To live was to work. When there was no work, a man died. Life was work.
These are the words 55 year old Awang Cik Teh lives by, a rice farmer in the second novel by the Malaysian author Shahnon Ahmad I've read. His No Harvest But a Thorn
again a story of Malaysian rice farmers, was one of the most intense reading experiences I've had for a very long time, one of the sort where I turned the pages with a cringing hesitancy because nearly every page brought new pain and suffering to characters whom I cared deeply about. Srengenge (1973) is a very different kind of read.
Uncle Awang decides one day that the mountain Srengenge at whose foot he lives and works must be cleared of its rain forest and turned into arable land. Not because he and the rest of the village need the additional food, but because he needs a new project - one last big project before he pulls the shades down. Unfortunately, his past big projects had exploded in the villagers' faces, leaving much ill feeling. Also uncomfortably for his big plan, many of his fellow villagers loved the forest on the mountain for as many different reasons as there were men. Some loved to hunt porcupines; some loved to hunt mousedeer; some loved to match their fighting birds against the wild birds of the forest; to mention a few. If the mountain were to be cleared, then all of these people would lose not merely a form of recreation, but, in each and every case, the object of the man's obsession.
For the men of this village are extremists. Each neglects the care of his home, family and property in order to indulge in his obsession.
The elements of a rather explosive mixture have therefore been brought together.
But, instead, something else occurs. After a shameful act by the village imam, the story veers off into a possession. And here the reader finds that despite the Islamic veneer, Malaysia is quite thoroughly a southeast Asian country, illustrated by, among other things, an exorcism in which not only Moses, Jesus and Muhammad are invoked, but also Hanuman and autochthonous spirits such as the shepherd of the black tigers. I won't give away more of the plot, but I will praise Ahmad for his vivid writing and his insight into the characters, their relations and their surroundings.
In No Harvest But a Thorn, where it was about naked survival, women, even daughters, were equal partners in the business of life. Everybody knew what had to be done, and everybody did as much as they could. Everyone was necessary and accepted as necessary. In Srengenge, on the other hand, women - i.e. wives, for there are no other women - are ordered about like slaves, talking back occasionally and then scurrying off to the kitchen for refuge with the other women, their husband's abuse flying about their ears. The ritual uncleanness of women in both the Islamic and the Hindu traditions couple to result in a most unfortunate position for females.
Now what I don't understand is how is it that these people have all of this free time available between the planting and the harvesting of the rice, while in No Harvest But a Thorn that was the time when it was necessary to wage the fight against all of the multitudinous plant, insect and animal pests preying on the growing and ripening rice nearly 24 hours a day?