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Country of Focus: Singapore

Book Review: Horizon Afar and Other Tamil Stories
by Jayanthi Sankar

Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty

Horizon Afar

Title: Horizon Afar & other Tamil short stories
Author: Jayanthi Sankar
Translated by P. Muralidharan
Publisher: Kitaab, 2016
Pages: 230

Horizon Afar is a collection of twenty-one translated short stories from the Singapore-based Tamil writer, Jayanthi Sankar. Spanning the last two decades, the stories shuttle between life in Singapore and India, creating links between the two countries and drawing on the writer’s multicultural experiences and interactions in the country where she lives.

Often her stories centre on teenagers and young people. The title story is about a teenager who shuttles through a surrealistic experience to find his footing in junior college (high school in Singapore). The most interesting read was a darker story, Mother’s Words, which deals with a reformed convict who is ostracized by the world yet loved by the mother.

A Few Pages from Yuka Wong’s Diary depicts the changing mindset of a multicultural population and their ability to transcend hatred to discover a fascination for a country that had unscrupulous expansionist ambitions in the 1940’s Japan.  The story is told through the pages of a young girl’s diary and makes an interesting and effective use of the device.

Melissa’s Choices is about a young man’s discovery of the fickleness of a young girl’s choices. School Bag, Revelation and Rehearsal are stories about teenagers’ journeys of discoveries in a multicultural society. Seventy Rupees, set in the midst of an auto-rickshaw strike in India, is a glimpse of the apathy of middle class towards the plight of the poor.

The stories often circle around the tedium of modern day existence and focus on the darker aspects of life. The issues faced by workers ‘imported’ from small villages of Tamil Nadu are dealt with in a couple of stories. While Cycle focuses on a flesh trader located in Singapore preying on an innocent Tamil migrant woman, Migration deals with an Indian domestic helper’s inability to adjust in Singapore. There are stories about unwed mothers, a girl who rebels to adopt a trans-sexual lifestyle, university life, school life and marriages arranged within the Tamil community in Singapore.

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Book Review: The Sacred Sorrow of Sparrows by Siddharth Dasgupta

Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty

The Secret Sorrow of Sparrows

Title: The Sacred Sorrow of Sparrows — A Collection of Lives
Author: Siddhartha Dasgupta
Publisher: Kitaab, 2017
Pages: 316
ISBN: 978-981-11- 4966-5

The Sacred Sorrow of Sparrows is a collection of ten short stories by Siddhartha Dasgupta that seem to be created out of a gossamer web of words flung accidentally into the right place. The writer’s artistry and skill lies perhaps in recreating an aura of ephemerality and serendipity, the two elements that are part of the wonder of everyday existence.

The book is structured into a prelude and ten stories. In the prelude, the author explains, ‘…these aren’t particularly sad stories. At least they weren’t mean to be.’ Yet, there is often a lingering sadness – though not despondency – that strings together the stories in this collection. The sadness is tinged with hope and the stories build up to a crescendo leading to the exposition of the author’s worldview in the concluding story. The stories are best experienced if read in order though they can stand as independent vignettes of poetic prose.

The book starts with “The Baker from Kabul” and his reactions to his family, from whom he has been sundered by the Afghani unrest. Located in Dubai, the story gives an insight into the life and thoughts of a common baker who found refuge in this affluent city. “The Train Rolled through the Night” is a recap of two brothers who return home, where they had slept as children ‘to the sound of Indian local trains’, to uncover a murder mystery in their past and reach a surprise conclusion that scars them forever with a tinge of sorrow.

“Gulmohar Drive” delves into the grief of Shenaz Wadia. Shenaz returns to Pune to visit the home of her beloved dead grandmother. As she tries to come to terms with her loss, a brief, intense, incomplete romance evokes a sense of longing in the reader… a longing like Shenaz feels for the wet Gulmohur flowers. “Dawn’s Fatal Betrayal”, while glancing at life in traditional Lucknow, imparts a deeper sense of loss, except the mystery of death is left untouched. The reader is left wondering if this is done intentionally to emphasise the uncertainty and whimsicality of existence.

“Once Upon a Mystic Sky” is the story of the poignant reunion of a qawal, his childhood sweetheart and their child… a story par excellence, one of the best in the collection. It has pathos, love, tolerance and what could be seen as a satisfying ending, with mystic music and qawali ably highlighting the values within the narrative arc. “The Thousandth Bridge”, set in Isfahan, Iran, explores creativity beyond destruction. At the end of the story, though the bridges that are painted by the protagonist are destroyed in an earthquake, will the artist draw from the ‘light’ that glows within her to recreate what was? The ‘light’ within her in Isfahan is touched upon in the last story by the narrative of a Sufi dervish who whirls through the world  peopled also by the characters from the book.

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Country in Focus: Singapore Literature Prize 2018

By Mitali Chakravarty

 

 

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Past and present SLP winners, judges and organisers of the 2018 gala
(Photo credit: SBC)

The Singapore Literature Prize (SLP) gave out 19 awards for works in English, Malay, Tamil and Chinese across three categories – fiction, creative non-fiction and poetry at a gala organised by the Singapore Book Council (SBC) on August 6th, 2018.

The event included performances by the Nadi Singapura ensemble and the trio of Eunice & Friends. The well-known theatre actress, Karen Tan, compered the event peppering it with bits of humour and anecdotes.

 

 

The Nadi Singapura drummers give festive start to the ceremony

The Nadi Singapura Drummers

The Nadi Singapura band gave a ceremonial and colourful start to the event with their drumming. This was followed by a speech by Claire Chiang, chairperson of SBC and co-founder of Banyan Tree Hotels and Resorts. As she has pointed out in her message, the SLP is ‘arguably the only literary award in the world that recognises such multilingual achievements’.

The awards were presented by former SLP winners, including Suchen Christine Lim.

Farihan Bahron, co-founder of a publishing agency and a much-awarded Malay writer, received two prizes this year, one for his poetry collection and a commendation for Malay fiction.

Farihan Bahron, the Malay writer who won awards for poetry and fiction together

Farihan Bahron

A.K. Vardharajan, one of the award winners for poetry in Tamil said that his book, Lee Kuan Yew’s Imaginary Childhood, had won the award because the book was about a very famous man, the founder of Singapore. However, he is an established writer himself and this book had won an award from the Singapore Tamil Writer’s Association in 2017.

Jeremy Tiang received the award for English fiction for his book State of Emergency, his debut novel mapping the leftist movements and political detentions in Singapore and Malaysia through a family saga spanning a large swathe of time, from the 1940s to the current day.

Lively performances by both the musical groups and video clips of the past winners discussing their reaction to the awards and its outcome punctuated the event.

Eunice and friends

Eunice & Friends

The concluding speech by the executive director William Phuan reflected the history and future of both the awards and of the outreach events organised by them through the year, which include the launch of a Chinese translation of Isa Kamari’s Malay novel Duka Tuan Bertakhta, in September 2018, the launch of a Singapore Literature Prize commemorative book featuring extracts from past SLP winning works in November and the fiftieth birthday celebration of the SBC this December.

The awards this year spanned the diaspora of cultures that thrive in Singapore. From when it started in 1992, the award has evolved to create a platform to recognise excellence in the variety that is iconic of this island. In 1992, the first Singapore Literature Prize went to Suchen Christine Lim and a commendation was given to Tan Mei Ching. Both the works were in the English fiction category. Now the awards span nine different categories in four different languages!

This award is regarded as the top literary award in Singapore. When asked what this award has done for the literary scene in Singapore, Suchen Christine Lim, regarded as a doyen of Singapore Literature, reflected, ‘The Singapore Literature Prize has brought some of Singapore’s best literary works to the attention of readers in Singapore and overseas.’ She added that it has also ‘helped to draw the public’s attention to new writers and new works like Jeremy Tiang’s State of Emergency.’ Suchen Christine Lim’s award winning book, Fistful of Colours was unpublished when she was given the first Singapore Literary Prize in 1992. Now both traditionally published and self-published books by Singaporeans and permanent residents are eligible for the award.

Nominated writers Charmaine Chan and Balli Kaur Jaswal

Nominated writers Charmaine Chan and Shubigi Rao

The evening was a paean to the literary efforts from diverse cultures. It ended with an interesting joint performance by the Malay drummers and the classical trio… a fitting end to a celebration of the evolving potpourri of Singapore literature.

(Photo credits: Mitali Chakravarty)

 

 


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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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Writing Matters: In conversation with Jayanthi Sankar

By Mitali Chakravarty

Jayanthi Shankar

A small, vibrant woman full of energy comes to my mind when I think of Jayanthi Sankar. Born and brought up in India, she has been writing for the past twenty three years. She has been published in several magazines and ezines including the Indian Ruminations, Museindia, The Wagon and InOpinion. Loss and Laws and Horizon Afar are two collections of her Tamil short stories that have been translated into English. ​Her works of short fiction have been included in various anthologies including The Other. She has been invited to participate in the panels of literary festivals such as Singapore Writers Festival, Seemanchal International Literary festival, Asean-India Pravasi Bharatiya Divas Writers Festival.

Jayanthi was effusive and generous with her responses to the questions we put before her.

 

Mitali: Tell us a little about when, why and how you started to write.

Jayanthi: Looking back, I feel it is all like a dream – nothing was planned. It just happened. I was not a serious reader till my mid-twenties. In the1990s, when we migrated to Singapore, what attracted me the most were the libraries with their generous shelves of books – I’d found my world, and undoubtedly, I owe it to the National Library Board that paved the way for me to evolve as a reader and subsequently a writer.

I read passionately for four to five years, only for the joy of it, both in English and Tamil. A natural critic was born in me. I was not even aware of it for long. At one point of time that voice started getting too fuzzy about style and narration of some of the fiction that I often chose randomly and soon I asked myself, ‘Isn’t it always easier said than done?’

That’s how in 1995 I tried to craft a short story in Tamil – ‘Turning point’ – which I never thought would lead me to discover the creative ability in me. A very simple, amateurish narration based on an early morning dream of an incident that I’d had, ended up being published that weekend in the only local Tamil daily and the editor called to appreciate and encourage me to continue.

I recollect now, I had to try a few more stories in the next several months before I could actually believe that I really could pursue writing. I have always loved fiction, both to read and to write. For the next couple of years I experimented aimlessly in both the languages.

Suddenly, one fine day I thought, should I focus in one language first, English or Tamil?

I had known of a few senior writers like Ashokamitran, Indra Parthasarathy who wrote first in English and took up Tamil soon to last longer. But nonetheless, I decided to focus first on Tamil.

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Singapore Literature Prize 2018: Shortlist announced

By Mitali Chakravarty

Singapore Literature Prize 2018

Singapore Literature Prize 2018

On 19th June, 2018, the Singapore Book Council (SBC) announced 50 shortlisted titles for the Singapore Literary Prize (SLP) 2018.

Twelve judges, including prominent writers like Isa Kamari and Alfian Sa’at were part of the panel of judges who whetted English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil entries by Singaporean or Permanent Resident authors before shortlisting the books. Awards will be given out in twelve categories in a ceremony on 6th  August 2018. The categories span the four official languages of Singapore and three genres — fiction, creative non-fiction and poetry.

shortlisted authors 2018

Singapore Literature Prize 2018 – shortlisted writers

As the SBC turns fifty this year, Mr William Phuan, the Executive Director, announced that the event would be opened to the public for the first time. Admission will be free by registration at http://slp2018ceremony.peatix.com/

William Phuan

Singapore Literature Prize 2018 – William Phuan

A number of outreach events have been planned to create awareness among the public, including talks by shortlisted authors in bookshops, schools and National Libraries. From July 16th to September 8th , former SLP winning titles will be displayed at the Bras Basah National Library on level 9 in an exhibition titled “Celebrating Our Writers: The Journey of Singapore Literature Prize”. Besides reaching out to people on social media, readers will also be encouraged to guess the winners of the awards as well as choose the best cover designs, added Mr Phuan. Continue reading


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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
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.

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Essay: Lucknow… a Tryst

By Mitali Chakravarty

Bada Imambara
Pic: Bada Imambara

Lucknow, the land of nawabs and kebabs, of grace, courtesy and old world charm had been tempting us since 2015, ever since we watched Badshahi Angti, the cinematic rendition of Satyajit Ray’s novel by the same name, in a movie theatre in Calcutta. We saw the Bhool bhulaiya for the first time on the silver screen as the modern version of Satyajit Ray’s famed detective, Feluda (Prodosh Mitter), wound his way through the dark passages of this labyrinth in the Bara Imambara armed with a mobile and a revolver. Watching him fight villains in the Residency and biting into succulent kebabs and delicious biryanis, we decided to explore this city of nawabs during our next trip to India.

Meeting nawabs was not on our agenda. The last one, Wajid Ali Shah, had danced the Kathak and sung Babul Mora into the arms of the British East India Company more than a century and half ago and eventually migrated to Calcutta. Still, there was his palace to be explored – Chattar Manzil on the banks of the river Gomti, and the mysterious Bhool bhulaiya built by Nawab Asaf-ud-Daulah, who’d moved the capital from Faizabad to Lucknow in 1775. The Bhool bhulaiya is the only labyrinth of its kind in India. As for the kebabs, the thought of them made my mouth water…

When we landed in Lucknow, we were told, courteously and gracefully, that no cab could accommodate four adults and a child from the airport to the hotel. They only had small cars. While the negotiations were on, I was forced to make a minor diversion in quest of a washroom – our little party was taking turns at stomach ailments since we’d arrived in India. The airport had access to one sad bathroom; the others were being cleaned… all a part of the endemic charm of small towns in India. The two cab drivers we finally hired did not know the way as the hotel had opened a fortnight before our arrival in the newer part of Lucknow that was being developed. We – first timers to Lucknow – had to download Google maps to guide the local cab drivers. The good thing was that the courteous drivers were willing to listen to us and eventually took us to the right place.

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Book Review: A Bit of Earth by Suchen Christine Lim

Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty

A Bit of Earth

Title: A Bit of Earth
Author: Suchen Christine Lim
Publisher: Times Marshall-Cavendish, Singapore, 2001
Pages: 420
Price: S$21.40
ISBN: 9812321233

A Bit of Earth is a multi-layered novel by Suchen Christine Lim that explores the history of Malaya under the British regime. The saga stretches from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century. The protagonist, Wong Tuck Heng, journeys from being a poor, hounded immigrant to a rich towkay, a big boss in local parlance, guided by the principle that helped him achieve his dream of growing into a rich and honoured man. He states his viewpoint, ‘Land and properties, you can lose. But if you lose your spirit, then you lose the very thing that makes us human. Courage and loyalty. That’s part of our spirit as human beings…’

We first see Wong in 1874, a teenager on the run with a price on his head, chased out of his homeland Sum Hor in Canton Prefecture, by the Manchu rulers. He considers the Manchus as invaders and intruders into China; the Manchus had wiped out his entire family, loyalists of the preceding Ming dynasty, as rebels. The saga starts with Wong landing in Malaya after a perilous journey, saved by loyalists and brave supporters from the clan of White Cranes. He finds work in the tin mines of Malaya and struggles to become rich. He acquires two wives, a Nyonya (Straits-born Chinese) wife and a Chinese one from the mainland, chosen by his foster mother Wong-soh. His Nyonya wife is thrust upon him by the wealthy Wee family that his foster father married into to upscale himself in wealth and power, after disowning his earlier wife, Wong-soh.

There is a splattering of colourful Chinese, Malay, Indian and British characters in the story with a close look at the Baba culture, an intrinsic part of Singaporean and Malaysian heritage. Wong gives a description of this culture to his son as he talks of his first wife’s family: ‘Your mother’s family is Baba. They’re like the Monkey King. Their ancestors left China and settled in this country a hundred, maybe two hundred years ago. Maybe longer. Married local women and adapted to the life here. They can change themselves seven times seven like the Monkey King. When the Malays were powerful, the Babas spoke Malay, wore Malay clothes and hungered for Malay titles. Then the English barbarians came. The English were more powerful than the Malay kings. So, your mother’s family changed again. They learned to speak English and do things the English way.’

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Essay: Growing with history in Isa Kamari’s novels

By Mitali Chakravarty

Isa kamari novels - Kampong Scene by Lim Cheng Hoe

Kampong — scene by Lim Cheng Hoe

 

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.

Burnt Norton, TS Eliot

 
When I walk down the Singapura River and see the statue of Sir Stamford Raffles look down at me from the pedestal near Victoria theatre, I feel I know the man well, not because I have ever met him but because Isa Kamari, the celebrated ASEAN writer, brought him to life in his novel, 1819.

Downtown and around Singapore, one can get glimpses of the history of the island in architecture, sculpture and art. These can be directly related to the stories written by some of the local writers. The multi-faceted Isa Kamari is one such writer who holds me spellbound, taking me on a journey of exploration to the past to help infer the present. Isa – winner of the S.E.A. Write Award (2006), the Cultural Medallion Award, the highest award conferred on writers and artists in Singapore (2007), and the Anugerah Tun Seri Lanang, the highest Malay literary award (2009) – has written all his novels in Malay. Most of them have been translated into English. The translations continue to have the fluidity of his own style, of which we get a glimpse in his first English Novella, Tweet, his maiden venture into writing in English.

His writing is intense and makes one empathise with the past and present as he deftly shuttles between different periods of history, weaving it into the current fabric of the island. You live and emote with the characters – feel sorry for the Malays, the Bugis (seafaring folk from Sulawesi) and animosity towards the British rulers who manipulated the islanders by indulging them in opium and fanning their differences, following the policy of divide and rule, the favourite policy of the Raj to maintain power across its colonies, the effects of which are still evident in countries like India and Pakistan.

Isa takes us on a historic adventure through time in his novel 1819 to a past where Singapore was won by the British in a tussle for power with the Dutch, who had earlier ruled it ‘as a part of Riau’. In those days, it was often referred to as Pulau Ujong or Temasek. The island was nominally ruled by the Sultan of Johor, who was controlled by the Dutch in Indonesia, and the Bugis. At that time the borders of countries were fluid and adapted to the ruler’s needs. Johor and Singapore were part of the kingdom of Riau. It was the British who finally made sure with a treaty in 1824 that the Dutch and the locals would have no say in the administration or trade of Singapore. The British would hold the sole power.

Taking advantage of the local ruling classes’ love for a life of ease, the new rulers introduced opium and encouraged them to indulge. In a daze of opium, the Bugis and the Malay handed over the island to Raffles. Raffles, the ‘official founder’ of Singapore, signed the papers to take over the island from the local Malays. The British created different colonies for different factions of Muslims, like the Bugis, Malays and the Arabs. As the historic character of the first resident of Singapore, Farquhar, gives out in the novel, the British would ‘split and rule’ the kingdom so that they could gain ascendancy over the country and the region.

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