Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty
Title: A Different Sky
Author: Meira Chand
Publisher: Vintage Books (2011)
A Different Sky by Meira Chand spans an era of transition in Singapore from 1927 to 1956. The narrative races through a period of rebellion against the colonials, the Japanese occupation, and the move towards an indigenous government. Geographically, it travels through India, Malaysia, England, Australia and Singapore.
The Daily Mail listed it as an ‘extraordinary book’ while the Historic Novel Review says, ‘Chand weaves a gripping adventure, magnificent romance and well informed history into the sort of book it’s difficult to put down.’
Meira Chand, a well-established novelist of Swiss-Indian parentage, has created a grand, multi-layered story. The novel weaves the intricate lives of characters from multiple races and backgrounds into historic events tracing the turmoil faced by Singapore to become ‘a place of dreams, holding the souls of men to ransom’ from being ‘a pinprick on the great body of Asia’. It opens with the communist uprising of Kreta Ayer in 1927, under a sky of unrest in British Singapore and walks through three decades of transition. The three main characters, a Chinese, a Eurasian and an Indian, are introduced in a bus caught in the riot. This is an ingenious start to a story well spun. The Chinese protagonist, Mei Lan, educates herself to rebel against negative traditions. She falls in love with Howard, her Eurasian neighbour. They are torn asunder during the Japanese occupation, suffer tortures and live through horrors. Howard leaves to study in Australia funded by Raj, the rich uneducated Indian businessman whose past was that of a penniless immigrant. When he returns after graduating, he meets a new Mei Lan, almost a stranger after being victimized and tortured during the Japanese occupation despite her law degree from England. Both of them reject multiple relationships overseas.
The story winds through the trauma faced by the characters as they move to create a new Singapore, under a bright sun ‘thrusting out fingers of brilliance through the grey clouds’ with ‘a bank of red balloons drifting under the endless arc of the sky’ holding a white banner with ‘Merdeka’ (a Malay word meaning rich, prosperous and powerful) on it. Will Howard and Mei Lan unite under this different sky with the outgoing first chief minister of Singapore, David Marshall, faced by chaos and the future Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in full control? As Meira Chand intertwines the lives of real historic figures with that of her creations, she adds to the glamour, suspense and appeal of her novel.
Through the course of the narrative, Howard moves towards a comprehension of the need for a Singaporean identity as he finds himself rejecting the causes put forward by the Chinese communists, the Japanese and the Indians under Subhash Chandra Bose. He looks for an identity he can call his own, as do Raj and Mei Lan. To set up his business, Raj befriends all races and tries to keep on the right side of politics. He also marries a Japanese widow, the daughter-in-law of his Chinese mentor, thus introducing the theme of mixed marriages. Howard’s and Mei Lan’s romance tapers towards optimism as their families alter their attitudes towards mixed marriages, educated by historic events and the learning that love and kindness ascend boundaries of race or culture.
While the novel has a backdrop of the angst of the Chinese communist guerillas and life in their camps, the horrors of Japanese occupation and torture, it also highlights the rise of business acumen, education and independence in Indian (Leila, Raj’s sister) and Chinese (Mei Lan) women. Raj, Howard and Meilan reject extremism in any form and forge a new identity that transcends the immigrant’s dreams of a grand return to the country of their birth as they merge into the life in Singapore.
Meira Chand writes in an engaging manner that urges one to read on. Her language, as evident in the “Prologue” itself, is effective. She writes of the early immigrants, some of who people her book. ‘Some journeyed from the west across the Indian Ocean, others from the East over the China Sea but, east or west, all remembered impoverished villages, a muddy bullock, an empty stomach, dung strewn fields…’ Her story links them together with adept strokes that reflect the multiple ethnicities that make Singapore unique.
With multiple parallel themes and a layered narrative, A Different Sky effectively explores Singaporean history around this period. Isa Kamari has explored various facets of history like the riots and the voices that rose against the British occupation, especially among the Malays, before the creation of an independent Singapore; Suchen has explored the downtrodden and dug up the voices of homeless immigrants, especially the Chinese, who rose from rags to riches in a multicultural society. The voice of the middle class and also of the impoverished immigrant from diverse countries rising to prosperity, are found in Meira Chand’s writing. She puts in perspective, historically and emotionally, the development of Singapore and what it meant to be a Singaporean. She works with a varied panorama of cultures, customs and people to create an absorbing story, which gives a feeling of having walked through pages of history. Perhaps the reason she takes up these themes in her work is explained by Meira Chand in her acknowledgement when she says the ‘seeds of this book’ were planted in her mind by no less than the former President of Singapore, Mr S. R Nathan.
A Different Sky stands as a unique gem in ASEAN literature tracing how the immigrants from various cultures came together under one banner, a truly enjoyable and electrifying experience. The book is a must read for anyone looking for a gripping tale of romance, adventure and variety, not to forget the history of a nation.
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