Category Archives: academics

Short Story: Lucy Villa

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. Read more

How Isa Kamari’s ideology and Ayn Rand’s Objectivism seems to be embedded at the heart of a new course in UPENN

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? Read more

Hong Kong Poet Kit Fan: How ‘Writing Poetry is Largely a Solo Act’

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). Read more

Ghosts of Gold Mountain: Who Built the American Railroad? 

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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. Read more

Forces of the Sea Unleashed in Art and Literature

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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). Read more

Book Review: Be Present in Every Moment: Life Lessons from Moinuddin Chishti

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. Read more

Spice of life: Introducing Faiz to a classroom of millennials

(From Hindustan Times. The link to the complete article is given below.)

To bring an Urdu text into an English literature classroom, even though in translation, is a task that is at once delightful, difficult and always threatening to burst into the territory of the disastrous.

The curriculum of Masters in English literature is one arena that has undergone such tectonic shifts that for the most part it does not even remotely meet the bare outsider expectations about it. From being preeminently a vehicle of dispersing colonial cultural hegemony to today transforming into a representational space preoccupied with recovering lost and powerless voices, it has indeed come a long way. It is a space built on the constant questioning of the rationale of the canon and further, in its enthusiasm to question the importance of texts, it has come down brutally on its own house. It could be deemed a dynamic and progressive space and to me, it represents what can be called the pulsating heart of humanities.

One can see the inclusion of Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz in this light under the rubric of ‘Texts in Translation’. The paper allows students to have an intimate feel of literature in regional languages such as Bengali (Mahasweta Devi), Oriya (Fakir Mohan Senapati), Urdu (Faiz) and Hindi (Nirala) through translation. It is a space that an English literature student would otherwise never traverse. There is a definite attempt to break the classic elitist mould of an English literature graduate and to give the student a taste of important writings from within the country, ironing out language differences using the tool of translation.

To bring an Urdu text into an English literature classroom, even though in translation, is a task that is at once delightful, difficult and always threatening to burst into the territory of the disastrous.

Read more at the Hindustan Times page here

Why We Hate (& Love) The Tiger Mom

Even if you haven’t read the book (or read about the book), this female character should be familiar: She’s the Tiger Mom.
For many Asian Americans, the Tiger Mom is a loaded term. It’s a stereotype that’s been around for decades, but in 2011, Amy Chua, a Yale Law School professor and Tiger Mom-in-chief, sparked a serious national discussion when she published the controversial book The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom.
It helped that the book came out at a geopolitical moment when there were fears that China would catch up to the U.S. as a superpower — arguably in part because of the perception that Chinese people were working harder than their American counterparts. The reaction was swift and panicked: op-eds, hot takes, fevered discussion on Chua’s parenting style. Tiger Mom was on TV. She went viral. The book was a blockbuster. It even inspired academic research into whether tiger parenting is “better.”
Chua is well aware of the anger her book caused when it came out, and letters from readers continue to pour in. “Seven years later, everything is so different for me. The response has gotten much more subtle and much more diverse,” says Chua over the phone earlier this week. “For me, I was so shocked. I thought it was so obvious that I was making fun. It’s so hard for me to see how anybody could see it otherwise.”
She has a point: While Chua’s book has no squeamishness about harsh parenting and cultural stereotypes, the book is funny. There are two chapters on how to Tiger parent dogs. She describes her dealings with her daughter Lulu as “faceoffs” and “nuclear warfare.” The book is full of foreshadowing about how she, in turn, was about to be seriously schooled by her American daughters.

Rescued from the footnotes of history: Lal Bihari Sharma’s “Holi Songs of Demerara”

MY NAME RINGS no bell […]
but footnotes know me well
footnotes where history
shows its true colors
and passing reference is flesh

These lines, from John Agard’s poem “The Ascent of John Edmonstone,” give voice to an enslaved man, born in British Guiana, whose influence has been all but erased from history. Edmonstone taught Charles Darwin the taxidermy skills he deployed during his famous voyage on the H. M. S. Beagle, and his descriptions of the South American rainforests may have inspired Darwin to explore the tropics. Yet Edmonstone, muse and teacher, has gone unacknowledged.

In Agard’s poem, footnotes are where history shows its true colors: they reveal how power, held or withheld, has muted the contributions of people like Edmonstone. To be called a footnote to history is usually a put-down. I would, however, like to rehabilitate a footnoted existence, somewhat, in this essay. To be footnoted is to be cited, and to be cited is to be published. Lal Bihari Sharma, author of the 1915 songbook Damra Phag Bahar, or Holi Songs of Demerara, also could have declared: footnotes know me. First-person testimony, written by indentured immigrants, is rare: only three literary texts about the system that replaced slavery in the British Empire, by laborers who experienced it personally, are known to exist. Holi Songs of Demerara is the only one to emerge from the English-speaking Caribbean. The other two were memoirs by men from Fiji and Suriname.

It was in fact as a footnote that I first encountered Lal Bihari Sharma. I learned about him in June 2011, while reading a scholarly monograph during the final lap of research for my 2013 book Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture. That book is partly a narrative history about indentured women in the Caribbean and partly a memoir about my attempts to uncover the mystery behind my great-grandmother’s exit from India, in 1903, as a “coolie” (or indentured laborer). She was born in the very same district of the very same region of the very same state in India as Sharma, and they came from the same caste background. The monograph’s author, a Delhi-based labor historian, described the songbook as rich with sensory details about life on a sugar plantation in British Guiana, told from the perspective of an indentured man.

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Literature is not the sole preserve of the storyteller

Through most of literary history, great writers have either tended to look down upon the art of storytelling or have regarded it with ambivalence. We can trace this attitude all the way back to Don Quixote’s plotless meanderings. Or even further back, to Shakespeare’s rambles and language games. More recently, the Modernist assault on narrativity seemed to have put paid to our storytelling instinct for good. And when James Joyce said that all stories should begin with the phrase “once upon a time”—the opening words of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man—everyone understood that he was just having a laugh at the expense of the raconteur.

Even those among modern writers who were interested in the story saw it as an extinct form. The story to them was an old-world relic that was out of place in the complex of modernity. Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Storyteller” interprets the death of the story as the necessary consequence of the birth of the modern era, in which the “communicability of experience is decreasing”. Benjamin’s essay celebrates the simple pleasures of reading the Russian writer Nikolai Leskov’s stories, by identifying “a new beauty in what is vanishing”.

Then there is Virginia Woolf’s essay on Chaucer, which indulges a similar nostalgia the modern writer felt for the straightforward tale. Chaucer, Woolf writes, “has pre-eminently that story-teller’s gift, which is almost the rarest gift among writers at the present day”.

So this essentially was the modern stance towards the story: informed by a belief that the talent for spinning yarns, a vestige from a more innocent past, was the rarest of gifts. The story, in this view, transcended all artistic ideals, even if, for the writer, it meant catering to popular tastes. As the man on the golf course in E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel (1927) says, “You can take your art, you can take your literature, you can take your music, but give me a good story.”

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