Founding Father S. Rajaratnam Was an Outstanding Writer. We Review Some of His Work.

“She entered through the yawning mouth of the hut and stood wiping her hands on her cotton skirt, regarding first the flickering oil lamp which stood in the smoke-blackened niche in the dung wall and then her husband. He sat on the floor, his face buried between his hunched-up kneed and his broad, smooth back against the battered, heavy wooden chest. There was a smell of sweat, smoke and soiled linen”. In crystal clear prose, this excerpt draws this domestic, rustic scene out before the readers’ eyes in stark, vivid strokes. We can almost hear the sound of the cotton rustling beneath her open palms, smell the unpleasant reek wafting from the man while the warm, blinking glow of the lamp paces the prose’s unfolding, guiding the speed at which it plays out in our minds’ eyes.

This excerpt features the opening lines from What Has to Be, a short story penned by S. Rajaratnam, one of Singapore’s founding fathers. S. Rajaratnam is known for writing the Singapore pledge, being one of the PAP’s chief ideologues in its early days and for being our first Minister of Foreign Affairs. However, not many Singaporeans know that he was a fiction writer before he went into politics. The Short Stories and Radio Plays of S. Rajaratnam offers a glimpse into his remarkable literary talent, one often overlooked in Singapore’s collective narrative and history of him. His radio plays were broadcasted in Malaya in 1957 while his short stories were written in the 1940s while he was still in London. They not only reveal some of his budding ideas about leadership, community and character prior to his days as a politician, but also paint a portrait of a sensitive and confident writer. 

The collection features seven short stories that were published in notable literary journals and anthologies in Britain and many other countries alongside the likes of Mulk Raj Anand, Ernest Hemmingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and James Joyce. They include Famine, What Has to Be, The Locusts, Drought, The Tiger, The Stars and The Terrorist. 

S. Rajaratnam’s political views and career as a member of the PAP are well known throughout Singapore and the internet. To examine them would be repetitive to some degree. In contrast, his fiction writing and the views they express prior to his shift to politics are largely unexplored. As such, they will be the focus of this article. I will briefly look at Famine and The Locusts before giving an overview of the short stories and the anthology as a whole. Most of the stories are set in rural India and depict the harsh conditions of the inhabitants’ lives, with the exception of The Tiger (set in Malaya) and The Terrorist (set on a train in India). 

Famine

Famine tells the story of a famine that strikes a rural community in India. Ravaged with insatiable hunger, the people disown their traditions, resorting to killing and eating their cattle. One man, Murugasu, refuses to kill his bull—holding on to his Hindu religion even as he wastes away. The people beg him to let them eat its meat, to no avail. Finally, the community decides to storm his shed, his bull being the only source of food left. By then, Murugasu himself is too deathlike himself to put up a proper fight. Alas, however, the bull has already died: “The bull lay half buried in the straw, its body stiff and bloated. Here and there were red weals where the rats had nibbled”. 

Although Famine is brief, Rajaratnam strikingly captures the horrific reality of a famine—the sheer desperation of the people; the stomach-clawing madness it drives them to. The prose is swift. Cutting. “After the drought came the famine, so that it was walking out of one nightmare into another still more fearful”—the opening line plunges the reader straight into the heart of the text: the horrors of experiencing one natural disaster after another. It then gives a birds’ eye view of the physical and figurative landscape, establishing the reader within it. He describes the “half-burnt stubble of their crops”, the farmers’ eyes “becoming deep and dull”, the “children [whimpering] in their sleep”. The paragraph closes off with “after a while, they forgot even to shudder at Death”, a personification which at once shows their intimacy with death and their numbness to it. The rest of the prose also continually drives home the sense of desperation and the way the villagers waste viscerally before our eyes. As they advance towards Murugasu’s shed, they are described: “The crowd, among whom were women and children, advanced slowly through Murugasu’s gate. Lean-ribbed, hungry-eyed, they looked like some fearful procession of the dead. Silent, except for the crunch of loose soil beneath their feet”. In an ironic, darkly humorous twist, what in fact is an angry mob is described like a horde of slow-moving zombies—even their fury has been whittled down by starvation. 

Famine is a nod to the author’s strict Hindu family and upbringing, criticising the religion’s strict adherence to tradition even to the point of senselessness and cruelty. Rajaratnam instead calls for the ability to adapt to new circumstances. He reminds that at times, changing circumstances require a re-examination of old values and that these values should not be kept just for the sake of doing so. Instead, their foremost purpose should always be to serve the community, not the other way around. 

The Locusts

Like FamineThe Locusts is set in rural India. In contrast to FamineThe Locusts depicts a community emerging from a drought, or the threat of one. Again, Rajaratman immediately situates the reader almost bodily within the fictional landscape using precise imagery. The text’s opening line reads: “One night there is a dull roar in the heavens as of a demon seized with an agonising gripe. There is a rumble to the east, which moves slowly to the low-lying west, screaming its fury as it passes over the huts and houses huddled in the darkness below”. The prose opens with a cacophony of sound—roaring and screaming—, demanding the reader stand at attention. The depiction of the weather as a demon which acts as it wishes translates the helplessness of the rural community at the mercy of the natural environment. 

As the rains fall and their fields grow lush just in time for the harvest, a swarm of locusts darken the sky, threatening their food supply once more. Like FamineThe Locusts not only has an overarching and pervasive theme, but a core message. The Locusts’ narrative continually expounds on the community’s helplessness at the hands of more powerful forces. In the face of the oncoming pests, the characters turn to the supernatural for help: “He was thinking of acres and acres of unreaped fields… women began to wail. Old men muttered prayers between their long, white beards… ‘Mercy, O God! Mercy! Mercy for Your wearied children.’”. Finally, the locusts continue on their way without harming their crops at all. The main symbolic message of the text lies in that of a locust that a man manages to capture: “One of the men held a large, reddish insect between his fingers. It was evil looking, with sharp, greedy mouth, and furry legs. It struggled, kicking its legs, and moving its hungry jaws… The man crushed the red insect between his fingers and threw it away”. At first, this seems to be a simple description of a locust, especially as the men themselves don’t give much thought to the crushed insect. Later, a landowner, Naga Mudaliar, thanks Shiva that the locusts did not ruin the crops: “The locusts might have ruined me too… Siva be praised for that! Otherwise, these rogues would have cheated me out of my dues”—”rogues” refers to the rural farmers who presumably owe him a percentage of each harvest. Hearing this, the protagonist, Thulasi thought “of Sangran, the moneylender, and of the tax collector, the Brahmin priests” and of the locust the farmer crushed between his fingers and threw away. 

By clearly drawing the connection between the greedy, “evil” locusts and the community’s leaders, Rajaratnam criticises authority without empathy. He reminds that self-serving authority figures are no different from the locusts which consume the community’s resources without a thought for their needs. By situating this message within his wider emphasis on the helplessness of the people, he reminds leaders everywhere to put their greed aside and serve the people first. He also addresses the people themselves in the description of the man crushing the locust and throwing it aside—it is a subtle but powerful call to revolt against society’s unsavoury establishments and individuals. 

On the Rest of the Anthology

The seven short stories offer a surprising revelation into the extent of Rajaratnam’s incredible literary wit, early views and the geographical, societal and political landscape of the 1940s and 1950s. The Tiger features a Malay woman’s encounter with a tiger in rural Malaya. While the story centres around the connection she has with the tiger over the shared experience of motherhood, it is a rare glimpse into the forested and wild geography of Malaya at that time. Readers can also see how the society functioned then—from how they bathed in rivers, to how the men were associated with activities like hunting and keeping the community safe and the differing attitudes towards nature between women, men and the older generation. The most unique of the seven stories is The Terrorist, which is far removed from any rural setting. The story depicts two men, The Khan and Sen, apparently from the same secret organisation, travelling on a train towards Mindapore. While The Khan is experienced, this is Sen’s first assignment: his task is to assassinate a certain Sir Lal Chand while he sleeps in his cabin. The narrative is gripping and tension-filled; its pace as rhythmic and swift as the train the characters are on. The Terrorist reads like a psychological thriller—Rajaratnam aligns the reader’s sympathies with Sen from the beginning, vividly translating his sweaty-palmed fear and heart-stopping panic at every step of the way. 

While his fiction presents a writer concerned with societal issues, Rajaratnam’s plays were written with the specific purpose of spreading the PAP’s messages to the people during a politically charged period in Malaya’s history. In them, he clearly criticised opposition parties, called for people to use rationale instead of emotions and powerfully persuaded the public to take an interest in politics. 

In all, The Short Stories and Radio Plays of S. Rajaratnam is a worthy read and tribute to Rajaratnam’s contributions to both Singapore politics and to the literary world. 

You can buy a copy of the book on the Epigram Store.

In a world that is bubbling with clickbait, sensationalism and oversimplifications, Kopi aims to bring long-form journalism back to South-East Asia.

Through deeply analysed articles, we uncover and explain the complex and multifaceted issues facing our societies. Through engaging narratives, we tell stories that are bold and unique.

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