“Green is the prime colour of the world, and that from which loveliness arises”
February 27, 2010 § 3 Comments
Reading Lloyd Fernando’s Green is the Colour is like being in a dream, or rather a sort of slow-moving, languid nightmare where you know the end is going to come slowly, but when it comes it’s not going to be good. That’s not an indication of the book, but an indication of the world within the book, a world that seems all too familiar until you realise that it’s the world of Malaysia, circa 2010. As the book is meant to reflect the state of the nation after the May 13, 1969 events and state of emergency, this is a horribly depressing realisation, but if I’m honest with myself, not a surprising one.
As a MyKad-carrying Malaysian, it is rather deplorable that Green is the Colour was written in 1993 and I am reading it for the first time in February 2010. It’s worse when you think about the fact that I was an English major, and should have taken a keener interest in the literature that was being produced in Malaysia, and within Southeast Asia. (So let’s not think about this too much.) Lloyd Fernando is a Singaporean, technically, but that’s a minor quibble surely, considering that this region is practically founded upon interreligious and interethnic mingling.
But national purity is just what gets the knickers of fundamental nationalists in a twist. And the issues and concerns of nationalism is a fundamental thread that runs through the entire book, casting shadows over matters of race, religion, colonialism, independence, identity, and love (specifically love between ‘outsiders’, love for the Other).
Malaysia is a jittery nation post-May 13, and all its insecurities and fears are refracted through the thoughts and behaviour of the main characters: Siti Sara, a Malay sociology professor, Yun Ming, a Chinese civil servant, and Dahlan, a Malay bleeding-heart lawyer and activist, and to lesser degrees Gita, an Indian who is Siti Sara’s friend and colleague, as well as the uglier personas like Panglima and Omar, Sita Sara’s misguided husband.
Central to the story is Siti Sara’s burgeoning love affair with Yun Ming, who is married to a woman he seemed to have stopped loving a long time ago. In this case, the words ‘love affair’ really does suggest all that is hidden, illicit, and reckless, because in the highly volatile aftermath of the recent racial riots in Malaysia, a sexual relationship between a Chinese individual and a Malay one is not only taboo, but downright dangerous.
The only Malaysia we’re given in this book is a depressed, divided one (the only Malaysia most of us have ever known?); not merely along racial and class lines, but also ideological ones – simple barriers that nevertheless create chasms that appear insurmountable, even among people who were formerly good friends (Yun Ming and Dahlan). In the aftermath of colonisation, nations need to carve out individual identities. Green is the Colour typically exemplifies the inherent confusion that lies in a nation-building project – chiefly among the ‘ordinary’ citizens, the ones not vested with political power. It brings to mind Benedict Anderson’s definition of nations as imagined communities (the entire book, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism is an illuminating, original read, but this short excerpt provides a quick distillation of his key theses). There is a definite need for a sense of ‘comradeship’ among the disparate ethnic groups residing in Malaysia; but it’s a haphazard sense of comradeship, enforced by the government and accepted by the citizens themselves, but it’s more akin to sticking band-aids over a broken, bleeding leg instead of performing the much-needed surgery.
But, as Fernando tries to show, there is a real sense of terror in the nation’s psyche after the recent racial riots, and the general consensus is to refrain from “making things worse.” To drum home the point, this phrase is uttered within the first three pages of the book by Yun Ming, the placating, by-the-book civil servant, as he tells Dahlan during a cultural concert organised by the Department of Unity to lay low and leave off from ruffling the feathers of the Department’s Secretary-General. Dahlan, along with Siti Sara, wears his emotions close to his skin, so much so that he’s unable to leave the band-aid of pseudo-unity on for any length of time without chafing against the friction of the ‘fake’ Malaysia versus the real Malaysia.
Yun Ming’s concern for Dahlan’s outspokenness on issues that are deemed ‘sensitive’ is the greatest irony of the book, because it’s the sensitive who are willing to speak out against what’s sensitive, or in the case of Siti Sara, internalise much of its contradictions and suffer from a sense of displaced individuality, a kind of vertigo of the self that sends long-cherished beliefs and principles into a tragic freefall. But Yun Ming’s concern for Dahlan goes deeper than mere defensiveness – he cares about his old friend, and knows that the very people who applaud Dahlan will be the very ones who run back to the comforts of their own lives when the time comes to pay a price for one’s words:
“He supposed it was a great thing to be able to do what Dahlan did and was doing. The pseudo-intellectuals would gather around him and admire his active commitment. It was in the best traditions of liberalism. If he was arrested, they would put the hat around for his defence. If there was no trial they would murmur in the luxury of their living-rooms at night. None of them would look further to ask, Are not Dahlan’s opponents committed, too? Is not Dahlan wrong just to bring an idea in without asking how it should be brought in for people of different cultures?”
In Yun Ming, we have a character who toes the line not because he’s unthinking or unfeeling, but simply because he sees no other alternative. In that passage above, his ruminations are justified. But there is no one with whom Dahlan and the likes can engage in dialogue. It’s an either/or mentality that is pervasive in a time when discussion, empathy, and structural analysis would have better served the people.
But as Fernando shows through the characters of the vile Panglima, and to a lesser degree in Omar, Siti Sara’s husband, the quickest route to national identity is also the easiest way – a hearkening back to how things were before the British came, as though pre-colonised Malaya was a pure landscape of a single ethnic group, practising only one type of religion.
Omar, who while he was a student in America with Siti Sara, enjoyed the privileges of an ‘imperial’ education, now finds the only solution is to retreat into close-mindedness – and one gets the sense that this is both of out of a sense of fear of the unknown (what will Malaysia turn out to be?) and out of falling into the rut of listening to, and subscribing, to only one small, narrow view of the world. This is evident in one of the conversations he has with his wife:
“He said, ‘We’ll be all right. First we must purify and strengthen ourselves, then nothing can touch us. We’ll be all right.’
This was a manner he had begun to cultivate: rage was overcome by remembering that all obstacles would be removed, everything could be explained, everything fell into place in the vision he had and would impart to others when the time was ripe.”
When Siti Sara tries to tell him that, “Many ordinary people show respect and understanding. We should do the same to them,” Omar responds with the disappointing, all-too-often heard refrain of, “It’s their duty. They came here as strangers, they must show their understanding of the situation.”
The “they” naturally refers to the non-Malays, and it’s in interest of the colonialist legacy as well as the ideology of the fundamentalist nationalist that this myth of the ‘strangers’ must continue to be perpetuated. Memories are short and selective for the likes of Omar; this way, they can continue to assert that there is ‘one’ way of doing things as defined by the one group of people who are the originators, the deserving, the first sons of the land.
But, typically, the first sons of the land rarely stop to ask who came before, and the insult to our collective intelligence if we keep asking, over and over again, “Who came first?”
It’s clear where Fernando stands on this issue, because the characters of Omar and Panglima, epitomising small-minded chauvinism of the worst sort, are also the most despicable characters. They view other people as disposable or potentially-useful ‘property,’ and as such it figures that Omar would be the type to rape his wife and brook no dissent from her while valuing her physical attributes that mark her out as ‘different-looking’ from the ordinary Malay woman:
“He was proud that she was his wife. There she was, lighter-skinned than even many Chinese, the nose in profile straight but not unduly prominent like Indian noses, and a complexion that reddened slightly in the right places.”
He sees her as a collection of pleasing physical attributes that are the negation of those belonging to other races – complexion ‘lighter-skinned than even many Chinese,’ nose ‘not unduly prominent like Indian noses.’
Panglima, the Political Secretary to the Minister of Home Affairs, does not know of his true origins, although we are told that he came from “humble origins in a derelict corner of Rangoon,” his father found dead along the banks of Irrawaddy River with a knife in his throat when Panglima was very young, thus rendering him under the care of his father’s common law wife. It’s telling that Panglima recalls nothing much of his father, and refers to his caretaker simply as, “The Karen woman was his father’s common law wife; perhaps his father was Karen too.” He ran away a few days after his father was buried, and worked in a brothel.
Probably due to this lack of self, he grows up to be a vicious man who gets his kicks from violent sex with underaged prostitutes and girls, and most of all, from wielding absolute authority over everyone else. It seems almost fitting that he works for the Home Ministry, then, and that he gained his nickname of ‘Panglima’ due to his very public enthusiasm for “the revival of religious values and of the cultural decay which the West had spread to the countries of South East Asia.” Predictably, he leers over Siti Sara’s jeans-clad form even as he rails against the evils of body-hugging Western clothing.
When Panglima speaks to Siti Sara’s father, the Lebai Hanafiah, a gentle and compassionate religious teacher, on the immodest attire of the young women, her father tells him that in many other countries, women wear much less, but are still principled and moral. Panglima’s response: “In some countries they are caned. They are much better after that.” Fast forward to what the Home Minister says in 2010 with regards to three young women who were caned for having ‘illicit sex,’ and one can’t help but feel despair while reading that passage, or the entire book, for that matter. Panglima’s final act of defilement, directed towards Siti Sara, hinges purely on power and thwarted lust.
Green is the Colour is a hugely important Malaysian novel that every Malaysian should read. If, like me, you fear as if you’re coming to it ‘too late,’ you’ll be glad to know that it’s not too late, in fact, maybe you’re even being premature, because it seems we have regressed instead of moving forward. The fears and alienation of Malaysians post-May 13, 1969 are exactly the same as the fears and alienation of the Malaysians post-May 13, 1969 in 2010.
It’s an important book for the themes and ideas that rise to the surface of practically every page, but it’s far from a perfect book precisely because the characters are mere vehicles for the different viewpoints and ideas. Certain characters play a key role, but hang about vaguely at the periphery – Gita, for instance, and even Dahlan. Fernando has a tendency to switch from a factual style of writing that reads like reportage to sudden oblique and twisty ramblings when in the mind of one of the characters, notably Siti Sara, and this doesn’t quite flow and progress the way it should – sometimes it’s merely jarring and shakes the reader out of the pages for a bit, and one’s left stumbling about for one’s bearings. For that reason I couldn’t quite get lost in the book the way I would have liked to – in long, uninterrupted stretches of time – I could only manage a few pages each time before putting it down for a bit, and then picking it up again.
As far as characters go, only Siti Sara is truly fleshed-out (even that, only in comparison to the other characters), and because of this, her meandering stream-of-consciousness musings towards the final chapters are chilling, desultory, and portentous; the reader is left with a very strong feeling that nothing is as is should be, and all is wrong and potentially devastating if we keep going along the same path as we always have. Most important is the Foucauldian sense of the post-colonial Malaysian society where power is looming over you from seemingly everywhere and yet from nowhere in particular, the idea that you should watch yourself because everyone else is, leaving one with no choice to but to put on several masks, adopt several facades; one to suit each ethnic group or person you’re with at the time. Except for a select few who dare to probe their own prejudices, and die as a result, or go mad, or become simply numb, this foundation of assorted masks and disguises is the frail and shaky one upon which the country is building is postcolonial identity:
“Nobody could get May sixty-nine right, she thought. It was hopeless to pretend you could be objective about it. Speaking even to someone close to you, you were careful for fear the person might unwittingly quote you on others. If a third person was present, it was worse, you spoke for that person’s benefit. If he was Malay, you spoke one way, Chinese another way, Indian another. Even if he wasn’t listening. In the end the spun tissue, like an unsightly scab, became your vision of what happened: the wound beneath continued to run pus.”
Green is the colour, says Lloyd Fernando, but there’s nothing lovely about it.