Saturday, July 12, 2008

Evening is the Whole Day by Preeta Samarasan and Love Marriage by V V Ganeshananthan

  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Company
  • Pub. Date: May 2008
  • 352pp

As those of you who read my blog on a regular basis will know, I am very partial to novels that explore the lives of the Indian diaspora. I am especially intrigued by those groups of people whose ancestors left the Motherland in the second half of the 19th century not to find cushy jobs in the software industry or the medical field as they do now, but who were put on ships to distant lands in droves by the British to work as indentured laborers on rubber plantations, roads, railway lines etc. - one such land is Malaysia. Many of the Indians in Malaysia first landed on its shores to work on Malaysia's rubber plantations or to serve as coolies. Most were from the South of India, from the states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh and they toiled the plantations for a mere pittance.

The cast of characters in Preeta Samskaran's first book "Evening is the Whole Day" belong to one such Tamilian-Malaysian family. The patriarch, Tata, through sheer guts and opportunity rises from a lowly coolie to plantation owner. His new found wealth allows him to educate his children at the best possible schools and colleges and when he dies, Raja, his eldest son (an Oxford-educated lawyer) returns to Malaysia to look after his widowed mother and their property known simply as "Big House".

For some inexplicable reason, Raja, although he is a man of the world, is attracted to the very gauche, uneducated neighbor's daughter, Vasanthi. Maybe it was out of desire to rescue Vasanthi from her autocratic father and her mother-turned-aesthetic. Whatever his reasons, he lives to regret them because Vasanthi is simply not in his league and knowing that she's no match for him turns her into a bitter, resentful person. Despite the failings of their marriage the Rajasekharans have three children, Uma, Suresh and Aasha.

There are many reasons to enjoy "Evening is the Whole Day" - its atmospheric, lyrical writing; snapshots of Malaysian history and its multicultural population all trying to live together, sometimes succeeding but mostly failing; how class and race continue to permeate Malaysian society; but best of all, the "Evening is the Whole Day" is a novel of family secrets and family relationships.

Coming back to the narrative style, while I enjoyed Samarasan's approach to the story - beginning at the end and then shedding layer upon layer as we reach the beginning -
there were times I thought it bounced around from one time period to another just a little too much, also, she does tend to be rather liberal with the use of adjectives, adverbs and metaphors. However, I did like how she peppered the conversations with Tamil colloquialisms. Even though I am not a native Tamil speaker, I thought the approach worked extremely well for it steeps the narrative in a local flavor.

Finally, and most of you probably heard this on the news, there were recent protests by Tamilians in Malaysia for equal rights and so on . I think this book makes the most perfect companion read to that as it explores through its fictional characters the genesis of the Indian disgruntlement with the Malaysian government over marginalization of the Indian ethnic community in that country.

Preeta Samarasan was born in Malaysia and moved to the United States to finish high school. She was enrolled in a Ph.D. program in musicology at the Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester, and had begun work on a dissertation on Gypsy music festivals in France when she left to complete her novel. She earned her MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan, where an earlier version of Evening Is The Whole Day won the Avery and Jule Hopwood Novel Award. She also recently won the Asian American Writer's Workshop/Hyphen Magazine short-story award.


  • Category: Fiction - Literary
  • Format: Trade Paperback, 320 pages
  • On Sale: April 8, 2008
  • Price: $14.00
  • Publishers: Random House Canada

In keeping with the Indian diaspora theme, specifically, the Tamilian diaspora, here's another one for you to sink your eyes into, Vasugi V. Ganeshananthan's "Love Marriage". I am just halfway through the book and it's proving to be a delightful read.

A little background first:

In 1983 some young men from the Tamil Tigers group set up a landmine which killed 13 Sinhalese police officers in Jaffna. That incident on July 23, 1983 (aka Black July) had the ability to spark riots in Sri Lanka, the kind that its people had never seen before. There was shooting, looting, burning of houses, killing. The whole of Colombo looked like it was on fire. On the 24th night of the rioting the Sinhalese government declared a curfew but by then thousands upon thousands of Tamilians had lost their lives, homes, families and everything they owned.

When the situation calmed down somewhat, many of the Srilankan Tamils found their way to neighboring India from where they left for London or the US and from there many of them walked across the border to Canada where they were freely weclomed and given refugee status. As a result, Canada today has the largest Srilankan-Tamil diaspora outside of South Asia.

Ganeshananthan's story is set in Toronto where Yalini the narrator has returned (she was studying in the US) to look after her dying uncle who was a Tamil Tiger . She traces her family's roots and the conflicts they faced as ethnic Tamils in Sri Lanka and then in the West, through a series of marriages.

Most of the book has been written as a series of non-sequential vignettes which a reader is either going to love or hate...many pages have long blank spaces which I enjoyed filling with my imagination. :) The tone of the book is quiet, unusually so, especially when you consider the theme of the novel, but there is a strong undercurrent of emotion and the language is beguiling. There is an ensemble of characters...they slip in and out between the pages...some are directly known to our protagonist, others she meets through her parents' memories, but all contribute ultimately to telling us more about the lives of Tamilian-Srilankan diaspora and their lives in Sri Lanka and abroad.


2008 is the 25th anniversary of the Black July and the Canadian Tamil Congress have a series of programs to commemorate and remember the day. For more information, go here: Black July Events


Anonymous said...

Lotus, unlike you, I am not a big fan of diaspora novels. Perhaps this is just the resentment of an Indian living in India, who felt that, for sometime, the only "Indian" stories were diaspora ones. Now ofcourse that is changing, and I am more willing to read diaspora writing, as only one of several possible narratives.

Evening is the Whole Day, sounds particularly interesting, since it explores the Malaysian Tamizh community, unlike the usual UK or US diaspora.

Praveen Krishnan said...

So you are on a Tamil diaspora spree :-) Two contrasting kind of books, but set in somewhat similar styles!!! Interesting to follow your choice of books :-)

I was reading some old classics, Around the world in 80 days and oliver Twist, for the nth time :-) Feels good to read these books again!!!

gypsy said...

Guess you have been picking up the right reads when it comes to Indian diaspora, I am bored of the all same Bollywood themed novels...

karmic said...

Thank you for a wonderful post Lotus. You have introduced us to two new books and given us through your point of view a look in to a genre that I don’t always read.

Do you think the genre dealing with stories of the Indian diaspora has been a bit overused? How different is this book compared to the writings of Vassanji and from other novels that are about “family secrets and family relationships”? Do you think that merely wrapping a well worn plot in the context of Indians in Malaysia gives it enough punch? I suppose this is a good read for those who wish to be informed about the history of Malaysia thru the context of a work of fiction as opposed to just following the news?

As for “Love Marriage”, does the book explore the fact that the Tamil Tigers are known to hit up on Tamils settled abroad as a source of funding for their activities? I have heard news accounts of pressure being applied on the diaspora to donate to their cause. I have also heard that some Tamils in Canada claim that the Canadian Tamil Congress does not speak for all Tamils. Do you know if the CTC is indeed a true representative of all Tamils in Canada?
A link about the extortion tactics used by the Tigers using the world Tamil movement (now banned by the Canadian government) here.
The organization has been known for canvassing Tamil populations demanding donations, sometimes by using aggressive intimidation tactics to get the money.

Interestingly enough the Canadian Tamil Congress though not affiliated with the World Tamil Congress did not like the ban.

And at the risk of offending some I would say I have no sympathy for the violence from either the Tamils or the Sinhalese.

Sorry to digress. Thank you for the post. I enjoyed reading about your thoughts about both the books and what you liked about them.

Radha said...

I've met a few Tamil-Malaysians (here in Singapore as well as on our visits to Malaysia) & they are lovely people -- so Indian in some ways & so malaysian in some others.

The Tamils, the Chinese & the Malaysians in Malaysia have made a big impact on each other & the Malaysian culture as a whole. Even Malay food I find is such a great mishmash of south-east asian cuisine & indian cuisine.

I'll definitely pick up this book (once i'm done with the big pile of books still waiting to be read -- have been off reading for quite some time now -- have been busy with small this-and-that things)!

Lotus Reads said...

Hey Apu!

Always glad to hear from you. I think one of the main reasons I love literature on the diaspora so much is because I belong to the community. I relate to much of what they go through, but you're right, oft late there has been a glut of literature on the North American and British immigrant experience, so reading about the Tamils in Malaysia and then Sri Lanka, made for a nice change.

I will be in India at the end of the month...I'm dying to get my hands on some local you have any suggestions?

Lotus Reads said...

@Praveen ~ Ahhh, nothing like the old classics...I'm going to be re-reading "Of Human Bondage", my favorite Maugham novel, soon. Have you read that one?

@Da Sinner ~ Bollywood-themed novels? Gimme some titles please, sometimes I long to read something lighter!

Lotus Reads said...

Hey Sanjay!

Thank you, thank you! Love all the questions you ask. Yes, I agree with Apu and you, the writings of and about the Indian diaspora are plentiful, but there's not a whole lot that has come out of Malaysia, also, "Love Marriage" is probably the first novel about the Tamilian-Srilankan diaspora and the Tamil conflict that has come out of the US. SOme other Srilankan writers, including Michael Ondjaate in "Anil's Ghost" have written about it, but this one's different because it has a slightly different perspective.

It's hard to compare Samarasan to Vassanji (although some reviewers have compared her writing to Arundathi Roy) because Vassanji is a very traditional storyteller. He loves exploring the concept of family, intermarriage and the conflict that might cause, spirituality versus religion etc. His writings and themes are timeless and appeal to almost every reader.It's difficult to say what style Samarasan is going to adopt as this is her first novel but I like to think she's a very creative storyteller.

Yes, funnily enough, "Love Marriage" does have a character in there that tries to round up financial support for the fight back home, but being fiction we can't conclude that it is still happening in the Tamil community here in Canada. I have to confess I have no idea if the CTC is the true representative of the Tamil diaspora here in Canada, but they were on the radio (a very respectable station I might add) the other day and while they do not condone anything the LTTE have done or are doing, they ask we all take a look at the poor human rights record of the Sri Lankan government.

I will have to peruse the link you sent...thanks so very much for your contribution, it's always fun discussing these reads with you.

Lotus Reads said...

@Radha ~ Thanks for sharing with me your impressions of the Tamil-Malaysians! Malaysia must be a fascinating place with its unique blend of cultures. Culturally, I consider it so rich with a ton of stories just waiting to be told. Years ago I read Rani Manicka's "The Rice Mother" and ever since then I have been waiting for another Malaysian novel to hot the international stands...Tash Aw wrote a couple but none come close to Manicka's book as did "Evening is the Whole Day".

Amanda said...

This sounds like an interesting book. I've never read anything in this genre.


Happy Reader said...

Hi Lotus, How have you been? Is been a long time..I loved reading your review of Preeta's book. I read it half-way thru' but never really finished it due to lack of time. your review makes me want to pick it up again.
"Love Marriage" sounds interesting..Is this her first book?

karmic said...

Thank you Lotus, for taking the time to respond and telling me about the differences b/t the writing styles of Vassanji and Samsaran. This is something only someone as well read as you might be able to discern.

but being fiction we can't conclude that it is still happening in the Tamil community here in Canada.
I cannot conclude that it is still happening either. But as per the article that I linked to the org in question was banned by Canada in June 2008, to me it seems this might still be happening (at least recently).

Thank you again for taking the time to respond.

Nyssaneala said...

I met quite a few Tamil-Malaysians when I visited Penang, and a had such interesting discussions about their perspective of living in Malaysia. I'll defnitely be adding Evening is the whole day to my TBR list!

Lotus Reads said...

@Amanda ~ Weclome to the blog! If this is a new genre to you, I envy you because there is a ton of good literature that you can look forward to reading. Will visit you soon.

@Happy Reader ~ Hi, Chitts! Indeed, it's been a long time,too long if you ask me and part of that is my fault, I've been much too busy with work and family! Yes! You must get back to Preeta's book and let me know what you thought of the overall read. "Love Marriage" is Vasugi's first novel, I so loved it...I will be definitely reading her next offering. BTW, I am leaving for India at the end of the month...will stay in touch via e-mail and keep you posted with the latest happenings in India's literary world!

Lotus Reads said...

@Sanjay ~ Indeed. It could well be happening, except, now that it's illegal, fewer people will be willing to say anything about it.

@Nyssaneala ~ Hello! Lovely to see you here. I cannot wait to read what you think about "Evening is the Whole Day".

equiano said...

You might also like SONG OF THE ATMAN by Ronnie Govender (Published by Jacana Media in South Africa ISBN 1-77009-186-6) . If you can't get hold of a copy, let me know and I'll send you mine. Although set in South Africa, there is a lovely flavour of the Indian community there specifically, with references to life back in India.

gypsy said...

@ Lotus...

well, like I finished Chetan Bhagat's ' three mistakes of my life' and Tushar Raheja's 'Anything for you, Ma'am'...the bollywood flavor being prominent in the second one though...

Lotus Reads said...

@Equiano ~ Thanks so much for the recommendation. I found the book on so will definitely be ordering it. Thanks also for being willing to lend me your copy if I wasn't able to procure one of my own.

@d sinner ~ Making a note of both titles, thanks so much! I have Chetan Bhagat's first novel but i wasn't aware he had written another. Another Bollywood novel that comes to mind is Vikas Swarup's "Q & A", have you read that one?

Anonymous said...

Lotus, I read an excerpt of 'Evening is the whole day' and found it compelling. Loved your review - I will try to read this one, if only for the Tamil colloquialisms.

I was surprised to read about 'Love Marriage' - One of my classmates at school was Sri-Lankan, and her uncle was said to be a Tamil tiger!