If you were looking for a rare book on Malaysiana, you might find it sitting on the shelf in S. Jai Shankar’s home library.
The officer at Matrade (Malaysia External Trade Development Corporation), Kuala Lumpur, owns approximately 8,000 books! Most of the titles are nonfiction, with almost a quarter of them related to Malaysia.
“I wanted to know more about the world we lived in. Back then, books were the only means to do that. Furthermore, with me being an introvert and from a relatively poor background, books allowed me to travel through time and space without much effort and money,” says Jai, 45, whose hobby began when he was about 13.
“Every book I read was a milestone for me, in terms of my personal growth and understanding of the world. For example, The Autobiography Of Gandhi defined my moral code. The Assassination Of Leon Trotsky sparked my interest in Russian history, from Rasputin to communism,” Jai enthuses.
“The collection then started to evolve according to my interests. In my teenage years, it was about parapsychology and other pseudoscience topics. Today, it is on Islamic history, and so on.”
The bibliophile has always been keen to find out more about Malaysian history than what is written in our textbooks, which explains his interest in collecting books about Malaya, Borneo and Singapore. Almost all of his books of this genre are nonfiction. Many are related to history but there are also biographies, memoirs, essays, travelogues, current events, religion and special interest books.
“Even back then (and certainly now), I felt that history should be about the broader narrative rather than about memorising details.
“Many good books on Malaysian history, books that give us alternative viewpoints and information that is often not found in the current texts, are currently out of print. So collecting these books started as part of the search for the broader truth about Malaysian history,” he says.
The oldest book in his possession is an English-Malay dictionary printed in 1804 by one John Howison. Jai bought it from an antique bookseller in Italy.
“I also picked up many interesting English-Malay dictionaries over the years while working in Europe, including two sets of William Marsden’s magisterial two-volume dictionary which was printed in 1812,” he says.
He explains that the primary reason why most of these books are only available outside Malaysia is because, in the past, only Westerners – including colonial officers, businessmen and missionaries – had the education and financial means to buy these books. Their respective collections then were often shipped to their native countries upon their retirement.
“Malaysiana books which remained in Malaysia but not in libraries usually fell victim to nature (weather and/or insects) or civil unrest – for example, during the Japanese Occupation. As such, either these titles are simply not available anymore in Malaysia or, if they are, they are often in very poor condition.”
As one can imagine, trying to track down books from a bygone era can be a very difficult task.
“Occasionally you come across books that might not be too old but simply has an interesting story behind it. For example, A Yellow Sleuth: Being The Autobiography Of ‘Nor Nalla’, published in 1931. Nobody knew who wrote this book until last year when historian Paul Kratoska cracked the mystery. The author turns out to be Ron(ald) Allan; Nor Nalla is the name spelt backwards.
“I have two copies of the book, one of which possibly carries the signature of the mysterious author,” says Jai.
“The value of a book is also dependent on the edition and associated history. For instance, Malay Dilemma by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamed. It is the rare first edition which was published in Singapore in 1970 and infamously banned by the then Malaysian Government. Although the book looks exactly the same, in terms of look and feel, as many of the subsequent editions that were printed in Malaysia after the ban was lifted in 1981, yet it is clearly worth more to a collector.”
In the 1980s and 1990s, Jai used to scour flea markets, garage sales and assorted places to look for rare or old books.
“I did not have a good bibliography to guide me on what was out there, so it was always a ‘Eureka!’ moment whenever I found an out-of-print book that was not already in my collection.”
Unlike most book collectors, Jai does not accumulate books for the sake of collecting them, though. “I only buy books that I am keen to read. Collecting is secondary. I have read, or plan to read, all the books that I have purchased. Reading these books in their original form gives me greater satisfaction than reading them online.
“Also, with physical books, you get a feel of the history of the book when reading annotations, etc. I have one book, for example, which was signed off by Tun Tan Cheng Lock.”
With such a sizeable book collection, Jai is hard-pressed to name his three favourite titles from among them. Eventually, he narrows it down to these few titles. Firstly, the two-volume copy of Alfred Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago printed by Macmillan in 1869 (he owns the first edition); this book, together with Charles Darwin's On The Origin Of Species, introduced the world to the idea of the theory of evolution.
Then there's Twentieth Century Impressions Of British Malaya, published in 1908, which to Jai is “the most beautiful book on Malaya, or Malaysia, for that matter”.
Also close to his heart are books on James Brooke and books written by members of the “White Rajah’s” family. For example, the rare two-volume Ten Years In Sarawak that Charles Brooke published in 1866, along with the many books written by the various women who married into the Brooke family – from Margaret to Sylvia Brooke and the lesser known Gladys Brooke.
Jai also owns the original English edition of Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals) by Dr John Leyden, published in 1821; V.S. Srinivasa Sastri’s Report On The Conditions Of Indian Labour In Malaya (1937); and a rare book on Hikayat Abdullah by J.T. Thomson (who was a student of the great Malay scribe, Munshi Abdullah) that was printed in 1874.
“These books take you through time, back when Malaya was transforming, finding its place in the modern world. The perspectives vary and are often one-sided but always interesting,” says Jai, who cites British colonial administrators Hugh Clifford and Richard Winstedt as his favourite authors of books on Malaysiana.
He also enjoys reading socialist literature and books on economics. “I like writers who are original in their thought process. So writers such as George Orwell, Anthony Burgess and Noam Chomsky intrigue me.”
Jai’s wife is an avid reader, too, and possesses a good collection of fiction. So far, their eight-year-old son has only shown a passing interest in their books.
“I hope that someday he picks up the habit of reading, but not collecting. There are already enough books in the family!” Jai concludes.