Tuesday, December 13, 2011

essay on The Return by KS Mainam

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The Indian’s Identity in Malaysia

An Interpretation of the Indian’s Experiences in Mainam’s “The Return”

Malaysia’s ethnic division among its peoples has been a cause for problems and racial discrimination ever since colonialism times. Even in the present times, as Malaysia has earned independence from the British, these problems have begun to take effect and are difficult to solve, as the Malay, Chinese, and Indian groups fight for their beliefs, culture, and religion to become the majority and dominant hegemony in the country. Colonialism has brought about the problem Malaysia is now facing as the British before was the one responsible for bringing in the two different cultures far from their homeland into Malaysia. This in effect creates the a deep dissention among the groups as they fail to unite and understand each other because of their deeply ingrained roots in traditional cultures of their own.

Being a post-colonial country, they also have the problem of trying to stand on their own feet as they achieve independence. Most of their writers nowadays write in English, and this language as well helps the different groups understand each other. This is also the medium in which writers from the three different groups write in regards to their need to assert their authority now that the British are gone.

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Upon reading various pieces of literature from the three main groups in Malaysia, we now come across the Indian perspective of the people in the country. They are now a small minority in terms of percentage in the population, yet they are considered to be in equal with the Malays in terms of education, business, etc. where the Chinese are retained by the law (they are considered to be second class citizens) to make the two ethnic groups thrive and represent Malaysia’s countrymen. Still, they are not considered Malaysians because they have Hinduism as their religion and Tamil as their language (as stated in the Malay’s belief of who are truly Malaysians). This separates them from the other ethnic groups, in the same way as the Chinese and the Malays are, and causes a rift that different tradition and beliefs create that is difficult to cross.

The novel of KS Maniam, The Return, is an example of a post-colonial work which deals with the Indian perspective that gives us a view of their history under the British rule. It also gives us a grasp of their culture as the characters, especially Ravi and his family, strive for identity in Malaysia, yet are also struggling to maintain what is indeed their tradition and their culture in the face of colonialism and progress that is morphing and changing their beliefs.

In understanding the experiences and the path that the Indians have to take to integrate themselves as also part of Malaysia, we would have to take an analysis of certain characters of the novel, and the experiences of Ravi, the speaker in the novel. The Return uses autobiography as a way of showing the readers the personal journey that becomes the voice of the Indians treading the same path towards identity and understanding a culture that for some, cannot fully be taken as their own as they strive for identity as Malaysians.

The first of the characters who is introduced in the novel is Periathai, the grandmother of Ravi. She gives us a brief description of an Indian that is true to the culture of her own homeland, even as an immigrant in Malaysia. Her rituals and beliefs that is taken from Hinduism gives Ravi a sense of what his culture is, and she instills in him as a boy a love in the religion. Being also famous in their village, she is industrious and hardworking, yet never wanting to rise above her position as a worker, which is also part of the Hindu belief of dharma and of her caste. Periathai also symbolizes Indian traditions and beliefs, which until her death is her way of lifestyle. Eventually, the main desire of Periahtai as she approaches death is the desire to own her land, which gives us an insight on how these immigrant Indians, unable to return to their homeland then desire to set their roots down in Malaysia. Even in the description of the home she has made is filled with Indian articles, and she exclaims that he home is “… like treading Indian soil once more.” (chapter 1, page ) Yet this is prevented by the authorities as the land is taken away from her, as well as her freedom to attend and act in her religious ceremonies, and this event will be repeated and experienced by her son, Ravi’s father. Even Ravi, who is considered in the novel estranged from his Indian culture due to his English education, exclaims that “ A mild anger filled me as I saw Periathai die homeless…” (chapter 1, page 140) even if he himself does not share the same desire.

Kannan, Ravi’s father, also desires for his own land. In the later chapters of the novel, the desire comes in when the family’s laundry shop is progressing and the Ayah (Mr. Menon, the superintendent of the hospital compound) wants the family to stop Ravi from going to school. This is because the family is beginning to progress and improve their social position, threatening the position of power the Ayah has. Later we will also take a look on what the Ayah represents and shows in the novel. The progress brings about their need to leave the place and away from Ayah’s power, and this as well as the death of Periathai then brings thoughts of owning their own land to Kannan. Even with the death of Kumar, he is steadfast in believing that he owns his land that he buries his son in their supposedly owned land, despite the notices that the authorities give them. This desire is different from that of Periathai’s because Kannan’s desire stems from his wanting to prove to the Ayah that he is not anymore under his power by progressing and owning land. He also exclaims, “I’ve dignity” (chapter 15, page 16) when he refuses to take back his job in the hospital and be placed once more into the Ayah’s power. This then, as well as a desire to set down roots that would not be removed by any person in authority, is what motivates Kannan until his death. It is important to note that the two characters, Periathai and Kannan, dies after they assert their right and desire to own land. Unlike Ravi, who believes that such a desire is irrational, the two characters have to essentially “die” because they are of the old ideology and belief that they should set down their “original” (for better use of a word) Indian culture, and not assimilate the Malaysian culture that has become their home. It shows that it is impossible for that kind of taking root to stay alive amidst colonial and cultural differences and that the only way to survive is indeed to be like Ravi, who has assimilated the hegemonic identity.

The characters in the novel that best describes the colonialism that the Indians feel are Ayah, or Mr. Menon, and Ms. Nancy, Ravi’s schoolteacher. Mr. Menon is the representation of the socio-economic power play that Indian culture combined with colonialism gives to the Indians. Being a man of economic progress as superintendent of the hospital, he believes that his dharma and caste is above that of Ravi and his family. No one in the compound has the right to progress above his social position, in which colonialism makes possible. In Hinduism, it is also considered taboo for a person to improve his caste, whatever your caste is you should deal with it, in the same way that whatever your dharma is. But Ravi progresses because of his education, even becoming better than the Ayah in English, which is considered to be a transgression, wherein Ravi and his schoolmates “… we spoke in… a defiant version of English, mingled with and something very Tamil. The minute we broke into pure English we were scolded.” (chapter 6, page 74) When the Ayah talked with Ravi, he exclaims that he is getting above their station and he should stop school or he will bring misfortune to the family. This is very reminiscent of Hindu beliefs mixed with the Ayah’s own desire to stay as the top man in their place.

Ms. Nancy, on the other hand, is the colonial voice itself. She instills in her pupils the colonial beliefs and the English language, which causes them to be estranged from their own families. It also places her in a position of power above her pupils, wherein even Ravi mentions her in an awed and feared voice. She teaches them that their traditions are unhygienic, dirty, and obstacles to progress, and this then becomes the outlook of the students of their families and homes, where they which that they were somewhere else. Ravi even goes to the point of using his newfound skills in reading as an escape from what he considers to be an unclean, primitive culture and society that he lives in, where he is relieved when he steps into England. Even simple things like tooth brushing becomes a big issue in the family because they consider Ravi’s wanting to brush his teeth as an act against their beliefs and traditions. In the end the family fails to understand Ravi due to his assimilation of another culture, where he exclaims that he “…felt I had, at last, come into my own, my family incapable of understanding my dreams, but full of sympathy for them.” (chapter , page 111)

Ravi, the main speaker in the novel, is the representation of a new generation of Indians who have assimilated another culture during colonial times through education. Here, we have examples of how he and his generation are estranged from the traditional culture they are part of, yet they are the generation that becomes truly assimilated in Malaysia. In the childhood of Ravi, we see the struggles he goes through by his dislike to study in the English school that changes to like, then his struggle to accept and live in the two cultures that has become available to him the Indian traditional culture of his family and neighbors to the English culture that his schooling gives. His path is difficult since he knows the best and the worst of both worlds, and as he becomes more and more integrated in the English culture, he is then ridiculed, shunned, and misunderstood by the Indian community, which also results in his wanting to escape through his books and finally by going to England. He then becomes the post-colonial voice, a man wanting to speak for his own and not under anyone’s authority, even if it is his father’s. His disrespectfulness is not because he wants to really offend people, especially the Ayah, but because he is seen as a threat to the culture that his community wants to keep. The Ayah sees him as a threat to his power over the community and to his own social bearing that Hinduism and colonialism reinforces in him, while the people see him as a threat to their beliefs as he has more knowledge and understanding than they do. His own ability to see outside of religion and tradition brings him to see the downfalls of his community, and this gives him power to stand up on his own and not be bowed down by the power play of anyone in the village. He also exclaims that their language in the community is not enough for him, since he believes that the “ Language was inadequate. Young as I was, I recognized that words were merely a medium that they externalised a tiny fraction of what we felt. In our community they formed only the surface. The speech, often staccato, coarse, and unending and seemingly unnecessary, sounded rich. They came from an imagination that has withered because that clutter I was able to identify as culture wasn’t there.” (chapter 6, page 71) He knows that the Indian culture that the community continues to adhere to is an impossible task of trying to give life to something that isn’t there, and that they should move on and try to live in the moment and present times that they are in. This is also the reason why the characters of Periathai and Kannan dies in the novel, the traditions and desires that they represent and stand for are essentially “not there” and cannot withstand the separation from where the culture came from. Even the poem at the end of the novel, which Ravi composes for his father indicates the loss for “words” and culture that the generation Kannan and Periathai represents, and the denial in which they live in.

This is the main crux of the novel, the old generation Indian’s desire to establish roots in Malaysia and continuing their traditional culture, where in fearing for the loss of their own culture they also lose the chance to assimilate the alternative identity. The generation represented by Ravi, having the opportunity of education, sees the traditional culture as a dead-end, not really there culture and options for an alternative identity, which ensures their survival in Malaysia. This is also the main problem in Malaysia, wherein the adhesion to old cultures without any adaptations will bring about differences that will be difficult to resolve. With people like Ravi, they are more understanding and open-minded about their cultures and others wherein they can interact and establish with the other ethnic groups the alternative identity, which creates compromises and unity within them. It would be also impossible to continue their practicing a culture that is technically not there any more due to their being in a land other than their homeland, which not only the different ethnicity but also colonialism are factors that “kills” and makes the survival of such beliefs impossible. Although the drawbacks of such an alternative identity is possible, such as the mediating the cultures and histories of the people involved, still this is a possible solution and way for Malaysia to become united, which I think is one of the

The novel uses the title The Return in several interpretations that is discussed in the introduction of the work. The “return” could be seen as Ravi’s return to both the Indian community he has left behind, as well as the Indian culture and beliefs; or as his return to childhood as he explores his past experiences. It is also his “return” or gift to his family, as the novel is a retribution for the disappointments and failures that has hindered him in his path to identity and knowledge. My own interpretation of the novel’s title would be that the “return” is the Indian’s desire to return to their own homeland and traditional culture, but only eventually being able to return to an aspect or to a copy of it; wherein Ravi’s “return” is that of the alternative identity that is enriched by his return to his past with an understanding of what it fully comprises.

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