The day Mahathir was sworn in, my father turned 83. “Maybe I can be the next Prime Minister!” he joked when I spoke to him on the phone. “Why not?” I said. “Looks like you’ve still got 10 years.”
In 1957, my father was 22 years old, a newly minted teacher. He’d specialised in English and history, fields in which no British colonial in the 1950s would have viewed him as anything remotely approaching an equal. Having studied and worked under white men who did not disguise their benevolent contempt for Malayans, he believed — like many of his generation — that independence would allow him to find his place in the world, to stake a claim. That he would prove himself on an individual scale as the new nation did it on a global scale. His great hopes for his country, his big dreams for himself: in my mind, his generation’s destiny has always been intertwined with the nation’s. They were Malaya’s Midnight’s Children, not born but reborn at the moment of independence, their coming of age set in motion by Tunku Abdul’s Rahman’s cries of Merdeka!
The more wholeheartedly you believe in infinite possibility for yourself and your blank slate of a nation, the greater the weight of your disillusionment. After 13 May, my father — like so many non-Malays — felt excluded from the national project, stranded in a country that had turned out not to be his after all. He traces his life’s souring to that point; in the story he tells, he watched as younger, less experienced Malay teachers were promoted over his head. Whether this story is the whole, objective truth is less important than the fact that he believes it, because the stories we believe about ourselves shape our interactions and our relationships. How often my father picked fights at school and at home, how fiercely he threw his small bit of power around: I learned to attribute all these tendencies to the disappointment that pervaded his days. I pictured it following him around like a cartoon cloud hanging over the hapless anti-hero, dogged, unshakeable. There were times in my childhood and adolescence when, in the lulls between his anger, his abusiveness, and his absence, my father would be a different man, and in those times I would wonder, even then: who would we — my mother, my brothers, and I — have been with a different husband, a different father?
Racial politics demarcated our futures for us. “This country has nothing for you,” my mother told us over and over again when we were small. “You have to get out.” In the next breath she would add, “This is the best country in the world. If only it wanted us.” I don’t remember a time when I did not know that exile was the goal. Of course, in the grand scheme of things, I was lucky: I didn’t have to run from bombs; I had access to a good, well-rounded education. Even if I had to choose between second-class citizenship in my own country or leaving, the choice was more than many people on the planet had. In the early years of my expatriation, I didn’t think of it as a loss. Bouts of homesickness came and went, but leaving home was a fact of life for so many Malaysians; one just got on with one’s life. In the 26 years between my departure and the election, I watched the country grow even more polarised. A narrow, coercive Islam dominated the public space a little more loudly each time I visited, convincing me that my decision to stay away was the right one.
And then, on 9 May this year, as I sat in a café in rural France, the WhatsApp messages from my old schoolmates began to arrive thick and fast. All over the world, Malaysians were weeping tears of shock and joy and relief, not because we all believed Pakatan Harapan was the answer to the nation’s woes, but because we’d proved to ourselves that change was possible. Yet even in those first euphoric hours, I felt the undertow of grief. Not just because I was far away, unable to witness this moment I never thought I’d live to see, but for everything we had lost in these 61 years, each of us alone and all of us together. No country, no family, can return to the fork in the road. We cannot reclaim the possibilities of that other future we had in 1957; whatever doors we open for ourselves now, we must carry with us those decades of inequality. It’s too easy, too tempting, to forget this essential truth, but we must not let ourselves: there is no victory that is not also a mourning.
Preeta Samarasan is the author of Evening is the Whole Day (2008)