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How I learned to claim space as a multilingual author

One of the very first questions I wrestled with as a writer was this: Why write in English, the colonizer’s language, when I have others at my disposal? I grew up acquainted with three languages; my grandparents immigrated from southern China to Malaya, which was a British imperial territory. So if I didn’t write in Malay, didn’t that make me unpatriotic? And if I didn’t write in Chinese, didn’t that make me a “race traitor?” Why English?

English is intricately woven into my family history. When my grandparents first came to occupied Malaya, they worked for the British. For some time they lived apart, my grandfather cooking meals for colonial officers while my grandmother worked as a nanny for British children in a different part of the country. I never heard either of them speak English, but in my imagination, the few English phrases they did know formed the language of intimate care: Please enjoy the food. Are you warm enough? Have another helping. Did you sleep well? Don’t cry. I’m here.

I suppose they learned as much English as allowed them to forge new lives. It was both a choice and not, just as it was and was not for me as I haltingly attempted to piece together a self through literature. I did not see myself in my Malay textbooks about boys who formed interracial friendships. Neither could I find myself in the Tang poems my parents encouraged me to memorize, which featured ancient men in long-sleeved robes drinking alcohol and being sorrowful (only later in life would I come to relate to that). It was in English books that I saw a sense of adventure and escape that I identified with, as embodied by British children daringly solving mysteries or circumventing adult cruelty.

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Short story: Parcelled, Ripe for the Picking by Kar Yern Chin

His dreams were still nascent. Titi told Mama that he wanted to be a zoologist. He elicited quiet fulfilment from watching chameleons catching stick insects with their tongues and gulping them whole and ostriches campily gorging star fruits. Mama said that he should stow his dreams for later and wait for the dough to leaven; for the yeast in his mind to breathe and bloom, for him to turn plump, ready to be baked. He chuckled.

And he watched, quietly (well not really), as she plucked the fruits of her dreams. His hands hovered over the preheating oven, despite his mother’s constant reproach. She kneaded cottony dough with her gnarled but tender hands and folded it into itself. The furrow blended seamlessly and disappeared, before she wrung the dough to fold it again. The scattered flour he tried to swipe surreptitiously with his finger. Powdered sugar, he thought as he sneaked a pinch into his mouth. It exploded in his mouth as he puckered his lips, never to permit flour onto his sensitive taste buds again.

Beads of sweat lingered on Mama’s skin as she kneaded and kneaded in the kitchen, with its windows open to the sun-baked outside. Cracked streets and faded sign paints littered about as Aunty Norma, her head covered in a batik tudung of teal and navy blue, doled out nasi lemak, wrapped in newspaper, to passers-by on their way to the bus stop hidden in the far corner of the road. The oven emanated even more heat waves, preparing for the dough’s entrance. Soon, the dough, coated with glistening egg yolk, would bloom. It would turn crisp and fluffy, like a pillow waiting to be pinched and pulled. The boy salivated as he thought about the savoury patches of salt and butter that would soon linger on his tongue. The yolk sheen reminded him of lumps of peanut cookies with their brown egg coats on top, baked by Mama during Chinese New Year; the pasty lumps that crumbled in the boy’s mouth, unlocking sweet, savoury and a child’s gaiety. The boy could not wait for Mama to fire up the ovens for the next batch of CNY cookies again. Few more weeks and he would have school off, with nothing but he and the food.

Mama looked at the little plump 7-year old and smiled as she wiped off her sweat with the apron. Her smile faded as she considered her son’s dreams. She turned to start the laundry.

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Book Review: Truth or Dare by Nadia Kabir Barb

Short and Sweet Stories Tinged with Melancholy

Reviewed by Namira Hossain

Truth or Dare

Title: Truth or Dare
Author: Nadia Kabir Barb
Publisher: Bengal Light Books
Pages: 120 

There are some books you read that you could probably start reading with your mid-afternoon tea and finish by the time it is sunset and only the last dregs are left in the cup. Truth or Dare by Nadia Kabir Barb is a bit like that. Barb is a British-Bangladeshi writer who lives in London. The cover is stark, a black and white negative of a construction site, giving you an insight into the nature of the book. But at a mere 120 pages, it does not feel like a daunting prospect. Her stories represent her multifaceted personality very well, showcasing little quirks of being part and parcel of the Bangladeshi diaspora in the United Kingdom.

Each of the twelve stories packs a punch. In the first one, “Can You See Me?” a suicidal pseudo celebrity meets a roadside bum and they commiserate over the losses in their lives before a cliff-hanger ending. The next story dives into a domestic scene where a housewife is cutting onions in the kitchen while guarding a tragic secret from her abusive in-laws. Despite the dramatic nature of the stories, Barb spins realistic and believable characters, whose lives and losses evoke emotion in her readers. Short stories do not have the liberty to build great characters through their development; instead, it is the minute plot details, ’moments’ that make a character in a short story somebody that the reader cares about.

I think the book really picks up towards the middle, starting with the title story “Truth or Dare”, about two young boys who decide to play truth or dare. Starting from its very relatable experience of being in a boring classroom with an unenthusiastic math teacher, the story takes the reader through different highs as it follows its protagonist Raju’s day of playing with his friend Tareq, who hides the darkness within.

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Book Excerpt: From ‘Missing’ by Sumana Roy

Missing

I.

‘I think I’ve found the missing girl at last.’

Because we forget that even words have childhoods, Nayan cannot be sure that he has heard it right. Then the phone line goes blank—it might have choked on his silence, or it might have been Kabir’s tempestuous indifference to the listener. Whatever it is, it is no longer new, his son’s disappearance for days, sometimes weeks, his unpredictable resurfacing before his restless migration into silence again.

But he had, at least, called. Kabir’s mother hadn’t even done that.

The silence had begun to seem like an accident.

›There was someone at the door. A snatch of a bhatiali in a trained voice, a trail of toe steps, knocking that turned the door into a temporary percussion instrument. It could only be one man.

‘Bimal-da?’

‘Who else?’ came the reply. ‘Who else comes like a cheque past its expiry date?’

Heavy slippers, their underside pimply with screechy wet sand, fell gently on to the floor.

‘You won’t change your habits, Dada. Look at the darkness in this room. Why do you live your life as if it was a permanent funeral?’

Nayan smiled. He enjoyed allowing this old man his rehearsal of taunts.

And then it struck Bimal-da. He had forgotten it again. The sudden rush of guilt turned his mind into a bird at midday, looking for darkness. ‘Sorry,’ he said, relying on the foreignness of the word to give his apology some weight.

Nayan smiled. Or Bimal-da imagined that he did. His eyes moved to the sad piece of bread on the white plate in front of Nayan. Why the rich preferred funereal white crockery was something he would never understand.

‘Your food. It’s getting cold,’ he said. That is one thing that the blind shared with the deaf—both cannot sense their food growing cold. Bimal-da touched his old glasses, the thing that connected his eyes to his ears, and he said his prayers of gratitude: he was poor, always hungry, but he was, at least, not blind. What use was all the wealth to Nayan if he could not see it? For wasn’t that what riches meant—an exhibition to the eye?

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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.


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Remembering Safia Manto, the woman who stood by the writer in good times – and the many bad ones

So little is known and even less written about the women who have unflinchingly supported their celebrated men. It is true that Safia Deen would not have been known had she not married Saadat Hasan Manto and become Safia Manto. But on her centenary today, May 11, let it be known that Manto may not have been a hero had it not been for Safia, who stood by him, through the best and worst of times. The best were few and the worst, many.

Both Manto and Safia were born on May 11 (the husband in 1912, the wife in 1916), wore black-rimmed glasses, had Kashmiri origins and had first names that started with an S. But the similarities probably ended there. He was a man of fine taste – be it silver capped Sheaffer pens or gold embroidered juttis. He wanted nothing but the best, whereas Safiawas simple to a fault, needing less and less through their hardships. He was a provocateur and left no opportunity to be noticed, while she was self-evasive and shy.

What began as an arranged marriage in 1936, about which Manto writes a whole essay, titled, Meri Shaadi (My Wedding), soon turned into great fondness and camaraderie. Their best days were spent in Bombay, a city they returned to, after Manto worked in Delhi at the All India Radio. It is there that they lost their first child, Arif. It devastated them, but also brought them closer. They then went on to have three daughters.

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Book Review: A Faceless Evening and Other Stories by Gangadhar Gadgil (Trans. Keerti Ramachandra)

Reviewed by Sheila Kumar

A Faceless Evening

Title: A Faceless evening and other stories
Author: Gangadhar Gadgil
Translated from Marathi by Keerti Ramachandra
Publisher: Ratna Books
Pages: 201
Price: Rs 299

 

Of the human condition…

Fourteen evocative short stories by the Marathi master

Gangadhar Gadgil carved a niche for himself in Marathi literature decades ago and is a known name to those who read translations but is yet unknown to scores of other readers. Ratna Books and translator Keerti Ramachandra have rectified that omission with this book – A Faceless Evening and Other Stories.

In this book, Gadgil runs the gamut of human emotions and the human condition. Life plays out in full intensity on these pages, each story a microcosm of people like us, people unlike us. A couple travelling in a train are locked in a bittersweet battle for emotional control. Ten years ago, she was a toy to him, now a shackle. On her part, hatred raises its hood, poised to strike, before pragmatism overcomes both of them. And so the journey continues, just as the deadlock between the two continues.

There is Bandu (a favourite character of the writer) is desirous of getting himself a new umbrella, but his luck with brollies has never been good. Plastic handles come off in his hand; old umbrellas shower rat droppings, dead roaches and such detritus on his unsuspecting head; umbrellas with wooden shafts just refuse to open, leading to unseemly struggles. Then he buys a stainless steel one that he can ill afford, but soon, one cloud tells another of his new acquisition and Bandu is given no opportunity to use the dratted umbrella.

There is a take that lays bare the politics of a joint family with all its attendant drama: the shrewish mother-in-law, the faintly sinister father-in-law, the victimised elder sister-in-law, the conniving younger sister-in-law and the narrator, a cheerful bahu of the house. Things reach a flashpoint but like all domestic crises, this one too blows over and the members of the family prepare to face another day and take things as they come.

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