While listening to Salman Rushdie suggest last month at Stanford University that the “distance between the public arena and private life” is at the core of contemporary fiction, I was struck by how much Preeta
Samarasan’s Evening is the Whole Day attempts alignment with Rushdie’s observation. Both the author and her debut novel are very much from somewhere: Malaysia. But it is a bit too simplistic to suggest that this setting encapsulates Samarasan’s public arena. Her Indian ancestry and American upbringing give the novel a sensibility that is much more universal in ambition. Samarasan ambitiously looks at and beyond Malaysia while plumbing the daily malaise of one family.
At one level this is a rather provincial novel that runs the risk of exoticizing the other: the Malays, Chinese, and Indians are not like the rest of us; Malaysia is not the United States, nor is it India; indeed, for those of us who have done business in Southeast Asia or perhaps just traveled through the area, Malaysia isn’t even Singapore. Samarasan astutely sidesteps this risk by locating her family in the dead city of Ipoh instead of the more vibrant Kuala Lumpur or Penang. This enables her to focus her observations on the tragic aspirations of a particular clan—the Rajasekharans.
It is in the private space of this family that the novel sings. Four generations of Rajasekharans have made Malaysia home. The youngest is a toddler, Aasha, who communicates with ghosts that haunt the family. Her older sister, Uma, is leaving for Columbia University, and her brother, Suresh, will become the heir apparent receiver of their father’s sparse attention once Uma boards the plane for America. While Samarasan’s gift is to give the children points of view that are believable and compelling, she has the confidence and competence to chillingly shift perspective to their parents—Appa and Amma—as well as to their paternal grandmother—Paati—and the child-servant—Chellam—hired to serve Paati’s every whim and serve as a surrogate sister to Aasha and Suresh when their biological sister pulls away emotionally and geographically. Appa and Amma have names, but these names are rarely mentioned, not even when Appa (Raju) is courting Amma (Vasanthi) before marriage. Although this novel attacks very adult issues like master/servant, home/exile, power/powerlessness, and love/lovelessness, these are most effectively seen through children’s eyes.
Samarasan’s acute observations of the Big House where the Rajasekharan children live and its immediate environment are singularly insightful. In this, the novel suggests that we have an original writer who has an imaginative inner life that readers will want to dip into long after finishing Evening is the Whole Day. But it is altogether possible that Samarasan has overreached into the public arena that Rushdie spoke of. Her attempt to include Malaysia in her expansive scope is ill advised. Within the first two paragraphs of the final chapter, readers see the promising strength of this novel as well as its deficiency:
“The night before Uma leaves for America is so hot that people wake up drenched in their beds. At dawn the sparrows are neither seen nor heard … By nine o’clock, leaves, flowers, hair, spirits, resolve, and biscuits left on breakfast tables are turning limp. Butter melts. Coconut milk curdles before it can be used for lunchtime curries … On the red formica table in the Big House, the New Straits Times flutters untouched under a vase. The sour, inky smell of the front-page headlines (so bold! so black! so sure!) wafts all the way through a momentous day not only for them but for the nation at large …”
Sometimes a story—a touching, lively, and perhaps even loving story—of a place, need not strain to be an explication about that place. If readers are hoping for a literary rendering of Malaysia, they will be disappointed by this novel. However, a momentous day for a family can be more than enough; it doesn’t have to expand into a metaphor for a country. Just as evening need not be the whole day, Samarasan’s novel doesn’t have to be read as a vision of postcolonial Malaysia. The lyrical language describing limp leaves, melted butter, curdled milk, and sour, inky smell of headlines is marvelous. It is quite satisfying as a vision of a flawed family, thrillingly written by a young novelist who sees the world through a fresh perspective. Such is the joy of hearing a new voice emerge.
|After a long run in the corporate world, Rajesh C. Oza now balances his life between family and friends, organizational alignment and consulting, reading and writing, India and America. He has published fiction and nonfiction and is presently writing a memoir about his childhood in India, Canada, and the United States. Raj can be reached at email@example.com|