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Evening is the Whole Day by Preeta Samarasan

Preeta Samarasan’s debut novel Evening is the Whole Day is set in Malaysia—where she was born and raised before moving to the United States when she was a teenager—and traces the story of the Rajasekharans, an Indian immigrant family grappling with its troubled past as the country they have made their home is slipping into chaos. It is also a painstakingly detailed portrait of the post-colonial history of a society where Indian immigrants, Malays and Chinese are jostling to claim their legitimate space.

Evening is the Whole Day by Preeta Samarasan
Evening is the Whole Day, Preeta Samarasan (HARPER COLLINS OMES, January 1970; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH), May 2008)

In the Rajasekharan household, matters come to a boil with the abrupt dismissal of Chellam, the “rubber plantation servant girl”. Her departure haunts six-year-old Aasha, youngest member of the family, whose mind is a whorl of questions about Chellam’s dismissal, her grandmother’s mysterious death, the strained relationship between her parents, her elder sister Uma’s sullen silences and her imminent departure to America. All these stirrings in the adult world impact her deeply; answers are hard to come by. But Aasha questions them with the unadulterated curiosity of childhood.

Aasha’s father, Rajasekharan, nurtures political ambitions. As he makes his way up the rungs of the political hierarchy, the narrative shines a spotlight on the race and class divisions that eat into the vitals of Malaysian society like a canker. Samarasan paints a scathing portrait of the creme-de-la-creme set who wines and dines their evenings away as the country implodes. Her descriptions of the hypocritical elite are delightfully ironic: with a keen eye for detail, she captures the lilt of their conversations and the trajectory of their thoughts.

The novel offers the reader a rich mix of the personal and the political and Samarasan is in her element when she places intimate relations under the scanner, charting a map of the human heart. Siblings battle it out, burdened by secrets hidden away in their shared past. Spouses flail in troubled waters, overwhelmed by the distances that separate them. Mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law lash out at each other, defeated by their frustrated lives. Parents and children are bound, as they are separated, by the tapestry of secrets and lies that they weave into their lives.

But Samarasan can stray into the dangerous territory of the ornate: “her heart hammering like a wedding drum, elemental words blistering her tongue like beads of hot oil.” Adjectives are packed sky high: where one will do, there are often two or more. Seemingly channeling Rushdie and Roy, Samarasan’s pages are heaped with generous dollops of linguistic tics: inexplicable capital letters (‘Big House,’ ‘Slippery Slope’) and italics as common as mushrooms after a shower. It would be unfortunate if post-colonial literature came to be identified with these jaded gymnastics.

Vineetha Mokkil is a journalist, reviewer and writer based in new Delhi.