Ode to Broken Things

(originally published as Thunder Demons)

Muslims around the world often claim Malaysia as an example of a perfectly secular, Islamic country where ethnic Malays, tribal peoples, and Indian and Chinese live side by side in peace and harmony. Professor Dipika Mukerjee’s debutThunder Demons, long listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize, sets out to examine if indeed Malaysia is on its way to being such a country.

Thunder Demons is very much a novel about Malaysia’s to-date official policy of advancement based on race rather than merit. It is also a story about where and why people choose to spend their lives — in their birth countries or the countries they adopt. The novel begins with a stunning prologue which serves to set up an intrigue ridden contemporary Malaysia where Royalty, Government and Army are in cahoots. The main protagonists of the novel are Agni who has returned to Malaysia to be with her stroke ridden grandmother, and the aging Jay Ghosh who returns to Malaysia after thirty years on the behest of his mentor Colonel S although he struggles with the burden of secrets that Malaysia only makes worse.

Upon his return, the first thing Jay does is contact Agni, the daughter of his childhood friend, Shanti. And Agni, much to her grandmother’s dismay, welcomes Jay’s overtures in order to find out why her mother committed suicide. The tight and fast paced plot alternates between Jay gradually discovering the insidious reason Colonel S has summoned him, and Agni gradually coming to terms with whether she wants to settle down with her boyfriend Abhik.

Mukherjee deftly shows how Malaysian Indians (in particular Bengalis) have retained their culture and yet welcome all Malaysians to partake in it. She also expertly weaves the political turmoil engulfing Malaysia into the characters’ lives be it an assassination plot, a bomb plot, or a demonstration by the ethnic minorities for more rights.

In fact this political commentary — though never didactic — is at the heart of the novel and one which elevates it from a good thriller into an excellent look at contemporary societies and the challenges posed by assimilation for both the immigrants and the indigenous peoples.

Agni’s voice brought Jay back to the open air hawker stalls that functioned as a huge food court under balmy skies, fragrant with mingling cuisines. He again heard the shouts of the clients with the languages all mixed up; names of foods learnt from the languages of the hawkers, never translated, and even he had once known how to order exactly what he wanted in Cantonese, Hokkien, or Hakka. The words hadn’t fazed him at all, all these cultures comingling in a history that was older than anyone alive.

Agni and Abhik struggle with the quintessential dilemma many children of diaspora face: although their parents may call another country “back-home”, for Agni and Abhik, born and bred in Malaysia, it is Malaysia and only Malaysia that is home. What to do then if Malaysia does not recognize them as “bumiputra”, literally “sons of the soil”, and thereby does not grant them the rights and privileges afforded the Malays and indigenous tribes.

Most of the characters in the novel-told-from-multiple-points-of-view get a turn at exploring the “bumiputra versus equal rights for all” from their particular vantage point; their differing perspectives proves to be a very fascinating read. There is Jay, rescued in childhood by a Malay, and now being told that he owes the Malay, and thereby Malaysia, his loyalty. There is the ever intriguing Colonel S’ wonderful voice, acerbic and cantankerous as he bemoans how the predominantly Muslim Malays are being corrupted by the “mini dressed Chinese and belly baring Indian women”. There are Shapna’s alarming memories of once upon a time Malaysia as well as tales about Hindu mythology told in such luminous prose that the rest of the novel risks being rendered pedestrian by comparison.

Yet there is another story about Saraswati that we do not tell. It is this: Saraswati was born out of the mind of Brahma, the creator of the universe. She was truly his manas putri, daughter of his mind. Yet Brahma, seeing his beautiful creation, was consumed with lust for her. Saraswati, horrified fled this relationship. But the aged, all-powerful Brahma would not give up. He grew an extra head and then another, and another, until he had five so that she could not escape in any direction. Thus did he corner her and force her to his will.

And there are the lovers Agni and Abhik trying to find their place in each other’s lives as well as in the fabric of this diverse country.

Abhik reached out to tickle Lucy, Greg’s dog, curled up in a resplendent sheen on the sofa. ‘And you know what really gets me? We are the post-1969 generation. We don’t care about the 1969 riots because they didn’t happen to us. But, with all the Bumi nonsense, we’re all like — she’s Indian, he’s Chinese, she’s Malay. But there are so many Chindians and Malchins? The all-mixed-ups, huh? ‘
‘You mean mongrel breeds like me?’ Agni chortled. ‘We should just accept that here we are, two screwed-up people who will never belong anywhere.’
‘The globally promiscuous,’ Abhik articulated with relish, ‘belong in many places and in none.’

In Malaysia, the ethnically Bengali Agni works at airport security on the lookout for suspicious things and persons. Her best friend and colleague is the Malay Rohani who is rather sick of what Malaysia is turning into: a Muslim country where Islam is coming to mean stricter rules especially for women. In fact she’s so sick of it, she wants to leave and go to the U.S., the very country from which Agni has returned. Agni and Rohini indulge in some very tantalizing ideas concerning incest and homosexuality and unequal societies.

Agni reacted to her flippancy. ‘The Anwar case wasn’t about sex! It was fucking politics that on you Malays could talk about. The rest of us just sat in front of our TV screen and watched with our mouths shut.’
The silence grew…
Rohani shrugged self-consciously. ‘I just don’t believe it’s okay for all consensual adults to have sex. Let’s draw out the parallel. Is it okay for adults to have incestuous sex? Like brother and sister, mother and son? Let’s say possible pregnancies are taken out of the equation. So if any two adults have consensual sex, is it okay?’
‘Incest is never okay.’
‘Well, incest was okay for the pharaohs … and the Mughals too. For me, gay sex is eeeeww. So it’s all quite relative, pun intended.’

Alas Mukherjee does not explore these issues in any depth despite the fact that some of these issues are deeply connected to the text. One type of reader may like this brevity; another may not — I didn’t. I think it would have been a far richer novel had Mukherjee probed deeper into Rohani and Agni’s friendship. Instead the two girls dance around this issues of race, but perhaps this evasion is Mukherjee’s intent. After all is it possible to have an honest friendship on equal footing when the very society you are a part of dictates that you are unequal.

It is very interesting that Mukherjee chooses to have the Bumiputri Rohani opt to leave Malaysia while Agni chooses to stay despite the fact that Malaysian politics will end up costing her so much. But it is her country, Agni feels, and there is no such thing as escape from your country: the best one can do is remain and believe that one can affect change. Whether this is true or not remains anyone’s guess in the real world, and Thunder Demons is a valiant effort at coming to some answers. Mukherjee has written a fine, fast paced novel that can easily serve as a primer on the goings-on in contemporary Malaysia so much so that Mukherjee’s Malaysian publisher backed out at the last moment citing a political fallout.