Stories of the Soil

The Hindu, Sunday, Jun 02, 2002

Stories of the Soil 

THOUGH we are familiar with the literary styles and contemporary writing from the West and from Latin America through translations, our knowledge of the literatures of Asia is very limited. Therefore, an anthology of short stories from Singapore and Malaysia assumes significance as it gives us a true picture of the modern short story in English in both the countries.

This collection of short stories, with descriptive styles and idiom comparable to the best modern stories written elsewhere in the world, strongly establishes the maturity and readability of the writers of this region.

The 19 stories in the collection span the last half century and therefore they represent the evolution and growth of the short story as a distinctive literary form.

It was in 1959 that the first volume of short stories from Singapore was published. In the immediate post-colonial period, the dynamics of writing were a mixture of European material civilisation and local cultural ethos. Intellectual dependency was prevalent and though the writers drew their themes from the indigenous culture, the language of the empire served as another form ofcolonisation. Each story brings out the inherited legacy of colonialism and the dramatic confrontations in a hybridised society.

The stories are by writers belonging to three generations: the first of those belonging to the era of the Second World War; the second, those who have heard of the war and its atrocities from their parents and the third belonging to the present generation. In some of the stories, the language is localised and that idiom is a step towards the development of an English that is different from those of other countries.

The first story in the collection is by Alfian Bin Sa’at titled “Bugis”. He is a well-known playwright and “The Merlion” in his poetry collection One Fierce Hour (1998) was one of the top books of the year. His poems and stories have won him several literary awards and “Bugis” is a story set in contemporary Singapore , of the encounter between a transvestite and a youth whose desires are obliquely identified. Catherine Lim, who grew up in Malaysia and now lives in Singapore , is a prolific writer and has written novels, short stories and poems. Her Little Ironies has run into 10 editions and has sold 45000 copies. However, the story in the volume (“Write, Right, Rite”) is on moral policing and one wonders why a semantic debate is a story!

“Maria” by Che Husna Azhari is a beautiful love story. “Seventh Uncle” by ChuahGuat Eng is the story of a Chinese family. One of the best stories in the collection, “The Interview” by Gopal Baratham, who has been writing for the last quarter of a century, narrates his experience as a prisoner of war. “Hungry Ghost” by Hwee Hwee Tan is about Chinese faith. “Mala” by K.S. Maniam is another brilliant but long narrative of a poor girl who has been brought to the city and is being groomed to improve her lover’s business deals. “Neighbours” by Karim Laslan is a story of voyeurism and of unfulfilled carnal passion. “A Sense of Home” by Kee Thuan Chye is about growing up. “Monologue” byKirpal Singh is a story that is different in its narrative style. Lloyd Fernando’s “Surja Singh” is about an Indian family. “Victoria and Her Kimono” by M.Shanmughalingam is a touching story which narrates the calculated risk thatVickneswari takes to save her ideal teacher husband Ramanan from Japanese soldiers. Ovidia Yu’s “Kimmy” tells the story of a sensitive child who has a wild imagination. Shirley Geok Lin Lim’s “Mr. Tang’s Girls” is a contemporary Chinese family story. “My Cousin” by Simon Tay is one of the best in its theme, narration, style and characterisation. It depicts the dilemma of a young man who lives the life of a spendthrift and disappoints his father and of the cousin who grew up with him and realises the ambitions and dreams of the older generation. “Tragedy of My Third Eye” by Suchen Christine Lim is about the ill treatment meted out to a young girl by her mother and poignantly brings out how the parent is not able to comprehend the feelings of the young one. UmejBhatia’s AOWL (Absent While On Official Leave) is on the relationship betweenRanita and Raja Tan. Wena Poon’s “The Move” is about the changing face of the city and of the recollections and nostalgia of a Chinese grandmother. “Hamidand The Hand of Fate”, the last story in the collection, is about a young worker who loses his one arm in an accident and receives a fair compensation from his employers and how he is exploited because of that. The story is a moving account of the tribulations of an ordinary youth in a contemporary society. The stories vividly bring out the richness and complexity of life in a region that is plural in every respect.

By K. Kunhikrishnan