Tuesday 21 April 2020

Sandeep Ray talks about his cinematic and deeply resonant historical novel, A Flutter in the Colony

Courtesy of Author

Sandeep Ray was born off the Straits of Malacca and spent his childhood next to a remote rubber plantation. He has lived in Kolkata, Massachusetts, and Jakarta. His first career was in filmmaking, working for various documentary companies based in the United States, often traveling to and in Asia. His last feature-length film, The Sound of Old Rooms (2011), was screened at many international forums and won the Grand Prize at the Taiwan International Documentary Film Festival. In recent years, after completing a doctoral degree in history, he has taught at the University of Wisconsin and at Rice University, researching and teaching about the late-colonial period in Southeast Asia. He currently lives in Singapore and is a Senior Lecturer at the Singapore University of Technology and Design. His next book, forthcoming from NUS Press in 2021 is titled, Celluloid Colony: How the Dutch Framed the Indonesian Archipelago.


In 1956, the Senguptas travel from Calcutta to rural Malaya to start afresh. In their new hamlet of anonymity, the couple gradually forget past troubles and form new ties. But this second home is not entirely free and gentle. A complex, racially charged society, it is on the brink of independence even as communist insurgents hover on the periphery. How much should a newcomer meddle before it starts to destroy him? Shuttling in time and temper across the Indian Ocean, A Flutter in the Colony is a tender, resonant chronicle of a family struggling to remain together in the twilight of Empire in Asia.

Courtesy of Author

EC: Welcome to Asian Books Blog, Sandeep. Congratulations on A Flutter In The Colony, a wonderful, deeply resonant, deeply sad and thought-provoking read for me. Your acknowledgements identified an essay you wrote titled “In the Time of Moths” many years ago as kernel for this book. Can you tell us more about this inspiration?  

SR: Thank you Elaine. A long time ago, before I was allowed to wear long-pants, my father told me a story about sitting on a balcony one evening and being ambushed by dozens of enormous moths. It was in the mid-1950s and apparently the local Chinese in our small town believed that the moths were the spirits of people executed during the Japanese Occupation and unceremoniously dumped in the woods near our house. At some point later in my life, I turned on a cassette recorder and asked him a lot of questions about that period, including his experiences during the Malayan Emergency. People newly arrived to a country often remember details with enviable clarity. I saved the tapes. Decades later, at the University of Michigan, I wrote the above-mentioned essay as a term paper, sprinkling his personal anecdotes with the history of that period. I enjoyed the process of mingling raw, choppy, personal tales with established, sanctioned, peer-reviewed histories. I started thinking more about that era in Malayan history and my own family’s tale of emigration. At any rate, that’s when I first remember wondering whether there was a novel somewhere and thus that word ‘kernel’. I concede that my father, long deceased, might have been amused with the book; imagined histories rarely match lived experiences.   

EC: The protagonist here, an Indian migrant from Calcutta who became a clerk for a rubber estate in colonial Malaya, sees Malaya as a land ‘lush and rich enough’ that whatever you ‘sprinkle’, ‘grows’: the ‘Malayan dream’ as it were. Curiously, however, it wasn’t the dream that propelled migration, but rather the dream was affordable once the Senguptas landed in Malaya and perceived it as rich. How should we contextualise his dreams versus those of many Indian migrants who arrived in Malaya to work on plantations?

SR: Thank you for this observation. Yes, the circumstances were different. Let me take a small step back in time. Empire in the late-colonial period looked at India and Malaya quite differently. India was large, ancient and prestigious – the Jewel in the Crown – but Malaya was where the wealth was – the economic diamond. The British imagination of a tame, diverse, supple, dirt-cheap workforce, systematically churning enormous wealth on rich arable land and in large mines swiftly created a huge influx of labourers who came by ship – a seasick diaspora if you will. Once domiciled in Malaya, they were, like Nag the crooked clerk observes, mostly better off than the families they left behind in India yet they had no wealth to speak of. And worse, they had absolutely no social or political standing. Some white-collar professionals like clerks, accountants, small-business operators, trickled in throughout the first part of the twentieth-century, often to leave impoverished conditions in India but they too had little stake in the new country. In my book, Sengupta arrives in the 1950s and observes right away that the economic situation in Malaya was better than he had expected. But he didn’t come to escape wrenching poverty; he came to Malaya to forget his old life marked by tragedy and to find a new home for his family. That he became solvent was helpful, but not key to the story.              

EC: This novel juxtaposes two segments of history – that of the 1946 Calcutta killings (or Direct Action Day) with the Malayan Emergency period, centred around the Malayan Declaration of Independence in 1957. This shuttling between two historical time periods and events is threaded through by the human tragedy you mentioned above that befell the protagonist in Calcutta (no spoilers). This breaking-up of linear narrative struck me also as a cinematic device that interestingly revealed psychological depths in the protagonist while simultaneously lifting his story out of the personal into an overarching historical significance about the formation of country-hood and the human costs of doing so. Were these your intentions?

SR: While colonies in Asia had different trajectories in their paths to freedom, the core ethos of those struggles were similar. If you experienced an anti-imperialist moment in your life and were embedded in it, you would relate to it somewhere else. Despite the insistence of political scientists that the nation-state is the most successful marker of our need to identify with a larger group, I suspect that allegiances based on ideas, even if pan-national, could be as powerful as those created by raising a flag. Values and not geography or ethnicity can be a strong driver of identity. I explore and connect these histories, separated by time and location, to make this point – that notions of freedom from colonial rule and self-determination travel with you, no matter where you end up. What destroyed Sengupta in Calcutta, woke him up in Malaya.    

The personal journey can mould an individual beyond primordial allegiances. Sengupta develops a weakness for Wong, a Malayan Communist Party collaborator, despite the fact that Wong steals from him, because the dream of a Malaya free of British lording became very attractive to him. His wife Maloti, a major character in the book, reminds him of his past idealism in India and the sacrifices they had made and he realizes that they are intertwined.

EC: I noticed early on that we aren’t told the protagonist’s first name, and we, in fact, never do get his first name. We also don’t get to know the exact location – what town, what state (only that it takes just an hour to get to Seremban). As I continued reading, the omission of Sengupta’s first name became a leading dramatic question until I realised the reason towards the end (no spoilers, but I see it as his and the author’s personal claims to history). This element intriguingly also highlighted the protagonist’s ‘psychological hollowing’ following the tragedy he was involved in during Direct Action Day. Why was it important to you to withhold this information?

SR: Ha! Maybe someone will take a compass and draw a small circle around Seremban to guess where the story is located. No, I’m not saying more. This is a work of fiction, I insist. But does it reflect the lives of real people? Certainly. Could someone read it and find their family history in it? Possibly. Did I filch stories from real lives? Maybe. But before you judge me – tell me, who doesn’t? Truth is, most of the characters in the book are a combination of various people. This is a common approach of writers – to lift what happened to (A), (B), and (C) – and layer it into one individual. Wouldn't that make for a rich, unusual journey?    

EC: It appears that you did a lot of historical research for this novel, and you’re now a historian who also teaches. How did you decide what to fictionalise and what to remain true as historical detail for the novel? 

SR: It involves juggling. You want the story to feel credible and grounded. And to get that texture you have to find primary sources that give you those details. These tend to be accounts of real people. But since it's a story, you shuffle things around to create an illusion of fiction. I don’t think it hides very much though. As you make up your narrative, you must write a tale that is fictitious but plausible. I feel vindicated when someone who has lived through that period reads my book and says, “yes, yes, this seems about right, could have happened.” The details matter to those people and it would be disrespectful to create implausible situations or fanciful tales of glory. In short, don’t embellish or find short cuts, especially in this era of tremendous archival access. In addition to the smaller observations, there must an honest effort to portray the events of the larger condition. The biggest gap in Malaysian narratives about the Emergency are the experiences of the Min Yuen or civilian supporters of the MCP. Writers are scared to go there I think; we’re still looking at the past through a Cold War lens. It’s been more than half a century, and its time to open up that period. We’re distorting Malaysian history if we pretend that certain things never happened in that country or by simplifying it in a good versus bad story. Things become ahistorical and fall apart the moment we ascribe morality and politics based on contemporary ideas. While individual lives can be fictionalised, the larger history should hold up to scrutiny. I try to be true to this precept. 

EC: Only when I started reading deeper into Malaysian political history (after leaving Malaysia) did I begin to appreciate that while three races gathered at the padang for Independence Day, each racial community responded to the Japanese Occupation and the subsequent Malayan Emergency very differently. The historical weight of this novel for me resides much in the neglected Indian migrant perspective, piercing behind the veil of how the Malayan Indian community was perceived as responding to the Emergency. Was that an important goal for you for this book?

SR: This is a perceptive question and a difficult one to answer. I grappled with it while writing the book. On the one hand, you are talking about people who had been in Malaya for decades and yet supported the Japanese when they started their violent occupation in 1942. Many marched off with the Indian National Army, others gave up their jewellery. I look at my local Chinese students whose ancestors were massacred during the Sook Ching and their expressions are unmistakable, “how could the Indians side with an invading army that killed tens of thousands of us right here?” This feels like betrayal right? In a sense it was. But we need to accept that it wasn't till quite a while after WW2 that immigrant Indians were actually allowed to feel Malayan, that they were truly part of their new country of domicile and were wanted here. 

Back then, you could have been born and raised in Johor and yet aspire for the freedom of the land of your forefathers in Kerala, a place you had never seen. This was not uncommon. Conversely, there were Indians in the MCP, albeit a much smaller star in the Tiga-Bintang, who had ties with the international Communist movement and aspired for freedom from imperial rule, regardless of country. This notion of unreserved loyalty to just one country, the one whose flag you post on your Twitter profile, the one whose passport you hold, is a fairly modern idea. And it remains imperfect. People throughout history have moved around. New nations are full of grifters and drifters, often with confounding, contrasting allegiances. Their lives make for good stories. 

NB: A Flutter in the Colony may be purchased from Gerak Budaya-Penang
 (please support your local indie bookshop) and Harper Collins India.