Book review of The Magic Circle by Charmaine Chan

Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty

The Magic Circle

Title: The Magic Circle
Author: Charmaine Chan
Total number of pages: 302
ISBN 978-981-11-3996-3
Publisher: Ethos Books, 2017
Price: S$18.60

The Magic Circle is a memoir by Charmaine Chan written for her sister who died of cancer. This book was justifiably short-listed for ‘The Singapore Literature Prize, 2018’. According to Jennifer Chen, the editor of The Peak, it is ‘a breathtaking rumination’.

The book is an attempt to recreate the sister she knew for her niece, Yazmin, and to bring the youngster closer to her maternal heritage and culture. Elaine, the sister who dies of cancer, spent a major part of her life in New Zealand and eventually married a New Zealander; her daughter, born and bred in New Zealand, was merely six when the mother passed away. On the brink of death, Elaine made an impassioned plea to her globetrotting sister, Charmaine Chan, writer, journalist, editor, poet and former lawyer from Singapore. ‘Don’t let Yazmin forget her Asian side, make sure she knows all the Asian dishes I love,’ she whispered. ‘Don’t let her forget me…’

Charmain Chan kept her promise and spent a decade creating a perfect memoir for her niece. She writes, ‘For her (Yazmin), I have sealed them(memories of Elaine and her heritage)into black and white, preserved them in print.’

The book is poignant when it deals with sorrow and the impending death that looms over her sister. A skilful weaver of words, Charmaine Chan creates a tapestry of images and feelings that bring to  the fore a lively, vivacious woman cut off from her propensity to enjoy life by the throes of a lingering death, a loving family, grief, a childhood full of sunshine and youthful nostalgia about a sister who formed part of a ‘magic circle’. The three sisters born and brought up in Singapore eventually moved to different corners of the world and had what Chan called ‘a magic circle’, an invisible bond, which was sundered by the untimely death of the middle sister Elaine.

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.

Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty

A Different Sky

Title: A Different Sky
Author: Meira Chand
Publisher: Vintage Books (2011)
Pages: 488
Buy

A Different Sky by Meira Chand spans an era of transition in Singapore from 1927 to 1956. The narrative races through a period of rebellion against the colonials, the Japanese occupation, and the move towards an indigenous government. Geographically, it travels through India, Malaysia, England, Australia and Singapore.

The Daily Mail listed it as an ‘extraordinary book’ while the Historic Novel Review says, ‘Chand weaves a gripping adventure, magnificent romance and well informed history into the sort of book it’s difficult to put down.’

Meira Chand, a well-established novelist of Swiss-Indian parentage, has created a grand, multi-layered story. The novel weaves the intricate lives of characters from multiple races and backgrounds into historic events tracing the turmoil faced by Singapore to become ‘a place of dreams, holding the souls of men to ransom’ from being ‘a pinprick on the great body of Asia’. It opens with the communist uprising of Kreta Ayer in 1927, under a sky of unrest in British Singapore and walks through three decades of transition. The three main characters, a Chinese, a Eurasian and an Indian, are introduced in a bus caught in the riot. This is an ingenious start to a story well spun. The Chinese protagonist, Mei Lan, educates herself to rebel against negative traditions. She falls in love with Howard, her Eurasian neighbour. They are torn asunder during the Japanese occupation, suffer tortures and live through horrors. Howard leaves to study in Australia funded by Raj, the rich uneducated Indian businessman whose past was that of a penniless immigrant. When he returns after graduating, he meets a new Mei Lan, almost a stranger after being victimized and tortured during the Japanese occupation despite her law degree from England. Both of them reject multiple relationships overseas.

The story winds through the trauma faced by the characters as they move to create a new Singapore, under a bright sun ‘thrusting out fingers of brilliance through the grey clouds’ with ‘a bank of red balloons drifting under the endless arc of the sky’ holding a white banner with ‘Merdeka’ (a Malay word meaning rich, prosperous and powerful) on it. Will Howard and Mei Lan unite under this different sky with the outgoing first chief minister of Singapore, David Marshall, faced by chaos and the future Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in full control? As Meira Chand intertwines the lives of real historic figures with that of her creations, she adds to the glamour, suspense and appeal of her novel.

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.

Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty

River's Song

Title: The River’s Song
Author: Suchen Christine Lim

Publisher: Aurora Metro Books
Total number of Pages: 306
Price: Pounds 9.99
ISBN: 978-1-906582-98-2

The River’s Song is an epic novel by the ASEAN award-winning writer Suchen Christine Lim about people living in and around the Singapore River, from the mid-twentieth to the start of the twenty first century. Published in 2013, it spans an era of change and development in Singapore, which could be compared with the passing of an age as in Margaret Mitchell’s epic novel, Gone with the Wind. The story begins with the portrayal of people who lived by and around the water body for generations prior to the 1977 Singapore River cleanup. The cleanup changed the way of life irreversibly for immigrants who lived by the river, as did the American Civil War for the American settlers.

Most of the river dwellers prior to 1977 are shown to be immigrants from China or Malaya. Among them are the protagonist, Ping, and her mother, the pipa songstress, Yoke Lan. Yoke Lan insists that her daughter address her as Ah-ku, aunt in Cantonese, because she does not want to divulge her maternal status to her fans and customers. Ah-ku’s attempt to rise above poverty and move to respectability defines many of her actions. Ah-ku is more passionate, more like Scarlett O’ Hara, a colourful persona vis-à-vis her timid daughter, who is befriended by Weng, a dizi player. The story revolves around Ping and Weng till Ah-ku, who disappears from Ping’s life for some years, reclaims her daughter as a poor relative. Ah-ku returns to visibility as the wife of a rich and powerful towkay (a rich businessman), moving around in more educated circles.  The ascent to a better life removes both Ah-ku and her daughter from the proximity of the river. Ultimately, Ping goes to university in USA, where she spends the next thirty years of her life away from family and friends. She flits in and out of a marriage with an Indian who wears pink pants and calls himself Jeev. She befriends braless feminists and learns to call their country her home.