Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty
Author: Isa Kamari
Tweet, published in 2016, is the award winning ASEAN writer Isa Kamari’s first attempt at writing a novella in English. Isa Kamari is a Malay writer who has had seven out of his nine novels translated to English. With Tweet, he decided to take a ‘short-cut’ and write in English himself, he said during a panel discussion – Exploring Literature in the Languages of ASEAN, 2018.
Tweet refers to birdcall. It is a double stranded metaphysical novella. On one level, it focuses on the exploration of Singapore’s famed Jurong Bird Park by a young Singaporean child Ilham and his grandfather, Jati. As he reaches the end of his trip to the park, Ilham comes face to face with his inner dream. ‘He has decided what he wants to be when he grows up.’
The second strand is a journey made by different species of birds in quest of the legendary Simuk, or the Simorgh, brought to life by the 12th century Persian poet, Farid-ud-din Attar, in his famed poem, Conference of Birds. The birds in both the poem and in Tweet make an astounding discovery as they fly in quest of the mythical being.
Both the strands are woven into a single fabric of the story by the elusive ‘green man’, Khidr. Khidr becomes a part of the extended reality of Ilham and the birds as they journey through their parallel universes of discovery. Khidr has been syncretised over time as an angel, a saint, a warrior, a mythical being… and even associated with Alexander the Great. The illusive ‘green man’, the quest of the birds and Ilham’s unique way of viewing the bird park adds to the suspense of the novella. You read on, egged by curiosity.
The interactions between the grandfather and grandchild are realistic and endearing. At the start of the journey, when his grandson says, ‘It’s boring. I don’t like birds,’ Jati gives Illham his favourite chocolate to appease him. However, to please his grandfather, the grandson is willing to accompany the old man. Jati justifies the trip by telling Ilham, ‘It’s school holidays. I want a break too.’ Ilham plays along, as does his grandfather. They care for each other and revel in each other’s happiness and discoveries. Jati is a retiree, who his grandson guesses was ‘like a president here (in the Bird Park), a king’. As they journey through the different areas Ilham develops a liking for nature and birds, in particular. When he enters the park, he likes only ‘ Superman’. Through the course of the novella, the child learns to harmonize with nature. The ending, despite its sense of deja vu, retains an element of surprise and satisfaction.
Tweet focuses on how man and nature can co-exist harmoniously in a developed world. However, a brief knowledge of the Persian lore of the Conference of Birds and Khidr makes for a better appreciation of the story. The narrative peels away layers to show that tolerance, honesty and passion tamed can lead to a more wholesome existence. It is the precise anti-thesis of the other popular novella on birds, Daphne Du Maurier’s Birds. Du Maurier’s story, written shortly after the Second World War, depicts the birds in senseless disharmony, almost attacking the whole country in the manner of kamikaze pilots of the Second World War while Kamari’s story has shown the birds in consonance with man and nature. His story generates a sense of peace and harmony that is so necessary in a world riven by differences and violence.
The novella is an easy, smooth, thought-provoking read with vivid and imaginative descriptions, a must read for all, especially those who like to dream big dreams.
Mitali Chakravarty writes essays, short stories, poetry and reviews. Her bylines have appeared in The ‘Times of India’, ‘Pioneer’, ‘Statesman’ and ‘Hindustan Times’. Her poetry has appeared as part of two anthologies, ‘In Reverie’ (2016) and ‘An Anthology of Indian Poetry in English’ (1984). She has a book online, ‘In the Land of Dragons’ (2014, ISBN; 978-1490704333). She blogs at 432m.wordpress.com