Friday, June 27, 2008

Loving 'Evening is the Whole Day'

For two whole days now, I have been holed up at home, sporting eye bags from lack of sleep and leaving baby with maid for tending. Guilty I know but the object of my adoration- Evening is the Whole Day by Preeta Samarasan.

At heart it is a book about love and loneliness framed by hyphenated identities, what it means to be Malaysian and Indian. The present time is set in 1980 but I think most if the issues are still relevant. Looming over the characters is Ipoh. Although I never went to school there, at many levels, due to family connections, I consider myself Ipoh mali. I was delighted with the Ipoh details and anecdotes.

Growing up I always wished my name was Jennifer or Amy or something more American sounding. Besides, nobody in my books ever sounded like anyone I knew in real life. In real life, my big cousin sister was action-action for not friending us.We drank from kovalai's, bought bread from the roti man and tapau-ed food from FMS Bar. On special days, we got to makan at Station Hotel. And run to the corner shop for tinned milo, dried chinese plum, kandos, axe brand medicated oil. Every Divali, we went to get kain for tailoring from Kwong Fatt textiles. This is the Ipoh of Aasha and family. It is also the Ipoh I know and love.

Finally, a book that sounded like all of us with real people, grappling with their hyphenated identities and fractured by family secrets. Rich in detail and finely executed, the characters leap with intensity, the narrative is taut and kept me rapt right till the end. Incidentally, the last sentence is one of the most powerful ones I've read for a while-it captured every anguish and made my throat dry.

Yet there are some problems. Appa's farcical descent bears a false note, a change so abrupt that it appears more to feed some tragicomic need. Also, the need to tie the occupants of Big House to 1969 was built with gusto only to crash and then suddenly disappear. That part seems to be almost diembodied from the rest, a Necessary Section towards making The Book a Serious One. What causes Appa's incendiary chants to fade away is never really explained. Also, the need to rely on Arundhati Roy-esque language is A Perplexing Matter to Consider. How necessary was it to the narrative? Why bother when the tone already works?

Still, I am being finicky.

This is a remarkable first book and Preeta Samarasan pens a truly Malaysian tale. The dialogue is scintillating, its cadence and singsong beauty made my heart leap. She also captures the Malaysian Indian psyche with candour. The attachment to fair skin which denotes beauty and class. Children must not call house-help as servants but the mothers are free to gloat how well provided their own servants were treated. When Kooky Rooky sits to gossip with Amma at the kitchen formica table, I tell you, it is a scene that has been repeated on countless kitchen tables. More importantly, the untold class distinction between the urban Indian who feels superior to the rubber estate fellow, like what Suresh says: 'a real estate woman she (chellam) is'.

Go out and grab a copy y'all- not just Malaysians but lovers of good fiction everywhere. This is a stunning debut and I will look forward to more of her work. I hope that the book receives the adulation it richly deservers.