Reviewed by Anushka Ray

scorpion_cvr

Title: The Scorpion (Trans)
Author: Kim Won-il
Publisher: Kitaab International, Singapore
Pages: 445
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There is a throbbing ache of subdued anger throughout The Scorpion, an ever-present bitterness, which seeps through the most deadpan of narration and into the hearts of the readers. The Scorpion by Kim Won-il finds its footing with this: a constant pragmatic voice, but full of resentment, to emphasize the loss of desire to romanticize the world in which these characters find themselves.

The novel follows Kang Jae-pil, his father Kang Cheon-dong and, briefly, his father’s father Kang Chi-mu, as each man navigates the tension he faces in Korean society. Each alternate chapter adopts a different perspective as a way to seamlessly and organically transition between timelines and generations. We venture into the narrator Jae-pil’s thoughts and feelings as he grapples with life right out of prison. Kang Jae-pil’s matter of fact observations are riddled and tangled with acute detail, giving way to a man who perhaps has deep sensitivities, a startling recognition of guilt and gratitude for the family he let down. Jae-pil’s meetings with his step-sister Myeong-hee (who holds greater importance as the story continues) as well as his grandmother, excel in showcasing glittering remnants of humanity that he holds onto despite his seven years in prison.

Jae-pil vows to leave behind his gangster lifestyle in Seoul as he travels to meet his family and eventually begins writing his deceased grandfather’s biography as a way to show his respect and perhaps as a way for him to move on from the years he spent behind bars. His story is by far the most engaging, largely attributable to the first person narration, a man who feels regret and has potential. Won-il travels in time through flashbacks and dialogue to explore Jae-pil’s perilous journey and brings alive the Korean society as it morphs through the ages. As the novel unfolds, Won-il seems to gain in confidence and fluidity with Jae-pil’s character and begins to introduce more graceful description of the beauty found in nature. Despite this, at its core the story remains dark – Jae-pil is haunted by vices, much like his father was; we find ourselves screaming at him to resist his temptations when he begins turning to drinking and crime. While the lack in build up does not prepare us for this, it’s not surprising in the context of the character’s past. Regardless of this, Jae-pil stays the most likeable man of the three.

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Indian Cultures.

SCIENCE AS CULTURE

Many Indian scientists, competent in their fields of specialization, know less about science as a form of knowledge, or the kind of reasoning involved in the scientific method that can also be applied to other forms of knowledge. This might explain their surprising and tacit acceptance of some of the more ridiculous statements made by non-scientists on the fantasy-based claims pertaining to science as supposedly practised by our ancient ancestors. This reduces their ability to recognize the difference between the remarkably impressive knowledge of premodern Indian thinkers in some of the sciences, and the infantile fancies that are often projected in their name by those ignorant of science in both premodern and in current times. The reasons for doing the latter are more often political rather than due to any scientific assessment.

The onus is not only on the scientist but also on the historian. Not enough attention has been given by historians to integrating the ideas related to the sciences from earlier times to other aspects of culture. The historian’s intervention from this perspective would require the re-crafting even of some historical formulations. This is being done for some other aspects in recent historical reinterpretations. One of these is the notion of ‘civilization’ as a somewhat fixed and continuing historical unit.

Used more casually in the earlier centuries to refer to the softening of manners and to artistic and literary achievements, it became a widely accepted unit of history from the nineteenth century, coinciding with colonial perceptions of history. The world was divided into discrete, geographically bounded areas each with a dominant culture, recognizably different in intellectual, aesthetic, technological and religious attainments, all of which were associated with urban centres, the use of scripts, the existence of a state and of an organized social order. In A Study of History, the British historian Arnold Toynbee counted twenty-six such civilizations, each rising in response to challenges and declining when the response was inadequate. More recently the count has been reduced to eight in Samuel P. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. As a spokesman of the American political right wing, his theory that the future of the world will revolve around the clash of civilizations inspired by religious identities seems to envisage conflicting civilizations as a replacement for the cold war.

Reviewed by Dr Madhu Kelkar

Indian Cultures.

Title: Indian Cultures as Heritage – Contemporary Pasts
Author: Romila Thapar
Publisher: Aleph Book Company, 2018
Pages: 222 pages 

 

Culture influences our values, world view, loyalties, behaviour and much more. Very often it is equated with civilisation a term that came to be used to describe societies that boasted of extensive territory, sophisticated language, literature, art and architecture, and above all, a single religion. Under the colonial influence, culture came to be redefined simply as a way of life of elite groups, for instance Aryans in the case of India. Unfortunately, our current understanding of Indian culture is overshadowed by this erroneous interpretation. Heritage, both cultural and natural, consists of ideas, objects and practices; contributes to quality of life, gives us a cultural identity and connects us with our past. India’s cultural heritage has always been subject to debates. While traditional historians favour the ‘unity in diversity’ approach in order to project a homogenised Indian identity and presumably invoke the spirit of patriotism, Thapar, in her latest book, Indian Cultures as Heritage Contemporary Pasts, does exactly the opposite.

A fearless, frequent and outspoken critic of our dogmatic and communal interpretations of the past, Thapar’s  book does not to go into the historical aspect of the making of Indian culture but provides glimpses of what is often omitted, marginalized, trivialized or is even considered irrelevant to its understanding. Drawing on her lectures and essays, published in the recent past, this book challenges the idea that Indian culture is the monolithic phenomenon it is often portrayed as in Indian historical writing or what is being currently imposed on the Indian citizens by cultural nationalists. Identification with a single culture, she argues, despite the existence of many in the country, is risky since it tends to dismiss all that does not conform to the mainstream forms, perpetuates inequality and silences all kinds of reasonable resistance. Culture is deeply linked with historical developments and bound to change. But the two differ as well. While history narrates and explains the past, culture can invent the past without any historical evidence. Therefore, one has to guard against spurious history which can be manufactured by culture. Thapar’s argument that we need to subject the Indian culture to rigorous historical scrutiny and juxtapose historical and cultural forms to understand their interface is highly relevant, especially in the present context when cultural forms are being subjected to identity politics due to ignorance and lack of general or intellectual interest in other cultures, within and outside the subcontinent.

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.’

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.

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.

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.