By Farah Ahamed

The aim of tragedy, according to Aristotle is to bring about a ‘catharsis’; to arouse in the spectators’ pity and fear and to purge them off these emotions so that they left the theatre with an understanding of the ways of gods and men. The audience witnessing the changes in the fortunes of the protagonist creates the catharsis. He wrote:

“Tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of action and life, of happiness and misery.”

IMG_0810To Die in Benares*, (2018) translated from the French by Blake Smith, is a collection of seven stories, which have this cathartic effect.  I will illustrate this by analysing the first story “A Paper Boat in the Ganges”, which centres on the life of Fougerre who has to confront Aristotlean obstacles in his life; colonialism, mythological gods, and fate. Set in Pondicherry at a time when it was still under French occupation, the story covers almost fifty years and presents a compressed montage of brisk, vivid scenes each with intense gesture and detail.It opens with these weighty lines:

“India is probably the only country where fate’s grip on the lives of individuals is so easily accepted. Life isn’t fair. People say it a lot. People hear it said still more often.”

The introduction sets the sombre mood for fate to hijack the character’s life with the ‘epic proportions of the cruel Gods of ancient Greece’. We find the two protagonists — Manu and his Tamil friend, Fougerre — in the sixth grade at a school managed by the French Government. The school is attended by French, and Indian students whose fathers are retired French soldiers or French functionaries, who have a strong attachment to French culture and some Tamilian students like the narrator, Manu, and Fougerre who are less so.

Fougerre, in particular, is an “outsider”. He is a dark-skinned Tamilian, which his white French classmates associate with their servant classes. A reticent and timid boy from a more modest background than his white French classmates, Fougerre is hardworking, bright and meticulous. His white peers copy his perfect homework, and resent “his remarkable brilliance”, because he reminds them of their servants. Manu, in particular, is jealous of Fougerre’s artistic skills.

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.