Sunday, 23 January 2011

The Interlok gridlock, lets have a fair hearing from ALL sides before the Ministry of Education decides further

I like this article by Johan Jaafar who explains a little bit more on the Interlok novel by Abdullah Hussain:

Give a fair hearing to Abdullah's 'Interlok'

By Johan Jaaffar

THE recent controversy regarding Interlok, the book to be used as a literary text for secondary schools, reminds me of the fuss surrounding The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in the United States. Somehow the fate of both novels are intertwined. Mark Twain's book has been published since 1884 without commotion until lately. It took 126 years for some segments of American society to realise that the word "nigger" (mentioned 217 times in the novel) is derogatory after all. The book is considered a classic, in fact, Daniel S. Burt in his book The Novel 100, ranked Huckleberry Finn the 14th greatest novel of all time.

Abdullah Hussain's novel was published in 1971, and it took 39 years for some of its detractors to realise that a particular word to denote the caste system was demeaning to Indians. He used the word twice significantly. In the first instance, he was mentioning the lead character's position in the caste system; the second, he was amazed at how the caste system was not evident in Malaya.

I find it unnerving that a publisher of the new edition of Huckleberry Finn in the US is to excise the word "nigger". I would certainly disapprove if the character Shylock is removed from The Merchant of Venice simply because he was a blood-sucking Jewish moneylender. Shylock does not make Shakespeare anti-Semitic just as Joseph Conrad or Henri Fauconnier were not haters of Malays because of their depictions of them in Lord Jim, Almayer's Folly or The Soul of Malaya. In the two Conrad novels and Fauconnier's, the indigenous people of Malaya are not shown in a good light.

I am sure Abdullah had no intention of hurting the feelings of the Indian community when he wrote Interlok. In fact, the circumstances resulting in the publication of the novel warrant some attention. With the urging of the then deputy prime minister, Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP) organised a novel-writing competition to commemorate 10 years of independence in 1967. One of the novels worthy of consolation prizes was Interlok. The other three were Sandera (Arenawati), Merpati Putih Terbang Lagi (Khatijah Hashim) and Pulanglah Perantau (Aziz Jahpin). Interlok stands out as the only novel that truly encompasses the spirit of Merdeka. It is a story of a multiracial, multicultural and multi-religious Malaysia. It is in spirit and in deed, a truly "Malaysian" novel. In fact, if there is any local work that should be labelled a 1Malaysia novel, it has to be Interlok.

Abdullah is a prolific writer, he wrote 20 novels from the first, Dia...Kekasihku (1941) to Imam (1995). But he has a soft spot for Interlok. He spent more time researching Interlok than all his other works combined. He read countless materials, met numerous people and pored over maps and landmarks and learnt proverbs and words of the various communities depicted in it. It is, after all, a story of three families -- that of Seman, Cing Huat and Maniam -- the last two hailing from China and India respectively. There are four chapters in the novel -- three narrating the stories of the three families representing the major races of the country, and the last chapter is the "interlocking" one where the fates of the three families intertwine in a fledgling nation.

For every chapter, Abdullah begins with a theme based on a proverb from every race, each one manifesting the psyche of its people. For the Malays, he used two controversial proverbs that have been blamed for their backwardness, biar lambat asal selamat (better late than never) and tidak lari gunung dikejar (literally, there is no necessity to chase a mountain for it will not run away). For the Chinese, he used the proverb kalau tak berwang, ke mana pergi terbuang (without money, you're easily discarded) and for the Indians hati yang tetap akan mencapai kemenangan (a determined heart will win).

For the Indian family, the patriarch's journey starts in July 1901 from a small village in Tricur to the port of Nagapatam (now known as Nagapattinam), Tamil Nadu, to Penang.

Maniam lives in destitution with his wife Ambika. Inspired by the success of their neighbour Pillay, who had been to Malaya, he is determined to leave for "the land of gold". Maniam's journey is one of trial and tribulation. His wife leaves him for another man and he starts a new family, and it is tough all the way.

It is a story of a typical immigrant -- not unlike the difficulties faced by Cin Huat from another poor village in China. They came, they integrated and they prospered in their own ways. Together with Seman, they are the unsung heroes of a newborn nation. They weathered tragedies, despair, sadness, yet they endured. The theme for the interlocking chapter is bersekutu bertambah mutu (united we thrived).

Abdullah has every reason to be proud of his work. I should know. When I joined DBP in 1977, Abdullah was my "room-mate" in a cubicle before the days of the open office concept. He had written at least 16 novels by then, but he was exceptionally fond of Interlok. He told me of the days he spent researching and writing the novel. Some of the people -- Malays, Chinese and Indians -- he spoke to or based his stories on became his close friends over the years. In fact, he was very happy about the Indian segment. He pointed out that he mentioned some Tamil words and concepts verbatim -- to name a few, kangani, peepal, gatra-haridra, kaman, homa, ankurarppanam.

I agree that Maniam endures a worse fate than Seman or Cin Huat. When the community hears that Maniam has a wife in India, the entire estate ostracises him. Little did they know that the wife, Ambika, was forcibly taken by his own neighbour.

Maniam is saved by Musa, a poor young man who is determined to marry his lover when he has enough money. Both Maniam and Musa are set on a path to redeem themselves. Musa goes through a traumatic experience for not being accepted to work at the estate (where the workers are Indians) and the tin mine (Chinese). With Maniam's help, he gets a job at a shop doing menial tasks. Discrimination happens to Malays, too, in the novel! Later Musa joins Maniam in the estate.

Race relations are a touchy subject. Their depiction in a novel can be contentious, as proven by Interlok. Abdullah is not a social scientist or a historian. He is a storyteller. He writes fiction, not the annals of the people of Malaysia. Interlok is not flawless but it is an audacious attempt at understanding. Our survival depends on that.

I am sure Abdullah wants a fair hearing for his novel.

Read the full article in the NST here.

Read also Baradan Kuppusamy positive take on the interlok novel here.

Now read a report about this group of politicians who insist that they are offended by the book and insist that interlok which is a about the story of the trials and tribulation faced by fictional characters, one a malay, another a chinese and another an Indian,  be dropped from the form 5 curriculum. Read here.

I think instead of having a exclusive discussion between the Ministry of Education and the MIC and some other Indian NGO opposed to interlok, there should be invitation to other individuals groups who are also in favour of the interlok who could argue their case for the novel to be upheld in the form 5 curriculum. Lets have a fair hearing with views from all sides before the Ministry of Education make any any further decision in regards to this issue.

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