Aneeta Sundararaj

Aneeta Sundararaj

Tuesday, 24 October 2023 11:28



I have been in a state of ‘emotional unwell-being’ for seven years. There, I’ve said it. Why? Well, after my father died, I believed that if I reached out with love to ‘good friends’, counsellors, suitors, and relatives, there could be pockets of joy to offset my grief and loneliness, thereby maintaining my emotional well-being. Instead, I received repeated metaphorical slaps in the face. It’s quite something to observe them profess to want to heal people and publicly pontificate about compassion, empathy, kindness, gratitude and, wait for it, meditation and mindfulness, all the while being stunned by their need to hurt me.

The longer I trusted them, the nastier and more disrespectful they were. Cruel words rolled off their tongues like the proverbial water off a duck’s back. They must themselves be deeply hurt people to want to hurt someone whose support was unwavering; someone whose friendship, love, devotion and loyalty were willingly given. As the saying goes, ‘Hurt people hurt people.’ That’s my sole conclusion for their unkindness and such bad behaviour.

No amount of Ayurveda or allopathy has yet to fully heal all my pain. Nevertheless, now, when the sadness and negativity of what’s happened threatens to overwhelm me, I bring to mind a moment I call ‘Sakshi’. Let me share it with you, please.

I’m sorry, but I can’t remember exactly when it began. What I do remember is the hint of a hysterical ‘what to do?’ emanating from Daddy when he said, “It’s cancer. Prostate.”

“I’m coming home now.” The memories of my grandmother who died of stomach cancer flooded my mind. I was sure that, like her, Daddy would be dead in four months.

“No!” Daddy’s voice boomed through the phone line. “You do your work.”

Duly ordered, I stayed in the city while my parents, living in Alor Setar, grappled with an uncertain future. Meanwhile, in true intense-Aneeta style, I researched everything possible about the disease. A month later, when we came to the end of the consultation with a city- based oncologist, he asked my father, “Is your daughter a lawyer?” Proud and embarrassed in equal measure, Daddy mumbled, “Yes.” You see, I knew that Daddy was of the ilk that his fellow doctors were gods and must never be questioned; so, I asked all the questions for him. Anyway, treatment commenced and life carried on. With age and more serious diseases (yes, there are more serious ones than cancer), we forgot about Daddy’s cancer, which also explains why I cannot remember when the diagnosis was first made.

By 2011, in need of a holiday, I visited my aunt in India. Inside Sai Baba of Shirdi’s Samadhi Mandir, someone whispered into my ears, “Pray for your child.” I turned to clarify that I have no children. There was no one there. I sensed that I was being warned of what lay ahead. It would be a while before I comprehended the full import of the words.

Years later, when Daddy was in hospital recovering from yet another bout of pneumonia, he suddenly looked at me and said, “When it’s time, you let me go, okay?”

I stared at him, then said, “I promise you, that when your suffering to live becomes worse than my suffering to let you go, I will let you go. Until then, let me to look after you.” He turned on his side, pulled the blanket over his body, cupped his hands underneath

his chin and closed his eyes. He smiled. It was my moment of sakshi – a Sanskrit word for ‘witness’. I was aware of what Daddy thought, and the meaning behind his words and deeds. His complete trust, vulnerability and childlike innocence came to the fore. And all because, like a mother, I’d promised that no harm would come to him. That dissipated the years of uncertainty generated by that six-letter word, cancer. In that infinitesimal moment, our love for each other overflowed, eclipsing all fear and any residual guilt.

As I mentioned above, recalling this moment provides sustenance for my emotional well-being. I know that it sustained him, too, because by the time he died in October 2016, Daddy was completely at peace. So was I.


Dr. Aneeta Sundararaj is an award-winning short story writer. She created and developed a website called ‘How to Tell a Great Story’ as a resource for storytellers. To date, she’s worked on several book projects, including the popular Knowledge of Life: Tales of an Ayurveda Practitioner in Malaysia with her co- author, Vaidya C. D Siby. She contributes articles to newspapers, magazines, ezines and journals. Her most recent and bestselling novel, The Age of Smiling Secrets was shortlisted for the Anugerah Buku 2020 organised by the National Library of Malaysia. Throughout, Aneeta continued to pursue her academic interests and, in 2021, successfully completed a doctoral thesis entitled ‘Management of Prosperity Among Artistes in Malaysia’.

On 29 October 2021, the Finance Minister, Datuk Seri Tengku Zafrul Tengku Abdul Aziz tabled Budget 2022 in the Malaysian parliament. RM50 million has been allocated for the arts and culture industry. This comes after a year and a half after the entire industry came to an absolute standstill.

With all the complaints, quibbles and arguments that are being put forward, there is one that hasn’t been analysed until now: things may not be as hopeless as it is made out. It starts with the basic premise that we already have frameworks in place to help artistes thrive, but none of the them are being properly implemented.

Furthermore, the problem isn’t just that artistes and the industry players don’t have the money. Even if they do, Malaysians are not interested in the arts. They would rather spend RM49.00 on fast food than RM30.00 for a cultural show. So, how are we going to get people back into the theatres, cinemas and auditoriums for cultural shows and, thereby, help industry players in the creative and performing arts?

For a start, the Government of Malaysia already has an initiative called ‘Shared Vision Prosperity Vision 2030’ (SPV2030). It is ‘a commitment to make Malaysia a nation that achieves sustainable growth along with fair and equitable distribution, across income groups, ethnicities, regions and supply chains. The commitment is aimed at strengthening political stability, enhancing the nation's prosperity and ensuring that the rakyat is united whilst celebrating ethnic and cultural diversity as the foundation of the nation-state.’

Where is the Money Going?

Even though there is money, throughout the pandemic, the conundrum facing the industry players was highlighted. It has, one again, been highlighted in the wake of Budget 2022. For instance, in 2020, the Government of Malaysia allocated the sum of RM225 million to support and energise the creative industry, (New Straits Times, 2020).

Soon after this, CENDANA hoped ‘to increase the government and society’s awareness of the challenges and changes that the creative economy is likely to face in the coming months. We want to be able to supply the sector with aid to cope, and opportunities to continue working,’ (Sallehudin, 2020). CENDANA introduced a new programme to ‘cultivate and support artistic development and the presentation of ideas in imaginative ways via immediate response grants of up to RM1,500 per individual artist/cultural worker, and RM3,500 per collective/arts organisation,’ (Sallehudin, 2020).

Hardly was this news announced before Puan Sri Tiara Jacquelina was reported to have said that it may be a little early to understand how the said funds would be distributed (New Straits Times, 2020), and added, ‘…I wonder who the ‘private sector’ refers to, because … there isn’t any official representation for the performing arts. … 

In fact, in an interview with Datuk Ramli Ibrahim, he said: “Say you sustain an artistic organisation because of the infrastructure and administrative costs to such an extent that eventually there is no content. You are paying for the administrator, but there is no culture that you are fighting for or creativity involved in it.”

What all these point to is the fact that the trust has severely eroded among industry players and the public alike. Everyone has a simple question: Where is the money going?

Suggestions For a Way Forward That Is More Transparent

1. The first step to achieve transparency is to stop dolling out money. Instead, use the systems we already have in place to optimise transparency. As such, provide a tax relief for production houses, theaters, auditoriums and cinemas to run their businesses until 2030. This ties in with what industry players have clearly stated: ‘What the performing arts practitioners need is funding the development of on-going work as well as new work. Tax relief for producers and venue owners, subsidies for arts workers as well as active production companies are needed, among others,’ (New Straits Times, 2020).

2. Second, to encourage Malaysians to read, the government provided a deduction for those who bought books, magazine subscriptions and newspapers. Sales skyrocketed and publishers/writers were delighted. This came under ‘Lifestyle – Purchase for self, spouse or child. Similarly, either introduce a tax deduction for purchase of tickets for cinema, theatre or cultural shows, or extend the current deduction for ‘Lifestyle’ to include this provision.

3. Third, our current tax system allows for an Education fund. This is up to RM3,000 a year. As such, include/extend a deduction for fees for school-going students to study courses in the creative and performing arts, etc.

4. Fourth, our current tax system allows for a deduction for Education fees (self) which amounts to RM7,000 a year and covers the following:

  • other than a degree at Masters or Doctorate level - for acquiring law, accounting, Islamic financing, technical, vocational, industrial, scientific or technological skills or qualifications
  • degree at Masters or Doctorate level - for acquiring any skill or qualification

 So, include/extend a deduction for fees for graduate and post-graduate students studying courses in the creative and performing arts, etc

5. Finally, Cejudo, R. & Rodrıguez-Gutierrez, P. (2016) suggested that there should be a subset within the term CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) called ‘Corporate Cultural Responsibility’. They added that: ‘…by the term culture we mean the different kinds of fine arts and literature, but also drama, music dance, and even humanities, culinary art, heritage and crafts. We use the expression cultural activity to cover not only the production of works and artefacts but also performances, events or educational programs connected with culture.’

Similarly, our corporate companies must run CSR programmes that include a ‘cultural’ element or implement a further relief for CCR work.


All in all, there is no necessity to create a new body-corporate, reboot the system or even fundamentally change what we have. The operative words for our tax experts should be to optimise the provisions that we already have in place to revive our once thriving arts and culture scene. They are simple tweaks on the current system which will have an enormous impact on the industry players among the creative and performing arts.



  • Prime Minister’s Office of Malaysia. (2019, October 7). Shared Prosperity Vision 2030. Retrieved 2020, May 27, from
  • Sallehudin, I. S. M. (2020, May 14). The Arts During This Pandemic. The Star, Views 14.
  • Getting Creative Industry Back On Its Feet. (2020, June 6). New Straits Times, p. 12.
  • Rafael Cejudo, R. and Rodrıguez-Gutierrez, P. (2016). An Assessment Model for Business Commitment to Culture and Fine Arts: Application to Spanish IBEX 35 Listed Companies. In M Schwartz, H. Harris & D. Comer (Eds.). Research in Ethical Issues in Organizations (Book 16) (pp. 181-205). Emerald Publishing Group.

After a long drawn battle with the biggest catastrophe in our living memory, global humanity is finally getting to see some quintessential ray of light at the end of the treacherous tunnel in the form of COVID-19 vaccines, currently being rolled out to all parts of the globe.  A ‘COVID-19 free world’ is still some distance away as we continue our march there, slowly but surely.

The year 2020 was all about suffering, surviving and sustaining.  More importantly, it was all about ‘learning’, from the crisis we were forced into, the changes we had to adapt to and the social, medical and economic modifications we had to adjust to.  There were many ‘firsts’ we had to witness and go through, some of which were not exactly pleasant.

After being host to an online ‘Quiz series on the COVID-19 theme’ which is a yearlong now, there is a sense of realization that I have become more and more reflective towards life during the pandemic times, often wondering whether everyone else around me were also experiencing it at some degree.  Are there any mental ‘take-aways’ from the pandemic?, is there a desperate need to learn from it?, did anything change in our priorities or got added to our life goals and ambitions post 2020?  Questions kept mushrooming my mind.

Global community of quiz participants
I realized that the best way forward was to open a dialogue box with my global community of quiz participants by asking them a simple question, the answer to which, I am sure, was not so simple for them to instantly come up with. I asked each of them “What was the biggest lesson COVID-19 taught you?”

To attain a wide variety of perspectives from every corner of the world, based on social, geographical and economic conditions people were accustomed to in their part of the world, I chose to pick participants from as many countries as possible for this survey. Many of my quiz participants, friends and followers from Malaysia, India, The Netherlands, New Zealand, US, Singapore, Lebanon, Germany and Mexico took part in this survey and each of them came up with their own analogy of life perspectives during COVID-19 times. There were even some students at the ISUtrecht who took part in my survey.


Major findings from this survey

Harmonious co-existence between humans and habitat

Many participants felt that there was an immediate urgency for humanity to establish a ‘mutual connect of co-existence’ with habitat.  Love, care, compassion and affection towards nature and animals is not just the dire need of the hour.  It should be an ongoing process which should become the prime focal point of any government’s social plans or welfare measures.  Many felt that humans should stop living with the false feeling that they are superior to animals.  A good amount of wisdom and logic must have gone into framing the term ‘mother earth’ by our earlier generations from times immemorial.  The more we dig into forests, the more we encroach on habitats, the more we invite catastrophes like Covid-19. We learnt it through the hardest experience possible, a lesson which came at the cost of many lives and living.

Basic Health is the biggest wealth

Covid-19 times opened up many human insecurities and needs – loss of livelihoods, living in quarantine, longing to travel, eat out and shop but the biggest of the insecurities was all about the sudden new found scare associated with potential, life threatening and dangerous lifestyle diseases like diabetes, heart disease and obesity to name a few. The pandemic has painfully show cased that people with underlying health conditions, proved to be more vulnerable in succumbing to the virus.   ‘Self-esteems’ of many have taken a brutal beating after testing positive during pandemic times.  Many surveyed participants urged on the importance to ‘build’ and ‘strengthen’, not just on their economic front, but to nicely balance it out through healthy life style choices.  Health care became vital after the covid-19 scare.

Not taking near and dear ones for granted

Covid-19 turned the world upside down in every possible way.  After the initial panic pangs set in, at the advent of the outbreak, global humanity quickly lifted itself up and learnt admirably to adapt and adjust to the adversity at large.  Participants of the survey felt that a new routine kicked in through pandemic times, life’s mega pace underwent a paradigm shift with some of them suddenly re-discovering long forgotten domestic pleasures like long walks, little hugs and the pleasures of cooking, instead of reaching out to a packed meal box.  But many felt that the most important positive take away for them was to adapt to changes and be always equipped to fight challenges life throws at you which they felt was only possible by not taking near and dear ones for granted.

‘Life is what happens when you are busy making plans’

‘Ambition’ is a big word but many surveyed participants now opined that the word ‘unpredictable’ is also quite big.  Some of the most repeated lines participants came up with throughout this survey were;

  • ‘Take life as it comes’
  • ‘Don’t be overly ambitious’
  •  ‘Don’t plan too far ahead in life, try and have short term goals’
  • ‘Be nice to people around you’

‘Minimalism’ and spending sensibly

All of us, at some point of time in our lives, have heard religious sayings and ethical preaching on holding back and letting, if not many but a few material needs or cravings go.  The pandemic times opened arms for each of us to put some of these words of wisdom to practice.  Many participants mentioned that they started to enjoy nature from their backyards and streets more than checking into an expensive skiing resort or hill station elsewhere in the world.  Many of them explored the joys of cooking at home, not just the regular food but also try their hand at making fancy foods we are used to eating at fancy restaurants for an equally fancy price.  Necessity became the godmother of invention here. Gone were the expensive event celebration parties we hosted for friends and well-wishers with a lot of paraphernalia, parties which used to get forgotten by guests, the day after.  Personal finances were understood better and spending took a more sensible and sustainable path.  More importantly, participants felt that they understood the thin line of difference between fruitful and frivolous spending.

There is no such thing called the ‘old normal’

Some of the young participants from the survey felt that ‘life plans may change and a greater need to respect and adapt to the new changes is one of the biggest lessons learnt through the pandemic’.  Life may never be the same, even post Coved-19 times and a return to the ‘old normal’ which many talk about may never happen.  Instead, the sooner humanity builds strength and resilience to embrace the ‘new normal’, the happier life gets.  Some young participants also felt that ‘hope’ is a big word which assumes an altogether different meaning for them after this crisis.  Life experienced by most youngsters these days is often confined to laptops, online studying, ‘zoom’ meets and mobile phones.  Some of them opined that the need to go out, express ourselves, physical bonding and valuing human contact need to be respected.

*The article was first published on by Bernama, the National News Agency of Malaysia.

Phanindra Ivatury started his quizzing journey in 2002.  He finds quizzing very interesting, engaging and considers it an impactful way of disseminating knowledge, by raising curiosity through a question asked. Until recently, Phanindra was a Public Sector Auditor by profession and an International Quiz Master by passion.  After opting for voluntary retirement with the Government of India in 2019, he turned into a full-time professional in quizzing. Alongside writing and hosting quizzing events, he now contributes articles in the media, writes quiz columns for journals or in-house magazines of organizations, delivers corporate lectures as a motivational speaker on topics like motivation, communication, leadership and teamwork.

Phanindra hosts quizzing events for social groups, corporates, academic institutions, banks, government organizations, cultural centers to name a few. His quizzing is usually theme-based (like for example the current ‘Covid times’ theme). In his quizzes, all the questions asked are his own researched creations and are not borrowed from any quizzing sites or from the works of other quiz masters.


Wednesday, 19 May 2021 18:42

Chaos of Whole Books

Is it possible to read several books at once? Aneeta Sundararaj finds out.

When I was a child, my cousin used to boast that he could read four storybooks at a time. As an adult, when he invested in an e-Reader, he continued to boast that he could keep several books ‘open’ at a time. More than that, he could quote from said books and command his ‘audience’ (mainly us cousins when we were children) with recitations of texts. I, on the other hand, was (still am) a painfully slow reader. As a child, I struggled to finish one storybook a week and I often wondered if slow to read also meant slow in the head.

Earlier this year, I decided to try an experiment. My aim was to simultaneously read more than one book. I wasn’t ambitious. I stuck with two books at once and chose The Ordinary Chaos of Being Human by Marguerite Richards and Learned Men & Women of Ancient India by Sreelata Menon. I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing both these women before - Sreelata a few years ago and Marguerite last year. From these interviews alone, I was aware that both these women have travelled extensively and have loads of experience within the publishing industry.

I also chose both their books on purpose because I figured that they were completely different and I couldn’t possibly mix up the stories when reading the books at the same time.

Learned Men & Women of Ancient India was described on the internet as a book wherein you can ‘[d]iscover the lives of the great learned men and women of ancient India who could control their minds to achieve anything they desired. From pioneering surgical techniques to solving mathematical puzzles and even attempting to turn metal into gold, read about the incredible contributions of Vyasa, Sushruta, Valmiki, Surya Savitri, Chanakya, and others.’

The Ordinary Chaos of Being Human was described as ‘A collection of true stories from people living in many different Muslim worlds.’ The blurb at the back says a little more: True stories. Soul-baring moments. No apologies. Two schoolgirls in Yemen skip class and wander into a yellow circus tent, empty except for one rusty cage. A Jordanian man spends a maddening summer in his sweaty apartment, cursing his loud, ignorant neighbours. A woman in Beirut is heartsick, waiting for her kidnapped parrot to return. A young Bangladeshi-American argues with her father about her choice of boyfriend. A lady discovers the secret about the Pakistani neighbour who had stolen her birthday gifts. And an Iraqi soldier pines for an American journalist obsessed with someone else. This ambitious collection is a four-year quest to find diverse stories from many Muslim worlds that build bridges between each of us, through intimate experiences of love, loss, laughter and everything in between.

The writing style and prose were also different between these books. At a glance, Learned Men & Women of Ancient India was written in simple language, which made sense as its target audience was seemingly the younger generation. There were also illustrations and I enjoyed these because they gave me an idea of what people like Vishwamitra and Chanakya might have looked like. Written by one person, naturally, the style remained the same throughout, and I would describe it as light and easy.

The Ordinary Chaos of Being Human was something altogether different. Never had I come across a book that was given such an apt title. The various explanations for these stories were there in the title itself. That search for identity was universal in them all; it was there in the ‘ordinariness’ of what the characters did – getting henna applied on their hands, answering a phone, playing in the garden, teenagers confused by the names they were called by others, the cruelty of truth, etc. The chaos came from having to leave one’s home abruptly or returning ‘home’ which, with the passage of time, had become unrecognisable. Most of all, they were human. I thoroughly enjoyed the different voices and styles of writing. Some were literary in nature, some were reportage and some were a mix between both. In all, though, the stories were very moving.

The one thing that both books have in common is how much I learned from a single story. For example, one of the fundamental prayers for all Hindus is the Gayathri mantra. The spirituality, explanation and meaning of it aside, I wanted to know the origin of it. Who composed the various stanzas?

I remember my deep frustration when I was growing up because everyone told me what the meaning of the mantra was, how important it was for me to recite it and that it was ‘good for my future'. No one, however, could tell me who composed it. All I knew at the time was that it had something to do with two rishis – Vishwamitra and Vashista.

Then again, even when there was YouTube and Google, another problem arose – there were too many answers to the same question and each one insisted that only his/her version was correct. For example, in one version, when Vishwamitra came to pay obeisance to Vashista, he prostrated before his guru. Just as his head touched the feet of his guru, he felt an electric current pass through him and from deep within his being he heard the mantra. In the second one, Vishwamitra was given the mantra by Vishnu when he attained the status of Brahmarishi. Finally, there’s the version where Vishwamitra focused his attention during deep meditation, he heard the mantra form from within.

I was, therefore, curious to read Sreelata’s version of the origin of this mantra. It was different from all the above and I shall leave you to read her version. However, as expected, I learnt something new – I learnt how Vishwamitra got his name. And that alone made Learned Men & Women of Ancient India special for me. In all, the information in this book was disseminated in quantities that any reader could easily digest. In fact, I could read four to five stories in one go.

With The Ordinary Chaos of Being Human, it was different. After reading two stories, I needed to take a break. The intensity with which the authors narrated their tales stayed long after finished reading them. I tried to read the stories in the morning and found that, throughout the day, I could be thinking about the taste of Eltinaé’s description of drizzling honey over sliced bananas and cheese. So, I switched to reading the stories in the evening. This was no better as I spent a considerable amount of time remembering what it was like to go to the Chapel when I was a girl in Alor Setar Convent after reading Merhi’s story about the kids who attended Sunday school.

When I finished both books, I thought about my experiment and wondered if it was a success. Certainly, I’d completed reading two books at the same time. Did I enjoy the process? The answer was no. Would I do it again? No. Henceforth, I would stick with my one book at a time habit, however long it took me to read it.

Before I put both these books aside and picked up my next book (not books!), though, I smiled. During this experiment, I also discovered something about my cousin and his ability to read voraciously. He started with the title, turned to the blurb, read the first chapter, read the end, and skimmed a few of the pages in between. I watched as he concentrated on a few sentences, muttered as he committed them to memory. With that, he'd read the whole book.


By Aneeta Sundararaj

(May 2021)

The Age of Smiling Secrets is the latest novel by Aneeta Sundararaj. Set in contemporary Malaysia, it is about a family torn apart when a man converts to Islam and, without the consent or knowledge of his wife, converts their child as well. One of the chapters from this novel, The Legend of Nagakanna, was accepted in an anthology called, We Mark Your Memory published by the School of Advanced Studies, University of London in 2018. Aneeta trained and practised as a lawyer before she decided to pursue her dream of writing. Read more stories like this on her website, ‘How to Tell a Great Story’. (

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Wednesday, 09 June 2021 18:11

Writing for You? Or for Me?

Writing for You? Or for Me?

‘You must always write with your reader in mind.’ This was one of the first pieces of advice that I received when I began my writing career. Honestly, I found this extremely hard to do because more often than not, I couldn’t picture my ideal reader. Slowly, this advice changed to ‘Write for yourself.’ While that seemed easier, it didn’t necessarily fulfil the reality of the situation, meaning, writing for myself didn’t translate into sales of whatever I wrote. As time went on, though, there were a few things I understood which made writing far more pleasant and lucrative, namely, writing was a transfer of emotions, the ability to keep a subtle journal and collecting gibberish.


A Transfer of Emotions

Dandapani, a Hindu priest, speaker on self-development and entrepreneur once told the following story. A businessman had become used to the digital way of doing things and travelled a tremendous amount for work. He missed many of his birthdays and often received greetings (usually in the form of ecards) via social media. There was one greeting, however, he treasured and that was a handmade card which he carried wherever he went. The spelling was wrong, the colouring was barely in within the lines and there was a tear in the corner. Still, this businessman treasured this card above all the messages he received. Dandapani explained that more than the fact that it was a card from his five-year-old child, it was because he could sense the depth of emotion that went into making that simple card.

The lesson then is this: whenever you create something, you are transmitting energy when so doing. I have experienced something similar with my writing. For example, The Age of Smiling Secrets is a novel that one reader described as a ‘slow burn’ – it starts slow, but once readers get past the first traumatic event (there are many in that novel), many readers find that they cannot put the novel down. This was exactly what I wanted the reader to experience reading the novel because it’s what happens in many homes in Asia.

Many people also said that they cried when reading the novel. When I could, I asked them to tell me which parts of the book made them cry. As it happens, they cried over the same bits I’d cried about when writing the novel. This made me aware that through the process of writing, I not only assuaged my emotions and sadness, but I also transmitted them to the reader as well.


A Subtle Journal

For many writers, one of the earliest habits they’re encouraged to cultivate is to keep a journal. I confess that I am hopeless at this. In the past, I’ve had every intention of maintaining one. More often than not, every December, I would make a resolution to start a journal in the new year. When the new year arrived, I would diligently keep a diary for the first week. Thereafter, bit by bit, laziness set it. By February, I’d have forgotten that I even had a journal in the first place. That was why, many years ago, I decided to stop keeping a journal altogether. Instead, I learnt to remember details of events and conversations verbatim. I called this my ‘subtle journal’. I used it as a resource to generate material for my fiction. It also goes to ensuring authentic dialogue.

For example, when I was considering ghostwriting a book, I met the author to discuss my fee. He insisted that the fee I quoted was too high and then said that I should write his book for free. This was because his story was so wonderful that if I wrote it, I’d go to heaven. My response was that I’m Hindu; even if I wrote a thousand books, by his standards, I was never going to heaven. My place in hell was already reserved. All this was a joke, of course, to lighten the mood. However, it was such a fantastic resource that I used it word-for-word to craft one of the more popular stories in Two Snakes Whistling at the Same Time.


Collecting Gibberish

The idea is to write little bits of information each day. It may be gibberish. But my question is this: gibberish to whom? Here’s a personal example of ‘gibberish’: Two Snakes Whistling at the Same Time. It was born out of a dream. In it, I was telling my father that I had come across two snakes and they were whistling. We had this full-on conversation about it and my father asked, “Do snakes even whistle?” When I woke up from this vivid, highly comical and also petrifying dream, I remember how peculiar it was. That feeling stayed with me. Seeing the potential in it, I decided to use it as the title of the collection.

The Age of Smiling Secrets was born out of an observation I made one day when I was in court. I was smiling because I was so nervous knowing that I was failing and if I didn’t smile, I was going to burst into tears. My opponent was smiling because he knew he had the upper hand in this matter. The judge was smiling because I suppose he couldn’t believe our collective ineptitude. It made me aware that we were all smiling for separate reasons.

Think about some of the titles of award-winning books that you’ve come across – from 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World and The God of Small Things to Gone with the Wind and A House for Mr. Biswas. The possibilities are endless. Frankly, if something means something to you, then that is all that matters.

The answer to the issue about whether you should write with your reader in mind or for yourself is, therefore, not straightforward. The lessons I learnt – emotion is transmitted through one’s writing, keeping this subtle journal and collecting gibberish – could be crystallised into one simple thought: it was important to write from the heart. Listen to that voice from within and work towards making it heard, appreciated and loved.


By Aneeta Sundararaj

(June 2021)

Aneeta Sundararaj is a freelance writer. Read more stories like this on her website, ‘How to Tell a Great Story’. (

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Saturday, 21 November 2020 21:35

One Book That Changed My Writing Life

My latest novel, The Age of Smiling Secrets was shortlisted for two categories in the Book Award 2020 organised by the National Library of Malaysia. When I reflected on the journey that this book has taken, I acknowledged the enormous influence of one of my all-time favourite books, Joseph Anton: A Memoir (ISBN 9780224093972 - hardcover) by Salman Rushdie. Written in the third person, the memoir is an account of Rushdie’s life during the fatwa that was issued as a reaction to criticism and a widespread controversy over his novel The Satanic Verses (1988). Rushdie used "Joseph Anton" as a pseudonym while in hiding.

This memoir was published in 2012 and coincided with two decisions I made in my writing life. First, was to dismiss an editor’s instructions when they didn’t make sense and second was to stop submitting the manuscript to literary agents / publishers in the UK. Reading Joseph Anton helped me through some of the challenges I would face in the aftermath of making these decisions, three of which are listed below.


“We Don’t Care What Malaysian Readers Thinks.”

The Age of Smiling Secrets is a novel about a family torn apart because the husband converts to Islam and, without the consent or knowledge of his wife, converts their child as well. The central issue here is the concurrent legal jurisdictions of Syariah and the Civil Law practiced in Malaysia which has given rise to great confusion and much heartache.

The editor I was working with refused to understand my story and insisted that I follow her strictures. One of the first was to change the names of characters, like Papa Aunty, because the British reading public wouldn’t be able to fathom that ‘Papa’ referred to a woman. I explained that this was a pet name for Tamil girls; indeed, my grandmother was ‘Papa’. Although I wanted to remain authentic, I was willing to change this to please the editor.

What I couldn’t stomach was the idea of pushing the conversion issue to the backburner to make the story a courtroom drama to prevent the conversion. This hasn’t happened in Malaysia and if I did this, my friends in the legal fraternity would laugh at me; as would other Malaysians. The editor’s exact words were, “We don’t care what Malaysian readers think.”

Now, it so happened that in Joseph Anton, Rushdie wanted his book Haroun and the Sea of Stories to be published ‘as is’. In Part IV (The Trap of Wanting to Be Loved), he chronicled being side lined by various publishers, having insulting clauses added to publishing contracts and editors who were willing to sign on the dotted line only if he agreed to change the location of this story, names of characters and so on. Even though I understood publishers’ reservations, I was astonished that publishers treated Rushdie, a Booker Prize winner, in such a condescending manner. Then, on page 249, he set out the conversation with an editor where he stood his ground and insisted that the book be published ‘as is’ or not at all.

I took the cue from this and decided that I would stand my ground. I found other editors to help me make the story I wanted to tell be accessible to the reading public.


Was It Right to Write?

Since 2012, I've refused to be active on social media. The backlash for this decision has been enormous. One was editors’ opinions that I didn’t have a following and, therefore, no one would buy my books.

The other was what happened after The Age of Smiling Secrets was launched. While the book was still in draft form, I’d asked a local editor for her opinion. She is much-celebrated here in Malaysia, perpetually active on FB and pro-British publishing industry. A book could be rubbish (and I’ve heard her saying in private that some books are), but if it was published in the UK, she’d be the first to promote it. The sad part is that her comments about my novel were good and I incorporated many of her suggestions. Through the grapevine, however, I was told ‘never to send her an invite,’ I should stop writing and that I would never be welcome at her events because of an allegation of plagiarism made against me. By this time, I’d already read Joseph Anton.

You see, The Satanic Verses gained much publicity after the fatwa was announced and reached the bestseller list. Still, on page 165, Rushdie wrote as follows:

It had never occurred to him before the attack to stop writing, to be something else, to become not a writer. … The reception of The Satanic Verses had, for the moment at least, robbed him of that joy, not because of fear but on account of a deep disappointment. … if when it came out, it was received in this distorted, ugly way, then maybe the effort wasn’t worth it. If that was what he got for making his best effort, then he should perhaps try doing something else. He should be a bus conductor, a bellhop, a busker tap-dancing for change in a subway tunnel in winter. All those professions sounded nobler than his.

I understood that other writers go through crippling insecurities and make enormous mistakes as well. When I chatted about my experiences with Uncle Tuan (a family friend who happens to be a psychiatrist) he introduced me to a new label – sycophants – and I began to see how it fit so many of the people I’d met in my career as a writer. Quite simply, Rushdie continued to write in spite of all he’d been through. I had to do the same.


Finding Genuine Friends

For so long, I looked for friends who were true, at the very least, to their own word. The experience was like sifting icing flour that’s past its use-by date only to find frozen lumps of saccharine sweetness. The cruellest encounter was when, after years of self-imposed social isolation, I allowed into my world a friend I’d thought was genuine in her friendship. It did not take her long to tell me that I was a failure as a writer because I was ‘toxic in mind, mouth and mood, rude and obnoxious’. She shared her uninvited opinion of me at a time when my mother was gravely ill and I was utterly alone. The repercussions of all this had a drastic effect on my overall health; I had to stop working for a long while to undergo intense therapy.

To aid in my healing, I turned to Joseph Anton. As I read his stories, it was as though in the past few years, similar events were being played out here in Malaysia. I will share a few here:


1. Malaysians of all strata who had no clue about the inner workings of the law, became overnight experts at deciphering legalese about events within the publishing industry from plagiarism and theft to sexual misconduct and bullying. There are many such stories in Joseph Anton and they’re on a global scale.

2. Malaysian bookshops were threatened with boycotts (or worse) for supporting one author, being friends with an established member of the industry or promoting a particular book. Bookshops were burnt and publishers killed for supporting Rushdie’s work.

3. Literary giants and prize winners in Malaysia weighed in on arguments, debates and outright nastiness only to be summarily kicked out of elite reading and writing groups. Rushdie chronicles the arduous journeys he endured to attend some events and being excluded from others. There were times people withdrew their participation at events because of his presence.

4. Industry leaders in Malaysia would champion writers in print and social media, but privately share malicious gossip about the very same writers, and sometimes about each other. It was mind boggling to remember which editor was having an affair with which writer, and everyone had to take care not to 'blow their cover'.  Ah! Rushdie has story upon story about literary agents who worked together, then didn’t; writers who subsequently betrayed him; and, quite simply, some awful human beings.


Reading Joseph Anton changed my writing life. It made me accept that I am deeply in love with the art of writing and my novel, The Age of Smiling Secrets. Laugh if you must, but the closest I can come to explaining this feeling is to give you the analogy of being in love with your partner. You’re both aware of the other's faults. An objective observer may be able to change either of you for the better or even say that both parties can do better. In spite of all this, you belong to each other and, together, you create an empowering and enduring beauty that comes from within.

I will live knowing that my writing is relevant and be eternally grateful to Rushdie for having the courage and fortitude to publish this beautiful memoir, Joseph Anton.

The Age of Smiling Secrets is the latest novel by Aneeta Sundararaj. Set in contemporary Malaysia, it is about a family torn apart when a man converts to Islam and, without the consent or knowledge of his wife, converts their child as well. One of the chapters from this novel, The Legend of Nagakanna, was accepted in an anthology called, We Mark Your Memory published by the School of Advanced Studies, University of London in 2018. Aneeta trained and practised as a lawyer before she decided to pursue her dream of writing. Read more stories like this on her website, ‘How to Tell a Great Story’. (

Click here to return to the index of Stories

Friday, 20 November 2020 23:14

A Lasting Effect

Members of Readers Club of Manav Rachna International School Sector-46, Gurugram

Recently, I accepted an invitation to speak to members of a Readers Club at a school. The topic I was given was to explain the importance of reading and a book that had an impact on me. It seemed easy enough until I found it difficult. In the end, I decided to put myself in these students’ shoes, which meant going back in time and trying to figure out the novel I’d read in school that had had a huge impact on my life. The novel I eventually chose was Brave New World by Aldous Huxley.

Some background: I was a full-time boarder in New England Girls’ School, Armidale, Australia (NEGS) in the early 1990s. You need to keep in mind that coming from Malaysia, English wasn’t a language I was comfortable with as there was no formal learning of it in schools (we won’t go into the education policy at this time!) It was daunting to be surrounded by 400 white Australian girls who’d learnt English grammar from day one.

During our English lessons at NEGS, it was never just a case of reading a book, quoting from it or writing a book report. As part of the final mark, I had to create a full-on scrap book and relate the topics in the book to the world around me. The marks given for this scrapbook went a long way towards the final mark for English 2Unit.

Index page of my scarpbook

I still have that scrapbook – yes, it’s all in my awful handwriting. There were no computers/printers then and everything was done by hand. As you can see from the Index page, I chose to review a movie and a book, conduct interviews and also find newspaper reports related to the many topics raised in the book.

My first reading of Brave New World left me utterly perplexed about what this story was about. The school’s computer lab was in its infancy and there was no such thing as ‘Googling’ the title of the book to figure out its plot summary. After I completed round one of reading the book, I needed to read it another two times to understand what it was all about. However, once I did, this is a story that’s never left me for several reasons.


Imagination Running Wild

Brave New World was published in 1932. Even when I read it in 1991, the world Huxley created sounded fantastical – babies were not born, but created in test tubes; ‘mothers’ and ‘fathers’ were obscene; having fun was paramount and taking recreational drugs was permissible to ‘escape’ from everyday life. People travelled by air from one continent to another in a day.

While this book was an escape into an unreal world for me, I wonder if this would be the same for someone reading it for the first time today. Would a child today find it strange that babies started out as embryos that were fertilised in a petri dish then implanted in the mother’s womb? With surrogacy, it has become the norm for many parents to say that a child is their child without a ‘mother’ having carried the child in her womb.

How did this story affect my life? Well, when I pursued my post-graduate qualifications in medico-legal work, I used the story in Brave New World as a cautionary tale about unrestricted use of IVF, in particular there was a need to curtail the number of embryos implanted in a mother. At the time (early 1990s) everyone was taken up with IVF and it was the norm to carry up to 8 embryos at once and lose them all. Soon, it became the law that a woman was only allowed to carry a maximum of two embryos at any one time. There were other dilemmas I couldn’t fathom in the 1990s such as the one I read about barely a day after I finished the draft of this story: there are women in the UK now who don’t know what to do with the remaining embryos that are still in storage now that COVID-19’s happened.1


Author Who Read the Whole Encyclopaedia

I cannot find the source of this nugget of information, but Huxley was supposed to have read the whole encyclopaedia at some time in his life. I marvelled at how he used his immense knowledge to craft an amazingly simple story in Brave New World. Three examples of how he drew from this vast knowledge to create the world in this book:

1. In Brave New World, the World’s State Motto is Community, Identity, Stability. The National Motto of France is Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’.

2. In Brave New World, the community is given soma to keep them happy all the time. Today, society is such that you are encouraged to be happy all the time. If there is something amiss, the obvious choice is ‘to take a chill pill’.

3. Brave New World, the amount of oxygen an embryo in a test tube gets determines the caste into which the human belongs and the work he does. The castes were Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and Epsilon. Alphas were the smartest and leaders, and Epsilons did the most menial of tasks. Is this not the same as Brahman, Kshatriya, Vaisya, Sudra and ‘Untouchables’? Or, in the context of Downtown Abbey, Upstairs and Downstairs – University Dons, Aristocrats, Blue Collar Workers and so on? Indeed, it's this inequality in our social status and even our legal jurisdictions that I tried to portray in The Age of Smiling Secrets.


Social and Political Idiosyncrasies

Let’s just say that in the second half of Brave New World, one of the main characters, John, goes to meet the great leader, Mustapha Mond. John is introduced to the works of Shakespeare and also tells him the story of an experiment that was done where a whole group of Alphas were put on an island and how they managed (or in this case couldn’t manage).

The import of what Mustapha Mond said stayed with me forever. I understood how politicians work and the words they use to engineer society and create sometimes meaningless ideology. I understood how one word can make, break or change people, sometimes forever. I will give you examples of this (one serious and one funny) from my time at NEGS.

1. One sentence in the Lord’s Prayer is ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.’ Some modern prayer books have this listed as ‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.’ As a lawyer, trespass and sin have completely different meanings. You can prosecute for one and not the other; the punishment for one is a fine while the punishment for the other is a topic that has been debated from the time of Jesus.

2. Before meals, we had to recite a simple prayer – “For what we’re about to receive, may the Lord make us truly thankful.” On the weekends, when we were given leftovers to eat, I murmured, “For what we’re about to receive, may we truly recover.”

I was very happy that the children and youths in Manav Rachna International School Sector-46, Gurugram liked the stories I shared with them about reading Brave New World. They asked some highly intelligent questions, shared their quality prose and made the session with them an altogether enjoyable session.

The sum total of all these analyses and sharing is that a book that will remain with me is not one that simply makes me think and one that everyone else loves to read. It's one that makes me marvel at the world the author created and the fact that I am left wondering about my own. And Brave New World certainly ticked all the boxes in this regard.



  1. 'I can't let go of my remaining embryos'. (2020, November 18). Retrieved November 20, 2020, from

The Age of Smiling Secrets is the latest novel by Aneeta Sundararaj. Set in contemporary Malaysia, it is about a family torn apart when a man converts to Islam and, without the consent or knowledge of his wife, converts their child as well. One of the chapters from this novel, The Legend of Nagakanna, was accepted in an anthology called, We Mark Your Memory published by the School of Advanced Studies, University of London in 2018. Aneeta trained and practised as a lawyer before she decided to pursue her dream of writing. Read more stories like this on her website, ‘How to Tell a Great Story’. (

Click here to return to the index of Stories

Thursday, 19 November 2020 23:04

You Are The Evidence by Vaidya C. D. Siby

It was recently reported that the Indian Medical Association called on the health minister, himself a doctor (Dr. Harsh Vardhan), to provide evidence that Ayurveda and yoga are effective in treating the coronavirus.1 This has been the source of ongoing, and sometimes contentious, discourse. The story of Asha (not her real name) illustrates this point.

A year ago, Asha pleaded with her Ayurveda practitioner, “Please listen to me. Everyone is just passing me from one specialist to the next.” When she was 35 years old, after several years of investigations, Asha was finally diagnosed by the endocrinologist as being hypothyroid. Her relief that with this diagnosis she would begin to then heal was short lived.

When her menstrual cycle was still not regulated, Asha was referred to a gynaecologist who prescribed the contraceptive pill. When her eyesight was affected as a side-effect of the pill, she was referred to an ophthalmologist to get prescription glasses. When she found that her skin was dry and she suffered from allergies, a dermatologist prescribed steroidal cream. With the unexplained weight gain came a visit to the cardiologist who diagnosed her as being pre-diabetic and prescribed yet another medication.

“One day, I sat alone in my flat and cried,” Asha said. “I had spent close to RM2,000.00 on tests alone because each specialist wanted his own tests done. I tried to tell them that maybe the medicines were all contraindicating with each other, but they wouldn’t listen. When I told my endocrinologist that I was too tired to commit suicide, she wanted to refer me to the psychiatrist.”

Refusing to do so, Asha turned to the Ayurveda practitioner for help; she had nothing left to lose. Deeply frustrated, Asha said, “All the specialists said that there was no evidence that Ayurveda would work. Sometimes, I wonder if they even know what evidence means.”


What does evidence mean?

The word evidence has its origins in the legal field and is an entire undergraduate module for those who read law. At its most basic, it is the available body of facts or information indicating whether or not a belief is true or valid. The application of such evidence requires a lawyer to state a particular rule, provide facts that support this rule, state the exception to the rule, provide facts that showcase this and, finally, apply these to any particular case in hand.

When those in the healthcare industry demand evidence, as the Indian Medical Association has, what they are often referring to is ‘evidenced-based medicine’ (EBM) which is reported to mean ‘the conscientious, explicit, judicious and reasonable use of modern, best evidence in making decisions about the care of individual patients.’ The EBM movement is now used as means to dismiss any treatment of a disease that isn’t subject to systematic reviews and meta-analyses, research methods based on multiple studies and critical analyses.


Treating the disease, not the patient

Therein lies the basic problem and fundamental difference between the two systems of treatment of a patient: where allopathic medicine focuses on ‘treatment of a disease’, complementary medicine focuses on the patient. The endocrinologist treated Asha’s hypothyroid, the dermatologist treated her skin condition, the cardiologist treated her pre-diabetes and the psychiatrist would have examined her state of mind. The Ayurveda practitioner, on the other hand, treated Asha.

Making this distinction does not in any way dismiss the contributions that each of these specialists makes towards the treatment of patients seek their help. The majority of doctors are no doubt providing treatment to the best of their ability.

What this statement aims to showcase is that the responsibility of what is happening to a patient isn’t confined to only one part of the patient’s body. And that there is no better person who understands what is happening to his body than the patient himself.


Complementary not alternative

This emphasises the point that each patient must shoulder part of the responsibility of the treatment he agrees to undertake. Asha’s road to recovery was fast because of her discipline and the methodical approach she took: she followed all the instructions given, took the medications (both allopathic and complementary), listened to her body, communicated her concerns to healthcare professionals who listened to her and, in some cases, stood her ground.

“Even though all my test results showed that I was back to normal, the cardiologist insisted that I start taking statins as a precautionary measure. He was so angry when I told him it was unnecessary and scolded me for believing in Ayurveda.”

Therein lies the next problem. There is an assumption that practitioners of Ayurveda and yoga are practising alternative medicine and either circumventing or usurping the role of modern medicine. This cannot be further from the truth. Ayurveda and yoga are not alternatives to allopathic medicine. They complement the established medical systems.

Ultimately, the last word belongs to Asha who said, “I had to learn to listen to and understand my body. I also accepted that with complementary medicine, there is never going to be the kind of evidence they want. Every single patient is different. I didn’t know if Ayurveda and yoga, together with allopathic medicines, would work for me until I tried them. And what worked for me may not work for someone else. But I am the evidence that it works for me.”



  1. Home remedies boom as India pandemic cases soar. Starlifestyle, Monday 2 November 2020 (Woman); p.p. 6
  2. Masic I, Miokovic M and Muhamedagic B; Evidence Based Medicine – New Approaches and Challenges; Acta Inform Med. 2008; 16(4): 219–225 or online at


Vaidya C. D. Siby is the Chief Ayurveda Practitioner at Ayur Centre, Petaling Jaya and Council Member of the Traditional and Complementary Medicine Council, Ministry of Health in Malaysia. Together with Aneeta Sundararaj, he is the co-author of the best-selling book, Knowledge of Life: Tales of An Ayurveda Practitioner in Malaysia published by MPH Publishers (ISBN 9789674154004).

‘Bengali’ is not a pejorative term, but endows the recipient with a sense of self-worth and respect rooted in glory.


“Say their name. Start there,” said President Dalton, a character in the popular American television series, Madam Secretary. In this fictitious story, the president encouraged the leader of Myanmar to recognise a faction of its citizens, the Rohingya. In various parts of the episode which aired in 2018, the terms Rohingya and Bengali seemed to be interchangeable. Dismissing this misnomer as artistes exercising their creative licence, we thought nothing more of this.

It all came back to us recently when our thoughts took a somewhat alarming turn upon reading the newspaper report, ‘Muslims, Hindus sidelined in election’.1 Although our hearts went out to the hardships and challenges faced by the marginalised in Myanmar, we zoomed in on the fact that the term ‘Bengali’ is now a pejorative one normally used to refer to the persecuted Rohingya, and that Muslims across Myanmar were being coerced into adopting ‘Bengali’ as an identity.

For reasons that will become clear, we will admit that our initial instinct was to vociferously defend the erroneous use of this term. This was soon tempered by an overriding need, instead, to first understand the actual import of the article and then set right the misconception surrounding the term ‘Bengali’. This also arises from our vested interests at being referred to as ‘Bengali’ all our lives.

For example, during our discussion, one commented that, “Even those who guess my family’s origins refuse to accept it. Some ask if my mother’s Chinese. Now, I just accept being Bengali. Much easier.” When the other was once asked, “You not Indian? You Shah Rukh Khan?” she didn’t give in to the temptation to reply, “No, I Kajol”.

We will, therefore, humbly ask that we be allowed to showcase why it is of utmost importance that the term ‘Bengali’ be treated with respect and dignity, instead.

For a start, the word ‘Bengal’ is believed to be derived from a tribe called Bang that settled in modern-day East Bengal around the year 1000 BCE. Although the Bengali people are its dominant ethnolinguistic tribe, the region has been a historical melting point, blending indigenous traditions with cosmopolitan influences from pan-Indian subcontinental empires.2

Its language, Bengali, is spoken by more than 210 million people – 100 million of them in Bangladesh, 85 million in India (primarily in the states of West BengalAssam, and Tripura) and a sizeable number of immigrant communities in the UK, US and the Middle East.3

In fact, towards the end of the last millennium, the Bangladeshis started an initiative to honour their language. As a result, on 17 November 1999, UNESCO formally recognised International Mother Language Day as a worldwide annual observance held on 21 February to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity, and to promote multilingualism.4

With what veers on an obsession in the arts, almost, it is no surprise that Bengalis are some of its most illustrious proponents, advocates and supporters. Through their works, they have changed the course of world history and left indelible marks in their chosen fields.

In 2016, during a visit to Malaysia, Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi announced the renaming of the Indian Cultural Centre in Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur to Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Indian Cultural Centre. This was to honour the Indian nationalist whose defiant patriotism made him a hero in India. However, during World War II, Netaji’s attempt to rid India of British rule resulted in an unresolved mystery surrounding his disappearance and death.

An earlier protest against British rule (and in this case, cruelty) was by yet another Bengali – Rabindranath Tagore. He renounced the award of a knighthood by King George V as a response to the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar, Punjab. The world still celebrates this Nobel Laureate’s works, the most famous of which is his collection of poems, Gitanjali.

The other Bengali Nobel Laureate, Amartya Sen, is an alumnus of the learning institution that Tagore is credited to have founded, Shantiniketan, as is Indira Gandhi, former Prime Minister of India.

We cannot help but include the penmanship of Amitav Ghosh, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and Jhumpa Lahiri whose literary works are not only read, but studied and researched in academic circles.

A spectacular collision between spirituality and literature occurred in mid-20th century with the publication a seminal classic, Autobiography of a Yogi by the son of Bengal, Paramahansa Yogananda. It is widely reported that when Steve Jobs died, those who attended his funeral were each given the gift of this book.

Paramahansa Yogananda’s brother in the most ancient order of monks and fellow Bengali, Swami Vivekananda, gave a speech at the First World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago, USA in 1893. The words he uttered then resonate now more than ever:

“Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood, destroyed civilization [sic.] and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now.”5

One of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century, Satyajit Ray, was an illustrator and writer. His creative genius added flavour and finesse to celluloid technique and style. Still on the topic of films and closer to the times, Bollywood actresses like Sushmita Sen and Rani Mukherjee continue to be the favourites of many moviegoers.

There is no doubt that the world of music would be quieter had there not been Pandit Ravi Shankar. The sitar music he created touched souls and influenced many other musicians throughout the world in the latter half of the 20th century.

From the few people mentioned above, it is clear that the term ‘Bengali’ is weighted with the gravitas of a people with a glorious history and heritage. To say it, but view it in any other way would be unjustified and uncouth, to say the least.



  1. Muslims, Hindus sidelined in election. (2020, August 29). The Star. Retrieved September 18, 2020, from
  2. (n.d.). Bengal. Https://En.Wikipedia.Org/Wiki/Bengal. Retrieved September 18, 2020, from
  3. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (n.d.). Bengali Language. Britannica. Retrieved September 18, 2020, from
  4. (n.d.). International Mother Language Day. Retrieved September 18, 2020, from
  5. SAHU, S. N. (2020, August 5). Babri Masjid demolition. The Citizen.


Dr. Swagata Sinha Roy is Assistant Professor of English and co-organiser of the Paperback Book Club, Kuala Lumpur who likes to read Bengali books and their English translations to understand how words and nuances stay true to the original content. Aneeta Sundararaj is a writer who regards the now worn-out copy of Autobiography of a Yogi she received as a birthday gift many years ago as a family heirloom.

A few months ago, I received an email informing me about an award called the Book Award 2020 organised by the National Library of Malaysia. Within the text of the email was an invitation to submit a publication of my choice to be considered for the award. I thought it was a hoax and wrote back to ask if this was really true. Lo and behold, it was! So began the process of submitting The Age of Smiling Secrets for consideration by the experts. I was very grateful for the support from family, friends, the readers of this webiste and also subscribers to my newsletter. As it stands, my novel, The Age of Smiling Secrets, is now on the shortlist (2 categories) for this award. Unfortunately, like many other events this year, the ceremony to announce the winners of these awards has had to be postponed several times because of the pandemic. Instead of wallowing in this malaise of sorts, I decided to take the opportunity to get to know those behind this award. I wrote to the National Library with a request to interview its Director-General. I am mighty pleased that the Director-General consented to this request. Without further ado, I have much pleasure in introducing you to Maizan Ismail.

Aneeta: Let’s start with something about you. Where were you born? Where did you grow up? Where do you live now and what do you do for a living?

Maizan: I was born and grew up in Klang, Selangor then later furthered my studies at UiTM. I started my career as a Librarian in 1986 and was appointed as Director-General of the National Library of Malaysia on 17 June 2019

Aneeta: Before we talk about the Anugerah Buku 2020, I would like to ask about the National Library of Malaysia (NLM). Can you tell me about the history of this library?


Photo by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas


Maizan: The NLM is a Federal Department under the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture Malaysia (MOTAC) and was established under the National Library Act 1972 (Act 80). The functions and objectives of NLM as stipulated in Part II, Section 3 National Library Act 1972 (Act 80) are as below:

  • To ensure the availability of a national collection of library resources for the use of present and future generation
  • To facilitate nationwide access to library resources available within the country and abroad
  • To provide leadership on matters pertaining to libraries

The NLM was housed in various locations in Kuala Lumpur until 1992 when it found a permanent home in an iconic building at Jalan Tun Razak, Kuala Lumpur.

Aneeta: In this digital age, do you think that a physical library is at all necessary? Let me explain by giving you an example. There was a time when we had to refer to actual books or dictionaries to do research. Today, the first thing everyone does is to whip out their smartphones and ask Google. So, my question is this: is the physical library still useful when Google has become the ‘go-to’ library? If your answer is yes, why?

Maizan: It is undeniable that seeking information in our society is “Google-based”. We have this kind of mindset nowadays of “asking Google” and “Google will give you the answer”. Yes, this is true most of the time. However, can we be sure that the search results are quality information/data? Google can give us millions of results from public web pages in seconds, but it cannot guarantee that the information provided is the correct or accurate. The results by Google are often based on the popularity of previous searches.

This is where the library plays a role in ensuring that the data provided is authentic. At the NLM, we ensure that we stay relevant to our users. Since 2011, we offer digital library services u-Pustaka (ubiquitous library), to cater to the needs of our users and also to attract new users especially the millennials to use the services offered from our portal at Via this portal, users can borrow books from 12 consortium libraries from all over the country and we will send the books to their doorstep.

Other than this, we also offer digital reading materials. Currently, our digital collections number 13.2 million and encompass electronic books, journals, magazines, newspapers, e-learning materials for students and many more. It is open and free to all Malaysian.

The truth is libraries will remain relevant now and beyond because libraries are almost like a curation system where you can find everything under one roof. It is true we will not be able to replace the speediness of the internet, but libraries will always able to provide in-depth information to our users from our vast resources. Libraries, therefore, are still relevant and the internet complements our services.

The physical library is also a place of wisdom for those who appreciate the value of knowledge.  Libraries provide physical spaces and a conducive environment for its users. Information in physical libraries store information from hundreds or thousands of years ago. Referring to them allows us to learn about the past, like our rare collections and Malay manuscripts. It is the centre of the nation’s civilisation.  Without libraries, what do we have? We have no past, no present and no future. Digital library does not have to compete with physical libraries. They complement each other to provide effective information services.


The Age of Smiling Secrets is shortlisted (2 categories) for the Book Award 2020 organised by the National Library of Malaysia.


Aneeta: Let’s talk about the Anugerah Buku 2020. What is it about? Why is the library organising it and what do you hope to achieve with this award?

Maizan: The rationale in organising the NLM 2020 Book Award 2020 is to appreciate industry players comprising of writers, publishers, readers and associations for their contribution towards book industry development in Malaysia. NLM is an agency that supports the book industry in the country in order to uphold the knowledge and culture of reading in Malaysia. NLM Book Award 2020 is the best platform to place quality books in the list of local publications. The NLM Book Award 2020 will be given to publishers who have submitted materials under the Deposit of Library Materials Act 1986 (Act 331). Awards will be given to several categories namely Children Award, Adult Award and Special Readers' Choice Award that includes Malay Language, English, Chinese and Tamil. The objectives of organising this programme are:

  • To encourage the publishers to deposit all their publication to the National Library of Malaysia under the Deposit of Library Materials Act 1986 (Act 331) as a national heritage treasure;
  • To support the National Creative Industry initiative in line with the recognition of Kuala Lumpur as the 2020 World Book Capital;
  • To appreciate and recognise writers and publishers in Malaysia as well as to elevate Malaysia's best work to the International level;
  • To inculcate the culture of reading among Malaysians in line with the movements of the National Reading Decade;
  • To support knowledge tourism through PNM Book Award Exhibition.

NLM Book Award 2020 is expected to have a big impact on the book industry in Malaysia. This award will be a catalyst to support the National Creative Industry initiative in line with the recognition of Kuala Lumpur as the World Book Capital 2020. This award also will be the platform to appreciate and recognise writers and publishers in Malaysia as well as to elevate Malaysia's best works to the international level.

Aneeta: As you know, this website caters to storytellers. What advice would you give to those who would like to venture into storytelling?

Maizan: NLM plays a role to promote and inculcate reading awareness and reading culture among Malaysians through various reading promotion programmes such as workshops, competitions and literacy programmes.

For instance, earlier this year, NLM has participated in the storytelling programme called ‘Read Me A Book: ASEAN-ROK is Reading’ and this programme was organised by the National Library for Children’s and Young Adults, Republic of Korea. Its aim was to highlight the importance of reading aloud and storytelling activities with children to develop their creativity and language abilities. Malaysia, through NLM, won the competition and defeated 9 other ASEAN countries.

Previously in 2018, NLM held a Storytelling Techniques Workshop to enhance the storytelling skills and aims to produce more creative and innovative storytellers among the librarian and library staff.

NLM has also participated in a training programme organised by the National Library for Children’s and Young Adults, the Republic of Korea which trained librarians and library staff to become a good and effective storyteller. Since then, NLM has produced many good storytellers among librarians and they conduct their own storytelling activities in libraries or schools.

Apart from these, most of our programmes include storytelling activities to cultivate an interest in reading among children because it is undeniable that storytelling activities are a fun activity and can attract children to enjoy reading. Among the programmes are the Read & Relax @PNM, Children’s Literature Festival, Let’s Read Together and others.

Going back to your question about storytelling, my advice is that before venturing into storytelling you need to have a passion for and love reading. You need to read and explore the content of the books especially children’s books to get to know the authors of books and the titles of popular children’s books. In addition, I would also like to suggest that storytellers enhance their knowledge and skills in storytelling by attending various storytelling courses organised by various parties.

In the age of ICT (Information Communication Technology), there are many new methods that storytellers can use to make their storytelling sessions more interesting and creative. As an example, they can use e-book or AR (Alternative Reality) books for the storytelling sessions which make the sessions more lively and capture the attention of the audience.

Aneeta: Puan Maizan, this is all I have to ask. Is there anything you’d like to add?

Maizan: Through the National Reading Decade Movement, the Government has targeted that Malaysia becomes a reading nation by 2030 and Kuala Lumpur has been officially declared as the 20th World Book Capital 2020. Therefore, reading activities need to be enhanced and intensified in order to make reading part of our culture and lifestyle. In this regard, I urge all Malaysians, no matter where you are, not to distance themselves from books and other reading materials because reading will widen your knowledge and make you a wiser person with a great mind. By reading you can explore the world without boundaries.

Aneeta: Thank you, Puan Maizan.

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