When author Datuk Dr M. Shanmughalingam was a young lad, he wanted to study Literature at university. It seemed a logical step for the avid reader to take; so when asked his choice of subjects for university, literature was his first pick. Economics his last.
Fate, however, took him down a different route. The then acting Vice-Chancellor of Universiti Malaya, Ungku Abdul Aziz, summoned Shanmughalingam to his office one day, announcing he had plans for him.
“He said to me, ‘Young man! We are a newly developing country. We need economists and engineers! Literature and history you can study on your own, at your leisure! But economics we need to teach you,” Shanmughalingam recalls at a recent interview.
“And my father always told me that I had to put my duty before pleasure. So his words struck a chord with me. Economics, I felt, was like medicine – it might taste awful, but it’s good for you and for the country. So although I had a heavy heart, I went for it.”
It was a decision that in the long run, turned out to be beneficial. For Shanmughalingam ended up not only excelling in the field of economics but also became a successful author as well. And this year, he celebrates the publication of Marriage And Mutton Curry, his first ever solo collection of short fiction. (See book review here.)
Born in Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur, Shanmughalingam’s life could have come straight out of a novel. His father came from a poor family, while his mother was well-to-do. As destiny would have it, they fell in love.
“My father was a very serious man, and very principled. He got us up at four every morning to work. My mother, on the other hand, was a very humorous woman, and was a great cook. That’s why my stories are full of food and humour, they’re from her,” Shanmughalingam says.
“My mother would also read to me a lot. Particularly Aesop’s Fables. She read them to me so much, I even thought Aesop was my uncle!”
Growing up in a Jaffna Tamil neighbourhood, Shanmughalingam would listen to his mother talking to his neighbours, who all freely gossiped all around him.
“All their dialogue was just swimming in my head, just waiting to be told as stories. That’s why a lot of my stories all begin with lines of dialogue,” the author says.
Shanmughalingam received his education from Victoria Institution, and later went on to receive a degree with Honours from Universiti Malaya, a Masters from Harvard, and a PhD from Oxford University – all this despite going with his second choice of subject! He served at the Finance Ministry and Petronas, and is presently the managing director of investment holding and consultancy company Trilogic Sdn Bhd.
While his economics career soared, Shanmughalingam never lost his love for writing. In 1977, his first short story, Birthday, was published: it won second place in the Oxford University Short Story Prize, in a competition judged by none other than author Iris Murdoch and literary critic and writer John Bayley. Talk about making up for lost time.
Since then, his short stories and poems have been published in 37 anthologies and broadcasts.
Marriage And Mutton Curry comprises 15 stories; nine are previously published favourites, while six are brand new tales. The book, which was published by Singapore’s Epigram Books, also comes with a royal Foreword written by Perak Ruler Sultan Nazrin Muizzuddin Shah, who launched the book on Thursday. (The two knew each other at Oxford.)
Shanmughalingam’s stories brim with wit and humour, and while many are tales of the Tamil Jaffna community, all of them speak of the human experience. According to the author, the stories were chosen as a way to show the reader three major periods in Malaysia’s history: colonial times, life during World War II’s Japanese Occupation, and the formative years of independence.
Shanmughalingam describes his works as “fact-ion” – fiction based on real happenings, but turned around so much that they become a representation of their themes. “The Barefoot Man From Malaya”, for example, is based on an evocative line his mother once said to him: “When your father came to propose to me, he came barefoot.”
Some of Shanmughalingam’s stories take place in the Treasury, a place he’s thoroughly acquainted with, of course: “Raman’s American Visitor”, tells of a man in the Treasury who completely misunderstands the purpose of an American’s visit to him, while “His Mother’s Joy” is about a mother who is very proud of her son’s position in the department, to the point of bragging.
“Seek And Ye Shall Find?” is about a civil servant who longs for a promotion, only to have the unexpected happen, while “Naming Names” is a humorous story examining the Tamil Jaffna habit of giving nicknames. “Half-And-Half”, on the other hand, is more serious, examining a man in a difficult position.
“It’s about a concept I’m very fascinated with. People who don’t belong fully to one category or another. Here’s a Malaysian who looks Caucasian. So when the British were around, he had the time of his life, enjoying all the benefits of being ‘British’ without being one. But when the Japanese came … see what happens!” Shanmughalingam says.
The author plans to publish a book of poetry after this, and maybe a book of children’s stories. But it’s too early to confirm anything, Shanmughalingam says.
In the meantime, his advice to young authors? Read and write as much as you possibly can.
“Read, read, read, read. And jot down all your thoughts, if not you will forget them. If everything is just in your head, when you die, it’s like a library’s burnt down.
“Write everything down. It’s an important part of showing the soul of the country, from one generation to another,” Shanmughalingam says.