About seven decades ago, the colonials who swept through Asia in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and earlier started their retreat. They had lost so much money fighting each other over their spoils during the World Wars that they could not afford the upkeep of their colonies.

One of the aftermath of the colonial rule in Asia was the formalisation of national boundaries. The Indian subcontinent was split into India and Pakistan( West and East, which later disengaged from the West and evolved as Bangladesh).The angst that started during the Partition of the Indian sub- continent generated violence that took more than 200,000 to 2 million lives. The figures remain disputed.

By Mitali Chakravarty

 

Singapore has completed more than half a century of independent existence. It is now a thriving country with an intrinsic personality of its own. What went into making Singapore a distinctive island cannot be just found in history books but between the borders of fact and fantasy, where lingers fiction that tunes us to the distinct flavour of this unique metropolitan city-state.

As Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father said in one of his speeches, Singapore started with people of  “many races who speak many languages, who worship different gods, who have different diet habits” and yet they all unified under the banner of a single flag. The kind of culture that evolves out of the union of these diversities is best explored in stories that are of the people, by the people and for the people.

These are some novels that showcase the culture and history of Singapore and how it evolved out of the colonial past to become what it is today. These are all books that focus on issues against the backdrop of a national landscape. The issues addressed transcend to become larger than the personal. Some of the writers are Singapore Literature Prize and S.E.A. Write Award winners and have been translated to multiple languages.

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Half a decade after the Japanese invasion, Malaya was wising up. Malayans did not believe that their colonial masters were their saviours anymore. Everyone was talking about independence and everyone was laughing a lot these days.

People seemed to be in a hurry. Office workers, in long dark baggy trousers and long sleeved starched cotton shirts, wove through pedestrians, scurrying on their shiny new bicycles, ringing their bells. The cyclists appeared to be annoyed by the slow-moving bullock cart with lethargic bulls sauntering along the tarmacadam roads swishing their tails rhythmically in the tropical heat of Penang. Honking in the background on the island’s little street were the Morris Minors and the Austin multi-purpose vehicles, the latest additions to the city landscape. Oblivious to the vexation they were causing, the pullers of the bullock cart batted their lush eyelashes, seemed to mutter something into their chest and continued to drag their load at their own leisurely pace.

Penang Island did not want to be left behind. Penangites of all races — Malays, Chinese, Indians and Eurasians — seemed to be of one heart trying to rebuild their town as they said it had been. The world had modernised and they wanted to keep pace. The men from the East were no liberators but squanderers of wealth. Now, the British had returned to resume pilfering the lion’s share of their loot.

Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty

A Different Sky

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

AP Writers is organizing a literary walk in Singapore on 19 July.

“Follow in the footsteps of Joseph Conrad as we explore the Singapore of days-gone-by that inspired stories and novels such as The End of the Tether and Lord Jim. Along the way we view locations described in the writings of Noel Coward, Somerset Maugham, Paul Theroux and many local Singaporean writers. Places visited include Empress Place, Cavenagh Bridge, Conrad’s Memorial, the Esplanade and the Padang, then we return to The Arts House. Old photographs will help recall the scenes described in novels, short stories and poems. The pace of this tour is a slow meander.