MV Red Fin was a very small ship. She was also a very old ship. As soon as the wave swell hit medium, she would start to make ungodly sounds — as if she were breaking. More often than not she had taken her crew to the brink of disaster. She was a problem child, but that’s what made her so special. Like any difficult ship, she was very close to her crew’s hearts. The crew took pleasure in the feeling of being the only ones who could resist her every whim… who could understand her mind. It was an unwilling compromise. They tried to keep her happy; she tried to keep them safe. The crew comprised of twenty men with Captain Mohandass in command.
Captain Mohandass was quite different from Mohan the man. Behind a façade of a long, magnificent, philosopher-like, snow white beard lay a supremely bigoted mind. He had never liked visiting Pakistan and was rather unshakable in his ‘hindutvavadi’ (Hindu supremist) beliefs. But he tried to contain his resentment…to keep his nerves calm. However, as time passed that day, Mohan was starting to get grouchy. ‘They better not harm my ship or my crew.’ Mohan thought, ‘Or ill teach them a lesson.’ The last thing he wanted was ‘an incident’. Not at this port. Not in the ‘enemy territory’. All operations had to be meticulously executed. It was his responsibility to ensure that.
Everyone in the family thought my uncle, David, would never enlist. Some even thought he might never come back from India. But, true to his word, he came back, half his original weight and with twice the amount of hair on his head, talking about tulips sticking out of guns and civil disobedience and flying elephants (he experimented) and never, ever serving beyond the Green Line.
I imagined the bus coming to pick him up. He must have been sitting cross-legged on the hot concrete, reading a book. I liked to think it was Indian poetry. They must have called for everyone to board the bus. He would have looked over the pages of his book, some people he would have recognised from a previous line.
“The army is filled with lines and waiting,” he tells me, “and hot, dusty days.”
“You too, let’s go. Get on that bus,” the officer would say.
He wears a tattoo of a typewriter on his right arm as a mark of his trade, as his “stigma”. He wrote a poem about his tattoo. He writes what he believes, no longer with a typewriter (as he did when he started to write in the 1980s). This is a writer, who, despite staying rooted to his surroundings, sees no boundaries in literature. He reads what comes his way and does not specifically think of literature in terms of regions, like ASEAN. That writing is universal and remains borderless is well borne out in his interview as in his writing and the influences they have had…
The author of 13 books across multiple genres, including five volumes of poetry, two children’s detective novels and a trilogy of humour stories, Felix Cheong has been invited to perform his works at international festivals all over the world, including Edinburgh, West Cork, Austin, Christchurch, Sydney, Bangalore, Hong Kong and Ubud. Cheong is the winner of Singapore’s National Arts Council’s Young Artist Award in 2000, and holds a Master’s in Creative Writing from the University of Queensland. In 2010, he was named by Readers Digest as the 29th Most Trusted Singaporean. He is currently an adjunct lecturer with the University of Newcastle, Murdoch University, Singapore University of Social Sciences and LASALLE College of the Arts. Felix Cheong’s latest collection of poetry is B-Sides and Backslides: 1986-2018.
Mitali: You have been writing poetry for more than two decades now. What made you start writing poetry?
Felix: Like sex, you always remember the first time. It began innocuously enough when I was in junior college (high school in Singapore). As a geeky teen blessed with all the social skills of a wallflower, I could only impress a classmate, on whom I had a crush, by writing her a Valentine’s Day poem. It was handwritten on a card I had made; such was the entrepreneurial spirit I had back then. But as Auden famously says, ‘poetry makes nothing happen’; so nothing happened. In any case, it was bad poetry at its finest hour, which I would have cheerfully disowned now!
Mitali: In your latest book, B-Sides and Backslides, you have spoken of how both T. S. Eliot and Beatles fascinated you. What is it in T. S. Eliot’s poetry or in the Beatles’ compositions that had this effect on you? Do they still draw you as much or do you feel that you have got over your fascination? In “We are the Salary Men”, you say that while ‘We may be the hollow men but the least we own is our honesty to know…’
Felix: Beatles’ music was instrumental in making me pay close attention to words and by extension, poetry. I remember spending hours – talk about the devil finding work for idle hands to do! – trying to write down what they were singing (thank goodness there was no Google back then). Through the sheer act of transcription, I had my first lesson in poetic rhythm. I loved – and still do – the musicality of their lyrics, such as “A Day in the Life”, “Eleanor Rigby” and “She’s Leaving Home”.
Eliot’s poetry, particularly “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, affected me in a different way when I read it at the still-impressionable age of 22. It sprung me into a modern diction that spoke to my sense of alienation. It was also Catholic in the way it articulated spiritual emptiness. I recall memorising parts of the poem while preparing for my first-year university exams. His cadences and imagery would imprint themselves on my early poetry.
Title: B-Sides and Backslides: 1986-2018 Author: Felix Cheong Publisher: Math Paper Press by Books Actually Pages: 95 ISBN 978-981-11-7304-2
B-Sides and Backslides is the award-winning Singaporean poet Felix Cheong’s collection panning the development of his poetry from 1986 to 2018. In the foreword, the poet writes, ‘These are pieces which… could not find their place in my published volumes.’ The title alludes to ‘the flipsides’ of his poetry. He compares them to the B-Sides of Beatles’ albums, which often had songs that were really interesting but not top of the charts. They remain an interesting part of a creative process. However, he claims that he has not ‘blackslid even if it might appear so,’ and in that spirit, his poetry touches our lives with its humour and variety.
The book is divided into different periods of his development as a poet. In “Juvenalia”, the section tracing his development as a poet for the first nine years, he says, ‘In various voices and versions, I have been trying to rewrite Prufrock the past thirty years…’ However, through the course of his poetry we can see how he transcends the torpor of the procrastinating Prufrock (“Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, T. S. Eliot, 1910) and the angst generated by Hollow Men (T. S. Eliot, 1925) to become a caricaturist of Singapore life, politics and culture. In “We are the Salarymen”, with an epigraph of the first two lines of Hollow Men, he concludes,
We maybe the hollow men,
but the least we own
is our honesty to know
we have the means to fill
and fulfil this emptiness,
stuffed fool and full of yourself,
little more than moans and bones
on a high horse galloping
with the weight of a lost world.
According to the dictionary, ‘frazil’ is the soft, needle-like ice on top of lakes and rivers that are too turbulent to freeze. Living in Lancashire, near the lakes, I often see this. Thanks to Menka Shivdasani’s new collection, Frazil, I now have a word for them. The poems in Frazil are a lot like the needle-like ice, glittering and beautiful on the surface but hiding angst within. Her unusual imagery allows you to see the world forever altered while her humour lurks, teasing.
Shivdasani’s wry look at women, their worth as defined by breasts and ovaries, in the poem, ‘The Whole Deal’, states, “It takes much to know the burning coal / that lay inside of you / is now a charred and empty space / and the river is no longer red.” Much of this collection, spanning 37 years from 1980 to 2017, speaks of love, desire, sex, and issues that concern many women, but her keen mind also writes, with sarcasm, on religion, eating fish, bees, the ethics of killing animals for our own pleasure, and of course, as with many poets, death – there are a lot of death poems in Frazil.
‘Bees’, for instance, mulls over the beehive adjoining her own home, sharing the same wall, and ends with, “Now I carry their sweetness squeezed into a jar, / alone again, except for that one queen bee / who keeps flapping about / wondering where her home disappeared.” Poetry is often political and Menka Shivdasani’s politics is displayed clearly and openly in her work, be it talking of how a bee’s home is as important as ours, or in ‘What We Do To Our Gods’: “… we serve death on our dining tables / and the taste on our tongues is great.”
Jaya Bhattacharji Rose interviews Shovon Chowdhury, a Delhi-based humorist and author of a novel, The Competent Authority
Shovon Chowdhury’s grandfather ran away from Dhaka to escape Japanese bombing in 1945, not realising that the war was about to end, and arrived in Calcutta just in time for the Great Calcutta Killings of 1946. These shared family experiences have left him deeply averse to sudden movement, which is why he has lived in Delhi for the last 20 years. In his spare time, he does advertising work for clients who cannot, he says, find anyone cheaper.
His first novel The Competent Authority took him 11 years to complete, because he can type with only one finger.
I know people keep saying the novel is dying, and I’m sorry if I drove another nail in, but can you imagine a world without stories?