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Book review: A Different Sky by Meira Chand

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.

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First translation of the Gita

On wages of a rupee a day, the pundits’ job was to check Wilkins’ translation

For a very long time, Sanskrit was a fiercely guarded turf. Even the recital (let alone study) of sacred Sanskrit compositions was considered a privilege so mighty that ‘unfit’ persons — such as women and those belonging to low castes — who even accidentally overheard any of it would be in danger of painful punishment. All in god’s name.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Mughals who patronised Sanskrit scholars were met more than halfway by Hindus who not only learnt Persian but composed poetry in it. Two generations later, even after Aurangzeb had stopped funding Sanskrit scholars, the multilinguality of the court continued. But without patronage, Sanskrit suffered long years of decline. It made a brilliant comeback when the British ‘discovered’ the language in which the antiquities of their newly acquired lands lay locked.

Imperial entry

With the English came their language, trailing bits of Greek, Latin, German, French, Italian, Arabic and Anglo Saxon, besides echoes from all those smaller countries the British had visited to plunder (Latin) and conquerre (Old French). They were just beginning to extend their loot (Hindi).

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, English became the donor language for translations into Indian languages in Science, Engineering, and Medicine. Meanwhile, Philosophy, Religion and Literature moved in the opposite direction, with Sanskrit playing the donor-language role for translations into European languages. A detail which is usually forgotten is that before the English learnt Sanskrit, it was scholars of Arabic and Persian who mediated between Europe and India. In such a context, can any language in our midst be labelled alien or seen as a threat to another language community? We should hope not.

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Singapore event: Literary Walk of Colonial Singapore with Rosemary Lim

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. Continue reading