Review: Preeta Samarasan’s “Evening is the Whole Day”

The situation for the Indian community in Malaysia has worsened in recent months, as many readers may be aware from earlier posts (see here and here, for starters). There were a series of major protests a few months ago, and as I understand it the situation remains tenuous (though I must admit I haven’t been following the political situation there closely). [UPDATE: The above is not exactly up to date, and in fact is inaccurate. See Preston's
comment below
.] Most people in the west know little about Malaysia, and indeed, even in India, it’s really by and large Tamil communities that have a strong historical connection to the country (see Wikipedia here); the Indian diaspora in Malaysia is, by and large, a Tamil diaspora. Given the recent tensions and our general interest in different South Asian diasporic experiences, a novel like Preeta Samarasan’s Evening is the Whole Day will likely be of interest to many readers. After the jump I have a review of the novel.Evening is the Whole Day is a strong first novel, chewy with language and rich with intricate attention to detail. The book is structured as a series of out-of-sequence chapters, which do provisionally move the story forward even as the novel’s “present” skips back and forth – like that Christopher Nolan movie whose title I can no longer remember.

The story centers around a Tamil family in the Malaysian city of Ipoh, circa 1980, and the real emotional core of Evening is the Whole Day is a contrast between two young women along class lines. Uma Rajasekharan struggles to survive her teenage years in a dysfunctional family (a badgering, snobbish grandmother, a largely absent father with a dark secret, and a resentful, often cruel mother), but finally escapes, relatively unscathed, to attend college in New York. (I’m not giving anything away, incidentally; the first chapter of the novel is set a week after Uma’s departure.) By contrast, the servant girl, Chellam, is forced to bear the weight of the collective madness of her master, mistress, their respective children, and the master’s wayward brother (known memorably in the book as “Ballroom Uncle”). Chellam is in every sense ruined, first by her nuclear family (her father is a drunk), and then by her damaged employers. Meanwhile the children in the Rajasekharan family are able to continue to live their lives without directly confronting the shame and hypocrisy that should be their parents’ legacy.

There are, admittedly, limitations to Evening is the Whole Day. The style and the wordplay may strike some readers as too similar to Arundhati Roy’s style in The God of Small Things, though I personally wasn’t bothered by this. Actually, I think there are merits to building intensity and drama into the sprawling, challenging idiolect Samarasan uses – every sort of word is in here, including a number of Malay and Tamil phrases included without a glossary (most can be understood from context, though a few could not; people who know some Tamil might see things in this novel that I missed.). At the same time, I think there are considerable merits to rather different approaches, like Jhumpa Lahiri’s minimalism. (I recently read Lahiri’s new book, Unaccustomed Earth, and thought some of the stories were magnificent.)

What was more bothersome to me was the somewhat narrow focus on the internal drama of a single, affluent family. After a glorious first two paragraphs at the opening of the novel, my heart sank a little once Samarasan settled on a relatively static locale (the “Big House”). Though Samarasan is hardly inattentive to the divide between rich and poor in her book, I expected to hear more about the plantation-working Tamils of Malaysia, who, as I understand it, make up the majority of the Indian population in the country -– and who are generally far from affluent. Instead, all but two of the main characters are born into wealth (the exceptions being the mother, Vasanthi, and the servant, Chellam).

There is a back-story offered, showing how the Rajasekharan family came to be so prosperous while so many of their expatriate countrymen remained dirt-poor, but the origins of the wealth are to a great extent taken for granted by the younger members of the family. Finally, non-Indian Malaysians (specifically people who are ethnically Chinese and Malay) are also surprisingly few in number –- though perhaps that simply reflects the cultural and linguistic enclosures of Malaysian life. (If so, it’s too bad; it’s tragic to think that whole communities in such a diverse society could have remained nearly completely isolated from one another for so long.)

Perhaps in future novels, if she’s inclined to stay with Malaysia as a location (she’s lived in the U.S., but now lives in France – she might find inspiration elsewhere), Samarasan can take us further into the broader world of Malaysian life.

Having said that, several chapters in the middle of the novel do work though some of the ethnic and political upheavals in Malaysian society, starting in the late 1960s, and these were the chapters I tended to find most gripping.

Here is a dialogue between Appa (Raju Rajasekharan), who was born into wealth, and attended Oxford before returning to Malaysia to practice law, and Amma (Vasanthi), who comes from a lower-middle class Tamil family in the city of Ipoh. Amma doesn’t have much education, or understanding of the fragility of the political environment for Indian Malaysians:

[Appa] “The problem with their racial politics,” he began, “is that—“

[Amma] “Aiyo, all this politics I don’t know lah,” she said. “Whatever they want to do as long as they leave us alone it’s okay isn’t it?”

“Leave us alone? Leave us alone? You call this leaving us alone? Their bloody article 153 and their ketuanan Melayu, yes yes I know you’ll insist you can’t understand a word of Malay, so let me explain it to you, let me tell you what it means: it means Malays are masters of this land, do you understand? Our masters! With that kind of language—“

“Tsk, after all it’s their country, what, so why shouldn’t they be the masters? Just because you cannot sit at home and keep quiet means—“

“But it’s our country just as much as the bloody Malays’! Do you realize some of our families have been here longer than theirs? Ask the Straits Chinese—“

“Tsk, all these grand ideas…”

Grand ideas. The sin of which he’d always stood accused, by Lily and Nlini and Claudine, by others before and after them. The difference was that Amma’s own ideas really did stop there. Her very thoughts trailed off into nothingness, not just her sentences. (99)

It’s interesting for Amma to say, “all this politics I don’t know lah,” given that she’s a character who doesn’t know any Malay. (The Indians from poorer backgrounds are less engaged with the broader Malaysian culture or the Malay language, while the more affluent Indians are acutely aware of the dangers of that isolation.)

Again, though there are a few chapters that engage with politics along these lines, this isn’t truly a political novel. Tunku Abdul Rahman’s and Lee Kuan Yew’s names appear only once each (and you have to be looking). Here is another passage, with Amma and her eldest daughter Uma, traveling by rail on the brink of the ethnic/political riots of 1969:

For now he, a Malay man seated across the aisle and behind Uma and Amma, concentrated on correcting certain misperceptions. “Eh thanggachi!” he called out softly, leaning sideways in his seat, his teeth yellow under the black velvet of his songkok. “Thanggachi!”

Thanggachi meant little sister in Tamil, but Uma, six years old, in stockings and a smocked dress with a sash, knew two things without having to think about them: 1) the Malay man didn’t really speak Tamil; and 2) she wasn’t anyone’s little sister.

“I’m not thanggachi,” she said, and, by way of honest-but-friendly introduction: “I’m Uma Rajasekharan.” Only implied, but keenly felt by all present: And who are you, audacious songkok wearer with yellow teeth?

“Tsk,” said Amma, one hand flicking Uma’s knee, “don’t be rude.” She shut her eyes against the green glare streaming through the curtains and leaned against the headrest.

“Oh oh, so sorry lah thanggachi,” said the Malay man,” but I tell you something, okay?”

[…] “Keretapi Tanah Melayu mean railway lah thanggachi,” the man went on. “Meas Malay Land Railway.” Malay Lands means Malaysia lah, thanggachi, that also you don’t know ah? Looking at me with eyes so big, your own country also you don’t know the name is it? Aiyo-yo thanggachi, your own Na-tio-nal Language also tak tahu ke? 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 children Malay?” (116)

If you find dialogues like these interesting (they are, I should say again, not fully representative), you’ll probably enjoy Evening is the Whole Day.

15 thoughts on “Review: Preeta Samarasan’s “Evening is the Whole Day”

  1. Amardeep, just to quarrel with your opening paragraph (“The situation for the Indian community in Malaysia has worsened in recent months . . . as I understand it the situation remains tenuous”) , while all that was true until March 8, 2008, the situation for Indian people in Malaysia is considerably improved. In the March elections, the ruling party, which had enjoyed a 2/3 super-majority, took a beating. It now has a simple majority, Minority groups abandoned their long-standing racial parties (the Indians had mostly supported the Malaysian Indian Congress), which made up the ruling coalition, in favor of opposition parties promoting economic growth, better jobs, better education, etc. for groups, like the Indians, who had been denied access.

    I said this in a comment on my post about A. Sivanesan, the lawyer I profiled, who won a seat in the March elections:

    It’s important to point out that the election wasn’t narrowly about the treatment of Indians in Malaysia but a referendum on the rights of all minorities, government corruption, cronyism, and the status quo. Political participation expanded significantly after Nov. 25th, and the incumbents were dealt a hard blow. The BN [ruling coalition] will continue to rule but with a reduced mandate and a much more vital (and larger) opposition.

    Malaysia is a complex and dynamic place, extremely important in the Indian diaspora. It’s fertile ground for work like Preeta’s, and I’m sure you will see more and more good stuff coming from there in the future.

  2. This was a somewhat strange review to read, in that it seems like you’re pushing for exactly what I sometimes dislike about fiction that takes place in “exotic” locales… the authors stretch to cover all of the important issues and/or provide a full representation of their country, often packed with clumsily-integrated translations and with western readers as an obvious target, and very often the quality of the fiction is completely sacrificed as a result. Certainly, good literature often takes place in the context of dramatic political, cultural, class, etc. upheaval and conflict, but that’s always the context, not the story itself, and we are moved by the characters, not the abstract larger situation.

    Aren’t you irritated by novels that attempt to “educate” you? I’d much rather be entranced, and what education happens comes about secondarily — either from what I learn through the characters, or what I’m inspired to research because my interest is piqued by what I’ve seen.

    I’ve been reading up on Malaysia already, particularly subsequent to the increased press that came with the recent elections… it’s fascinating stuff! But I wouldn’t demand or even wish for a novel to provide a comprehensive overview — that’s where I’d look for a good keyhole view instead.

  3. Aren’t you irritated by novels that attempt to “educate” you? I’d much rather be entranced, and what education happens comes about secondarily — either from what I learn through the characters, or what I’m inspired to research because my interest is piqued by what I’ve seen.

    I’ve been reading up on Malaysia already, particularly subsequent to the increased press that came with the recent elections… it’s fascinating stuff! But I wouldn’t demand or even wish for a novel to provide a comprehensive overview — that’s where I’d look for a good keyhole view instead.

    Short answer — I’m actually not troubled by what you describe as novels that give some sense of an overview or historical context. (I liked Tahmima Anam’s “A Golden Age” for the same reason). But that’s really just my particular taste — I like history.

    I think in this case, some parts of the novel are more historical, but most of the book, especially the second half, is really in what you call the “keyhole” mode — focused on the trials and travails of one particular Indian family in Malaysia. In the post above, I chose quotes from some of the historical debates, because they interested me in particular…

    [Preston, thanks for the corrections. Will try to update the post to reflect your comment in a bit.]

  4. I agree that the novel is a bit similar to Roy’s writing, though it also didn’t bother me. I found the story really compelling and the manipulation of language was great. I will say that it got a bit over the top a couple times. Overall, it was a great read and I would highly recommend it.

  5. Hm…who gave Arundathi Roy the patent on intricate word-play? Are Indian-origin authors of politically compelling, socially challenging fiction so unusual that they must somehow be related? Perhaps this is a different way of asking why brown authors are doomed to be continually compared–that too dimunitively–to each other? Could the inspiration for Samarasan’s exquisite language detail have possibly come from elsewhere….

  6. My guess is that Evening is the Whole Day is designed to awaken your hunger for knowledge about the tragedy of isolated communities in a seemingly diverse society and plantation-working tamils–not provide you with an comprehensive education about them. To view the novel as having a “somewhat narrow focus on the internal drama of a single, affluent family” misses the opportunity first, to perceive the internal drama in relationship to the external (Malaysian socio-political) drama, and second, to experience each of the complex relationships in then novel that somehow get lost in the words “single affluent family”. In a way perhaps wrapping up the story under the label of a family drama and placing the drama neatly inside a “static” big house maybe a useful psychic maneuouver on the part of the reader: perhaps its the only way to find some comforting ground in a novel that plays with figure and ground to the dizzying extent.

    To me, Evening is the Whole Day bubbled with commentary about dynamic macro relationships–colonizer and colonized, Bumiputras and immigrants, priveledged and disposssesed–that were paralleled and dealt with in the equally shifting micro relationships–Appa and Amma, Asha and McDougall’s daughter, Asha and Uma, Uma and Chellam to name just a few. In each of the complex relationships, Samarasan treats the subject of power and possession by layering the familial over the political in a way that offers not only a rivetting story but also a chaotic mass of questions about the nature of causality. Without giving away any more of the plot than I’ve insinuated, I’ll say that to me the novel invites the reader to ask questions, wonder and shiver about about who does what actively or passively to cause what–in a family and in a society that struggles with alienation, cruelty, and the problem of unevenly distributed power.

  7. Wow, even from the excerpts, I hear nothing but Arundhati Roy. Isn’t this a tad embarrassing to find that 10 years after TGOST, South Asian writers are so obsessed with Roy’s language? It has been internalized by an entire generation now. And not simply language, but her novel has been made into a formula: take a little-known locale, add a couple of generations, some politics, and a lot of verbal antics, and hey presto here’s a novel. (I am sensing too many plot-similarities here, at least.) I wonder if Naipaul is right in bundling all the new SA writers into the sort that churn out only fictionalized accounts of their extended families complete with “great characters…daddyji and mamaji and nanee and chacha”. I wish we would see more originality out of our writers. Sorry, I’m a pessimist.

  8. @Amardeep — I guess I wouldn’t say I’m against “some sense of an overview or historical context” — I’m mostly angling for evaluating novels from exotic locales (getting less exotic as the world shrinks…) as novels, foremost, not emissaries or representatives. The writers don’t have any responsibility to equally represent the various groups and subgroups of their region (e.g., the rubber plantation Indians) any more than John LeCarre must be taken down a peg for neglecting the non-spy members of the Moscow or DC communities. You’ll always get some picture, but normally it’s limited to the context of the central characters and the plot of the story. There’s quite often conflict between groups as part of the plot — here, you have servants contrasted to served, as well as the racial conflict going on — seen in vivid snatches as it intrudes on their lives. Actually, better comparison: The Remains of the Day — would it have been a better novel if he had offered a higher-level view of what was happening politically on a global scale and/or in other classes of English society? (rhetorical question…) Apply the same kinds of question to Philip Roth, Ian McEwan, etc..

    Correct me if I’m misreading, but that seemed like the undercurrent in your discussion — that she’s not adequately taking us into “the broader world of Malaysian life”. It’s the sort of critique that would sound really very strange if applied to any novel by, well, a white writer, which is my usual test.

    @Pessimist: The excerpts above are almost completely dialogue; are you reacting mostly to the style of speech? That’s more or less complaining about non-US/British English though…. In terms of narrator wordplay, though, certainly Rushdie was doing his own version earlier, or expand your net outside of brown people and you get Dickens plus, well, a lot of authors — not everyone is Hemingway. The narrative voice in Evening is the Whole Day isn’t a mimic of any of these, though… Arundhati Roy uses a lot of short sentences for effect, and has a quieter narrator — putting in some fireworks for intensity/drama, etc., but mostly staying out of the way; this narrator is big & powerful enough to almost be another character in the story. To some degree, it seems modeled after the teacher/narrator of Graham Swift’s Waterland (quoted in one of the epigraphs, and an excellent novel), particularly with its preoccupation with the functioning of history. The general approach is a sort-of limited omniscient enfolding of the characters — altering in content based on the characters currently in focus, not imitating their speech, just the perceptions and perspective — this was particularly striking with the children (I have a handful of books I’ve read in my life that have jolted me with memories of my own childhood, “yes I remember this”; there are a number of those kinds of moments in here).

    I’m sure it’s partly a matter of taste (if you want spare & terse, these are not the writers for you) as well as author skill: there’s a difference between piled-on redundant cliches and actual fresh, interesting language (with new twists hidden in the profusion).

    About the other comment — I suspect it’s obvious that novels involving an unfamiliar locale (separated by distance, by class, by time, etc.), an extended family and some politics weren’t invented by Roy… that’s not even sufficient to label a genre; it’s pervasive in fiction as a whole.

  9. okokok. You’re not like Roy at all (but I still maintain that you are).

    I do like you correcting the Poco scholar for requiring the novel to be a national narrative, ala Jameson. That’s absurd and goes to show how much poco theory damages its own; ‘Provincializing Europe’ is but a dream (read nightmare) to the Pocos.

  10. Hear hear Revv! I second: “The writers don’t have any responsibility to equally represent the various groups and subgroups of their region (e.g., the rubber plantation Indians) any more than John LeCarre must be taken down a peg for neglecting the non-spy members of the Moscow or DC communities”. I continue to be struck by the pressure that people like Pessimist place on South Asian writers. Notice that when Latin American writers sound like each other, a genre–like magic realism–is created around them. When SA writers sound like each other they are copycats. Word to the wise (and the pesimisstic): In between the enterprise of bundling and labelling brown authors based on excerpts, do consider reading the whole book. Might alleviate some of that depression about SA authors : )

  11. Dear Pessimist at #10:

    This is Preeta. Since you seem to have assumed, despite my restraint, that I was posting anyway under some other name, I figured why the hell not post for real. I generally have rules about not responding to reviews of my own writing, but if I’m getting accused of responding nevertheless, I feel I should set the record straight. So here I am for real — and rest assured that if I’d posted earlier I would’ve told you it was me, just like I’m doing now.

    Amardeep, thank you very much for the review and the publicity. I appreciate it, and the time you took to type in excerpts.

    Pessimist: You know nothing about my life, so:

    1) Lay off the accusations of autobiography. Too easy, too boring, too quickly proven wrong, and who the hell cares, anyway? 2) If you want to look for plot similarities despite not having read the book, here: a broad opening that attempts to give a sense of place; a defenseless young servant girl; a lot of court cases; an indictment of a very corrupt justice system; a 19th-century narrator who, oh yes, capitalises certain concepts. Ring a bell? Probably not, since it seems from this discussion that Indians only read Indian writers, and therefore have nothing else to compare them to. But I modelled this book very consciously on 2 other novels — they just weren’t by brown people.

    I think Revv and Browngirlintherain have both raised an issue — the burden of “representation” — that has been raised many times before, at least when I took postcolonial lit. classes, so I don’t quite see what’s so “absurd” about their questions, Pessimist. I’m guessing Amardeep himself would be open to that discussion.

    Finally, and this is a big one:

    3) What’s a national narrative, and how can you know if this book is or not when you know nothing about Malaysia? I tried to write a novel about a generation of disappointment and apathy that stemmed from the 1969 riots. That disappointment very directly sets off a chain of events in the novel; if anything, I worried that it was too direct a suggestion of cause and effect, not that it was too apolitical. Quiet apathy is not as sexy as war or genocide. I would argue that it is just as political, but I guess we’ll have to wait until Malaysians have a chance to say something about that to decide.

  12. Dear Preeta:

    Sorry for having upset you. I did not mean that your book is an autobiography. And even if it was (as first books are–Joyce, Sterne, Lawrence–the list is illustrious and long), so what. I was referring to a larger trend that I am observing in SA literature, and having read Roy’s book too many times to count, and having heard from too many budding writers to count, how much they admire her book, I do see how her way of thinking (melodrama) and phrasing things (which ends up as a novel’s language) has subliminally seeped into their works (e.g. doesn’t the “1) the Malay man didn’t really speak Tamil; and 2) she wasn’t anyone’s little sister.” and such lists sound a tad like: Estha thought Two Thoughts). Small point–really, I don’t wish to make a big deal about such similarities, honest.

    And even if you are compared to Roy, I would take that as a high compliment. Let’s face it, not even the supposed Dickens of our time (Z. Smith) is original. And a confession: I think your book opens beautifully. I’ve bought a copy (and I never buy new cloth eds) and I can’t wait for it’s language to assail me. You have accomplished a feat. And I am a big fan of “quiet apathy.” I think that is where the future of historical fiction lies (it has been there for quite some time–we just have to let the academia catch up). –Pessimist no longer.