By Leon Wing
As a former student of Victoria Institution (or VI), a highly regarded secondary school, I am brought into familiar territory reading the first story of this collection. The title of it, “Victoria and her Kimono”, hints at a sort of hilarity only readers who might have read British humor of the Victorian era would appreciate. It brings to mind images of heavily powdered actors hamming it up on stage before an uproarious audience, with entertainment of the lewd kind.
I wasn’t disappointed even though there were no such Victorian lewdness. We are introduced to the type of VI teacher even I encountered during my own days in that school: bad tempered, liable to cane a student for any breach. This one speaks “Tamil in a nasal British accent”, according to wife Vikneswari or Victoria. Albert Ramanan is the Tiger of Victoria Institution, someone “fierce, to be approached with caution, if at all”, when the reader first encounters him slapping a boy. His students also nicknamed him Bill Sikes, from Oliver Twist.
Humor of this sort can devolve into caricature but luckily this one doesn’t. The hilarity sustains throughout, with quips like the boy he slapped owning to having a pet dog called Bill Sikes, and another boy calling himself Liew Fook Yew. And still more anecdotes in the same vein: in New York, Fook Yew’s uncle was asked by a waiter, “Wanna fork, sir?”
Even after the Japanese take over VI and banish anything British, the humor does not flounder, as it might from another less capable writer. Even when heads role—literally—as the Japanese enforce their rule over the community, our “royalty”, the Malayan version of Price Albert and Queen Victoria, keep their heads up, especially the queenly wife. She is the one who props up the family, creating meals out of the barest supplies, hiding Albert’s English books so that he doesn’t get dragged to the gallows.
But, of course, not all the stories continue in this vein. What is continued into the next story “Half and Half” is the same historical period, the Japanese invasion. The humor here is replaced with the trauma of beatings with bamboo poles, for looking white. The narrator is albino, who happens to look European. This stood him in good stead as early as preteen, when he gained entrance into a primary school Batu Road School (also this reviewer’s school) on the strength of his skin color. Growing up, he embraced the advantages his ailment offered him, allowing him to jump queue in department stores and restaurants. But his luck turns when the Japanese invade Malaya. He only manages to save himself being beaten to a pulp when he surprises his tormentor with the Japanese anthem. Not to spoil this story, it’s enough to say he has to make a choice thereafter.
“Birthday” deals with the sex of a newborn. Santha wishes and is sure it is a girl she is having. But cricket mad husband Gnanam doesn’t care so long as it is healthy. However the relatives are counting on a boy as they wait for the caesarean on Santha to be over. They speculate upon the future of the offspring. The humor is back, and the comedy of errors begins when the nurse wraps the baby girl in a blue towel. I defy any reader who doesn’t guffaw as he reaches the conclusion.
“Money Man” can be a bit of a conundrum at first when the tone is hard to place. Are we expecting another comedy? We have now moved on to the swinging 60s. The language is couched in a stiff and formal style as befits a “dignitary holding the purse strings to World Bank loans”. But despite this, the humor rears in a sentence like: “When I ask for a translation of certain words, I am told the Minister had spoken entirely in English.” Apparently he speaks too fast and mashes his words, a mistake his speech maker has made coining all these long words to impress, “to help the Minister brandish verbal prowess.” Like “antidisestablishmentarianism” and reading it aloud as “andelism”. As it turns out, the Minister is an ex VI boy, and he takes advantage of this by displaying his “sheer Englishness”. The comedy also on the narrator when he has difficulty with the local hot dishes—and with the government officials.
In “Rahman’s American Visitor”, the white narrator from before is on the receiving end of a western educated government official Rahman who imagines he is having the upper hand while he declaims over the sweating foreign official. And here we witness a hilarious miscommunication and the urgent repetition of the word “facilities” as understood by a foreign official and as interpreted by the local counterpart.
In “Seek and Shall Ye Find?” we get more of this governmental humor, this time from a Sikh officer, yet another ubiquitous VI boy, who is expecting a promotion. Funny though this piece is, there lurks a serious lesson about deception and honesty. I leave the reader to find out the outcome.
In this next story “Naming Names”, we find scores of Malayan Jaffna Tamils, all having the same name Kandiah. To distinguish one from the other Kandiah, they are given nicknames, like Take Care Kandiah, or Crow Pecked Kandiah. They get their one to few paragraphs of fame, recounting micro tales.
In “His Mother’s Joy” we happen to come upon another Kandiah, this time a female, a mother crowing with pride over her son Siva’s achievement at work, his prestigious appointment. We have met him in a few stories.
In “Barefoot Man From Malaya” Rasamah gets a marriage proposal from a man not from her neighborhood, a “barefoot man with pens in his pocket”, someone not a cousin nor related to her. Kandasamy defies tradition and protocol, bypassing parents and relatives, going straight to his target. Another shock to Rasamah: he doesn’t want any dowry. She warns him he has competition from a first cousin Retnam. But he dangles a carrot: she will be marrying a government clerk with a pension in faraway Malaya. She has to make a decision soon, before Kandasamy returns to Malaya. She tells her mother, who is shocked at the audacity of the man. She waits for a response from Retnam, but he relinquishes claims on her. He has asked her to wait for six years so that he can become a doctor first.
In “Marriage and Mutton Curry” Rasamah is in Malaya now, married to Kandasamy, seen earlier proposing in bare feet. But her new life in a new country hasn’t worked out as she would have liked: no teaching job, no overseas trips, not even permission to paint her house in a different color. Her only friend is an uneducated housewife who used to be live near her in Ceylon and whose husband beats her. But how will Rasamah handle her betrayal? Will Chelvi remain a good friend always? Shanmughalingam has wrought a touching and heart wrenching story which departs from the lightheartedness and humor of the previous tales. It displays his mettle in handling serious topics.
In “Dodol for the Doctor” we continue the story of Rasamah and her life in Malaya. She is much older now, but still lonely if not for her unbroken friendship with the once-betraying Chelvi, her downtrodden neighbor. She has given up her longing to be a teacher but settles for tutoring English to children. Her husband still works his fingers to the bone, and will be turning in his papers, a sad day for her. She is preparing a special treat, dodol, but not for the husband. She is celebrating an imminent proposal of marriage—to her daughter, Kamala, who plays the violin, from a doctor, something her own mother once wished for her. But one thing that never changes is Chelvi, and before the story closes we will know her true ways.
In “Flowers for KK” we are at the funeral of King Kana, and wife Indra doesn’t cry as many tears as sister Thangachi. There is sisterly rivalry and this is exacerbated when the younger sibling marries her husband because she couldn’t bear children. But when both sisters pray to Lord Ganesha, the unexpected ensued, and this tale becomes a little chilling towards the end.
“The Indra Quartet” continues this tale of two sisters of one husband. There are secrets that must be kept within the family, but cracks have appeared when the neighbor tells Indra of a rumor spreading around their community, which she has to squash by performing some ritual with limes. There is a load of drama and pathos worthy of a 60s Indian drama on black and white television.
In “Free and Freed”, yet another episode with Mrs Kandiah, aka Kaiser Kandiah, and Mrs Chelliah, or Chatterbox Chelliah, these aunties are looking after the morals and traditions of their community. They plan to catch a man at a local cinema daring to dally with one of their unmarried young women, a daughter of one Muthiah. They need to stop him from committing “K and C”, i.e., kiss and cuddle. You’ll enjoy the comedy of errors.
In “Rani Taxis Away” what adventures will a young woman Rani encounter on her first day as a temporary teacher in a local school? Inevitably Shanmughalingam has to slip in a final mention of Victoria Institution, even if it is merely its headmaster Dr Lewis of the first story and author of a Geography textbook. In this tale, we meet Mrs Kandiah once again, defender of community morals. She is not pleased to find Rani not chaperoned, and alone with taxi driver Chandran. She “rescues” Rani from the potential kidnapper, brings her home, blabs to her mother about her being seen with a strange man. We see a tug of war with traditions and the mores of the next generation of young Malayans. Patriarchy reigns in the community, and Rani is told to defer to the males in the family, her father and even to her fifteen-year old brother. This is something Rani will not brook because she is a “new Rani” now, who is capable of finding her own husband, and is enjoying her new independence. Her Amma tries to explain away Mrs Kandiah’s protective behavior over their community. Rani is torn between respecting her Amma and the ways of her community, and her own independence. As this is the last story, the ending augurs well for a new Malaya. Before the 60s ends its hip and groovy decade, the country will become Malaysia.
This is a collection of tales which will surely appeal to older generations of Malaysians who still remember the Japanese days and the heady 60s of Kuala Lumpur of rickshaws, government quarters, Scott Road, Rex and Lido Cinema, Robinsons department store, Bilal Restaurant, and Victoria Institution. It will delight and intrigue the present generation of readers with its nostalgia of the good old days the characters live in, those telling mentions of things still iconic to Malaysians to this day, like Boh tea, Milo, kueh, hibiscus, chilli padi.