Sohan S. Koonar is a physiotherapist by training but his love for story-telling has bagged him the Judges Choice Award in the Toronto Star Short Story Contest and the first Burlington Library Literary Excellence Award. His self-published novel Karam’s Kismet got mentioned in sixteen dailies and periodicals in the US. He is a founder of a multi-clinic company and an inventor of international patents too. Koonar has lived in four continents — Asia, Africa, Europe and North America — and spends the year in his family homes in Canada, Italy and India. Paper Lions, published by Mawenzi House in Canada and Speaking Tiger in India, is a novel that explores the rich culture and history of Punjab and its role in the coming of age of India as a nation.
Paper Lions is an epic multi-generational saga of Punjab. Koonar draws on a vast canvas to present a picture in pre- and post-independent India. The novel is a five-part story of what transpires in the inchoate state of Punjab from 1937to 1965. Raikot, located a few kilometres from Ludhiana, is the locale. While the narrative revolves around three main characters — Brikram, Basanti and Ajit — and their families, it also weaves a yarn of rural Punjab in those times.
The book explores a myriad of characters — some from nomadic tribes, such as the Bajigars and some are just villagers — the dairyman, the matchmaker, the astrologer, the Giyani (Sikh wise men), the politicians, the publicists, the head of the cattle yard, the bootlegger, the snake-catcher, the Brahmins, the school headmaster and more. The characters reveal the customs and mindset of the people based on caste and clan, their religion, and the trials and tribulations that time and history brought forth.
Literature about the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bomb blasts has been around for quite sometime. But it is perhaps the first time that the story of a hibakushahas been told for middle-grade readers in America with Kathleen Burkinshaw’s novel, The Last Cherry Blossom.
The novel is the story of Burkinshaw’s mother, Toshiko Ishikawa Hilliker, who was victimised by the nuclear blast during her own childhood. She married an American and moved to USA and never spoke of her nuclear war experience till at the end of her life when she saw her daughter forced to quit her career because of a debilitating neurological condition as a result of her mother’s exposure to the nuclear blast, eventhough Hilliker had been at “ home” in Japan and less affected.
Burkinshaw has put down her mother’s story as she heard it. The novel also evolved as we are told: “At age 12 in 2010, Burkinshaw’s daughter, Sara, came home upset one day after classmates said the infamous mushroom cloud that had engulfed Hiroshima was ‘cool’.
‘The need for human connection and emotion is timeless, and I don’t think the kids who were talking about that mushroom cloud were doing anything to be cruel,’ Burkinshaw said. ‘They just didn’t know. They needed to have that connection.’”
San Lin Tun is a writer from Myanmar who wants to create a school of writing in “Myanmar English”. He writes and publishes in English. Recently, he published one of the few novels in English written and published within the Burman borders. The novel is historically important because you do not find too many novels published in English within Myanmar, though San LinTun very humbly calls himself, “a third-generation writer in English”. His novel, The English Writer, brings to life CJ Richards, a civil servant who turned writer during the last days of the British Raj, about a time when Burma was part of the Indian empire.
The storyline shuttles between 2016 and the early twentieth century. Richards’s story is related to two young men very deeply interested in literature, called Oo and Lin, by an older man well-versed about the author’s life, U Aung Aye Myint. The setting brings to mind Satyajit Ray’s famed detective Feluda ( based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes) who would consult his uncle Sidhu every once in a while to unearth a mine of information on any given issue. However, Uncle Sidhu was based on Mycroft and the discussion was mostly not literary as it is in San Lin Tun’s novel and the visits were repeated. Here the story is given at a single sitting.
Flavoured with contrasts between the eras and cultures of the Raj and current day Myanmar, we get a glimpse of a country where bookshops still seem to thrive and young men roam about in longyis, their traditional wear. The style of writing reminds one of Henry Feilding’s Joseph Andrews though rendered in modern Myanmar English. The story is direct and detailed with minimal layering used to add realism to the telling.
One of the most interesting observations made by the protagonist Lin, who develops a curiosity about Richardson after reading his poems, is a comparison he makes between this writer and George Orwell, who was also stationed in Burma.
After reading the poetry book, Lin wanted to find more books by the same author. He found that the author’s sentiment towards local people was quite different from other foreign authors who wrote about Burma.
Especially George Orwell, who wrote a novel set in Burma of that time. The novel was so well-known that almost every visitor enjoyed reading it. But Lin disagreed with some of the points in the novel, mainly those concerned with the portrayal of Burmese characters.
It is interesting to note his observation because when one reads Orwell’s Burmese Days, one reads more about the British stationed in Burma and not really the Burmese. The sketch of Burmese is used by Orwell to expose the cruelty, the harshness and the lack of sensitivity in his own countrymen. The Burmese and Indians are coincidental. They are there to play out the stories of the pukka sahibs at the Englishmen’s club.
We are told C J Richards wrote because he missed his life in Burma. Even to this day, expats find it difficult to go back and settle into their own countries. Described as the adult third culture kids’ (ATCK) syndrome, the term applies to people who evolved a hybrid culture like Richards in San Lin Tun’s novel or the protagonist John Flory and even the pukka sahibs in Burmese Days. They evolved a culture in between their country of birth and the country they spent their lives in. This was first identified by Ruth Useem in 1950 and the syndrome is evident in CJ Richards who does not like living in England after his retirement and keeps reliving his Burmese days with his writing and occasional trips to Burma. Born in Burma, CJ Richards finds many positives in the local culture as does Flory in Burmese Days.
We have seen such characters in stories written during this period by authors who lived and grew within the Indian subcontinent but did not belong to the local culture. However, perhaps, very seldom have we experienced such a positive account given of a British officer by the people who suffered under the regime of the Raj. To explain his unique stance and the culture of Myanmar, Sanlin Tun gave us an exclusive interview.
What made you pick the life of CJ Richards as a subject for your book?
I firstly found his poetry book on Burma/Myanmar and he called that Rainbow Land and Other Burma Verses. When foreign writers visit or pass Yangon and write about Burma or Myanmar, they mostly write in prose, not in poetry. This was one of the reasons I became interested in the author. But I could not find any relevant facts on his life though I searched the Internet. I wondered why he had sunk into oblivion though he had a number of his literary works. That made me curious. So, I thought that it would be nice for me and other people to find out more of his life and I decided to reconstruct it through the medium of a novel.
Isa Kamari is a well-known legend in the Singapore literary community. He has won numerous awards — the Anugerah Sastera Mastera, the SEA Write award and Singapore Cultural Medallion, the Anugerah Tun Seri Lanang. He has been written about and discussed in Universities. With ten novels, nine of which have been translated into English — and some into more languages like Arabic, Mandarin, Urdu and Turkish — three poetry books and plays under his belt and one novella written in English by him, one can well see him as a maestro of storytelling.
The last translation of his novel Kiswah has been launched in November at the Writer’s Festival in Singapore. Isa, a reformer at heart who claims to write only when he is very moved, authored and published three novels together in 2002. Intercession was to do with much needed comments on Islam — an outcome of the 9/11 bombing in New York; The Tower was to do with an individual’s own journey through materialism to a more spiritual plane and the last, which is what will be dealt with here, was Kiswah, a critique on the effects of pornography on young minds.
Most of Isa’s books can be seen as the journey of the protagonist towards self realisation. The issues he takes up are of global concern, though he claims to focus on the Malay community in his books.
This year both the Nobel and the Booker prizes have been surrounded by controversies. The Booker Prize announced two winners — Margaret Atwood for The Testaments and Bernardine Evaristo for Girl, Woman, Other.
While rulings had been made earlier to rule out the eventuality for such an occurrence , a CNN report says: “This will only be the third time that a dual award has been given. In fact, the award changed its rules in 1993 to clearly state that ‘the prize may not be divided or withheld’ after the second two-author win.”
The £50,000 will be shared by the two writers.
Public opinion expressed in tweets said: “My only booker take is that it is a shame that the first black woman to win has to share the glory” and “The Booker has simultaneously delegitimized its own worth and diminished the achievements of a woman of color with this rousing double win.”
Two novels by Rahman Abbas, a Sahitya Akademi award winning novelist in Urdu, have been picked by Penguin Random House for their Vintage imprint, which is known to publish “the world’s most thought provoking and powerful books”. Both the novels are acclaimed. Rohzin won the Sahitya Akademi award in 2018 and Khuda Ke Saaye Mein Aankh Micholi was awarded the Maharashtra State Akademi Award in 2011.
Rahman Abbas said, “I have lost many things in my life due to my decision to write my novels, exactly as I wanted to write them but fortunately, I have regained a lot without compromising on my writing. The news that my two novels would be published by Penguin-Random House in English has pleased me beyond words. It’s like a dream coming true before my eyes. I’m very thankful to Zafar Anjum of Kitaab and Jayapriya Vasudevan of Jacaranda for having made it possible.”
About: Set in different cities around the world, Elaine Chiew’s award-winning stories travel into the heart of the Singaporean and Malaysian Chinese diasporas to explore the lives of those torn between cultures and juggling divided selves. In the title story, four writers find their cultural bonds of friendship tested when a handsome young Asian writer joins their group. In other stories, a brother searches for his sister forced to serve as a comfort woman during World War Two; three Singaporean sisters run a French gourmet restaurant in New York; a woman raps about being a Tiger Mother in Belgravia; and a filmmaker struggles to document the lives of samsui women—Singapore’s thrifty, hardworking construction workers.
About: An English Writer is a story about a forgotten English poet/writer, C.J Richards (retired I.C.S) who lived and worked in Burma for over 35 years as an Indian Civil Servant. He retired in 1947 and settled in Swarraton, Hampshire in UK. Although he wrote seven books and many articles on Burma and UK, not many people know much of him and his life. The novel “An English Writer” explores the life of the English writer and defines his connection with both communities, Burma (Myanmar) and Britain as a poet and writer. The story, set in present Yangon, transports people back into the times of the English writer, C. J Richards, from 1920 to 1947 and then to 1976.
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?
Aysha: 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.
I was in my bedroom, sitting on the stool, dozing with a hookah in my hand. A sliver of light was permeating, creating a clever shadow on the wall, a ghost dancing. Lunch wasn’t ready yet — I sat in a pensive state; I was dreaming as I puffed… If I were Napoleon, could I win the battle of Waterloo?
Right at the moment, an unexpected sound crept in, “Meow”.
As I tried looking, I couldn’t perceive anything. First, I thought that the Duke of Wellington had taken the shape of a cat and was approaching me to beg for some opium. Full of enthusiasm, tough as a stone, I thought I’d say that the Lord Duke shouldn’t ask for more, given that he had been awarded previously. Too much greed isn’t healthy. The Duke replied, “Meow”.
With careful observation, it dawned on me that this wasn’t Wellington! This was a petty cat that had drunk the milk reserved for me as I was busy arranging soldiers on Waterloo’s field — unaware of the cat’s theft. The beautiful cat, filled with satisfaction after finishing all the milk was intent on making its satisfaction known to this world.
In a mellifluous tone, it said “Meow!”
I did perceive that the cat was mocking at me, that it was laughing internally as, facing me, it thought; “Somebody dies drying the pond; somebody eats the koi.”
I perceive that the “Meow” had the intent of understanding what was on my mind. I perceive that the cat’s thought was, “I’ve finished your milk—now what do you say?”
We go from place to place. In Durjanpur, to nearby villages in that temporarily parched but exquisite Bihar landscape, in schoolyards and open bazaars. We present our play to young and old, masters and servants, women and men. We drive by expansive bajra and wheat fields, breathtaking floral carpets of white sesame and purple bush beans, starving peasants clutching their ribs and staring at us by roadsides and motorcycle-borne landed gentry – supposedly the most powerful and influential folks in the region – asking us city folks where we are headed next. None of these rural folks have ever seen a street play where actors don’t wear flashy make-up or gaudy clothes but just a pair of jeans and a shirt, where a woman acts and touches the men, and where no nachanias or dancers sway their hips to raunchy music – a staple non-family entertainment by travelling troupes in rural north India. The very first day we arrived in Durjanpur, I remember kids went running helter-skelter announcing us to the villagers. “Nachanias have come, nachanias have come!” they screamed, to which married women and young girls covered their face with an extra hard tug of the dupatta or the sari and hookah-smoking men sat in shock thinking the old headmaster has gone crazy inviting this impudent city bunch that is bound to corrupt good moral village folks. I am quite aware that nachanias connote immorality for them. Also a woman – that is me – in our team adds to their confusion they find tough to hide. For them, decent women in the village do not go about anywhere with a bunch of men, unless they happen to be her son, a relative or a client desirous of specific pleasures. My jeans and shirts – I brought limited change of clothes – attract attention, as does my scarf, briefly, which I wear for propriety’s sake only for a week and then discard, generating more palpable shock. Our hectic schedule doesn’t allow me to wash my shoulder-length hair regularly, so I myself chop further around the mop with a pair of scissors to make it look like a boy’s head. I thank my common sense for bringing a pair of sturdy sneakers. They literally keep me on my toes. It’s only when I come back to rest in the evening, that Muskaan amuses herself examining my precious box of skin creams and moisturizers, the stuff that I religiously use for fear of losing my feminine side. “Ah now I know why city women look so delicate!” Muskaan enjoys hurling banters at me. I give her a tube. “Keep that for yourself, aloe vera and vitamin D.” She laughs, the serpentine braid slithering on her back. Then poking me on my arm she says, “Sheherwali, chew tulsi leaves every morning. Even your backside will not get pimples! Besides, Maoists might still recognize you as a woman and not shoot.”
Things don’t turn out to be dreadful. The Ghost at the Altar runs into several shows. The play seems to have intrigued this sleepy region and its lethargic inhabitants. Not so sleepy really. Frequent ambushes by Maoists, deep-rooted caste feuds and occasional Hindu-Muslim tiffs keep this place alive and awake. And these influence periodic activities like elections, public works or other significant government projects.