatly, since the protagonist Rani has the one vocation that Rasamah herself yearned so deeply to have. Does Rani fare better than Rasamah? Only by reading the story shall we find out ! I fully agree with one critic who commented that, ’contemporary readers can relate easily to Rani and access the conflict between traditional and modern gender roles through a lens relevant to their own experiences, which adds a lot to the story’s impact.’ Another critic described this one as a perfect story.
- These fifteen stories, with their intimate depictions, remind us all of where we come from, both as Malaysians, but more importantly as human beings. On the surface, the stories may appear to be about the Jaffna Tamil community. But the insights they provide on the human condition go well beyond the experiences of any one group to illuminate more universal emotions, struggles and relationships. It is this aspect that I value the most in this collection, along of course with its humour. As Prof Muhammad Haji Salleh has put it, ‘Shan has a sharp eye for the uniqueness of the ways Malaysians express themselves. He has helped us look at ourselves more clearly, but without prejudice. His stories bring us back to a Malaysia of simpler times, and are therefore very precious.’
Ladies and Gentlemen,
- A report published in 2016 found that out of the 85% of Malaysians who read regularly, 77% said they preferred newspapers, while 3% read magazines, and only 3% read books. This very small fraction read either non-fiction; fiction by foreign writers, many of whom are dead white men; or, finally, fiction written by Malaysians. After they leave educational institutions, Malaysians seem to read fewer books. One accountant reportedly said that he only reads facts and figures.
- How do we nurture and widen this small group of readers of Malaysian fiction? How can we stimulate the habit of reading for pleasure among our fellow Malaysians? Writing historical ‘faction’, or fiction based on facts, as Shan does, is one way to contribute, as it serves to reach out to readers of non-fiction, and encourage them to explore a new genre. As a book of short stories, Marriage and Mutton Curry should also appeal to those who travel frequently on buses, MRT, LRT, taxis, trains and planes, who can choose to read just one short story at a time. This format should also attract the younger generation, with their shorter attention spans.
- As one way to promote the habit of reading books in Malaysia among both adults and students, I urge all Malaysians to give books as gifts. They can be given as presents for any occasion from birthdays and anniversaries, to saying thank you, congratulations, sorry or bon voyage. For those who already present books as gifts, I urge you to continue to do so with ‘Marriage and Mutton Curry’. Your gift will be a source not only of much entertainment, but also of invaluable historical and human insight. For those who have not yet given books, whether as corporate or personal gifts, you can start today with this one. Many fans have already bought ‘Marriage and Mutton Curry’ in order to give it away as a gift.
- Here I am launching this book at the Cooler Lumpur Festival, and it was at this very festival only last year that Shan met, as he puts it, ‘the eminent Edmund Wee of Epigram Books’. He was introduced by Malaysian co-author at Epigram, Bernice Chauly. Shan then submitted his manuscript, edited initially by Felicity Jones, which was accepted. Edmund Wee, who has a fine eye for designs, titles and many other things, selected the title of ‘Marriage and Mutton Curry’ from among other possibilities, and in a matter of months, here we are with the book now about to be launched.
- I have given many reasons why everyone from youth and students to adults, from fans of historical fiction and faction, to those of fun short stories, whether Malaysians, or discerning readers from anywhere else, should all read this book. I do hope I have whetted your appetite, if not for marriage, then at least for metaphorical mutton curry. I now have the greatest pleasure in launching, ‘Marriage and Mutton Curry’, the appetising book with much food for all your thoughts.
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