Yayasan 1Malaysia welcomes the proposed dialogue between the Ministry of Education and representatives of the Indian community on the controversy surrounding the novel, Interlok. Both parties should approach the dialogue with an open mind. Their aim should be to resolve the controversy in the best interest of the parties concerned, and the nation.
Interlok does not demean or derogate the Indian community. It attempts to relate through fiction the trials and tribulations of individuals in the community as they interacted with the Malays and the Chinese in the early part of the 20th century. In its own way the novel seeks to foster inter-ethnic understanding and solidarity especially among the deprived and disadvantaged from the Malay, Chinese and Indian communities.
It is within the context of these larger themes that run through Interlok that one should view the use of the word “paria.” It is employed as a descriptive term to explain why the largely Tamil speaking passengers in the Malaya bound ship were able to relate to one another, without prohibitions or inhibitions since they were all “paria’ within the caste structure. Whether this was factually true or not is another matter. There are of course other inaccuracies about ethnography and geography in the novel, compounded by simplistic assumptions about ethnic characteristics, which diminish its value as social commentary.
However, the angst within the Indian community is not about Interlok’s worth as social commentary. It centres around the word “paria.” Since time immemorial, the word has had a pejorative connotation. Whatever the context of its usage, it would be perceived as negative. Because “paria” is inherently pejorative, Mahatma Gandhi replaced it with “harijan” ( children of God) in the midst of the Indian struggle for Independence from British rule.
In the larger interest of improving ethnic relations in our country which is at one of its lowest ebbs since Merdeka, the offensive word should be dropped from the particular sentence in the novel. It will not change its meaning in any way or alter the intent of the author. I am sure the author, national laureate, Datuk Abdullah Hussein, would be able to appreciate the significance of this slight modification at a time like this. Ministry of Education officials are no doubt conscious of how serious ethnic sensitivities have become in today’s Malaysia which in this specific instance has a profound socio-historical root that has generated strong emotions for millennia.
All of us— whether we are bureaucrats, or writers, or social activists or politicians of whatever hue— should try to view issues like Interlok against this backdrop. In recent years each and every Malaysian community has become overly sensitive to ethnic slurs and insults, real or imagined. This is partly because the level of inter-ethnic trust has declined considerably. Though some attempts are being made to address the underlying causes of this deterioration in ethnic relations, we have a long way to go before we arrive at a new equilibrium.
In the meantime, we must all learn to compromise and concede, adjust and accommodate. For Malaysia, one of the most multi-ethnic societies in the world, it is a matter of survival. One pejorative word should not be allowed to destroy our future.
Dr. Chandra Muzaffar,
Board of Trustees,
13 January 2011.