By Bunga Pakma
The rain is coming down outside my office window. I see the drops hitting the surface of puddles and raising, without much enthusiasm, short-lived rings that spread and vanish into one another and are obliterated by the next falling meteor. The covering sky sheens dully like tarnished aluminium; through the tinted window it more resembles lead. Inside, the mechanically cooled air sits on my skin with a chill.
It’s December. The Gregorian year is hurtling towards its end and its rebirth. The schools are empty. Christians are celebrating Advent and the expectation of Christmas, and retail merchants are hoping for a spike in sales, for consumption, given any excuse, is a religion open to all.
As the days pass in Malaysia one gets a strange sense of seasons passing in review. The past two weeks have brought us baking sun that has lifted the thermometer over 40º, thunderstorms of apocalyptic fury, and today, winter as far as we can be said to experience winter. It’s an indoor day, and a nice hot bowl of laksa strikes one as just the thing for lunch.
Events in the public sphere seem now and again to doze as if hibernating in fits. We haven’t suffered a political thunderstorm in a while, and the torrent of news has slowed to a drizzle. Meantime it’s all water, and we still get wet.
I’ve been reading plenty of novels lately, almost a book every day. For someone like without a TV or close friends nearby, reading becomes the most important way of getting out of my own skull and refreshing myself after the day’s work is done. Reading is companionship.
At the same time I feel rather as though I myself am in the middle of a novel. It’s a minor novel, with no drama except as ideas, impressions and emotions interweave, un-weave, play and conflict. While actions unfolds only within the theatre of my sensibility—my mind’s inner senses of eye, ear and all the rest, a setting that anyone who has read James Joyce knows well—I myself am only one character in the story, and I’m trying to make sense of the plot as it moves me along, feeling my way in as much uncertainty and guess as any Leopold Bloom.
My novel concerns itself with what I am doing here, and in what direction I’m going. The setting is Malaysia, and naturally the many large and varied narratives that wind around me and develop themselves independently of me affect my narrative, too.
Coincidence is an important device in fiction. By coincidence I picked up Anthony Burgess’s Nothing Like the Sun, a novel on Shakespeare’s love-life, and was drawn back to his novels of Malaya and Brunei. By coincidence I learned that Benedict Anderson, famed for his exploration of nationalism, Imagined Communities, was speaking at a conference in KL, and I attended his talk. So primed by the (richly muddy)confluence of the scholarly and the imagination, I went about with new eyes, looking at everything here as in search for clues to solve a mystery.
To state Anderson’s thesis as briefly as I can, it is peoples’ imagination that holds a nation together. If enough Malaysians think they’re Malaysian, ergo Malaysia exists. (John Maynard Keynes said something similar of money: “The dollar is a dream everybody is dreaming at once.”) Take that concept and think how it applies to Malaysia. There is a certain Imagined-Malaysia that almost everybody imagines, whose components are ringgits and rice and the place where they were born and grew up, the IC, driving license and passport.
You can see that plenty of other I-Malaysias co-exist. I won’t talk about “race” but each linguistic/cultural loyalty imagines Malaysia differently, not divisively. Dayaks of all tribes are intermarrying with one another, and more and more they imagine a pan-Dayak community, to which they all belong. Diversity in itself is a good thing.
Then we have I-Communities thrust on us. “1Malaysia” as a slogan is plastered everywhere. No one knows what imagination it’s supposed to represent. BTN has been kept in the dark for decades. First I heard about it was when Judge Ian Chin told us last year about the “boot camp” he was forced to attend. Here we have a community being imagined in detail (though probably quite sloppily) whose aim is to supersede all other narratives whatsoever. One would like to know the plan. The “imagineers” at work in UMNO may not speak their minds plainly, for obvious reasons, so we get only shreds and patches of a national narrative stuck together in a ground of inconsistency and obfuscation.
Turning to a deliberately and aesthetically I-Community in the Malaya of the late fifties Anthony Burgess portrayed in his Malayan Trilogy, we find quite a contrast. Amir Muhammad notes ”…the wide range of characters, of every possible peninsula ethnicity. It’s the most vibrant depiction yet of our Truly Asian but multiracial society. The jokey, pomposity-puncturing allusions to local mores and hypocrisies have not gone stale.”1 Burgess switches registers constantly. Satire, caricature, humour, irony, pathos, and simple narrative image a Malaya whose peoples face profound moral complexities and uncertainties.
Not long ago our Founder SKY wrote about the possibility of a Malaysian literature in English. Those musings, too, thickened the plot of my inner novel. As I raced through the dark alleys of my imagination, pursuing the latest lead to my riddle, I came to an unexpected fork. Poets, as all great poets have said (the term includes novelists), forge the consciousness of the people. Now, is the National Narrative so boring because we don’t have any good writers? Or is Malaysian fiction so uninspiring because the N-N so shabby and ramshackle?
Sarawak’s narrative was established forty years ago and has remained static ever since. That narrative is—a certain Melanau family will hold hegemony forever. Taib will accumulate to himself all wealth, all power, drawing the life from all other communities in the State, and this will go on without stop until all resources are exhausted. Nothing has changed in 40 years. One might point to “development” as a part of the plot that moves forward, but in fact, who can tell its direction? Kuching gets a gimcrack DUN. Dams are playing out tired old black & white scenes from the Great Depression. Hoover Dam did bring light and water to the American West, but in our version the Dust Bowl howls more furiously.
The challenges and misery of the 30s gave strong material to engaged and earnest writers. A novelist like John Steinbeck changed the way Americans looked at themselves. It is a sad thought that stasis may become unstable and give writers something to really write about.