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Srivali Seeridaram’s “Retak-retak Kebenaran” was awarded the first prize in Hadiah Cerpen Malayan Banking-DBP VII and published in Menara 7 (1998). The writer clearly did a good job in making sure Indian cultural elements become an important part of the story. Words like “appa” (father), “amma” (mother) and “ayya” (mister) not only show Indianess but also indicate that the characters are Tamils and their mother tongue is Tamil.
As noted by Muzafar Desmond Tate (2008), K. Anbalakan (2008), and various researchers, more than 80% of Indians in Malaysia are Tamils (of Tamil Nadu origin). Cognitive elements such as mother tongue, values and beliefs, normative elements such as formal and informal norms, folk-ways and mores, and cultural elements such as shared values, are very obvious among the Tamil community in Malaysia.
Cows have a special place in the Indian community, especially among the Hindus. In this story, Lakshmi (cow) and Renggan (bull) are referred to as very valuable property and taken good care. M. Rajantheran and S. Manimaran in Perayaan Orang India (1994) explain why cows are considered valuable and worshipped by the Indian-Hindus. Even though the majority of Indians in Malaysia are not farmers, cows still hold a special place among the Indians. The sentiment is clearly shown in this short story.
Saroja Theavy Balakrishnan’s “Mendamba Puyu di Air Jernih” won second prize in Hadiah Cerpen Maybank-DBP VII and published in Menara 7 (1998). This story is about Munusamy who has trouble looking for mushroom since the Tanah Merah Estate is being developed into Red Soil Golf Resort. It highlights the problems and issues faced by Indians who have been rubber tappers for generations.
If we were to crosscheck this story with historical facts as noted by K. Anbalakan in Identiti India di Malaysia (2008) and Usha Mahajani in The Role of Indian Minorities in Burma and Malaya (1960), it would become obvious that Munusamy’s grandparents must have come from Tamil Nadu to Malaya between 1909 and 1938 as rubber tappers. They have been loyal rubber tappers for three generations – just the way the British expected the Tamils to be.
Food is an important part of human life and also an easy indication of the cultural elements. In this short story, toosai and tairu rice are mentioned. The bangle ceremony known as sulukappu or valaikkaappu is also mentioned. Munusamy’s daughter, Saraswathy, has come to her parents’ house for the ceremony, and she would stay with them until she delivers her first child.
Suresh Kumar N Vellymalay and Sivarajan Ponniah (2019) explain this tradition in detail. The portrayal of the practice in this short story would not only enrich the national literature but also enable non-Indians to understand Indian culture better.
Srivali Seeridaram’s “Sumpah” won third prize in Hadiah Cerpen Maybank-DBP VII and published in Menara 7 (1998). Again, this story portrays the challenges faced by the Tamil community who have been rubber tappers for generations.
Rajamma was a rubber tapper and died of snake bite. Her daughter, Saraswati, is 35 years old and is also a rubber tapper. Saraswathi’s son helps his mother in the rubber estate. This vicious circle adheres to what K. Anbalakan (2008) explains about the Tamil community in rubber estates.
It is also interesting to note that even though there are middle-class Tamils, besides the Telugu, Malayali, and Punjabi communities in this country, these Indian writers – at least in the Menara anthologies – choose to highlight the plights, culture, lifestyle, problems, and issues regarding the Tamil community who have been rubber tappers from generation to generation.
The treatment towards widows in the Indian community is also highlighted in this short story. Since Rajamma’s husband passed away eight years ago, she has never once attended any religious functions or public events. Rajamma does not want to be shunned by society since widows are considered unlucky.
This stigma is not merely a fragment of the creative writer’s imagination. Suresh Kumar N Vellymalay and Devisakti Annamali in Kepercayaan dan Pantang Larang Masyarakat Tamil di Malaysia (2018) explain the same situation among the society.
Even though Indian widows in Malaysia today are not going through the same ordeal, short stories like this play an important part in documenting the cultural past and reality of the community.
Based on the above analysis, a few conclusions can be made. First, these younger generation of Malaysian Indian writers have fully mastered Bahasa Malaysia. Even though we often hear comments that the Indians (and Chinese) are not fluent in the national language, these group of writers have proven otherwise.
Second, these group of writers are able to express their ideas, thought and creativity naturally in a language which is not their mother tongue. The Hadiah Cerpen Maybank-DBP has without a doubt given them the much-needed opportunity to excel in Bahasa Malaysia creative writing. Saroja Theavy Balakrishnan and M. Mahendran are still active and their latest short stories have been published in Dewan Sastera magazine in 2019.
Third, these writers have consciously highlighted Indian cultural elements in their short stories. It is also worth mentioning that all the short stories analysed above focus on the Tamil community; though stories by the researcher himself (which are not analysed here for apparent reasons) highlight the Tamil, Telugu, Malayali, and Punjabi characters and cultural elements.
Fourth, these writers and their writings (short stories) have contributed to the enrichment of the Sastera Kebangsaan (national literature) as expected and hoped for since the 1970s. These creative pieces are seen as an important material in helping the multicultural and multiracial society to understand the Indian community better.
* This paper was presented at the Alternate Realities: A Postgraduate Colloquium organised by the Department of English, University Malaya on 6 December 2019.