Fatimah Busu has a gift for telling stories of social alienation. Her stories are often a provocative social critique of Malay society but are easily accessible and good for philosophical rumination. In Salam Maria, her protagonist is a misfit, a social castoff who is forced to the depths of the forest to live with those of a similar fate. In Ombak Bukan Biru (The Waves Are Not Blue, 1972, Pekan Ilmu Publications), the turmoil of class, cultural and religious differences is told from the point of view of Imrah, a young Malay teacher from Kelantan.
Emotional, though paced at breakneck speed, Ombak Bukan Biru is a joy to read. From the beginning of the novel we know that Imrah has little patience for her boyfriend’s dalliances and leaves him with a broken heart and broken gifts from happier days. But a surprise visit from the school headmistress and an English guest teacher, Cik Celine, forms a kind of emotional distraction that relieves her from the painful break-up. Unbeknownst to Imrah of course, of the greater melodrama that will unfold following this chance meeting.
Celine and Imrah quickly become close friends and share a mutual enthusiasm for traditional court dancing, the tarian lilin (candle dance). Their friendship leads to an invitation to Celine’s home in Pulau Pinang where she meets her future love, Lawrence. Their relationship is encouraged by his family and Celine, but the same could not be expected from Imrah’s family. The clash of cultures she experiences is striking; while her white family and Lawrence are welcoming and permissive, her own family is uncompromising and suspicious of others different from themselves. The Malay attitude towards inter-religious marriage she discovers is both sexist and arcane. She learns from her deeply religious father that a marriage between a Muslim woman and convert (mu’alaf) is destined to doom. Feminine persuasion cannot lead a man to an Islamic way of life the way a man can lead a woman:
Kamu orang perempuan, bukan taraf kamu untuk paksa lelaki ikut telunjuk kamu. Apa lagi kalau si lelaki itu pula bangsa lain. Tetapi kalau kamu orang lelaki tidak mengapa. Kamu berkuasa perintah perempuan ikut kata-kata kamu. Nanti kalau sudah dapat apa yang dia mahu, mana tahu dicerainya kamu, masuk kafir balik.
You’re a woman, it’s not your place to force men to do as you say. What more a man from a different race. But it’s different if you’re a man. You have the power to order women around. Who knows, once he’s had you, he might just divorce you and return an infidel.
Fatimah Busu: pg 249.
But Lawrence later converts to Islam anyway. Short of eloping, they marry in a quiet no-frills wedding attended by anonymous witnesses.
Months pass and while pregnant with their child, her father dies. This fills Imrah with intense guilt and inner rage. These feelings, compounded further by her poor body image and the frequent presence of a younger woman vying for her husband’s attention compel her to run away to Kuala Lumpur. During her flight she gives birth – all alone, but “heroically alone, like a heroine from the ancient folk tales” she reckons. Her son, Shahril, however, is born epileptic and soon dies during a fit. Left with nowhere to go and no one to turn to, Imrah returns to her mother’s village with her baby’s body to be buried. Her return to her family home is the calm after the storm: she rebuilds her confidence in life and reinvents herself as a flight attendant, a profession considered glamorous at the time of the novel. She remains hopeful of the future and of whether her path and Lawrence’s will cross again.
It’s easy to feel that we all must have been like Imrah at some point in our lives. Whether or not we’ve taken the plunge into a disapproving unknown with mixed consequences is definitely relatable. It also helps that she isn’t a two-dimensional character but rather a passionate and complex one. Due to her marital choices Imrah feels that she will risk losing her family, identity and perhaps her iman. She often compares herself with her older sister who married the ‘right’ kind of man, had the ‘right’ kind of wedding and followed the ‘right’ kind of rituals before giving birth. Not that her decision to marry Lawrence led to her fairytale happy-ever-after either, but rather just part and parcel of life’s itinerary full of ups and downs.
Both Maria and Imrah seem incongruent with the social norms that are expected of them as women. In this they both share a uniquely feminine crisis – conform or perish. Their female vulnerabilities, however; singlehood, hyper-sensitivity, rebelliousness, become for them a kind of female strength. And like many romantic novels, Ombak Bukan Biru raises the question over and over again: what kind of decisions do we make when we’re passionately in love?