Coming of Age in Malaysia

Educated and wealthy, but of low social status.
(By Sadanand Dhume. Published in The Wall Street Journal Asia of November 21, 2008)

As bizarre tourism slogans go, few achieve the precise balance of concision and confusion of "Malaysia, Truly Asia." Leaving aside the notion that other lands -- say Japan or Vietnam or Indonesia -- are somehow deficient in their Asianness, the central premise of Malaysia's hard sell to the world is the notion that it hosts, in effortless harmony, three of the continent's great cultures: Malay, Chinese and Indian.
The reality, as readers of Preeta Samarasan's exquisitely crafted debut novel will discover, could not be more different. "Evening is the Whole Day" tells the story of a prosperous Tamil family, the Rajasekharans, who live in Ipoh, about 200 kilometers north of Kuala Lumpur. The choice of an Indian family is telling. The father is a "topshot lawyer." The family occupies the big house on their lane, and inhabits a world of Oxford-inflected accents, gleaming Volvos and single malt Scotch. But they also belong to the community that, not to put too fine a point on it, is at the bottom of Malaysia's racially divided totem pole.
On top, of course, are the Malay Muslims, who, though they make up only about 60% of the population, have jerry-built an elaborate system of preferences that ensures their dominance of national life. This system -- which, depending on your point of view, is either a clever piece of social engineering or a kind of ethnoreligious apartheid -- makes race as important a determinant of a person's life chances as talent, ambition or hard work.
Armed with family wealth and an English education, the topshot lawyer Mr. Rajasekharan dreams of a political career in a country newly freed from British rule. But the Malay-Chinese race riots of 1969 scotch those ambitions by decisively turning Malaysia away from merit and pluralism. By 1980, when the bulk of the story unfolds, the Rajasekharan children are growing up in a land where a person's odds of getting into university, securing a promotion in a government job, or acquiring an apartment with a reasonable down payment depend, in no small measure, on the right to check a box that says bumiputera, or "son of the soil." The Chinese, entrepreneurial and hardworking as the stereotype goes, find a way to prosper despite the odds. The Indians, many of whom are descendants of rubber plantation workers imported by the British, tend to languish.
To Ms. Samarasan's credit, she neither flinches from her country's sordid reality nor allows it to overwhelm her story and turn it into a screed. Indeed, the novel's great strength is the equal dexterity with which the author paints the broad canvas of history and the miniatures of individual lives in the big house in Ipoh. Behind the thick walls of this house lie not merely thwarted ambition but sibling rivalry and soured matrimony, prematurely lost innocence and furtive love, the social striving of matriarchs and the blind cruelty of children.
Much of the drama unfolds through the divergent trajectories of two teenage girls living under the same roof. Uma, the family's brilliant eldest daughter, has snagged a scholarship to Columbia University in New York, and with it the promise of escape from her dysfunctional family. A less hopeful future awaits the servant girl Chellam, whose meager dreams are matched by the meanness of her circumstances.
Ms. Samarasan's prose is always self-assured and frequently dazzling. She likens petty cruelty to "forcing a cat to walk through a puddle." The pain of infidelity comes not from the mere knowledge of it, but from the indelible image of a husband buying a big white bawal fish for his mistress to steam with ginger and spring onions. The impact of an awful truth can shoot through a child "like an eel in black water." Ms. Samarasan is also slyly humorous: It's hard not to laugh out loud at her portrayals of an Elvis-impersonating Hindu shaman and a gossipy fantasist of a neighbor known as Kooky Rooky.
The novel, at the end, illuminates a fascinating country whose representation in literature remains scant. It expands our understanding of the sprawling Indian diaspora. Most of all, though, it leaves you with something achieved by only the best fiction -- a sense that your world has somehow, almost imperceptibly, been permanently enlarged.

(Mr. Dhume is a Washington-based writer and the author of "My Friend the Fanatic: Travels with an Indonesian Islamist")

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