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"The most hated Malaysian writer"
A conversation with Uthaya Sankar SB
A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of conversing with Malaysian writer Uthaya Sankar SB. He had just released his Bahasa translation of the Kathasaritsagara, the 11th century collection of stories by Somadeva. This was a landmark event—while Somadeva’s great work has been translated and retold in many languages over the centuries, this is the first retelling in Bahasa. Given my own recent retelling of the work, this was also an exciting discovery for me.
Uthaya’s other works include retellings of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata and of Kalidas’s great poem, Meghaduta. He writes in Bahasa Malaysia, Malaysia’s national language (which uses the Roman alphabet, like English).
Some excerpts from our conversation, which I share here with gratitude and Uthaya’s permission.
Rohini C: Your writing is strongly focused on Indian culture and literature. How did you begin writing and retelling stories from India?
Uthaya Sankar SB: I was introduced to Indian folklore and legends from a very young age by listening to stories from my mother who got married at the age of thirteen. Once I started going to school and was able to read in both Bahasa Malaysia and English, the library became my sanctuary. By the age of fifteen, I started writing poems and stories—first for my own pleasure, later for my classmates.
My stories started appearing in magazines and newspapers in 1992, when I was twenty. Looking back, I am proud to say that the uniqueness of my stories captured the attention and interest of the editors. Although I portray characters from various backgrounds, it is safe to say that the Indian-Hindu element in my stories resonate better with the readers since not many writers are able to highlight these in Bahasa Malaysia.
My short stories are compiled in Orang Dimensi (1994), Siru Kambam (1996), Surat Dari Madras (1999), Rudra Avatara (2008), Kathakali (2009), and Kisah Dari Siru Kambam (2013), while my novels are Hanuman: Potret Diri (1996) and Panchayat (2012). Malaiur Manikam (2015), Mandala Bicara (2016), and Suvarna Bhumi (2002) are compilations of my essays.
RC: You have retold many Indian classics in Bahasa Malaysia. I am aware of your Ramayana and Mahabharata. Which others have you retold? Was there a particular angle that interested you in these works? Or a particular approach you took?
USSB: About five years ago, I started retelling Indian classics in Bahasa Malaysia. Thirukkural dan Megha Duta (2018), Ramayana dan Mahabharata (2019), Vetalam dan Vikramaditya (2020), Bhagavad Gita (2021), Khanda Puranam (2022), and Katha Sarit Sagara (2023) are the books in the series.
The Ramayana and the Mahabharata are known globally and have been retold in various regional languages. They are also part of Thai, Malaysian, and Indonesian culture. They can also be seen represented in various performing arts in these countries. When it comes to the stories, people usually start with Pandu and Kunthi, then move on to the Pandavas and the Kauravas in the Mahabharata. As for the Ramayana, people generally start with Dasaratha, then move to the adventures of Rama, Sita, Hanuman, and Ravana.
When I did the retelling, I consciously went back to the beginning of the stories—from Ikshavaku in Ayodhya, and Shantanu in Hastinapura. I sort of wanted to present the prequel or the lesser known origin stories from the original epics.
As for Megha Duta, it is safe to say that it’s an unknown text among the Malaysians. The Indian diaspora here would know about Kalidas as a poet from Tamil song lyrics. An example would be the “Kalidasan, Kannadasan” song from Soorakottai Singakutti (1983) Tamil film.
Nayanthara fans might be humming the “Megathoodham” song from Airaa (2019) Tamil film without knowing the context. Not to mention that the theme in Megha Duta is universal and just as relevant today as it was ages ago. Therefore, I wanted to present it in a prose form for the Malaysian audience. If I were to merely translate the poem, the audience might not be able to understand the context and the content of this masterpiece.
I have always be fascinated by Hanuman in the Ramayana. While reading various retellings in Bahasa Malaysia, Indonesia, and English as a teanager, I wanted to know his side of the story. Was Hanuman merely a devoted follower? I started reading about the Hanumad Ramayana. I wrote Hanuman: Potret Diri in 1991 and it was published as a novel in 1996. Later, I published a revised and updated version as Hanuman: Suara Hati in 2013. The premise is simple: What if Hanuman is given an opportunity to tell us his side of the story?
RC: What motivates you as a writer, and specifically, what motivates you to write about Indian culture?
USSB: As a full-time writer, I enjoy reading and researching on various subject matters. When something fascinates me, I try to share the information with others via social media, essays, or publications. I have been a columnist for various news portals and newspapers since 2009. I also blog and am very much active on Twitter and Facebook.
I really want the Malaysian Indians to know, understand, appreciate, and uphold Indian culture. At the same time, since my stories and essays are in Bahasa Malaysia, every Malaysian has the opportunity to read, understand, and appreciate Indian culture. Furthermore, there aren’t many Indians writing in Bahasa Malaysia.
A few friends and I started Kumpulan Sasterawan Kavyan (Kavyan Writers Group) in 1999 to bring together Malaysian Indian writers. We conduct creative writing workshops and organise reading events throughout the country. It is sad to note that the Malaysian school syllabus does not seem to understand the need to introduce the Malaysian Indian writers to the younger generation. Therefore, we have taken it upon ourselves to promote our writings to all Malaysians. We also maintain a simple blog to document our achievements and contributions.
RC: What sort of reception has your writing received in Malaysia?
USSB: My editors have always mentioned that my writings are very refreshing while the readers are mostly happy to be able to enjoy and learn something new. My stories have received various national awards since 1992 (the year I started publishing). My writings have appeared in almost all major publications in Malaysia.
But, having said that, my journey has never been smooth. For instance, in 1999, Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP), which is the national literary body that published some of my earlier books, denied my right to use the term “Bahasa Malaysia” (Malaysian Language). So, I started self-publishing in 2000 with the support of friends (some writers and mostly non-writers).
Some quarters are totally against my retelling of Indian/Hindu epics and classics in Bahasa Malaysia. Two groups tried to stop the Bhagavad Gita project. One was a Tamil fanatic group that doesn’t even know the text’s original language is Sanskrit. Another religious fanatic group tried in vain to demand I get their approval before publishing the book.
As people say, it is always lonely at the top. And things are not easy since I am not a “yes-man”. As my Twitter and Facebook profile proclaim, I am arguably the most hated Malaysian writer. Anyway, I believe that whatever I write, publish, and document today would be beneficial to the Malaysian Indians, and Malaysians in general, in the future.
It was a delight to chat with Uthaya. If you have questions for him, or would like to know more, do write in via the comments below!
Uthaya can also be reached at email@example.com.
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