Kitaab Review: The Singapore Decalogue by Zafar Anjum

Singapore is a unique agglomeration of cultures, history and contemporary prosperity, and so for this lover of South Asian literature, Zafar Anjum’s The Singapore Decalogue is a welcome entry into Singaporean literature from an Indian migrant’s perspective, writes Elen Turner in her review 

Singapore-Decalogue_coverSingapore is a unique agglomeration of cultures, history and contemporary prosperity, and so for this lover of South Asian literature, Zafar Anjum’s The Singapore Decalogue is a welcome entry into Singaporean literature from an Indian migrant’s perspective.

The format of The Singapore Decalogue (subtitled Episodes in the Life of a Foreign Talent) is creative: it is a novel, of sorts, but it is also akin to a collection of interrelated short stories. Each chapter narrates events from one month in the life of Asif, who, at the beginning, October 2005, is a Bangalore bachelor about to immigrate to Singapore. The protagonist, Asif, is the focus throughout the book; his life progresses from one event to the next, his consciousness and worldview undergoing development, suggesting the label of novel. However, each chapter stands alone to some degree: characters who take central roles in one chapter are entirely put aside in the next, sometimes never seen again. Asif’s life progresses, but author Zafar Anjum suggests, through this structure, that life can be compartmentalised, for good or ill.

Compartmentalisation, or enforced boundaries—physical, emotional and cultural—run through The Singapore Decalogue. Perhaps this is the lot of an immigrant, to put aside relationships from ‘back home’ and keep them in a different part of one’s existence. To be categorised as different, not a full part of the society to which they have come, but not entirely part of any other. These divisions are the case for Asif, at least, who, after being made redundant, struggles to find new work in Singapore (at least partly) because he is Indian. He has a wife back in India, who lives with him in Singapore for a while, but she appears to be of so little importance to his integral state of being that once she leaves, she is rarely mentioned again, and he returns to a bachelor-type lifestyle, drinking with Filipina and Indonesian dancers and prostitutes. Asif’s moral corruption is never quite complete, but his flirtation with the lifestyle that so thoroughly shocked him when he first arrives in Singapore represents his isolation as an immigrant.

The Singapore Decalogue is full of feeling, and although this is a work of fiction, the reader can understand that Anjum, being an Indian migrant in Singapore himself, has felt or experienced much of what his characters do. He understands the inadequacy of reporting back to those left at home, as the sensation of being out of one’s element is often beyond language:

Where is the excitement in his words? The wonder of a new place being described by an enthusiastic immigrant? In the letter, he wanted to share his exhilaration with her—the thrill of arriving in and exploring a new place, the buildings, the roads, the people, the sounds and smells of a foreign country—and not bore her to death with dull, pedestrian details that belonged in travel guides. [p. 50]

Yet, in the above passage lies The Singapore Decalogue’s main flaw—its sometimes jarring use of imagery. To this reviewer, the choice of a travel guide to exemplify uninteresting narrative rings false. Travel guides may not be lyrical (or, in fact, may be far too lyrical and purple at times) but the promise that lies within them, the spark to imagination that they hold for many readers, means that the image’s use in this context seemed strained. This is just one example, but it is emblematic of a clumsiness with imagery evident throughout the book (not least in an uncomfortable association between physical exercise and sexual assault at one point).

The appeal of The Singapore Decalogue is its meditative nature. Although events do occur in Asif’s life, of his own making and not, the book is not plot-driven. Rather, Anjum, through Asif, seeks answers to the riddles that immigrants, in particular, face in any cultural context: How does one behave in a hostile society? How far should boundaries be pushed? How can opportunities be used best? And, is it really possible to wipe the slate clean? As Asif ponders about a Chinese prostitute he meets:

Does she come from one of those flood-ravaged provinces in China, he wondered. Has she lost someone there? Or is she thanking her stars that she is rather in bright and beautiful Singapore… (p. 147)

Elen Turner is an editor, writer and reader currently based in the USA. She has a PhD in Literature and Gender Studies from the Australian National University, and writes a blog on South Asian literature.