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Playing Along Infinite Rivers: Alternative Readings of a Malay State


This dissertation deals intimately and critically with the fundamental question of Malay statecraft. It presents texts that have been uncritically considered `cartographic', `historical' and `literary' on Perak a step into the different possible ways of navigating and thinking about a Malay geopolitical entity beyond prescribed Cartesian maps and boundaries, by first exploring the context of the cartographic encounter between 18th century European and Malay paradigms, ones which underlie the different modes of representing the world in map-making, writing and reading. These two maps - an 1876 Malay map and a 1792 British map - could be considered as prototypical products of map-making technologies prevalent then, showing distinctive mechanisms of selective representation that make certain places/points/aspects/people present while obscuring others. It provides an introspective and comparative analysis of these maps with other contemporaneous visual (maps) and textual (narratives) in English and Malay to address the looming descriptive questions of how the maps came to be, and how they came to be as such. In other words, what stories do the maps tell of the processes involved in their making and how the world (of which the state of Perak is a small, yet for the purpose of this study, the most immediate and interesting part) was seen from the eyes and in the minds of their makers? Literary perspectives of early scholars/authors of texts on the state exhibiting manners in which Perak and its population have been written about and languaged by way of stories, anecdotes, and historical narratives are thoroughly examined. In the process of cultural and textual translation, from one into the other, and the `other' into mainstream historical texts during the inception of modernity in the region, unilateral impositions of labels, laws and ideals correspond with ones that had already been long institutionalized in Europe. The construction of a historical reality through the acts of compiling, reading, writing about and translating Malay texts, the British historical and literary paradigms (and their supposed biases for primitive, fantastic, enchanting tales that befit the stereotypical notion of people living in villages in previously uncharted tropical land) decided which Malay texts would be printed, reprinted, and incorporated into it. Ultimately determining the logical and cultural grounds on which the people of Perak might be understood through long-accepted discourses such as `history' and `literature', this dissertation offers methodologies and critical paradigms of seeing beyond the constraints of discursive practices, and into the silences buried between the lines of canonical histories.

Central to alternatively archaeologizing these silences are the syair in Misa Melayu, and maps that have been considered irrelevant to factual historiography, as well as other Malay syairs, namely Syair Bahr An-Nisa, Syair Perahu 1 and Syair Perahu 2 with similar thematic foundations of aquatic navigations, ships, and rituals involved in linguistic/literary/historical representations of the Malay world. Based on the underlying notion of the `cosmos' as the fundamental stuff being represented in the texts, the main foci points of this dissertation are the metaphorical and physical correlations between the syairs and meaningful embodiments of these texts in the historical reality of Perak specifically and more generally the Malay world. A further step into the realm of the oral/aural world of Malay narratives necessitates an intricate discussion on the communities of imagination from which these fluid texts were recited and heard, produced and read. Reflecting nuanced Malay gnoses/noetics of the past, literary artifacts like the syair carry with it ethereal poetic elements that have been long buried under the dust of history. Also put into consideration are religious texts that circulated contemporaneously with the hikayats and were the earliest to be recited, translated, and read, and therefore relationally connected as they provide early bases for the first Malay lexicons used in translations of any hikayat. Rather than imposing any definite status on the hikayat as religious or non-religious, it is more practical to examine the fact that the hikayat, and texts that have been considered religious and exegetical were circulating in the same literary space, and thus deserve a more refined and attentive reading. In short, all throughout these pages, I suggest meaningful, poetic connections between the world, the reader and texts beyond prescriptive, familiar concepts.

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