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Wednesday, 22 January 2020 17:55

The Wedding Estate

Aneeta Sundararaj is fascinated by the removal of celebrities' wedding photos because of venue. Is this likely to happen in Malaysia?


One of the things that caught my attention early last month was a story about the wedding photos of the Hollywood couple Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds being removed from websites. Why had those photos caused such offence? The answer was because the wedding had taken place at a US plantation which was ‘a site that holds deep traumatic historical meaning for the African American community’. (1)

I set about investigating this story a little more and found an online article about it in The Guardian where it was stated as follows: ‘In a letter, Color of Change wrote that “plantations are physical reminders of one of the most horrific human rights abuses the world has ever seen. The wedding industry routinely denies the violent conditions Black people faced under chattel slavery by promoting plantations as romantic places to marry…’ (2)

How fascinating!

Why? Because my immediate thought was that this can’t happen here in Malaysia. Off the top of my head, there are times we've gone on trips to an eco-resort built on an estate. Two years ago, I attended a traditional Indian dance recital in a state-of-the-art multi-purpose hall located on a hill in another estate. My cousin’s wedding was inside an estate temple because the bride used to worship there. If we cannot have our celebrations and holidays in places that were formerly estates, then where would we go?

Hmmm... Today, oil palm is cultivated in many of the estates in Malaysia. At one time, the main product exported from these estates was rubber. I allude to this ‘conversion’ from a full rubber estate to sectioning it into different parts to create an oil palm plantation and establish a resort in my novel, The Age of Smiling Secrets.



What fascinated me about how offensive it was to have a wedding at a former plantation was that, as a descendant of someone born and brought up in the estates, I don’t recall suffering from any sort of trauma when recounting the history of Foothills Estate. In fact, I was deeply amused by observing my often-subdued elderly uncle become excited after reading my novel because he recalled playing near the stream I wrote about.

Although I grew up in the sleepy town (now city) of Alor Setar, I know many people who knew well what life was like in the estates. My father was one such person. He told me fascinating stories of his life in Foothills Estates, Kulim. When it came time to craft my story, I chose to set it in the Foothills Estate that he spoke of. Of all the characters in the novel, the one that is closest to the kind of people my father described was Nagakanna. Made a ghost in the novel, Nagakanna features heavily in the edited version of Chapter 9 of the novel which was submitted for an anthology about indenture that was published in 2018 (please see below).

Still, I am aware that historical accounts state that life in the estates wasn’t rosy. In a story that was published in the papers in Singapore, which one of my cousins very kindly saved for me, there is an edited excerpt from the book called ‘Journeys: Tamils in Singapore, 1800 – Present’ by Nirmala Murugaian. (3) She wrote:

The system of indentured labour in Malaya was different from that in the other British colonies… [I]n Malaya, the employers carried out direct recruitment through private agencies in India. The Malayan government’s role was to ensure that the employers adhered to the terms of the contracts. But even this was not always done.
The method of recruitment and arrival for Tamils was also different from that of the workers from China….
…According to documents in the Government of Madras Proceedings in the Public Department 1870, the traffic [from India] was so profitable that recruiters kidnapped boys and women as well. …
Unlike the Chinese labourers, who could move around freely on the island, Indian workers were isolated from the rest of the local population, housed in barracks and severely punished for acts of disobedience or for not doing sufficient work. Toddy shops and cinemas were opened for them, and many became addicted to toddy, known as the poor man’s whisky, and sought escape through Tamil films with themes of romance, betrayal and violence.

This seems to echo every harrowing account of what happened to those who were taken as slaves from Africa to America.



Scrolling through the rest of the article in The Guardian I came across this: ‘There’s also persistent trope that black people were happy slaves. But most African Americans don’t find much joy in seeing plantations glorified and their human histories deemed a niggling inconvenience.’

Suffering from the kind of insecurity that only another writer will understand, I wondered if I’d glorified life in the estates? Had I dismissed this version of the human history of Foothills Estate? Had I glossed over all this suffering in telling the tale? After a long and protracted time of reflection, I came to two conclusions. We Mark Your Memory: Writing from the Descendants of Indenture

The first was a reminder of something that came to mind during a discussion about indenture that took place in Kuala Lumpur last year. I was part of the panel and the event centred around the publication of an anthology called We Mark Your Memory: Stories from the Descendants of Indenture. (4)

One panellist had a simple point to make: if we were going to help the poor, their colour, creed or faith shouldn’t matter. Another panellist, however, vehemently disagreed and insisted that we should concentrate on helping the Indians of Malaysia. Past governments had done very little for them. Marginalised, they had neither food, education nor a means of living. They were poor and miserable.

Hopeless at public speaking, I said nothing. Had I the courage, I would have pointed out that if I were to guess, neither of them had what I’d call ‘personal history’ behind them. Their surnames gave me reason to believe that they were probably descendants of Indians born and brought up in the city. Their forefathers hadn't come to work in the estates, but the Malayan Civil Service. I, on the other hand, had forefathers who had spent their entire lives in estates. I should have said this: “My father once told me that the estate people didn’t know they were poor, marginalised and badly treated until those from the city came and told them this.”

If only I’d had the courage …

Second, I have never heard any descendant of indenture describe their forefathers as ‘happy slaves’ - in this case, ‘happy indentured labourers’. On the contrary, those who took the opportunities offered to them when Malaya gained its independence, prospered. They adapted to their new home and made happy and secure lives for their progeny.

As for wedding photos, those sepia-toned and black and white ones of my relatives, together with modern coloured ones from the progeny of said relatives, taken at the same venue almost 80 years apart, share this – everyone looks rather content.

Perhaps, it is wiser to continue to quietly contemplate this matter about abuses in a past era. For a start, I will choose to stick with the first-hand truth told to me by my father about his life when he was growing up. I will remember, always, how he half-scolded me when I told him that part of the story in my novel was set in the place where he once lived – “Don’t write bad things about Foothills Estate,” he said. “It was a very nice place to grow up.”


Aneeta Sundararaj

20 January 2020



1. Preston, S. Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds’ Problematic Wedding Photos Are Basically Banned Online — Here's Why. December 8, 2019. [Accessed January 2020]

2. Jabali, M. Plantation weddings are wrong. Why is it so hard for white Americans to admit that? The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/dec/11/plantation-weddings-are-wrong-why-is-it-so-hard-for-white-americans-to-admit-that [Accessed January 2020]

3.   How Malaya became a 'death trap' for early labourers from India. The Straits Times. https://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/how-malaya-became-a-death-trap-for-early-labourers-from-india [Accessed January 2020]

4. The legacy of indenture in contemporary times.  https://commonwealthfoundation.com/events/the-legacy-of-indenture-in-contemporary-times/  [Accessed January 2020]


Aneeta Sundararaj is a freelance writer who contributes stories and articles to many publications, both online and offline. Read more stories like this on her website, ‘How to Tell a Great Story’. (http://www.howtotellagreatstory.com).

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Thursday, 15 August 2019 03:24

Contact and Connection. And Empathy?

[Note: This story was first published in CLARITY (15 August 2019). It is published here with permission.]

The scene is familiar: It’s Sunday evening and a family of four come into a restaurant for dinner. The waitress shows them to a table and before they even sit down, all four of them – father, mother, son and daughter – place their phones on the table. Orders are placed and while waiting for the food to arrive, they are glued to their phones.

Maybe, there’ll be some respite when the food arrives. Maybe, they’ll put away their phones for a while. Maybe, they’ll even look at each other for a moment.

When the plates of fried rice, fried vegetables and steamed fish are placed in front of them, all four people adjust their positions. Having to use their hands for something other than holding their electronic gadgets, they scramble to prop their phones against glasses. Soon, they’re entertained by watching the programme on their phones uninterrupted as they shove food into their mouths. Once they finish, the father takes a 30-second break to pay the bill and the family leaves the restaurant.

This complete disconnect with life is echoed by Dr. Swagata Roy during a recent panel discussion at 7C Life RealiZation Centre called ‘Cyberworld’s Psychological Impact: The Unknown Reality’. This educator and life observer recounts a story of giving an assignment to her students to write three words about what the internet means to them. Of all the answers, the one that stirkes her as odd is when one young man wrote, ‘Disconnect. Disconnect. Disconnect.’ Worried about him, she guessed that he must have been so bothered by what happened on Facebook. “When I spoke with him,” she elaborates, “he explained, ‘I have contacts, but we’re not connected.’”



This rather bleak statement falls squarely into a story that HH SwamiGuru told us a few weeks ago. It is a conversation between a journalist and Swami Vivekananda. Here is a paraphrased version of this story.

A journalist asked the monk, “Sir, in your last lecture, you told us about jogajog (contact) and sanjog (connection). It's really confusing. Can you please elaborate on this?”

The monk smiled and replied with a question: “Are you from New York?"

“Yes,” said the journalist.

“Who is at home?”

Although he felt that the monk was avoiding answering his question, he still said, “Mother has expired. Father is there. Three brothers and one sister. All married.”

“Do you talk to your father?”

Frowning, the journalist stared at the monk.

The persistent monk then asked, “When did you talk to him last?”

Pursing his lips, the journalist said, “Perhaps, a month ago.”

“Do your brothers and sisters meet often? When did you last meet as a family?”

Sighing, the journalist said, “Christmas. Two years ago.”

“How many days did you all stay together? How long did you spend with your father, just sitting beside him? Did you have your meals together? Did you ask how your father was? Did you ask him how he passed his days after his mother’s death?”

Tears began to flow from the journalist’s eyes.

The monk held the hand of the journalist and said, “Don't be embarrassed, upset or sad. I am sorry if I have hurt you unknowingly. But this is basically the answer to your question about contact and connection. You have contact with your father, but you don’t have a connection with him. You are not connected to him. Connection is between heart and heart. Sitting together, sharing meals and caring for each other, touching, shaking hands, having eye contact, spending some time together.”

The journalist wiped his tears away and said, “Thanks for teaching me a fine and unforgettable lesson.”



Certainly, this story shows how important it is to go beyond having someone as a ‘contact’ in your world. You need to have that connection with other human beings. Are these two enough, though, for the entire relationship to be a meaningful one? Should there be something more, especially within the family. What is this ‘something more’? Can there be more? Should there be more? Is it healthy to have more?

“Being connected to one another is not only to understand one another, but to empathise with the other person,” said our second panellist, Professor Dato’ Dr. Andrew Mohanraj. “The cornerstone of being connected is to show empathy to the other human being. And when you do that, it enriches both your life and the life of the person connected to you.” Also, once we appreciate the fact that everyone is somehow interconnected, life is far more meaningful.

So, what is empathy? The dictionary definition states that it’s the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. HH SwamiGuru elaborates on this by saying that, “Every single person in this world has the same goal of being appreciated. That’s what they look for, consciously or unconsciously. In everything that we do, we seek an endorsement unknowingly. When we receive it, we feel good. Empathy paves the way for this to happen successfully each time.” He shares some examples of empathy which include sitting with someone and praying with them in their times of trouble, holding someone’s hand when they feel alone or simply being there for someone.

The last word on this subject belongs to HH SwamiGuru who adds, “When you do something for someone with empathy, there is a bond created that results in their appreciation or their acknowledgement of what you do. That closes the loop created in the heart. [You already have contact and contentment.] Empathy leads to appreciation which leads to contentment.” And that, really, is all we need to find our happiness in life.

Aneeta Sundararaj is a freelance writer who contributes stories and articles to many publications, both online and offline. Read more stories like this on her website, ‘How to Tell a Great Story’. (http://www.howtotellagreatstory.com). Click here to return to the index of Stories

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