By Shanon Shah
Given the level of what passes for popular discussion on literature in this country, I am all for efforts to make literature accessible to a wider, especially younger, audience. I remember the days when I had to read Arena Wati, A. Samad Said and Usman Awang for my Kertas Kefahaman Bahasa Malaysia. It was fun, but it also felt like I had to re-decipher the Rosetta stone.
Pak Samad, in his attempt to assist students presently deciphering his novel Memori di Hadapan Pulau, has taken it into the theatre and transformed it into a monologue. It is also his first foray into directing for theatre.
It serves as one of the two plays staged recently at Stor Teater, Dewan Bahasa & Pustaka, which uses the period between World War II and Independence as historical setting. The other play is Si Pemakan Hati, directed by Khir Rahman, and starring Melissa Saila. (More about this later.)
Memori starts off with the character Syed Fikri (Abdul Rahman Hussein) recounting the many incidents that befell the people close to him during the Japanese occupation. The audience is told about the initial novelty of bomb shelters – “It seems, even the fish in the sea were told to hide in the shelters” – and the ultimate futility of their function. We are told about the horrors of the sex crimes perpetrated by Japanese soldiers onto local women. At one point, a child comes across the carcass of her pet monkey – devoured by a starving human.
A monologue like this could only work if it is told by a character whose voice is compelling. Syed Fikri seems to have enough in him to make for an interesting character. The fact that he is a Hadhrami – an Arabian migrant claiming direct descent from the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him-colours his perspective of the events of the play. His Hadhrami identity is also an entry point for locating certain peculiarities of Islamic thought and practice in this country.
For example, Syed Fikri confesses early on that “here, many people kiss the hands of Arabs like me … to get blessings (barakah), so they say.”
Personally, I’ve even heard of people drinking used bathwater from the washrooms of some Hadhramis – barakah by ingestion, I suppose.
The concept of “barakah” is something that has created many tensions between the Muslim masses and the elite Hadhramis, especially during the postwar decolonisation movements in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. On one hand, some Muslims looked upon (and continue to look upon) the Syeds as upright custodians of the prophetic charisma of Muhammad. On the other hand, many of the Hadhramis were perceived as elites who collaborated with colonial forces, or at the very least, as charlatans who swindled the locals out of their property and income. Memori makes a reference to this as well, when Syed Fikri talks about his cousin:
“Minyak attar katanya minyak hikmat, dan, astagfirollah, ramai pula yang percaya. Beberapa ekar tanah orang dia beli secara berhelah”. (He claimed that his perfumed oil had magical properties and, God help them, many people believed him. He also bought several acres of land through his trickery.)
It is Syed Fikri’s unique identity as both stranger and local, his dual experience of being elite and dispossessed, which makes his observations so interesting. After all, there are complex dynamics in the official-versus-unofficial ethnic designations of the Hadhramis as “Malays” in Malaysia. Thus, it is significant that Syed Fikri’s worldview pines for a sense of an ‘authentic’, ‘local’ identity, but it seems as though he could also understand how this identity often breaks down under its own self-imposed limits.
But the monologue did not allow Syed Fikri to explore too much of this part of himself. The above examples were only tantalising but unexplored glimpses into Syed Fikri’s inner experiences during the war.
After a while, the narrative became burdened by the introduction of too many names of too many characters that even the admirable actor playing Syed Fikri seemed to fudge his lines one too many times. Remember the Sex and the City episode when Samantha forgets who exactly she has or has not had sex with? The thing is, what was funny in Sex and the City became a real distraction in Memori. Not a fair comparison, but you get my drift.
The thing is, instead of transforming itself into a multi-layered adventure in reexamining history, Memori di Hadapan Pulau turned out to be merely a generic story about war – a harrowing story, but nevertheless just a story that could have been told by anyone, anywhere.
At the very least, the play made me want to read the novel if only to see if there was any other way to extract the heart of the story, the thing that makes Syed Fikri tick, without having to burden the monologue with details that would only work in a novel.
On this score, Si Pemakan Hati worked better. It was pithy, it was suspenseful and it turned out to be quite disturbing.
Where Memori di Hadapan Pulau mainly recalled events from the year 1942, Si Pemakan Hati is set in the year 1950, when the Japanese had been driven out of Malaya, and when the Communists and the British were vying for control of Malaya. The conflict generated by this difficult period of transition manifests itself in the character of Tengku NurBulan (referred to as Ku Bulan), a mysterious woman who locks herself up in her house after her husband is killed by Japanese soldiers.
Ku Bulan has a domestic helper, Indak, who is never allowed to see her. Nevertheless, he is besotted with her. Indak’s friend, Syukur, is suspicious and even contemptuous of Ku Bulan. Syukur tries to convince lndak to abandon the eccentric Ku Bulan and join the fight for independence.
At one point, Indak is furious that the British have detained the grocer from whom Ku Bulan gets her supplies. Syukur’s response cuts into Indak’s jugular: “Are you angry because the grocer has been unjustly detained, or merely because you cannot procure the supplies for your beloved Ku Bulan?” ·
In between great sobs, Indak lashes back at Syukur, “You don’t understand. You just don’t understand.” The tension between Indak and Syukur is political, personal and intensely homoerotic – it is pregnant with symbolism.
Later in the play, we are introduced to Mujaki, a man from Ku Bulan’s past, who has come to see her because she has requested something from him that he just does not understand. Mujaki then begs for Indak’s help in facing the reclusive Ku Bulan.
As the play progresses, the character of Ku Bulan becomes more ominous, more enigmatic and more complex – an effect achieved precisely because we do not actually see much of Ku Bulan, but rather we are constantly confronted with conversations in which Indak, Syukur and Mujaki obsess over her.
Sofi Jikan, who played Syukur, gave an especially intense performance. A very physical actor, he uses his wiry body very effectively – the spurts and spasms in his physical movements effectively punctuated the acidity of his lines. Melissa Saila tried her best, but probably wasn’t given enough to do to really have an effect on the audience. The mystique of Ku Bulan came through not because of Melissa’s performance, but because of the wall of mystery that the other characters had built around Ku Bulan. Rosdeen Suboh started off quite promisingly as Mujaki, but he forgot so many of his lines at a crucial part of the play that it threatened to derail the entire climax.
Which brings me to the strength of the text, written by Siti Jasmina Ibrahim. The play was written tight, intelligent and the characters strong enough for the play to have a momentum of its own. This was helped by many intelligent choices made by director Khir Rahman.
The actors made great use of the space, unsettling the audience quite deliciously. Forget subtlety – to borrow a line from the film critic Richard Roeper, there wasn’t exactly foreshadowing as much as there was fifth-shadowing and sixth-shadowing. But the suspense worked nonetheless.
When Indak finally makes the difficult decision to enter Ku Bulan’s house and confront her, it is not just the Blair Witch-like multimedia installation that makes the audience squirm. We also react largely because of Hushairi Hussain’s marvelous portrayal of Indak. Hushairi made us empathise with lndak’s irrational devotion to Ku Bulan. He was truly a contested character, with every other character wanting a piece of him – Ku Bulan, Syukur and Mujaki.
Also, Indak was a character whose inner conflicts were drawn out well enough to raise interesting questions about contemporary struggles within the “Malay” identity.
I just wish that the play’s rubric of “Malay”-ness wasn’t so narrowly drawn. The juxtaposition of Indak’s struggles with the appearance of a lost, limp-looking Malay boy in a Sepultura t-shirt on stage just reeked of “Melayu mudah lupa” rhetoric. The sentiment was just too parochial. It suggested that the “Malay dilemma” would only ever be an exclusive problem of “Malays” as a culturally homogenous group grappling with the onslaught of malignant external forces. It contained no hint of the trans-ethnic and inter-religious connections that have shaped Malay identity so fluidly for centuries. Any discussion of “Malay”-ness, I think, is woefully incomplete without taking such ethnic and religious pluralisms into account.
And herein lies the difference between Memori di Hadapan Pulau and Si Pemakan Hati. Memori actually has a rich and dynamic worldview. It just seems to be afraid to explore this worldview, and cops out by sticking to a safe narrative. Si Pemakan Hati, however, is just bursting with the right amount of passion and anger, but ends up being imprisoned by its own limited worldview.
Which is not to say both plays weren’t worth watching. If I had to choose only one to watch, I would pick Si Pemakan Hati, only because its ending was perverse, provocative and utterly delicious. Let’s hope Stor Teater DBP stages these two plays again.
First Published: 06.10.2004 on Kakiseni