Why I Write: To describe the lower-case ‘h’ in History and Herstory
One writes for many reasons. As an academic who teaches History, I write journal articles to add to our collective knowledge of the past. As a film reviewer, I try to succinctly bring out the texture and ethos of a film. As a friend, I swiftly type, often with one hand, WhatsApp messages to share instantaneous experiences. As a husband I write to my spouse to verify mundane matters, apologize for lapses in judgment, to reassure her that we are a team. When I write as a novelist I cannot write as a historian (the story takes priority, not dates and facts), nor as a spouse (the quotidian is not necessarily interesting and is usually personal), or as a friend (the informality and short-hand would be gibberish to most). But a novel admittedly pilfers from all of these compartments, adapts it, fictionalizes it, and pretends that it removes autobiographical traces. It cannot. I am in my stories.
The Young Man, the main character of the book, who flits around, trying to find himself by doing something special and honourable, is me too—young, unsure yet full of ideals during my wanton and precious twenties.
Like Maloti, the first character you meet in my book, my parents too arrived via ship to Malaya in the early 50s. I was born about twenty years later. I grew up in what was essentially a small plantation economy. While my cousins in India had been absorbing the long heritage of that country from birth, I was thrust into it much later, during my school years—when I shifted to Calcutta. I had to make sense of a new country and complex society. I was sent without my parents (for better education, they insisted) and lived semi-orphaned for a decade. So the story of a young girl, who has to leave home for reasons beyond her own doing, is an expression of that; Maloti has to comprehend the new world on her own terms. In a sense, I reversed the story in gender, geography, and time. But the ethos remained. And similarly, the Young Man, the main character of the book, who flits around, trying to find himself by doing something special and honourable, is me too—young, unsure yet full of ideals during my wanton and precious twenties. That’s what authors do. We try to find in our stories, those feelings which first opened our hearts, and expand on them.
Why did I write Flutter in the Colony? The short answer is that I had to. There was a time in my 30s when I felt an irrepressible urge to understand my past. And by past I mean the period before I was born. I wanted to understand the circumstances that led to world I gradually became aware of in my teens, when I started having grown-up thoughts and ideas. Talking to my parents, I realized that even in the 1980s, we were very close to incredible events in history; just a matter of decades from Partition, the Bengal famine, and, in my own families’ trajectory, the Emergency and independence of the country that is now called Malaysia. But rather than rewrite that history, easily available in books, I thought that I would use my unusual vantage point as a child of a family that had seen both words – Indian and Malayan – right to the end of Empire, to create a tale. The very landscape I had run around in, barefoot and often naked, was the location of Japanese occupation brutalities, British murders of communists, and yet ordinary people had persevered and even blossomed. I started interviewing people, visiting old sites, imagining characters, and typing out semblances of a plot based on these sojourns. Sometimes the effort was more anthropological than literary. I was insecure that my story would come across as a heavy-handed history lecture, not one worth turning pages for. What right, I kept telling myself, did I have to take up half of a stranger’s well-earned Sunday rest, only to find my book boring! It was about ten years before I was satisfied. I put my project to rest in 2019.
Why did I write Flutter in the Colony? The short answer is that I had to. There was a time in my 30s when I felt an irrepressible urge to understand my past. And by past I mean the period before I was born.
A Flutter in the Colonyis at its core a love story. Not an easy one, but a tender one fraught with problems. It looks at the diaspora overseas, only this time it is not set in London or somewhere in the United States like so many Indian novels tend to be, but just a bit further south in the Indian Ocean, in Malaya. The story flits between two countries, between strong resolutions and weak actions, between love and despondence. It is steeped in History but I am more interested in the small ‘h’ of history. The little details that make experiences of the past relatable to ordinary people, far removed in time. I hope you’ll enjoy it.
Sandeep Ray was born off the Straits of Malacca, on the edge of a rubber plantation. He began his career as a film-maker, travelling widely and producing award-winning documentaries. His last feature-length film, The Sound of Old Rooms, screened at several international festivals and won the Grand Prize at the Taiwan International Film Festival. He explores woven pasts in A Flutter in the Colony, his first novel. The views expressed are the author’s own.