Friday, January 24, 2014

Bonus Review: "Rawa" by Isa Kamari

Still no Faroe Island book, I'm afraid - haven't even started. Busy writing for What's Up and reading and writing for my MFA.

I did, however, finish Isa Kamari's Rawa a couple of weeks ago, which brings to a close the trio of his recently translated novels I agreed to review. (Click on the hyperlinks to look at my writeups on 1819 and Song of the Wind.)

Of the three, it's blindingly obvious that Rawa is the best. There's two big reasons, I suppose:

1) Focus.
This is the story of just one man, the eponymous Rawa. We see him both in his idyllic youth in a houseboat in the 1960s, as well as in the rootless, soulless HDB experience of the lower middle classes in the 1990s, shuttling between the two in alternating chapters, so that both past and "present"feel like two sides of the same coin. (Doing the story chronologically would've made the work feel like two different novels cobbled together, as in the case of Song of the Wind.)

2) Novelty.
Isa's previous historical novels have all actually dwelt on fairly canonical history, viewed from a Malay perspective - Intercession was about the life of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), 1819 was about the founding of colonial Singapore, Nadra was about the Maria Hertogh Riots, Song of the Wind was about kampung nostalgia, and One Earth was about the fifties and sixties - the turbulent birth of the nation.

Rawa's different because it looks at a truly marginal history - the now-vanished tribe of Orang Seletar who once lived as marine nomads around Singapore and Johor. The average Singaporean hasn't even heard of this community - only one of several (one of Rawa's friends, Ayong, is from the Orang Kallang community). So at first, we've got this unusual situation in which it's the Malay community that represents urbanity, modernity and social erosion, 'cos they've got jobs at the colonial barracks and permanent houses instead of pau kajang houseboats.

Rawa ends up marrying a Malay girl, Temah - even converts to Islam for her, abandoning his folk religion, which is nonetheless acknowledged as also recognising the divinity of Creation. At first, they live on the river, even taking their firstborn daughter, Kuntum, to see dugongs when she's a baby. But then Singapore separates from Malaysia, and they've got to choose a nationality. And you can't get an identity card until you've got a fixed address.

So, for Kuntum's sake, the couple settle in Singapore, at Kampung Wak Hassan. Things go downhill from there. By the time we're in the '90s, with Rawa staying at Kuntum's flat with her husband Lamit and their son Hassan, it's clear that they're just not happy anymore, with their constant worries about bills and factory jobs.

Their lives aren't portrayed as dead awful, which I think is a wise act of restraint on the author's part. There's a little MRT excursion to Ang Mo Kio, where Rawa's dazzled by the modernity of the city (he's been living in a kampung in Malaysia), and Hassan's a boy genius in a good school with a promising future ahead. But there's a real sense of loss, of disconnect from the land, with the old kampung demolished save for the mosque. Which is how the story of the Orang Seletar is still relevant - their dispossession parallels that of contemporary Singaporeans.

Are there flaws? Well, I guess Hassan's a bit of a know-it-all plot device, dumping loads of historical info on the reader in a less than graceful way. And honestly, I'm still a little confused by the sub-plot of Ayong and the ring.

The novel's actually very short, with brief chapters, so there's no time to get annoyed. Moving ending, too - he even manages to weave in the Malaysia-Singapore dispute over the island of Pedra Branca into the story! (UPDATE: Just noticed that the full title of this book in Malay is Rawa: Tragedi Pulau Batu Puteh - Rawa: the Tragedy of Pedra Branca Island. That's actually a little misleading.)

Thus: I recommend this! As do other sites. Believe the Sunday Times had a blurb as well before I left.

Anyhow, in the time I've taken to review this trio of books, Isa's pumped out yet another novel, Selendang Sukma, which means "scarf of the soul". He says it's about natural religion, i.e. the kind of animism/Hinduism that people of Malay descent practise in Bali. Should be interesting. Check it out if you read Malay - and if you don't, stay tuned for the translation.

Back to reading for class now. Hopefully I'll have my Heinesen ready for next weekend!


Anonymous said...

I just finished reading rawa
I am also confused about ayong
I feel like he betrayed rawa lying about the ring being at pulau batu puteh. He might become jealous of rawa who get to marry a malay girl when he is actually the superior one (more adventurous, the alpha, the one who influence him, and rawa adores him so much), and do you think he knew it all along that temah is rawa's wife? I think he does! Its a betrayal in friendship out of jealousy. What do u think?

Farhanah Afiqah said...

Read this book many years ago. Do you know where can I get this book? Feeling like reading it again.