Book review by Mitali Chakravarty

Front cover

Title: Kiswah

Author: Isa Kamari

Publisher: Kitaab, 2019

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.

 Recently, Sahitya Akademi Award winner for Urdu, Rahman Abbas, journeyed to the Institut National Des Langues et Civilasations Oriesntales (INALCO) in Paris to deliver a lecture. Translated Urdu novels are gaining in popularity and getting translated into multiple European languages, like German and French, he surmised. Novels in Urdu evolved around the 1940s-1950s with writers like Intezar Hussain and  Quartulain Haidar and books like Do gaz Zameen by Abdus Samad and Makaan by Paigam Afaqui. Makaan  is said to have been a major influence even on novelist Vikram Seth. 

Farhan Ahmad, Urdu lecturer, INALCO, Paris tells us about the talk given by Rahman Abbas in France.

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Sahitya Akademi Award winner Rahman Abbas with Academics in France

 

On 5 November 2019, INALCO, invited Sahitya Akademi Awardee, Urdu Novelist Rahman Abbas, to deliver a lecture on the topic “The Contemporary Indian Urdu Novels” in France. 

 The co-director of the department of South Asia and Himalaya studies and research scholar, Shahzaman Haque, introduced Abbas to faculty members and the students and said that Rahman Abbas was one of the major contemporary Urdu novelists of India. He thanked his department and his laboratory PLIDAM (Pluralité des langues et des identités) for financing the travel and accommodation of the Urdu author. 

He said that Rahman Abbas’s novel Rohzin had already been translated into German and would soon be available  in English, French and Hindi too. There is a growing demand for translation of Rohzin and other novels of Rahman Abbas in France. Rahman is known for his unique style of narration and his dealing with human sensibilities.

Ramayana is an age old epic said to have been written by Valmiki, who was himself a reformed dacoit called Ratnakar. Ratnakar took to crime to feed his hungry family. 

Uttara Kanda, the seventh book of Ramayana explains it all in details. Sage Narada, a character who shuttles between heaven and Earth in Hindu lore, asked the bandit to check with his family if they would stand by him if he were punished. When they said they would not, the dacoit turned to God. Ratnakar was so ferocious that he could not pronounce the name on which Narada asked him to meditate and said ‘Mara‘ which means death. Eventually, he was covered by an anthill and the ‘mara‘ had become Rama. Then he created one of the greatest epic in the history of mankind Sanskrit, Ramayana.

Down the ages, it was converted to multiple languages, some of them being — Persian in the Mughal court, Awadhi Hindi by Tulsidas (1532-1623), Kannada, Tamil and more. The Tamil one was translated by famed novelist RK Narayanan into English as far back as 1972. Now, it has been proliferated into dozens of lore by the likes of Devdutt Patnaik, Chitra Divakaruni, Amish Tripathi and many more.

Recently Dastangoi revivalist, Mahmood Farooqui, adapted this lore for the inmates of Tihar jail, a prison in New Delhi. He used a version by Raghunandan Sahir which fulfilled the needs of uneducated prisoners in Tihar.

by Mitali Chakravarty

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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 San Lin Tun

Moe Way Literary Magazine, 1980, July Issue
Moe Way Literary Magazine

Myanmar modern poetry became popular and gained much momentum in 1970’s. They often appeared in the reputable journal, Moe Way Literary Magazine. The young poets liked the flavours explored in Htinn Yoo Pin Yeik (The Shade of Pine Tree), a collection of English poems which had been translated by the literary genius of Maung Tha Noe. The youth attempted to use the techniques used by poets translated in this pioneering collection.

Conventional poets criticized them for not following the classical styles of poetry writing. The old school poets said that modern poems did not follow the conventional versification forms. While conventional poets preferred “rhymes and rhyming systems”, modern poets used “rhythms and un-rhymes systems” in their poems which resembled “free verse” and allusions to literature and the world outside of Myanmar.

A well-known Myanmar modern poet Aung Cheint reinforced: “There are no hard and fast rules or ways to write Myanmar modern poetry. They read English poetry books and translated poems. They felt inspired by reading them and tried to compose modern poems like them. In that way, Myanmar modern poetry came into existence.”

Poet Maung Lin Yeik
Maung Lin Yak

Among those rebellious young poets, Maung Lin Yeik was one of the prominent exponents of Myanmar modern poetry. Though he worked as a technical school teacher, he wrote poetry that won admiration and praise from both fellow poets as well as the readers. As a part of Myanmar Poet Union in 2010, he participated in poetry readings and literary festivals within the country. He talked more about modern poetry than conventional one.

Translated by Shah Tazrian Ashrafi

 

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Bust of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay

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!”

IMG_0683I 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?”

By Gargi Vachaknavi

The Asian Festival of Children’s content organised by Singapore Book Council from 5 th to 8 th September, 2019, celebrated its tenth year with the country of focus being Myanmar. There were talks and discussions on the need for book reviews, the need for diversity in children’s literature, translations and how to proliferate books from different cultures all over the globe.

Panel discussions and lectures dotted the event with delegates from USA, England, different parts of Asia and more. Some of the discussions were thought provoking. For instance, at the end of discussion on diversity with panellists from North American background ( academic Philip Nel, writer editor Emily Pan and Lisa Charlieboy) with moderator Avery Fischer Udagawa, the relevance of their experience to the Asian experience was put under scrutiny by a member of the audience as even Emily Pan grew up in USA identifying as an American. 

During a discussion on ‘Portrayal of Special Needs in YA (Young Adult Fiction)’, while award winning writer Suzanne Kamata focussed on the need to assimilate children with disabilities into the mainstream, Hannah Alkaff from Malaysia totted off statistics that proved more children would suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder( OCD ) over the years and therefore the need to create fiction like hers where children could identify with such issues. One wonders though why schools and caregivers would allow this rise in OCD to occur. Sarinajit Kaur from National Institute of Education, talked of how teachers could create not just better readers but generate hope in children by giving them books that are empathetic. 

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Title: That Bird Called Happiness

Author: Nabendu Ghosh

Edited by Ratnottama Sengupta

Publisher: Speaking Tiger

Year of Publication: 2018

‘You are right, Banerjee, about karun too being an emotion worth dwelling upon,’ Rao said. Then he cleared his throat to go on.

‘Raso vai sah … the name of God, just like God, is filled with rasa, our shastras maintain. But to be able to view it as such we need a certain objectivity; and most of us don’t have that. Which is why tragic incidents spell only sadness in our lives, they seldom transcend to the level of a tragic observation. If we had a heightened sense of objectivity, the entire world would appear to be a vast stage where countless dramas are being incessantly played out. These dramas are not enacted as per the rules of Bharata’s Natya Shastra. The thunderbolts here do strike from the heavens…’

‘Why don’t you cut short your preface?’ Nimbalkar cut in. ‘I will do that.’ Rao nodded with a smile. ‘But allow me to add one more observation before I start. What was the reason for me to fall sick and stop in Pandukeshwar for a rest? Was there a purpose in my coming across the dead body of Shiv Shankar Pillai after twenty years?’

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The colonial map of Asia, 1921, courtesy Wikipedia. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en

 

Thailand was probably the only state in South East Asia to have escaped colonial rule. The country evaded colonial rule  because the French and the British decided to treat it as neutral territory to avoid conflict of interests. The policies enacted by King Chulalongkorn of the Chakri Dynasty , which continues to hold sway in Thailand to this date from 1782, also helped.

The resultant effect, says a report, is “the lack of English readers in the country — which reflects the absence of Western imperialism in Thailand, along with the linguistic colonialism it facilitated.”

The numbers from University of Rochester’s Translation Database, which track original literary translations published in America show that Japanese literature leads the way, with 363 books since 2008, followed by Chinese, with 254, and Korean, with 141. Whereas only five Thai novels have been translated to English.

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Japanese troops land in Korea, 16th century

“ In 1915, one of the fathers of modern Korean literature, Yi Kwang-su, laid out his modern manifesto. ‘We are a new people, without ancestors, without parents, that came from Heaven in the present.’ (Kim Hunggyu, 194.) This belief was amplified in 1930 by Ch’oe Caeso, who argued, ‘In terms of contemporary culture, our attitudes are dominated by those of Western culture, and not by those from the Choson period and before,'” wrote Charles Montgomery , who taught English, Literature, and Translation Department at Dongguk University, Seoul.

Choson, also known as Choseon or Joseon,  was the dynasty that ruled Korea for the longest period — five hundred years — before the Japanese invasion in 1910. Though Japan had tried to invade Korea earlier in 1592 and 1597-98, their impact at that time was minimal.  

Was that Mountain Really ThereHowever, in the twentieth century, the Japanese invasion lasted longer —  for four decades — till Japan was defeated in 1945 at the end of the Second World War by the dropping of an atom bomb. Subsequently Korea was split along the 38th parallell, one part being allied to the American and the other to Soviet Union. The pain of this partition was projected  beautifully by Park Wan Suh in her classic novel, Was The Mountain Really There? .