The Elephant Trophy and Other Stories

Sally Anne Param

Although the English language is not the main language in Malaysia, it is heartening to know that short stories written in English have become a literary genre increasingly undertaken by Malaysians. This evidences the country’s burgeoning English literature scene, as quoted in both popular and academic narratives. It is within this growing literary milieu that The Elephant Trophy and Other Stories (referred to as TET and Others from now on) is reviewed. As the second published anthology of stories by author Paul Gnanaselvam, TET and Others is gaining global recognition.

The book is a great read, made up of eighteen stories, engaging the reader from the first page of the first story. All the author’s characters are of a Malaysian Indian descent, realistically delineated as they attempt to make meaning through their quotidian lives. The characters in TET and Others can enjoy the conventions that come with the genre of the short story: to be dwelt on more definitely within a concise plotline. And yet, this is where the author’s strength is more evident, having to be able to pack a brief and rich storyline with the interplay of socio-economic, political, and cultural elements as the background. This multi-layering of determinants acts as a lens that shapes the purpose of each story, whetting the reader’s appetite in understanding and appreciating the author’s oeuvre.

The stories in TET and Others are based on the lived reality of the Malaysian Indian post-colonial community, depicted within the diaspora imaginary. This community’s forefathers came to Malaya (as the country was then called) in the 18th century, due to British colonisation. The majority of the Indians came in as indentured labourers for the building of railways or the planting of rubber. A smaller number of Indian migrants came in as professionals to work in schools, hospitals, and government offices. Gnanaselvam weaves the recollection of these actualities as the backdrop setting to his stories, reminding readers that current characterizations have their roots in diasporic history. Whether it be the reference to similarities between India and Malaysia (‘The Identity Bargain’), being part of a school system (‘The Ride’), or keeping an office job (‘The Sunday Assassin’), the original scheme of things set up by the British occupation is alluded to.

Although citizens of the land, the Indian population remain silenced in local narratives until today due to political agendas. This is why the author chooses to give life and emotionality to this group through his stories. History needs to be rewritten, as it were, so that current realities that stem from historical ones can be talked about. Thus, readers of TET and Others have to contend with the consequences of the colonial ‘divide and rule’ policy, where marginalised Indians face discrimination as they attempt to beat the system of racialised inequalities. This harsh reality is what Gnanaselvam portrays as part of the everyday life of some of his characters. Komalam in ‘Komalam and the Market Women,’ Ramu in ‘Cikgu Ton,’ and Devi in ‘To The Cheramah’ are all examples of individuals who have to struggle to fight against what society has dealt them. Nevertheless, there are characters who are depicted as having comfortable lives, whose ‘problems’ are those that only the privileged experience. Anu in ‘Marigold Wedding’ schemes in materialising her migration plans, Vijayakumar in ‘Kari Curry’ bends backwards to clinch the sale of a high-end property, and Anjali in ‘Tropic Quest’ agrees to the use of the race card so that she can live independently on her own. The author has made a conscious effort to tandem both ends of the Malaysian Indian lifestyle: those who own cultural capital and those who do not. Some characters are shown to have more agency than others. Some characters are depicted with less tenacity in their search for a better life. These outcomes speak of the intricacies of human nature, captured through the competence of a skilled writer.

Although his work is fiction, Gnanaselvam aims to entrench the element of a lived experience in the representation of society in his stories. This is achieved by referring to actual places that exist on the map of Malaysia. Sungai Pari, the Hang Tuah station, and Jalan Gasing are examples of actual rivers, train stations, and roads in Malaysia. The description of food is another element that endears readers to the lived lives of the characters. Mooru (Indian yoghurt) is prepared using an earthen pot, curry leaves, and mustard seeds (in ‘Sellama and the Curried Prawns’). Trays of idli (Indian rice cakes), bowls of tomato chutney (Indian condiments), and saambar (Indian lentil stew) are served at Paati’s (grandmother’s) house in ‘The Elephant Trophy.’ Prawn fritters, potato chips, and chicken burgers are eaten in ‘Shooting the Breeze’ as an example of changing food choices for the urban young. The conscious use of proper nouns amidst vivid descriptions in the unfolding of each scene helps establish the Malaysian Indian experience for the readers.

The beauty of TET and Others is that at one level, the stories can exist just as short stories should – that is, with creatively constructed plotlines, characters, and settings. However, at another level, for the more perceptive reader, the diverse stories are telling of the characters’ search for identity in a multi-cultural society, where their own lived spaces are telling of a minority status and a diasporic past. In ‘Taxi Driver,’ Raju the taxi driver says it best when he tells the young aimless lass he has picked up, “You have a whole life ahead of you… You need to study, go to work, get married.” In a nutshell, these elements speak of a fulfilled life for the Malaysian Indian – to be successful at school, at the workplace, and in the family. The characters in TET and Others all live with the need to survive both external limitations and internal demons (real or perceived) that remind them of their marginalised existence.

These 18 slice-of-life stories support a greater story. Shaped by diaspora, Independence, nation-building, and globalisation, these colourful stories depict individual attempts to progress as Indians living in Malaysia. TET and Others is evidence of Paul Gnanaselvam’s triumph.