by Mitali Chakravarty

IMG_0723
Isa Kamari

His books transport one to a past — a time where under the green creepers on a softly moving river, a boat sails and take one into a unique world of what has been. You discover how much the world has changed and how Singapore has evolved, you meet people who intrigue and bring to the fore the roots that created the little red dot. And yet some of his books look forward to a future – a world of harmony where technology and spiritual peace co-exist… Meet the author, winner of numerous awards and a voice to be reckoned with — Isa Kamari.

Isa Kamari was born in 1960 and lives in Singapore with his wife and two children. He is currently Deputy Director in the Architecture Division with the Land Transport Authority of Singapore, leading a team that manages the design and construction of transport infrastructures. While his profession is an architect, his passion lies in writing, though his architectural background has also found a way into some of his novels.

In all, he has written 9 novels, 3 collections of poetry, a collection of short stories, a book of essays on Singapore Malay poetry, a collection of theatre scripts and lyrics of 2 song albums — all in Malay. His novels have been translated into English, Turkish, Urdu, Hindi, Arabic, Indonesian and Mandarin. His collections of essays and selected poems have been translated into English. His first novel in English, Tweet was published in 2016. Isa was conferred the Southeast Asia Write Award from Thailand in 2006, the Singapore Cultural Medallion in 2007, the Anugerah Tun Seri Lanang from the Singapore Malay Language Council in 2009, and the Mastera Literary Award from Brunei Darussalam in 2018.

In this exclusive, he talks about his book Kiswah, whose translated version is being launched on 8thNovember in the Singapore Writer’s Festival; the  dramatisation of his novel, 1819 and much more…

 

Front coverYou will soon be launching Kiswah. It shuttles between various locales. Can you tell us the intent of this book? What led you to write it?

Isa: In the late 1990s, I was disturbed by the rampant spread of pornographic materials in in Singapore. Vendors openly sold X-rated VCDs near MRT stations, bus interchanges and bazaars illegally. There were also reports in the newspapers about the addiction to pornography amongst professionals and the young. At the same time, I knew from my wife, who was doing voluntary service at a welfare home, that there were many family breakups arising from sexual abuses. All these compelled me to ponder on the topic of manifestation of sexual life in relation to spirituality or the lack of it. The various locales — like Delhi, Agra, Kashmir, Kathmandu and finally Mecca — becomes the background for me to explore, confront, interrogate and somewhat find a resolution on the topic.

By Mitali Chakravarty

IMG_3358
Shishir Sharma

He is a well-known figure on television. He is a prominent actor in films… a good friend to famed actor Nasseruddin Shah and actress Ratna Pathak. He is kind to young filmmakers who start their career and does short films for them as he recently did in Singapore. He starred in Kitaab and Filmwalla founder Zafar Anjum’s first short film that has been shown to the public — a fourteen-and-a-half-minute movie called The Sacrifice with a talented actress from Singapore, Renita Kapoor.

And yet this man has a secret, a small office in Mumbai where he spends time by himself and writes. Meet Shishir Sharma, the character actor who can be seen on stage in theatre, on the silver screen, both in Indian television and cinema.

And what does the actor write?

You would think… it would be something for the screen or maybe about his life. But no, he writes about his parents and his father’s past. For spoilers, the story starts as a romantic one. Picture this: 1951 — in sepia tone — A young man in his early twenties goes off to get milk as does a fifteen-year-old girl. This would be a common thing but, wait, the story does not end there. The two meet and they travel in the opposite direction from their home on train to spend time with each other unbeknown to their families and, a few years later, they are married, and they have their first child — Shishir Sharma.

Talking to Shishir Sharma was not just a privilege but like a walk through the annals of Indian theatre and film history. His parents were involved with theatre and films, including the Leftists IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association founded in 1943 to bring cultural awakening among Indians during the independence struggle). Though his father earned a living through his small business, the interest in theatre and films stayed. He was even part of the production unit of NFDC (National Film Development Corporation) when the legendary film Garam Hawa was filmed in 1970s, says Sharma. Based on an unpublished story by the noted Urdu writer, Ismat Chugtai, this award-winning film gives a poignant telling on the impact of the 1947 Partition.

Living in Mumbai moving around with friends Naseeruddin and Ratna Pathak, Sharma was cajoled into theatre in 1974 by a person no less than Satyadev Dubey, an Indian theatre director, actor, playwright, screen writer and director and winner of numerous national awards ultimately crowned by the fourth highest civilian honour in India, Padma Bhushan. He had trained outstanding actors like Amrish Puri, Amol Palekar and, later, Nasseruddin Shah, Ratna Pathak and Neena Kulkarni, says Sharma. He was picked together with Naseeruddin Shah and Ratna Pathak. He tells a story of how Dubey came into Pathak’s house and found the three friends having a meal. He asked them to join his group. Sharma refused initially but eventually gave in.

From theatre he moved to television in 1993 with Swabhiman that came after Buniyad, both popular television serials in the early days of soaps in India. They were very well paid in those days, says Sharma.

Satyam, his first film was in Telugu. That came after some more years. Sharma started acting in a number of Telugu movies. And he actually has a Telugu tutor coming in to teach him the language. “All the characters I play are not really Telugu. They don’t want the pukka (pure) Telugu accent.”

 

Then came more films, this time in Hindi; among them, the national award-winning films, Uri and Raazi, and short films, like Roganjosh, where he and Naseeruddin Shah, were back together. Roganjosh, written and directed by Sanjeev Vig, won the Best Filmfare Award in the category of short films and is an emotional telling of how the terrorist bomb blast of Bombay Taj in 2007 destroyed the lives of everyday men and women. He was picked for this movie, Sharma says, because of his forty-four-year-old friendship with Naseeruddin Shah. Their mutual camaraderie was an asset to the film.

By Mitali Chakravarty

IMG_0683

 

Title: Reluctant Editor

Author: PN Balji

Publisher: Marshall Cavendish, 2019

 

The Reluctant Editor has a forward by the prominent Singaporean lawyer and diplomat, Professor Tommy Koh, which tells us that the author, P N Balji “is one of Singapore’s veteran newspaper journalists and editors, and a very good one”. The narrative is not just an account of the Singapore media seen through the eyes of a veteran journalist as stated obviously on the book cover, but also a quick sketch of a man who is introverted and self-effacing.

We do not find the author talk much of himself or his work, but he does give an extensive report on the media history from the early 1970s to the early 2000s in Singapore, including episodes like the Toh Chin Chye case, where a false allegation was made in a newspaper report on an ex-minister of Singapore. PN Balji had been in editorial positions in The Straits Times (ST), The New Paper (TNP) and the founding Editor-in-Chief of Today.

The historic evolution of all the newspapers in Singapore and the government’s involvement in monitoring the media is clearly spelt out — even to the point of deciding what kind of newspapers were necessary for communicating with people. Described as a “brash” newspaper, The New Paper was started to bridge the gap between those who read and comprehended the one hundred and seventy-one-year-old newspaper, The Straits Times, and the people who don’t understand the ST. The New Paper was started to “speak the language of blue-collar workers”. A tabloid and later a morning daily, it needed a set of different writing skills as Professor Koh tells us in the foreword. His article in simple English had to be rewritten by the editor to make it comprehensible for the readers of TNP.

Aysha Baqir in conversation with Koi Kye Lee

Aysha Baqir [Photo]
Aysha Baqir
Aysha Baqir, is an author with  mission, vision and commitment. A development consultant in Singapore, she was born and raised in Pakistan. She has recently launched her powerful, debut novel titled Beyond the Fields. Growing up in Pakistan, it was not a norm for parents to send their daughters to colleges abroad. But for Aysha, things were different as her parents agreed when she won a scholarship to pursue her studies at Mount Holyoke College. Her university experience sparked her passion for development and Aysha chose to return to Pakistan where she discovered that girls and women in villages needed access to economic resources before they could voice their demands for social justice.

She founded Kaarvan Crafts Foundation in 1998, shortly after completing her MBA. A pioneering economic development not-for-profit organisation, Kaarvan Crafts Foundation, is focused on poverty alleviation through the provision of business development and market-focused trainings for girls and women. Aysha headed the foundation until 2013 when she relocated to Singapore. She is a member of the Singapore Writers Group since August 2013 and is currently working on her second novel.

Kye Lee: Your debut novel, Beyond the Fields, is hauntingly beautiful. How did the idea come about for this book? What moved your muse? Had you ever written before? Did any writers, films or art have anything to do with it?

IMG_0480Aysha: Beyond the Fields is the story about a young village girl called Zara. Zara is carefree – she has dreams, she wants to study, and wants to become someone important. She loves kairis (raw mangoes); so, she disobeys her mother and steals into the orchard. And then on one ordinary day, Zara’s twin sister, Tara, the one she is closest to in the whole wide world, is kidnapped from the fields while they are playing a game of hide and seek and raped.

Having worked in the villages of Punjab in Pakistan for over fifteen years, I wanted to show the plight of village girls and women. Thousands of girls and women are assaulted each year and the abuse continues without any substantial family, community, or legal support. And, just not in Pakistan, but across cultures and continents.

I deliberately set the story under Zia-ul-Haq’s regime.  I was twelve years old when my mother dragged me to a march called by WAF or Women’s Action Forum. Being an introverted teenager who studied in American School, I didn’t want to go. But my mother insisted saying it was important for me to see what was happening in our country.

By Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé

ELAINE CHIEW HEAD SHOTS 9806asb_w

Elaine Chiew is a writer and a visual arts researcher, editor of Cooked Up: Food Fiction From Around the World (New Internationalist, 2015) and her short story collection The Heartsick Diaspora is forthcoming from Penguin Random House SEA (Oct 2019) and Myriad Editions UK (Jan 2020). Twice winner of the Bridport Short Story Competition, she has published numerous stories in anthologies in the UK, US and Singapore. Originally from Malaysia, Chiew graduated from Stanford Law School and worked as a corporate securities lawyer in New York and Hong Kong before studying for an MA in Asian Art History at Lasalle College of the Arts Singapore, a degree conferred by Goldsmiths, University of London. Elaine lives in Singapore and blogs about art at www.invisibleflaneuse.blogspot.com. In this interview, she reveals more about her new book and her ideas.

Why do you write?

Very simply, I can’t not write, call it word-constipation or what Danish short story writer Naja Marie Aidt calls ‘an urge that cannot be overlooked’ or a ‘point of desire’. A character or voice arrives out of the blue, takes hold of you as in a waking dream, make me real, it says, and you do.

By Mitali Chakravarty

pic
Nidhi Mishra, CEO and founder of Bookosmia

Nidhi Mishra is an ex-banker who pivoted from a ten year banking career to her passion for reading and luring others to read (admittedly, at times forcibly). Nidhi studied at Lady Shri Ram College , Delhi University, to pick up an Honours in Mathematics and a feminist flair on the side. An MBA from IIM Lucknow took her to a decade long career in the financial sector, finally quitting as VP, HSBC as she wanted to do something more meaningful with her time, which led her to found Bookosmia. Bookosmia (smell of books)  is a children’s content company hoping to make children fall in love with reading, writing and everything else around Indian stories. Over the last two years, the company has built a significant spread of content, across formats- physical books, digital stories and audio stories with one common thread — to curate homegrown, relatable and fun content for Indian children. In this exclusive, Nidhi talks of their present and future, how she feels book publishing is still viable and needed…

Mitali: You have founded a publishing firm, which took up a challenge and pulled it off… selling 1000 copies of a book that was seen as a failure by others in a week. What made you take up the book?

Nidhi: At Bookosmia, we look to not publish more than 2-3 physical books every year. A very strong driver for us is to be able to find the topic / basic storyline meaningful and one that moves us. It helps to start out being very clear to yourself and the team that book publishing is not about making great money — it is about using books as a medium to amplify reach of a certain cause. We took up this book because we were excited about the challenge of using a children’s story book as a medium to spread awareness of a dying Indian dance form in a fun way and we were confident that we would be able to tap into our steadily growing network of parents /schools/ organisations that engage with kids across India.

Mahmood Farooqui in conversation with Gargi Vachaknavi

 Dastangoi is the art of Urdu storytelling that was popular all across India and could regale commoners and elites alike. That was in times of Mughal splendour. The performers were artists and writers rolled into one who left behind over 46,000 pages of published fantasies. The Dastans were the stories told by these storytellers, the gois. Unfortunately this art form completely vanished, leaving behind few memories.

Inspired by the scholarship of one of Urdu’s greatest living writer S. R. Faruqi, Mahmood Farooqui began its revival in 2005 and has since then trained dozens of other storytellers or Dastangos, staged over a thousand shows all around the world and has composed over a dozen modern Dastans for the genre. With all the innovations that he and his team have spearheaded, a virtually new genre of performance and a new kind of writing for the stage has emerged in our times.

IMG_7959
Mahmood Farooqui performing

Farooqui is an award winning writer and performer. He was awarded the Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar by the Sangeet Natak Akademi of the Union Government for his efforts in reviving Dastangoi. His book on the 1857 uprising Besieged: Voices from Delhi, 1857, was awarded the Ram Nath Goenka Award for the best non-fiction book of the year by the Indian Express Group. He has been a visiting fellow at the Universities of Michigan, US and Berkeley, California and was a Rhodes scholar at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. His latest book is A Requiem for Pakistan: The World of Intizar Husain. He has written over 15 modern Dastans for the stage and has trained nearly 50 people besides performing close to 500 shows himself. His wife, film maker Anusha Rizvi, is not only the producer of the Dastangois but also the award winning writer-Director of Peepli Live, a 2010 satirical comedy with the involvement of greats like Aamir Khan and Raghuvir Yadav.

Mahmood Farooqui and his troupe will be performing in Singapore on the 14thof September. In this exclusive, he talks to Gargi Vachaknavi of his work, of how a Dastangoi performance varies from normal theatre and what he is going to perform in Singapore.

 

Gargi: Why did you think of reviving Dastangoi, an art of 13 th century storytelling in Urdu? What is the potential you see that makes you feel it is necessary to contextualise it for the present day?

Farooqui: I was a student of history and had been active in theatre for many years when I came across the great S. R. Faruqi’s study of the world of Dastans. I had been reading Urdu literature all my life but had never really heard of this incredibly enchanting world. When I dug deeper, I was totally bowled over by the genius of the writers and the of the performers. Here was theatre in its purest form, one or two narrators, sitting still and holding an audience captive, just like our ancient rishis (sages) narrated epics and Shastras to rapt listeners. I felt that this was the most essential art form of the Indian subcontinent. From the word go, it was an instant success perhaps because in India everything, including religion is a story.

The innovation I made was to have not one but two narrators and our designer, Anusha Rizvi, kept the basics very simple so we brought it into the ambit of modern theatre by using techniques of lighting, stage decorum and presentation.

Uma Trilok in conversation with Mitali Chakravarty

IMG_0620
Dr Uma Trilok

Dr Uma Trilok is a small vivacious woman, well-dressed and polite… almost more like a retired college professor. She could be a heroine of one of the novels she writes. But as one reads her poetry in both Hindi, Hindustani, Punjabi and English, one is left wondering what goes on behind that serene, calm exterior.

With her writing, Uma draws word pictures which vividly converse with herself as well as the world outside. Through them she asks questions which enquire and eventually appear on her canvas as expressions of love, anguish, loss, hope, smiles and unions. Acclaimed and awarded, she has the rare art of  balancing joy with pain which subtly leaves the reader with a profound sense of hope, courage and enterprise. “Her moving and touchy narrative brings out the deeply spiritual aspect of her writing,” writes India Today.

Besides being an acclaimed bilingual poet, her short stories and novels have been staged as plays. “She presents her lines with a  unique facility of phrase and depth of feeling. In the play of her words, myriad moods of anguish and  ecstasy come to the fore vividly,” writes the Journal of Poetry Society of India.

Uma Trilok has written award winning books including her much acclaimed debut novel, Amrita  Imroz: A Love Story. In all, she has penned 16 books. Here, in this exclusive, she talks of how she started writing and what she sees as her future.

 

Mitali: When did you start writing? Can you tell us what put you on the path of writing? What was your inspiration? Do you have any book, music or art that inspires you?

Uma: At the age of 32,  I was the heading a college for women in Mahashri Dayanand University. While sitting in a quiet environment, when students were taking their exams, a poem arrived, and I put it on a paper…That was the beginning.

Prior to that, I taught at Delhi University. Trained in Indian classical Music and Kathak dance, I sang at the All India Radio and gave dance performances at places like Triveni Kala Sangam, New Delhi. I had to conceal this part of myself from the conservative management of the women’s college. My journey as a poet started as a result of this trammel, way back in the 1970s. My creativity needed to flow somehow in some direction. I picked up the pen, a safe medium.

Writing was not a choice, it was a compulsion.

Koi Kye Lee in conversation with author Simon Rowe

Picture1

Simon Rowe, an author- photographer- lecturer and avid traveller,  lives in the samurai castle town of Himeji, Japan, and writes from there. He has recently brought out a collection of short stories titled Good Night Papa: Short Stories from Japan and Elsewhere.

Born and raised in Central Hawkes Bay, New Zealand, he moved to Australia where he graduated from Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. Simon Rowe not only has a passion for words, but also indulges in photography. Many of his works have appeared in TIME (Asia), the New York Times, the Weekend Australian, the South China Morning Postand the Paris Review. His short stories have been published in Flesh: A Southeast Asian Urban Anthology (2016), Another Time Another Place: A Collection of Short Stories (2015) and Noir Nation: International Crime Fiction No. 3(2013). He holds an MA in Writing from Swinburne University of Technology and is currently a foreign language instructor at Kwansei Gakuin University. He recently published another short story, ‘The Summer Hills of Pourerere’ , a story that talks of three teenage misfits forging a path through a harsh rural environment.

In this exclusive interview, he talks about travel, writing and teaching from Japan, the inspiration behind his stories, and his life as an English lecturer.

Kye Lee: Your stories have appeared in numerous publications. What made you start writing and for how long have you been writing?

Simon: That’s a long story! Growing up in rural New Zealand during the 1980s, my window on the world was National Geographic magazine. Naturally, I wanted to be a travel writer and photographer. My first story was about backpacking from Melbourne to Cape Tribulation in far-north Australia. I sold that tale to a newspaper in Melbourne and with the money bought an onward ticket. This became my existence for the next fifteen years and took me around the world three times. I finally settled in Japan where I now write short fiction, screenplays, and a blog called ‘Seaweed Salad Days’, about life in a traditional Japanese neighborhood.