By Dr Naina Dey

Lucy Villa was a beautiful house almost palatial in grandeur and standoffishness. Built on a large patch of sloping land it was surrounded by a once lush garden of myriad fruit trees and exotic flowering plants. Now with years of neglect, the fruit trees had gone wild and the plants that had managed to survive, were smothered by weeds and brambles. No shears trimmed the wayward shoots, no one watered the plants that stood under the scorching sun and waited for merciful rain. The only fountain had run dry, its water trough sickly yellow and green with slime, its stone fairy now decrepit. At night however, Lucy Villa was an elfin realm. Its colourless walls, broad balustrades, wide balconies and layered terraces, gleamed in the moonlight though its tall elegant windows looked dark and forbidding.

Lucy Villa was named after the wife of a sahib who had it built with the intention of enjoying the quiet of this far-flung town and to entertain the occasional guest. Unable to bear the death of his beloved collie and then of his childless wife, the sahib had returned to England leaving the house under the care of a friend who lived in the city. That was more than two decades ago. At present it was under the supervision of an attorney, a little bald sly-eyed man.

When we entered the house, it was still furnished with whatever Hamilton sahib had left behind. Moth-eaten carpets and teak furniture inlaid with delicate floral motifs in brass adorned the living room. The rest of the rooms were bare their dusty floors emanating a suffocating musty smell. The house itself was still in excellent condition despite the neglect barring a few damp patches. The walls had been white-washed for the new tenants. It was a pity that a house fit for a prince was in disuse for this long. It also became evident shortly after we had moved in that this was a house of disrepute.

As I stood one evening under the oleander tree just outside the walls, two Sikh boys on a scooty had screamed raucously – “Bhootiya Bungla (haunted bungalow)!” and sped away as fast as they could leaving me confused and angry. True, the house stood by itself, its high walls and garden isolating it from the rest of the neighbourhood. It was hardly unusual for houses which were once dwelling places of the rich, who preferred privacy, to be associated with strange stories once they had been abandoned.

This year, in the Singapore Writer’s festival, one of the books  launched is a translation of Isa Kamari’s Kiswah, a novel which was created with two more in 2002 — Intercession and The Tower. While these novels focus on spiritual evolution by evolving religious lore, in two of them at least the protagonist is an architect.

So, what does architecture have in common with literature? 

Russian author Ayn Rand  found some answers in The Fountainhead (1943), where the protagonist, architect Howard Roarke moves towards her theory of Objectivism,  a theory which the author herself defined as “the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.” 

Do Kamari’s books, though studied in a religious light by Henry Aveling of Monash University, also subscribe to Objectivism?

By Tammy Lai-Ming Ho and Jason Eng Hun Lee

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Author of two poetry collections, Kit Fan (范進傑) was born in 1979 in Hong Kong and currently resides in the UK. His first volume Paper Scissors Stone (Hong Kong University Press, 2011) won the inaugural Hong Kong University (HKU) Poetry Prize, and his second collection As Slow As Possible (Arc, 2018) was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation for Autumn 2018 and listed in The Guardian’s 50 biggest books of Autumn 2018 and in The Irish Times Best Poetry Books of the Year. Other accolades include being shortlisted for the 2017 TLS Mick Imlah Poetry Prize and The Guardian 4th Estate BAME Short Story Prize consecutively in 2017 and 2018. His novel-in-progress Diamond Hill, about the last shanty town in Hong Kong, received a Northern Writers Award 2018. A regular reviewer for the Poetry Review, Kit’s work traverses between Hong Kong and European cultures and histories, as well as between poetry and fiction.

As part of an ongoing collaborative project entitled ‘Anglophone City Poetics and the Asian Experience’, Kit talks to Tammy Lai-Ming Ho and Jason Eng Hun Lee about his first poetic influences, his migration to the UK as a young writer, his musings on Hong Kong from afar, and his perspectives on the evolving Asian cityscape.

Tammy Ho & Jason Lee: How long have you been writing poetry? Can you list some important moments in your early experiences as a poet?

Kit: I’ve been writing for roughly 18 years. One of my first inspirations came from a commission by Hugh Haughton who challenged me to write a poem about me being brought up by and in a library. Other important moments include: reading Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘Crusoe in England’; meeting Christopher Reid who asked me to send my poems out to editors; having my poem ‘Reading Thom Gunn’s Notebooks at Bancroft Library’ published in the Poetry Review (UK).

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Chinese workers in the snow constructing the first American transcontinental railways

In the 1860s, roughly 20,000 Chinese from the Guangdong province were shipped to America to labour at building the transcontinental railways. They came for the lure of gold. However, few of them moved outside their camp or learnt English. They faced a lot of hardships, breaking rocks and living for a pittance. What drove them there? What did they face? 

Author Gordon H. Chang  has uncovered the plight of these workers in his latest book, Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad. Chang is Olive H. Palmer Professor in Humanities at Stanford University. He has written a number of books on Asian-American history and US–East Asian interactions. 

Washington Independent Review of Books says Chang “ has dedicated himself to speaking for a group that cannot speak for itself, even in absentia. He’s dubbed them the ‘ghosts’ of his title because, while the work they did was about as tangible as it gets, their individual identities have evaporated.

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The sea with its moods, vibrancy and colours has been a source of fascination for countless poets, writers, photographers and artists.

Break, Break, Break, Alfred Tennyson’s elegy, written for his friend Arthur Hallum in 1835 and immortalised over centuries, uses the violence of waves to express the grief and the sense of helplessness caused by loss. Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870) brought the ocean to our doorstep and subsequently on to the silver screen. 

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The Slave Ship by Turner

Around the same time, in 1867, Matthew Arnold , a British poet, published Dover Beach, which again plumbs into the darkness and the depth of the sea, some critics say to express “ a stand against a world of broken faith”. A little earlier than Mathew Arnold artist William Turner also expressed his fascination for the sea with his paintings The Slave Ship and Dawn after the Wreck (1840).

By Dr Usha Bande

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Title: Be Present in Every Moment: Life Lessons from Moinuddin Chishti

Edited by Babli Praveen.

Aleph, 2018.

Moinuddin Chishti is a familiar and revered name across religious faiths. This Sufi saint, originally from Central Asia, made India his home; served the needy and the poor for more than five decades and became one of the venerated figures of the subcontinent. Be Present in Every Moment has selected nuggets from Moinuddin Chishti’s preaching  translated  into English. The slim volume is full of everyday wisdom and imparts practical knowledge to help enhance our potential for happiness through tolerance and peaceful co-existence.

The editor, Babli Praveen, who teaches at Delhi University, specializes in Medieval Indian History and has researched on Sufi saints and Sufism in South Asia. The book, published by Aleph under their “Life Lessons” series, is a handy compilation of the great Master’s penetrating yet straightforward teachings that emphasize renunciation, tolerance, generosity and spiritual transformation.

The organization of the book is simple; the introduction gives relevant biographical information about Chishti; it is followed by his teachings arranged thematically. This allows the reader easy access to the key issues highlighted by his insights on the oneness of being, personal piety, music, charity, compassion and spiritual cleanliness.

Hazrat Sheikh Khwaja Syed Moinuddin Hasan Chishti, commonly referred to as Khwaja (sufi teacher) was a mystic, scholar, philosopher and poet known for introducing and establishing the Chishti order in India. Born to Khwaja Ghiyasuddin Hasan and mother Syeda Bibi, in 1142 CE, Moinuddin was an heir to the spiritual legacy of his parents’ lineage. Even at a very young age Moinuddin showed spiritual inclinations.