raja rao annual award 2000


The inaugural award goes to K. S. Maniam, eminent Malaysian writer.

K.S.Maniam was born in Bedong, Kedah, in 1942. After a year’s schooling in Tamil, he continued in English at the Ibrahim School in Sungai Petani. He trained as a teacher at Brinsford Lodge, Wolverhampton, UK (1963-64), and taught for several years in Kedah before going to the University of Malaya, where he graduated in 1973. He gained his MA in 1979 with his thesis, A Critical History of Malaysian and Singaporean Poetry in English.

K. S. Manian has been a writer from his teenage days and his short stories have appeared in Commentary, Southeast Asian Review of English, and anthologized in Malaysian Short Stories (1981), Encounters: Selected Indian and Australian Stories (1988) and Rim of Fire: Stories from the Pacific Rim (1992). His short story collections are Plot, The Aborting, Parablames & Other Stories (1989), Arriving and Other Stories (1995), and Haunting the Tiger: Contemporary Stories from Malaysia (1996). He has two plays, The Cord and The Sandpit, to his credit. K.S. Manian has also published two novels, The Return (1981) and In A Far Country (1993).

He won the First Prizes for The Loved Flaw in The New Straits Times-McDonald (1987), and Haunting the Tiger in The New Straits Times-Shell (1990) short story competitions.

Among the papers that he has presented are "Writing from the Fringe of a Multicultural Society" and "The New Diaspora."

He has been a lecturer from 1980 to 1986 and Associate Professor from 1987 to 1997 in the English Department, University of Malaya. He is now a full-time writer who makes occasional academic appearances. He lives with his wife, son and daughter in Subang Jaya, Selangor, Malaysia.

Maniam's initial response:

"The Raja Rao Award is indeed great news, and I'm only too willing to accept it! I've been a great admirer of his works, and supervised a MA thesis on Kanthapura. C.D. Narasimhaiah, who was the external examiner liked the candidate's work so much that he wanted a personal copy. And he got it too. I met Raja Rao in Kuala Lampur in 1987, and took him for a drive down the Malaysian estates. I suppose he felt he was back in some kind of a time warp. We had long chat about this and that, and he got to read my novel, The Return. His comment was that it was 'poetically precise.' That was praise indeed!"

Citation Presented to K. S. Maniam, Recipient of The Raja Rao Award, 2000, for his Outstanding Contribution to the Literature of the South Asian Diaspora

Subramaniam Krishnan or K.S.Maniam, as he is known through his writing, was born on 4th March 1942, in Bedong, in the state of Kedah, in Malaysia. He spent a year in an estate Tamil school, then attended school in English at the Ibrahim School, Sungai Petani, from 1950 to 1960. He did a stint of temporary teaching at his alma mater, before being selected, in 1963, for Brinsford Lodge, a Malaysian teacher training college in the United Kingdom. While there, he read more extensively and experimented with writing. He read the Lake District poets, Shakespeare, Stephen Spender, W.H. Auden, W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot. For his graduation exercise he wrote 44 sonnets on the grief he felt at the death of a close friend. This gave him the opportunity to find his way through the discipline of condensation, suggestiveness, and layering of meaning.

On his return to Malaysia, in 1965, he taught in several secondary schools in Kedah, before going up to the University of Malaya. He read English Literature and after graduation in 1973 till 1975 he was a tutor at the Department of English. He also began his MA thesis on Malaysian and Singaporean poetry in English. After teaching in a private institution, he returned as a lecturer to the University of Malaya, in 1980. In 1997, he retired from the University as Associate Professor. The Creative Writing courses he established continue to be taught there.

The most formative experience in his teens and youth was the reading of such masters of fiction as Charles Dickens. From the mid-seventies he himself began to write the fiction for which we are honouring him today. About his first novel, The Return (Kuala Lumpur, 1981), Raja Rao himself inscribed in K.S. Maniam's copy of The Serpent and the Rope, in 1986, that it exhibited both 'poetic precision and strict narration.'

Maniam as a writer of fiction is one for whom the complexities of life are expressed in the context of the alienated individual. Evocative of tradition and atmosphere, his early writings are evidently imbued with a search and longing for rootedness in the land. As a descendant of Indian immigrants to Malaya, Maniam writes best from his Tamil Indian background; his descriptions of such scenes are always sensitive and sharp. But the individual's struggle to make sense of his adopted new land is crucial to the concerns of Maniam's fiction. The almost inchoate need of the immigrant for rootedness is most thoroughly expressed in his autobiographical first novel, The Return. Identity conflicts between first-generation and second-generation immigrants are described in terms of the narrator Ravi's escape from the paternalistic and chauvinistic stranglehold of the Ayah figure of the novel. His education is felt to be the most crucial aspect of his young life because it represents the fulfilling of his individuality and his overcoming the repressive social system of his inherited culture which has kept his family poor.

In the multicultural and pluralistic postmodern Malaysian context, evaluating ethnic traditions and attempting to redefine and even transcend inherited social and psychological backgrounds remains for Maniam a crucial challenge in his works. He has spoken of finding "reincarnation in the here and now and not elsewhere." He attempts to direct his focus towards a culture that is vital and hybrid in In A Far > Country (London & Kuala Lumpur, 1993). Departing from the realism of The Return, he experiments with time and spatial boundaries in this later novel, injecting an awareness of spiritual consciousness and awakenings in the midst of working out the anguish of the fragmented self within a multicultural, postcolonial setting. Maniam moves away from the simpler structure and chronology of The Return, and experiments with an inward retrieval of the dispossessed individual's past in the push towards transcendence and transformation. The protagonist, Rajan, tells his wife, Vasanthi, "We must go back again and again ." The past remains open and accessible, and its liveliness is sustained through such deliberate connectedness with it. The narrative fosters a continued heightening of an expanding consciousness and understanding of the present in the revelatory use of visions and dreamscapes from the past. Rajan undergoes a drastic minimalising and shrinking of his immediate world in the quest for a renewed consciousness and understanding. In what appears as an imminent breakdown, he shuts himself up in a room to initiate this inner journey. But the breakdown is transfiguring; it shifts his gaze from the insularity of cultural boundedness to an encompassing sympathy and knowledge of others. In this novel we sense the concern "not [only] for man in the universe, but for the universe in man."

Like his novels, Maniam's short stories are deeply informed by the dynamics of diaspora experience. His short stories, published collectively as Plot, the Aborting, Parablames and Other Stories (Kuala Lumpur, 1989) and Arriving & Other Stories (Singapore, 1995), Haunting the Tiger: Contemporary Stories from Malaysia (London, 1996) and anthologised in Malaysian Short Stories (Singapore, 1981) and elsewhere, record with sensitivity and precision the cultural position and vulnerabilities of the minority Indian diasporic community of Malaysia. As the first-generation descendant of indentured Indian labourers brought in to service the rubber plantations of British colonial Malaya, Maniam knows too well the trauma and losses attendant on that position of cultural, linguistic, geographic and temporal displacement. Early stories such as "Ratnamuni", and "The Third Child" and "Removal in Pasir Panjang" capture the nuances and particular texture of diasporic Indian life, replete with its fears, failures and feelings of betrayal as its members cling desperately to familiar, long-ago rituals that are fast losing their currency in the new cultural location.

But while Maniam foregrounds the fundamental instabilities experienced by this marginalized community of Malaysians, he does not always or primarily represent the Indians as a culturally lost people, condemned to a life of futile mimicry on alien shores. In stories such as "The Eagles", "Plot" and "Encounters", there is the suggestion that nostalgia for the faraway, originary, homeland has given way to the compulsion to create new narratives of belonging, new modes of cultural identification. But this task of constructing alternative narratives of identity, Maniam suggests, is fraught with its own ambiguities and tensions. Caught between the ancestral homeland, the "deep land of dreams", myth and memory, and the new home of contending cultural realities, between "here" and "there", past and present, his characters not only have to surmount hegemonic social structures, but also the oppressive burden of their own traditions, cultural biases and prejudices. Deeply conscious that he is a writer working within a nationalist context that is often inimical to the idea of cultural difference, Maniam upholds the belief that literature plays a crucial role in articulating new strategies, perspectives and approaches to living in a multicultural national setting. But while he rejects old cultural myths as being incapable of accommodating the hybrid configurations created by diaspora ("The Pelanduk"), he equally dismantles the homogenising tendencies implicit in the old nationalist myth of tiger ("Haunting The Tiger"). Eschewing the symbolism of the tiger as the dominant framework for cultural identification and construction of imagined community, Maniam posits the new and empowering national myth of the chameleon with its mobile, shifting and fluid dynamics that can make space for new cultural realities. Again in "We Make It To The Capital", the attempt is to search for new cultural and imaginative spaces commensurate with the complex heterogeneity of Malaysian national life. In the heteroglossic chant of the Malay, Chinese, Indian and Eurasian characters at the story's end lies also the cultural strategy for the survival of the nation's multiple histories and experiences. Hybridity, the recognition of the dialogic difference between cultures in a nation, Maniam's stories suggest, is the way forward in the construction of the imagined community of Malaysia. A leading voice of the Indian diaspora in Malaysia, Maniam articulates with skill and sensitivity the complex, multidimensional nature of the Malaysian cultural experience. Indeed, the open-ended nature of his cultural texts suggests that national and cultural identity is neither fixed nor amenable to closure, but continually open to revision, invention and negotiation.

Maniam's achievement is by no means confined to fiction. He has written some well-received plays. The Cord (1984) powerfully dramatises the trajectory of a man getting out of the blindness of his own past. In The Sandpit (1990) two women focus the struggle between tradition and modernity. The play brilliantly illustrates how tradition can revitalise itself and how modernity can be absorbed into tradition.

Contributed by his former colleagues Professor C. S. Lim, Dr Sharmani Patricia Gabriel and Ms Wong Ming Yook. Department of English Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences University of Malaya 50603 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. September 2000