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Friday, January 28, 2011

Imperative that the public lock horns over ‘Interlok’


Introduction by CPI

The Star today frontpaged ‘Interlok stays’ as its main story and reporting Education Minister Muhyiddin Yassin as saying the contentious novel is to remain a Form 5 exam text but with amendments to several aspects “deemed sensitive by the Indian community”.

A section of the Indian community suspects that the selection of this more than 40-year-old book – only reprinted as recently as last year – was impelled by an ulterior motive. The novel Interlok not only portrays the Indian community as the ‘pariah’ class that emigrated to the peninsula but has as its running theme a recurrent allusion to the Indian and Chinese races as ‘pendatang’ as well as many negative, racial stereotypes.

Muhyiddin was quoted by The Star (source: Bernama) as saying that his ministry’s decision to retain ‘Interlok’ was made “after taking into consideration the views of all parties, which acknowledged that the book was good in nurturing and strengthening unity among the multi-racial and multi-religious society in Malaysia”.

The Minister’s rationale and claim of “nurturing unity” fail to withstand scrutiny when there have been nationwide protests against the book, countless police reports as well as threats of civil suits. These very acts in themselves are already indicative of the deep cleavages and ill-will that the book has engendered.

Are we to trust Malay Literature teachers, predominantly belonging to one race, to exercise an adequate wisdom and tact over such an emotion-rousing novel when the racist utterances of the Bukit Selambau (Kedah) and Kulaijaya (Johor) school principals still leave a sour taste in the mouth?

And are we to hope that the impressionable students sitting the exam who are tasked with writing standard exam answers – where their essays will be expected to fit the officially prescribed model and thinking mode – will not be subtly and sublimally brainwashedala the Biro Tata Negara (BTN) modus operandi?

In fact, complainants even suggest that the book was selected for this year’s reading list in bad faith and with the hidden agenda of denigrating Indians; the novel has too much potential to cause Indian students to become the object of derision in the classroom and victims of a state-fostered inferiority complex.

It is therefore timely that CPI has translated the article below so that a wider public may be aware of the woeful lack of understanding of India, Indians, Indian history, Indian customs and culture, and the Indian immigration to this land as shown by the author of the controversial book Abdullah Hussain.

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Translation by CPI

By K Pragalath

A writer of Indian ethnicity has urged National Laureate Datuk Abdullah Hussain not to involve himself in the current controversy over the book ‘Interlok’. Uthaya Sankar SB, the Kavyan Writers Group president, said this was because the novel under discussion is the student’s edition edited by Ruziati Abdul Rani and Baharin Aiyob, and first published in 2010.

Interlok’, the student’s edition used as a Literature component for the Bahasa Malaysia Form 5 subject, contains factual errors. This is the view of Uthaya presented during his briefing on the book here in Shah Alam today (Jan 16).

One factual error already known to the public is the mention of the Pariah and Brahma (sic) castes -- which don’t exist.

Kamus Dewan (dictionary published by Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka) defines ‘caste’ as the classification of people according to categories, that is, Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaisya and Sudra.” According to Uthaya, the name ‘Brahma’ on the other hand refers to a god in the Hindu religion.

Discussing the characterisation of the protagonist Maniam’s family, Uthaya said the novel was unclear in stating whether Maniam is a Tamil, Malayali or Telugu although the story begins in Kerala, India. [CPI note: Tamil immigrants who form the majority were from the state of Tamil Nadu]

Furthermore, the name ‘Maniam’ is not a Malayali name.

According to Uthaya, Malabar and Kerala were referred to in the novel as two separate places whereas Malabar is actually the old name for Kerala state.

The author Abdullah Hussain’s explanation of the Kathakali dance is also incorrect as he had said the dancers used masks when in fact they use ‘make-up’.

Abdullah places Kerala geographically as a state “a little to the north of Tamil Nadu” when the atlas shows that Kerala lies to the north of Andhra Pradesh. Kerala is also pictured as filled with paddy fields when it is better known for its coconut trees.

Uthaya listed other reasons why Indians emigrated other than because of the caste system. Among them, job opportunities, the raising of quit rent and British pressure on the local industry that was in competition with its own textile industry.

The book also pictures the Indian community in Penang as being 50 percent Malayali and the remaining half Tamil and Telugu when in fact 80 percent of the Indians at that time were Tamils.

Uthaya told his audience at the Shah Alam library (where the briefing was held) that the chapter on Maniam’s family failed to portray a correct Indian ‘worldview’ with a corresponding appreciation of Indian culture.

The character of Malini calls her husband Maniam by his personal name whereas women of that period would never do that (as it’s not the culture to do so).

Uthaya was also curious as to why Malini calls her father Perumal ‘papa’ and not ‘appa’ (the Indian term). Other misses on cultural nuances include when the character of Mariama is said to be ‘single’ (membujang) after the death of her husband when the more appropriate word is ‘widow’(balu).

In the book Maniam is said to have come alone to Tanah Melayu in 1910 even though the Pengajian Malaysia (Malaysian Studies) states that the inflow of free labour was stymied in 1859 because the travel fare was too expensive.

When the character Suppiah prostrated, it was misrepresented as kowtowing to the white man when the act is usually done only as a mark of respect to one’s parents to obtain their blessing.

Uthaya also questioned Abdullah’s description of using skulls as a form of traditional medicine practice.

Why are the Malay NGOs protesting (in defence of the book)? It (the book) is misleading (hence the reason for the Indians objecting to its use as an exam text).”

Uthaya also commented on Abdullah’s claim that he (Abdullah) was a follower of Gandhi’s teaching.

Gandhi referred to them (the untouchables) as ‘Harijan’ which means Children of God (unlike Abdullah who termed them as ‘pariah’).

As a response to the Gapena resolution [CPI note: Gapena head Ismail Hussain is brother to ‘Interlok’ author Abdullah Hussain] which declared that the Malay literary body will not permit the book to be altered “even in one word”, Uthaya pointed out that there are several sentences found in the special edition but missing from the student’s edition. He cited as a contrary example the poem ‘Gagak Hitam’ by National Laureate A. Samad Said where the poem was not only translated into English but had one line amended.

Uthaya also responded to an Utusan columnist concerning the (lack of) protest against a book (similarly touching on caste) by Mulk Raj Anand titled ‘Untouchables’.

Uthaya countered that Mulk’s book did not draw any protest because it is not a component of the English Literature syllabus in Malaysia.

Another writer Lim Swee Tin who spoke at the same briefing session was of the opinion that it would be better if Abdullah Hussein himself himself made the necessary changes to the text in the interest of the students. Lim said this was the better approach as a writer is usually very particular about his work being changed.

The article above titled ‘Fakta Interlok edisi murid banyak mengelirukan’ was first published in Free Malaysia Today on Jan 16, 2011 and translated from Malay by CPI with permission from the writer and the news portal. -cpiAsia

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