The National Cultural Congress (Kongres Kebudayaan Kebangsaan) held in University of Malaya on 16-20 August 1971 discussed in detail the concept of “national literature” (sastera kebangsaan) in the Malaysian context. It was agreed that Sastera Kebangsaan (national literature) refers to literary pieces – poems, short stories, novels, drama scripts etc – written by Malaysians in Bahasa Malaysia.

When the draft of the National Literature Policy (Dasar Sastera Kebangsaan) was discussed in Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP) on the 23 April 2019, emphasis was made that the Sastera Kebangsaan pieces must not only be written in Bahasa Malaysia by Malaysians, but also reflect the reality of the multiracial and multicultural society, and contribute towards national unity.

Notwithstanding the fact that the concept of “national literature” is still being argued, questioned and challenged – especially by Malaysians who write locally and internationally in English, Mandarin, and Tamil – for the purpose of this paper, the Dasar Sastera Kebangsaan framework is used entirely without prejudice.

Kamaludin Muhammad @ Keris Mas (1971), Anwar Ridhwan (1985), Krishanan Maniam (1993), Ismail Hussein (2005), Chew Fong Peng (2013), and Eh Chot Cha Chan (2015) are only a few of the writers and researchers who unanimously agree that non-Malay writers play a vital role in enriching the national literature by portraying the issues, lifestyle and culture of their own community.

While Malay writers have tried to portray non-Malay characters in Bahasa Malaysia short stories, Mohamad Saleeh Rahamad (Dewan Sastera, January 2003) admits that they have failed miserably.

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Abdullah Abdul Kadir (1796-1854), better known as Munshi Abdullah, was perhaps the earliest Indian to produce creative works in Bahasa Melayu, commonly known as Malay. The late 1960s and 1970s saw the emergence of Ignatius Dev Anand, G. Soosai, Joseph Selvam, N.S. Maniam, Balaetham K, and Nathesan Selappan. Among them, only Nathesan Selappan is still actively writing, but he does not produce creative pieces (short stories, poems, or novels).

More prolific Indian writers emerged in the late 1980s and Hadiah Cerpen Malayan Banking-DBP undoubtedly played an important role. More importantly, some of these writers consciously portrayed Malaysian Indian characters, issues, and culture in their award-winning short stories.

This paper focuses on selected short stories from Hadiah Cerpen Malayan Banking-DBP which was later known as Hadiah Cerpen Maybank-DBP. 

Hadiah Cerpen Malayan Banking-DBP

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This writing competition was officially announced in November 1987 and opened to non-Malays who don’t habitually speak and write in Malay (i.e. Malay is not their mother tongue).  Hadiah Cerpen Malayan Banking-DBP (later known as Hadiah Cerpen Maybank-DBP) was held seven times, and the winning short stories published in Menara (11 stories), Menara 2 (12 stories), Menara 3 (13 stories), Menara 4 (11 stories), Menara 5 (12 stories), Menara 6 (11 stories), dan Menara 7 (11 stories).

Out of the 81 short stories published in the seven anthologies, 25 stories are written by 10 local Indian writers. A detailed reading of the 25 stories clearly showed that only 17 stories written by 6 Indian writers portray Indian characters and Indian cultural elements. And out of the 17 stories which fall under the framework of this research, 7 stories are written by the researcher himself.

Therefore, out of the 81 stories published in the seven anthologies, only 10 stories by 5 writers would be analysed further in this paper to look into how Malaysian Indian writers portray Indian characters, issues, and culture within the Dasar Sastera Kebangsaan (National Literature Policy) framework.

The Cultural Theory as explained by Franz Boas in Race, Language and Culture (1940) and Rohana Yusof in Asas Sains Sosial dari Perspektif Sosiologi (2006) shall be used throughout this paper.

Franz Boas stresses the fact that every race, ethnic or group of people has its own unique culture which is passed from generation to generation. As explained by  Rohana Yusof, material culture (budaya benda) are artifacts or physical objects created by human, while non-material culture (budaya bukan benda) are abstract and non-physical matters.

Books about Indian culture shall be used as reference when analysing the cultural elements in the short stories. This is to confirm that the cultural elements portrayed in the short stories do indeed represent the reality of the Indian culture in Malaysia. 

Portrayal of Malaysian Indian Cultural Elements

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The Sasterawan Kavyan Group.

Kamalah Suppiah’s “Tiada Penyesalan” was awarded the third prize in Hadiah Cerpen Malayan Banking-DBP I and published in Menara (1988). The story focuses on Gita who is ill-treated by her mother-in-law. Towards the end of the story, Gita decides to go against her husband who does not want her to go to work.

Gita’s parents represent the conventional Indian family values and cognitive perspective. As the mother puts it, a woman’s place is limited to the household, and the husband is the god of the house. As the eldest child, Gita is also expected to set an example to her younger sisters. If Gita were to go against conventionals, norms, folk-ways, family values, and traditions, her sisters’ future would be “spoilt”.

Rajendran Rengasamy’s “Cabaran Hidup” won consolation prize in Hadiah Cerpen Malayan Banking-DBP I and published in Menara (1988). The 23-year-old Muniammah is a rubber tapper in Heng Keng Estate. The father (Krishnan) is a drunkard, and the mother (Minachi) commits suicide. The estate supervisor (Sarjit Singh) tries to rape Muniammah, but thankfully saved by Hassan.

Overall, this story portrays the lifestyle and everyday issues of the Indian community in rubber estates. Issues such as cheap liquor, domestic violence, extramarital affairs, and suicide cases among estate workers were reported in the media in the 1970s and 1980s. (To be continued)

*** Cover image by贝莉儿 DANIST on Unsplash

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Malaysian Indian Culture In Bahasa Malaysia Short Stories: Analysing The Menara Anthologies — Part 2

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