“Revolution always requires that people shed blood” (Kim Chew Ng 123). This is the grim fact that the protagonist and his comrades had agreed upon prior to following a path of revolution. And after him and his comrades are convicted of conspiracy and treason, plenty of blood was shed, as his comrades were shot to death by a firing squad (Chew Ng 125). A childhood promise between the protagonist and his royal, cherished friend, allowed for the protagonist to evade his execution, and become the leader of a nearby island (Chew Ng 128). Upon his arrival, Tuan schedules a circumcision ceremony for the protagonist. With a crowd of laughing women, the village chief performs a circumcision on him (Chew Ng 130). This circumcision represents the beginning of a new life for the protagonist, and the villagers watching.
Most babies are circumcised within the first two days of their life (Hirsch). And within two days of arriving on the island, the protagonist receives his circumcision. The parallels of how a normal circumcision occurs, to how the protagonist is circumcised, is meant to show that the protagonist is beginning a new life in a new world as if he was a baby. Just like a baby, which has lived in their mother’s uterus is delivered into the world to start their life, the protagonist who has lived in Malaysia is being delivered to this remote island to start his new life.
One of the conditions in the agreement is that the protagonist must convert to Islam. In Islam, circumcision is viewed as a declaration to your faith in Allah, and a sign of belonging (BBC). Due to his circumcision, throughout his new life, he is now under Allah’s will and must abide by what he says. And in a way, the protagonist’s friend acts as Allah, as he has total control over the protagonist’s life. This is seen when the protagonist recalls his friend’s promise “In the event of the slightest transgression, we will instantly revoke your pardon” (Chew Ng 137). It’s clear that his friend has all the power over the protagonist’s life, as he can instantly decide to bring him back to Malaysia to be executed. The protagonist’s friend uses his faith against him throughout his time on the island. After submitting a request for a Chinese-language Buddhist sutra, his friend sends back a Qur’an with a note to “Never forget Allah’s will” (Chew Ng 137). It’s revealed that Tuan has told the villagers to not allow the protagonist to go out to sea, as the elders say “Whatever you do, you mustn’t let Tuan know we let you go out to see. He has repeatedly stressed that, in accordance with Allah’s will, we mustn’t permit you to leave the island” (Chew Ng 142). After the birth of numerous children, the protagonist asks for birth control. The response to his request is comical, saying “The number of children you have will be determined by Allah’s will” (Chew Ng 145). Clearly, any request for freedom or luxury is met with a harsh remark to remember that he must serve his friend’s/Allah’s demands. By being forced to have a circumcision, the protagonist must now be a loyal servant to his friend/Allah.
Following the protagonist’s circumcision, his way of life is totally different from his past life. In order to avoid execution, the protagonist must follow a strict set of conditions. He must assume a new identity. Cut off all communication with his friends and family. Never tell his future family his true identity. Never use, teach, or speak Chinese again. Convert to Islam, and help reclaim land for cultivation. And lastly, he must never leave the island. The status of his former life is best described by “Your former identity will be permanently discarded, and you must treat your former self as though he were already dead” (Chew Ng 126). The protagonist must commit to memory his new fake past, and act as if his real past never happened.
This contract affects his new life greatly. Despite his strongest urges to use his children to make contact with his family, he decides not to and succeeds in never contacting his former friends and family again. This is seen when he writes “When my eldest son was about to leave the island, I had a sudden urge to encourage him to find an opportunity to go visit my hometown and see how my parents were doing” (Chew Ng 136). He then later dismisses this thought when he says “In the end, though, I couldn’t bring myself to utter a word” (Chew Ng 136). Clearly, the isolation from his family is eating away at him, but he realizes that in his new life, he must never talk to them again, or else him and his family will face severe consequences.
The inability to tell his family about his true former self also causes problems for the protagonist. While his family realizes that he grew up in a Chinese household (Chew Ng 144), they don’t understand why he never leaves the island. The protagonist shares his disappointment in the fact that he’s never attended his children’s graduations when he states “I couldn’t even attend my own children’s graduations. Instead, my “guardian” also served as their collective guardian, and in this way, he represented me” (Chew Ng 137). Despite sending numerous requests to attend his children’s weddings, his requests were always shut down. By then, the fact that he would never attend his children’s notable events, caused many to question the protagonist’s character. His wife exhibits her confusion towards the protagonist when she says “What’s wrong with leaving the island for a few days? It’s not like you were born here. Didn’t you originally come here from elsewhere?” (Chew Ng 137). These remarks leave the protagonist feeling heartbroken. This is because he can never tell his family about his past, and why he cannot leave the island. Thus, this just leaves the protagonist looking like he’s a lackadaisical father. His children even begin questioning whether their father loves them when he states “I recognized quite clearly that my children felt alienated as a result of their inability to forgive me, to the point that they might begin doubting their father’s love” (Chew Ng 138). This question of his character even spreads to the villagers, as they begin to look for why he is so isolated and cold towards his family. They theorize that he is so isolated and cold due to him being Chinese (Chew Ng 138). Thus, his inability to explain his isolation due to his past leaves many to wonder about the protagonist’s character in his new life.
Another way his life has changed following his circumcision, and newly devoted faith towards his friend/Allah, is that he’s now forced to only speak in Malay. We see the effects of this in his new life, as he begins to forget a lot of Chinses characters. He explains his forgetfulness as he says “I often either add or leave out strokes, mistake one character for another, remember the character only vaguely, or only know its pronunciation” (Chew Ng 121). What was once a language he was most likely proficient in, he now yearns to be allowed to write in Chinese. He explains this when he says “For many years now, there hasn’t been a single moment when I didn’t yearn to write something in Chinese” (Chew Ng 122). It’s clear that in his new life, he now wishes he still has the simple privilege he once had in being able to use Chinese whenever he pleased.
His new life also sees the protagonist performing tasks totally different from his old life. In his past life, the protagonist would spend his days studying, singing rebellious songs, and performing secret disobedient operations (Chew Ng 133). While in his new life, he’s now tasked with growing rice, vegetable, fruits, and livestock (Chew Ng 130). He becomes extremely successful in his life as a farmer. He successfully clears the existing land, develops a drainage and irrigation system, and adopts the practice of recycling night soil (Chew Ng 132). His model garden takes off, and he quickly raises chicks, lambs, and a fruit orchard, among other things. He grows so much that he’s later able to distribute his provisions to the villagers (Chew Ng 134). He’s even able to establish a local bartering system with the villagers (Chew Ng 135). While once a rebellious student, the protagonist now acts as a mature, seasoned farmer. The stark contrast between his past hobbies and current job shows how much his devotion towards Allah, due to his circumcision, has affected his life.
The protagonist’s circumcision also has a profound effect on the lives of the villagers. When the villagers are first introduced, they’re portrayed as primitive people. The protagonist details their livelihood as he says “these people had long lived off the sea, continually moving from one island to another.