Monday, December 13, 2010

Mouse Clutching Winter Melon, Loh siu kip tong kua, By Kuan Guat Choo

Penang-born Kuan Guat Choo is a health visitor by profession, says the blurb. 

Finding this book meant a lot to me as it is a book in English by a Malaysian about life in Malaysia, about the history of Chinese emigration to this country and about the interactions between the three races of the nation: the Chinese, the Malays and the Indians. Most of the time, we are restricted to the accounts of the White Man about any new land we visit. Which is fine should the country be European. Or one of those which now is inhabited by more White people than original inhabitants. Thus it was tragic that I found this kind of book only late in my five year stay in Malaysia and had only my memories of Somerset Maugham stories about this country and one or two French novels to paint for me an idea of its history. Similarly I just found one book by an Indonesian in the bookshops during my one week stay in Jakarta.
The book has a foreword by a certain Bill Chew which is in itself also exciting to read-transporting one back to the days of yore in what was then Malaya.

In a recent visit to Penang I found myself walking down Muntri street, along Love Lane, and then on to Chulia Street. This was the old part of town, dating back probably 200 years…among these buildings are the grander structures known as kongsi (Chinese clan houses…
This is followed by the Acknowledgment-again not to be missed as it is again a history of sorts in the form of short character sketches of the persons to whom the author owes a debt of gratitude.
Lee Swee Har: The schoolmate from primary school who feeds me humour through e-mail and keeps me laughing and thinking young. She was the one who said: “With school friends we do not have to pretend.
We have still the Author’s Note before we can broach the story
Apologies may be given and accepted but as the Chinese saying goes, “a cracked porcelain bowl cannot be mended.
We are also provided with a Glossary upfront before we can embark on this marvelous account. From Chinese words like
Chum pun mein Face like a round chopping board (in the Cantonese dialect)
Katak dibawa tempurung Frog beneath a coconut shell, that is a person who lacks exposure to the world
kavadi A decorated one-man palanquin carried in a state of trance during Thaipusam
brinjals egg-plant
There are also gems like
Ch…Ch...Ba very vulgar word (in the Hokkien dialect)
Eu Niak Ah Ma F…k your mother
But we are still far from the first chapter as there remains Characters
Aunt May Papa’s youngest sister who returned from Selama and gave me a tight hug
And …
Nope, not yet there! There’s the Prologue which remains

In my mind’s eye, I remember two big eyes framed by long thick black eyelashes, jet back hair, fair translucent complexion ad a willowy figure…Autumn Fern had a voracious appetite but she had to walk most of the time and this sculpted her reed-like figure
And, voila! Part I
From Roots which transports us back to ancient times –an age with which we assume ourselves to be familiar via Pear S Buck novels- to the later part of the book which becomes increasingly biographical in tone, Kuan leads us through the lives and times of her family.
I enjoyed this book so much that I am glad no note was taken of the quaint English: this is what makes it read so much the better:

When Grandma’s earthly remains was still in the house, in the morning we had to put a wash basin, …in front of the coffin and informed her to wake up and wash her face.
Here is a book to be read before visiting Malaysia-a story full of romance, humour, pathos and action, a tender and compassionate look at the peoples of a lovable country.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

The Book of Secrets

Authors of Indian origin writing in English have come a long way since Nirad Chaudhuri and Naipaul. From those fulsomely vituperative pens to the Rushdie breed of award winners to a Chetan Bhagatwho tells us it’s quite cool to actually write for our own readership, it’s been an arduous road laden with many a pitfall.
Time and again, we in India hear of the curse of a colonial style education, a hand-me-down which we have taken a long time to out-grow. Perhaps it was that malady which afflicted our prose for so long. And it does the heart good to read The Book of Secrets which bears witness to this coming of age.
The story of a written record (a diary or journal). To get an authentic sense of period for TGS I had to consult the journals and biographies of British colonial administrators and explorers, who were, for all their faults, wonderful recorders. TBOS is the story of the fate of one such journal written by a colonial administrator at the outset of the First World War as it arrived in East Africa.
says author, M G Vassanji.
If pressed, I describe myself as an IndoAfrican Canadian writer. Attempts to box me in I find abhorrent.
He might well be speaking of his book!
The best review, for me, so far, has been that of Salil Tripathi. Most other write-ups are from Westerners and we others are in, some sense, invisible to them: much like their child rearing philosophy that kids are best seen and not heard.
This charmingly unpretentious novel covers nearly a century, the dusk of an empire, a colonized and a colonial post culture, the great wars, independence... Still the pace is leisurely, allowing us to savour the flavours of those times.
"Because it has no end, this book, it ingests us and carries us with it, and so it grows."
The novel’s historical time frame indulges in a promiscuous affair with a family saga. Loose ends titillate: whose son was the protagonist? And what about his own son? The ambiguous abounds!
Good old story telling at its best.