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Country of Focus: Singapore

Book Review: Horizon Afar and Other Tamil Stories
by Jayanthi Sankar

Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty

Horizon Afar

Title: Horizon Afar & other Tamil short stories
Author: Jayanthi Sankar
Translated by P. Muralidharan
Publisher: Kitaab, 2016
Pages: 230

Horizon Afar is a collection of twenty-one translated short stories from the Singapore-based Tamil writer, Jayanthi Sankar. Spanning the last two decades, the stories shuttle between life in Singapore and India, creating links between the two countries and drawing on the writer’s multicultural experiences and interactions in the country where she lives.

Often her stories centre on teenagers and young people. The title story is about a teenager who shuttles through a surrealistic experience to find his footing in junior college (high school in Singapore). The most interesting read was a darker story, Mother’s Words, which deals with a reformed convict who is ostracized by the world yet loved by the mother.

A Few Pages from Yuka Wong’s Diary depicts the changing mindset of a multicultural population and their ability to transcend hatred to discover a fascination for a country that had unscrupulous expansionist ambitions in the 1940’s Japan.  The story is told through the pages of a young girl’s diary and makes an interesting and effective use of the device.

Melissa’s Choices is about a young man’s discovery of the fickleness of a young girl’s choices. School Bag, Revelation and Rehearsal are stories about teenagers’ journeys of discoveries in a multicultural society. Seventy Rupees, set in the midst of an auto-rickshaw strike in India, is a glimpse of the apathy of middle class towards the plight of the poor.

The stories often circle around the tedium of modern day existence and focus on the darker aspects of life. The issues faced by workers ‘imported’ from small villages of Tamil Nadu are dealt with in a couple of stories. While Cycle focuses on a flesh trader located in Singapore preying on an innocent Tamil migrant woman, Migration deals with an Indian domestic helper’s inability to adjust in Singapore. There are stories about unwed mothers, a girl who rebels to adopt a trans-sexual lifestyle, university life, school life and marriages arranged within the Tamil community in Singapore.

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Book Review: The Sacred Sorrow of Sparrows by Siddharth Dasgupta

Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty

The Secret Sorrow of Sparrows

Title: The Sacred Sorrow of Sparrows — A Collection of Lives
Author: Siddhartha Dasgupta
Publisher: Kitaab, 2017
Pages: 316
ISBN: 978-981-11- 4966-5

The Sacred Sorrow of Sparrows is a collection of ten short stories by Siddhartha Dasgupta that seem to be created out of a gossamer web of words flung accidentally into the right place. The writer’s artistry and skill lies perhaps in recreating an aura of ephemerality and serendipity, the two elements that are part of the wonder of everyday existence.

The book is structured into a prelude and ten stories. In the prelude, the author explains, ‘…these aren’t particularly sad stories. At least they weren’t mean to be.’ Yet, there is often a lingering sadness – though not despondency – that strings together the stories in this collection. The sadness is tinged with hope and the stories build up to a crescendo leading to the exposition of the author’s worldview in the concluding story. The stories are best experienced if read in order though they can stand as independent vignettes of poetic prose.

The book starts with “The Baker from Kabul” and his reactions to his family, from whom he has been sundered by the Afghani unrest. Located in Dubai, the story gives an insight into the life and thoughts of a common baker who found refuge in this affluent city. “The Train Rolled through the Night” is a recap of two brothers who return home, where they had slept as children ‘to the sound of Indian local trains’, to uncover a murder mystery in their past and reach a surprise conclusion that scars them forever with a tinge of sorrow.

“Gulmohar Drive” delves into the grief of Shenaz Wadia. Shenaz returns to Pune to visit the home of her beloved dead grandmother. As she tries to come to terms with her loss, a brief, intense, incomplete romance evokes a sense of longing in the reader… a longing like Shenaz feels for the wet Gulmohur flowers. “Dawn’s Fatal Betrayal”, while glancing at life in traditional Lucknow, imparts a deeper sense of loss, except the mystery of death is left untouched. The reader is left wondering if this is done intentionally to emphasise the uncertainty and whimsicality of existence.

“Once Upon a Mystic Sky” is the story of the poignant reunion of a qawal, his childhood sweetheart and their child… a story par excellence, one of the best in the collection. It has pathos, love, tolerance and what could be seen as a satisfying ending, with mystic music and qawali ably highlighting the values within the narrative arc. “The Thousandth Bridge”, set in Isfahan, Iran, explores creativity beyond destruction. At the end of the story, though the bridges that are painted by the protagonist are destroyed in an earthquake, will the artist draw from the ‘light’ that glows within her to recreate what was? The ‘light’ within her in Isfahan is touched upon in the last story by the narrative of a Sufi dervish who whirls through the world  peopled also by the characters from the book.

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How writing a short story collection is like starting a zoo

(From Lit Hub. Link to the complete article given below)

People are always saying, “I have an idea for a story.” But if a story starts in an idea it might as well give up and be a novel. I think ransacking your mind for story ideas builds up an immunity to the mysterious form itself. At some point you have to bow to the story’s elusiveness and refusal of paraphrase, that is, of expression as an idea. As Lucia Berlin said, “Thank God I don’t write with my brain.”

You saw something—even a word in somebody else’s story misread at first. You heard something. For a moment an awareness was yours, and you want it again, you want the words for it. It’s a kind of apparition.

Walter Benjamin says, “It is half the art of storytelling to keep a story from explanation as one reproduces it.” Reproduces!  Perfect word. Somewhere, the story already exists. You glimpsed it, you have to find it.

And then—it’s in the door like a stray cat. Then, for me, comes an occasional deceiving fondness, followed by the wish, in the middle of cooking or talking to somebody, to go get the story and grab it by the neck and be rid of it. This is after weeks, months. It’s my cat by then.

The very short ones are what I’m most interested in now—or most pressed to do. My stories have always been long, and now I want compression. The short shorts in my new book Terrarium (Counterpoint, August 2018) aren’t what I’d call flash fiction, maybe because the word “flash” is too—bright. Also, in our moment, it seems to be at the fingertips of anyone who write stories or wants to. I think readers believe it’s easy. Instead, like any short story, it requires concentration from the reader. And it’s not an invention of our period. I consider what’s now called flash fiction to be one manifestation of an art that goes back as far as we can see. Always, stories have been short and they’ve been long, depending on what overtook the storyteller and/or what the audience cried out for.

Read more at the Lit Hub link here


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Book Review: The Circle of Life and Other Stories by Haimanti Dutta Ray

Reviewed by Nilesh Mondal

The Circle of Life and Other Tales

Title: The Circle of Life and Other Tales
Author: Haimanti Dutta Ray
Publisher: Locksley Hall Publishing (LLP), 2018
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Considering it is her debut book, the author writes The Circle of Life and Other Stories with a wild abandon and an almost childlike glee, which becomes both the boon and a bane for this collection. What you first notice in these stories are their characters; most of the characters are well fleshed-out, relatable and carry the general essence of being a Bengali in their subtle habits and mannerisms. The author uses her understanding of the Bengali culture to its fullest while drawing out her characters, giving them voices which are at times unique, at times a reverberation of how the community functions.

‘The Final Curtain’ talks about the famed theatre circuit of Kolkata and one man’s journey through life and later, death on the stage. Another story, ‘Mimesis’, features a man and woman who love each other but never really learn how to understand and navigate through the subtleties of their relationship, leading to a tragic, if not unpredictable, conclusion. The characters in both stories, although entirely different from each other in behaviour, hold the same pattern of being souls who live in the present but have their roots stuck somewhere firmly in the past, quite like the city in which these stories are set. Not only are the characters relatable but also the struggles they go through. Whether it’s the marital problems that the characters in ‘Mimesis’ try to deal with or the themes of mortality and loss in ‘The Final Curtain’, the grief and guilt that the characters struggle with remind readers of their own lives. In doing so, the stories become less of fiction and more of a slice from our everyday existence, fragile to a fault and fraught with problems, but with hope and empathy as their saving grace at the end of each day. Her description of the pousmela, the Bengali fair celebrating spring, or the artworks of Rabindranath and Abanindranath Tagore, evoke a sense of deep nostalgia in every Bengali reader, at the same time bringing to the non-Bengali reader a taste of the culture.

However, the characters are only part of the larger stories, which unfortunately suffer repeatedly from other factors. These are largely bad pacing and the conclusions that neither befit the beginnings nor do justice to the erratic assembly of characters. ‘Wait Until Dark’, for example, starts off as a whodunit but eventually devolves to something that can hardly be taken seriously by the end. The endings of most stories are disappointing, building the narrative to a point where it can’t carry through its own momentum. The characters have similar voices, a problem that becomes all the more evident because the stories showcase a wide variety of people from various facets of life, and who are therefore, expected to speak differently.

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Writing Matters: In conversation with Jayanthi Sankar

By Mitali Chakravarty

Jayanthi Shankar

A small, vibrant woman full of energy comes to my mind when I think of Jayanthi Sankar. Born and brought up in India, she has been writing for the past twenty three years. She has been published in several magazines and ezines including the Indian Ruminations, Museindia, The Wagon and InOpinion. Loss and Laws and Horizon Afar are two collections of her Tamil short stories that have been translated into English. ​Her works of short fiction have been included in various anthologies including The Other. She has been invited to participate in the panels of literary festivals such as Singapore Writers Festival, Seemanchal International Literary festival, Asean-India Pravasi Bharatiya Divas Writers Festival.

Jayanthi was effusive and generous with her responses to the questions we put before her.

 

Mitali: Tell us a little about when, why and how you started to write.

Jayanthi: Looking back, I feel it is all like a dream – nothing was planned. It just happened. I was not a serious reader till my mid-twenties. In the1990s, when we migrated to Singapore, what attracted me the most were the libraries with their generous shelves of books – I’d found my world, and undoubtedly, I owe it to the National Library Board that paved the way for me to evolve as a reader and subsequently a writer.

I read passionately for four to five years, only for the joy of it, both in English and Tamil. A natural critic was born in me. I was not even aware of it for long. At one point of time that voice started getting too fuzzy about style and narration of some of the fiction that I often chose randomly and soon I asked myself, ‘Isn’t it always easier said than done?’

That’s how in 1995 I tried to craft a short story in Tamil – ‘Turning point’ – which I never thought would lead me to discover the creative ability in me. A very simple, amateurish narration based on an early morning dream of an incident that I’d had, ended up being published that weekend in the only local Tamil daily and the editor called to appreciate and encourage me to continue.

I recollect now, I had to try a few more stories in the next several months before I could actually believe that I really could pursue writing. I have always loved fiction, both to read and to write. For the next couple of years I experimented aimlessly in both the languages.

Suddenly, one fine day I thought, should I focus in one language first, English or Tamil?

I had known of a few senior writers like Ashokamitran, Indra Parthasarathy who wrote first in English and took up Tamil soon to last longer. But nonetheless, I decided to focus first on Tamil.

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(From The Caravan. Link to the complete article is given below.)

……

Lucknow, of course, does show up in Masud’s fiction. Its artisan culture features in many stories: the glass worker in “Sheeha Ghat,” the chikan embroiderer in “Ganjefa,” the perfume maker in “Essence of Camphor.” In “Interregnum,” a mason carves designs of fish into the facades of buildings. Fish designs just like these were once the emblem of Awadh, and they adorn Lucknow’s Asifi Imambara, as well as the frontages of many buildings in the neighbourhoods of Chowk, Ashrafababad and Aminabad. Whenever I spot a fish on an old Lucknow building, I inevitably think of the mason in “Interregnum.”

I am, however, uncomfortable with tributes that bind Masud to Lucknow. They form part of a larger tendency to read South Asian authors, particularly those who write in Indian languages, as windows into a distinctive local culture. This approach misses the essence of Masud’s fiction. His Spanish translator, Rocío Moriones Alonso, once noted that Masud’s stories show us that the universal can be found in the extreme local. The blind grandmother cracking betel nuts in “Destitutes Compound” might be an undeniably Lucknavi—or at least north Indian—character, but the sensation she evokes is that of motionless time and placelessness.

Moreover, Masud was in many ways a global writer. He was a professor of Persian, a former global language, and a translator of Persian and English into Urdu. His own works in Urdu were translated into many languages. A few years ago, I found a Spanish translation of a collection of Masud’s stories in Mexico City, in a bookstore called Libreria Gandhi. As I sat rereading “Essence of Camphor,” I realised that Masud might have hardly left his native city, but he travelled more widely than most who board a transcontinental flight every year. One of his most commendable accomplishments is that, through his stories, he ultimately expanded Urdu’s reach. And he did so precisely at a time when the language—as well as its speakers, readers and writers—faced harsh political pressure, and many in India actively sought to restrict and confine it.

I had the pleasure of knowing Masud during the last decade of his life. By then he was ailing. Nonetheless, it was not hard to see how his writing reflected his lifestyle. He owned several books about crafts, and his home was decorated with pieces of art he had created. Masud once told me that he often was afflicted by “craft spells” and described how, two decades earlier, he had become obsessed with making wood and clay sijdegah—small tablets used by Shia Muslims to rest their foreheads on during prayers. He made many sijdegah and gave several dozen away to friends and relatives. Some of them, however, are still lying around his house, and his son, Timsal Masud, offers namaz on one of them every day.

Read the complete article at this link


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Kitaab’s The Best Asian Short Stories (TBASS) 2018: Winners and selected authors

Today, when latitudes shift, cultures collide, and we are all travellers in one form or another, in ways perhaps unprecedented, these stories must be told.
              — Dr Debotri Dhar, editor TBASS 2018

 

Putting together an anthology of short stories is not easy. Reading across a continent and picking from among the best of its writers and their stories is a daunting endeavour. TBASS 2018 is the fruit of this undertaking — 24 writers, 13 countries — led by Dr Debotri Dhar, Editor, TBASS 2018 and Zafar Anjum, Series editor.

‘The winners of TBASS 2018 are Rakhshanda Jalil (India), Aditi Mehrotra (India), and Martin Bradley (Malaysia; originally UK),’ said Dr. Debotri Dhar. ‘I also loved the translation of Japanese writer Mogami Ippei by Avery Udagawa (Thailand; originally USA), and there were many other excellent entries, from more than 13 countries.

‘While Rakhshanda Jalil is a seasoned writer known to many in South Asia, Aditi Mehrotra is an aspiring Indian writer whose story delightfully juxtaposed textual passages and news clippings on women’s empowerment with everyday life vignettes of domesticity from small-town India. Martin Bradley’s story highlighted the intersecting themes of travel, historical memory, and communication across differences. Today, when latitudes shift, cultures collide, and we are all travellers in one form or another, in ways perhaps unprecedented, these stories must be told.’

‘The response to TBASS 2017 has been tremendous. That really encouraged us to continue the series and redouble our efforts,’ said Zafar Anjum, Series Editor of TBASS and founder of Kitaab. ‘TBASS tries to represent the best of Asian voices, and we are specially keen to provide a literary platform to emerging, new voices from the region.  The sheer writing talent that we have gathered in this volume is a testament to Asia’s creative fecundity.’

Winners: 

  1. Rakhshanda Jalil (India) Story title: ‘Diamonds are Forever’
  2. Aditi Mehrotra (India) Story title: ‘Don’t Ask! Poocho mat!’ aditi.mehrotra@hotmail.com
  3. Martin Bradley (Malaysia; originally UK) Story title: ‘Bougainvillea’ martinabradley@gmail.com
  4. Also, Avery Udagawa (Thailand; originally US) Story title: ‘Festival Time.’ Translation of Japanese writer Mogami Ippei. She is working on the translation rights. averyudagawa@yahoo.com

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Book Review: Ladders Against the Sky by Murli Melwani

Reviewed by Kusum Chopra

Ladders Against the Sky

Title: Ladders Against the Sky
Author: Murli Melwani
Publisher: Kaziranga Books (2017)
Pages: 453
Price: INR 500

Ladders Against the Sky is a collection of 16 stories, written between 2011 and 2017, which were first published in literary journals and anthologies. One of the stories, “Water on a Hot Plate,” was included in The Best Asian Short Stories 2017, published by Kitaab. Two stories were nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2012 and 2013.

Murli Melwani is a short story writer, a literary activist who runs two websites, and a critic, whose book, Themes in the Indian Short Story in English: A Historical and a Critical Study, tracks the growth of this genre from 1835 to 1980.

The short stories in the collection can be divided into two broad categories. About half the stories, set in India, reflect social concern, the conflict between tradition and modernity, science and superstition and the pressures on national unity. The other half, set in foreign countries, focuses on a unique Indian community, the Sindhis, whose culture – a blend of Hinduism, Islam and Sikhism, and their language, written in the Arabic script with linguistic elements of Sanskrit and Persian – are in danger of gradually fading away.

The writer’s approach is determined by the subject of each story. Thus, “Water on a Hot Plate”, with Toronto as the background, a story of cultural displacement and change, captures the interaction of an Indian tourist and a restaurateur, a Chinese lady born in India. They are two enterprising expatriates who carry diminishing bits of home, as well as of the countries they have lived in, to their newest place of sojourn.

Similarly, in “A Bar Girl,” the lifestyles that Amar Badlani and Rak have chosen prevent them from stopping and evaluating their lives or asking where they are headed. Amar Badlani’s visit with Rak to her village brings home to him the fact that his estrangement from his family has its roots in his working life. His damage control efforts lead him to finance the nursing education of Rak on the one hand, and to make overtures to his kids and grandkids on the other.

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Book Review: Truth or Dare by Nadia Kabir Barb

Short and Sweet Stories Tinged with Melancholy

Reviewed by Namira Hossain

Truth or Dare

Title: Truth or Dare
Author: Nadia Kabir Barb
Publisher: Bengal Light Books
Pages: 120 

There are some books you read that you could probably start reading with your mid-afternoon tea and finish by the time it is sunset and only the last dregs are left in the cup. Truth or Dare by Nadia Kabir Barb is a bit like that. Barb is a British-Bangladeshi writer who lives in London. The cover is stark, a black and white negative of a construction site, giving you an insight into the nature of the book. But at a mere 120 pages, it does not feel like a daunting prospect. Her stories represent her multifaceted personality very well, showcasing little quirks of being part and parcel of the Bangladeshi diaspora in the United Kingdom.

Each of the twelve stories packs a punch. In the first one, “Can You See Me?” a suicidal pseudo celebrity meets a roadside bum and they commiserate over the losses in their lives before a cliff-hanger ending. The next story dives into a domestic scene where a housewife is cutting onions in the kitchen while guarding a tragic secret from her abusive in-laws. Despite the dramatic nature of the stories, Barb spins realistic and believable characters, whose lives and losses evoke emotion in her readers. Short stories do not have the liberty to build great characters through their development; instead, it is the minute plot details, ’moments’ that make a character in a short story somebody that the reader cares about.

I think the book really picks up towards the middle, starting with the title story “Truth or Dare”, about two young boys who decide to play truth or dare. Starting from its very relatable experience of being in a boring classroom with an unenthusiastic math teacher, the story takes the reader through different highs as it follows its protagonist Raju’s day of playing with his friend Tareq, who hides the darkness within.

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Remembering Safia Manto, the woman who stood by the writer in good times – and the many bad ones

So little is known and even less written about the women who have unflinchingly supported their celebrated men. It is true that Safia Deen would not have been known had she not married Saadat Hasan Manto and become Safia Manto. But on her centenary today, May 11, let it be known that Manto may not have been a hero had it not been for Safia, who stood by him, through the best and worst of times. The best were few and the worst, many.

Both Manto and Safia were born on May 11 (the husband in 1912, the wife in 1916), wore black-rimmed glasses, had Kashmiri origins and had first names that started with an S. But the similarities probably ended there. He was a man of fine taste – be it silver capped Sheaffer pens or gold embroidered juttis. He wanted nothing but the best, whereas Safiawas simple to a fault, needing less and less through their hardships. He was a provocateur and left no opportunity to be noticed, while she was self-evasive and shy.

What began as an arranged marriage in 1936, about which Manto writes a whole essay, titled, Meri Shaadi (My Wedding), soon turned into great fondness and camaraderie. Their best days were spent in Bombay, a city they returned to, after Manto worked in Delhi at the All India Radio. It is there that they lost their first child, Arif. It devastated them, but also brought them closer. They then went on to have three daughters.

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