It is not difficult to notice, as Filipinos, the striking similarities between Shahnon Ahmad’s idyllic portrayal of Malaysia’s countryside and the sceneries of Philippine rural life. In the novel Rope of Ash (Rentong), we are given familiar images of typical countryside life in a remote village of Banggul Derdap: farmers scattering across various square fields, village rice lands looking like a “large single lake”, and typical village meals consisting of sticky rice and grated coconut. It is from these rustic images that our appreciation and understanding of Malaysian village life are vivid and familiar.
But while these rural sceneries are reminiscent to Philippine countryside life, it is also easy to understand how we are able to relate with Malaysian rural values which put emphasis on the importance of kinship and sense of community among rural folks. In the Philippines, headmaster Pak Senik is represented by a well-respected Barangay Captain or Purok Chairman whose leadership is central in maintaining harmony in a village. Similar to Philippine provinces, the lives of families in Banggul Derdap are closely knit since villagers are “dependent and independent from each other” for their living and sustenance. Because of this, it is almost unimaginable for village residents to isolate themselves from the community that works towards unity, order, and harmony.
If negative values such as violence, jealousy, and ambition disrupt the idealized notion of harmonious coexistence among villagers, then the community – being a structured social and political unit – has the power to isolate and make an outcast out of those who initiate societal division and conflict. However, it is interesting to note how, in the novel, we are given the perspective of the isolated; that is, we are given insights on how, at times, the society misjudges an individual based on past deeds and subverted opinion that challenges the prevalent view of the village group. In the novel, the isolated becomes vulnerable to malicious rumor and prejudgment of character; for instance, we are drawn to relate to Pak Kasa and Semaun’s violent character as similar to the popular Filipino adage: kung ano ang puno ay siyang bunga.
With societal seclusion, the isolated Semaun is forced to shape his character based on the presumptions of society; hostility and violence becomes his recourse to defend his family and their traditional ideals. Predictably, an ambitious character, personified by Dogol, is able to exploit this ambivalent and already delicate relationship between the society and the isolated. However, through the notable leadership style of headmaster Pak Senik, whose patience and compassion has led Semaun’s family to subtly acquire utang na loob or debt of gratitude from his goodwill, we can see how the gap between the community and its outcast is eventually narrowed and restored. This happened when the violent call to destroy Semaun’s property by fire was, towards the end of the story, prevented – signifying that the rope to tie, to connect the isolated with society did not burn and turn into ashes.