TALE OF THE DREAMER’S SON
Skin is thicker than blood
In what was once a Scottish tea planter’s mansion in the highlands of Peninsular Malaysia, all religions are one and race is unheard of. That is, until the occupants of what is now known as the Muhibbah Centre for World Peace are joined by Salmah, a Malay Muslim woman. “All are welcome here,” they are reminded by their spiritual leader, Cyril Dragon, who is trying to ignore news of the changing political climate with its increasing religious intolerance. He is still trying to forget May 13, 1969, when ethnic tensions boiled over into bloodshed.
Skin is thicker than blood
In what was once a Scottish tea planter’s mansion in the highlands of Peninsular Malaysia, all religions are one and race is unheard of. That is, until the occupants of what is now known as the Muhibbah Centre for World Peace are joined by Salmah, a Malay Muslim woman. “All are welcome here,” they are reminded by their spiritual leader, Cyril Dragon, who is trying to ignore news of the changing political climate with its increasing religious intolerance. He is still trying to forget May 13, 1969, when ethnic tensions boiled over into bloodshed. Tale of the Dreamer’s Son guides us from that fateful incident in Malaysian history to the present day. Throughout, Samarasan’s polyphonic, rambunctious prose brilliantly navigates the tug-of-war between ideals and reality.
- World Editions
- November 2022
- 360 Pages
“Samarasan (Evening Is the Whole Day) sets a fearless and complex family saga against the social and political upheaval of modern-day Malaysia. The writing is dazzling and poetic; Yusuf’s narration soars over place and time and renders the cast with astounding clarity. Fans of Min-Jin Lee, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and Laila Lalami will find much to admire.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review
“Tale of the Dreamer’s Son is a riveting, painful, funny read from the author of the powerful Evening Is the Whole Day. I’d been waiting for this book. Nobody writes like Preeta Samarasan. Through astute characterization, sheer drama, evocative settings, superb prose, and blended language, Samarasan draws me into all the deep questions that rattle the foundations of her beloved Malaysia. I love this book in many ways, for the storytelling, for the music in her writing, for the images, but also for how it reminds me of how issues in Malaysia continue to mirror ours in Nigeria and many other parts of the world. What a fantastic, fantastic book!” –Uwem Akpan, author of Say You’re One of Them and New York, My Village
“Politics, religion, culture and love collide on every page of Preeta Samarasan’s new novel. At once furious and funny, majestic and intimate, Tale of the Dreamer’s Son is an ode to the glorious and complex mess that is Malaysia.” –Tash Aw
“Samarasan continues to be a wonder, a wryly vibrant, passionately astute chronicler of recent Malaysian history.” –Peter Ho Davies
1. What did you enjoy most about Tale of the Dreamer’s Son?
2. Have you had any experience with a tightknit religious community in your life? If so, did you recognize anything?
3. Do you agree with Cyril’s “be the change” approach? Should he perhaps have invested all that energy into politics or activism instead?
4. Are all the community members as idealistic? If not, why do you think they’re there?
5. Was the death of the Muhibbah Centre for World Peace self-inflicted, or were they hit by forces outside of their control?
6. Why did Leo commit suicide?
7. What was Reza thinking that night? Do you think he knew what Leo might have done?
8. What did Leo and Reza’s homosexuality mean to Kannan, if anything?
9. Reza goes through something of a spiritual transformation soon after they all return to the city. Is the change in Kannan as radical?
10. And is Salmah’s turn to the national religion a radical break with her past approach to life?
11. What do you make of Kannan’s profession? Does it suit him?
12. As a private tutor, does Kannan still let some of his opposition to the rise of the narrow nationalist identity shine through?
13. What does the ending mean to you?
14. The book is ambitious in its attempt to capture a diverse nation, its recent history, and possibly its future. If you are not Malaysian, did it at any point remind you of political or social issues in your own country?
15. Do you feel like you got to know Malaysia, if you didn’t know the country somewhat already?
16. Would you be interested in reading more from Preeta Samarasan?
In the beginning was the word.
My father was twenty-nine years old when God said to him: Rise, Cyril, and lead the way. Like the Queen knighting somebody like that. Like a voice-over in a superhero movie. Later my father would say, “I knew it was God because it was not one of my migraines. It was completely different.” He would smile as he remembered it and that smile would remove him even further away from us. “I could feel God that day,” he would explain. “Just like any of you can feel it when someone enters the room.”
Dutifully we would picture it: God’s breath rough and dry like a cat’s tongue on the back of his neck. A smell of burnt earth and coal fires. But only many years later would I look back and wonder if he might have meant that day only. On other days I looked for Him but where was He?
What my father was said to have experienced was exactly what you imagine: a flash of light and the air shimmering like on a hot day above an endless road. Some said that it was more than a flash, that it had a human form of some kind, except that it came and went so quickly Papa was left standing in the upstairs front room of his father Ambrose’s house on Old Klang Road with nothing but the memory of two eyes like eternal suns.
Every single day of his life from approximately age four my father had been going to the sundry shop across the street. He went there to buy their coconut biscuits: two each day, you know the type I am talking about, the colour
of sawdust and sometimes you will find real sand and stones and bits of gunny-sack threads in them. He was a creature of habit with all the obstinacy that this implies but also all the loyalty: though he could not cross the street to buy his biscuits on May 13th, 1969, he could think of nothing else but the shop man and his family. All he could do was tremble and peer at the Malay Regiment boys marching down the street towards Mr Lim Loke Kee’s premises.
A salient fact: when Cyril’s mother Dorothy was eight months pregnant with him she witnessed the summary decapitation of a poor Chinese bugger who had failed to bow deeply enough to a Japanese soldier. Chop-chop and then the Chinese fler’s head impaled on a stick for all to see. An excess of empathy swept through Dorothy, hotting up the waters in which her frog-limbed boy bobbed, throwing her on the spot into premature labour. Poor Dorothy didn’t make it, but like Obelix with the magic potion, Cyril was infused with enough sorry-feeling and guilt to last him the rest of his life.
He pictured the Lims hidden sardine-packed in some storeroom sweating and being eaten alive by mosquitoes, holding kitchen knives and cangkuls and whatever they had managed to find. My father’s heart went dup dup dup dup dup dup together with those eight hearts across the street, each beat of his matching each beat of theirs. When their hearts skipped a beat his did too.
Not that he and Loke Kee were best friends or anything of the sort. He did not even know Loke Kee that well: if you had asked him, which does Loke Kee like better, Milo or Horlicks? or, which of Loke Kee’s five children is his favourite? he would not have been able to answer. My father was that type, that’s all. The soft type, as some call it: he was the type to feel for whichever person or animal was suffering the most, to walk a mile in another man’s shoes without being asked, to give a beggar fifty cents and keep only ten for himself. Even in his looks he was soft: curly brownish hair, fine bones like a bird, fair like custard. Could not take the cold, even on a rainy morning in Kuala Lumpur; at once he would pull out his grey monkey cap and cardigan. Leave him to his routine: oats for breakfast at seven o’clock, after lunch the newspaper, coconut biscuits for teatime, a half-hour stroll before the streetlights were switched on, Nat King Cole or The Platters after dinner. Weekday afternoons he gave individual English tuition at home.
Think of the conviction and passion required to uproot a creature like that and deposit him in the damp mists of Cameron Highlands. It is an uprooting worth witnessing if only for the drama of it, whether or not you believe in the big man upstairs. I myself do not believe, now itself I can tell you. But still I think back to that day, to my father crouching at the front window, to God’s slash-and-burn smell, and I get a kind of chill at the nape of my neck. A good story is a good story.
There had been talk of trouble after the opposition gained so much ground in the general election, rumours flying here there everywhere. My father had been feeling uneasy for days but all the same it was the sight of it—the army boys clomping down the street in their black boots and their kneesocks and their Brylcreemed hair like a scene left over from the Japanese Occupation—that shocked him into realizing that his country would never be the same again. Behind those boys in uniform, the mob followed set- ting fire to anything they could get their hands on: cars motorcycles bicycles dustbins.
Look at my father gripping the windowsill, his long thin nose pressed to the crack between the shutters. His head throbs from the smoke. His lungs crackle and burn inside his chest. It’s coming it’s coming it’s coming, he thinks. I’m going to faint. Then all of a sudden a sight so shocking his body can’t even gather the wits to pass out: Loke Kee’s fifteen-year-old son bursts out onto the street swinging his mother’s meat cleaver. The boy has gone amok berserk chee sin paithium, whatever you want to call it in whatever language you like to call it in; the fact of his madness is the same in any language or none.
You could blame it on evil spirits or you could say it was panic. Or you could say that mental imbalance ran in the family. But the why matters not. Only the what and the when have any bearing on this narrative. Like a five-year-old boy playing “Kung Fu Fighting” the boy swings and swings that cleaver and then he starts to scream: “Balik kampung! Balik kampung! Balik kampung!”
Because that was how to hurt the Malays at that time and even now, i.e. to brand them all country bumpkins out of place in Kuala Lumpur. You see, the longer different peoples have lived together, the more expertly they can hurt each other. Which means that here in Malaysia we knew all the most wounding words to say to one another and we knew just how to say them. Flamboyantly enough to splash ourselves across front pages; in impassive monotones in playgrounds and offices; hissed under the breath in market-stall queues.
And screamed out in the hot streets in the middle of a riot. Loke Kee’s son presses that button without knowing what he is doing and it works like magic: two of the soldiers—they also holding their guns with too-small shaking hands like children playing police and thief—zip round and shoot him. Bang-bang. The two bangs so close together that even my father who has not blinked for over ten minutes cannot tell which bullet killed the boy. He stares and stares at that boy in his spreading blood puddle until his mind begins to play tricks on him and he sees— oh, what-what he sees, you will think we also are another family of lunatics to hear it! Flashing purple lights in the sky. A tree bursting into bloom. The spirit of the dead boy soaring up like Ultraman.
Tricks, tricks, the mind is full of tricks, you can never trust it. How to separate the tricks from the truth? I want— wanted—so much to believe. Consider Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe and Joan of Arc. Consider also my father’s medical history and theirs. I can only pass his story on to you and let you be the judge.
No sooner has the dead boy’s ghost taken off into the bruised sky than my father sees two-three Malay Regiment boys drag Loke Kee and the rest of his family out into the street. He cannot make sense of the exact words but he grasps the gist of the soldiers’ purposely pasar-fied Chink-ified Malay: the rs crushed into ls and spat into their stunned faces; the choice of lu over kamu or awak or any of the halfdozen other ways our peoples have to denote the second person.
My father sees Loke Kee on his knees shaking his long head. He sees terror cloud the humiliation in all those familiar faces. He sees the soldiers’ hands holding two or three by the scruff of the neck so that they cannot even shake their heads to beg.
As though to mirror Loke Kee in some empathy-building exercise gone too far my father falls to his knees. He closes his eyes tight-tight he tries to block his ears he shakes and cries, cries and shakes. And it is at that moment that God appears to him to urge, Rise, Cyril, and lead the way. Only you can see the true path. Unite your people. Bring them together under Me. I am one but my names are many.
Then and there Cyril collapses like Saul in the Bible. He falls backwards his head knocking down an antique brass pen holder, his shoulders one after the other banging the corner of his desk and then the wooden floor and his long legs toppling the chair. Boom dappa dappa dappa boom thud. Downstairs his three elderly spinster aunts are wondering what is going on asthma attack or seizure or what, but they themselves are shitting bricks, they will not go running up and down on those creaky floors attracting the attention of the mob and risking their own lives to save their nuisance nephew’s. All his life they’ve been united in their resentment of the feckless and frivolous Dorothy (“forever pretending to be sick some more!”) for saddling them with her offspring. So what if it wasn’t his fault? It was even less theirs.
Only the servant girl for one brief moment considers slipping up the stairs to investigate. She thinks of motherless sensitive short-sighted Master Cyril. His blazing migraines, his heart thing, what was that English word, flutter or murmur or maybe it was both. She knows she ought to go and check—even if only to confirm her worst fears—but she has lived so long under the terrifying collective thumb of the aunts that she is paralysed: if she asked them wouldn’t they snap you keep quiet and mind your own business? Her thin thighs are shaking inside her sarong her overfull bladder is throbbing to the erratic rhythms of the shouts and shots from outside she can’t make it up the stairs she just can’t. And my grandfather? Completely deaf the old man is. Sleeps through the whole thing lucky for him. The only one on that street who never hears the hullabaloo. In great bafflement he will read about it in the newspapers when it is all over.
When my father regains consciousness all is quiet. In the five-foot entryway of Loke Kee’s shop there are three bodies: 1) Loke Kee 2) his son and 3) his old father. Three generations just like that. What happened to the women and children my father will never know. His story of that day ends just like it begins, with small details: the father’s face as black as a dried buah kana in the evening light. The legs of his blue shorts as wide as two tunnels at the end of which Cyril can see the underpants yellowed with age.
Striped cotton underpants. That home-sewn type that they don’t make anymore.
God whispers to him again: Let it not have been in vain, Cyril. Let all these lives not have been wasted. A thin hum rises in the distance like as though a failed generator has come back on. In the street someone is shovelling or scraping something with a metal utensil. Cyril does not want to know who or what exactly. He shuts his eyes again and turns from the window. They have gone astray! whispers God. Show them. Show them my singular nature.
My father brushes the salt crystals from his lower lashes. His spit still thinned with tears. He knows he should rise and in the name of the Lord declare … what? Speak, Cyril speak! In my eyes all men are equal. Cyril Tertullian Dragon, twenty-seven years old, reluctant saviour, asthmatic prophet. Okay okay Lord, he sighs inside himself. I am your servant.
“Come off it,” his aunts will say. “Cut it out. Of all your nonsenses this is the best/worst one yet. Please. Enough of it or you are going to land all of us in the lockup. This has nothing to do with our people! It is between the Chinese and the Malays. Leave them to settle it between themselves.”
“Our people?” Cyril says. “They are all our people.”
“Now is not the time to talk like a book or a film,” they warn him. “It’s all very nice and beautiful until somebody comes lunging at you with a parang.”
“It’s beautiful even then,” he replies. “We all feel the same terror we all bleed the same blood we all die the same death. It’s the most beautiful thing. It’s the only beautiful thing. It’s the only thing that can save this country.”
The aunts bury their faces in their hands. So he is going to save the country. This insect-limbed son of his useless mother. This boy who had to be kept back from school for two years because of dead-mother dreams and hockey-field bullies. This boy who cannot swim or ride a bicycle or get a real job in the outside world.
My future father is not the only one who believes the May 13th riots have revealed a great truth to him: unbeknownst to him a man not quite twice his age is laying out the Dilemma of his people and his own master plan for saving the nation. His solution is the exact opposite of my father’s: some people are our people and other people are their rivals. Simple as that. Distinct categories. Clarify and label, sift and sort and seal off, cancel out Darwinian realities with government policy. The Father of Modern Malaysia and my own father will never meet in real life but their dreams will circle each other in slow motion for seventeen years until one dream snuffs the other out so deftly so neatly so elegantly.
“Go right ahead then,” Cyril’s aunts say with a shrug and a cackle in 1969. “Go tell it on the mountain. Let’s see who comes flocking to hear your good news.”
And so he does and they do. It is a flock of only nine-plus- baby (and should baby Kiranjit count at all? Those who follow on their own adult legs and those who are dragged along: the difference between them is after all the subject of my tale). But they are a flock nevertheless. Some feel they have already lost everything they had to lose; some feel they have never had anything to lose to begin with. That what people think they have to lose is in truth nothing but illusion after illusion. They are survivors of cancer and bankruptcy, abuse and loneliness. They are predeceased by husbands or children or babies. They are concubines and cuckolds and disowned offspring.
“Yet only dare to imagine what could be!” Cyril Dragon tells them. “Imagine if we each of us saw the Divine in our fellow man. Imagine if we could all close our eyes and feel that Divine breath moving through all of us as though we were nothing but cells of one infinite eternal body.”
Obediently they imagine and they see what he means: it is the only beautiful thing.