Malaysian author Viji Krishnamoorthy’s 912 Batu Road was recently longlisted for the 2023 Dublin Literary Award and is the perfect read for Merdeka and Malaysia Day season
“It was surreal,” Viji Krishnamoorthy says, when asked about her debut novel, 912 Batu Road (Clarity Publishing, 2021), being longlisted for the 2023 Dublin Literary Award. “It came out of nowhere. My publisher called me [last September] and said, ‘I hope you’re sitting down.’” While they thought it could be a scam, it turned out it was the National Library of Malaysia that nominated the novel – a sprawling saga of three generations of two Malaysian families – for the prestigious prize. “I was absolutely gobsmacked. My book was sitting there breathing the same air as some of my favourite authors, like Elif Shafak.”
In 912 Batu Road, Viji juxtaposes two fictional families – the Iyers and the Tans – and their experience of the Japanese occupation against the modern-day secret affair between their descendants. It is quintessentially Malaysian in its reinvigoration of the nation’s past, and its depiction of the resilience in the face of its attendant traumas and tragedies. The protagonist, Geeta, turns to the 1920s to navigate the late 2000s, in the form of the letters of her grandfather, Rangaswamy Iyer.
It was art mirroring life. The first chapter of the book began as a letter written by Viji, who was born in Ipoh to a Tamil father and Hokkien Chinese mother, on “auspicious, turmeric-coloured” paper to her now-husband, Ranjit. This made Viji realise that, to write the present, she had to return to the past. “I had to think about who Geeta’s forefathers were, and their journey from a small village in Tamil Nadu to [a big city in] Malaya.”
To do that, Viji and Ranjit (“my research officer,” she jokes) turned to history books, which Viji brought to life with “brushstrokes of memory”. For instance, a scene with two characters running away from Japanese soldiers along a beachfront (now Gurney Drive), past the iconic Runnymede Hotel on Northam Road, was recreated from old photos in books and her own experiences of Penang.
Viji has fond memories from her youth in Batu Road (now Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman in Kuala Lumpur), the street on which Rangaswamy Iyer’s home is located. Viji recalls how visiting the large textile shops along Batu Road was almost like a pilgrimage for those coming from out of town, as it remains to this day.
As with the title of the book, Viji uses street addresses both real and fictional throughout 912 Batu Road for a tangible sense of place. This includes 74 Main Street in Papan, Perak, the home of nurse and freedom fighter Sybil Kathigasu, who appears as a character in the novel. The melding of fact and fiction was perhaps too successful – one reader even called Viji up to tell her that they could not locate 88 Sri Bahari Road in George Town, Penang. “I said, ‘Oh my God, it’s fiction!’”
Besides Kathigasu, historical figures like Gurchan Singh and others who formed the wartime resistance to the Japanese occupation are brought to life in 912 Batu Road. “In the course of the research, you come across these stories of ordinary Malayans doing extraordinary things in times of in times of hardship,” Viji explains. “It was important to shine a spotlight on that. If you don’t write these stories, it’s lost. It’s gone. It’s over. Nobody will remember.”
“I’ve always liked historical fiction, stories of migration and Indian writers,” Viji adds. “But invariably their stories of migration are always from India to the West. I thought, we’ve got a huge diaspora that came to Southeast Asia. That was a natural story to tell. It is an important story to tell.”
What else can readers expect next? Viji is careful not to reveal too much about her next novel, except to say that a minor character in 912 Batu Road will make an appearance. But Viji can rest easy in the knowledge that with 912 Batu Road, history has already been made. clarity8.com