Did you know Malaysia has its own vampire legend? The story of the Raja Bersiong (‘Fanged King’) comes from the Bujang Valley in Kedah.
He was a king who accidentally ate a dish with human blood in it. This led to him developing a taste for blood, sparking fear among his subjects.
Talk about a figure who is notorious in local folklore. There have even been a few films about Raja Bersiong, with the most famous one being the 1968 movie directed by Jamil Sulong, with a screenplay written by Malaysia’s first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman.
In the new book The Blood Prince Of Langkasuka, KL-based author Tutu Dutta takes this bloodcurdling tale, and puts a few new twists into it.
Her version of this tale is a murder mystery set in an ancient Nusantara royal court, sprinkled with elements of magic, intrigue and politics.
Tutu, 63, who was born in India and move to Malaysia in the early 1960s with her family, says she always wanted to write a book about bloodsucking creatures of the night.
“I’ve had a longstanding fascination about the pontianak and vampires and would have written a book about vampires eventually. I also did some research into the Bujang Valley civilisation in 2013 due to the public outcry over the bulldozing of some of the ancient chandi sites (temples) in the valley, ” she says in an interview.
“At the same time, I was also researching a figure from Croatian folklore called the Black Queen of Medvedgrad since we were living in Zagreb, Croatia at that time. It seemed logical to expand the research into other vampire legends, including Raja Bersiong.”
The Blood Prince Of Langkasuka is the tale of Raja Perita Deria, a young and carefree 17-year-old royal. He goes on a seemingly ordinary night out with a few friends, only to discover a hauntingly beautiful woman in an abandoned temple. This incident, combined with an accident involving the royal cook and a blood-tainted plate of spinach ("bayam"), completely changes his life.
The prince is soon caught up in national affairs, including having to maintain relationships with the Sri Vijaya and Khmer empires.
But darker things are causing things to spiral out of control. Many subjects in the Langkasuka palace are dying violent deaths.
As you turn the book’s pages, the momentum heightens. Dark plans are in motion, and a killer is at large ... although it may not be who you are expecting the person to be.
The well-travelled Tutu is the author of nine books, including Timeless Tales Of Malaysia, Eight Treasures Of The Dragon, The Jugra Chronicles, Phoenix Song and Nights Of The Dark Moon.
She also co-authored The Principal Girl: Feminist Tales From Asia anthology with Sharifah Aishah Osman.
Haunted by childhood tale
According to the author, she watched Jamil Sulong’s Raja Bersiong film as a child, and has been fascinated by it. She had also read Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa (a book which Jamil’s film was loosely based on) as well as articles and newspaper reports about the lead character.
“My research into the book started in 2014, starting with research into the Bujang Valley. I actually decided to write this book because of the possibility of creating an Asian or Malaysian Gothic Dark Prince from folklore who walked among the ruins of ancient temples, ” says Tutu.
“The manuscripts went through several revisions, submissions and rejections, which was frustrating, before the final version which resulted in this book – The Blood Prince Of Langkasuka, published by Penguin Random House SEA.”
Tutu’s book is divided into insightful chapters, some of which tell the stories of different figures in the Langkasuka palace. Most have origins in folklore: the chapter The Cook’s Tale, for example, comes directly from the original Raja Bersiong myth, while the The Queen’s Tale is based on the story of the The Bamboo Princess (Puteri Buluh Betong).
The rest are stories from different folk tales, all woven together.
The biggest change in Tutu’s narrative, however, is that the Raja Bersiong character Raja Perita Deria is a teenager instead of the grown man he is usually portrayed as.
She picked a teenager as the lead since she usually writes stories for younger readers. It was a decision to appeal to this demographic, and the reason why this book is also framed as a coming-of-age story.
“I knew I could not write about the adult Raja Bersiong, who drained his kingdom and subjects out of bloodlust... anyway, where is the story in that? A teenage prince allowed for the main character to have interesting companions and the freedom to go on wild adventures, have fun and even fall in love, ” elaborates Tutu.
“At the same time, I needed an overall arc to hold all the separate elements together so I came up with a murder mystery. This part was inspired by a lifelong obsession with Agatha Christie.”
The murder mystery part is the most challenging part of this tale as the author often works backward, making sure the clues add up to a satisfying resolution.
There is also enough blood spilled to attract a horror fan. “I may have enjoyed writing the dark and violent scenes a bit too much and felt a bit shocked I was willing to sacrifice so many characters, ” says Tutu.
She mentions that she has three more books in progress as well as a picture book. Her wish is for young readers today to be more familiar with Malaysian folklore.
“I find it jarring that younger readers seem more familiar with Norse and Greek myths, rather than the folk tales of this country and this region.
“This will only become obvious when you talk to people from other countries and cultures and they ask you about the books and stories from your culture. Believe me, I know. I’ve lived in nine different countries. People will realise you have a colonised mind!” she concludes.
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