31 July 2004

Naipaul on Malay Chinese Muslims

On a hill overlooking the Perak River, and almost at the entrance to the royal enclave, was the house of Raja Shahriman, a sculptor and a prince, distantly related to the royal family. It was an airy house of the late 1940s, and it was furnished in the Malay style, with rattan chairs, brightly colored fabrics, and cloth flowers.

The sculptor was small, five feet six inches, and very thin, in the pared-down Malay way. There was little expression on his face; the nature of his work didn't show there. He worked with found metal; there was a forge in the yard at the back of the house. He created martial figures of great ferocity, two to three feet high, in clean flowing lines; and the effect of the black-metal figures in that house, with the pacific, restful views, was unsettling.

The sculptor, in fact, lived in a world of spirits. He also made krises, Malay daggers; it was part of his fascination with metal. Krises found out their true possessors, the sculptor said; they rejected people who didn't truly own them. He had a spiritual adviser, and would have liked me to meet him; but there wasn't time. The world of Indonesian animism felt close again. In more ways than one we were close here to the beginning of things, before the crossover to the revealed religions.

The sculptor had a middle-aged Chinese housekeeper. She would have been given away by her family as a child, because at that time Chinese families got rid of girls whom they didn't want. Malays usually adopted those girls. The sculptor's housekeeper was the second Malay-adopted Chinese woman I had seen that day. It gave a new slant to the relationship between the two communities; and it made me think of the Chinese in a new way.

In 1979 I had been looking mainly for Islam, and I had seen the Chinese in Malaysia only from the outside, as the energetic immigrant people the Malays were reacting to. Now, considering these two gracious women, and their fairy-tale adoption into another culture, I began to have some idea how little the Chinese were protected in the last century and the early part of this, with a crumbling empire and civil wars at home and rejection outside: spilling out, trying to find a footing wherever they could, always foreign, insulated by language and culture, surviving only through blind energy. Once self-awareness had begun to come, once blindness had begun to go, they would have needed philosophical or religious certainties just as much as the Malays.
SOURCE: Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples, by V.S. Naipaul (Vintage, 1998), pp. 369

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