Like Malaysia itself, this book is a melting pot of story settings and situations. Played out as satire, the action occurs mostly within one Malaysian community at the turn of this century and the second half of the previous one. High finance, the Japanese Occupation, family and work life combine with views from outsiders.
What brings unity to this varied collection is the author’s Jaffna Tamil community and its preoccupation with status (plus food and matrimony, of course). Crucially, there is also plenty of humour.
Not only that, the protagonists themselves vary across racial and gender boundaries, putting paid to the spurious notion that authors should only write what they know.
M. Shanmughalingam (see his interview here) doesn’t have a go at any particular group more than the others; OK, perhaps his own Jaffna Tamil enclave gets a little extra lovingly critical attention, with “rice-bowl Christians” for example, being reprimanded for failing to appreciate their own culture, in “Victoria And Her Kimono”. There are other such fond episodes.
Like a poet, the author has worked his story titles to chime ironically with their satirical contents. The reader is often rewarded at the end of the story, as in “Victoria And Her Kimono”, in which the final phrase adds an ironic something extra to the story’s title. A similar effect occurs in “Half And Half”.
Preoccupation with status is dealt with humorously in several of the stories, pointedly revolving around culturally colonial Westerners’ misunderstandings of Malaysian life. This contrasts sharply with much joyfully ludic wordplay, which gets going nicely rudely in some ambiguous surnames and comes to a high point in “Naming Names”.
Fittingly, the author doesn’t get trapped in the overuse of adjectives or descriptions. Instead, he evokes family life and feeling via that ultimate Malaysian medium of cross-racial relations, food. Appam and coconut sambal chutneys are evoked by mere mentions, alongside his characters’ tangible delight in comforting staples such as kaya and Ipoh coffee. The importance of food to Malaysia is spelled out in literal terms in “Money Man” – as observed by its outsider protagonist once again.
Lives in this book’s world are firmly centred on duty: careers and family (especially in “His Mother’s Joy”). Sentimentality aside, there is no agonising over the finer feelings; necessity always cuts through. As befits a nation in rapid flux, clipped colonial speech patterns have morphed into the repressed feeling faculties of those who simply have to get on with everyday life under authoritarian regimes – Stockholm Syndrome, perhaps.
Like Irish lives stalled by stasis in James Joyce’s Dubliners, the thwarting of Asian ones (Rasamah’s elusive dream of teaching) is painful to read. Those that do still inhabit their own feeling faculty, and hence their integrity – the women, mostly – find ways to club together and offload; while those at the top of the tree (the men) appear to have attained their positions largely by locking themselves out of feeling entirely, and by compartmentalising their feelings. We rarely get what Kandasamy is feeling; as his career takes off exponentially, these things are only occasionally implied.
“His Mother’s Joy” begins with cordial interactions between Indian and Chinese neighbours. However, when it comes to furthering one’s lot in life, meaning soaring rapidly ahead of one’s peers and neighbours, horoscopes are mentioned in the same breath, comically, as “the magic word” spoken to those in authority (along with the ubiquitous bribe this implies).
Wordplay blossoms magnificently in “Naming Names”, in which the odd irony-laden line is dropped in as a welcome epiphany: “A thousand flowers bloomed”. With its terse humour, this story is well positioned after the heavier, power-wielding tropes of the diplomatic ones.
The darker stories of the book’s second half span several chapters, including the eponymous title tale. Separately, sometimes, characters also weave in and out of stories. As the sagas spiral into compellingly relatable domestic horror stories, one reads on, mortified at increasing levels of hateful behaviour and wondering which side to feel against least – their characters being almost equally odious and malevolent.
Kandasamy’s dealings with his wife, Rasamah, and her interactions with her neighbour, Chelvi, in the title story come to mind here, as well as troubled family episodes involving Rasamah and her sister, Thangachi.
As a proofreader and copy-editor, I have rarely seen a publication of any sort in the last 40 years which is at all consistent in its grammar, spelling and punctuation. Not only consistent, but clear and correct; this one stands head and shoulders above them all – from East or West – without exception, reminding this reader how a book’s flow can make for joyful reading.
Marriage And Mutton Curry is a heart-making chortle at the recent past in Malaysia’s Jaffna Tamil community, and its title brings its ingredients to simmer together nicely. The darkness of deeds outlined in the second half are bound to ramp up its chilli level.
Marriage And Mutton Curry
Author: M. Shanmughalingam
Publisher: Epigram Books, contemporary Asian fiction