01 Jan 2015: Prose & Poetry – a Ghulam Sarwar trio

The writer’s grasp of local nuances & a sensitive appreciation of diverse cultures and cultural manifestations are subtly coaxed into these stories.

Dr. Ghulam-Sarwar Yousof’s affinity with local literature, the performing arts and theatre allows him the rare gift of combining multiple genres into a seamless tale, such as the stories of Tok Dalang and Mak Yong Dancer, both of which are included in the anthologyTok Dalang and Stories of other Malaysians. Vignettes of Malaysian life and culture are skilfully captured in a style rarely found among local writers – like compatriots Sri Delima and Rehman Rashid, he has few equals here or abroad.

Tok DalangTok Dalang, the opening chapter from Tok Dalang and Stories of other Malaysians, is the story of a Wayang Siam performance which is interrupted by an unexpected episode of menurun(spiritual possession), when master puppeteer Tok Dalang’s body becomes the unwitting vessel for the spirit of Dewa Sang Yang Tunggal (The One Great One), a principal character in the Cerita Mahraja Wana, the Malay folk rendition of the Ramayana. Mak Yong Dancer tells the story of Mak Su Zainab, a retired but still intriguing exponent of an ancient mystical dance form. Through these two short stories, the reader is introduced to two vanished forms of traditional folk culture set against the fascinating world of Folk Islam. The latter, a syncretic religion which mixes conventional Islam with traditional magic and ecstatic rituals is still found in rural parts of Malaysia. Altogether, Tok Dalang and Stories of other Malaysians is, as implied by the title, an interesting collection of short fiction that deals with a range of local characters, including Tamil Muslims, Sikhs, Pakistanis and Indonesians, in a sympathetic manner.

The Trial of Hang Tuah the GreatTrial of Hang Tuah is a play in 9 acts which reimagines a popular folk hero from the 15th century in various settings, including modern day Kuala Lumpur. The idea, according to the author, was to use a figure who would be familiar and meaningful to Malaysians and, at the same time, could be dramatized in an exciting way in a theatre production. Everybody could relate to him, and Hang Tuah was as controversial a figure as he was enigmatic. The play then is not so much a retelling of the traditional story as it is a reinterpretation and a confrontation with the legend.

asian centre anthologyAn anthology of Malaysian poetry in English features several generations of Malaysian poets waxing lyrical over a whole range of themes connected with their lives, universal issues and concerns.  The verses touch upon individual growth and experiences before moving outwards to worldly concerns, religious and spiritual consciousness. Poems, after all, are like paintings, you can draw whatever you want and in any style and scale; unbound by the limitations of literary structure or convention, it’s the perfect vehicle for self-expression.

Currently the Senior Academic Fellow in the Department of English Language and Literature, International Islamic University Malaysia, Dr. Ghulam was responsible for setting up Malaysia’s first Performing Arts programme at Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang in 1970.


Tok Dalang
, Hang Tuah & Malaysian Poetry in English are now available at Areca Books