Set in Malaysia, this spellbinding and already internationally acclaimed debut introduces us to the prosperous Rajasekharan family as its closely guarded secrets are slowly peeled away. When Chellam, the family’s rubber-plantation-bred servant girl, is dismissed for unnamed crimes, her banishment is the latest in a series of recent, precipitous losses that have shaken six-year-old Aasha’s life. A few short weeks before, Aasha’s grandmother Paati passed away under mysterious circumstances and her older sister, Uma, departed for Columbia University—leaving Aasha alone to cope with her mostly absent father, her bitter mother, and her imperturbable older brother. Beginning with Aasha’s grandfather’s ascension from Indian coolie to illustrious resident of the Big House on Kingfisher Lane, and going on to tell the story of how Appa, the family’s Oxford-educated patriarch, courted Amma, the humble girl next door, Evening Is the Whole Day moves gracefully backward and forward in time to answer the many questions that haunt the family: What was Chellam’s unforgivable crime? Why was Uma so intent on leaving? How and why did Paati die? What did Aasha see? And, underscoring all of these mysteries: What ultimately became of Appa’s once-grand dreams for his family and his country? Sweeping in scope, sumptuously lyrical, and masterfully constructed, Evening Is the Whole Day offers an unflinching look at relationships between parents and children, brothers and sisters, the wealthy and the poor, a country and its citizens—and the ways in which each sometimes fails the other. Illuminating in heartbreaking detail one Indian immigrant family’s secrets and lies while exposing the complex underbelly of Malaysia itself, Preeta Samarasan’s debut is a mesmerizing and vital achievement sure to earn her a place alongside Arundhati Roy, Kiran Desai, and Zadie Smith.
|Publisher:||Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing|
|Edition description:||First Edition|
|Product dimensions:||5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.79(d)|
About the Author
PREETA SAMARASAN was born and raised in Malaysia, but moved to the United States in high-school. She received her M.F.A. from the University of Michigan and was the recipient of the Asian American Writer’s Workshop/Hyphen Magazine short-story award.
Read an Excerpt
The Ignominious Departure of Chellamservant Daughter-of-Muniandy
September 6, 1980
There is, stretching delicate as a bird's head from the thin neck of the Kra Isthmus, a land that makes up half of the country called Malaysia. Where it dips its beak into the South China Sea, Singapore hovers like a bubble escaped from its throat. This bird's head is a springless summerless autumnless winterless land. One day might be a drop wetter or a mite drier than the last, but almost all are hot, damp, bright, bursting with lazy tropical life, conducive to endless tea breaks and mad, jostling, honking rushes through town to get home before the afternoon downpour. These are the most familiar rains, the violent silver ropes that flood the playing fields and force office workers to wade to bus stops in shoes that fill like buckets. Blustering and melodramatic, the afternoon rains cause traffic jams at once terrible — choked with the black smoke of lorries and the screeching brakes of schoolbuses — and beautiful: aglow with winding lines of watery yellow headlights that go on forever, with blue streetlamps reflected in burgeoning puddles, with the fluorescent melancholy of empty roadside stalls. Every day appears to begin with a blaze and end with this deluge, so that past and present and future run together in an infinite, steaming river.
In truth, though, there are days that do not blaze and rains less fierce. Under a certain kind of mild morning drizzle the very earth breathes slow and deep. Mist rises from the dark treetops on the limestone hills outside Ipoh town. Grey mist, glowing green hills: on such mornings it is obvious how sharply parts of this land must have reminded the old British rulers of their faraway country.
To the north of Ipoh, clinging to the outermost hem of the town's not-so-voluminous outskirts, is Kingfisher Lane, a long, narrow line from the "main" road (one corner shop, one bus stop, occasional lorries) to the limestone hills (ancient, inscrutable, riddled with caves and illegal cave dwellers). Here the town's languid throng feels distant even on hot afternoons; on drizzly mornings like this one it is absurd, improbable. The smoke from the cement factories and the sharp odors of the pork van and the fish vendor are washed away before they can settle, but the moist air traps native sounds and smells: the staticky songs of one neighbor's radio, the generous sweet spices of another's simmering mutton curry. The valley feels cloistered and coddled. A quiet benevolence cups the morning in its palm.
In 1980 the era of sale-by-floorplan and overnight housing developments is well under way, but the houses on Kingfisher Lane do not match one another. Some are wide and airy, with verandas in the old Malay fashion. A few weakly evoke the splendor of Chinese towkays' Penang mansions with gate-flanking dragons and red-and-gold trim. Most sit close to the lane, but one or two are set farther back, at the ends of gravel driveways. About halfway down the lane, shielded by its black gates and its robust greenery, is the Big House, number 79, whose bright blue bulk has dominated Kingfisher Lane since it was an unpaved track with nothing else along it but saga trees. Though termites will be discovered, in a few weeks, to have been secretly devouring its foundation for years (and workmen will be summoned to an urgent rescue mission), the Big House stands proud. It has presided over the laying of all the others' foundations. It has witnessed their slow aging, their repaintings and renovations. Departures, deaths, arrivals.
This morning, after only a year at the Big House, Chellam the no-longer-new-servant is leaving. Four people strain to believe that the fresh weather augurs not only neat closure, but a new beginning. Clean slates and cleaner consciences. Surely nothing undertaken today will come to a bad end; surely all's well with the world.
Chellam is eighteen years old, the same age as Uma, the oldest-eldest daughter of the house. Only one week ago today, Uma boarded a Malaysian Airline System aeroplane bound for New York America USA, where it is now autumn. Also known as fall in America. She left behind her parents, her eleven-year-old brother Suresh, and little Aasha, only six, whose heart cracked and cried out in protest. Today the four of them thirstily drink the morning's grey damp to soothe their various doubts about the future.
The aeroplane that carried Uma away was enormous and white, with a moonkite on its tail, whereas Chellam is leaving on foot (and then by bus).
She differs from Uma in many other, equally obvious, ways. A growth spurt squandered eating boiled white rice sprinkled — on good days — with salt has left her a full head shorter than Uma; her calves are as thin as chicken wings and her skin is pockmarked from the crawling childhood diseases her late mother medicated with leafy pastes and still-warm piss furtively collected in a tin pail as it streamed from the neighbors' cow. Severe myopia has crumpled her face into a permanent squint, and her shoulders are as narrow as the acute triangle of her world: at one corner the toddy shop from which she dragged her drunken father home nightly as a child; at another the dim, sordid alley in which she stood with other little girls, their eyelids dark with kajal, their toenails bright with Cutex, waiting to be picked up by a lorry driver or a bottle-shop man so that they could earn their two ringgit. At the third and final corner stands Ipoh, the town to which she was brought by some bustling, self-righteous Hindu Sangam society matron eager to rack up good karma by plucking her from prostitution and selling her into a slavery far less white; Ipoh, where, after two-three years (no one could say exactly) of working for friends of Uma's parents, Chellam was handed down to the Big House. "We got her used," Suresh had said with a smirk (dodging his Amma's mouthslap, which had been offhand at best, since Chellam hadn't been there to take offense).
And today they're sending her back. Not just to the Dwivedis', but all the way back. Uma's Appa ordered Chellam's Appa to collect her today; neither of them could have predicted the inconvenient drizzle. Father to father, (rich) man to (poor) man, they have agreed that Chellam will be ready at such-and-such a time to be met by her Appa and led from the Big House all the way up the unpaved, rock-and-clay length of Kingfisher Lane to the bus stop on the main road, and from there onto the bus to Gopeng, and from the Gopeng bus station down more roads and more lanes until she arrives back at square minus one, the one-room hut in the red-earth village whence she emerged just a few years ago.
A year from today, Chellam will be dead. Her father will say she committed suicide after a failed love affair. The villagers will say he beat her to death for bringing shame to her family. Chellam herself will say nothing. She will have cried so much by then that the children will have nicknamed her Filthyface for her permanent tear stains. All the women of the village won't be able to wash those stains off her cold face, and when they cremate her, the air will smell salty from all those tears.
At twenty to ten on this September Saturday morning, she begins to drag her empty suitcase down the stairs from the storeroom where it has lived since she came a year ago. "How long ago did your Appa tell her to start packing?" Amma mutters. "Didn't we give her a month's notice? So much time she had, and now she's bringing her bag down to start!"
But Chellam's suitcase, unlike Uma's, could never have taken a month to pack. Uma had been made to find space for all these: brand-new wool sweaters, panties with the price tags still on, blazers for formal occasions, authentic Malaysian souvenirs for yet-unmade friends, batik sarongs and coffee-table books with which to show off her culture, framed family portraits taken at Ipoh's top studio, extra film for a latest-model camera. Chellam owns, not including what she's wearing today, a single chiffon saree, three T-shirts (one free with Horlicks, one free with Milo; one a hand-me-down from Mr. Dwivedi, her old boss), four long-sleeved men's shirts (all hand-me-downs from Appa), three cotton skirts with frayed hems, one going-out blouse, and one shiny polyester skirt unsuitable for housework because it sticks to her thighs when she sweats. She also has four posters that came free with copies of Movieland magazine, but has neither the strength nor the will to take them down. Where she's going, she won't have a place to put them. All in all, it will therefore take her three minutes flat to pack, but even her mostly empty suitcase will be a strain for her weak arms only made weaker by her lack of appetite over the past few months.
Amma will not offer Chellam tea coffee sofdrink before she goes, though she and Suresh and Aasha are just sitting down to their ten o'clock tea, and though one mug of tea sits cooling untouched on the red Formica table as Appa stands at the gate under his enormous black umbrella, speaking with Chellam's father. There wouldn't be time for Chellam to drink anything anyway. There's only one afternoon bus from Gopeng to the bus stop half a mile from their village, and if she and her father miss the eleven o'clock bus to Gopeng, they'll miss that connecting bus and have to walk all the way to their village, pulling the suitcase along behind them on its three working wheels. Chellam will probably have to do most of the pulling, and hold her father by the elbow besides, because he is drunk as usual.
Thud thud thud goes her suitcase down the stairs, its broken wheel bent under it like a sick bird's claw. The suitcase has done nothing but sit empty in the storeroom all year, but its straps and buckles have worn themselves out and it seems now to be held shut only by several long lengths of synthetic pink raffia wound and knotted around it to keep the geckos and cockroaches out. On the uncarpeted landing the sharp edge of the broken wheel scrapes loudly against the floor. Amma flinches and shudders. "Look, look," she whispers urgently to Suresh and Aasha without taking her eyes off Chellam. "Purposely she's doing it. She is taking revenge on us it seems. For sending her home. As if after all she's done we're supposed to keep her here and feed her it seems."
Suresh and Aasha, wide-eyed, say nothing.
In the past two weeks the many burdens they must share but never discuss have multiplied, and among them is this suddenly effusive, outward-turned Amma who whispers and nudges, who coaxes and threatens, who leans towards them with her face contorted like a villain in an old Tamil movie, desperate for a reaction. It's as if the events of the past two weeks have dissolved the last of her reserve. This is the final victory towards which she's been privately ascending during all those long days of dead silence and tea left to cool, though precisely what the victory is neither Suresh nor Aasha is completely sure. They're sure only that whatever it is, it has come at too high a price.
Mildly discouraged by the children's unresponsiveness, Amma takes a small, exacting sip of her tea. "Chhi! Too much sugar I put," she remarks conversationally.
"For all we know," Amma says, newly galvanized by her too-sweet tea, perhaps, or the mulishness of her children's ears and brows, or the hesitation of Chellam and her empty suitcase on each separate stair, "she's pregnant."
The word, so raw they can almost smell it, contorts Amma's mouth, offering the children an unaccustomed view of her teeth. It makes Suresh drop his eyelids and retreat into the complex patterns he's spent his young life finding in the tabletop Formica. Men in bearskins. Trees with faces. Hook-nosed monks.
"On top of everything she has taken all that raffia from the storeroom without even asking," Amma observes with a sigh and a long, loud slurp of her tea. Even this is out of character: Amma usually drinks her tea in small, silent sips, her lips barely parting at the rim of her mug.
For her journey home, Chellam has dressed herself in a striped men's shirt with a stiff collar and a brown nylon skirt with a zipper in the back. The shirt is a hand-me-down from Appa. The skirt isn't. "Look at her," Amma says again through a mouthful of Marie biscuit, this time to no one in particular. "Just look at her. Dares to wear the shirt I gave her after all the havoc she's caused. Vekkum illai these people. No bloody shame. Month after month I packed up and gave her your Appa's shirts. Courthouse shirts, man, Arrow brand, nice soft cotton, all new-new. In which other house servants wear that type of quality clothes?"
In no other house, thinks Suresh. There aren't any other houses, at least on Kingfisher Lane, staffed with scrawny servant girls dressed in oversized hundred-percent cotton courthouse shirts. If they'd saved Appa's ties they could've had her wear those as well. And a bowler hat and gloves. Then they could've had her answer the door like a butler.
"Hmph," Amma snorts into her teacup, "here I was trying to help her out, giving her clothes and telling her she could save her money for more useful things."
Financial counseling and free shirts: a special Big House–only package deal. It had filled Amma with purpose and consequence, and had indeed impelled Chellam to try to save her money for More Useful Things. That is, until she realized that her father would turn up month after month to collect her wages on payday at the Big House, and that she was therefore saving her money for his daily toddies and samsus. For the back-street arrack that gave him the vision and vigor to beat his wife and children at home, and the cloudy rice wine the toddy shop owner made in a bathroom basin. Still, if you asked Chellam's father (or the toddy shop owner), these were all Useful Things.
"In the end look what she's done with my charity and my advice," Amma says, wrapping up her tale with a jerk of the head towards the staircase. "She's taken them and thrown both one shot in my face. Just wait, one by one the others also will be doing the same thing. Why not? After seeing her example they'll also become just as bold. Vellamma can murder me, Letchumi can murder Appa, Mat Din can burn the house down, and Lourdesmary can stand and clap. Happily ever after."
Aasha and Suresh silently note that they themselves are absent from this macabre prophecy. If Amma's words can be taken at face value, the long fingers of fate will clutch at Suresh and Aasha but miss; for this they should probably feel lucky.
But they don't.
Suresh is grateful only that Chellam doesn't understand much English and is slightly hard of hearing (from all the clips her father's fists, heavy with toddy and samsu, visited upon her ears in childhood). He notes that for some reason she's left her suitcase leaning against the banister and hurried back upstairs. He isn't going to point this out to Amma.
Aasha rocks back and forth in her chair so that her stretched-out toes, on every forward rocking, brush against Suresh's knees under the table. It makes her feel better that he has knees, even if Uma has disappeared forever and Amma has been strangely transformed. He has knees. And again he has knees. Each time he has knees.
Behind Amma something stirs the curtains. Not wind, it's not that sort of movement — not a gentle billowing, not a filling and unfilling with air, but a sudden jerk, as if someone's hiding behind them, and sure enough, when Aasha checks she sees that her grandmother's transparent ghost feet are peeking out from under the curtains, the broad toes she knows so well curling upward on the cool marble. So. Paati is back again, two weeks after her death, and for the very first time since her rattan chair was burned in the backyard. She's not so easily scared off, is she? While everyone else is otherwise preoccupied, Paati's hand darts out from behind the curtains, helps itself to a stray Marie biscuit crumb on the table beside Suresh's plate, and slips back to its hiding place. And how would the others explain that? wonders Aasha in high dudgeon. What would they say, the faithless, doubting blind, who have stubbornly resisted the idea of Paati's continued presence, and rolled their eyes at Aasha whenever she has tried to convey to them the needs and fears of Mr. McDougall's daughter, the Big House's original ghost and the one who has stuck by Aasha through all her losses and longings? No such thing as ghosts, they've scoffed (all except for Chellam, but other shortcomings mar her record). Now Aasha laps up this moment thirstily, thinks a flurry of I-told-you-so's to herself.
Standing across from each other on either side of the gate, Appa and Chellam's father are reflected in the glass panel of the open front door. Insider and outsider, bigshot lawyer and full-of-snot laborer, toothful and toothless. Chellam's father's dirty white singlet is spattered with rain; Appa holds his umbrella perfectly erect above his impeccably slicked-and-styled hair.
Excerpted from "Evening is the Whole Day"
Copyright © 2008 Preeta Samarasan.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
CONTENTS 1. The Ignominious Departure of Chellamservant Daughter-of-Muniandy 1 2. Big House Beginnings 17 3. The Necessary Sacrifice of the Burdensome Relic 29 4. An Old-Fashioned Courtship 44 5. The Recondite Return of Paati the Dissatisfied 67 6. After Great Expectations 91 7. Power Struggles 110 8. What Aasha Saw 136 9. The Futile Incident of the Sapphire Pendant 175 10. The God of Gossip Conquers the Garden Temple 199 11. The Final Visit of the Fleet-footed Uncle 224 12. The Unlucky Revelation of Chellam Newservant 249 13. What Uncle Ballroom Saw 273 14. The Golden Descent of Chellam, the Bringer of Succor 312 15. The Glorious Ascent of Uma the Oldest-Eldest 327 Acknowledgments 340
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I read everything and then quickly resell on Ebay, well this one is a keeper, it holds a spot on my VERY selective bookshelf. This book is so beautifully written it brings tears to your eyes. I kept looking at the author's picture in wonder that anyone could write something so beautiful, so mysterious and so terribly sad. Every single character no matter how despicable on the surface has a poignant back story (poor, poor Chellam). Aasha is the main character and your heart just breaks for her start to finish. I give this book my highest recommendations. I miss reading it, a true test of a memorable book.
A different culture--Malaysia--but the family that's in trouble could be anywhere. The author reveals character slowly and the story evolves unusually as the author returns to an earlier time with each chapter. I found the book engrossing from the first sentence. The author shows exceptional creativity in her writing.
The review by bibliobibuli is so comprehensive and intelligent that there is really nothing I can add except to say I thought that EVENING IS THE WHOLE DAY is a lovely, but ineffably sad book.
This sounded like a very interesting book but ended up being an endurance test. The draw of the little girl's ability to see to see ghosts was very minimally featured. This was just another book about a very screwed up and boring family. The narrative parts were fine but did we really need the true to life dialog to get a picture of the culture. I think not. BLAH BLAH BLAH.
Book was recommended by NPR, so looked into it. I did not know enough of the Indian words to fully understand each paragraph. So, I had to only focus on the story line, less on the quality of the writing. Sad but understandable story.
Tthis is one talented writer why hasnt SHE WRITTEN MORE?
I'm going to go ahead and call this my favorite novel of the decade. I've never, ever, EVER, believed in characters as deeply as I believe in the inhabitants of The Big House. You know what - forget the decade! This is as good a novel as I know of, and as intimate and moving a reading experience as I've had, and as rich and vivid a world as I¿ve ever read my way into. I don't know if I've ever loved a character as much as I love Aasha. Love though, is not all I feel for this book ¿ and this, I think, is what makes it so seriously, truly, utterly great: it's also unrelentingly painful. It will hurt you. It hurts, even when guided by a loving hand, to look so honestly at the brutality and smallness and meanness of which humanity is capable. It hurts to follow the trails of ruin left by willful blindnesses, shameful prejudices, and faithless underestimations it hurts to watch small mistakes, no matter how innocently or ignorantly perpetrated, result in huge, enveloping, unrescindable sadnesses ¿ but to be able to look at all of this squarely, attentively, and unsparingly to depict it fully, in all its ugly complexity to dwell on the pain, to pick and prod and examine it, to stare into its hideous face with humor and healthy cynicism, but also, somehow, hope ¿ is, I think, the bravest sort of thing a piece of writing can do. I smiled on nearly every page, but never did the novel allow me to indulge the dangerous fantasies of a happy ending ¿ not for everyone, not in a world like ours. oh yeah - and did I mention that it's got absolutely everything else that anyone could possibly want in a novel - mystery, political strife, domestic intrigue, hilarity, a thrilling loop-the-looping structure, and 339 pages of pure, unadulterated dazzling prose. And by the end, as an added bonus, you'll feel like an expert on Malaysian history, politics, and race relaitons. In sum: I friend this book, know or not? Five stars is nowhere near enough.