Good Evening

March 7, 2008

Preeta Samarasan,  Evening is the Whole Day,  London: Fourth Estate, 2008.

Reviewed by Pat Porter

2154433Preeta Samarassan’s first novel, Evening is the Whole Day ,a mystery set in Malaysia, is confident in its control of events, themes and characters.  The novel’s main strength is that it appeals to and satisfies different levels of the readers’ intellect and emotions.  Furthermore, although may be considered reminiscent in some ways of the styles of Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things and even Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy as it unveils the Rajasekharan family’s secrets, and perhaps Gabriel García Marquéz’s Cien Anos de Soledad with  its elements of magic realism, Samarasan can not be accused of lacking originality as each element of the novel is integrated in a confidently individual manner.

On one level, the secret causes of the unhappiness of the apparently perfect, affluent and achieving Rajasekharan family are gradually unravelled for the reader.  The plot follows the history of the  Tamil family in the Big House in Kingfisher Lane, in a town in northern Ipoh, a part of Malaysia “stretching delicate as a bird’s head from the thin neck of the Kra Isthmus”. The Malaysian history of the family starts with the grandfather, a coolie from Bengal who arrived in Malaysia in 1899.  It  follows the success of his son, Tata, who moved from being a clerk to being the owner of a shipping company, “Rubber Baron, Cement King, Duke of Durians, Tapioca Tycoon, Import-Export Godfather”.  Tata bought the Big House from the Scotsman, Mr. McDougall, in 1956 and moved in with his wife Paati, three daughters, and sons Raju (or Appa, an Oxford educated Lawyer) and Balu (or Uncle Ballroom, the non-achieving, black sheep of the family).   The novel reveals how yet another achiever in the family, Appa, surprised his peers and mother by marrying his beautiful, but ignorant,  next door neighbour, Vasanthi (also referred to as Amma).  However, most of the novel is set during 1980, and concerns Appa’s and Amma’s three academically talented offspring. It moves towards the departure of  their eldest daughter, Uma, for Colombia University in the USA, and the resultant unhappiness of the youngest daughter, six year old Aasha, and apparent  disinterest  of the eleven year old son, Suresh.  The mystery centres on the experiences and reactions of Aasha,  how Paati died, why Uma is so distanced from the rest of the family and how each family member’s reactions are affected by the past.

On a second level, Samarasan adds interest, depth and complexity to her fictional story  by revealing details about the friends and acquaintances of the family.  For instance, the novel also traces the tragic journey of one of the family’s servants, Chellam, who “is the same age as Uma, the oldesteldest daughter of the house” but “brought  [to Ipoh] by some bustling, self-righteous Hindu Sagam society matron eager to rack up good karma by plucking her from prostitution and selling her into slavery far less white”.  We learn at the start, that within a year, at Chellam’s cremation, “the air will smell salty from all [her] tears” , but as with the other characters, Samarasan only gradually reveals Chellam’s complex emotions, relationships and experiences which will lead to this death by moving backwards and forwards in time, and using links and contrasts to other characters.

On a third level, Evening is the Whole Day  also depicts the development of Malaysia as an independent country, and reveals the problems it encounters as a multicultural nation with three strong ethnic groups – Malay, Chinese and Indian – each seeking to attain influence in the new state, and improve on its British legacy. The lack of a glossary combined with the use of authentic language reflects these ethnic backgrounds and enables the reader to experience the problems the Malaysians face in communicating, without interrupting the development of the story.  Perhaps because she has the detachment and objectivity of an expatriate, Samarasan assiduously handles the potential land-mine of criticising the faults, selfishness and prejudices of each of the ethnic groups, “Coolie…Village idiot fed on sambal petai.  Slit-eyed pig eater”,  and presenting the stereotyping of  each group, by using gentle cynicism, humour and sympathy.  Rather than being a racist diatribe, the novel explores one element of Malaysian society to clarify the immense problems faced by the whole nation. The use of  techniques like the personification of Rumour and Fact, and combining an omniscient author  with the use of dialogue to reveal the individual voices of the characters, enables the author to avoid preaching and allows her to trust the reader to make inferences. Because of this, the relationships between the characters and their friends, family, ethnic group, religion and country, and other countries raise questions for the reader rather than offering glib answers.  These questions involve several themes, including those of  justice, morality, self-serving,cowardice, the role of family and nationality.

In all three levels, humour balances the darkness throughout the book.  Suresh’s clever rhymes about the death sentence of a murderess, the neighbour Kooky Rooky’s fantasies about conflicting versions of about her past, and the description of the development of the career of the fortune-teller, Anand, not only contribute to the reader’s understanding of the characters, but are also very amusing. Some of the humour is also created by the way Samarasan uses authentic language to develop the plot, nuances, similarities and contrasts.  To illustrate, the voice of Scottish Mr. McDougall, appalled at the renovations to his family home by the Tamil family (“These bloody Nati’es.  That’s whit ye gie when ye gie a boorichie ay wogs ‘eh reit tae rule”), reveals as much about the British rulers as it does about the new Malaysian rulers, anxious to both emulate and differentiate themselves from the past.  The Malay “Keratapi Tanah Melayu”  Uma tries to pronounce as “Carry-tuppy Tanah Melayoo”  and that Anna can not understand, declaring it “Nothing so great”, shocks a fellow Malayan passenger into exclaiming “ No shame ah you, living in Malay Land but cannot speak Malay?  Your mummy and daddy also no shame ah, living in Malay Land and never teach their chirren Malay?”.   Other humour comes from the visual images – of Appa walking “cock flopping, balls swinging like two mangosteens in a net bag” in front of his lovers, of the “Bare midriffs [of the women, which] wilt and droop like old tire tubing”, of Amma’s thoughts, “so clear they seem to scroll across a blinding white screen behind her eyes.  Needlethoughts.  Knifethoughts.  Sour-as-green-mangothoughts: they make her eyes narrow and her mouth pucker”.

Preeta Samarasan’s Evening is the Whole Day succeeds as a history which “is born only with trouble, with perplexity, with regret” as the prelude taken from  Graham’s Swift’s Waterland  informs us.  It also succeeds as a description of the paradoxes of disillusion and despair which are involved in love and hope for things to improve, as is conveyed by the title, which is taken from the Tamil poem Kuruntokai 234, translated by George L. Hart:

The sun goes down and the sky reddens, pain grows sharp,

light dwindles.  Then is evening

when jasmine flowers open, the deluded say.

But evening is the great brightening dawn

when crested cocks crow all through the tall city

when evening is the whole day

for those without their lovers.