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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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The ancient poem that will put your life in perspective

In the wake of his “conscious uncoupling” from fellow mega-celebrity Gwyneth Paltrow in 2014, Coldplay’s frontman Chris Martin found solace from his failed marriage in a somewhat surprising source: 13th-century Persian love poetry, notably a poem known as “The Guest House,” by the Sufi mystic Rumi. “That one Rumi poem changes everything,” Martin recounted to The Sunday Times in March. “It says that even when you’re unhappy, it’s good for you.”

Now, even if you’re not in the habit of adopting the self-help tips propounded by your favorite celebrity idols, you could do a lot worse than listening to Martin sing the praises of Sufi mysticism — Alec Baldwin’s advice on dealing with divorce and Jessica Simpson’s thoughts on planning the perfect wedding come to mind.

“This being human is a guest house,” Rumi’s beloved poem begins in the English translation by 79-year-old American poet Coleman Barks, who reads from the poem on the “Kaleidoscope” track on Coldplay’s latest album, A Head Full of Dreams. “Every morning a new arrival.”

Those arrivals may include unexpected visitors like depression, sorrow or meanness, but we must “welcome and entertain them all,” says Rumi. Indeed, if the 13th-century mystic’s broad body of love poetry was about anything, it was quite conscious coupling, from the intense passion felt for a lover to the ecstasy of immersion in the divine. “Rumi was an enlightened lover, a true human being,” Barks writes in Rumi: The Book of Love; his “love poetry is meant to obliterate you lovers. Rumi wants us to surrender.”

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Book Review: Strangers No More: New Narratives from India’s Northeast by Sanjoy Hazarika

Reviewed by Gouri Athale

Strangers No More -- Sanjoy Hazarika

Title: Strangers No More: New Narratives from India’s Northeast
Author: Sanjoy Hazarika
Publisher: Aleph Book Company (2018)
Pages: 472 (Hardcover)
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The title says it all: they are no longer strangers. They are now part of the Indian mainstream despite hiccups in the form of discrimination against them in the rest of India merely because they look different. These are people of the North East, alienated from the rest of the country due to many reasons, not least that of geography (access was difficult), social set up and appearance – differences that were deliberately cultivated and exploited by the former imperial power, Britain.

The book gathers steam only after a very long (nearly 50 page-long) ‘Introduction’, which brings the region to the reader. This is an irritant. After this over-long Introduction, the author notes the many causes for the feelings of alienation among people of the Seven Sisters but omits (at least in this book) the role of the Church in creating this sense of alienation, or its continuing role in Nagaland and Mizoram (and that of the Mother’s Committee of Manipur) in insisting on prohibition. Liquor companies could provide a better insight regarding the sale of liquor (including beer) with alcoholism a serious problem in the region.

In the very first chapter, Hazarika comes to grips with the demand which reverberates across the North East as well as in the Kashmir valley: repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). Or at least make it more humane and make armed forces personnel liable for their conduct under relevant sections of the civil and criminal law. Like many opponents of AFSPA, the author’s view does not take into account that an insurgency or an internal revolt is essentially a civil war fought in a limited area. It is, nevertheless, war and the rules of war, not civil law, apply. The armed forces cannot operate without the legal cover of AFSPA while the other side (freedom fighters or revolutionaries) is free to use tactics like patrolling, raids and ambushes.

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Essay: Growing with history in Isa Kamari’s novels

By Mitali Chakravarty

Isa kamari novels - Kampong Scene by Lim Cheng Hoe

Kampong — scene by Lim Cheng Hoe

 

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.

Burnt Norton, TS Eliot

 
When I walk down the Singapura River and see the statue of Sir Stamford Raffles look down at me from the pedestal near Victoria theatre, I feel I know the man well, not because I have ever met him but because Isa Kamari, the celebrated ASEAN writer, brought him to life in his novel, 1819.

Downtown and around Singapore, one can get glimpses of the history of the island in architecture, sculpture and art. These can be directly related to the stories written by some of the local writers. The multi-faceted Isa Kamari is one such writer who holds me spellbound, taking me on a journey of exploration to the past to help infer the present. Isa – winner of the S.E.A. Write Award (2006), the Cultural Medallion Award, the highest award conferred on writers and artists in Singapore (2007), and the Anugerah Tun Seri Lanang, the highest Malay literary award (2009) – has written all his novels in Malay. Most of them have been translated into English. The translations continue to have the fluidity of his own style, of which we get a glimpse in his first English Novella, Tweet, his maiden venture into writing in English.

His writing is intense and makes one empathise with the past and present as he deftly shuttles between different periods of history, weaving it into the current fabric of the island. You live and emote with the characters – feel sorry for the Malays, the Bugis (seafaring folk from Sulawesi) and animosity towards the British rulers who manipulated the islanders by indulging them in opium and fanning their differences, following the policy of divide and rule, the favourite policy of the Raj to maintain power across its colonies, the effects of which are still evident in countries like India and Pakistan.

Isa takes us on a historic adventure through time in his novel 1819 to a past where Singapore was won by the British in a tussle for power with the Dutch, who had earlier ruled it ‘as a part of Riau’. In those days, it was often referred to as Pulau Ujong or Temasek. The island was nominally ruled by the Sultan of Johor, who was controlled by the Dutch in Indonesia, and the Bugis. At that time the borders of countries were fluid and adapted to the ruler’s needs. Johor and Singapore were part of the kingdom of Riau. It was the British who finally made sure with a treaty in 1824 that the Dutch and the locals would have no say in the administration or trade of Singapore. The British would hold the sole power.

Taking advantage of the local ruling classes’ love for a life of ease, the new rulers introduced opium and encouraged them to indulge. In a daze of opium, the Bugis and the Malay handed over the island to Raffles. Raffles, the ‘official founder’ of Singapore, signed the papers to take over the island from the local Malays. The British created different colonies for different factions of Muslims, like the Bugis, Malays and the Arabs. As the historic character of the first resident of Singapore, Farquhar, gives out in the novel, the British would ‘split and rule’ the kingdom so that they could gain ascendancy over the country and the region.

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Inside the OED: Can the world’s biggest dictionary survive the internet?

In February 2009, a Twitter user called @popelizbet issued an apparently historic challenge to someone called Colin: she asked if he could “mansplain” a concept to her. History has not recorded if he did, indeed, proceed to mansplain. But the lexicographer Bernadette Paton, who excavated this exchange last summer, believed it was the first time anyone had used the word in recorded form. “It’s been deleted since, but we caught it,” Paton told me, with quiet satisfaction.

In her office at Oxford University Press, Paton was drafting a brand new entry for the Oxford English Dictionary. Also in her in-tray when I visited were the millennial-tinged usage of “snowflake”, which she had hunted down to a Christian text from 1983 (“You are a snowflake. There are no two of you alike”), and new shadings of the compound “self-made woman”. Around 30,000 such items are on the OED master list; another 7,000 more pile up annually. “Everyone thinks we’re very slow, but it’s actually rather fast,” Paton said. “Though admittedly a colleague did spend a year revising ‘go’”.

Spending 12 months tracing the history of a two-letter word seems dangerously close to folly. But the purpose of a historical dictionary such as the OED is to give such questions the solemnity they deserve. An Oxford lexicographer might need to snoop on Twitter spats from a decade ago; or they might have to piece together a painstaking biography of one of the oldest verbs in the language (the revised entry for “go” traces 537 separate senses over 1,000 years). “Well, we have to get things right,” the dictionary’s current chief editor, Michael Proffitt, told me.

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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”.

Pic 4

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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The great Vietnam war novel was not written by an American

In 1967, Le Ly Hayslip, then known as Phung Thi Le Ly, was a teenager living and working in Da Nang. A peasant girl who had survived war and rape in her rural village, she had migrated to Da Nang to escape persecution from both Vietnamese Communists and anti-Communists. In 1972 she married an American and moved to the United States, and in 1989 she would publish her powerful autobiographical account of being caught between two sides, “When Heaven and Earth Changed Places.” In 2017, it remains perhaps the only first-person book in English about the experiences of Vietnamese villagers caught in the crossfire of the Vietnam War. In her life and work, Ms. Hayslip embodies my broad definition of what it means to be Vietnamese, an identity that includes those in Vietnam or in the diaspora, as well as those who write in Vietnamese or in other languages, in this case English.

I came across her book as a college student at Berkeley in the early 1990s. It moved me deeply, not only because it was a compelling memoir, but also because it was one of the few books in English by a Vietnamese writer. (Co-written, in her case, with Jay Wurts.) Searching for my own history as a Vietnamese refugee brought to the United States by an American war in my country of origin, I had not found much available to me in English, either in the original or in translation. The overwhelming amount of American writing about the war was by Americans, and it was, not surprisingly, about Americans.

There were a few exceptions. Tran Van Dinh was a former diplomat from the South, the Republic of Vietnam, who stayed in America and wrote two novels dealing with the Vietnam War, “No Passenger on the River” (1965) and “Blue Dragon, White Tiger” (1983). As a precocious child who read everything I could about the war, I came across the latter in the public library of San Jose, Calif., my hometown, and was puzzled by its anomalousness. Even then I knew that it was rare to find Vietnamese writers in the United States speaking about this war, or to hear any Vietnamese voices at all in mainstream America.

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Book Excerpt: Accumulation by Segregation: Muslim Localities in Delhi by Ghazala Jamil

Muslim Localities in Delhi

Re-Imagining Political Contestation and Death (pp 116-120)

Political assembly and protest are also performances of citizenship status and claims. While enactment of violence by protesting publics with non-Muslim identity markers are considered routine and normalised, an assembly of protesting Muslims is potentially just another site of their fatal targeting. Another important example that effectively illustrates the preceding analysis is the case of the ‘Sealing Drive’ in Delhi in 2006.

The importance of this instance in the recent history of Delhi unveils complex dynamics of the political economy of built environments, the material logic of segregation, contestations, and negotiations of elite circuits with the unorganized sector in claiming their vision of the city, and biopolitics of the state.

The case exemplifies a tussle between big capital and elite networks represented by RWAs on the one hand, and traders and small manufacturers on the other. Elite RWAs insisted in getting this case filed at the High Court of Delhi that their sense of security, peace of mind, tranquillity, and aesthetic sensibilities were being off ended by business establishments within residential areas (Ghertner 2011; Bhuwania 2016). An appeal for preventing mixed land use was in line with the vision of the Delhi Master Plan, and on the agenda of previous Delhi state governments headed by the BJP and the Congress. The judge presiding over the case, Justice Sabharwal showing keen interest in the case passed a verdict which effectively read as a mass eviction notice to lakhs of establishments which were ‘illegal’ (Mehra 2012).

Allegations of misconduct on the part of Justice Sabharwal came to light later, illuminating the nexus between big capital and the judiciary (Roy 2007, Mid-day 2006). Justice Sabharwal’s son owned a real estate firm that gained substantially from an instance of demolitions as a result of the implementation of the court order by civic bodies.

The traders in Delhi have mainly been Punjabi Hindu–Sikh but many small traders and small manufacturers belong to various diverse social backgrounds too. Diya Mehra (2012) points out that the movement run by the traders’ association employed Partition rhetoric profusely. While on the other hand, they used the daily wage workers associated with their businesses to pitch up the protest against a judicial order which was anti-poor, anti-worker, and anti-unorganized sector.

During protracted protests, in which the traders associations were reluctant to go to the Supreme Court because it could have also given a judgement adversarial to their interest, the traders’ associations continuously negotiated with the state and Central Governments, the municipal corporation, as well as the Delhi Development Authority (DDA). Violence and rioting was also used strategically as a final device of pressurizing the state and elite networks. There were many incidents of rioting and damage to public property such as state transport buses. Eventually the government informed the court of its inability to implement the order as it would give rise to a law and order situation.

Ovais Sultan Khan, a participant of this study gave me an account of the occurrences that led to the shooting. This foretold law and order problem took place when the police opened fire at a protesting crowd in Seelampur on September 20, 2006.

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Ten Books That Changed The World

Epic of Gilgamesh

The Epic of Gilgamesh is the first significant text in world literature, and a perfect example of the power of written stories to shape history. By bolstering cultural cohesion across the region, the epic helped maintain the earliest territorial empire. Written in cuneiform, it disappeared without a trace because it was never transcribed into any other writing system, until it was rediscovered by accident two thousand years later. Saddam Hussein, a keen student of history, wrote a novelistic adaptation of the epic. To his great surprise, it failed to secure the survival of his regime.

Ezra’s Bible

Written texts became increasingly important for Jewish life during exile in Babylon, the most literate place on earth at the time. When the scribe Ezra led his followers back to Jerusalem, he held up him Torah scrolls and demanded that the returning exiles bow before them as they would to a god. It was the beginning of sacred scripture, giving rise to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. We have been living in a world shaped by sacred texts ever since.

Diamond Sutra

The Diamond Sutra commemorates the life of the Buddha by portraying his interactions with students and his daily habits in unusual detail. When the sutra was committed to writing long after the death of this great teacher, it became so influential that devoted monks carried it all the way to China. It was here that the Diamond Sutra encountered paper and print. With the help of these technologies, it spread to Korea, Japan and beyond, making Buddhism a world religion.

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How Urmila Pawar broke the barriers of caste and patriarchy armed with only words

The struggle of Dalit women in India is often perceived as a fight against patriarchy, and caste — as separate entities. The truth, however, is that their struggle is against against caste-ridden patriarchy, essentially an offshoot of Brahminism in India. Therefore, the claims of the Dalit woman in the the anti-caste struggle are more powerful, subtle, theoretically holistic and thought provoking. Not only this, Dalit women, through their narratives, seem to broaden the scope of movement against caste.

Right from the era of Savitribai Phule, Fatima Sheikh and Mukta Salve, Dalit women’s writing has had a rich history. Needless to say, it provides a background to the discourse of feminism in India that has always been denied by Brahmin women who call themselves feminists. The position of Dalit women as ‘Dalit within Dalits’, is the crucial factor that makes their struggle theoretically fertile and, a discourse which feminism in India cannot afford to avoid.

When Urmila Pawar’s autobiographical work Aaidan was first published, it sent waves of discomfort in society, among men and women alike. I remember sometime in 2014, when I went to watch a play based on her work at the National Centre for Performing Arts, located in an elitist area of South Mumbai, witnessing for the first time on stage, the lives of women I had seen around me. Pawar came on stage before the play began and shared her experiences of writing her first book. She had faced opposition from male agencies across castes, including her own home — where her book (initially) was not celebrated, but looked down upon.

As a Dalit woman, Pawar wrote about her life experiences, dared to articulate them intimately and explicitly — and that was the point of arrival from which Dalit narratives against caste society became clearer to the world. Though pioneering writers like Shantabai Kamble and other Dalit women had already put their struggle into words, it was Pawar’s work which received wide readership. In her book, one of the instances she mentions is of the menstrual cycle, illustrating how the the idea of ‘purity’ and ‘impurity’ not only fractured Brahmins psychologically but also victimised Dalits till a certain point of time. When she, as a girl, was made to sit in a corner by her mother to avoid touching anything during her cycle, Pawar recounts thinking: “As if I wasn’t discriminated (against) enough by others outside, now (my) family too, has set rules for me”.

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