Evening is the Whole Day, by Preeta Samrasan.
GLOBAL WOMEN OF COLOR
An intricate and beautiful novel about a family of Indian descent in post-colonial Malaysia; a family, like their country, full of secrets, anger and long-held resentments.
This book works because Preeta Samrasan uses language so creatively and skillfully. Her writing is dense and luxurious, meant to read slowly to capture all its treasures, but it is never inaccessible or demanding. She has created fascinating characters and woven a story in which family members gradually reveal their secrets and the complex sources of their pain. She does not tell the story chronologically, but begins with the dismissal of the young girl who had been a servant in the family. After introducing the family, she moves back and forth in time revealing how each person has been shaped and shaped the others. We don’t learn why the girl is forced to leave until the book is half over and we are in the midst of tales of other situations affecting the family members.
The family that Samarasan has created are the Rajasekharans, descended from an Indian, who migrant to Malaysia, and his son, who rose from rags to riches until he was able to buy the Big House in which the family lived in the 1980s. Raja, a successful lawyer, now heads the family. Dismissing the attractive, mini-skirted women who were his social and professional equals, he had married “beneath him,” choosing a dark-skinned woman who looked up to him, at least initially. As the marriage turned hollow, he turned elsewhere and his wife, always referred to as Amma, focused her attention on social acceptance and appearances. Their three children all suffered. The oldest, Uma, had once been a warm open girl attentive to the needs of her young sister and her grandmother, but as the book opens she has turned inward, focusing on her departure for a prestigious college in the USA. Her ten-year-old brother contents himself with jokes and teasing. Asaha, precocious at age 6, talks with ghosts and worships her beloved sister. Patti, the family grandmother, had been a proud woman before she aged and became feeble, abused and angry. Chellam, the young servant, is an outsider, always available to absorb the blame.
Samrasan’s descriptions are incredible whether they are a few words defining a character or long passages devoted to probing more deeply. There is Aashi “the little barometer that she is, the miner’s canary struggling for air.” Amma was “a clockwork toy some one had wound up all the way and left unattended; she couldn’t help herself. She sat sipping tea at the Formica table and threw parties, and gave Patti headknocks and thighpinches because these were the only things she knew how to do.” She is “tired of life and death and truth and lies, of betrayals and loyalty, of youth and age. Of blame and blamelessness and the long winding road; of those three feeble words; I told you so.” Pondering her own social success, she acknowledges how she has fooled those who would have snubbed her: “How easily they’ve forgotten where I came from. We only pretend history matters; in the end, all that matters is money.” Yet ethnic stereotypes and slurs are everpresent in the family.
The Malaysian landscape is also described in detail, beginning with the repetitive rains and the heat. “The nights have lately been noiseless and stuffy, as if someone turned off the flame under the earth every night but forgot to lift the lid.” At the hotel “they sat on wicker chairs on the balcony, amid the elegant remnants of empire: a scuffed and stained checkerboard floor, rolled-up bamboo blinds creaking gently in the breeze, a potted fern wilting genteelly onto the edge of their table.”
Changing political events are a backdrop for the family story and give Samrasan a chance to comment on the postcolonial nation’s priorities. As ethnic conflicts esculated in the 1960s, Raj had briefly and futilely engaged in politics, for personal gain and to insure that his children did not grow up in a “Malaysia ruled by Malaysians.” Intermixed with ethnic prejudice is the disdain with which the Rajasekharans treat those who are less financially secure than themselves. Samrasan is scathing about the discrimination and injustices in which her characters participate. Her depiction of the servant, Chellam, and her treatment by the different family members is excellent. Servants may vary from culture to culture, but their plight seems almost universal. Yet overall, the book is never heavy and accusatory. We understand why characters act as they do even when we cannot approve.
But the colonial past is sometimes threatening as Indian, Chinese and Maylay fight for political control of the country. When riots break out, mobs follow through the streets like a Chinese New Year dragon and each ethnic group shouts the ugly ethnic epithets learned from their colonial masters. When conflicts are papered over, in the nation and in the family, underlying problems remain. A billboard at the airport symbolizes the situation.
The life-size cardboard ladies advertising Visit Malaysia 1980. They are MalayChineseIndian, IbanKadazanKayak, sleek and beautiful ladies of every race, namaste-ing and salam-ing the wide world in toothy testimony to the country’s legendary Racial Harmony. From the front these ladies seem perfect. Perfectly happy. Perfectly shapely. Perfectly poised. From the side Aasha sees that they are perfectly flat, and further, that they have no back parts what so ever.
I strongly recommend this book to readers interested in Malaysia and other post-colonial societies, in tensions that build within families, and to anyone who likes thoughtful, well-written novels.