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Author on the Air: M Shan talks Marriage and Mutton Curry

Dato' Dr M Shanmughalingam, or M Shan, is a very well-known figure in Malaysia. His resume is too long to list here, suffice it to say that he has held some key positions in the corporate world at institutions such as CIMB and Petronas.

But the alumnus of Harvard and Oxford has also made a name for himself as an author of quirky short stories. Through the years, his works have been featured in various anthologies not only in Malaysia but also in Singapore, the UK, the US, Europe and more. 

His latest book, Marriage and Mutton Curry, is the first time his works have been collected into a compilation. Call it a "greatest hits" or "best of". But this collection doesn't only contain stories from the past, there are a few new tales as well. 

He spoke with Eugene Loh of radio station 938Now about Marriage and Mutton Curry. Here are the transcript and recording of that conversation ... 



Q: First of all, share with us some of the themes featured in your book. A lot is steeped in history and heritage that affects both Singapore & Malaysia, things like war and colonial rules. Share with us about these themes covered in this book. 

A: There are many themes, I should just name a few. Among them, one is dominance. By person, by groups, or by authorities over the rest. The second one is the different forms of inequality and how people have coped with them. Another one is the role of humour and food.

The first one is how critically important our history is to us today. Witness the popularity of Hillary Mantel's work. I’ve seen injustice both personally and from our history, and one of my great passions is to see what I can do about fighting inequality and encouraging our readers to empathise to the many who have suffered from the dominance of others. I hope that my stories will encourage and enable our readers to empathise and put themselves in the place of the other person’s shoes.

They say in Africa when an elder lies, a whole library burns down. In much of Asia, Latin America and Africa we do not do enough to record events, experiences, emotions and insights. On the other hand, you can go to the roads, libraries at Oxford and ask for examples for the drainage and irrigation reports of the state of Kedah in 1947. The librarians will say, “Here you are, sir." The Colonials kept meticulous department annual reports, diaries, biographies even dictionaries of local languages.

We need stories by ourselves about ourselves. What are the Singapore and Malaysia stories told to us who were born here, work here and live here? What are the stories that our parents and grandparents have to tell us, that we should take time not only to listen and to read also most of all to write?

Q: You’ve got 15 of those stories contained in this first collection of short stories of yours called Marriage and Mutton Curry. Share with us some examples of these stories contained within this book.

A: There are 15 stories, nine previously published and six brand new. Two of them, the first two, in fact, are about Malaysia and Singapore in the Japan Occupation. Four stories are set in the civil service, government and the administration, including visitors from the World Bank and from America. Then they go on to stories of ordinary little people – their dreams, hopes and emotions. How they are ignored, destroyed or diminished and how they cope and among their coping mechanism, are humour and food. To the dominant themes, the coping mechanisms of the weak to deal with the strong. If you can't fight with the strong, you get them to laugh – and you get to eat what you cook!

Q: Share with us why people in Singapore should read Marriage and Mutton Curry?

A: I feel that Singapore & Malaysia have always shared a common history of British colonialism, the Japanese Occupation and post-independence. (African author) Chinua Achebe has written about post-independence in Nigeria. We need much more about what Singapore and Malaysia have experienced during the colonial period and post-independence. I feel that we have so much more in common than the differences. I am passionate about bringing Singapore and Malaysia together. If you recall, two-thirds of Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s first PAP Cabinet were ex-Malaysians. On his very last visit to Malaysia, Mr Lee Kuan Yew turned down an offer to fly from Changi to Kuala Lumpur. He said, “No, I want to drive all the way from Singapore to Kota Bahru and I want to see with my own eyes and first-hand Malaysia", which is the country that he was most passionate about, after Singapore.

Now among all my favourite writers from Singapore are two ex-Malaysians –  Catherine Lim’s short stories and Suchen Christine Lim’s novels. Robert Yeo was the first editor to publish my short stories, and another Singaporean Kirpal Singh, as early as 2002 – together with Dipika Mukherjee and (M A) Quayam – edited The Merlion and the Hibiscus, contemporary short stories from Singapore & Malaysia published by Penguin.

We need many more such publications! Most of all here I am as an amateur scribbler from Kuala Lumpur being published by Epigram of Singapore. It was Edmund Wee, the owner of Epigram who chose the title Marriage and Mutton Curry from among my list of titles which included “Live once like cold desserts” his flair for design and selection of catchy titles is helping me greatly in promoting our book. Our publishers generally prefer novels. I’m greatly indebted to Edmund for daring to take the risk of publishing short stories by a Malaysian unknown in Singapore.

I am passionate about using my stories to bring Singapore and Malaysia, whom I see as non-identical twins, closer to each other because Singapore’s strengths are Malaysia’s weaknesses and Malaysia’s strengths are Singapore’s weaknesses. Malaysia’s motto is, "unity is strength" and Singapore’s national anthem is Majulah Singapura. I say the unity of Malaysia and Singapore (makes)  even greater strength, and let's Majulah Singapura and Malaysia.

Q: One of the powers of a writer/author is to make the reader identify with the things that you are writing in the book and you mentioned the title of the book Marriage & Mutton Curry which instantly connects you with readers. You mentioned humour and food in your stories which you use as weapons. So share with us these examples of humour and food in your stories where you get that and what do you hope to achieve.

A: Firstly, I feel that humour and food are two of the greatest unifier, nothing like uniting people with laughter or with food. Secondly, the source of the humour & food in my stories are from my mother. Who was such a great cook that people from all over Kuala Lumpur came to our home they dashed past the front lounge where my father was at his desk working seriously, straight to the kitchen to learn how to cook from my mother and to taste the dishes ranging from biryani to my title story mutton curry.

My mum had such a compulsive wit that people avoided her because she could make them laugh when they were there. And I feel that humour is the best antidote to pomposity and over-zealousness. It is a crucial asset for the weak to deal with the strong. If you have your wits about you, you can survive almost any situation. Look at Singapore, you don’t have natural resources but you use your wits. Just like the people of Jaffna, who didn’t have any natural resources, but they have thrived by the use of their wits. At the same time, as Sultan Nazrin Shah of Perak says in his royal foreword, while the stories on the surface appear to be about the Jaffna Tamil community. The insights they provide go well beyond that experience of any one ethnic group. They speak to all of us Singaporeans and Malaysians alike, we are brothers and sisters.

Q: You're very celebrated and very acclaimed and your stories have resonated and radiated out from Malaysia and Singapore and around the region to attract producers from Australia and New Zealand who have offered to make movies of some of your short stories. What's come out of that? 

A: I had an offer from a New Zealander to make a movie from my very first short story "Victoria and Her Kimono" which is published in Ireland first, and then in Penguin, Merlion & the Hibiscus. Equally coincidentally the second offer came from an Australian lady to make a movie of my last story "Rani Taxis Away". You see the coincidence that both the offers came from the southern hemisphere of Australia and New Zealand and both from women.

One of the reasons they chose these stories I think is because they were so visual and I think ideally in writers will want to make their stories as visual as possible.”

Q: We need you to get you to read from your book. 

(M Shan reads from "Victoria and Her Kimono".)

Q: That was so wonderful. Thank you so much for that. I learnt so much about narration and storytelling just from that short reading of yours. Thank you so much for that.

A: I want to thank you for the privilege to speak to you and through you to the listeners in Singapore. I am greatly privileged. Thank you so much, Eugene.

Get Marriage and Mutton Curry today. 

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