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Writing Matters: In conversation with Jayanthi Sankar

By Mitali Chakravarty

Jayanthi Shankar

A small, vibrant woman full of energy comes to my mind when I think of Jayanthi Sankar. Born and brought up in India, she has been writing for the past twenty three years. She has been published in several magazines and ezines including the Indian Ruminations, Museindia, The Wagon and InOpinion. Loss and Laws and Horizon Afar are two collections of her Tamil short stories that have been translated into English. ​Her works of short fiction have been included in various anthologies including The Other. She has been invited to participate in the panels of literary festivals such as Singapore Writers Festival, Seemanchal International Literary festival, Asean-India Pravasi Bharatiya Divas Writers Festival.

Jayanthi was effusive and generous with her responses to the questions we put before her.

 

Mitali: Tell us a little about when, why and how you started to write.

Jayanthi: Looking back, I feel it is all like a dream – nothing was planned. It just happened. I was not a serious reader till my mid-twenties. In the1990s, when we migrated to Singapore, what attracted me the most were the libraries with their generous shelves of books – I’d found my world, and undoubtedly, I owe it to the National Library Board that paved the way for me to evolve as a reader and subsequently a writer.

I read passionately for four to five years, only for the joy of it, both in English and Tamil. A natural critic was born in me. I was not even aware of it for long. At one point of time that voice started getting too fuzzy about style and narration of some of the fiction that I often chose randomly and soon I asked myself, ‘Isn’t it always easier said than done?’

That’s how in 1995 I tried to craft a short story in Tamil – ‘Turning point’ – which I never thought would lead me to discover the creative ability in me. A very simple, amateurish narration based on an early morning dream of an incident that I’d had, ended up being published that weekend in the only local Tamil daily and the editor called to appreciate and encourage me to continue.

I recollect now, I had to try a few more stories in the next several months before I could actually believe that I really could pursue writing. I have always loved fiction, both to read and to write. For the next couple of years I experimented aimlessly in both the languages.

Suddenly, one fine day I thought, should I focus in one language first, English or Tamil?

I had known of a few senior writers like Ashokamitran, Indra Parthasarathy who wrote first in English and took up Tamil soon to last longer. But nonetheless, I decided to focus first on Tamil.

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Book review: A Different Sky by Meira Chand

Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty

A Different Sky

Title: A Different Sky
Author: Meira Chand
Publisher: Vintage Books (2011)
Pages: 488
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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.

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Book Review: A Bit of Earth by Suchen Christine Lim

Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty

A Bit of Earth

Title: A Bit of Earth
Author: Suchen Christine Lim
Publisher: Times Marshall-Cavendish, Singapore, 2001
Pages: 420
Price: S$21.40
ISBN: 9812321233

A Bit of Earth is a multi-layered novel by Suchen Christine Lim that explores the history of Malaya under the British regime. The saga stretches from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century. The protagonist, Wong Tuck Heng, journeys from being a poor, hounded immigrant to a rich towkay, a big boss in local parlance, guided by the principle that helped him achieve his dream of growing into a rich and honoured man. He states his viewpoint, ‘Land and properties, you can lose. But if you lose your spirit, then you lose the very thing that makes us human. Courage and loyalty. That’s part of our spirit as human beings…’

We first see Wong in 1874, a teenager on the run with a price on his head, chased out of his homeland Sum Hor in Canton Prefecture, by the Manchu rulers. He considers the Manchus as invaders and intruders into China; the Manchus had wiped out his entire family, loyalists of the preceding Ming dynasty, as rebels. The saga starts with Wong landing in Malaya after a perilous journey, saved by loyalists and brave supporters from the clan of White Cranes. He finds work in the tin mines of Malaya and struggles to become rich. He acquires two wives, a Nyonya (Straits-born Chinese) wife and a Chinese one from the mainland, chosen by his foster mother Wong-soh. His Nyonya wife is thrust upon him by the wealthy Wee family that his foster father married into to upscale himself in wealth and power, after disowning his earlier wife, Wong-soh.

There is a splattering of colourful Chinese, Malay, Indian and British characters in the story with a close look at the Baba culture, an intrinsic part of Singaporean and Malaysian heritage. Wong gives a description of this culture to his son as he talks of his first wife’s family: ‘Your mother’s family is Baba. They’re like the Monkey King. Their ancestors left China and settled in this country a hundred, maybe two hundred years ago. Maybe longer. Married local women and adapted to the life here. They can change themselves seven times seven like the Monkey King. When the Malays were powerful, the Babas spoke Malay, wore Malay clothes and hungered for Malay titles. Then the English barbarians came. The English were more powerful than the Malay kings. So, your mother’s family changed again. They learned to speak English and do things the English way.’

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‘17,000 islands of imagination’: discovering Indonesian literature

In February last year, I was sitting in Cafe Batavia on Fatahillah Square in Jakarta, talking to an Indonesian friend. We were discussing how any novelist might describe a country to a readership who know nothing about it. We were surrounded by framed photos of Indonesian politicians and Hollywood stars, and the ceiling fans turned overhead. Outside, it was hot and overcast, and students milled around the front of the History Museum, built by the Dutch in 1710 and now housing objects from the founding of Jayakarta in 1527. How could any writer portray such a diverse culture?

My friend smiled wryly. “You only have the same problem as the rest of us,” he said. “Indonesia isn’t a nation. It’s an imagination.”

There are some countries so vast and diverse that any attempt to summarise them feels insulting: such is Indonesia. With a population of 258 million, it is the world’s fourth most populous nation and the largest formed by an archipelago. When it was guest of honour at the Frankfurt book fair last year, it appeared under the banner “17,000 islands of imagination”, a phrase describing its geography but also encapsulating the complexities of representation. Indonesia is home to hundreds of different ethnicities speaking as many languages, and, along with Hindus, Christians and Buddhists, has a majority Muslim population that is the largest in the world. But, as yet, little of its literature has been translated into English.

Elizabeth Pisani is a writer and epidemiologist who has lived in Indonesia for many years. She has a simple explanation for this: ignorance. “Indonesia has no place in the British imagination,” she says. “It wasn’t a British colony and there’s virtually no Indonesian diaspora here, which means Brits aren’t even introduced to the country through food or a cultural presence.” In the absence of such historical links, can literature fill that imaginative gap?

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Writing Matters: In conversation with Suchen Christine Lim

By Mitali Chakravarty

Suchen Christine Lim

 

What is homeland
In which we planted
Our hopes, lives,
dreams and memories?
A bit of earth.

— Suchen Christine Lim, Second Fragment, A Bit of Earth

 

She wanted to run a chicken porridge stall in Singapore. Instead, she wrote about the coolies, the illiterate and the chicken porridge stall owners. Meet Suchen Christine Lim, an established voice in ASEAN literature with multiple awards and fellowships to her credit.

The first thing I notice when we meet is her humility. I remember listening to her during a panel discussion on ASEAN literature where Suchen said that she picked up bits of garbage and put them together to make a story. To me, her stories are anything but a bit of garbage. They record the history of Malaya and then, Singapore and Malaysia. Her works have been lauded by The Straits Times as ‘worthy literary landmarks that capture a slice of South-east Asian history’. Mohammad A. Quayum, Professor and Head of the Department of English Language and Literature, International Islamic University, Malaysia, sees her works as ‘brilliant stimulating and a compelling read’; Lily Rose Tope, PhD, Professor, Department of English and Comparative Literature, University of Phillipines, says, Suchen makes ‘history personal… a joy to teach and a riveting read’. Martin Marroni, a Scottish poet wrote to Suchen: ‘Astonishing tour de force. You have created a physical and social landscape and peopled it with characters with real human feelings on issues of political import as well as on the strains of personal and social survival.’ Yet, when I ask her where she sees herself in the ASEAN literary context, her response is that it is for the critics to decide. ‘I don’t see myself as anything except being able to write.’

Her passion for writing developed in the course of her teaching career. The characters she wrote about in her novels and short stories came to life for her as she went about her daily chores. She became the weaver of tales for these imaginary personas who led her through their adventures. She talks of her works in terms of the wayang kulit (shadow puppet theatre in parts of Indonesia and Malaysia) based on the belief that puppets have a life of their own and their needs must be respected. She sees herself as the dalang, the puppet master, not a puppeteer, she emphasises. ‘And to me, the relationship between a novelist and a character is that of the dalang and the puppet, which eventually evolves a life of its own.’

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Book Review: Tweet by Isa Kamari

Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty

Tweet

Title: Tweet
Author: Isa Kamari
Publisher: Kitaab
Pages: 80
Price: S$15
ISBN: 9789811107269

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.

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Book Review: The River’s Song by Suchen Christine Lim

Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty

River's Song

Title: The River’s Song
Author: Suchen Christine Lim

Publisher: Aurora Metro Books
Total number of Pages: 306
Price: Pounds 9.99
ISBN: 978-1-906582-98-2

The River’s Song is an epic novel by the ASEAN award-winning writer Suchen Christine Lim about people living in and around the Singapore River, from the mid-twentieth to the start of the twenty first century. Published in 2013, it spans an era of change and development in Singapore, which could be compared with the passing of an age as in Margaret Mitchell’s epic novel, Gone with the Wind. The story begins with the portrayal of people who lived by and around the water body for generations prior to the 1977 Singapore River cleanup. The cleanup changed the way of life irreversibly for immigrants who lived by the river, as did the American Civil War for the American settlers.

Most of the river dwellers prior to 1977 are shown to be immigrants from China or Malaya. Among them are the protagonist, Ping, and her mother, the pipa songstress, Yoke Lan. Yoke Lan insists that her daughter address her as Ah-ku, aunt in Cantonese, because she does not want to divulge her maternal status to her fans and customers. Ah-ku’s attempt to rise above poverty and move to respectability defines many of her actions. Ah-ku is more passionate, more like Scarlett O’ Hara, a colourful persona vis-à-vis her timid daughter, who is befriended by Weng, a dizi player. The story revolves around Ping and Weng till Ah-ku, who disappears from Ping’s life for some years, reclaims her daughter as a poor relative. Ah-ku returns to visibility as the wife of a rich and powerful towkay (a rich businessman), moving around in more educated circles.  The ascent to a better life removes both Ah-ku and her daughter from the proximity of the river. Ultimately, Ping goes to university in USA, where she spends the next thirty years of her life away from family and friends. She flits in and out of a marriage with an Indian who wears pink pants and calls himself Jeev. She befriends braless feminists and learns to call their country her home.

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Mapping the literary roots between ASEAN and India

By Mitali Chakravarty

Pic 5

The first ever ASEAN INDIA Pravasi Bharatiya Divas Writers Festival was held in Singapore with great success.

More than 30 writers from Singapore, Malaysia and India participated in the first ever ASEAN Indian Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (PBD) Writer’s Festival on 6-7 January in Singapore.

Many leading literary figures of ASEAN such as Edwin Thumboo, Suchen Christine Lim and Isa Kamari participated in the two-day event held at the posh Marina Bay Sands.

The ASEAN India Writers Festival, an initiative of the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, was organized by Kitaab International, Singapore, on behalf of the High Commission of India in Singapore, with the support of many partner organisations such as The Arts House, and La Salle College of the Arts. De Ideaz, Singapore, were the main event managers for the festival, which had more than 5,000 registered visitors.

Exploring ASEAN and India connections though literary and cultural roots

Pic 2 -- Zafar

Zafar Anjum, the Programme Director and Founder of literary and publishing platform Kitaab, gave the welcome address. He welcomed the participants and reflected on the attempt to bring together writers from diverse cultures and language backgrounds to create an environment of learning and growth.

Edwin Thumboo, a celebrated poet and academic of Singapore, traced how Sanskrit and Indian culture, religion and customs spread through South-east Asia from the start of history. He touched upon Hindu and Buddhist influences in Burma, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia with graphic maps and slides in his talk, ‘A Sense of India in ASEAN’.

The panel discussions were broad-ranging in topic and included all kinds of voices and literary genres – from mythology to novels, and from short stories to children’s literature. There were sessions featuring literary performances too. Four new titles by ASEAN and Indian writers were launched at the festival: The Best Asian Short Stories 2017 edited by Monideepa Sahu and Zafar Anjum; Senserly, Amakoby Anita Thomas; The Sacred Sorrows of Sparrows by Siddharth Dasgupta, and Tawassul by award-winning Singaporean writer Isa Kamari, the first Urdu translation of a work of Singaporean literature.

India in the Imagination of ASEAN

The first panel discussion with prominent award winning ASEAN writers, Suchen Christine Lim and Isa Kamari, focused on “India in the Imagination of ASEAN”.

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The moderator, Nilanjana Sengupta, traced how Nalanda University played a non-confrontational role in spreading the ideas in the region and asked the panelists to talk of Indian influences in their writings. Suchen Christine Lim talked of how her Indian characters grew out of her experience of Indians that she met or read about and how Buddhism, which was born in India, influenced the Chinese and Asian characters she portrays in her books.

Isa Kamari said he realised that both Hinduism and Islam were monotheistic after visiting Bali, where Hinduism had travelled from India around 1st century. He added that Hinduism existed before Islam and spoke of his positive experience of traveling in India. All these experiences are to be found in his novels.

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