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The development of the Nation’s diversity can be traced in the fiction produced by the Nation. The two main fiction novels I will use to discuss the above statement are” The Return” and “Green is the Colour”, written by two important first generation writers KS Maniam and LLyod Fernando.
This paper will explore the question of whether Malaysian Literature in English has a significant place in the social and cultural tapestry of the nation along with historical and sociological literatures.
The definition of social and culture respectively are, the former is anything pertaining to human society and the latter is characterized by the historical nature, the relativity and the diversity of a nation, which undergoes change alongside changes in the economic, social and political organization of society
History is any written accounts of the past and sociology is the study of society, the functioning, organization, development and types of human societies.
Definitions from ” Collins Dictionary of Sociology” by David Jary and Julia Jary.
I would like to use an excerpt from Muhammad Haji Salleh’s “Reclaiming Worlds: Theories in the Texts”,that gives a place for fiction in the social and cultural representation of the nation.
” A culture is as a great old tree from the earth of history, traditions, societies and worldviews. Moulded over the centuries by complex processes, an admixture and combination of these forces it has grown special flowers and fruits with special qualities and identities. A LITERATURE, a literary mind, is a great branch of this tree.”
Fiction links history and sociology, in that it complements these two branches of study by giving a third perspective, a creative depiction of the country. Literature has the kind of agency to reflect and comment on society, to voice certain concerns. Literature is the fiction that gives new realities to history, through the changes the Nation has undergone.
“Literature has the responsibility to reflect what the nation is and what it has been and what it ought to be.” (Poole,R)
The history of a particular period in the country could be understood better by reading a text that depicts the historical recounts of the same period. It is two dimensional, one could read the chronological recount from a historical text and further deepen their knowledge and understanding through reading a work of fiction dealing with the same aspect of history but from a literary standpoint or read a literary text better as we already know the context, a general idea of the nation’s history. Yes! understanding aspects of history by reading literature.This is what I aim to prove in this essay ,to identify the relationship between history and fiction.
Literature definitely has a place alongside history and sociological texts in the social and cultural representation of the nation.
Malaysian Literature in English sprung at the time the Nation was in the process of being built, its advent in the 1940’s with concerns of post world war two and the complacent reliance on colonial power. Active writings began in the 1950’s , the pre- Independence stage and slowly made its way to the post Independence stage capturing all the major turns in the historical milestone of the Nation. The recounts of history captured by eminent first generation writers of the century namely KS Maniam and LLyod Fernando in their writings runs parallel with the recounts found in historical texts, but further delves into human aspects, insights into issues, fears and sentiments felt by the country’s people who were bound and brought together by history. For the purpose of this assignment on how literature is linked to history I would like to approach the discussion from the angle of pre-independence and post-independence of Malaysia and the two texts that will be the parameters of the discussion are The Return by KS Maniam and Green is the Colour By LLyod Fernando. My choices are based on the fact that The Return depicts the history of the Nation , the plural Malaya, before the independence of 1957 and the novel “Green is the Colour” presents the multi ethnic, multicultural Malaysia of post independence 1957. In other words I will be tracing the development of plurality and the development of diversity (multiculturalism) through the eyes of the two novelists mentioned above. By presenting close textual analysis of the two fiction novels , I will walk you through this periods of history, the before and after, and the transitional periods all of which forms the basic foundation history which led to the formation of society and the Nation as superbly presented in both the mentioned texts.
PRE-INDEPENDENCE MALAYA- THE PLURAL MALAYA
Before I go into length about the historical landscape of this novel a little bit of history on the subject would be required to facilitate a better understanding of the cultural climate of that era. It would be useful to know how we came about to being “plural’. The British imported indentured labor, since late 19th century from south China and south India for their own capitalist venture,resulted in the co existence of the three main races in Malaya then. This was further compounded by the British divide and rule policy which kept these three races in their own spheres with British administration implementing rules and policies that hindered any formation of inter-ethnic alliances let alone any mingling among the races. This was to safeguard their own political and economic interests. The education system further drove a wedge between the ethnic groups as it was in the form of vernacular school system. Thus the birth of plural society.
This is what is reflected in KS Maniam’s ” The Return”. The novel is about a Tamil family living in Kedah after the second world war. The plot covers three generations, Ravi the narrator and the central figure of the novel, his father and his grandmother- the life and struggles of a typical Tamil family of the post-war period. The central theme of the novel is the search for identitiy of the protagonist , living amongst the culture of the immigrant post-colonial society.The transition of a group of people moving from one world to another world. The novel deals with the cross encounter of the immigrant culture with the host community culture. The other themes are also around the feeling of “Unhomeliness”, “displacement” and “living inbetween spaces” experienced by the immigrant community as they struggle to adapt to their new environment. The feeling of unhomeliness cause the characters , especially the older generation to have longing for their ancestral home and keeping the link alive through the practice of rites,rituals and celebrations,creating a home far away from the home they knew in the past.. Even if Maniam represents only the Indian community as when he claims “he writes best what he knows best”, he is actually representing the other ethnic communities as well through his writing. He writes how the different communities kept within their own therefore living in isolation, with minimal interaction with one another and living within their own space. This description gives the reader a good indepth understanding of the historical background of that particular era where plural society existed and how the different ethnic communities lived.
J.S Furnivall 1948, 304, describes plural society” as a medley of peoples, European, Chinese,Indian and native who do mix but do not combine.Each group holds by its own religion, its own culture and language, its own ideas and ways. As individuals they meet, but only in the market place, in buying and selling.There is a plural society, with different sections of the community living side by side, but separately, within the same political unit.
” It simply means different ethnic groups lived side by side in their separate enclaves and are involved in different economic activities but rarely interact except, literally ,at the market place.
This is a definition of how people of different ethnocultural background lived and interacted with each other.This is also a result of the Imperial legacy left behind by the British.Prior to the Colonial rule by the British, there were migrants who were Javanese, Arabic, Indian and Chinese living in Malaya but they assimilated with the local culture in the form of mixed marriages, fusion and syncretism in cultures, language and even religion.After the introduction of the system of indentured labor, the migrant communities were encouraged to maintain and retain their social and cultural heritage and political links to their motherland, while living in the pockets of their own communities. The essence of which has been captured by Maniam in his novel.
He writes, “I had been exposed to an environment and a language that would trail me for the rest of my life, the environment was the estate houses, the rubber trees and the red laterite road that led away from the main, tar road into remoteness. There was a lonely trickling stream which I crossed to and from school and in the distance, the faintly blue mountain tips. Nothing else could have brought home to me the fact the Indians were isolated and lived in a world of their ownâ€¦.” ( The Return)
“The language was the Tamil language, which we chanted in that two- room,green,plank building called then and to this day, a school. The chanting was not without purpose: the sound rhythm and imagery of the language helped obliterate the sterility of life outside the classroom.’
( The Return)
” The two facts, environment and language, have remained, unconsciously most of the time within me. Though I was transferred to an English School after that one year in a Tamil one, the Tamil language had an influence on my works. These facts have remained the same, with some modifications, but the fiction has developed for me, into reality. That fiction I ambiguously call, the destiny of a people from whom I have not been able to make a complete break. That fiction has been the exploration of the past, present, psychology, conflicts and ambitions of the Indian Community in Malaysia.”
( Fiction Into Fact, Fact into Fiction: A Personal Reflection by KS Maniam)
The writer in emphasizing the immersion he feels in his language and the isolated environment of the community he lived, gives us an insight as to how a plural society functioned. The members of each community had a particular space carved out for them to live life the way they know best , thus forming a little world for themselves within a larger one. They had their own culture, social engagements and festivals where the link to their ancestral home is strongly evident.
” These festivals ( Deepavali, together with Thaipusam and Ponggal created a special country for us. We were inhabitants of an invisible landscape tenuously brought into prominence by the lights, mango leaves strung out over the doorways, the pilgrimage to Sri Subramanya temple in Sungei Petani on Thaipusam day, the painting of the bull horns after Ponggal and the many taboos that covered our daily life’ ( The Return)
This is an insight as to how deeply immersed the members of the Indian community were in their culture brought from their homeland and how their daily life is filled with rituals and customs practiced by their ancestors , how its embraced and practiced in a faraway land, its propriety and meaning never questioned, its importance in creating a sense of home for them out of a need for a sense of belonging. There is no opportunity to learn and mingle with other communities, no syncretism what so ever be it language, culture , food or simply meaningful co mingling. Even if there was it would strictly be in places such as the market where there is a necessity to get their essential food supplies. Interaction would be at minimal as there would be language and cultural barriers.
Thus the effects of plural society are;-
Lack of interaction between communities and ethnocentric perspective of the world
Lack of intercultural dynamics led to the formation of enclave communities
Lack of a meaningful contact caused a lack of ” a common will”
Therefore the different communities lived a segregated existence, geographically, they were self sufficient and had little need or regard for the other in all domains including education,politics, culture, religion, language and more. This is the snapshot of how the plural society lived as clearly and concisely presented in the text “The Return” by KSManiam. Here historical texts with its chronological order of facts complements the more subjective ,fiction based, but true historical recounts given by the literary mind. An insight and probe into the lives of people who lived out the history of that particular era, a testimony and a touch of realism that gives deeper meaning and understanding to any reader.
Another aspect of the novel that I wouldlike to highlight is the use of time. The stories of three generation family members give the idea of struggle with the culture of the reception country (Malaya) and adaptation required for change and cross cultural syncretism which happens much much later in the history of Malaysia but what is important is the evolving process which takes place from this point (Pre-Independence) to (Post- Independence). The novel’s treatment of time gives a sense of continuity, from the immigrant “Ravi’s grandmother who had arrived from India to her grandson who goes to England to further his studies and returns as a teacher. There is a sense of continuity as if the writer actually plans to walk us through the Nation’s history through the development of his characters personal life and ambitions. Through the narrative technique of the autobiography of the main character, personal memories of the past gets shifted to the present and is understood as a process of change. It is this process which also shows the development of society from being plural to becoming multicultural as the novel moves with time from one era to another. The novel spans three generations which can be traced with the arrival of Periathai in Malaya ( early 1940’s to 1957) after Kannan, Ravi’s father’s death. It is also through this period that the writer gives details into the history of the Nation. Maniam takes the reader through British Occupation, the Interim Japanese Occupation, the Communist Insurgency, the Emergency period and finally the independence of Malaya.
” But the hospital compound wasn’t always quarrels and class prejudice. There was the Kings birthday celebrated in a memorable manner. Then the entrance to the graveled hospital road was straddled by an arch bearing the legend””Long Live The Majesty” Lights blinked at night for a whole week.
” That year curfew, reduced by two hours was impose only between 12 and 5amâ€¦The Majestic in Bedong screened mainly Chinese, Malay and Indian films. People moved about with less fear. An army unit was stationed at Merbok.”
” Bedong had been changing,the old shopkeepers had to adopt a more progressive attitude. They were unable to keep out the travelling salesmen who conducted business on the roadside. The old shop facades came down. Planks that had served as shutters each numbered and slotted into a wooden groove, the door detached and assembled, were slowly replaced by the iron grille.”
” One night while we were still at work on the clothes, we heard Tunku Abdul Rahman, our Prime Minister , on the radio, uttering the words: “Merdeka!, “Merdeka! Merdeka!”â€¦.so Independence came and the immediate signs were the further reduction of the curfew hours and in the kinds of goods displayed at the pavement stalls. I saw a whole world rise beside the road, cramped and glittering, towards the reachable peaks of personal dreams. Possesions wasn’t exclusive anymore, it was everyone’s prerogativeâ€¦”
( The Return)
All the above excerpts show the progress of the country’s history as seen through the eyes of Ravi, from the colonial celebration of the King’s birthday, to the curfews during the Japanese and Communist Insurgency and the Independence celebration. Ravi , who represents his Indian community stands outside the circle and looks in as if he is an outsider , he is not part and parcel of the Nation’s struggle nor proud of its new status as an independent country as he belongs to the component of a plural society and cannot see beyond the requirements of his daily chores.He hears the proclaimation of Independence, yet is passive and is seen continuing with the ironing of the clothes eager to finish his chores. He cannot partake in the joy of independence as being part of a plural society, there is no common will or a vision , there is no sense of togetherness , hence no sense of celebration, pride or joy as a united, free and Independent Nation.
In this novel the writer has also revision certain historical facts especially on how the Indian community fared during this period of history, by giving voice to the forgotten or silenced community whose plight was never heard. This is a historical recount on the migrant community, the story of how they lived and survived in a new land can be read as a historical reading as it sheds light on the real issues faced by this community. The birth of the new Ravi, who has undergone British education, and the process he goes through is almost parallel to the process the isolated Indian community goes through, no longer can they hold on to their identity of being a member of a plural society but the need to change and evolve according to the changes the nation is going through, thus the slow evolvement from the plural society towards multi ethnic or multicultural society, which I will discuss on the second half of my paper using the text “Green is the Colour”
The novel “Green is The Colour” is set in the post- 13th May 1969, inter racial riots in Malaysia. My reason for selecting this novel is due to the setting of time , the first reason, as a continuum from the earlier novel ” The Return” which depicts the time frame of pre-independence, this novel takes into account the phase from the 1957 independence till the riots of 1969, and then the after math phase, which is the main framework on which the plot is developed. The second reason is, to highlight the development from plurality to the development of diversity in Malaysia, pre and post Independence. In this particular text, the author has re-lived and reconstructed a part of National history through combining his personal memories with his imagination. A fiction is born and it gives so much insight into a period in history that was dark and made people uneasy due to its sensitivity. A historical recount would give description of events that led to the riots and a factual report on the occurrence but this novel, a fiction, covers not only the physical aspects of the volatile situation the country was in but also presents an insight into the minds of the multi racial characters and their clashing opinions and visions. The author shows how their lives and relationships are affected by the political developments in the country.
” there is commotion everywhere, violence is breaking out intermittently, civilians are moving around with guns, the streets littered with barricades and broken glass, shops are being looted, cars set on fire and occasion sounds of bomb explosions peal through the air..”
The above is a physical description of the May 1969 riots ,from the novel Green is The Colour, taken from ” One Sky Many Horizon’s”, by Mohammad A Quayyum.
The description that gives an insight to how generally people felt during that period of chaos and disorder is ” Everybody spoke a different language, everybody used different words, everyone was hurt and angry that the others did not understand them” ( Fernando 1993:59)
Only literature is able to provide a deep insight to both history and the human mind, through the dramatization of the characters in a fiction, their feelings, moral and psychological reactions to crisis. To a reader this would be valuable information not only about the history of a Nation but also the social and cultural aspect of the people who make the Nation.
I would like to draw particular attention to the period in between 1957, Independence to the incident of the 1969 race riots. The moral and sociological problems of a newly independent country with a legacy of colonial past and a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious make-up.
For this purpose I would like to draw the differences between both plural and multi-ethnic society. The major differences lie in the fact that a plural society is not managed, it just exists but in a multi ethnic society, the members are moving towards a common wil, an “imagined society” in line with building a Nation, independent from colonial rule . In essence, a transformation from plural to multiethnic or multicultural backdrop. This gives a greater sense of co existence between members of the different communities. As pockets of community overlaps, this would naturally cause tensions. With interaction comes issues of race relations, racial intolerance and “xenophobia”, the phobia of the “other”.
Xenophobia is defined as an exaggerated hostility towards or fear of foreigners ( Collins ,Dictionary of Sociology by David and Julia Jary)
When we learn to deal and cope with the above issues, that’s when tolerance and understanding of race, culture and religious barriers would present the ability for people of different races to live together harmoniously.
Multiculturalism, the way I would read it is management of diversity. According to C W Watson in his book “Multiculturalism”, the word multiculturalism ” it denotes a society in which there exists several cultures”.
“If a nation is a multicultural society and a person’s sense of self worth is intimately and unavoidably bound up with their cultural identity, then the state, if it wants the nation to survive can do one of the two things. It can try to destroy the multicultural dimension of the society by rooting out all cultures other than the single one which will become dominant. â€¦..The alternative would be to celebrate and encourage multiculturalism in the expectation that citizens who are proud of their culture and see that culture being endorsed by the state will be anxious to join in common citizenship with members of other cultural groups to protect the liberal tolerance which is so important for them.”
Taken from the book “Multiculturalism “by C W Watson.
This excerpt is important to me as it captures the essence of the novel “Green is The Colour”. ” to join in common citizenship with members of other cultural groups tp protect liberal tolerance”, this is what is presented in the novel,a message that if we want to enjoy unity and harmony there must be a level of tolerance and understanding among the members of the different ethnic groups.
Multiculturalism talks about the demands of the minorities, each race wants to be represented and demand for recognition and equality. If not met,tensions brew and result in apprehension and mistrust among the members, conflict and contestation for supremacy and control. The Malay’s wanted their political, social and economic rights as the natives of the land protected. The Chinese and Indians, on the other hand wanted greater political freedom as citizens of the soon to be independent nation.The race riots of May 1996 is a culmination of the above. It brought an awareness that the society imbalance and issues of communalism needed to be addressed.This is the opening of the novel, the immediate aftermath of the riot and the distrust and suspicion the people of different races have of each other.
The author presents this landscape and through his various characters is able to highlight the issues and problems that arises in the way the situation is handled. A variety of sensitive issues mainly on race, religion and gender , that require careful handling is brought to the surface and dealt with. The author, Fernando, tells us indirectly that the management of diversity requires recognition, acceptance and tolerance of the “other”.
In the novel, the author has presented competing views of the nation through its central characters. T he major ethnic groups in the country, namely Malays, Chinese and Indians are given equal attention. The rigid views of Panglima and Omar.While Panglime is more in favour of the formation of a Malay Malaysia, Omar is for an Islamic Malaysia.
The words of Panglima,
” I saw how the so called modern values have led us to the situation we are now in. The people divided, so many religions, real rojak, partitioned not into two parts but many parts. We need a single set of values to keep us to-gether’. (page169 text)
Omar uses religion to escape modern Western values and rediscover the pre-colonial past,
” He spoke about modern life and how it had become corrupt. Everywhere people were chasing money, living immoral lives. This was a godless time and he was lucky to find Tok Guru Bahaudin to help redeem his life.
He tells Sara,” this country is oursâ€¦. We will make it our own” (109)
He views his non-Malay, non-Muslim friends with distrust because they do not share his culture and religion. His view on Gita,
” Gita, she was a distraction and ultimately a danger. The same could be said about the others. No need to cut them off completely but if they wanted to live with little or no religion and pray to idols, they should be kept at a distance.(40)
However in the character of Yun Ming, we see loyalty and dedication to the country. Even if he is described as kafir by Panglima, he is acknowledged as “sincere’ and willing to “understand” .Panglima counts on him to undertake inconvenient tasks, in preference to his Malay officers.
Yun Ming is so keen to bridge cultures and bring harmony and homogeneity that he is willing to sacrifice his own tradition and culture . He is willing to embrace Islam in wanting to marry Sara.
Dahlan is the character who speaks the right words, and does the right things to heal a nation that is in trouble, however he is viewed to be too radical and outspoken, that he offends many people. He preaches religious tolerance, demands equal opportunities for all races, marries a Hindu woman without asking her to convert, stands up for a Chinese spiritual leader and offers to undertake the funeral rites for Fatimah Neelambigai , a muslim convert who will not be buried by either side of her family. Even if Dahlan represents the “voice” of every person who wishes to see the ideal “imagined society’, he is criticized for his approach, which is deemed too ” euro interpellated”. This is another message from the author that infers the need for a subtle, careful approach in handling a matter of such great sensitivity that one simply cannot go head on collision in achieving the ideal.
The characters that display human compassion and extraordinary depth are Sara and Lebai Hanafiah.
Lebai Hanafiah does not practice discrimination or prejudice treatment of individuals and teaches the spirit of equality and dignity to all.
” There are so many who want to force you to follow the right path. Each one’s right path is the only one. I am tired of seeing the folly spread in the name of such right paths. I fear those who seek to come between me and love for all humanity. They are the source of hate and destruction.” (116)
I particularly like Sara’s views on how to handle and solve all the issues arising in a multicultural society on the road to building a new Nation.
” She pondered over the uses of words like ‘disturbances’, ‘trouble’,’riots’, and ‘killing’, noting how the use of each unerringly identified the user. She added that, after all, we are building a new country, we were working out our own future and we will solve our problems as they arise. She developed and clung to the use of the plural personal pronoun because they soothed her, they stirred feelings of patriotism, of love for fellow citizens whether Malay,Chinese, Indian or Eurasian. They exempted her from asking what really had happened.” (page 77)
Lloyd Fernando, has presented the multiple views of the muti racial society, as a social fact of our life in this country till today. The diversity is shown through the potrayal of extreme modern minds in characters like Dahlan, extreme conservative on the other side of the spectrum, as in Omar and the balanced approaches required verymuch in a nation like ours as presented in the characters of Lebai Hanafiah, Yun Ming and Sara. In his novel the the multiracial characters interact and communicate with each other, each one’s identity and sense of belonging is tested and their needs and wants recognized.
In comparison to the earlier novel ” The Return”, the plot revolved around the emerging of an idenetity of a single character against the backdrop of a plural society, there were tensions existent even in such a homogenous makeup ,within one’s own community. By using a parochial framework and the setting of post colonial era of Malaya, Maniam presented the concerns of a plural society evolving to a multiethnic one. In Green is the Colour ,Fernando takes on where Maniam has left off and presents a multi racial and multicultural landscape and the problems that arises from such a make up. Diversity is the main framework and he creates opportunities for inter racial relations. The message that comes through is the ability to accept and tolerate differences, regardless of race and religion.
Both the authors have captured the essence of Malaysian history not only in terms of mentions and descriptions of history of that era but these recounts gives us glimpses and insights into how society evolved from one period of history to another . The struggles of individuals and society in a multi ethnic, ,multicultural backdrop, carving niches for themselves through negotiation , tolerance and acceptance in a country constantly growing and developing. It gives a better understanding of how we got here and we are able to appreciate and celebrate our diversity better. The role played by these two fiction novels in presenting history in such an informative and interesting manner is undeniable. Both the texts combine the attributes of historical as well as sociological novel.
Read together, the accounts presented by both the novels provide a comprehensive, detailed picture of the sociopolitical conditions and the sequential unfolding of the Malaysian landscape. Therefore does fiction have a place alongside history and sociology texts in the social and cultural tapestry of the nation? The answer is a simple YES.
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