On Paul Callan’s Forthcoming Malaysian Novel – Shadows Beneath the Fronds

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Paul Callan
, an established Irish novelist in Malaysia who is  well-known for his first historical novel, The Dulang Washer, published by MPH Publishing Malaysia, will launch, what promises to be an appealing second novel, in the third week of May, in Kuala Lumpur.  This is called Shadows Beneath the Fronds. I have not read the story as yet  but the back- jacket blurb shows up an unusual, arresting premise; a subject of Indian families in old Malayan estates, rarely spoken about in local fiction and possibly almost forgotten, amidst Malaysia’s current, if not impatient urban rise.

The blurb details a close friendship between Saravanan and Gnalam, with tragic elements caught up in conflict, among plantation workers in a rural setting. The protagonist, a carefree Tamilian lad called Saravanan, is the son of estate workers while another Tamilian girl, Gnalam, turns up as the daughter of the foreman – herself a gifted and studious young lady, expected to enhance her family’s status through a good marriage. Trouble gatecrashes the idyllic setting when the workers are forced into squatter camps, after being suddenly thrown out from their plantation homes.

Gnalam’s father, desribed as embittered and frustrated, drives his daughter to burrow herself in university studies. Meanwhile, a disappointed Saravanan turns to  a life of crime and violence.  Years after their separation, Saravanan’s destiny will collide with Gnalam’s once more as they campaign for the rights of plantation workers. Will their childhood bond have conquered past sorrows or will old secrets stray away from loyalty and love ?


I yearn for this fictional treat as an engrossing read.  I grew up with the differing Indian social classes, very much at play in Malaysia.  I was raised in Klang, Selangor after the first four years of my life in Singapore.  My parents had moved to the Causeway, a few months after my birth. While growing up in a middle-class suburb in Klang, we often went to visit a brood of uncles, aunts and cousins who lived in the estates. I remember the delightful excursions.

My father is Malayalee and Malayalees from Kerala worked as estate managers.  In 1970, I even spent Christmas with a beloved aunty and her family, at a sprawling estate. I remember my experiences well… for instance of how the generators would go off by 9 at night while in the middle of watching a faithful b/w television and of the lively poultry everywhere. As a little girl, I had a field day with the other children running all over the place.  We chased the irate ducks, chickens and turkeys and laughed as they fled helter-skelter.  I remember the community of Tamil workers who lived in the nearby quarters and stayed dedicated to their work. It was not uncommon for a housewife to be up at 4.00 am just to be feeding  scurrying chicks or ferrying heavy pails of water about.

Eventually, in the early Seventies and due to the fast-changing political landscape, a great number of these Malayalee estate managers would relinquish their posts and return for good, with their families, to Kerala.

From having read The Dulang Washer, that exhibited the tough tin-mining camps of Perak’s Kinta Valley in 1890s Malaya – I have penned my thoughts Here,  it is easy to see that Paul Callan stays deft at sketching out a roomful of characters all at once. And this too, armed with a flawless grace while manouvering the challenging  fray of painful hierarchies or a series of mismatched social bearings, that thrive from circumstances of displacement or society’s unforgivable ailments.

Shadows Beneath the Fronds also reveals the treasure trove of Malaysian stories often camouflaged in all of its different layers of social acumen, stretching far off from the predictable and still waiting to be told.

It was also very kind of Mr. Paul Callan to have mentioned one of my comments/name on the back cover of his novel and for which I stay immensely grateful.

Update on The Dulang Washer.

Paul Callan’s The Dulang Washer has been nominated by Popular Books for the Popular Readers’ Choice Awards 2012 under the Fiction Category.  Callan has also been chosen by Popular Books as Author for the month of May. Here are his book tours nationwide:

12 May (Sat) 4pm – 5pm – POPULAR Bookstore @ IPC Shopping Centre, Mutiara Damansara, Kuala Lumpur.
26 May (Sat) 2pm – 3pm – HARRIS Bookstore @ AEON Tebrau City, Johor Bharu
27 May (Sun) 1pm – 2pm – POPULAR @ Gurney Plaza, Penang
3 June (Sun) 7.30pm – 9.00pm – POPULAR Bookfair @ Permata Exhibition Hall, Level 5

Further Reading:

Paul Callan is written about in The Star Newspaper, Malaysia.
The Dulang Washer in The SunDaily.
Book Review of The Dulang Washer in The Ipoh Echo.
Booksigning by Paul Callan featured in The Bookaholics.
Novelist Paul Callan speaks about his labour of love on YouTube.
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