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Country of Focus: Singapore

Book Review: Horizon Afar and Other Tamil Stories
by Jayanthi Sankar

Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty

Horizon Afar

Title: Horizon Afar & other Tamil short stories
Author: Jayanthi Sankar
Translated by P. Muralidharan
Publisher: Kitaab, 2016
Pages: 230

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.

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Kamila Shamsie wins Women’s Prize for Fiction for ‘story of our times’

(From The Guardian. Link to the complete article given below.)
Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, which reworks Sophocles’ tragedy Antigone to tell the story of a British Muslim family’s connection to Islamic State, has won the Women’s prize for fiction, acclaimed by judges as “the story of our times”.

The British Pakistani author’s seventh novel riffs on the ancient Greek play in which Antigone is forbidden to bury her brother Polynices after he is declared a traitor. The novel follows three orphaned siblings, elder sister Isma and twins Aneeka and Parvaiz, the latter of whom has left London to work for the media arm of Isis. When Eamonn, son of the British Muslim home secretary, enters their lives, Aneeka hopes to use him to save her missing brother.

Announcing Home Fire as winner of the £30,000 award, chair of judges Sarah Sands said the panel “chose the book which we felt spoke for our times … Home Fire is about identity, conflicting loyalties, love and politics. And it sustains mastery of its themes and its form. It is a remarkable book which we passionately recommend.”

Shamsie, who grew up in Karachi and now lives in London, beat a shortlist that included US author Jesmyn Ward’s novel Sing, Unburied, Sing, for which she won the National Book Award, and Imogen Hermes Gowar’s debut, The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock.

To read more, go to this link.


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Book Review: Ladders Against the Sky by Murli Melwani

Reviewed by Kusum Chopra

Ladders Against the Sky

Title: Ladders Against the Sky
Author: Murli Melwani
Publisher: Kaziranga Books (2017)
Pages: 453
Price: INR 500

Ladders Against the Sky is a collection of 16 stories, written between 2011 and 2017, which were first published in literary journals and anthologies. One of the stories, “Water on a Hot Plate,” was included in The Best Asian Short Stories 2017, published by Kitaab. Two stories were nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2012 and 2013.

Murli Melwani is a short story writer, a literary activist who runs two websites, and a critic, whose book, Themes in the Indian Short Story in English: A Historical and a Critical Study, tracks the growth of this genre from 1835 to 1980.

The short stories in the collection can be divided into two broad categories. About half the stories, set in India, reflect social concern, the conflict between tradition and modernity, science and superstition and the pressures on national unity. The other half, set in foreign countries, focuses on a unique Indian community, the Sindhis, whose culture – a blend of Hinduism, Islam and Sikhism, and their language, written in the Arabic script with linguistic elements of Sanskrit and Persian – are in danger of gradually fading away.

The writer’s approach is determined by the subject of each story. Thus, “Water on a Hot Plate”, with Toronto as the background, a story of cultural displacement and change, captures the interaction of an Indian tourist and a restaurateur, a Chinese lady born in India. They are two enterprising expatriates who carry diminishing bits of home, as well as of the countries they have lived in, to their newest place of sojourn.

Similarly, in “A Bar Girl,” the lifestyles that Amar Badlani and Rak have chosen prevent them from stopping and evaluating their lives or asking where they are headed. Amar Badlani’s visit with Rak to her village brings home to him the fact that his estrangement from his family has its roots in his working life. His damage control efforts lead him to finance the nursing education of Rak on the one hand, and to make overtures to his kids and grandkids on the other.

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Dispatches from the Land of Erasure


Over the past year, a group of Arab American writers—Hayan Charara, Marwa Helal, Randa Jarrar, Fady Joudah, Farid Matuk, Deema K. Shehabi, and I—began a group text, sharing stories about our own lives and the predicament of being Arab in America. This group text often touched on matters regarding the state of literary arts, though it was equally a space full of photos of our kids and lives. We had the sense of wanting to archive these conversations for future Arab American writers and somewhere along the line, the idea of a group essay emerged. I proposed that it would catalog the erasures we’d witnessed or experienced, but that it also would celebrate the liberatory work happening in our community, the poems and stories and art that hold us together and raise us up. In that group text we were after an asylum, a safe space, where we could explore and share inchoate thoughts, half-dreams, and the rough edges of our feelings.

These dispatches emerge from the inspiration of that space, though they lack the rough and informal improvisatory quality of a community talking with itself. Three other recent essays are also points of departure for these “Dispatches”—all of which were informed by the group text. Fady Joudah’s “Say It: I’m Arab and Beautiful,” Randa Jarrar’s “Ask Auntie Randa” pieces, and my “Same as It Ever Was: Orientalism Forty Years Later” confront the poison of white supremacy and Orientalism in American politics, literature, and culture, while offering antidotes: reclaiming beauty, liberation, and community.

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Book Review: The Guru Who Came Down from the Mountain by Roshen Dalal

Reviewed by Sujata Raye

The Guru who Came Down from the Mountain FINAL

 

Title: The Guru Who Came Down from the Mountain
Author: Roshen Dalal
Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books
Pages: 236
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This first novel by Roshen Dalal is ideal to read during a train journey or while waiting for a flight, when a cup of coffee and a racy book with intrigue and murder are sufficient to make the wait enjoyable. It begins with the introduction of the novel’s two main characters. Dev and Nityanand or Nitya. Devdarshan is Nityanand’s Guru and dying of AIDS. The initial few chapters, alternately, tell the reader the background of both Dev and Nitya.

The story is Dev’s; Nitya is only a tool to unfold it, the foil to Dev’s negativity. Nitya comes down to see his dying Guru at his ashram in Rishikesh. Out of sheer ignorance he has stood witness in the court, swearing Dev’s purity and celibacy, facilitating unknowingly, the dismissal of all cases of sexual coercion against his guru. Nitya is angry with himself for betraying the innocent. He remembers the accusations of drug dealing, of guns and weapons, of murders and deaths, while he was in Dev’s ashram in the US.

The story unfolds through Dev’s writings that he hands over to Nitya to read. That part of Dev’s life is a reminder of the recent shenanigans and expose` of several godmen in the country. It is quite apparent where the story is leading, yet the details of how ashrams are opened, how greed and weak minds can succumb to the lure of going to foreign lands – how women become easy victims of the Guru they blindly follow, keep the reader engaged.

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Book Review: This House of Clay and Water by Faiqa Mansab

Reviewed by Mayeesha Azhar

This House of Clay and Water

Title: This House of Clay and Water
Author: Faiqa Mansab
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Price: 499 INR
Pages: 272 (Hardcover)
https://penguin.co.in/book/fiction/house-clay-water/

 

For those who need one more reason to dream about visiting Lahore someday to take in the juxtaposition of the city’s pandemonium, history and romance, Faiqa Mansab’s This House of Clay and Water only adds to the list. The protagonist, Nida, wanders along the boundaries between the walled estates of the metropolitan’s wealthy, to the markets of the underclass and, finally, the shrines that offer refuge to the disowned. Nida has lost much to the rigid patriarchal structures of her life — a child, freedom, her right to choose, a sense of self. In a way, this book is about Nida’s journey of rediscovering her dignity, and the immense price that she ends up paying for it.

Among the three main characters that narrate the story by turn is also Sasha. Bringing glitz and glamour to this tale, Sasha is indulgent, decadent, and a siren by choice. In dusty Lahore, Sasha’s ephemeral aura marks her out as a creature from a different world. She is an object of desire incarnate and she knows it. What is more, she is not hesitant to use it to get what she wants — designer fashion and a thrilling escape from a life she feels is too ordinary for her. Try as hard as she might to deny this, sometimes to herself, this respite is only fleeting. Her image is a mirage that Sasha has carefully constructed even as she makes it look effortless. She does indeed sashay into every scene that she inhabits — cafés, the hotel rooms of her lovers, even spiritual ground like the Daata Sahib dargah. This is where the two women first meet.

The contrast between them is softened for both by their distance from Bhanggi, the transgender Qalandar, a title that is typically held by holy men. Bhanggi’s is a short life full of cruelty and exclusion, first from society itself after being abandoned at birth and then from the Hijra community where he was raised. In exchange for being allowed to live at the shrine, Bhanggi must be indentured to the administrative clerk there. This is part of the clerk’s deal with the Hijra community, who rely on sex work to make a living.

Bhanggi’s voice is enough to make this book rare. The Hijra community is ever-present in South Asia, but can exist only on the edges, hardly ever coming into the purview of the respectable milieus that Sasha and Nida come from, let alone be featured in a novel. Rarer still is Mansab’s mention of the violence committed daily against these bodies. One such instance is that of a man paying a Hijra woman, Chameli, to have sex, and then killing her, just one instance in a series of systemic murders of trans-people around the world that occur with minimum ado and furore.

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Book Review: Memories Cached by Cameron Su

Reviewed by Shruthi Rao

Memories Cached

Title: Memories Cached
Author: Cameron Su
Publishers: Cameron Su (co-funded via the Act!on for a Cause programme of Kids4Kids Hong Kong)
Pages: 302

Across the world, there are tremors of the beginnings of a youth movement, sparked by young people tired of the status quo – teenagers who are no longer satisfied with sitting around and waiting for adults to do things for them; youngsters who want change, and are not afraid to take on any situation by the horns.

There is still a considerable amount of eye-rolling about millennials and disapproving head-shakes at ‘this new generation’ that will ‘never amount to anything’. I believe that this attitude is unfair to those young people out there who are actually standing up and making a difference.

Cameron Su is one such person. He is a 17-year-old high school student in Hong Kong, who wants to tackle the issue of bullying through his book Memories Cached. Set in a high school in Singapore (which is ranked by a study as third in the world in bullying among 15-year-olds), Memories Cached takes the reader through a few months in the life of a handful of high school kids on the cusp of college. Dominic Chiu is a regular high school guy who, on a dare, kisses his girlfriend in school. Savannah Dixon, another high school student, captures it on her camera, and on an impulse, uploads it on YouTube. The video promptly goes viral.

Dominic is now in trouble, both from the principal (PDA is banned in the school!) and from Ryan Chang, the school bully and the brother of Talinda, the girl he kissed.

The rest of the book takes us through the repercussions of this incident, in two POVs – that of Dominic Chiu, and that of his cyber bully, Savannah Dixon. Savannah’s POV is interesting. It highlights the reason why she chose to upload the video, her almost-immediate regret but with the knowledge that once a video is out there, she has no control over it. It takes us through her insecurities, her wanting to fit in, and makes us feel sorry for her. She wants to make amends, however, and at the end, she redeems herself.

This incident in the book highlights a very important aspect – that a private moment that would’ve gone unnoticed or uncommented upon in an earlier era is now potentially in the public domain, up for everybody to see. You need to have eyes at the back of your head; if you drop your guard for a moment your privacy is not yours any longer.

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Book Review: Sanskarnama by Nabina Das

Reviewed by Namrata Pathak

Sanskarnaama

Title: Sanskarnama
Author: Nabina Das
Publisher: I write imprint (2017)
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Of Dough, Clay and a Nation: Brewing up a Rebellion in Nabina Das’s Sanskarnama

If you have to fold
to fit in
it ain’t right

—“Shape”
By Yrsa Daley-Ward

These words, minimal, adroitly sculpted and bare, tell us about women and shapes – how women are aligned to shapes and how these shapes strikingly constrain them. Like Yrsa Daley-Ward, if a woman has an affinity towards what is ‘shapeless’ or nebulous, Nabina Das’s Sanskarnama, Poetry for Our Times, tolls similar bells. The alliance is quite daring, even bursting at the seams, though Das’s is a loud clarion call that is difficult to miss, and more so she is not always looking at the imbroglio by installing a framework of gender to flatten everything. There are vivid convergences between Das and Daley-Ward that teased me in many ways. But Das’s Sanskarnama holds me captive as it seeks to answer the number of questions it raises, a charming peculiarity that leads to the installation of more than one worldview, the onset of intriguing possibilities. The text provides you an exposition, you trace a line of thought only to realise later that you are standing at crossroads, a mesh of thoughts, rather, coagulation. Das gives you the freedom to take any route you want, to chalk out your own road map. You are that traveller-flaneur who sucks in the cityscape wholeheartedly. You let your hair loose and dance in the streets, your heels digging deep, marking your share of fragile secrets as you slip in and out of your incarnate ‘shape’.  All the while the poet takes sideways glances at you, lest you stop dabbling in the dirt, slush, mud, clay, and earth, lest you undo the primordial instincts in you, lest you cease to ‘unmake’ yourself; overall, you emerge and dissolve, and how badly you pine for this dissolution.

The burning hope in Das to configure ‘free spaces’ in a country that has otherwise gone to the ‘gau rakshaks’, the saffron-clad yogis, the conserver of our rigid ‘sanskar’ makes her test her limits to such an extent that the poet raises her fangs, spits venom, and this she does even at the risk of being branded anti-national.

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The 12 worst workplaces in contemporary literature

From office drones occupying bland white cubicles of repressed misery in Corporate America to unwanted, but necessary, guest workers toiling in the hot sands of Abu Dhabi, these 12 contemporary books skewer corporate culture and reveal the inevitable result of a capitalistic society that views workers as anonymous, replaceable cogs in a never-ending pursuit of profit.

Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishan

Temporary People is a work of fiction set in the UAE, where I was raised and where foreign nationals constitute over 80 percent of the population. It is a nation built by people who are eventually required to leave,” prefaces the author. In these 28 interlinked stories and poems, Unnikrishnan combines Malayalam, Arabic, and English to encapsulate the dissonance of these displaced guest workers straddled between two countries and breaking their backs for a country that they can never call home. The displacement and dehumanization of these perpetual foreigners manifests as metamorphoses: a migrant moonlights as a mid-sized hotel, a runaway shape-shifts into a suitcase and a sultan grow “ideal” workers with a twelve-year shelf life from pods. One chapters contains only a list of occupations “Tailor. Hooker. Horse Looker. Maid.” and ends with “Cog. Cog? Cog.” With anti-migrant sentiment at an all time high, Temporary People is a timely and necessary exploration of how “temporary status affects psyches, families, memories, fables, and language(s).”

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