The contemporary Malaysian poet Charlene Rajendran contemplates the messy notion of “authentic identity” in her creative oeuvre. A poem from her book Mangosteen Crumble (2000) goes:
So, mush of me
Really I am Malaysian,
Mingled by history
Saras Manickam’s collection of stories My Mother Pattu is also about the complexity and “choice-lessness” of identity suggested by Rajendran’s poem. She explores the everyday experience of Malaysian Tamils in a multicultural landscape where “native” and “other” are not defined by historic claims to place alone but by one’s location in hierarchies produced by the criss-crossing of ethnicity, race, religion, and gender. Manickam’s protagonists, primarily women of the Tamil diaspora from the 1960s to the contemporary moment, negotiate contentious relationships within the family and a wider social milieu. The stories traverse multiple themes, places, and time frames but can be enjoyed as a whole—much like ice kacan, the iconic Malaysian dessert that layers a medley of flavours and colours into one delightful whole.
My Mother Pattu
The opening story, “Number One, Mambang Lane”, is located in a small town that the teenaged protagonist refers to as “a stupid town with a stupid name”. Set in 1965, it is a charming tale of unrequited love—a favourite theme of romantic Tamil films of the 1960s. It introduces the reader to a diverse community where being Tamil, Chinese, Sikh, Malay, Muslim, or “Anglo”, and sometimes a little of everything, determines the course of your relationships. This is followed by a series of stories in which we repeatedly encounter Mambang characters, getting a closer look at their lives in different situations.
Halfway through the book, Manickam’s plots move into brutal domestic scenarios: the unhappy single woman stuck in the past, adult prejudices that haunt the lives of children from the working-class quarters, the violence-ridden life of a young woman who must pay for being of “mixed race”. “The Princess of Lemut” foregrounds the divisions wrought by racial and religious identity in a community that is otherwise bound by its working-class status.
Many of Manickam’s stories are about parents and children. The most powerful ones enter the mother-child dynamic and its potential for violence. The characters smack the reader in the face as they shatter idealised notions of selfless parental love. “Charan” and “Will you Let him Drink the Wind” are ruthless explorations of the anguish of parents struggling to bring up children with special needs. Manickam’s empathetic connection with children is visible in the way she channels their voices as they negotiate conflict zones that trap and victimise them. “My Mother Pattu”, the award-winning eponymous story, is a raw tale about the burden of honour and identity that express themselves as both violence and resilience.
“Many of Manickam’s stories are about parents and children. The most powerful ones enter the mother-child dynamic and its potential for violence.”
Although many of the stories delve into the shadows and fragility of human relations, they are not lacking in humour. “Dey Raju” is a quirky love story that meanders through filmi plots. The dey (that translates to “hey, you fellow”) captures the sonic vigour of an expression that to the Tamil speaker carries more meaning than a mere form of address. Manickam’s language is minimalist but evocative. Her teenage protagonists’ words land like sharp badminton smashes on an unsuspecting opponent. For instance, Lalita, the protagonist of the title story, describes Pattu as “the bile that I retched out after each of her visits”. The girl banished to her uncle’s home in “Number One, Mambang Lane” speaks of her resentment: “My exile, I wore like a black dog on my shoulders, feeding it with sultry defiance.” The affect of “Tamil-ness” that is central to her stories is conjured through references to popular Tamil culture, use of colloquial Tamil, food, and sartorial styles. The landscape of Manickam’s Malaysia, its smells and colours, is lushly etched.
- The novel explores the everyday experience of Malaysian Tamils in the multicultural landscape of Malaysia.
- Saras Manickam’s protagonists, primarily women of the Tamil diaspora from the 1960s to the contemporary moment, negotiate contentious relationships within the family and a wider social milieu.
- The stories confront what Manickam refers to as “comfortable conventions” about race, religious/ethnic relations, and “belonging” that structure identities within a nation.
The second half is a selection of newer writings that move out of the home and into the “nation” to expose structural discrimination that challenges the Malaysian state’s professed celebration of diversity. We encounter “new” migrant workers—Bangladeshis, Indonesians, and Indians, among others—who are “invisible” but indispensable for building and maintaining the urbane life of Malaysian cities. The stories confront what Manickam refers to as “comfortable conventions” about race, religious/ethnic relations, and “belonging” that structure identities within a nation.
In an interview, Manickam spoke about the universality of prejudice: “I didn’t want accusations of racism (or patriarchy) to be something that is targeted at other people… those who scream injustice needed to confront their own personal prejudices, bigotry or intolerance in their own actions.” We see this in the concluding story, “Call it by its Name”, which ruminates on the dark aspects of migrants’ lives over centuries and the shifting yardsticks for measuring otherness. A young Tamil Malaysian woman, who has never stepped on Indian soil, is forced to confront her own prejudices after her friend uses a slur, keling, to call out her Indian origin.
Prejudice, fear of difference, and the facile construction of a unitary national identity are not concerns exclusive to Malaysian society or its Tamil diaspora. These issues were and continue to be increasingly relevant to our own social context. Manickam throws us the bait for plumbing our own depths and invites us to converse with our own shadows.
Usha Rao is an urban anthropologist, an independent media maker, and a freelance educator.