Good things now come in Tens: The Singapore Decalogue by Zafar Anjum

Book review by Krishna Udayasankar, Ph.D.

Singapore Decalogue final cover

The Singapore Decalogue: Episodes in the Life of a Foreign Talent
by Zafar Anjum
Red Wheelbarrow Books, Singapore, 2012

As a reader, one of the most precious pleasures I enjoy is being given a window into reality, into the simple yet profound events that surround a character and her or his life. Zafar Anjum’s The Singapore Decalogue does exactly that. Like the perfect host, it invites you in with grace and promise, makes you comfortable, delights, feeds, and entertains. And then, once you become good friends, it hits you hard with its revelations and keeps you hooked with its well-written narrative, right to its surprise (in fact a dash shocking) ending.

Well-written and balanced

The Decalogue holds equal joy from a craft perspective: As a writer, I am undeniably jealous of those who are able to give glimpses into what may, at first, seem ordinary; the things, people, and the events that form part of our everyday fabric of life. Zafar Anjum’s work delivers completely on this count by taking us into the subtle layers of human ambition, need and frailty that underlie the routines and unstated actions that we go through everyday. Specifically, it offers bold and yet believable insights into the mind of a foreign talent in Singapore. Asif Basheer, the central character of the ten pieces that form the Decalogue, is someone the reader will come to like, sometimes dislike, sometimes disagree with, but always resonate with in one way or another.

The collection begins with Asif’s departure from India to begin working in Singapore. He leaves behind a fiancée and a family and brings with him many hopes and ambitions. Zafar Anjum then takes us through Asif’s days in Singapore, his culture shock and his attempts to acclimatize, not just with his new surroundings, but the also the person he finds himself becoming.

The stories are, for the most part, well-balanced. Asif’s introspection is woven into an event-based narrative that showcases his experiences in Singapore. The character grows over time and his growth and change in thinking is shown in subtle but effective ways. Yet, Anjum remains unapologetic for human frailty, and on many occasions we see Asif’s self-doubt and guilt show through. I particularly enjoyed seeing this part of the protagonist’s character and was glad that it did not get too cloying.

Interconnected vignette structure leaves one wanting more

There were, of course, some personal peeves – mainly in the form of little distractions that I felt took away from what is a great read. First, I found at times that Asif’s voice tends to overlap with that of the omniscient narrator’s, leading to a statement of Asif’s not very logical ruminations, or even less than appealing (but nevertheless real) sentiments in a very factual voice. I am, however, inclined to take this as a sign of the author’s involvement with his character, and as such, count it a minor lapse.

What was however, a little more noticeable was the tendency towards slightly excessive use of similes, sometimes two or more descriptions being used for the same concept. Zafar Anjum has a wonderfully vivid, visual style of narration, and I felt that the trend to rely on comparative descriptions sometimes stifled this natural descriptive flow.

Finally, I find that the innovative structure of the entire collection becomes both the strength and possibly a limitation of the work. This is not a novel, yet it is not a collection of short stories. One could call them interconnected vignettes: The true value of the narrative is in the whole and yet each piece stands comfortably in its own right. While that makes for a refreshing and fast-paced read, there were times when I felt myself wanting to know more about what happened in the gaps. To give one example, Asif’s fiancée reappears in a later piece as his pregnant wife – yet there is little mention of the wedding and her relocation to Singapore.

Stories that stay

These distractions, however, do not detract noticeably from what is, undeniably, a must-read. In summary, The Singapore Decalogue is thought-provoking and poignant without being excessively dramatic. The stories will stay with you a long time after you turn the last page, and you may just find yourself looking at that pensive, laptop-carrying foreign executive on the MRT in a new and different way.

Krishna Udayasankar, Ph.D., teaches at Nanyang Business School, Singapore, and is the author of Aryavarta Chronicles.