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.

Singapore is a unique agglomeration of cultures, history and contemporary prosperity, and so for this lover of South Asian literature, Zafar Anjum’s The Singapore Decalogue is a welcome entry into Singaporean literature from an Indian migrant’s perspective, writes Elen Turner in her review 

Singapore-Decalogue_coverSingapore is a unique agglomeration of cultures, history and contemporary prosperity, and so for this lover of South Asian literature, Zafar Anjum’s The Singapore Decalogue is a welcome entry into Singaporean literature from an Indian migrant’s perspective.

The format of The Singapore Decalogue (subtitled Episodes in the Life of a Foreign Talent) is creative: it is a novel, of sorts, but it is also akin to a collection of interrelated short stories. Each chapter narrates events from one month in the life of Asif, who, at the beginning, October 2005, is a Bangalore bachelor about to immigrate to Singapore. The protagonist, Asif, is the focus throughout the book; his life progresses from one event to the next, his consciousness and worldview undergoing development, suggesting the label of novel. However, each chapter stands alone to some degree: characters who take central roles in one chapter are entirely put aside in the next, sometimes never seen again. Asif’s life progresses, but author Zafar Anjum suggests, through this structure, that life can be compartmentalised, for good or ill.

Sri Lankan journalist Ranga Chandrarathne interviews Zafar Anjum, author of The Singapore Decalogue

The Singapore Decalogue is woven around the series of episodes encountered by the protagonist Asif Basheer, a foreign talent who arrived in Singapore to make a better life. It seems that Asif’s life is a literary devise to describe the complex socio-cultural landscape of Singapore. You, yourself, are a foreign talent and successfully naturalised in Singapore.  What are the range of experiences which inspired you to create Asif Basheer?

IMG_7859Zafar: It’s like asking me in a backhanded way whether The Singapore Decalogue is an autobiographical work. Like most literary works, it is and it isn’t.  Let us break down Asif’s character to see where he comes from and what is the genesis of this character.

At the metaphorical level, Asif’s story is a parable of moral corruption, of the moral decline of a person who loses his path and gets spiritually gutted out by the modern city life. You see, life asks us to make moral choices all the time and hence, we have to keep taking moral decisions at every turn in life. Should we give money to the drooling beggar with chapped lips sitting on the pavement, whose body is emaciated with hunger and starvation? Shall we help the blind man cross the street even if it means missing the bus to office and being late for work? Making a moral decision could be as simple as that.

When I came to Singapore nearly ten years ago, I was naive but not as naive as Asif is in the book. Some of the experiences that Asif has gone through, I have gone though too and some of the events that happen to Asif probably come from experiences of my friends and other people whom I have watched over the years, not so consciously though, and some of the episodes are purely imaginary.

While writing the book, I was also trying to pay a tribute to some of my favorite writers—writers whose work I have admired for a long time, writers who have not faded away from my heart, such as Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Kafka, Joyce, Hemingway, and Hanif Kureishi and many stories in the collection reflect their sensitivities and attitudes that have seeped into my writing by just being a reader of their works.

In a sense, this collection also emphasizes my interest in robust storytelling. What is that, you might ask. I believe that for stories to really work, they have to stand on some kind of real life experience. For me, fiction is not just pretty language, and this is just a personal view. There is poetry for that purpose. Literary fiction is about the exactness of expression and that exactness can only come from the lifeblood of experience.  This is also the reason I enjoy reading only a handful of writers. I don’t seem to enjoy storytellers who only hide behind pretty language, and somehow I sense that when I read such writing. Read Chekhov, Tolstoy, Joyce, Hemingway, Carver—you don’t have the feeling that they are phony storytellers. Their stories are examples of robust storytelling.