Book Review: The Rice Mother

The excotic, fascinating and tragic tale of Tamil family in Malaya, the horrors of the Japanese occupation and the destiny of their children, grandchildren and grand-grandchildren.. Starting from the time when a 14-year old girl was married to an Tamil clerk and moved from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to Kuantan (Malaya) to start a family in the 1920s.

Rani Manicka is an Malaysian author with an Tamil family background. "The Rice Mother", infused with her own family history, is her first novel and won the Commonwealth Writer' Prize in 2003.
The family story spans across a time frame of 80 years and tells the mostly tragic stories of 4 generations. Each story told from the personal point of view of the family member as the grand-daughter Dimple records everyone's story with a tape recorder. Below find a selection of quotes from the book. The quotes don't tell the actual story of the book but cover different aspects of cultural life in Malaysia, so no spoilers ahead.

Selected snippets from the book:

Lakshmi's (coming from a small village in Ceylon) arrival in Malaya by boat in 1930:

To my incredulous eyes Penang Harbour looked like the most exciting place on earth. More people than I had ever seen in my life swarmed and scurried about like a colony of ants in the sand dunes. ... Here were olive-skinned Arab merchants in long flowing robes and head dresses of white and black. ... They had come to trade in spices, ivory and gold. ... Then there were the Chinesemen. Slit-eyed, flat-nosed and determined. Not a moment to spare in iddleness. Shirtless and sunburned to a deep bronze, ... they unloaded from barges and trawlers. ... Locals the colour of ripening coconuts hung about with a mildly subservant demeanour. There was something instinctively noble in their faces and yet the were not masters of their own land. ... First to embark were the Europeans. ... Tall, haughty and elaborate of dress as they strode forward with sunlight in their hair like gods. As if the world owed them an oyster.

the hustle and bustle of Penang:

Warehouses with curved Oriental roofs and bold Chinese letters at the entrances dozed in the burning sun. Rows of narrow shop-houses stood on either side of the street, congested with a marvellous arroy of wares. Fresh produce in baskets spilled out onto the pavement and on specially built wooden steps sat large bottles of dried goods. Tailors, shoemakers, bakers, goldsmiths and the grocery store were all in one long row of colour, noise and smell. Inside coffee shops stringy old men with leather faces and baggy shorts lounged, cigarettes dangling from their stained fingers.

about the Chinese feet binding custom:

"It is the custom in China to bind a girl's feet. The Chinese consider bound feet beautiful and desirable. Only the poor peasants who have a neeed for an extra pair of hands in the rice fields have daughters with unbound feet. As early as the age of two or three the best families bind the feet of their young girls so tighlty that the growing bones mangle into a painful arch. And throughout the rest of their lives they pay the price of indescribable pain for this hint of femininity. Ounce bound their feet can never be unbound again or they grow into deformed shapes..."

about Durians:

One day he brought home some strange fruit called durian. I had never before seen a fruit covered in such menacing-looking long thorns. A durian falling off a tree onto a man's head can kill him, he told me. ... I fell in love with the creamy taste of the golden flesh instantly. I even loved its astonishingly unique smell that I am told prompted an English novelist to describe it as eating a sweet raspberry blancmange in a lavatory.

about Malay confinement:

Inconceivable but she was the mother of four children. It was only much later, after the end of her fifth pregnancy, that I learned about the nightmare of a traditional Malay confinement. Fourty-two days of bitter herbs, a smoking, hot stove under the bed to dry out excess fluid and tighten vaginal muscles, a tenaciously bound stomach and merciless, daily massages from freakishly strong, wrinkled old women. But hardship has its rewards. Minah was living testament.

about Chinese Cemeteries:

"The cemetery is the best place to catch them [snakes]". Many snakes came to the cemetery for the fowl and small piglets that Chinese people left on the graves as offerings to appease their ancestors. Because it was an ill omen to eat food offered to the dead, not even the drunks or the very poor came to steal the rich bangquet available...
I have thought since then that a Malay or a Christian graveyard can be a peaceful place at night but a Chinese graeyeard is an altogether different matter. For from being a place of rest, it is a place where spirits still hungry with earthly desires wait for their relatives to come by an burn them paper houses complete with funrniture, servants and big cars with number plates parked outside. Sometimes they even burn paper images of a favourite wife or a bejewelled richly robed concubine holding stakes of fake spending money.

the arrival of the Japanes Army:

It was 13 Decemver 1941 ... when my uncle came running to our room in a blind panic, his hair tousled and his eyes wild. In a shocked voice he told that the Japanese had invaded Malaya. While we had feasted and celebrated they had landed in Penang. Apparrently  the big burly British soldiers we had imagined invincible had fled, leaving us to an uncertain fate. Spittle blasted out of my uncle's mouth as he decribed the crowds that gathered in a market place in Penang just like a flock of dumb animals. How they had stared up into the skies at the metallic birds and watched with innocent aw as the shining beasts exploded bombs on their upturned faces. All the while unsuspecting, believing the planes to be the mighty British come to save them. And their poor, crazed faces as they picked up severed, smashed limbs from the rubble around them.
War. What would that mean to my family? In my uncle's terrified, sweat-slicked face I saw all the horrible answers to my questions.
They will be here soon. We have to start hiding the rice, the precious things..."

about the terror of the Japanese occupation:

Lakshmnan and I saw our first decaptiatated head on our way to the market. The head was spiked on a stick by the roadside, attached to it a page torn from the scool excerise book with the message Traitor. It was funny while we thought it wasn't real. When we got closer we realised that it was indeed real. The flies were real. So was the persistent sweetish, stale odour aorund it. ... Instantly I feared for my father's life even through my brother assured me that they only beheaded Chinesemen whom they suspect to be communist.

praying to Kuan Yin, the goddes of mercy, at a Chinese temple:

I took my children to a Chinese Temple on Kuan Yin's birthday. There, among life-size paper horses, a huge statue of the Goddess of Mercy in her customary flowing robes, and shining bronze urns fulls of thick red Chinese joss sticks, we burned thin grey incense sticks, reams of coloured paper and little flags meant to symbolise wealth and prosperity. It seemed like yesterday that my children had stood in a curious, hushed line of shining black heads, their chubby hands clutching small flags scribbled with Chinese characters that spelled their names. One by one I waatched them selemnly burn their flag in a corrugated zinc container. Above them fat red lanterns swayed and nodded in the early morning breeze. Afterwards we reach releases a caged bird that a temple attentdant in white painted with small red dot on its tiny body so on one would dar to catch or eat it.