Mapping the literary roots between ASEAN and India

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By Mitali Chakravarty

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The first ever ASEAN INDIA Pravasi Bharatiya Divas Writers Festival was held in Singapore with great success.

More than 30 writers from Singapore, Malaysia and India participated in the first ever ASEAN Indian Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (PBD) Writer’s Festival on 6-7 January in Singapore.

Many leading literary figures of ASEAN such as Edwin Thumboo, Suchen Christine Lim and Isa Kamari participated in the two-day event held at the posh Marina Bay Sands.

The ASEAN India Writers Festival, an initiative of the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, was organized by Kitaab International, Singapore, on behalf of the High Commission of India in Singapore, with the support of many partner organisations such as The Arts House, and La Salle College of the Arts. De Ideaz, Singapore, were the main event managers for the festival, which had more than 5,000 registered visitors.

Exploring ASEAN and India connections though literary and cultural roots

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Zafar Anjum, the Programme Director and Founder of literary and publishing platform Kitaab, gave the welcome address. He welcomed the participants and reflected on the attempt to bring together writers from diverse cultures and language backgrounds to create an environment of learning and growth.

Edwin Thumboo, a celebrated poet and academic of Singapore, traced how Sanskrit and Indian culture, religion and customs spread through South-east Asia from the start of history. He touched upon Hindu and Buddhist influences in Burma, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia with graphic maps and slides in his talk, ‘A Sense of India in ASEAN’.

The panel discussions were broad-ranging in topic and included all kinds of voices and literary genres – from mythology to novels, and from short stories to children’s literature. There were sessions featuring literary performances too. Four new titles by ASEAN and Indian writers were launched at the festival: The Best Asian Short Stories 2017 edited by Monideepa Sahu and Zafar Anjum; Senserly, Amakoby Anita Thomas; The Sacred Sorrows of Sparrows by Siddharth Dasgupta, and Tawassul by award-winning Singaporean writer Isa Kamari, the first Urdu translation of a work of Singaporean literature.

India in the Imagination of ASEAN

The first panel discussion with prominent award winning ASEAN writers, Suchen Christine Lim and Isa Kamari, focused on “India in the Imagination of ASEAN”.

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The moderator, Nilanjana Sengupta, traced how Nalanda University played a non-confrontational role in spreading the ideas in the region and asked the panelists to talk of Indian influences in their writings. Suchen Christine Lim talked of how her Indian characters grew out of her experience of Indians that she met or read about and how Buddhism, which was born in India, influenced the Chinese and Asian characters she portrays in her books.

Isa Kamari said he realised that both Hinduism and Islam were monotheistic after visiting Bali, where Hinduism had travelled from India around 1st century. He added that Hinduism existed before Islam and spoke of his positive experience of traveling in India. All these experiences are to be found in his novels.

Veteran Singaporean journalist and founder editor of two English newspapers in Singapore, P. N. Balji, led a discussion on “The Indian Renaissance” with P.K. Basu, economist and author of Asia Reborn, a book that has discussed the rise of Asian countries in the twentieth century. The discussion focused on how countries colonized by Japan did well as against countries colonized by Britain.

The Best Asian Short Stories featuring writers from 11 countries and published by Kitaab in 2017 was launched at the start of the next session. Dr Pallavi Narayan moderated a panel discussion on “Our Stories, Their Stories” followed by the launch. The panelists were three of the short story writers who had contributed to this first of its kind Asian anthology: Yu-Mei Balasingamchow and Clara Chow from Singapore and Farouk Gulsara from Malaysia. They read excerpts from their stories and discussed the common threads and broad themes running through their stories.

Farouk Gulsara dwelt on how the history of Malaysia and his family has been reflected in his story about contraband matches. Clara Chow spoke about how the time shifts from the Sino-Japanese war to the current day affected the unusual domestic setup in her story. Balasingamchow talked of her story set in modern Singapore and Johor Bahru, about getting breakfast at a kopitiam, about McDonald’s and commercialization. Male-female tensions in the modern city have been highlighted in her tale.

The last panel discussion on the first day, moderated by Ananya Mukherjee, was preceded by the South Asia launch of Siddharth Dasgupta’s collection of short stories, The Sacred Sorrow of Sparrows. This collection is bonded together by reflection of sadness across different countries… India, Turkey, Iran and Japan to name a few. The panel discussion was on “Taking the Leap of Imagination; Writing across Cultures”. The panellists were writers Siddharth Dasgupta, Madhav Mathur, Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh and Sunita Lad Bhamray. The writers shared their thoughts on the topic but soon the discussion veered towards travel experiences and personal anecdotes that were lapped up by the audience.

Legends of the East: Untangling the Sea of stories in ASEAN

The second day started with a panel discussion on Legends of the East: Untangling the Sea of stories in ASEAN (Ramayana and Mahabharata through the Ages)”. Dr Pallavi Narayan moderated a panel consisting of seasoned Indian writers who reinterpret mythological texts in their writing, Krishna Udayasankar, Trisha Das and Elavazagan Murugan. The discussion began with each writer talking about the way they reconstruct and reinvent tales from the epic, Mahabharata, in their work — Krishna Udayasankar and Trisha Das in their novels, and Elavazhagan Murugun in his plays. While Udayasankar and Das write in English, Murugan’s plays are in Tamil.

Krishna Udayasankar made some well-received comments on readers’ perception of her “strong” female characters, and observed that all women are strong. Trisha Das corroborated this with her discerning opinions on the status of women not only in India, but all over the world, and the patriarchal structures they are compelled to live in. Murugan spoke of the flexibility of using the structure of the play to not only construe but plumb the emotional motivations of the characters. Elavazhagan Murugan also led the dialogue in a knowledgeable overview of representations of Hanuman, Draupadi and the Pandavas in the ASEAN region, how some of the characters are even viewed as gods, for instance, Draupadi’s reincarnation as Amman in Singapore.

Anita Thomas’s book that has been published by Kitaab, Senserly Amako, was officially launched at the start of the next session, “Writing for children in ASEAN: Applying the Indian touch in a multi-cultural set up”. Moderated by Mitali Chakravarty, the panelists were Sheela Warrier, an educator and researcher at SEED and a co-author of Lockie and Lakshmi; Rishav Gupta, a third grader who wanted to write a book and did author one; Srinanda Gupta, an early years educator and a mom who helped her son, Rishav, materialize his dream through his book, Dreamimagination; and the multifaceted Anita Thomas whose newly launched book, Senserly Amako, is written from a child’s perspective.

In the discussion that ensued, Anita felt that childhood transcended all cultural and national barriers. However, Srinanda said Singapore had exposed her to a diverse variety of education. Being an educator in the international schooling system had helped her motivate her son to achieve his dreams of publishing a book. Sheela reaffirmed that living in a multi-cultural background had impacted her writing as her book was co-authored by a lady from the Bahamas and explored the differences and similarities in their heritage against the visual backdrop of Singapore.  Rishav, the eight-year-old author, concluded that being in Singapore made a difference as Zafar Anjum had helped him materialize his dreams. Finding the commonality in diverse cultures is what Indians excelled at throughout history and that lesson has helped these writers appreciate and fit into the multi-cultural life of Singapore.

The next session moderated by Desmond Kon featured Dr Chris Mooney-Singh, the prominent Australian Punjabi poet, writer and performance artist, and Marc Nair, an award winning Singaporean poet and photographer. They read out their poetry in a session called “Imagining ASEAN through Poetry”, thus giving a firsthand experience of how they perceived the country by reading poems about India.

Dato’Dr M SHANmugalingam from Malaysia did a session of performance reading which was rather interesting.

The next session titled “India here, India there: Indian-Singaporean Writers on the Indian Diaspora” was moderated by Dr Darryl Whetter. The panellists were students from the LA Salle Creative Writing Program. Salim Hadi, Jayshree Panicker and Samuel Chacko read out their works on India. Hadi read from his prize-winning story, which had description of interactions with beggars; his reading was very powerful and impressive. Chako’s narrative described his father’s journey on ship to Singapore.

The last session for the two-day event was again preceded by a book launch of an Urdu translation of Tawassul by Isa Kamari brought out by Kitaab. The panel discussion on “Local, Global: Exploring literature in the languages of ASEAN” was moderated by Mitali Chakravarty. The panellists were Isa Kamari, an award winning Singaporean author, and Jayanthi Sankar, a prolific writer with more than thirty books to her credit. Both of them have been translated into a number of languages.

Isa Kamari said that he originally wrote in Malay as he thought in Malay but had decided to experiment with English to reach out to a wider audience. His first English novella, Tweet, published by Kitaab, has been launched recently. Seven of his novels have been translated to English and some even to Turkish. Jayanthi Sankar started her journey as an author by writing in Tamil about the other races in Singapore to educate the local ethnic Indians about the culture of the people they shared the country with. Having experienced diverse cultures while growing up in India, she feels she was “naturally prepared by destiny for the diversity in Singapore”. To her accepting diversity was easy. She has been translated to English and, even, Russian. Now, she is experimenting with writing short stories in English with the hope of “wider critical acclaim as well as reader’s appreciation”.

The discussion led to the conclusion that though languages tend to draw borders among readers, there is a way around to promote positive thoughts and creative ideas with the help of translations. Diversity of languages and cultures only unite to create a richness of textures.

Zafar Anjum gave the concluding speech. The event was well received by many.

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Dato’ SHANmughalingam wrote:

“I congratulate the organisers on the superb Writers Festival held last week. Both the concept and the implementation are something to be most proud of. India had enormous cultural and other influence historically on the countries that are now in ASEAN. It cannot be taken for granted that this past influence will endure on its own. It needs to be nurtured, deepened and expanded by regular and concerted effort. One way would be to hold the Writers Festival regularly and often so that it becomes a major fixture on both the region’s and India’s literary calendars. Kitaab has done a great job. More planning, consultation with authors, media and other publicity are needed to for the next stage. China’s clout in the region has risen sharply. India can raise its influence too with greater focus on this region which has huge potential.”

Award winning writer, Suchen Christine Lim wrote:

“The India-ASEAN writers’ festival is a very good beginning and a wonderful eye opener on the many layers of cultural connections which India has had with ASEAN since the days of Srivijaya.  Professor Edwin Thumboo’s keynote address showed how Sanskrit had been deeply absorbed and embedded in ASEAN’s languages. More non-Indians should have been in the audience. The writers’ panels engendered enthusiastic discussions which carried on outside, and I have made new friends and met old friends in the Indian community. I was so pleased to meet Mr Balji…Congrats once again and best wishes!”

Poet, writer and inter-disciplinary artist, Desmond Kon wrote:

“The festival was an astounding success! I especially adored the literary offerings, which presented such an interesting, robust array of readings and discussions. The planning and curation were impeccable. The authors were extremely engaging, and their insights wonderful to witness. I found myself learning a great deal about the literary scene. Loved the diverse voices! The entire festival was beautifully put together, with such intelligence, glamour, and meaningfulness. A true honour to be a part of this milestone event!”

The prominent Tamil dramatist Elavavzhagan Murugan wrote:

“As a panelist/speaker in the Writer’s Festival organized by Kitaab which was part of the 2018 Pravasi Bharathiya Divas festival, I had the opportunity to listen to some of the most revered pens of Singapore literature, like Prof. Edwin Thumboo and brush shoulders with contemporary writers and poets. It was inspiring, thought-provoking and illuminative. Prof. Thumboo’s call for translation of Indian works into English has given a fresh impetus to an existing urge. Mr. Gupta, one of the youngest writers showed that there is no necessity for editing your own free speech – inspiring in his own way. Krishna Udayasankar’s thoughts on Mahabharata – a myth or reality emphasized my need to revisit the Epic. And listening to all the writers and moderators on how literature has connected them across barriers of race and religion threw fresh light on the promises humanity holds. I am very glad and proud to have been part of the event.”

Author Anita Thomas wrote:

“Given that the programme covered just two half days (essentially one day), the Writer’s Festival organised by Kitaab for the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas was incredibly rich in both geographical representation – Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and India – and in the variety and experience of its panellists, moderators, authors, playwrights and poets (age no bar !). Tracing the literary ties between India and the ASEAN is a vast field and Kitaab did a wonderful job in selecting topics that were relevant and stimulating – mythology and its understanding and (re)interpretation for current times and geographies, children’s books (writing for, by and about children), poetry, the ownership and re-writing of history, the intermingling of cultural and literary heritages from individual perspectives… all these were shared, parsed, examined. And challenged. It was inspiring to experience the way respected, established writers and newly-published authors came together in launches, readings, spirited panel discussions and performance readings. Full credit to the organisers. Thank you Zafar and Shabana, for organising a wonderful weekend, and the opportunities to meet, listen and interact. And thank you very specially for the support you gave me, a first-time author, in the launching of my book. This has been such a fulfilling experience on all fronts.”

Moderator Nilanjana Sengupta wrote:

“It was very intelligently and interestingly put together with perfect pairings of panellists and moderators.”

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