Monday, January 24, 2011

Short-a-Day: Preeta Samarasan's "Birch Memorial"

Originally published in A Public Space, No. 6, 2008. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 100.

Hot-hot, sweet-sweet. That's all they knew. Lawyer Sivalingam whose fat wife lay dying--that time we all didn't know, but now we do, yah?--in her private-hospital bed while he winked and drooled at me. Lawyer Srirangam whose bald head sparkled like a satellite dish in the sun, just put your TV underneath his backside sure can catch signal one. Lawyer Kanaparan trying to distract everyone from his luscious-mango daughter's own antics (in which KL hotel did they her half-naked and drunk with some minister's son? Shangri-La, Bangri-la, who knows) by treating me like a cheap call girl. And then Bala, Ariffin, Chee, Indian Malay Chinese in a row like one bloody muhibbah poster, nicely learning from their bosses: Hey miss, hot-hot, sweet-sweet! First behind their hands, and then when their bosses buzzed off, openly, shamelessly. For us also hot-hot sweet-sweet, okay? Don't think only the big bosses can get your special-special bargain!

You can hear not only her, but the bustle of the Malaysian streets she hustles her food on, can't you? The way she sets herself apart with her judgments, but also throws herself in with the litanies of lawyers and the mantra of her pitch: "Hot-hot, sweet-sweet." The clever way, like Junot Diaz and other multicultural writers, Samarasan drops Indian words like muhibbah directly into the text for flavor, trusting that even if we do not fully understand the meaning, it will nonetheless have the intended effect of transportation. Even the descriptions ("a satellite dish in the sun") are genius, not only describing the man, but giving us a sense of her own visual vocabulary, the things she looks up and references, not possessing anything herself.

That is how you write a cultural story; not with an overbearing emphasis on politics, but with a light touch, in which a crucial character -- university student Sebastian Mills -- gets to know your narrator, the teenage Kalyani, by surveying her about her knowledge of British colonial history, now that they've been gone for 25 years. Not by stressing the similarities between cultures, or rising above the narrator in order to make "poignant" observations, but by allowing the characters to simply show you themselves and letting the readers draw their own conclusions. Most importantly, by putting all the elements of the story into one cohesive whole, in which even the introduction of the eccentric and often naked homeless man, Millionaire Komalam, surprisingly justifies its inclusion:

"You all want to hear what you want to hear, I know. That we slept together like husband and wife, that I was spoiled all right just like Millionaire Komalam feared, even that I go pregnant and had to find a way to get rid of the child. I know you and your greed for those ugly stories. But the truth is, Sebastian Mills really just wanted to see our room."

It is, in a way, as much about what doesn't happen to this girl as what does; it's sad enough that she's able to consider all the things she half-expected to have to do in her circumstances. Even sadder that when she realizes the man has left her money -- enough for her brother to have the operation he so badly needs to give bone structure to his rubbery legs -- she cannot take it as a kindness, but instead mourns the way the man has -- purposefully or not -- turned the joy of their last six weeks together into a sign of pity. In a story about self-reliance and strength, about false Gods (religious ones, British ones) and real ones (our fellow, perhaps needy, men), and about the links between history and memory, this works as a climax, leaving the subsequent rising action to come as a genuine surprise, one that leads to a well-earned denouement. As textbook as that sounds, the whole thing reads with an otherworldly charm that makes me want to dive right back in.

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