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Countries in focus: Singapore: Book review

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.

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Essay: Let’s Go Beyond the Blues by Dr Suhas Chandran

The antonym of depression is more realistically a sense of normalcy rather than elation or happiness, but the bridge is most definitively enablement.

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When I was in medical school I had a fall and I broke my arm. I missed an important exam and had to wear a fracture cast for a long duration. When I returned to college, people rushed to me – friends, acquaintances, and even strangers who saw the cast. It was a symbol of pain and disability. People offered to write notes, carry my bag, drop me home and pick me up. People came up to write messages on the cast. Some would write a positive greeting, some an uplifting quote; there were a few jokes, a batman cartoon in between. There was a lot of warmth, but what I remember most fondly is the transformation in these individuals. Ordinary people like you and me with everyday problems pushing so hard so to make a difference. They were a team – doctors, family, friends and strangers. They identified with that simple image of a cast and stepped up for their mate. It made me feel more comfortable with the disability and confident that I would pull through. Today I wonder. What if it wasn’t a fracture? What if it was a mental illness like depression? Would people still react the same way? Neither do most people with the problem want to open up about it nor do the people around them recognize it without something as colossal and substantial as a cast.

The stigma surrounding mental illness including depression remains a barrier to people seeking help throughout the world. Talking about depression whether with your family member, friend or a medical professional in multiple settings like schools, work place, and social media helps break down this stigma. One person talking about depression gives courage to a thousand to come forward and seek help. This is the core of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) campaign for World Mental Health Day observed on 10 October every year, with the objective of raising awareness of and mobilizing efforts in support of better mental health. Last year the campaign theme was ‘Mental health in the workplace’ and it focused upon people working together, people from different walks of life, from different countries coming forward, talking about depression and seeking help as a vital component of recovery.

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On falling in love with the language I’ve spoken my entire life

(From Lithub. Link to the complete article given below)

The first fiction I ever read in Chinese was a short story by Eileen Chang, titled simply, “Love.” I was in college at the time, and my Chinese language teacher had handed it to out to the class. After I finished reading it, I quietly began to cry.

I can’t tell this story without telling you what the language meant to me then. My parents are Chinese-American immigrants, and the first language I learned was Chinese. I spoke it almost exclusively until the very first day of pre-school, when I learned the sentence, “Can I have some juice?” From then on, I spoke in full English sentences. Chinese became the language I only spoke when compelled—with my family, who always spoke Chinese in the house, or when I was forced to practice it at Chinese school on the weekends. I struggled against it, partly because I didn’t possess the full range of vocabulary through which to express myself, and partly because it was a language in which I couldn’t address my emotions.

My parents did not like emotional conversations. They did not say I love you. On parents’ visiting day at school, other kids’ parents left them notes that said “We’re proud of you!” My note said, “We hope you will continue to improve this year. Please read books other than the series, The Baby-Sitters Club.” The closest they had come to addressing the issue of emotion were the times they asked me, “Why are you crying?” By which they meant, Stop crying. And so I tried never to cry in front of them. I held my tears through dinner. I cried only alone, in my room, or on the phone with friends. It seemed to me that the heart was a dangerous territory for Chinese and so I kept the two apart. It was in English that said I love you to a boy for the first time, English in which I cursed aloud. In books written in English, the intricacies of feeling and mysteries of human existence were explored. It was in the love of this language that, early on, I found the determination to become a writer.

Read more at this Lithub link


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The surprising literary history of skin care

(From the Paris Review. Link to the complete article given below)

The story of Bulgakov’s Margarita is part of a long tradition, from Snow White’s wicked stepmother (who wanted to remain “fairest of them all”) to the Germanic legends that granted vigorous youth to men heroic enough to slay a dragon. There’s a spectacular example of youth enchantment in Ovid’s Metamorphoses when Jason defeats a dragon to get hold of a golden fleece, then implores his wife—the sorceress Medea—to rejuvenate his father, Aeson, using a potion of herbs so exotic they could have been taken from a modern cosmetics catalogue. In her dragon-harnessed chariot, Medea makes a tour of the most glamorous and outlandish sites in the Greek world in order to gather herbs. She fills twinned holes in the earth with the blood of a sacrificed sheep, adds wine and milk, then dips flaming torches in before setting them ablaze. Into a cauldron go roots from Thessaly, sands from Oceanus at the earth’s limit, and powdered rocks from the Far East.

Medea used a desiccated old olive wand to stir the brew; as she did so, it sprouted leaves, then grew heavy with olives. Spatters from the broth caused flowers and grass to spring up on the cold dark earth. At this final sign, Medea felt ready to proceed: she slit Aeson’s jugular veins and poured in her potion. “Quickly his beard and his hair lost their whiteness … New flesh filled out his sagging wrinkles, and his limbs grew young and strong. The old king marveled at the change in himself, recalling that this was the Aeson of forty years ago.”

*

The earliest known text concerned with the elixirs of youth is an early Chinese commentary on the I Ching, the “Book of Changes,” in which chemical substances and processes are tentatively correlated with the book’s famous hexagrams. The I Ching takes for granted that the universe and all beings in it are caught up in cycles of transformation and suggests that the astute application of mystical and medical knowledge can influence those changes for the better.

In Europe, alchemists were obsessed with generating gold, but in China, they preferred to work on youth elixirs. A string of Chinese alchemists claimed to have created a rejuvenating potion; Joseph Needham, the historian, scientist, and Sinologist, was so struck by the frequency with which Chinese emperors were poisoned by these drugs that he tabulated a list of victims. In around 300 A.D., a Chinese alchemist called Ge Hong collated various recipes. Three centuries later, a more detailed treatise specified the inclusion of obscure, exotic substances such as mercurial salts and compounds of sulfur. There are more than a thousand different names for these potions, most of which carried the same basic mineral ingredients.

One of Ge Hong’s near contemporaries in the West, a Byzantine called Synesius, believed that the physical transformations effected by alchemy were less important than the mental positions adopted by its practitioners. A true alchemy of youth didn’t require a laboratory or precious exotic substances; all that was needed was the right kind of incantation and a change in attitude.

Read more at this link from the Paris Review


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Book excerpt: Indian Cultures as Heritage — Contemporary Pasts by Romila Thapar

Indian Cultures.

SCIENCE AS CULTURE

Many Indian scientists, competent in their fields of specialization, know less about science as a form of knowledge, or the kind of reasoning involved in the scientific method that can also be applied to other forms of knowledge. This might explain their surprising and tacit acceptance of some of the more ridiculous statements made by non-scientists on the fantasy-based claims pertaining to science as supposedly practised by our ancient ancestors. This reduces their ability to recognize the difference between the remarkably impressive knowledge of premodern Indian thinkers in some of the sciences, and the infantile fancies that are often projected in their name by those ignorant of science in both premodern and in current times. The reasons for doing the latter are more often political rather than due to any scientific assessment.

The onus is not only on the scientist but also on the historian. Not enough attention has been given by historians to integrating the ideas related to the sciences from earlier times to other aspects of culture. The historian’s intervention from this perspective would require the re-crafting even of some historical formulations. This is being done for some other aspects in recent historical reinterpretations. One of these is the notion of ‘civilization’ as a somewhat fixed and continuing historical unit.

Used more casually in the earlier centuries to refer to the softening of manners and to artistic and literary achievements, it became a widely accepted unit of history from the nineteenth century, coinciding with colonial perceptions of history. The world was divided into discrete, geographically bounded areas each with a dominant culture, recognizably different in intellectual, aesthetic, technological and religious attainments, all of which were associated with urban centres, the use of scripts, the existence of a state and of an organized social order. In A Study of History, the British historian Arnold Toynbee counted twenty-six such civilizations, each rising in response to challenges and declining when the response was inadequate. More recently the count has been reduced to eight in Samuel P. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. As a spokesman of the American political right wing, his theory that the future of the world will revolve around the clash of civilizations inspired by religious identities seems to envisage conflicting civilizations as a replacement for the cold war.

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Book Review: Indian Cultures as Heritage – Contemporary Pasts by Romila Thapar

Reviewed by Dr Madhu Kelkar

Indian Cultures.

Title: Indian Cultures as Heritage – Contemporary Pasts
Author: Romila Thapar
Publisher: Aleph Book Company, 2018
Pages: 222 pages 

 

Culture influences our values, world view, loyalties, behaviour and much more. Very often it is equated with civilisation a term that came to be used to describe societies that boasted of extensive territory, sophisticated language, literature, art and architecture, and above all, a single religion. Under the colonial influence, culture came to be redefined simply as a way of life of elite groups, for instance Aryans in the case of India. Unfortunately, our current understanding of Indian culture is overshadowed by this erroneous interpretation. Heritage, both cultural and natural, consists of ideas, objects and practices; contributes to quality of life, gives us a cultural identity and connects us with our past. India’s cultural heritage has always been subject to debates. While traditional historians favour the ‘unity in diversity’ approach in order to project a homogenised Indian identity and presumably invoke the spirit of patriotism, Thapar, in her latest book, Indian Cultures as Heritage Contemporary Pasts, does exactly the opposite.

A fearless, frequent and outspoken critic of our dogmatic and communal interpretations of the past, Thapar’s  book does not to go into the historical aspect of the making of Indian culture but provides glimpses of what is often omitted, marginalized, trivialized or is even considered irrelevant to its understanding. Drawing on her lectures and essays, published in the recent past, this book challenges the idea that Indian culture is the monolithic phenomenon it is often portrayed as in Indian historical writing or what is being currently imposed on the Indian citizens by cultural nationalists. Identification with a single culture, she argues, despite the existence of many in the country, is risky since it tends to dismiss all that does not conform to the mainstream forms, perpetuates inequality and silences all kinds of reasonable resistance. Culture is deeply linked with historical developments and bound to change. But the two differ as well. While history narrates and explains the past, culture can invent the past without any historical evidence. Therefore, one has to guard against spurious history which can be manufactured by culture. Thapar’s argument that we need to subject the Indian culture to rigorous historical scrutiny and juxtapose historical and cultural forms to understand their interface is highly relevant, especially in the present context when cultural forms are being subjected to identity politics due to ignorance and lack of general or intellectual interest in other cultures, within and outside the subcontinent.

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Comforting myths – Notes from a purveyor

Who gets to tell stories? Let me answer this quickly: for the most part—and the exceptions are relatively recent—the writers who are allowed to talk are those who prop up the dominant culture, who reflect it with a gilded mirror. But wait: writers have been critical of the dominant culture for quite a while, you may say. Look at James Baldwin, look at Margaret Atwood and The Handmaid’s Tale. Well, fine, but criticism of the culture is not necessarily a threat to it. When the story is truly threatening, the writer is marginalized, either deemed a “political” writer or put in a box to be safely celebrated as some sort of “minority” writer. In his day Baldwin was considered more a black writer than a writer, and so he still is. If he is inching his way into the canon, it is because the culture has shifted. Overt racism is a bad thing now, so a liberal American can read Another Country and think, sure, there were a few bad apples back then, but this is not about me or how I live. It is easier now to tell ourselves that Baldwin is not talking about us, that he is criticizing people we no longer are.

When I bring this up in conversation, people stop me in my tracks because, you know, Conrad, Heart of Darkness and all that. Didn’t he criticize empire?

He didn’t. A story about a bickering couple does not threaten the institution of marriage. Heart of Darkness might disapprove of colonialism, but it’s not an attack on empire itself. The book deals in strict dualities and reinforces the superiority of Western culture and ideas. Africa, its jungle, is what blackens Kurtz’s heart, and just in case you start to feel uncomfortable because you find yourself identifying with him, the supposed bad apple—the Lynndie En­gland of nineteenth-century Europe—Marlow, the novel’s cordon sanitaire, is there to make you feel better. If that’s not enough, it’s actually some other shadowy narrator telling you what he heard when listening to Marlow’s story, so you, imperial citizen, are at least two steps removed from the apple and its African rot. No need for you to feel yourself in jeopardy. Your world might not be perfect, but that other world, that world of the other, is just simply horrid.

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Book Review: The Bengalis: A Portrait of a Community by Sudeep Chakravarti

Reviewed by Shikhandin

Bengalis Cover Low Res (546x800)

Title: The Bengalis: A Portrait of a Community
Author: Sudeep Chakravatri
Publisher: Aleph Book Company
Pages: Hardcover 457 pages
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‘Ergo, no matter who you listen to, we are pretty much mongrel.’

That little sentence in page 43 of Sudeep Chakravarti’s vade mecum, The Bengalis: A Portrait of a Community, floats up with a beastly smirk. Unless of course, you have done your job as a reader and read it not out of context, but as part of the whole subject, including the weighty preceding pages.

Still, for argument’s sake, were you to disbelieve the mongrel bit, or dismiss it as self-deprecation, you would do an injustice to the community. Yes, you read that correctly, and Chakravarti provides carefully compiled data on the origins of the Bengali race to prove it.

Being a mixed breed is nothing to be ashamed of, as long as you are not mixed up, which is not a compliment one can pay to the so-called pure bloodlines, whatever that is, if at all such things exist. Besides, further up the book one comes upon this beautiful explanation of what it means to be a Bengali mongrel:

‘Our so-called purity is rooted in mongrelisation. It has taken us a long journey to arrive where we have, with our distinct streams of culture, distinctive sub-languages and dialects with a unifying super-language that is itself mongrel.

‘It is through our openness to the world and cultures other than our own, that we have evolved our Bengaliness that is so distinctive, so unique. It’s what makes us enduring, indolent, insular, outgoing, endearing, adventurous, gypsy-like, nesting, sentimental, adaptive, rebellious, questioning, accepting, and infuriating in turn – or all at once. To be anything else would probably be so very boring’ (chapter 13, page 315).

Perhaps after reading the book, some ill-informed not-Bengalis will call out ‘Mongrel Bengali’ instead of the earlier taunt of ‘Bhookha Bengali!’ Then again, those who wish to insult will always find some term or epithet suitable enough, however misguided. Bengalis ought to take the higher ground, because we know who we are and do not need to explain ourselves. So, why do we need a book about ourselves at all?

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Book review: Vegetarians Only by Skybaaba

By Mitali Chakravarty

Vegetarians Only

Title: Vegetarians Only: Stories of Telugu Muslims
Author: Skybaaba (Editors: A. Suneetha and Uma Bhrugubandha
Publisher: Orient Black swan
Pages: 140
Price: ₹ 325/-
ISBN: 9788125060741

Vegetarians Only is a collection of short stories by Skybaaba, the pen name of Shaik Yousuf Baba, translated by a team of translators, edited by A. Suneetha and Uma Maheshwari Bhrugubandha.

The narratives reflect the lives of Telugu Muslims, their joys, their sorrows, their poverty, lack of education and the dreams that they have dared to dream despite their bleak socio-economic circumstances.

What is striking about the stories is the love and compassion with which the characters and their concerns are portrayed. Perhaps, having grown up in the midst of these people, Skybaaba’s empathy paints the stories with a vividness that transports us into a world peopled by his creations.

In his foreword, the author states that his creations are drawn from real life.One wonders if his title story, Vegetarians Only, is part autobiographical as the author is also a socially conscious journalist like the character he creates. The story is about a young couple looking for rented accommodation in a city where they have just arrived. The protagonist is a journalist and his wife, a student. The issues and marginalization faced by the twosome in the story would be reality for any young couple starting out with limited funds anywhere in the world. However, in the course of the story, the protagonist views his circumstances from the perspective of a social reformer. His experiences make him conclude that ‘With the exception of the dalits, and the madigas in particular, all other castes are in fact untouchable.’ According to the book’s glossary, Madigas are listed as a ‘formerly untouchable caste’ in Telugu.

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Understanding Rekhta

Are Hindi, Hindavi, Rekhta and Urdu different names for the same linguistic, literary and cultural heritage?

The three-day Jashn-e-Rekhta (Rekhta Festival) that concluded on Sunday once again drew our attention to the shared linguistic, literary and cultural traditions that have evolved over the centuries. This was the fourth edition of the annual event and the fact that it was able to attract the youth in great numbers was very significant. Their presence dominated all the sessions irrespective of their nature and young men and women flocked to poetry recitation at mushairas, serious academic discussions and celebrity-driven events.

So, what is Rekhta that was celebrated with such great enthusiasm and passion? It is one of the names by which Hindi / Hindavi / Urdu was known in the 18th and 19th centuries. When Ghalib chose to pay tribute to Mir, he wrote: “Rekhte ke tumheen ustad nahin ho Ghalib, kahte hain agle zamaane mein koi Mir bhi thaa.” (Ghalib, you are not the only master of poetry in Rekhta. It is said that there was Mir too in the past.) Rekhta has at least three meanings – broken, scattered and mixed. In comparison with the sophisticated and well-structured Persian, Rekhta or Urdu sounded broken and mixed as it had the linguistic structure of the khari boli and was colloquial in nature. There is a famous story about Mir, universally described as Khuda-e-Sukhan (God of poetry), who was approached for advice by some members of Delhi’s Muslim aristocratic families who had begun to write poetry in Rekhta / Urdu. After listening to their compositions, he bluntly told them that they were fit for writing in Persian but not in Urdu because the language could be learnt and imbibed only by sitting and spending considerable time everyday on the steps of the Jama Masjid.

Travelling to south

This language had its predecessor in Dakhini that had gone to Deccan from the north. As Amrit Rai has established in his book, A House Divided, the mixed language of the north – Hindi or Hindavi – travelled to the south first with the Nathpanthi Yogis led by Gorakhnath and later with the army of Alauddin Khilji under his famous general Malik Kafur who conquered Gujarat in 1297, Maharashtra in 1304, Andhra in 1307 and Karnataka in 1308. When Muhammad bin-Tughlaq shifted his capital from Delhi to Devagiri or Daulatabad, a large part of Delhi’s population went there and many of them stayed back even after Tughlaq retraced his step. They took there their language Hindi/Hindavi which was a mixture of Punjabi, Haryanavi, Khari Boli, Brajbhasha, Awadhi and Rajasthani.

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