Thursday, September 1, 2016


When did you first start writing?

I believe I started  writing while I was still in  secondary school in Taiping, Perak. I have no evidence of anything I wrote up to the end of Form V when I was co-editor of the King Edward VII School magazine. There are no titles of actual “works”, not even the vaguest of memories of any true creative writing. The earliest I recall is one particular essay, entitled “Maps”, part fact and part fancy, written in Form VI. Of works currently with me, the first thing that I clearly remember writing is a short poem (rain poem) written in the early-60’s,  during my second year as an undergraduate at the University of Malaya. The poem appears in Perfumed Memories. That marked, in a sense, the beginning of my “literary” career, if it may be called one. 

Let us start with the question of language.  Although you have so many languages at your fingertips—Edwin Thumboo in his Introduction to your Perfumed Memories mentions six—you do your creative writing in English. Why is that so?

The reason is simple enough. It is the language in which I feel most comfortable. It is also the language I handle best when it comes to writing. I have had all my education in English, and even majored in English Literature for my first degree, before going on to do a Doctorate in Asian Theatre. It is the single language in which I think.  I cannot even think as effectively in any other language. It is therefore only natural for me to use English for the purpose of creative writing. Through it I can best express myself, capture the nuances more effectively, so to speak. In a sense as Edwin Thumboo  mentions, often it is the  language that  chooses  the poet, and not the other way round. I was chosen by the English language.

Of course,  there is always the theoretical question of which language or languages a Malaysian writer should use for his work,  and if writing in any other language apart from Malay can even be considered Malaysian. My view is that a writer should choose the language he can handle best, and all writing by Malaysian writers is Malaysian. Fanatics and politicians have their own views-–often inconsistent and changing—on this subject, but that is not my problem.

Does that mean you have not written in any other language?

No  “literary” work.  I use Bahasa Melayu  for other purposes, mostly teaching (that too for undergraduate courses, prinipally). I have a reasonably good command of that language although it is something that came rather late in life compared to English, Urdu, Punjabi and so on. In the early days before the language was in some ways imposed upon us, I could only handle what can be called Bazaar Malay.  

How is that so?

English was the medium of instruction  in the primary and secondary schools during British rule and well after independence--in fact until the early 70’s when  Bahasa Melayu  became official at the primary school level, and was gradually introduced into the upper levels as well. During the days when I was a student there was no compelling  reason to study Malay, not even as a second language.  Malay was not even regarded as a significant language, and so there was no need to take it seriously. In fact I took Urdu as my second language for the Cambridge School Certificate. It is very likely that I am the only one who ever did so in Malaysia. I had to learn proper Bahasa Melayu  after my PhD degree, even sit for the Bahasa Malaysia paper at the S.P.M level for, by that time, in the late 1970’s, and early 1980’s one had to have a pass in  B.M. for confimation in one’s job in any university in the country. Eventually, following  several years of bilingualism,  it  became the medium of instruction.  So I went along with these requirements. I have never really been fond of Malay, although I did become increasingly comfortable with it over the years.

Is there any possibility, you think, that you will write in Bahasa Melayu in the future? 

No.  It is no use pretending that one can. I think one ought to know one’s own limits, come to terms with them.  I sometimes wish that people would  accept their own and others’ limitations, particularly when it comes to creative writing. Fanaticism in language has and will continue to affect both the quantity and quality of creative writing produced in this country. All you have to do is to compare the situation here with that in Singapore where creative writing is done, without any restriction, and even with official support,  in four languages–English, Malay, Chinese and Tamil. So the literary scene there is quite vibrant; publishers are willing to publish such works. Overall there is a considerable output of writing in the English language,  but I must say that not all of it is good. There are, in fact, very few outstanding Singaporean writers in English, with at least one or two  Malaysians who moved to that island and even beyond, to Australia and other countries. Among the earliest was the poet Ee Tiang Hong, and the painter Lee Joo For,  who was a prolific playwrght, to be followed somewhat later by Shirley Lim and others.     

In this country, too,  writing in all these languages does exist, with some of the early work  in Eglish comparabale to that produced in Singapore- they were afer all part of the same tradition.  But in this country the official policy is to ignore non-Bahasa Melayu writing; give it no support of any kind. Following the 1969 incident, in the early- to mid-1970’s, all of a sudden, Malaysian  writers who used  the English language were even described as traitors to the nation. Members of  the  Penang Writers’ Circle  a group that I founded in Penang in the nearly 1970’s were described by a well-nown Malay lecturer as being  agents of Singapore and  the PAP. Interestingly he used the English language to pass that judgement. Also interestingly he himself never came to be recognised as a writer of any worth, even in Bahasa Melayu. Its aways easier in this country to be a critic than a writer. This is particularly the case in drama and theatre productions.    

Overall with such attitudes towards the English language in particular, all Malaysians are the losers. I believe we are now beginning to admit this loss with our feeble, often tentative, even  near-pathetic  attempts to go back to English and to creative writing in English. I myself have, on and off, been teaching literature in English at Universiti Sains Malaysia for the past two years, in addition to theatre.  
What about your other languages? What is your strength in these?

I would say that Urdu or what is more popularly known as Hindustani comes next to English. Hindustani, of  course, does not exist as a language; it has no written text. It is just a popular designation, meaning the language of the northern part of India (Hindustan), referring to Urdu or Hindi.  The language is in fact Urdu when written in Persian script and Hindi when Devanagari script is used; this is the script in which Sanskit was written. There are also some differences in the vocabulary.  I keep in touch with both languages, but mainly with Urdu  through reading poetry and short stories,  listening to  ghazals, doing some translation work from Urdu to English, and through watching films, many of which use good Urdu poetry for their songs. I had grounding in Urdu and Punjabi, my mother tongue, since childhood; I studied Urdu for slightly more than a year to prepare for the Cambridge School Certificate examination, I am thus able handle both spoken and written Urdu. This is, in fact  my real second language after English. 

I can also handle the script used for Hindi derived,  as I mentioned, from Devanagari.  Like Latin, Sanskrit is a frozen, virtually dead language, with limited use, mostly for Hindu ritual purposes, but it did produce some excellent literature in the early Christian centuries.   I studied Sanskrit for a couple of terms as an undergraduate at the University of Malaya.  I can still work in that language using a Sanskrit-English dictionary, and many years ago I prepared a new version -- I hesitate to call it a totally new translation-- of  Kalidasa’s play Shakuntala for a Kuala Lumpur  production.  The common vocabulary between Sanskrit, Urdu, Punjabi  and many other northern Indian languages is something that  facilitates  fairly smooth shifts between them. At the least one can easily pick up common words from various languages.

I have a limited ability to read the Tamil script and to speak that language,  not well but tolerably enough. I acquired Tamil, without any formal study, from the Indian Muslim  salesmen in my father’s textiles business and the workers in our rubber land. As an undergraduate  I  also studied French. I can still read it slowly, but have  not really kept up with that language.

Through classes in religious studies, like all Muslims, I picked up the ability to read but not to fully understand Arabic. To a degree I have remedied this situation since the early days, so that my vocabulary has improved. Similarly, on and off,  I have been trying to study Persian.  During my year’s fieldwork in 1983-1984, when I was also a visiting Professor at the University of the Philippines in Quezon City I became interested in Tagalog and began studying it.  I tried translating a short play from Tagalog to English with the help of a dictionary. It wasn’t too difficult.  I believe that  with a little effort I can become reasonably proficient in Tagalog.

 So, despite my interest in languages and a fairly wide range of exposure to languages, I write entirely in English. One must have the time, one must devote the fullest attention to a language, if one is to first master it and then use it effectively as a medium of creative writing.  It takes years and years.

You do seem to have a flair  for languages.

I like words, and I think that is very fortunate.  Words are fascinating things, almost living beings. They have shapes, they have sounds, they have colour, they  almost have identities. I have developed this idea in a poem entitled Words.  I spend a good deal of time reading, even reading dictionaries or thesauruses, not only to trace origins and patterns in words or to seek alternative words, but also to delve into their souls. Of course the history of a language and the evolution of words  are fascinating things, but so are the sounds and meanings of words–the manner in which  they unfold, the way  in which they speak to those who are willing to listen to them. I may briefly add here a reference  to silence, for silence can be tremendously eloquent,  a language in itself. One would not  understand sound, or even hear it without silence.

You have already mentioned in passing your work with the text of Kalidasa’s Shakuntala. Could you elaborate on this?

I have always been fascinated with Shakuntala. In my view, it is one of the three most important plays in the world, the other two being Shakespeare’s  Hamlet and Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. I have long dreamt of producing a volume containing all three. Everybody in the world should read these three plays. A new translation of Shakuntala  was  commissioned by a theatre group in Kuala Lumpur,  a modern  translation  whose language would not sound Elizabethan, Victorian or American. The challenges were considerable. The translation-cum-rewriting was done with an attempt to get as close as possible to the play’s original meaning, to the flow of language as well as to evoke the rasas. Among other things what I did was to restore the sloka. With all that the play became too long for a production and cuts had to be made. It worked quite well in the production. The text of the translation seems to have gone missing. I am sure it is not totally lost. If it can be recovered, it would certainly be worth publishing.

Have you ever worked with any other Sanskrit play?

Yes, at the University of Hawaii I was a member of a small team that prepared the text of Bhasa’s beautiful play, Dream of  Vasavadatta, for a major production--I believe the first and last Sanskrit play to be produced at that University. The play was directed by Shanta Gandhi, a visiting director from India. I had the good fortune to be her Assistant  Director; one of the things that made this possible was my ability to communicate with the Director in Hindi, which she preferred to use, as a matter of habit, instead of English. Apart from this I have been teaching Sanskrit drama, in translation,  naturally, in my Asian theatre courses.  

You mentioned Oedipus Rex. You have also done some work with that play, haven’t you? 

Just an attempt to prepare a version in modern English, using several existing translations, for the purpose of a production in Penang. I did add some new elements into the text to make it interesting for the stage, because it was staged in the round.  

What about translations of poetry? Have you done any translations, and also, I suppose the next question follows: has any of your work been translated into other languages? 

I have worked on translations from Urdu to English, but not vice-versa, and I have translated some of my own poems and my play Halfway Road, Penang  into Bahasa Melayu.   The Malay version is entitled Jalan Sekerat, Pualu Pinang.  Both versions of the play were published simultaneously in Penang by Teks Publishing. A well-known Pakistani poet, Javed Shahin, took back with him several of my poems to translate them into Urdu. I don’t think he ever completed the translations.  

I have been working, on and off, on translations of certain well-known Urdu ghazals from the time of Mirza Ghalib, who lived at the end of the Mughal period, to those by contemporary Indian and Pakistani poets. The bilingual volume--in Urdu and English—with an essay on the ghazal, should have been finished by now but there have been delays. I hope to get it published not too far in the future.  This is an exciting project.

I have also been seriously considering bringing out a selection of Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi’s verse in English in collaboration with someone from Iran. Rumi’s importance as a mystic poet, perhaps the greatest mystic poet of all time, is now gradually being recognized, particularly in the West, since the West has now discovered Islam and in particular Sufism.   My work will  include reworking some existing translations for greater accuracy of meaning, as well as new tranlasations direcly from Farsi.

You yourself have some grounding in Sufism.  If I am not mistaken, Edwin Thumboo mentions this in his Introduction to Perfumed Memories.

I have been interested in mysticism as such for a long time, without actually being able to precisely define it. In recent years Sufism, better more meticulously studied and better understood entered my consciousness through Islamic poetry, such of that manifested in the Urdu ghazal. Yes, indeed, Sufism and various other mystical traditions did find their way, like much else, into my poems in Perfumed Memories, but not in any profound manner. 

I like to think that since the publication of that volume, I have advanced somewhat in my studies of Sufism; they have become focused.  I have had the good fortune to read many of the Sufi poets from Spain, Turkey, the Middle East, and Iran as well as from India and Pakistan.  I started work on an Encyclopaedia of Sufi literature, another massive, perhaps seemingly interminable project such as the ones I have the habit of getting myself into.  Again don’t ask me when this will be completed.  I have no idea.  

As a  creative writer what kinds of literary genres have you worked in?

I have worked mostly in drama and poetry, and there have been a number of short stories, with ideas for several more that may get written someday.

Would you, for the record indicate those that have been published up to the present point in time?

The published works are Halfway Road, Penang,  a play which, as mentioned earlier, has also been published in a Malay language translation, and Perfumed Memories, a collection of poems. In addition  some of the poems have appeared in Edwin Thumboo’s The Second Tongue, a volume entitled  The World of Muslim Imagination edited by Alamgir Hashmi, a Pakistani poet and scholar, as well as in various Journals in different countries.

And of the  unpublished ones, which are the most  important?

 I would say The Trial of Hang Tuah  the Great, and Suvarna Padma or Golden Lotus, both plays. In addition there are several shorter plays.  Then there is a great deal of poetry, and also  perhaps twenty or so short stories, some written during the past  two or three years. These are rather unusual when taken in the Malaysian context as they deal with lesser known communities, less explored issues. Then there are perhaps a dozen or so essays that may be suitable for publication. 

That represents quite a corpus of work. Why is it that so much of your literary work has remained unpublished?

A good question. Possibly  the principal reason is that I was heavily  involved in research  and writing about theatre, and principally the traditional theatre of Southeast Asia. You are perhaps aware that my Dictionary of Traditional Southeast Asian Theatre, published by Oxford University Press in 1994, is generally acknowledged as the most important and most complete work on that particular subject up to the present time. A great deal of time and energy went into the research for  this work, which took me to several, but not all Southeast Asian countries, due to restrictions.  And there were others–my Bibliography of Traditional Southeast Asian Performing Arts,  Panggung Semar, Angin Wayang, the Biography of Hamzah bin Awang Amat, Malaysia’s leading wayang kulit Siam puppeteer, which was published in both English and Bahasa Melayu versions, and a recent book which introduces the Kelantan Shadow Play.

Several other manuscripts are awaiting publication, including the performing arts volume of  Encyclopaedia of Malaysia, which I am editing and a  second collection of  essays  on Malay Theatre, a companion volume  to Panggung Semar, which will be published by the Centre for the Arts, National University of Singapore. Even a third volume of this type is now under consideration. The total output in traditional theatre, in the form of books, academic articles and audio-visual recordings  has thus been considerable. In view of the fact that I was principally involved in teaching and researching theatre, somehow my literary work got neglected

So your literary work got pushed to the side, so to speak? How do you feel about that?

This has been unfortunate, and I have been acutely conscious of this tilt, perhaps too strong a tilt, in  favour of the performing arts. To some extent it was inevitable, given the situation over the past three decades or so.  Personally I feel my work in theatre has been important and also in some ways satisfying, considering that I have been able to delve into the souls of both the theatre and Southeast Asian culture itself.  Once the remaining volumes are published I would have completed the mission.  As it is,  I am not initiating any new research projects in theatre. I also feel very strongly that now it is time for me to return to creative writing. Such a return has been, in my estimation, long overdue.

Would you consider your creative writing less important or less satisfying than your work in theatre studies?

            No, I would not. Theatre has given me its own sort of satisfaction.  I have always told my students, and I sincerely feel that this is what I believe deep down inside, that somehow, in the early seventies, I lost my way into theatre, and  that I have ever since been trying to get out of theatre, without much success. I think the time is now close when I can close my chapter on theatre studies, in a sense look beyond it.  During all those decades, literature has been much more important to me than the performing arts. You see, basically I am not a theatre person. 

Amazing, how did it happen? I mean how did you “lose your way” as you put it, into theatre. And what kept you going in theatre for so long?

As  is quite well known, in 1970 I was invited by the late Tan Sri Hamzah Sendut to set up the Performing Arts Programme in Universiti Sains Malaysia, the first programme of its kind in the country.  I went in after much hesitation—I would say trepidition-- and discomfort, considering that I had no background whatsoever in theatre apart from involvement in a couple of productions as an undergraduate at University of Malaya. At that time I was also invoved in the Literary and Dramatic Association (Lidra) of which I was President for some time, as well as editor of the association’s journal.  I  have always had great admiration for  the late Tan Sri Hamzah Sendut, and for his vision  for Universiti Sains Malaysia. I must say that I had a small part in that vision which gradually became reality. Nevertheless when I went in I  was hoping to move, sooner rather than later,  into the literature  programme.  This did not happen. In 1972, following persuasion  as well as pressure, by Tan Sri Hamzah himself, I went, still very reluctantly, to do postgraduate studies  in the United States under USM’s Staff Training Scheme.  With that, my “professional fate” was,  so to speak,  sealed. Ironically, given the way things worked out, I was somehow able to go direct into the PhD without a Masters degree. Thus I became a theatre person--a very reluctant one. The one good thing about all this was that I was very clear in my mind from the very beginning that I would not work on Western theatre. That was one of the things that made theatre tolerable, even interesting for me. Yet, year after year I longed to get out of theatre and go back into literature, but it did not happen, and a whole lifetime has gone by.

But there must have been some attraction in theatre  studies to keep you going for so long.

Of course there were attractions. If I am to summarize them, I would say  that firstly,  there was the immensely great attraction of original research and documentation, with the added benefit of travel connected with such research. When I started in the area, traditional Malay theatre in particular, and Southeast Asian traditional theatre, as a whole, had been virtually unexplored, although there were several studies dealing with individual countries or genres. I believe that I managed to open some new perspectives into the region’s traditional theatre.  Since those days in the mid-70’s and early 80’s, many scholars have done important work in their own indigenous traditions of  performing arts. But as far as the traditional theatre of the whole region is concerned, I believe my work still stands out. Whatever I have managed to publish, however,  does need some updating and so on, particularly since the ending of  Communist rule in northern  Southeast Asia has opened up new possibilities for research in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.  I could not do field work in those countries during the 70’s and 80’s. 

Secondly, and more importantly, there was the great discovery, for me, of the deeper spiritual meanings of theatre.  I was captivated by the ritual and healing aspects of theatre forms such as  mak yong in particular, wayang kulit and main puteri, just to mention a few Malaysian examples. So, in a sense, my research hovered between theatre studies and anthropology. Personally I believe that knowledge cannot be compartmentalized. One has to look at it holistically. Along with ritual and healing came the extensive repertoire of stories from a wide range of sources, and the mythology, south Asian and indigenous to Southeast Asia. Vast new avenues were opening up all the time, and much of the research was also proving not only important but also urgent, given the rapidly changing socio-cultural melieu and the imminent transformation, destruction or demise of the traditional arts, particulaly in Malaysia. I had got in at the right time, the circumstances were favourable, and the support, local and international, was forthcoming. So the research went on under almost ideal circumstances. I was stuck  deep in theatre, and I must add, disciplines allied to theatre. These included myths, epics and traditional  literature. I managed to familiarise myself with these.  Regrets? Yes and no. But let me add that the regrets had nothing to do with the discipline of theatre itself. Most importantly, I would say that I really felt a longing for literature, and creative writing. 
But you did keep on  with your creative writing.

Yes, naturally I did keep on writing, I had no choice in that matter either, and also with my reading of the greatest literature the world has produced.  It was necessary to write.  I  wrote  as a means of recreation and possibly, in the case of the poems,  as a means of catharsis.  I do not deny that, overall, there is some important work, content-wise, including The Trial of Hang Tuah  the Great, first drafted during my field research in Southern Philippines. My plays, I think are quite significant in what they say. And because of what they say they are also considered “sensitive”  in Malaysia.

Are any of your works currently under preparation for publication?

I always have had the noble intention of getting a manuscript or two prepared for publication, but the delays have been interminable, for no reason at all. Perhaps the feeling that the work--poetry, drama-- is  not really ready for publication. But then, seriously, no work is ever ready for publication. One just has to stop revising and rewriting at some point and say that it is time to get the work into print, that is unless one does not want to get his work published at all. There may be compelling reasons for one to withhold one’s work from publication. I have sometimes been inclined that way. However since the most private of my work has already been made public in  Perfumed Memories. I have less hesitation now about getting the rest into print.  I have plans to get  most of what I have written  into print some day, but have no idea when that some day will arrive. I really must give a greater push to the process. I can see a second collection of poems taking shape. And then there might perhaps be a collection of short stories. Halfway Road, Penang will be reprinted shortly. The other plays will take a little longer.

Why so?

I generally believe that a play should only be published after at least one performance. This allows for better insights into the play and thus makes possible certain revisions which may enhance the quality of the work, tighten it, improve the language, make more precise the stage directions and so on. Unfortunately the theatre scene in Malaysia being what it is, with all its constraints, it has not been possible to get The Trial of Hang Tuah the Great produced. The same is the case with Suvarna Padma. This play, however, has at least had the benefit of close reading in Hawaii, and thus would need less revision.  I suppose similar detailed reading and analysis of Hang Tuah would bring it a little closer to being published. 

You mentioned constraints. What sort of constraints?

I will mention just one. Censorship; the restrictions guiding subject matter-- what one can write about and what one cannot write about. In the case of drama one also has to bear in the mind  the possible  restrictions on performances. Several Malaysian productions have run into problems. My own play, Halfway Road, Penang is one of them. I could not get a police permit for its first production in Penang. 

The kind of thing you raise for discussion in Suvarna Padma.


But some sort of work has already been done with  Hang Tuah, hasn’t it?

Yes, during rehearsals for a proposed production at Universiti Sains Malaysia, for a production which did not materialise, some revision and tightening has taken place, but I believe the play needs more work on it, before it is published. Even then, it would only be a preliminary publication with options for future revision at some later date, possibly after a production, if a production does ever materialize. I don’t see it happening in Malaysia in the near future.

Your Perfumed Memories has a large number of poems for a single volume. Was it deliberately made so substantial?

There are in fact three separate sections in the collection, and ideally these sections should have been published as separate volumes. I went along with the publisher’s suggestion that all the poems appear in a single volume. You see I was at that time, when all the poems appear in a single volume. You see I was at that time an unknown and unpublished entity as a poet—to a great extent I still am--and the commercial risk for any publisher would have been considerable if the three volumes came out simultaneously.  Of course I could have published just one of the three sections and come up with the remaining two later on, or selected enough poems to make a smaller first volume and kept the remaining ones for  following volumes. This in fact was the original suggstion by Graham Brash—to publish a selection of my poems, as they had not  published any poetry before that. But they decided to publish the whole collection.  Frankly I had no inkling that I would write any further poetry.

 I think Perfumed Memories is a good volume, and I am glad,  in retrospect,  that things worked out they way they did;  that in fact the poems came out in a single volume. I have been told that there are few first volumes of poetry in Malaysia or Singapore comparable to it. This is in fact quite surprising considering that I had no intention whatsoever of publishing the poems or even allowing the world to see them, when they were first written.

Why so?

Because they are intensely personal poems, unlike most that Malaysian readers have been accustomed to. I felt that there was no real reason for them to appear in print, since in them the poet/persona essentially speaks to himself.  Since their publication, however, the appeal of the universal themes that the poems deal with—nature, love and separation, death, beauty, loneliness, time and its passage, and so on--has become increasingly apparent. Beyond that there are the different levels of meaning and symbolism. I can say that most of the poems need some effort on the part  the reader; they need to be interpreted.   Yet, while they are private, they nevertheless are meaningful to a broad spectrum of readers since each reader is able to discern in them something of relevance to him or her. In that way they are universal.   

There are many persons out there in the world who whisper to themselves in the deep, inner recesses of their own being, and somehow the language they speak, the thoughts they express are the language and thoughts found in Perfumed Memories.  The responses I have received from readers the world over have been altogether unexpected and overwhelming. 

Do you  foresee  any further volumes of poetry?

Yes. I have written  perhaps two hundred poems beyond Perfumed Memories. From time to time I return to them, rework them. At least some of these poems are, I think, worthy of  publication. Perhaps another volume or two may appear.

Are there any significant changes in style and content between the early poems and these later ones?

Yes, there certainly are. For one thing some of the later poems are less personal, less private compared to those in Perfumed Memories. I can see too that in some ways mysticism becomes stronger in them, through my own confidence.   

Would you like to elaborate?


Can you tell  me a little about your short stories? Are there many of them?

Not a huge number. You see I have written many, some of which  need further work and  thus I regard them as drafts;  others have only been partly completed. I have ideas for yet others. I am sure there will be many more stories in the months and years to come as these ideas get worked out into actual stories. Of  those I have already written, I regard perhaps twenty as tolerably good and thus ready for publication. These may be of some interest to a potential reader. The early ones I recall with fondness are Tok Dalang, Lottery Ticket and Birthday. The middle ones include Meditations on a Charpoy, a very long short story, almost a novella,  Khalwat Officer and Diaries. The more recent ones include Datuk Hang Tuah,  Sujjan Singh, Dewi Ratnasari  and  Mak Yong Dancer.

What would you say are some of the most distinctive qualities of your short stories?

Generally, they are quite different stylistically, from the average Malaysian short story which tends to be realistic in character. Most of mine shift away from Realism into undefined styles. I think the titles do tell you that their principal characters come from outside the range of normal Malaysian characters. Apart from the Malays, I try to deal with the north Indian and Pakistani communities, particularly Punjabis, as well as Tamil Muslims, better known as Mamak. No previous Malaysian writer has featured such characters.

Again I draw upon the traditional performing arts for  myths, characters,  themes and images, since I have had a great deal of exposure to wayang kulit and mak yong.  The characters, at times even real ones, develop into near-mythical beings, and the situations become surreal. Indeed for me there is but an extremely thin, almost non-existent line that separates reality and what is usually regarded  as unreal.  This feeling of being “in between” is best seen, as far as far my work goes, in the short stories. It is not altogether absent in the poems and to some extent also present in the plays. You see we don’t live in one dimension. We are constantly shifting between different dimensions of time and space. The problem is to decide which of these are to be regarded as “real”.

You have been writing poetry, drama and short stories. Now the obvious gap seems to be the novel. Have you ever considered writing a novel?

Yes. Several years back I started working on an idea I had for a possible novel, without any sense, of course, as to where it would lead. There were the three principal characters, very strong and clear in my mind, and there were certain situations, which could not, I believe be turned into a play—except one structured in monologues, something that has become fashionable recently—but had possibilities of being structured into a novel.   It did not go very far, I do not know if I will ever get that particular novel completed. It may just end up as a short story or novella.  One never knows. I believe it will certainly get written in some form, since what it tries to tell is important. Overall, I feel that whatever has to be said—the essential thing--can be said in short stories.

Meditations on a Charpoy, Sujjan Singh and even Tok Dalang in my opinion have the potential of developing into larger entities. New material for a potential novel may suddenly show up out of nowhere. The possibilities are always there. And a change of genre – a shift between a short story and a novel or even between a short story and a play can take place. I have written the Hang Tuah story both as a play and as a short story; I don’t mean the actual story involving that character a told in Sejarah Melayu or Hikyat Hang Tuah,  but again with the character  as a sort of symbol, especially as he appears in the play.  There is a short play tentatively entitled The Pretence which  I started work on but did not finish.  I sometimes think it might work better as a short story, or even something a little longer. So I don’t really know what form the final product will take in each case. I think it is best to let the work choose its own form-- like water fitting  into its own vessel--and not force a genre upon it. 

What about essays?  Have you written any essays?

Yes and no. I don’t think I have written any “creative” essays as such, based entirely upon the imagination. Literary and academic essays there have been many, mostly on theatre, and some on plays, poetry, writers and their work, and so on. I even have a draft of an essay on Hamlet, the character and his dilemma—that might be a creative, or even an academic essay.  Some of  my  academic essays have been published in collections of seminar papers and so on. Others too will eventually be published. I am particularly interested in getting together a volume of essays on modern Indian drama—beginning with the work of  Rabindranath Tagore and ending with that of Girish Karnad  and his contemporaries, works of writers who are still active, and who I have met and talked to. Indian drama is excellent, and deserves to be better known.  Unfortunately not enough has been published on modern Indian drama.  I feel strongly that there is a clear need for a good study of Tagore’s plays. I have written a couple of papers on these and even did a production of Sacrifice at USM, one of  the university’s earliest, before I went to Hawaii. 

I understand that you have been doing other things too, such as what one might call aphorisms, reminiscences.

“Random jottings” would perhaps be a better description.  They are mood pieces, some containing something I consider worthwhile, others not. There is not much real wisdom in them. Yes, there are those too tucked away somewhere in the filing cabinet in my study.

Will they  be collected together into a single volume?

I have no idea. I haven’t really given any further thought to them. And again I don’t know if they are worth making public.

You had similar reservations about your poems at one time, if I recall correctly.

Yes, and perhaps they would have remained forever unpublished if not for the pressure brought to bear upon me by a close friend. A few had appeared here and there in literary magazines but the credit for eventually getting them into print must be given to Edwin Thumboo, more brother than friend. I am still not sure if the decision to publish them was an entirely wise one. I know that many have enjoyed the poems, enjoyed them more than superficially, have found in them a source of comfort or solace, and through them a cleansing of the soul.  Some of the poems are certainly therapeutic in character.

Of all the genres you have worked in, is there any one you would consider your “favourite”? One in which you have been most satisfied as a writer?

I should say I have not given this subject any serious thought. Much depends on what one intends to say or to achieve with what one writes. Off the cuff I would say poetry has a special position in my work.  Poetry is unique in some ways, being very different from the other principal genres-- the drama, the short story and the novel. In poetry there is no story to tell, there are no events and characters as such—with some exceptions, of course, when it comes to my own work-- while the other genres have a story to tell, characters to develop. It is possible in these for the writer to be detached from his work.  Poetry is rooted in the self, in the poet’s emotions, often highly private emotions. It is an intensely personal and private medium compared to the other genres. It needs no audience and it often has none, apart from the writer himself.  His reader (and I deliberately use the singular here) may share with the poet’s emotions, experiences, and his flights of fancy.  If he does, there is a sort of mutual empathy at work, a private, one-to-one transaction. 

One cannot say this about drama in particular, for by definition drama is a “public” medium. A play is intended, through performance, for an audience of greater or lesser size. The short story and the novel have a place somewhere between poetry and drama in this respect.

I appreciate the possibility that what I state here need not, perhaps even cannot, be taken as absolute, given the broad range in styles of creative writing and in writers’ own perceptions of their roles. Take this merely as a personal stance, an indication of the manner in which I work.

But to return to your question, I feel most drawn towards poetry, I find it the most intense and the most challenging of the various genres. However, given the other kinds of roles played by the drama and the short story, I regard these genres as of considerable importance.  It is perhaps because I lack patience that, as a writer, I am not attracted to the novel. I do read novels—not often, I must add -- and have great admiration for the works of Russian and French novelists in particular, as well as for some of the outstanding ones from third world countries—from India, Japan and Indonesia, for instance.

Yes, it is clear that while your plays, as you say, tend to have a “public” stance; your short stories tend to be more introspective. Would this be a correct assessment of your short stories? 

To a certain extent yes.  Several of the stories tend to be introspective, possibly because of the usually single persona around whom the events revolve. The ‘events” are often recollections, reflections, meditations. They are seen through the “viewpoint” of this persona, and thus appear to be “private”.  In some ways they are extensions of my poems—only more detailed, more elaborate.

I understand you have received several prizes for your work.

Yes, there have been several prizes, all local ones—one for a play and several for short stories.

Would you like to elaborate?

No. I don’t see any point.   

Thinking back upon your work-- literary and academic--work which has undoubtedly aroused admiration and jealousy alike, do you see any of  it  in some way  achieving permanence?

No. If I did, that would be a sign of supreme arrogance on my part.  We may dream of permanence but, in fact, there is nothing permanent in existence. Consider that mighty kings and emperors have come and gone, their kingdoms dissolved into the dust of oblivion. What more writers and the dreams they dream up?  On the face of the mighty universe we are but specks of nameless dust, tiny drops of water. Worlds upon worlds have dissolved into the Ocean of Nothingness. “Nothing remains,” says the Holy Quran, “Save the Face of God.”

All things that exist are mere reflections in the Mirror of a Hundred Hues, reflections forever changing and passing, forever giving way to other reflections. Where, then, is the permanence?

 This interview has been based upon questions posed by students. It was first

 published in my volume entitled  Mirror of a Hundred Hues

 Edited on August 31 2016

Thursday, September 3, 2009

On the Current Malaysian-Indonesian Conflict on Cultural Forms

Recent weeks and months have seen Malaysia and Indonesia locked in argument on the ownership of certain traditional performing arts forms: the shadow play (wayang kulit), reog, the song “Rasa Sayang”, and even the Malaysian national anthem, resulting from attempts by Malaysia to exploit some of these forms for the promotion of tourism. The most recent item to join this list is the Balinese pendet dance, an issue quickly resolved due to its relative lack of complexity.

All in all, given the geography of the region, Malaysia’s demographic make-up as well as its cultural history, there is much that this country shares with or has borrowed from Indonesian as well as other cultures. This is particularly the case with Sabah and Sarawak due to the common border between the two countries, and fact that political borders to not necessary coincide with cultural realities on the ground. In the present situation, certain broader issues are involved, not all of which can be touched upon here. Some of these may, however, become clearer in a discussion of the most important traditional theatre genres active in Malaysia.

The once Minister of Culture, Arts and Heritage Datuk Seri Rais Yatim, who is now currently back as Minister in the renamed Ministry of Information, Communications and Culture and others have acknowledged the basic truth that certain genres of performing arts, such as wayang kulit, and reog in fact, came into Malaysia from Indonesia, while mak yong may have had its origins in Thailand.

Reog or barongan in several variant styles, and the better known and highly spectacular Barong of Bali, all possibly derived from the simple forms of barongan still active on the island of Java. Essentially they were and to some extent still are ritual theatre forms intended for village cleansing, chasing away malicious influences and healing. Similarly kuda kepang, the gamelan and many other forms of dance and music spread to the Malay peninsula from various parts of Indonesia essentially with the immigration of peoples. More difficult to deal with are various forms of performance that have “Islamic” or Middle Eastern elements in them—hamdolok, hadrah and, dabus, for instance. These also arrived in Malaysia not directly from the Middle East but through Indonesia.

However, coming back to the major forms of theatre active in various parts of peninsular Malaysia, we can focus on wayang kulit, mak yong, menora and bangsawan.

In recent decades four forms of wayang kulit have been active in peninsular Malaysia: wayang kulit purwa, wayang kulit Siam, wayang kulit gedek and wayang kulit Melayu. Of these wayang kulit Siam, renamed wayang kulit Kelantan, is the most important.

In essence there are several major theories regarding the origins of the shadow play, suggesting its first emergence in India, Java, China or Central Asia, with India having a strong claim due to the story-content and several other features, such as iconography or performance styles. The most important stories in many Southeast Asian shadow play forms are, after all, based on the Ramayana and Mahabharata, and some of the rituals have strong Hindu elements, besides those derived from animism and Islam. But Java too has a strong claim to the shadow play based on antiquity, the greatest variety of regional forms, important elements within performances as well as functions. On that island is to be found wayang kulit purwa, the most important form of wayang, historically as well as aesthetically, active for more than a thousand years.

Of the four forms in Malaysia, three came from Java, while wayang kulit gedek, spread from Thailand, where, known as nang talung, it is performed in the southern provinces, but is no longer active in Malaysia. Wayang kulit Melayu has also become extinct in Malaysia. Wayang kulit Siam/Kelantan is the most important. Although Kelantanese puppeteers (dalang) hold a view that it came from southern Thailand, internal evidence points to a Javanese origin. Following adaptation, however, it has developed certain distinct characteristics of its own. In the meantime several new forms have sprouted in Kelantan due to the official ban on wayang kulit Siam.

Mak yong, found only in the Malaysia, Thailand and parts of Indonesia, has its own interesting development. It is usually associated with the Kelantan-Patani region, without any clear indication of where exactly it may have originally come into being. Various claims state its origins in Besut, once part of Kelantan but presently in Terengganu, in Patani. now in Thailand, and even further afield in Langkasuka, Champa, Sumatra and so on. None of these theories is supported by any evidence. It is clear that it reached Indonesia, at least in recent history, from somewhere along the east coast of the Malay peninsula. It is still active in southern Thailand, and there is much in mak yong that can be considered Thai or Buddhist. Among its most important stories a couple are set in Java, and Anak Raja Gondang is a Buddhist Jataka tale also known and performed in Thailand and Cambodia along with several others in the mak yong’s dramatic repertoire. But Thailand and Cambodia, for whatever reason, do not claim mak yong. I suspect this is mainly because the performances are done in the Kelantan-Patani dialect of Malay. Whether or not the element of language alone makes mak yong Malay is a moot question.

In many ways similar to mak yong, yet very different from it, is menora (lakon chatri), a form of dance theatre which developed in southern Thailand. It was fairly active until recent times in Kedah, Perlis and Kelantan, but is now done only by a troupe or two, as well as, occasionally, by visiting troupes from Thailand, which come in mainly in connection with Buddhist temple festivals, performing in the states mentioned as well as in Penang. There is no doubt about its animist and shamanic origins and its strong Buddhist flavouring. There have been attempts to combine menora with mak yong, but due to menora’s ritual origins and functions, Malay performers usually serve merely as musicians and dancers; they do not hold principal roles. Somehow when it comes to mak yong, almost identical origins in animism and rituals are conveniently ignored.

That leaves bangsawan as the last important traditional theatre form active in Malaysia. As far as history is concerned much more is known regarding bangsawan compared to those forms already mentioned due to its more recent origins, in the 1880’s, as a successor to the Urdu-Hindustani Parsee Theatre of India. More widely spread than the other genres, bangsawan became the first truly Malayan and even Pan-Malayan form of theatre, at least as far as its distribution and popularity was concerned. This was due to its urban locus, its interesting and relatively “modern” staging, as well as the use of standard Bahasa Melayu instead of local dialects. It is still occasionally performed in several states in present-day Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and Brunei. Bangsawan remains a highly eclectic theatre form with elements from the west, Middle East, India as well as closer home from Java and elsewhere incorporated into performances based upon an equally diverse dramatic repertoire. In its early decades, Indian-Muslims, Babas, Chinese, Malays as well as Eurasians were involved as artistes, in some instances with their own troupes or as owners (towkay) of bangsawan companies. With the process of deliberate and sustained “Malay-isation” following independence, bangsawan came to be regarded as a Malay form of theatre.

There exist several other lesser forms that need not take too much our time as far as the drift of our present discussion goes: various supposed offshoots of bangsawan such as jikay which may have connections with the Thai likay and Cambodia yikey; randai which is clearly a Minangkabau theatre style active in Negeri Sembilan; mek mulung which, like mak yong, has strong Thai influences, to name but the most developed of the lesser forms. It is also worth mentioning that several proto-theatre forms, such as selampit, awang batil as well as ritual varieties of performances such as bagih, belian and main puteri may still be seen. These in fact may be indigenous to the region, and this Malaysia shares with Indonesia, and similar forms in the Philippines.

To return to our key question: Can any of these major and even the lesser theatre styles be regarded as Malay or even Malaysian? Obviously there is no simple answer to this question, looking at the origins and characteristic features of the various genre as well as the ongoing controversies between Malaysia and Indonesia on cultural forms clearly demonstrate. It is evident that apart from wayang kulit Siam and bangsawan, which underwent localisation in Malaysia, the rest are still performed in Indonesia or Thailand little changed from the past, and are thus clearly native to those countries. There is of course, always the question of first origin, or even shared origin. Given the movement of peoples over the past two millennia, cultural forms have travelled far and wide and along the way became transformed and localized. Perhaps there is no better example of this than the shadow play, given its wide prevalence in countries between north Africa and China as well as Fiji. We can thus literally go on arguing about these issues until the cows come home.

The complexity arises, basically, due to the fact that current political boundaries have served to distort the reality of a time before the existence of the nation-states of Southeast Asia, including Malaysia, with the tendency to see cultural forms from the perspective of national boundaries.

To add to this, Malaysia wishes and attempts, wherever convenient, to see the whole picture in the context of “Nusantara”, and the “Malay World/Dunia Melayu”, both terms relatively new, vague and defined without any degree of precision. The primary tools in this perspective are race and language—the assumption that all the many races and native communities of the region belong to the fold of the “Malay”. This is an assumption that is clearly wrong, despite the use of the term “Malayo-Polynesian”, a recently-invented, artificial and convenient label at best, as recent discussion on it has tried to establish, to refer to the peoples of the region.

“Nusantara” as a term has similar problems and would mean a different thing if seen from the Indonesian or Javanese rather than from the Malay perspective. Clearly the vast majority of the peoples of “Nusantara” and “Dunia Melayu” do not see themselves as Malays. And the so-called "Malay" population of peninsular Malaysia is largely made-up of such peoples (the Mandailing, the Bugis, the Achehnese , the Javanese, the Minangkabau, and so on), peoples belonging to what may be more accurately termed the Indonesian diasapora, a diaspora which began way back during the early centuries CE, with greater intensity during and following the Buddhist Srivijaya empire (c.7-13th centuries), the largely Hindu Majapahit empire (1298-1500) and still continues. It is these communities, and possibly others from the north and later from the west that brought into the Malay peninsula, in addition to much else, the various theatre forms already discussed above, and many varieties of dance and music.

When it comes to language, similar problems arise through a misunderstanding that Malay or Bahasa Melayu is the “native” language of the various communities of the region, and even beyond the region. Clearly the vast majority of Indonesians would reject such a claim, as would the Filipinos who also see themselves in some ways as ethnic Malays. Bahasa Melayu, Bahasa Malaysia, Bahasa Indonesia and other such terms, taken from different nationalistic perspective, refer to a language that has become, to some extent, the lingua-franca of the region, and in some countries as “official” or national language. That does not make it a native language of the various peoples. Despite using it as a national language, the indigenous Bumiputera communities even of Sabah and Sarawak, do not regard Bahasa Melayu as their “native language” or “mother tongue”.

As language is the primary medium of the performance of theatre in addition to other innate elements (aesthetic aspects, underlying beliefs, rituals and so on) to be found in each of the genres, the various genres discussed above cannot, in any way, be regarded in a standardized manner as belonging to one culture, even though they are active within the political borders of any one nation state-- borders, as already indicated, often arbitrary and artificial. In the case of Indonesia, for instance, given the country’s vast size and extent, there are considerable differences in theatre forms active in its provinces and islands encompassing diverse cultures of equally diverse communities. To assume they are all homogeneous would be an over- simplification, and to suggest that they are all Malays, grossly inaccurate.

Hence the current conflict between Malaysia and Indonesia on cultural forms.