Cultural Identity in an Immigrant Society in Novel by K. S. Maniam

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The question of cultural identity in an immigrant society prevails in this novel by K. S. Maniam. The Return fictionalises Maniam’s experiences of fleeing away from demands to preserve his grandparent’s ancestral culture, the expectations of the Malaysian society for cultural and linguistic assimilation, as well as the communal enclosures within colonialism to become a professional in a new nation facing isolation from the family and getting rid of roots. The Return uses autobiography as a way of showing the readers the personal journey that becomes the voice of the Indians treading the same path towards identity and understanding a culture that for some, cannot fully be taken as their own as they strive for identity as Malaysians.

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After analysing Ng’s argument in the chapter “Hinduism and the Ways of the Divine: The Works of K. S. Maniam”, I disagree with his opinion that Periathai and Naina’s death are an “extension and ultimate expression of their detachment from reality and their attainment of enlightenment” (120). In the novel, Periathai, Ravi’s grandmother, is the first character that we are introduced to. This is seen in the very first few sentences. “My Grandmother’s life and her death in 1958, made a vivid impression on me. She came as the stories and anecdotes about her say, suddenly out of the horizon, like a camel, with nothing except some baggage and three boys in tow” (1). She gives us a brief description of an Indian that is true to the culture of her own homeland, even as an immigrant in Malaysia. Her rituals and beliefs that is taken from Hinduism gives Ravi a sense of what his culture is, and she instils in him as a boy a love in the religion. Periathai’s arrival from India with her paraphernalia of her past life registers the image of a displaced person determinedly holding on to what she considers essentials and offers a major underlying motif of some deeply felt human urge driving a displaced person to strive not just for survival but a survival that leaves something of the person’s past identity or roots intact. Most displaced people have a strong urge to cling on to their country of origin, often glorifying it.

Eventually, the main desire of Periathai as she approaches death is the desire to own her land, which gives us an insight on how these immigrant Indians, unable to return to their homeland then desire to set their roots down in Malaysia. Even in the description of the home she has made is filled with Indian articles, and she exclaims that the home is “… like treading Indian soil once more.” Yet this is prevented by the authorities as the land is taken away from her, as well as her freedom to attend and act in her religious ceremonies, and this event will be repeated and experienced by her son, Naina, Ravi’s father. Even Ravi, who is considered in the novel estranged from his Indian culture due to his English education, exclaims that “A mild anger filled me as I saw Periathai die homeless…” (140) even if he himself does not share the same desire. In the story it is revealed that Periathai died unhomely upon her failure to earn a home/land and to shape her identity in Malaysia. In contrast to Ng’s argument, according to Lim, Periathai was perhaps “ultimately killed by her compulsive obsession” (133) to own the home and land.

After Periathai’s death, Naina fights to own the house and its land yet he fails to affiliate to the land. In the later chapters of the novel, the desire comes in when the family’s laundry shop is progressing and Mr. Menon, the superintendent of the hospital compound, wants the family to stop Ravi from going to school. The progress brings about their need to leave the place and away from Ayah’s power, and this as well as the death of Periathai then brings thoughts of owning their own land to Naina. It was important to establish a sense of – permanence and continuity which is why Naina continue the battle that Periathai had started with the Town Council people, to buy land and build on it. However, Periathai never gets to own the house and land and dies ‘disappointed, ‘speechless’ and without a ‘farewell’ (10).

We also see how Naina does not easily let go of Periathai when she dies. It was like the passing away of his major link with traditional customs and cultural values. He overdoes the funeral arrangements, which causes him to get into debt. He insists, “My mother will have the grandest funeral” and that “The whole of Bedong will know that Periathai “died the way she lived” (137). He is further displaced when he begins to abandon work, comfort and security for a hut at the jungle fringe. It is in a way, a conscious cutting off from society: ‘He was afraid of a competitive world, where you are always tested .. .'(156).

Naina becomes neurotic and his behaviour becomes erratic – he rages around the house and throws crockery on the floor. He sees himself as ‘only a poor man’ (166) and eventually in a final act of purgation, sets the house on fire with himself in it. By setting himself and his house alight, Ng believes that he is proclaiming the abandonment of that last trace of desire which has thus far complicated his journey towards enlightenment – that is, the desire for physical belonging.

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