On a Saturday afternoon on 27 April 2019, I attended a book launch at the Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Indian Cultural Centre in Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur. The event was also attended by about seventy other like minded Malaysians from all walks of life. The book that was being launched is titled Beyond The Sea and its title in Tamil is Kadalakku Appaal
H.E. Shri Mridul Kumar, the High Commissioner of India to Malaysia was given the honour to officially launch the book. The book was written by P Singaram. As a young man of eighteen, he had gone from Madurai in India to Medan in Sumatra, Indonesia to work. While in Medan, he often traveled to the port of Penang.
In Penang, Singaram spent a lot of time in the Penang Library. It was here also that he read the following books by famous writers like Hemingway, Tolstoy, Faulkner, Chekov and Dostoyevsky. He was impressed and inspired by these writers and found much solace being in the library and being able to read these novels.
One Great Tamil Novel of Penang (Sunil S Amirth )
P Singaram ( 1920 – 1997 ) is considered one of the foremost Tamil novelists of the modern period. This coveted status was achieved despite the fact that he authored only two novels. Both novels were set in South East Asia.
In his lengthy foreword, Sunil S Amirth, Chair of South Asian Studies, Harvard University had this to say inter alia: ‘ Capturing the textures, the tensions and the everyday language of Penang’s social life in Tamil prose is Singaram’s singular achievement ‘. This is high praise indeed.
Recognition and Publication Came Late
Singaram wrote his first book, Beyond The Sea in 1950 and his second book, ‘ A Boat in a Storm ‘ in 1962. Its title in Tamil is Puyalile Oru Thoni in 1962. He faced many challenges in finding publishers and his novels remained unpublished till 1972!
His work according to Sunil S Amirth stands out in part because there have been relatively few Tamil works of literature that have depicted life in the port cities of South East Asia. This is despite the intensive and long standing presence of Tamil communities in every one of them. That is why Sunil S Amirth says authoritatively: You have before you the one great Tamil novel of Penang.
The novel is set in the aftermath of the Japanese occupation of Malaya and especially Penang and revolves around a Chettiar community in Penang. As you read the novel, one gets to understand the deep seated culture and forces at play in the Chettiar community and the high respect and authority accorded to the chief money lender.
Areca Books Amazing Contribution
It takes courage, determination and an abiding love for your cause that makes you want to do the extraordinary. Areca Books based in Penang specialises in publishing and selling books on cultural heritage, social history, visual arts, environment and architecture of South East Asia.
Kudos to Khoo Salma Nasution and her co-founders at Areca Books for taking on this challenging task which is often a lonely and thankless battle. For more on what they have to offer, you can contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org
A True Professional to the Last
The English version of this book would not have seen the light of day without the expert assistance and translation of R. Karthigesu ( 1940 – 2016 ). A former professor of Mass Communication at University Science Malaysia (USM), he was also a broadcaster with an illustrious career in Radio Television Malaysia. He is also an award winning author and he wrote five novels, five short stories and two collections of literary essays in Tamil. What was admirable about his feat was that he undertook this challenging task while battling a serious illness. He accepted the task and finished it as his final contribution to the literary world.
I enjoyed reading the book and especially about a time in the recent past before we gained our independence as a nation in 1957. It is indeed a pity that both P Singaram and R Kathigesu did not live to see the event take place. However, what is certain is that their hard work, struggles, writings and legacy lives on.