Keeping the Local Tamil Literary Ecosystem Vibrant

By Regina Hoo

May 2022 FEATURE
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Navin has an impressive body of work to his name, 15 literary collections in total, including the banned Peichi.

WRITER M. NAVIN was a contradictory character growing up. At school, he challenged the wits of both the discipline teacher and the school principal, swiftly becoming, in his own words, the most hated student in school. He was a kaki bangku (someone not particularly adept at football) and was teased mercilessly because of it, had a stuttered speech but excelled in Tamil classes. He was known in his peer circle for penning prose and poems for friends much too overcome with puppy love.

Later, he moved from Kedah to KL to establish a career in journalism but found straightforward news reporting to be at odds with literary textualities. Navin then enrolled into a teaching institution, and ever since becoming an educator in 2005, began applying himself earnestly in socialising awareness of Tamil literature in Malaysia.

Navin has an impressive body of work to his name, 15 literary collections in total, including the banned Peichi. His participation in the George Town Literary Festival last year illuminated insights on this marginal form of literature.

Writer M. Navin.

How It Began

Scholar Prof Dr. N. Balabaskaran led the research into the development of Tamil literature in Malaysia, tracing its growth as far back as to 1930; but the writing of Tamil literature proper only began in 1946, in a novel that captured the hardship and tragedy of Indian labourers forced from Malaya to build the Siam-Burma Death Railway.

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Before the 1950s, literary focus was heavy on nostalgia and the intense longing for India, but a change in discourse occurred when the newspaper Tamil Nesan was introduced. Aspiring writers began writing about their new lives here in Malay(si)a, from “classes” taught by Suba Narayanan and Piroji Narayanan through the Tamil Nesan. In 1952, Ku. Alagirisamy from Tamil Nadu took charge of the newspaper’s editorship and urged for more creative writing styles, rather than for focus on content alone. This encouraged the cultivation of a new brand of Tamil literature, whose stories mined the rich everyday lives of Tamilians living in Malay(si)a for inspiration.

When Malaysia achieved independence, many Tamilians worried over the loss of their identity, given their minority status here, but hard pushbacks from luminaries like Ko. Sarangapani convinced them otherwise. Ko. Sarangapani arrived from Tamil Nadu to Singapore, then still a part of Malaysia, to start the newspaper Tamil Murasu and the cultural festival Tamil Thiruna. Joining him in this pursuit was Dr. R. Dandayutham, who lectured on modern Tamil literature at Universiti Malaya in 1961.

The following decade, the 1970s, was described as a revolutionary decade for Malaysian Tamil literature; it heralded an emerging crop of Tamil writers, active in their publication of literary magazines, and in the organisation of associations and conferences on discussions of modern Tamil literature.

But information on its development slowly tapered off from the 1980s onward. During his postgraduate studies, Navin decided to pick up where Balabaskaran left off. It was a massive undertaking but he exulted in it. “The efforts of public universities, the initiative and financial assistance of private individuals and the wider circulation of Tamil literary content on social media; all of these are notable contributions of the decades thereafter,” he explains.

Misery Makes for an Oft-Used Muse

The fates of Tamil labourers brought to Malaya were different from those of the Chinese during the Japanese Occupation; since India was part of the British colony, the labourers saw the English as their masters. “But when the Japanese forced the English to surrender, the labourers were at a loss as to who to pledge their allegiance to.

“It was also during this time that the men were taken and made to work on the Death Railway. Many left family members behind in the estates, who themselves toiled at the rubber plantations to the point of starvation and death. On their return to Malaya, the labourers were turned out from their estate homes when English officers agreed to the sale of the lands. But know this, they had never ventured beyond the estates before then.”

Without protection from the elements, and with the issues of citizenship and red identification cards; the latter necessitated a renewal every few months for the labourers to be allowed to work the plantations and on terms that suited the estate’s management; these labourers grew stifled in their oppression, and literature became their lifeline. Celebrated members of this literary canon included A. Rengasamy, C. Muthusamy, S. Peer Muhammad, M. Shanmugasiva and K. Punniyavan.

Pithy Observations

Here is an interesting discovery: Many local writers prefer to write in the traditional Tamil of the motherland, but draw at the same time from Malaysia’s multiculturalism. “I’m hugely impressed by the unwavering spirit of these luminaries over the last 75 years, in helping to shape the Tamil literary landscape locally, in spite of having it been passed over again and again for national and even international recognition.”

But fresher themes for discussion are needed; there is still a sprinkling of writers who’d repeatedly unspool their stories from the living conditions of the rubber estates or expound moral values and positive attributes in their writings. “This inertia hinders the curiosity for experimentation.”

When he once openly critiqued the value of Tamil literature produced in the country, Navin was advised to keep quiet about his views, especially when quality Tamil education is afforded in Malaysia. “I don’t deny this to be true, but do all Tamil-educated students become writers in the end? Of course not. Language and literature, just as how paintings have colours and music have sound, must be spoken and read for mastery. We can also gauge our literary competence through reading world literature, so I reject altogether the opinions of those who say that literature cannot be developed in minority communities when there is overwhelming proof that many globally famous writers are known for producing works in their mother tongue.”

But this tried-and-true method is also detrimental, in that it restricts these writers to familiar – and comfortable – reading materials, e.g. imbibing only stories from Tamil newspapers or novels brought in from Tamil Nadu. “Local writers grow anxious when discussing about other writers and their works from say, France, Russia and even from Tamil Nadu; and this anxiety can quickly metastasise into anger if they are fielding questions from a younger generation of writers. But such cases do not usually happen in India, where the number of readers and enthusiasts of literature are far greater, as are the numbers of magazine publications. All that aside, I believe the quality of writing over the years has been on an upward trajectory, aided by the online interactions local writers have with their international peers.”

Words can be Weaponised

Literary works produced in the country are still replete with derision towards the transgender community, and oppression of women and the differently-abled. “There are limits I think writers should set for themselves in their writings. I’ll use the prostitution trade to advance my point here; already their position in society is a precarious one, will belittling them with moral exhortations help in any way? If anything, it’ll fuel more unprovoked violence against them. That’s my two-cents, but I’m open to hearing other viewpoints, so long as the exchange is conducive and healthy.”

Speaking about the controversial ban on his book, Peichi, which was accused by the Home Ministry for containing pornographic and immoral content that runs contrary to more traditional values and cultural norms in the Malaysian society, Navin says, “What’s upsetting about the government’s decision to ban Peichi was how evidence gathered against it came conclusively from news articles; it believed the reports to echo the unanimous reaction of Malaysian society at large.

“What I find even more puzzling is that if the book does contain elements of indecency, wouldn’t it have also been banned from libraries in Singapore, seeing as the country’s legal system is even more rigid than Malaysia’s? It goes some way towards understanding how the system is indeed capable of playing favourites.

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Regina Hoo

is the deputy editor of Penang Monthly.