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.

IMG_0564
Chinese workers in the snow constructing the first American transcontinental railways

In the 1860s, roughly 20,000 Chinese from the Guangdong province were shipped to America to labour at building the transcontinental railways. They came for the lure of gold. However, few of them moved outside their camp or learnt English. They faced a lot of hardships, breaking rocks and living for a pittance. What drove them there? What did they face? 

Author Gordon H. Chang  has uncovered the plight of these workers in his latest book, Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad. Chang is Olive H. Palmer Professor in Humanities at Stanford University. He has written a number of books on Asian-American history and US–East Asian interactions. 

Washington Independent Review of Books says Chang “ has dedicated himself to speaking for a group that cannot speak for itself, even in absentia. He’s dubbed them the ‘ghosts’ of his title because, while the work they did was about as tangible as it gets, their individual identities have evaporated.

Languages of India

About 6,500  spoken languages  are in use in the world today. However, about 2,000 of those languages have fewer than 1,000 users.

Mandarin and English are the most spoken language on Earth followed by Urdu used as Hindustani and then, comes Hindi, the language that has been adopted as part of the Indian identity by some. A battle rages on in India among people who want to use Hindi as the lingua franca of the country and those who speak other languages, including English. What does homogenisation of languages to create a national identity do to a people?

The Cultural Tool , a book by linguist Daniel Everett shows that languages develop out of cultural needs. As nations try to create homogenous identities with a single language, they wipe out cultures. Everett explains that this linguistic diversity “is one of the greatest survival tools that human beings have … each language is a cognitive tool for its speakers and comes to encode their solutions to the environmental and other problems they face as a culture”.