So, this is the book I've been reading for the pass two months. I'm pretty sure it has been that long. I don't usually take so long to finish a novel. But life here in UK has been pretty hectic with all the assignments and homework. Whatever free time I have I spend Facebooking and YouTubing since the internet connection here is just simply amazing!
So basically, the story is pretty cool. It's about a dysfunctional well-to-do slightly upper middle class Indian family living in post-independence Malaysia in the city of Ipoh.
Chellam is the poor maid of the household. She cooks and cleans sometimes, but there are other servants for that, like the cook Lourdesmarry. Chellam's main job is to take care of Patti (which means Grandma in Tamil), the old lady of the house. Coming from the rubber plantation, she is of the lower class Malaysian Indian and displays all the negative stereotypes of her people. She speaks broken English, curses in front of the kids, has no fashion sense whatsoever, wears over sized men's clothes, had not finished school, does not own a birth certificate, the eldest of many siblings and is the daughter of a drunkard.
Chellam is constantly the victim of verbal abuse in the household. The kids, particularly the middle one Suresh often makes fun of her social background for he looks down upon her upbringing. Patti, who Chellam looks after, has almost never spoken to her with respect, which explains why Chellam secretly despises the old lady.
One day, Patti falls down in the bathroom and dies. Aasha, the mysterious youngest child of the family claims to have seen Chellam pushing Patti down by accident. Whether this is completely true or not will be revealed later on in the novel, which makes it so interesting. Chellam does not protest and simply accepts her faith and is forced to return to her abusive father's home.
Aasha, the youngest one is a character you will definitely fell some pity for. Her elder brother, Suresh is her playmate, but she craves for the attention and love of her eldest sibling, her sister Uma.
What makes Aasha's character so interesting is that she can see ghosts. After Patti dies, she sees her ghost on certain occasions. But most often, it is with the Anglo-Chinese daughter of the former Scottish owner of her family's house (often referred to as the Big House) that she communicates with.
Aasha is the one responsible for putting the blame on Chellam, even though she saw with her own eyes Uma pushing Patti. But she puts the blame on Chellam instead, hoping that Uma would feel grateful and become her cheerful and happy self once again. But that does not happen.
Aasha is my favourite character. It is easy to feel sorry for her. She might be the only character who has no bad judgement towards anyone. All she craves for is some real love and some real attention from her family, especially her elder sister Uma who keeps avoiding her. You might even shed a tear of two in the last chapter when you discover what happens to Uma, that despite everything, her love is betrayed.
This is the character I simply hate. He reminds me of that urban Indian boy who is intelligent but behaves in a very uneducated manner, cracking dirty jokes and making fun of those who he feels is beneath him. You must give credit to the writer for portraying Suresh so realistically. Despite his parents being strict whenever they need to, he mostly gets away with this annoying behaviour of his.
I am pretty sure the writer intended Suresh to have some highly metaphorical and symbolic role in the discovery of the real cause of Patti's death, but I'm still yet to understand it.
You see, Suresh mistakens his Amma (meaning 'mother' in Tamil) as Patti's killer. Amma entered Patti's bathroom while Chellam was out doing some chores before the real culprit entered and performed the deed. Suresh only saw Amma entering the bathroom, while Aasha witnessed the real culprit.
Despite her young age, Aasha understands that only she knows the truth and that even Suresh had mistakenly assumed someone else was responsible for their grandmother's death. But she remains silent for the sake of Uma.
You might grow to hate Suresh as you read the novel. He constantly harasses Chellam for being poor, and it is only his mother that corrects him whenever she notices his misbehaviour. But if Suresh was a real person, you yourself might want to give him a spanking or two.
Yes. The real culprit. The eldest child. The smart one. The one who could memorize Shakespeare at such a young age. The one who has set a good example for her younger siblings. The one who would be furthering her studies in The States. The idol of her younger siblings. The love of her grandmother. The source of pride of her father. The envy of her own mother.
She has it all - the looks, the brains, the social status, the education. But the writer leaves the readers confused as to why she is so moody and distant from the rest of the family. In the middle of the story, she leaves us further puzzled after what she does to her own grandmother, despite it being a pure act of emotion. More like an accident due to the snap of a brain nerve. Still, an accident.
The writer left me simply baffled as I slowly approached the climax. Uma was abused by someone she loved. Someone who had sworn to protect and care for her. Someone who if mentioned would make you gasp. I could hardly believe what I read. I both admired and was furious at the writer for this shock. But it was the perfect explanation for Uma's mysterious behaviour all along.
Patti knows of this. But instead of protecting Uma like she always did when Uma was a child, Patti chooses to ignore this, because she herself is disgusted by what she sees. Her room was just next to Uma's. But she moves to the ground floor by citing her old age as a reason, that her legs can no longer carry her up and down the stairs.
As Uma prepares to leave the country, she swears to never return to her family. She is thankful to Chellam, who is barely older than her, for taking the blame of Patti's death. As she prepares to board the plane, she turns around and waves goodbye specifically to her younger sister, the one who she failed to love despite everything she had done for her. Earlier in the novel, Uma realizes Aasha craves for her attention as their cranky mother had failed to deliver that. But she purposely ignores Aasha in an attempt to make her feel bad, just like how she was feeling after she was abused.
But the incident in the airport lets us know that Uma still loves Aasha, even though she will never return to her, or reply her letter, or answer her phone calls. The story of Uma and Aasha is a tragic one. In the last chapter, you can't help feeling sorry for the two sister. The sisters who grew up in a wealthy household, but whose family's bad decisions destroyed their lives.
This is one character you will both love, and then hate. In the flashback scenes, you will see what a social-conscious freak she is. She forbids her son, Appa (father of Uma, Suresh and Aasha) from marrying Amma, since she is from a poorer family. But as any old parent depending on their working children for survival during their last days, she is forced to give in when Appa has made up his mind to marry Amma.
She is not ashamed to show her clear dislike and hatred for her daughter-in-law, often embarrassing her whenever she has the chance. But as Patti grows older, she in turn becomes the object of Amma's anger when the daughter-in-law slaps and beats her each time they are in an argument, whenever Appa is not around of course. At this point, you can't help but feel sorry for Patti as much as you feel sorry for Aasha.
But then Patti turns her anger towards poor Chellam, who is often yelled at whenever she does not get things done the way Patti wants.
Patti is, however, caring and protective towards her grandchildren, especially Uma when she was younger. During one chapter, a young Uma sleeps with Patti after she hears her parents yelling at each other all night. On that night, Patti promises to protect Uma forever. At this point on, Uma looks up to Patti as her guardian angel, which explains Uma's anger towards her once protective grandmother after the night of her abuse.
Towards the end of the novel, it is revealed that Patti had a dark past herself. When Tata, her husband, was not around, she was having an affair with his white boss. Nobody knows this. Nobody, except Uncle Ballroom, her second son and Appa's younger brother.
He is somewhat like an outsider to the family. He visits the family twice in the novel. Both visits are contrastingly different. He gets his name because he is an active participant of ballroom dancing competitions across the world. But Appa disapproves of this, for Uncle gambles all his money away, and then returns home with the hope that Appa would help him.
Uncle was subjected to having witnessed the sexual abuse of two women close to his heart - his own mother, Patti during his childhood; and his own niece, Uma during his first visit in the novel. The first incident traumatized him as a child, and he suddenly remembers it after witnessing what happened to Uma.
His visits are always highly anticipated by the children, since he always has interesting stories of far-off lands to tell them. And he is always there to listen to Suresh's dirty jokes. During his second visit, he pities Chellam after witnessing her mistreatment at the hands of his own family. He occasionally gives her money, even going to the extend of bribing her father to not abuse her. This sparks off rumours within his own family, as they suspect he has been sleeping with Chellam.
But like Chellam, he is accused of something he did not do, for being the one who abused Uma during his first visit, and is unceremoniously turned out of his family home. Patti does nothing to help her second son, probably being too traumatized after witnessing what had happened to her beloved Uma. Probably she is reminded of what had happened to her during her own youth.
Hah! A really engaging character. You will dislike her, but you won't hate her. You might feel sorry for her, but you most definitely won't love her.
Amma, whose real name is Vasanthi, comes from a poorer urban family. Her father is just a clerk and her mother is recluse. She is always compared to her more successful younger brother. Because of this, she forever hates herself for not being as classy as those around her.
So during her courtship with Appa, it is the first time she is actually respected as a human being. Speaking about their courtship, there is no dating in its true sense, but all is done in a typical conservative manner. Her younger siblings are to follow her and Appa during their 'dates'. Appa sweeps Amma off her feet when he defends her before her father and brother. But when he has sex with her during their first night, she feels no desire for him, only pain. But she accepts it as her role as a good wife.
Despite their awkward marriage, they make it through with three healthy children. It was after Uma's birth when they became a true couple, and it was after Aasha was born when they both ended up becoming like two total strangers living under the same roof. She nags all the time while he stays up late night away from home, in the office as he claims.
Amma secretly envies Uma. She makes it clear that she feels distant from not only Uma, but the rest of the family. They speak of 'high-class' stuff, things that she knows nothing of. Even her Malay is bad. Also, she has the ugly looks of the typical Tamil Indian. The writer gives so much detail to her looks - the dark skin, frizzy hair... it is almost disgustingly true.
Not to mention how abusive she is towards Patti - her way of getting revenge for how she herself was mistreated when she first became the daughter-in-law of the house. Amma is only mean towards Chellam after she is accused of Patti's death. Before that, she reprimands Suresh for calling Chellam a servant, and for disrespecting someone old enough to be his elder sister. Perhaps she sees Chellam as a younger version of her, a girl from a less-privileged background stepping into the household of a famous lawyer.
Oh yes! Advocate Rajasekhar, one of the top lawyers in the city. In his youth as a a law student in Oxford, he was quite the playboy. He remembers details of his flings with equally modern and successful modern women even when he is making love to Amma. He was clear of his vision of his future. These urban, liberal-minded woman were just to sleep around with. His ideal match for a wife can never be as perfect as Amma; the quiet, traditional Indian girl next door.
But married life was not as he expected. As his wife climbed the social ladder and became the wife of one of the country's most famous lawyers, she turned into a diva, always nagging and always complaining, Appa only came to know of the other side of Amma after years of marriage.
Gone were the days when she would admire his beefy physique from the window of her father's house, and he would be her prince charming, always sweet and tender towards her.
As you read through the book, the idea of Appa being the good husband and father - the almost perfect family man comes to you immediately. It is only towards the end of the novel where the writer smack you on the face with the truth of Appa's so-called 'late nights at the office'.
It turns out Appa has a Chinese mistress. She is nothing different from Amma - relatively unattractive, homely and a nagger, as it turns out. As her husband is away in China for years, she makes a living by selling noodles at a stall. Appa actually gives her a life - buying her a decent house, financing her trips to Singapore and Hong Kong, and providing her with Chindian children!
Before the truth of Appa's second family, his mistress, his illegitimate children, his infidelity and the tarnishing of his image as a good family man sinks into your head, the writer smacks another unbearable truth on your face.
The abuse of Uma. Appa blamed Uncle Ballroom, when in reality it was him. Having come home drunk after he was chased out of his mistress' house following the return of her husband, he turns to Uma for solace. And then he could not control himself. The alcohol got to him. Even though no clothes came off their bodies that night, it still happened. The damage was done.
And thus, the once cheerful Uma was now the moody and always solemn distant figure. No matter how much Appa regretted for letter the alcohol take control over him, he could never face his first born ever again. He would not enter her room, let alone allow himself to pass by it. Patti, having seen this incident that night, is disgusted and ashamed. The only time she ever calls out Appa's name is whenever she is abused by Amma whenever he is not home. And she almost has no contact with her favourite granddaughter ever again. Her attention is now turned to Chellam, and making her life a hell.
Not just a family drama
So there are some striking resemblance between this novel and Atonement. But unlike the character in the latter, Aasha knows what she saw. And her decision to lie was made fully consciously.
It is a political story in a way. There is a chapter on May 13 . After some disagreements with Patti and Appa, Amma takes Uma away for a visit to her sister's home in Kuala Lumpur while she was nine months pregnant with Suresh. The bloody-dirty-minded-smarty-pants Suresh was born on May 13th as many people died, which most probably explains his terrible behaviour.
There is some foreshadowing of the black even on the train from Ipoh to Kuala Lumpur as a Malay man in broken English comments on Amma not knowing what kereta api (which is Malay for train) meant. Later, the car bringing Amma to the hospital is stopped by a violent crowd. But somehow, Suresh is born on the night that would remain a black mark on our country's great history.
Then, there is Mat Din (Appa's driver), who secretly participates in the protest of minority rights, having felt ashamed all his life for having to work as the driver for an Indian family.
Appa himself is on a silent lifelong protest as he refuses to converse in Malay, as he feels it is degrading to his image as a member of a minority group. Mostly, he is ashamed of his own people. He is the reason Aasha and Suresh look down on factory girls who are mostly Indians, since Malays are helped by the government and Chinese are helped by richer Chinese. In the last chapter, Appa and Amma comment on two Indian youth fighting in the public, which they take personally as a disgrace to their race.
I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed reading this novel. It moves at a rather slow pace and you might get tired of the overly detailed description. The writer is very outspoken about her inner conflicts with some sections of the Malaysian community that it might just shock you.
Like the writer, I am of Tamil Malaysian origin myself. Perhaps this helped me relate so much to the characters as if I was part of their family. Others might struggle through the liberal use of Manglish and the occasional Tamil diction. But for those of you who are interested in learning different cultures, this book is more than that. It is a window into the the urban yet traditional household of a typical Tamil-speaking Indian family.
The reason I truly enjoyed this novel is not because of my shared background with the author and the main characters of the novel. It is probably because of the realism the novel depicts. No character is flawless as they are all modeled to perfection with their flaws as the main ingredient. That is why you will either very much like them, or very much hate them. It has everything from dark comedy to drama, romance, tragedy and tidbits of fantasy.
I would highly recommend this book to anyone. I give it (ceh wah!!!!!!!! prasan critic profesional la ni ek?) four and a half out of five stars!