A Story about Regular Human Beings
"The Minorities" by Suffian Hakim
I must confess that in my old age, I have become unabashed about leaving books unfinished if they don't hold my attention. Would I love the satisfaction of turning the last page over and facing the back cover? YES. Do I have time to spend ploughing through books that make me consider doing all the actual work I have yet to do? I wish I did, but unfortunately, no.
So I’m really glad to say that Suffian Hakim’s The Minorities is one of those books that hits a kind of sweet spot for me. I like some philosophical rambling, or just a philosophical point of view, and I am also a huge fan of the well-plotted novel (Milan Kundera meets J.K. Rowling just might make me die and go to heaven). Suffian’s book I found well-plotted, which kept me steadily moving through the story.
I think a fair bit has been said about the treatment of the actual subject of ‘the minorities’ in this novel, so I won’t belabour it here. Suffice to say, I really appreciated the light touch employed when painting (with spot on accuracy) the kinds of assumptions, hypocrisy or sheer reprehensible behaviour we’ve seen/heard/read about, or even language that denotes people who work in Singapore who do specific jobs and come from specific countries, as some kind of sub-group of human being. I’ll just give you an excerpt. There’s a character from Bangladesh who is on the run from his construction firm. He also happens to be a gifted artist. In this scene, he’s finally part of a group show at the Asian Civilisations Museum, showing his work under the pseudonym Mr. Nocta, to avoid detection by his employers. The curator, a woman named Hilda, speaks to the narrator, a Singaporean:
Hilda interjected, “Who are you to Mr Nocta?” She was wearing a thin-lipped smile.
“I am his friend.”
“What is your name?” she asked.
“Jamal,” I replied, trying to keep my right hand from trembling.
“Does he live with you, Jamal?”
“No,” I said, perhaps too quickly.
Hilda began eyeing me from my hair to my shoes. “You’re local. How did a Singaporean man come to befriend a foreign worker?”
“Why are you so suspicious about two human beings becoming friends?”
Another huge plus (and credit to his craft) for me was he made me care about the characters. So even a character you think you could never, in a million years, stand, much less feel fond of (I’m taking about Tights, the name of the character from China, who does the grossest thing imaginable—he takes dumps in public, frequently), well, you feel, fond of, in an irritating-but-endearing-somehow kind of way. That’s actually it. Suffian has a knack of making you feel like the characters in the story are all your friends, and while friends certainly have their flaws, you like each one of them for their various super solid qualities. They come across as real people (these characters), with their idosyncracies and three-dimensional stuffing. Incidentally, Tights’ (the dumper in public) three-dimensional stuffing is that he’s a film buff and can quote limitless lines from movies we’ve all seen. Wow, just like a real, non-sub-group human being!
So the ending. I won’t spoiler anything, but I’ll just say I think it’s really hard to write a superb ending that has your reader’s emotions all invested and they really, really, want to know what will happen next. The book achieved this for me and I admired the skill Suffian showed in drawing out the action leading up to the climax. I still won’t give anything away, except to say I think it’s especially hard to write a good battle/fight scene, as they can become overdrawn with the tension escaping or it’s over all too soon, which is a pity. For me the ending was paced just right, and kept me rooting for the folks I’d been rooting for all along.
My one tiny comment is that I would have preferred the backstory of the main characters to come in later in the novel. I found them a disruption to the main plot of the story with the pontianak, which I just wanted to focus on. But maybe that’s just quibbling.
In all, this was an entertaining read on so many levels, and one I thoroughly enjoyed being set in a Singaporean context, focusing on characters who often aren’t portrayed as regular human beings in our society. So yay for regular human beings, because, after all, no matter how weird, isn’t that everyone?
The Minorities is available at leading Singapore bookstores and online here.