Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty

state of emergency

 

Title: State of Emergency
Author: Jeremy Tiang
Publisher: Epigram Books, 2017
Number of pages: 245

Jeremy Tiang’s State of Emergency won 2018’s Singapore Literature Prize (SLP) for fiction. Kate Griffin, one of the judges for the award, wrote in an article, “Erasing Histories” (https://nationalcentreforwriting.org.uk/article/erasing-histories/): ‘State of Emergency, Jeremy Tiang’s beautifully written first novel, highlights a lesser known side of Singaporean history, exploring the leftist movements and political detentions in Malaysia and Singapore from the 1940s onwards, through the stories and memories of an extended family.’

Focused mainly within the local and Malayan Chinese community, the Communist movement found refuge in the jungles of Malaysia. The novel traces the development and then the quelling of this movement through the stories of three generations of Jason Low’s extended family. Jason’s wife, Siew Lee, chooses Communism over her family and leaves for the jungles of Malaya, partly to save herself and partly to live by her beliefs. Jason loses his sister in the 1965 Konfrontasi terrorist bomb blast in MacDonald House where she worked in a bank. The Konfrontasi was an Indonesian reaction to oppose the colonial decision for the formation of a separate Malaysia (of which Singapore remained a part till August 1966). These political movements in the ASEAN rip through the fabric of the Low family, tearing it apart.  Though his daughter continues to work as a Singapore government official, his son leaves him to immigrate to the United Kingdom and Jason Low finds himself in a ‘C’ class geriatric ward.

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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.

Lucknow has been the hub of mushaira, Dasstaangoi and kavi sammelan for centuries, but as times change, rituals and traditions also get recreated and rejuvenated according to the prevailing zeitgeist. In a unique collaboration, the first of its kind, writers, poets, translators and scriptwriters from different parts of India and Asia assembled in Lucknow in the first weekend of April to celebrate writing from South Asia and Southeast Asia.

This first edition of the SRMU Kitaab Literary Festival was jointly organized by Kitaab International Pte. Ltd., Singapore and Shri Ramaswaroop Memorial University (SRMU), Lucknow and was held on the 7th and 8th of April, 2018 at the SRMU campus.

Building bridges between Asian writers and readers

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Lighting the lamp: Pro Chancellor Pooja Agarwal (second from right)

Festival Director Zafar Anjum, the festival’s patron A K Singh, Vice Chancellor of SRMU, Chancellor Pankaj Agarwal, Pro Chancellor Pooja Agarwal, and the faculty of SRMU led by Dr. B.M. Dixit, inaugurated the festival. ‘The aim of this festival ties up with the aim of Kitaab—to create bridges and dialogue between Asian writers and global readers and to bring literature to the grassroots,’ said Anjum in his welcome address.

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Kitaab’s director Zafar Anjum delivering his welcome address

Agarwal applauded SRMU’s collaboration with Kitaab. He said that Kitaab is an esteemed organisation that offers a promising worldwide platform to both budding and established authors, editors and publishers. Extending from the areas of literary fiction and translation to filmmaking (together with Filmwallas, founded by Zafar Anjum), Kitaab caters to all genres in English and other South Asian languages.

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The festival featured more than 20 writers in English, Hindi and Urdu from India, Singapore and Malaysia. Well-known and award-winning writers such as Sudeep Sen, Rahman Abbas, Yogesh Praveen, Dr. Surya Prasad Dixit, Isa Kamari, Dr. Rakhshanda Jalil, Dr. Malachi Edwin Vethamani and Novoneel Chakraborty top lined the festival. Theatre and film actor Shishir Sharma, who was present to talk about his journey in the world of acting, presented the film, More Chai Please, Singapore’s first Urdu short film.

The film, shot in Singapore and presented by Filmwallas, tells the story of a couple with the plot spanning Singapore and Lucknow. The film’s writer and producer Sunita Lad Bhamray and its director Zafar Anjum were present during a special screening of the film on the second day of the festival.

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Eminent poet Sudeep Sen with veteran actor Shishir Sharma

The other major highlight of the festival was the launch of Tawassul, a Malay novel by Singaporean novelist Isa Kamari, translated into Urdu by Rubina Siddiqui. It is the first work of Singaporean literature to be translated into Urdu. Award-winning Urdu novelist, Rahman Abbas who has also helped oversee the edits, hailed this avant-garde work of fiction and told the audience that the book’s Hindi edition was in the works.

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Rahman Abbas (left) with Isa Kamari (right) launching Tawassul in Urdu

 

By Shikhandin

Dr Quayum

Dr Mohammad A. Quayum is the author, editor and translator of 32 books in the areas of American literature, Asian Literature and Postcolonial literatures. He is also the author of more than sixty articles in distinguished peer-reviewed journals. His research interests range from 19th and 20th century American literature to contemporary Asian literature, with special focus on Indian literature, Bengali literature and Malaysian-Singaporean literature.

He is the Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief of Asiatic: An International Journal of Asian Literatures, Cultures and Englishes (indexed in Web of Science and Scopus) and is on the advisory board of several leading journals including Journal of Postcolonial Writing (Routledge, UK; ISI indexed), Transnational Literature (Australia; ERA indexed), Interdisciplinary Literary Studies (USA; WoS indexed), Journal of Postcolonial Cultures and Societies (USA), Literature Today (India), The Apollonian: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies (India), and The Rupkatha Journal of the Interdisciplinary Studies of the Humanities (India; Scopus indexed).

Dr Quayum is dean of the Kulliyyah (Faculty) of Islamic Revealed Knowledge and Human Sciences at International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM), and an Honorary Professor of English and Creative Writing at Flinders University, Australia.

 

Shikhandin: Most of us only know of you as Dr M.A. Quayum the academic and mentor. Tell us a bit about your early life, and what drew you to pursue literature.

Dr M.A. Quayum: I was born in a small town called Gopalganj, in the district of Faridpur in Bangladesh. This was before Bangladesh was formed and was still known as East Pakistan. I grew up in this small, near-idyllic town and got my early education in the only Government school for boys there, S.M. Model Primary and High School. When I was eleven, my father sent me to a public residential school several hundred kilometres away, known as Jhenidah Cadet College. This marked a turning point in my life. It was an English medium school and the fees were very high. My father could hardly afford the fees and yet he sent me there, mainly to secure a good future for me. A second reason was that my father, who was a lawyer in Gopalganj, had a great admiration for English language and literature. Probably he thought that sending me there would also give me a good grounding in the language. I don’t know how and where he picked up his love for English, because my grandfather was a religious teacher at a primary school in our village who had little interaction with the language. My father was, however, educated at the Islamia College (now Maulana Azad College) in Calcutta (Kolkata), and perhaps it was there that he developed his great love for both English language and literature. You would be surprised to know that my father could recite several poems by Wordsworth, Keats, Tennyson and Browning from memory. He would take enormous pride in reciting Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” and Tennyson’s “Ulysses” in particular. Maybe I was infected by his love in childhood and therefore developed a natural penchant for literature from an early age, reading all kinds of books, in both Bengali and English. My father would often buy me books and take me to the local library and encourage me to participate in various literary activities such as essay writing and poetry recitation competitions. I remember participating in an essay writing competition on the life of the Prophet when I was seven or eight years old, and then being invited to read my essay at a local mosque. I also remember my father giving me a copy of Rabindranath Tagore’s collection of short stories, Galpagucchha, for my eleventh birthday, and I recollect reading almost all of it in a great rush. My recent attempt to translate some of Rabindranath’s short stories into English, which was first published as Rabindranath Tagore: Selected Short Stories by Macmillan India in 2011 and then as Rabindranath Tagore: The Ruined Nest and Other Stories by Silverfish Books Malaysia in 2014, was a means to share that childhood excitement and discovery: firstly with my daughter who, being born and brought up in Australia, has in a way lost touch with the language and the culture; secondly, with my students and friends in Malaysia and elsewhere, who have great curiosity about and admiration for Tagore but cannot read his work in the original because of the language barrier.