Country of Focus: Singapore
Book Review: Horizon Afar and Other Tamil Stories
by Jayanthi Sankar
Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty
Title: Horizon Afar & other Tamil short stories
Author: Jayanthi Sankar
Translated by P. Muralidharan
Publisher: Kitaab, 2016
Horizon Afar is a collection of twenty-one translated short stories from the Singapore-based Tamil writer, Jayanthi Sankar. Spanning the last two decades, the stories shuttle between life in Singapore and India, creating links between the two countries and drawing on the writer’s multicultural experiences and interactions in the country where she lives.
Often her stories centre on teenagers and young people. The title story is about a teenager who shuttles through a surrealistic experience to find his footing in junior college (high school in Singapore). The most interesting read was a darker story, Mother’s Words, which deals with a reformed convict who is ostracized by the world yet loved by the mother.
A Few Pages from Yuka Wong’s Diary depicts the changing mindset of a multicultural population and their ability to transcend hatred to discover a fascination for a country that had unscrupulous expansionist ambitions in the 1940’s Japan. The story is told through the pages of a young girl’s diary and makes an interesting and effective use of the device.
Melissa’s Choices is about a young man’s discovery of the fickleness of a young girl’s choices. School Bag, Revelation and Rehearsal are stories about teenagers’ journeys of discoveries in a multicultural society. Seventy Rupees, set in the midst of an auto-rickshaw strike in India, is a glimpse of the apathy of middle class towards the plight of the poor.
The stories often circle around the tedium of modern day existence and focus on the darker aspects of life. The issues faced by workers ‘imported’ from small villages of Tamil Nadu are dealt with in a couple of stories. While Cycle focuses on a flesh trader located in Singapore preying on an innocent Tamil migrant woman, Migration deals with an Indian domestic helper’s inability to adjust in Singapore. There are stories about unwed mothers, a girl who rebels to adopt a trans-sexual lifestyle, university life, school life and marriages arranged within the Tamil community in Singapore.
M.C is a story of a housewife’s sorrows at being taken for granted. There is no compassion or medical leave for a homemaker who has to serve her family’s needs. However, what strikes you is the badly brought up child, the nasty husband and also the character’s own sense of self pity… the portrayal of a weak woman’s suffering and inability to cope…. perhaps a slice of life but unsavoury. Cripple focuses on a child’s insecurity caused by her mother’s passion for her own career. The story can be seen as a critique of the modern day woman’s obsession with recognition from the outside world as opposed to recognition from members of her own home, her own family. Many of these stories deal with the small things of everyday existence.
In Your Shoes is one of the few stories that steps out of the feeling of routine with a positive ending and which reflects on the recognition of the goodness in human existence. Who am I? explores a child’s dilemma when parents fall out. It is a story well related, and one of the few stories that transcends the ethnic barrier one experiences in Ms Sankar’s stories.
The stories are mostly related from the perspective of a person writing for a particular ethnicity, an eye opener perhaps for people from other parts of India too. Her work has been translated by P. Muralidharan, a writer from Chennai. He writes; “What makes Horizons Afar, this collection of short stories, unique? They traverse beyond the contemporary life of Singapore on a quest to answer the eternal question, ‘What made life on Earth mechanical and devoid of meaning?’” That is possibly why the narratives remain tied within the bounds of petty emotions. They do not bring a sense of energy that is so obvious about the persona of the writer. Though Ms Sankar writes of the multiple ethnicities in Singapore, it is from the perspective of a people bound by a singular culture and linguistic heritage. The translation captures the mood and ambience of the stories. The language, with its uneasy usage, smattering of Singlish and its turns and twist of words and phrases, is not a smooth read. The stories with their focus on the petty details of everyday existence of a community and their thought processes give a glimpse of a certain aspect of life in Singapore but not of all of Singapore with its vibrancy and multiplicity.
This book would be a must read for anyone who wants to understand and build bridges between different communities.
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