With the literary festivals season blossoming around Asia, Singapore will host its 22 nd writers’ festival from 1st to 10th November  with big names dropping in, including Pico Iyer. Pico Iyer, who has spent the last three decades in Japan will be talking on ‘Beyond Borders, Beyond Words’. Iyer will reflect on human connection and belonging. After his talk, he will be in dialogue with acclaimed novelist who has spent a large part of her life in Japan too and now lives in Singapore, Meira Chand.

This year Pico Iyer has been the writer in residence for the newly renovated Raffles Hotel in Singapore. He penned down a book on the Hotel called This could be Home. the novel was launched on 5th august. Long ago in history, this heritage hotel had housed the likes of great writers like Rudyard Kipling and Somerset Maugham.

Pico Iyer was born Siddharth Pico Raghavan Iyer in 1957. His great-great-great-grand father was a Gujarati writer-reformer in the late nineteenth century, Mahipatram Nilkanth . His parents were Indian academics who moved to England to study. Iyer’s unusual name is a combination of the Buddha’s name, Siddhartha, with that of the fifteenth century Florentine neo-Platonist Pico della Mirandola and the last name is that of his father. Schooled in Oxford and Harvard, Pico Iyer is known for his brilliant essays and travel writing. He has written a few novels too.

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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.

Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty

A Different Sky

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

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.

RRamachandranThis year, Singapore’s Book Council is launching an all-new literary arts initiative, titled Twilight Tales (TT). This bimonthly storytelling session for adults, will be held and hosted by friends in their cosy homes . featuring well-known writers and/or story-weavers.

“Our plan is to reach out to  more and different audiences with stories and books with TT,” R. Ramachandran, the executive director of Book Council told Kitaab.  “TT will be held once in two months in a home of friends who will host the event. The hosts will provide the refreshments and the venue – normally their homes – while the Council will organise the programme and publicise it. The hosts will also invite their friends and colleagues. The number of people would be about 30 or so.”

Novelist Anuradha Kumar interviews Singapore-based novelist Meira Chand

Meira ChandMeira Chand the novelist and short story writer has lived in the UK, Japan, India and now in Singapore.   Her novels, every one of them presenting a unique angle into history or an outsider’s life in a different country, are then part of a literature that belongs to the world, making her a writer to be read and cherished.

Beginning with The Gossamer Fly in 1980, Meira has written seven other novels and numerous short stories.  Her most recent novel is A Different Sky (2010), the novel that could arguably define Singapore of the early and mid 20th century.  As she describes in an essay on her website (meirachand.com) in words that echo Faulkner’s,   writing is indeed a dream,   one that takes over one’s complete being.  And the writer is not satisfied till she has written that dream down and achieved for some moments at least, an ‘ecstatic peace’.