At a cursory glance, the title of Zafar Anjum’s book under review appears to offer a kind of ‘dialogue’ on Singapore when suddenly you realize that the word is ‘Decalogue’ and the book contains ten finely chiseled episodes from the life of its young protagonist, Asif Basheer, from October 2005 to December 2010 which like the biblical Decalogue provide him the guidelines to map his way in a foreign land. This simple narrative is about Asif Basheer’s dreams gone sour and in the course, it subtly reveals the saddening yet eye-opening aspects of the fabulous city-state, Singapore: not the Singapore of the tourists – sparklingly clean, meticulously disciplined, the hub of the Mall-culture, bubbling with joie de vivre; nor the coveted destination of the new-age professionals; but a Singapore that is protean and capricious with shades of grey where only the tough can survive, not the sensitive souls like Asif.
The Singapore Decalogue is different, so to say, on many counts. Thematically, it is the story of Asif Basheer (or for that matter of many a middle-class young man) for whom a job in Singapore is the ultimate in professional achievement signaling the end to financial problems and the beginning of a good life. Structurally, the ten episodes are connected yet separate, each eventful experience offering a finely wrought tale but the book is not an anthology of short stories; you cannot call it a novel either. It is realistic and partly autobiographical but not an autobiography. Maybe it is the story of Singapore — exciting and despairing, sparkling and dull, luxurious and uncomfortable. Richard Lord in his ‘Introduction’ to the book calls it a compelling portrait of the Lion City in which Singapore emerges as a nation of immigrants and also as “a nation looking to define itself, to sketch out the parameters and contours of its own soul.”
Asif, an immigrant and a poet stands in contrast to the robust city. He struggles to be a part of Singapore but remains an outsider-inside. Even in this meritocratic society, his credentials have no value because of the colour of his skin. The author writes meaningfully, “Bias is like hair in a society – you cut it with the scissors of high-minded policy, but it grows back inch by inch until it becomes an unwritten law of the land.” (p. 102). Without being overtly critical about the city-state, Zafar Anjum shows those aspects of Singapore we hardly get to know; rather, he presents a stark statement on the contemporary MNC culture, the pressures to excel, the race to prove, and the need to push yourself at the cost of others or get discarded. This is what Asif has not bargained for. When he encounters the demons of retrenchment, joblessness, mounting debt, uncertainty and exploitation, he just cannot take it. He vacillates between the glitter of consumerism and his values; the pull and push of lust and his upbraiding conscience. Not certain how to cope with the harsh realities of life, gripped with a feeling of inadequacy (a common feature of diaspora), he loses his sense of self.
When in October 2005, Asif, a young professional from the ad-world, gets a call-letter from Singapore, he considers himself lucky for the first time. Life so far has been a struggle: financial problems, his inability to help his parents and cater to his newly-wed wife; besides, his asthma, gout, weak lungs and a weak leg cause further troubles. The first chapter, meaningfully titled ‘Crime and Punishment’ serves to delineate the presence of nemesis in Asif’s life. Physically frail, emotionally feeble, and conscious of his bad luck he reels under inferiority complex. He is fired by ambition but as he tells his friend Amar, destiny has marked him for smallness and physical deficiencies. Born in a small town, educated in sub-standard institutions, full of small-town inhibitions and physical limitations, Asif is a misfit in the fast-moving world where cut-throat competition is the rule of the rat-race. His lament, “I don’t know how to swim, I don’t know how to ride a bike or drive a car…,” speaks of a pathetic personality torn apart by normal human longings and inadequacies of a lop-sided childhood development.
The fabulous night-life of Singapore attracts him but his sense of guilt makes him miserable. He wants to smoke but gets coughing bouts. He would love to sip a drink but the Black Monk appears at the wrong moment to chide him. Unfortunately, compared to his happy-go-lucky friends like Amar, Ben, and Victor Banerjee, Asif is hypersensitive. The fear of his Black Monk makes him weak-willed and a failure in life. Amar’s casual reference to his short life-line surfaces at the crucial moment and fills him with morbid thoughts. He reminds us of Anita Desai’s Maya in Cry the Peacock and Bharati Mukherji’s Jasmine/Jyoti in Jasmine and their different responses to astrological predictions. How a chance remark by a friend who may not even be serious about palmistry causes havoc in Asif’s psyche makes for an interesting case study.
Zafar Anjum is too perceptive an artist to be preachy and to overload the book with “do’s” and “don’ts”; yet he does not evade the moral and ethical issues which he astutely raises through the Black Monk who is present in every episode. In the first chapter the Black Monk warns Asif, “I’ve to set you on the right path every time you lose your way.” In the last chapter, after the ‘fall’ the Black Monk just smiles at him as if welcoming his leap from materialism to spiritualism, from worldly greed back into the folds of the Mother Earth and Ima accepts him as one of her lambs (let us remember lamb is a symbol of innocence). The book closes on a suggestive note which is eloquently graphic: the telephone goes into “silent inertness” and the “eerie music” of the rustling blinds fills Asif’s room. Lucky Singh’s robust boisterousness, the Chinese boss’s cunning, Mariam-Asif’s quarrel on a non-issue and the portrayal of Donna-Joy and Maggie add realistic touches to the narrative making it heartwarming.
Zafar Anjum is a Singapore-based Indian journalist and an acclaimed writer. He is well-read, philosophically inclined and secular in approach — qualities that he invests in Asif Basheer. Zafar makes judicious use of philosophical material and has the knack of linking the chapters with subtle strokes, like the quote by Montaigne in the first chapter, “Philosopher, c’est apprendre a mourir” (To philosophize is to learn how to die) is what Asif remembers before he jumps to his freedom. The story makes a lucid read and has the grip to hold the readers’ interest. Finally, I must draw attention to a factual error in the book. On page 103, Maharana Pratap has been mentioned as a Maratha hero.
— by Dr. Usha Bande, Shimla, India
(This review was originally published in Indian Literature, the Sahitya Akademi’s bi-monthly journal; March/April 2013)