The best works of literature echo across space and time; they may tell a specific tale, but simultaneously, they also speak of stories, struggles and values that reach out to the core of our experiences.
It was purely by coincidence that I watched the 2015 Malaysian film Jagat at the same time as I was reading Maya Angelou’s seminal autobiography, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. Having happened hence, however, my experiences of each couldn’t help but frame the other.
Caged Bird (published in 1969) by the Pulitzer Prize-nominated author, poet and civil rights activist, needs little introduction. I was utterly beguiled by Angelou’s writing, her way of using words to paint a wholly unexpected yet crystal-clear picture.
Equally, I couldn’t help but be aware of the book’s significance – as a piece of literature, as an expression of the African-American experience, and as an unflinchingly honest tale of racism and misogyny, all wrapped in decades’ worth of critical acclaim and enamoured readers.
As such, I’m not trying to compare Caged Bird and Jagat, though the latter is a fine accomplishment – they are miles apart in many ways.
What the autobiographical book does share with Jagat, a movie about the struggles of Malaysian-Indians who exist on the lower end of the socio-economic ladder, is the use of a child’s perspective to tell a much larger story. In both, the young protagonist’s inner landscape is used to depict the wider social realities they live in.
Caged Bird chronicles Angelou’s life from age three to 17, from her experiences as a child in the racially segregated South to an increasingly capable and self-aware young woman in San Francisco.
She writes of being abandoned by her parents as a child, facing systemic racism at every turn, and in the book’s most aching section, of being raped at the age of eight by an adult man.
Angelou blends childhood observations of those around her with retrospective analysis as an adult writing the book, which makes for incredibly insightful reading.
What is most striking, however, is the way she uses the telling of her own story to shed so much light on the adults who were around her.
Similarly, Jagat uses the story of 12-year-old boy named Appoi, living in a small town in Perak in the early 1990s, as its lens. Raised amidst the threat of poverty, Appoi (a brilliantly cast Harvind Raj) is poised between a well-intentioned but distant father and the lure of urban crime.
In place of the adult hindsight afforded in Caged Bird, Jagat’s writer/director Shanjhey Kumar Perumal positions us, the audience – Appoi may not yet have grown up to reflect on his actions and those around him, but we do, and we understand the almost inevitable conclusion ahead.
In both stories, the way children internalise and are, in turn, shaped by the inequalities surrounding them comes starkly to the fore.
The adults in their lives, meanwhile, are both victims and perpetrators, re-enacting the same familiar patterns of damage that moulded them. In the end, they are all links on a continuous chain, products of people who are not necessarily trying their best, simply still trying.
It is, of course, no coincidence that Angelou’s story should resonate so strongly within a film like Jagat, which also grapples with issues of racial prejudice, social injustice and their effects on communities and individuals.
If anything, it is a testament to her ability to narrate the many untold stories that deserve a voice; and in turn, indirectly paving the path for a narrative like Jagat to emerge, someday, somewhere.
Sharmilla Ganesan is currently a Fulbright/Hubert H. Humphrey fellow at the University of Maryland in the United States. She is reading her way through the titles in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. Join the conversation at facebook.com/BeBookedOut or Tweet @SharmillaG.