A Malaysian socio-spiritual and time travel tale on the quest for wholeness


A past haunted 185-year-old recluse, a teenage girl looking for something more than family wealth and a mansion, overgrown with weeds and memories is featured in Yalpanam: a novel, the long-awaited new offering from author Shivani Sivagurunathan.

Set on the fictional Coal Island (smaller than Langkawi but larger than Penang Island), regret and disillusionment clash, swirl and dance among the old walls, stairs and gardens of a secluded villa, built by a British planter on a small hill many years ago.

In it, Pushpanayagi lives – or rather exists – having apparently long abandoned the world.

But fate has more in store for this Banyan woman and she is about to arrive in an unexpected package from an 18-year-old neighbor, a desperate young girl in search of meaning, connection, and things that she loves. cannot name yet.

Coal Island, about two hours and 45 minutes from the Petronas Twin Towers in KL, is a familiar setting for Shivani readers.

The laid-back island served as the setting for the college professor’s first novel Wildlife on Coal Island, published in 2012.

A collection of 11 short stories, the book presented the darker inner workings, beliefs and intrigues of Malaysian life through the lens of ordinary people and local pets.

The island itself presents itself as a quiet place with a hint of modernization on the horizon, as it is expected to host its first mall.

“My writing tends to gravitate towards solid frames and, in many ways, is location-oriented. Where my characters live and how they experience their concrete environment is central to my writing in general, ”says Shivani. Photo: Handout

Shivani herself grew up in a somewhat similar small town vibe in the peaceful coastal town of Port Dickson.

“I remember being keenly aware that I was in a small town against which an ‘elsewhere’ – often KL – existed and to which my friends and I compared what we thought was our sad small town destiny.

“But the insularity of a small town had its advantages, especially for the exploration and expansion of creativity. Interwoven with the daily routines there were large pockets of time where we had to get creative. Bored? Invent something! Read something! Watch the wildlife!

“So my friends and I created a lot of things: games, dramatic scenarios and dreams,” says Shivani.

Her first novel, she continues, was the result of a creatively fertile period and when completed, Shivani recalls feeling elated instead of exhausted from the effort. “I felt full. I felt many more stories popping up, as if new creative channels were opening up. I continued to write and publish stories, and imagined that if I had to write a second book, it would be another collection of short stories.

“Instead, what first appeared was a picture of a tall, ancient-looking woman in a white sari, crouching in a lush green garden, doing a bit of gardening. She had something going on. so fascinating, mysterious and magnetic that I began to take a closer look at this image, ”she says.

This woman eventually became the character of Pushpanayagi and her house – Yalpanam, or Eden’s Eden if it had to be by first name – became the setting for Shivani’s second book, published by Penguin Random House SEA.

Also bearing the title of the novel, the mansion is expected to play an important role in the storytelling.

From ivy-covered pillars to rotten planks and the doorless rooms of its lush and fruitful vegetable patch filled with pumpkins, tomatoes, cabbages and limes, Yalpanam holds secrets and shadows waiting to be uncovered.

“My writing tends to gravitate towards solid frames and, in many ways, is location-oriented. Where my characters live and how they experience their concrete surroundings is so important in my writing in general, and in Yalpanam specifically.

“Most of the novel takes place in the house, and the house is a character in itself – so the setting takes on special importance. I wanted the reader to be immersed in this world and experience it with the characters, side by side, and not as an outside observer, ”she says.

The challenge, therefore, was to transfer the world in his head to paper, which Shivani described as a journey that sharpened his discernment as an author.

“These places and scenes have been with me for many years, so they have had time to deepen and grow, and become even clearer.

My task was to ensure the smallest possible gap between what I saw and the words on the page, ”says Shivani, who currently teaches creative writing and English literature at an international university in Selangor.

Building new links

The character of Pushpanayagi, an elderly migrant from Ceylon, is juxtaposed with the figure of Maxim Cheah, a protected adolescent at the dawn of adulthood.

With his father, an aged politician, and his mother, a bossy and rude matriarch, Maxim lives just down the road from Yalpanam, although no one in his family has set foot near their neighbor’s home.

“As a university professor, I spend quite a bit of time with people in my late teens and early twenties, and a lot of the inspiration for Maxim came from that contact and that connection with my students during the 12 years of teaching.

“She’s an 18-year-old Chinese girl, living on a small Malaysian island, trapped in an unhappy family, dreaming of finding wings to find her way into the kind of independence that would give her self-confidence. It is representative of the youth in search of freedom, truth, understanding and the rebellion that comes from not being honored and seen by the adults who are supposed to guide this process of maturation ”, explains Shivani.

In many ways, the author continues, Maxim could be a young person anywhere, but she seems to encompass an education of many affluent Asian families in the present day.

A 2011 file of the author discussing A 2011 file from the author discussing “Wild Life on Coal Island,” her first short story collection, loosely inspired by the seaside town of Port Dickson, Negri Sembilan. Photo: Filepic / The Star

“Maxim receives all that is materialistic and very little of the depth and reality that she dreams of from her parents. She has traveled all over the world and is learning to value other cultures, other stories, other worlds, but not her own. She is disconnected from her own family, from her country, from her history, from herself, ”she explains.

But instead of unleashing Maxim’s rebellion, it takes the opposite – shrink and disappear – which sets off a series of events few could have expected.

While Maxim’s challenges are in the present, the demons of Pushpanayagi are in the past and are revisited through flashbacks to significant events in his long life.

From her journey of Ceylon on a ship to life in colonial times and through the Japanese occupation, she must make peace with the regrets that continue to haunt her.

“By playing the game of adoption and adaptation, she got lost. He is a paradoxical character; on the one hand, it is grandiose and imposing. On the other hand, as intelligent and special as she may seem, she is also a character riddled with shame.

“(Writing to her,) I found myself having to be patient and attentive in order to discover more of her secrets. You could say that she trained me to be more open, more welcoming to the unknown, more present, more spontaneous.

“Partly that’s because she’s so impenetrable and confusing, and she stayed that way until the final stages of the book’s completion,” Shivani concludes.

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