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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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Book Review: Tweet by Isa Kamari

Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty

Tweet

Title: Tweet
Author: Isa Kamari
Publisher: Kitaab
Pages: 80
Price: S$15
ISBN: 9789811107269

Tweet, published in 2016, is the award winning ASEAN writer Isa Kamari’s first attempt at writing a novella in English. Isa Kamari is a Malay writer who has had seven out of his nine novels translated to English. With Tweet, he decided to take a ‘short-cut’ and write in English himself, he said during a panel discussion – Exploring Literature in the Languages of ASEAN, 2018.

Tweet refers to birdcall. It is a double stranded metaphysical novella. On one level, it focuses on the exploration of Singapore’s famed Jurong Bird Park by a young Singaporean child Ilham and his grandfather, Jati. As he reaches the end of his trip to the park, Ilham comes face to face with his inner dream. ‘He has decided what he wants to be when he grows up.’

The second strand is a journey made by different species of birds in quest of the legendary Simuk, or the Simorgh, brought to life by the 12th century Persian poet, Farid-ud-din Attar, in his famed poem, Conference of Birds. The birds in both the poem and in Tweet make an astounding discovery as they fly in quest of the mythical being.

Both the strands are woven into a single fabric of the story by the elusive ‘green man’, Khidr. Khidr becomes a part of the extended reality of Ilham and the birds as they journey through their parallel universes of discovery. Khidr has been syncretised over time as an angel, a saint, a warrior, a mythical being… and even associated with Alexander the Great.  The illusive ‘green man, the quest of the birds and Ilham’s unique way of viewing the bird park adds to the suspense of the novella. You read on, egged by curiosity.

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Book Review: The River’s Song by Suchen Christine Lim

Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty

River's Song

Title: The River’s Song
Author: Suchen Christine Lim

Publisher: Aurora Metro Books
Total number of Pages: 306
Price: Pounds 9.99
ISBN: 978-1-906582-98-2

The River’s Song is an epic novel by the ASEAN award-winning writer Suchen Christine Lim about people living in and around the Singapore River, from the mid-twentieth to the start of the twenty first century. Published in 2013, it spans an era of change and development in Singapore, which could be compared with the passing of an age as in Margaret Mitchell’s epic novel, Gone with the Wind. The story begins with the portrayal of people who lived by and around the water body for generations prior to the 1977 Singapore River cleanup. The cleanup changed the way of life irreversibly for immigrants who lived by the river, as did the American Civil War for the American settlers.

Most of the river dwellers prior to 1977 are shown to be immigrants from China or Malaya. Among them are the protagonist, Ping, and her mother, the pipa songstress, Yoke Lan. Yoke Lan insists that her daughter address her as Ah-ku, aunt in Cantonese, because she does not want to divulge her maternal status to her fans and customers. Ah-ku’s attempt to rise above poverty and move to respectability defines many of her actions. Ah-ku is more passionate, more like Scarlett O’ Hara, a colourful persona vis-à-vis her timid daughter, who is befriended by Weng, a dizi player. The story revolves around Ping and Weng till Ah-ku, who disappears from Ping’s life for some years, reclaims her daughter as a poor relative. Ah-ku returns to visibility as the wife of a rich and powerful towkay (a rich businessman), moving around in more educated circles.  The ascent to a better life removes both Ah-ku and her daughter from the proximity of the river. Ultimately, Ping goes to university in USA, where she spends the next thirty years of her life away from family and friends. She flits in and out of a marriage with an Indian who wears pink pants and calls himself Jeev. She befriends braless feminists and learns to call their country her home.

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Book Review: When Wings Expand by Mehded Maryam Sinclair

By Mitali Chakravarty

When Wings Expand

Author: Mehded Maryam Sinclair
Publisher: The Islamic Foundation
Total number of pages: 217
Price: US$ 9.95
ISBN 978-0-86037-499-2

When Wings Expand is a novel in the epistolary technique that highlights a young girl’s battle to accept losing her mother to cancer, conquering her fears and anxieties with love and deep-rooted faith. Though the author, Mehded Maryam Sinclair, intended this to be a book that would be ‘about how fully and conscientiously practicing Muslims see and deal with their losses’ (http://productivemuslim.com/interview-with-maryam-sinclair/), her narrative has transcended the boundaries of a single faith to reach out to the hearts of all mankind.

The protagonist, as in Young Adult fiction, is a young teenager called Nur (‘sacred light’). Located in Canada, she is battling her sense of loss as her mother succumbs to cancer. With the legacy of her mother’s love and faith, Nur discovers that ‘what makes a person different is how they choose to deal with the pain’. She learns to build on her strengths, travels back to her mother’s home in Turkey and finds courage in the love that surrounds her and her family. After she returns to her home in Canada, she slowly learns to help her younger brother as well as other young cancer-afflicted patients and their families come to terms with their pain. Her journey towards recovery helps her conclude that ‘It seems life has gotten bigger, like more things are possible — it’s like pain is a smaller thing inside a much larger me.’ She exudes a sense of light and joy to sufferers around her, proving to them that after a loss wings can still expand, as does that of the butterfly coming out of a chrysalis.

The image of the chrysalis runs through the book. The body of the butterfly shrinks and the wings expand after it emerges from the pupa so that it can fly. Nur feels this is what love and faith does to sufferers. Love and faith shrinks the body of their grief so that the sufferers can grow wings and fly towards a better future.

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Kitaab’s The Best Asian Short Stories

By Mitali Chakravarty

bass_1cvr

Title: The Best Asian Short Stories
Editor: Monideepa Sahu
Series Editor: Zafar Anjum
Publisher: Kitaab

The Best Asian Short Stories is one of the finest compilations of short stories I have read in a long time. The short stories cover a diaspora of Asian cultures, histories, societies in transit, shifting borders and values. They embrace an array of emotions that are universal and touch the heart of the reader. Established authors (Shashi Deshpande, Poile Sengupta, Farah Ghuznavi, Park Chan Soon, to name a few) and newcomers (N.Thierry, Wah Phing Lim, etc.) rub shoulders with stories that nudge one another, creating a wide range of reading experiences.

In this one book, I have travelled from the backstairs of Singapore’s government subsidized flats to Malaysian ports, to Phillipino slums, to Mao’s China, to Korea’s madly competitive society, to the lonely world of an Old Japanese, to a Syrian refugee’s boat, to the shifting borders of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, to the rebellion against restrictions in the conservative Middle East, to Canada, America and England. These stories have grasped values that leave the reader absolutely spellbound.

Universal truths are stated by the characters that come to life with a few strokes of the creator’s skilled pen. When a dying man discovers, ‘I’m neither Indian nor Bangladeshi. I’m human’, the character reaches out beyond the pages of the book and brings home that politics and nationalism draw borders where none exist for the poor man. In another story, around the eve of Indian independence, a little girl is ‘bewildered’ when she fails to find her homeland, Sindh, on the map of the new country and says, ‘It’s gone’. One is startled by the pathos that these two words can create and compelled to question why Indians mutely accepted the line drawn by Cyril Radcliffe. When in Canada, a middle aged Sindhi befriends a Hindi speaking Chinese, he contends, ‘I knew that we immigrants, Sindhi, Indian or Chinese, needed to look after each other’. This is an eternal truth faced by universal globetrotters traipsing through countries. The whole world becomes their home.

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Blind by Joginder Paul

By Mitali Chakravarty

Blind

 

Title: Blind
Author: Joginder Paul
Translated from Urdu by: Sukrita Paul Kumar & Hina Nandrajog
Publisher: harper Perennial
Pages: 244
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Blind interfaces between being a thriller and a symbolic multi-layered novel. It starts in a home for the visually impaired and soars into the political and social arena of the world in which we live. Mr Joginder Paul, the author, based this story on his experiences in a blind people’s home near Nairobi during his sojourn as a teacher in Africa. In the book, he has relocated the home to India and the inmates are Indians.

Through the course of his narrative, he highlights the struggle faced by people with vision and without vision. He uses ‘sight’ symbolically to contrast physical, moral, intellectual and value-based vision. Some of the blind have a ‘third eye’ with which they can sense the world around them. Some of them are excellent craftsmen and have ‘eyes on their fingers’. The blind are so attuned to their condition that they fear external sight. Being free of vision gives them a sense of freedom in their interactions with each other and with the world around them. One of them, a basket weaver, claims, ‘… if my eyes begin to see, my fingers will go blind.’ When an inmate regains sight, he loses his sense of orientation. He feels threatened that he will be turned out of the home, the only shelter the blind trust.

The beautiful blind Roni finds herself in a brothel when she leaves the security of the home. Eventually, after a brief marriage with a man with sight, she is compelled to re-seek the shelter of the home. Roni, who has ties with at least five men through the narrative, finally marries an inmate of the home, Sharfu.

Unfortunately, Sharfu steps out to buy barfi for Roni, stumbles on an abandoned dead body, and, unable to convince the police of his innocence, he is taken into custody.

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