By Mohani Niza

Malaysian writer Saras Manickam was jet lagged. She had just come back from Québec City when she emailed me her answers to this interview, apologising profusely for the delay. She was in Canada to attend the award ceremony of the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. The grand prize went to Constantia Soteriou from Cyprus for the short story ‘Death Customs’ but Saras’ win in the Asia category for her story ‘My Mother Pattu’ is nothing less than spectacular.

Prior to this, a group of international panelists chaired by British novelist, playwright and essayist Caryl Phillips had chosen 5,000 stories from over 50 Commonwealth countries. 21 stories were shortlisted.

Saras’ win in the Asia category had been announced in May. She beat ‘Miss Coelho, English Teacher’ by Indian author Kiran Doshi and ‘Pengap’. The latter was written and translated respectively by fellow Malaysians Lokman Hakim and Adriana Nordin Manan. It was the first time that Malaysian writers were shortlisted for the prize.

‘My Mother Pattu’ tells the heart-wrenching story of a young Malaysian Tamil girl called Lalitha and her mother Pattu, whose contempt for her daughter is as strong as her will to survive in a patriarchal society.

Lalitha is an innocent schoolgirl whose fondness includes orange crush, cycling, eating kuay teow and playing badminton with her multi-racial neighbours. The story is set in 1965 or so, around 8 years after merdeka (independence) and Lalitha’s singular aim for the moment is to see ‘The Sound of Music’ which has just arrived in town. Pattu is dead-set against this and it is not due to mere motherly dissaproval, but something deeper and darker. As the story unravels, Saras reveals why Pattu is so hostile and envious towards Lalitha.

Saras described the day she received the news of her win. “Early morning, barely awake, with a coffee on hand, I was scrolling down the emails on my phone,” she said. “I see a mail from the Commonwealth Foundation and I opened it, thinking – not thinking anything actually, barely awake etc. and I read the news. I just went “Wow!”. It was a bit surreal. And yes, I was delighted afterwards. And also aware of the luck factor. I was lucky. Lokman Hakim’s story was amazing. I loved it.”

Saras said the writing process was “slow, very slow, adding: “I pottered on this story for years; dozens of drafts, all of them missing out on something or other. There was this awareness that the characters had to be whole, complex, complicated because that’s what people are. There are so many shades to a person and I had to resist making them just two-toned.”

I told Saras I found it amazing that the other four regional winners are women and asked her whether she considered herself a “woman writer.”

“For the longest time, I always thought of myself as a writer, just that,” Saras said. “I never thought that my gender defined me until a dear friend pointed out that when you write, where you’re coming from, shapes your ideas, processes, approaches. I can go deeply into a woman’s thinking because I’ve been there, am there. I may think I know what a man thinks but do I really? Am I making assumptions? Frankly, I don’t know how to answer this question. To say I am a woman writer implies to me that I have an agenda. I don’t know about that. I tell stories. And I tell them the way I know how.”

Saras continued: “You’re right – it’s amazing that the other winners are all women. The sisterhood in Quebec City when we finally met was amazing. We clicked instantly. I’m sure all of us wanted to win the top prize but there was no rancour, no envy for Constantia when she won. Hers is an amazing, simply amazing story written in such an unusual narrative style. I so want to write like her!”

I also told Saras that I saw her story as an ode to a Malaysia that used to be more racially-harmonious and asked her how we could get that back.

“Race and religion define us more than ever. Every darn thing seems to be drawn according to these two limiting definitions,” she said. “But you know what, I watch the children of Bangsa Ria (this is a day-care centre for mentally disabled adults) interacting with each other. Chronologically adults, their mental ages range from 3 to perhaps 8 or 10. Most of them can’t speak but their friendship, their devotion to each other, shames me. They have no idea what race and religion mean; they just like each other and are happy in each other’s company. They can teach us a thing or two!”

 ‘My Mother Pattu’ can be read here.

About Mohani Niza

Mohani Niza is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Culture Review Mag.