Sunday, February 20, 2011

Coming: Interlok's ideal antidote

Come August, barring the unexpected, Malaysian readers will be able to access the ideal antidote to the controversial literary text, Interlok, which is said to be disparaging of Indian Malaysians.

A book, 'A History of Indians in Malaysia: From the Melaka Sultanate to Hindraf,' is set to be published in that month. It will tell the story of Indian Malaysians' contribution to the development of the country.

The author, Carl Vadivella Belle, is what academics would call an 'Indologist,' in the same vein scholars of Chinese studies are termed 'Sinologists.' He is in the final stages of completing the manuscript for publication.

Vadivella Belle, aged 62, became enamored of things Malaysian when he was the Attache (Development Assistance) at the Australian High Commission here in 1976-79.

Fascination with the annual Thaipusam festival led this former Lutheran to become a Hindu in 1981.

A doctoral dissertation, 'Thaipusam in Malaysia: A Hindu Festival Misunderstood,' obtained for him a Phd from Deakin University, Melbourne, 2004.

This was followed by a paper, 'The Development of Indian Political Consciousness in Malaya: Colonialism, Nationalism and Subhas Chandra Bose' that he submitted in 2009 to the Centre for Indian Diaspora Studies at the University of Hyderabad.

After that it was a logical progression for Vadivella to attempt the book he hopes would place the contributions of Indian Malaysians to national development in proper perspective.

“I think this contribution has not been accorded the recognition that is properly its due,” he told Malaysiakini in an interview at the tail end of his month-long stay in country that took in the Thaipusam celebration in Batu Caves last month and ended with the Masi Magham festival in Malacca earlier this week.

He said two earlier forays on the subject, one by Kernial Singh Sandu in 1969 ('Indian Migrations to Malaya') and the other by Sinappah Arasaratnam ('Indians in Malaysia'), were seminal works at the time of their publication, but both left out what Vadivella claimed were factors critical to the whole story: Imperial Britain's theories on race and religion that impacted adversely on Indian migrant labor in Malaya.

Vadivella said his book would examine those theories and how they affected the plight of the Indians who were brought to Malay to work in plantation agriculture, road and railway construction, and the development of ports.

“The laying of the transport infrastructure in the peninsula was in large part the work of Indians,” he asserted.

“The perception that the life of the Tamil indentured laborer in Malaya was better than what he experienced in his place of origin has to be put against such facts as the 18 per cent mortality rate from malaria, snakebite and malnutrition suffered by them in many parts of the peninsula,” he elaborated.

Vadivella said between the setting up of the Straits Settlements in 1826 and Merdeka in 1957, 4.2 million Indians had come to Malaya.
Of this number, he said 2.8 million returned to their ancestral land by the time of Independence. He said by 1957, 700,000 Indians in Malaya were local-born.

Vadivella obtained research grants for the book from the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) in Singapore, which is headed by by Klang-born M. Kesavapany, a former High Commissioner of Singapore to Malaysia.

The book is scheduled to be launched in August in Singapore. This will be followed by a launch in Kuala Lumpur.

Vadivella has done research for the book among archives in Malaysia, Singapore, India and England.

The writing is done at his 20-acre farm on which he and wife Wendy live in the rural small town of Millicent, which is about 400 kilometers from Melbourne.

“The mornings I devote to my writing and the afternoons to manual labor on the farm,” said Vadivella, of a pattern that is an apparent reversal of that of the people who are the subject of his book, who rose early for their daily labor and retired in the late afternoon.

Of course, the disjunction is of no import to a man who third child, a son, Carl Jr, was born in Kuala Lumpur and spoke Tamil to the housemaid, Jayaletchumy, before learning to speak in English to his parents.

“Malaysia is a fascinating in its complexity,” said Vadivella, with evident affection for the three years he spent here.

“It's sad to see so much that's fascinating about it marred by the racial prisms through which it is viewed,” he opined.