The story of Lakshmi begins in Ceylon in 1916, “at a time when spirits walked the earth just like people, before the glare of electricity and the roar of civilization.” She is a young girl prized for her fair skin, “like a cup of very milky tea” and middle-aged ladies come to appraise her beauty. However, a conniving intermediary tricks her into a marriage to an aging, unattractive widower. She begins a new life in Malaysia far away from her mother and the life she has known. The husband who was believed to be very wealthy turns out to be the opposite. The gold watch he wore for his wedding was borrowed, and the chauffeur driven car that comes to receive them is a favor from a friend. The car slows down at a beautiful mansion, but drives right past it. She is shocked to discover that her new home is actually a dilapidated wooden house on stilts. Just when she thinks that things couldn’t get any worse, she finds out on payday that her impractical husband is hopelessly in debt and at the mercy of moneylenders. “Don’t worry,” he reassures her, “Whenever you need money, just ask me, and I can borrow some more. I have good credit.”
“Shhh,” he warns….”You will wake the Rice Mother.”
“Who?” I demand.
“The Giver of Life, that’s who…. From her altar in the family granary she protects the crops she made bountiful in the paddy fields. She is the keeper of dreams. Look carefully, and you will see, she sits on the wooden throne, holding all our hopes and dreams in her strong hands, big and small, yours and mine. The years will not diminish her.”
Rice Mother by Rani Manicka is the saga of a family of unusual cultural heritage, an Anglo-SriLankan Tamil family that has migrated to Malaysia. Told in the voices of several family members the story spans four generations – from Lakshmi, who transforms from an innocent fourteen year old into a domineering matriarch, to Nisha her granddaughter who chronicles their story from a series of taped interviews. Each person has a unique perspective of the same situations. Each bears scars of the devastating legacy of anger left by Lakshmi, which originated in the deception of her marriage and escalated with adversity.
Lakshmi, energetic and ambitious, takes over the reigns of running the household determined to make the best of a bad situation. With the sheer force of her will she lifts her husband from a life of penury into middle-class luxury. She raises chickens, grows vegetables and takes control of the finances. She bears six children even though she never quite gets over her initial bitterness towards her husband Ayah. On the other hand, he loves her unconditionally. Only the children appreciate their father’s feelings. He carves a beautiful wooden figure of her, which she breaks into pieces in a fit of anger. Yet her fierce spirit sustains the family and she loves her children with a passion, particularly her oldest son Lakshmanan. Her daughter Mohini who inherits the looks of an English great grandmother is guarded like a precious jewel.
Tamil and Chinese culture form an interesting multicultural backdrop to the story. When Lakshmi first comes to Malaysia, she is shocked by the disabling bound feet of Chinese women. She befriends Mui Tsai (Little Sister), the young concubine of an old rich merchant Soong. At first Lakshmi envies Mui Tsai’s apparent affluence, but soon discovers that Mui Tsai is nothing more than a domestic slave who is forced to give up her babies to the childless wives of her master. The family prays to Ganesha and kolums, intricate designs made with rice flour, decorate the floors. On the birthday of Kuan Yin, the Chinese Goddess of compassion, they visit a Chinese temple. Women wear Benares sarees and silk cheongsams. Weddings involve the tying of a thali chain, and treats for a festive occasion are Indian desserts -“sweet broth”, “kasseri” and “ladhus” even though this Malaysian author spells them a little differently. Lakshmi is introduced to a “strange fruit called durian” with its overpowering smell. In a time of need, wild boar, deer, squirrel, tortoise and even freshly killed python becomes part of their diet. However, there is no real integration of cultures. The sons are wary when they do business with the Chinese.
The already fragile existence of this family is tested further with the advent of the World War II. The family is unable to survive the brutality of Japanese occupation. The children are made to learn Japanese in the schools and girls are dressed as boys to keep them safe. This is an unreal world where the family cowers in fear even though the main targets of Japanese hatred are the Chinese. All their caution however, does not keep them safe from the cruelty of the Japanese soldiers. It soon becomes personal, encroaching on their life with devastating consequences. Tragedy strikes, irrevocably changing their lives forever . Lakshmi’s dreams for her family are shattered and even her ruthlessness is not enough to save her children. The lives of the children unravel, spinning out of control. Relationships fall apart and the pendulum swings. Even the next generation does not escape suffering. Lakshmanan’s daughter Dimple enters into a marriage with a rich man Luke, an orphan of mixed Japanese and Chinese parentage and a casualty of the war. However, this also turns into a slippery path towards darkness.
Mystery and intrigue, war and peace, wealth and poverty, and the magic of a snake charmer weave through this novel. However, some of the issues of family remain universal – the interplay of circumstance and character, and the contradictions of emotions – love and hatred. The characters are all too real and vulnerable. This is a story of the triumph and failure of the human spirit. Only in Nisha, the daughter of Dimple, can the family finally find redemption. Sometimes, the voices of the different people sound the same and the narrative often flows unevenly. Dimple’s story is also a little unconvincing and the stuff of soap opera. However, Rani Manicka tells a good story with poetry in her prose as she describes the lives and environment of people in her native Malaysia. It is an entertaining escape into a different world and a different time.