Frontlist | Navin’s Peichi explores various facets of Malaysian Tamil life

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There is something arrestingly mystifying about Peichi. The novel written by Malaysian Tamil writer M. Navin was banned in December 2020 by the Malaysian government under section 7(1) of the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984, because it ‘might be detrimental to public order, morals and public interest’, as an official statement had then said. But Peichi is a spectacular exploration of Tamil life in Malaysia — a territory largely unexplored in the Tamil literary landscape.

The novel follows Kopperan, a traditional medical practitioner and priest of Pechi temple, to Malaysia. He is driven by his fear of the goddess he so devotedly worships; she protects as Pechi but also annihilates as Peichi (pei means ghost). Kopperan believes that the loss of his five newborns on the sixteenth day of their birth to mysterious illnesses is the handiwork of Pechi, probably as an act of revenge for a wrong done to a woman generations ago.

Desperate to save the sixth male child, Kopperan deserts his wife (who he thinks is a reincarnation of Pechi) and walks from village to village holding the child till someone finally offers him a job in Malaysia. From here on, the novel goes on to lay bare the various facets of Malaysian Tamil life — colourful and dark, deep and layered.

“For those outside of Malaysia, Tamils here are largely from rubber plantations. But I have been here all my life and I know there are fishermen who are Tamils, who work in tea estates. They live in entirely different environments. There are Tamils who also live in very urban environment. The Malaysian Tamil landscape is very expansive, but it is disappointing that Tamil literature has hardly documented these varied landscapes in the last 50 years,” rues 38-year-old Navin, born and brought up in Malaysia. “For that matter, there is no literary documentation of the life of labourers who have come from India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, or those of Chinese origin. There is absolutely nothing about the ethnic tribes here.”

Troubled by the lack of proper representation of Malaysian Tamil life, Navin made it his priority when he stepped into serious literature. “I saw writers like Cheran, Shoba Sakthi and A. Muttulingam writing on Sri Lankan Tamil life and issues even if they had migrated elsewhere. Malaysian Tamil life lacked this identity in the Tamil literary space. It was represented by a few who were financially well-off, had close connections. We never had an alternative magazine tradition here.

In 2005, Navin, supported by a friend, began to edit an alternative Tamil magazine, Kaadhal, in which he interviewed 15 writers ‘he thought were important in Malaysia’. “This was my way of telling people that look, we have this kind of Tamil writers too in Malaysia. It helped create a discussion around their works. The magazine wound up after 10 issues due to financial problems.” In 2007, he started Vallinam to continue the job, which wound up after eight issues but continues online. Vallinam has also published 39 books in Tamil.

Dialogue between writers

Navin also did documentaries on Malaysian Tamil writers. He opened a space for dialogue between Malaysian Tamil writers and Tamil writers in India, by inviting the latter to the country and organising literary events. “Soon people started recognising Malaysian Tamil writers; one of whom, Muthusamy, also won the Vishnupuram literary award, but on the other hand, since I was shaking up what had been represented till then, I started facing a lot of hostility.”

Writers, organisations and even some political parties in Malaysia petitioned against Peichi to ban the novel because it contained ‘offensive words.’ “Obviously, the officials are Malay and they have no idea. I have written to them explaining how many documents have been submitted to demand the ban is fake and have requested them to consider. It is a long process though.”

Navin says that his writings — he has 15 to his credit including Peichi, his first novel, and collections of short stories and travelogues — might have been seen as some sort of cultural shock in Malaysia. “Tamil literature is not Sri Lankan literature or Malaysian literature. It is Tamil literature; we are Tamil writers. I don’t think we need to restrict that to the idea of one nation. As a Tamil writer, I do not want to be restricted to a small circle. My space expands towards the pioneers of the entire Tamil literary landscape. When I put forth my writings in that sense, it is seen as culturally shocking. But I choose my spaces and I will keep expanding. I know when I oppose every power centre, I become an abandoned writer. But that is not going to stop me.”

Jeeva Karikalan, who runs the Yaavarum publishing house in Tamil Nadu, which has published several of Navin’s works including Peichi says the writer is a singular voice in Tamil literature. “In a sense, considering the issues and ideas in his writing, I wouldn’t hesitate to say that he is the first Tamil writer from Malaysia, and we are proud to be associated with him. Peichi is, of course, doing well at the Chennai book fair.”

 

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Source: The Hindu

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