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.

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Kitaab launched its first ever print title, Urdu Poetry–An Introduction at the Singapore Writers Festival on 8 November. 

Urdubooklaunch

Originally penned by Hyderabad-based Anees Ayesha, the book was translated into English by Kitaab’s editor, Zafar Anjum. Ayesha, 75, who could not attend the event, has taught Urdu language and literature in Hyderabad for over 50 years and is an avid promoter of the learning of Urdu among the new generations. She works closely with the Mehfil-e-Khawateen (A women writer’s collective) and Dabistan-e-Jaleeli (Set up to celebrate the works of Ali Ahmed Jaleeli), two organisations that are deeply involved in promoting the Urdu language and appreciation of its contribution to literature and culture in the sub continent.

Singapore Decalogue final cover

by Zafar Anjum

My first collection of short stories, The Singapore Decalogue: Episodes in the Life of a Foreign Talent (Red Wheelbarrow Books, 2012) was released in November this year at the Singapore Writers Festival. The book was supported by the National Arts Council Singapore under the Arts Creation Fund grant.

In this collection of short stories, I have tried to create vignettes of life in Singapore. This is my tribute to this city state, which has built its social capital with great wisdom, civic sense, and quotidian practicality.

Like many modern metros, the Lion City is compact, with people of various ethnicity and nationalities living side by side. Though they live mostly secluded, private lives, there are times when their paths cross. This civic commingling of people can be harmonious or chaotic, depending on the circumstances.

Book review by Krishna Udayasankar, Ph.D.

Singapore Decalogue final cover

The Singapore Decalogue: Episodes in the Life of a Foreign Talent
by Zafar Anjum
Red Wheelbarrow Books, Singapore, 2012

 
As a reader, one of the most precious pleasures I enjoy is being given a window into reality, into the simple yet profound events that surround a character and her or his life. Zafar Anjum’s The Singapore Decalogue does exactly that. Like the perfect host, it invites you in with grace and promise, makes you comfortable, delights, feeds, and entertains. And then, once you become good friends, it hits you hard with its revelations and keeps you hooked with its well-written narrative, right to its surprise (in fact a dash shocking) ending.

Well-written and balanced

The Decalogue holds equal joy from a craft perspective: As a writer, I am undeniably jealous of those who are able to give glimpses into what may, at first, seem ordinary; the things, people, and the events that form part of our everyday fabric of life. Zafar Anjum’s work delivers completely on this count by taking us into the subtle layers of human ambition, need and frailty that underlie the routines and unstated actions that we go through everyday. Specifically, it offers bold and yet believable insights into the mind of a foreign talent in Singapore. Asif Basheer, the central character of the ten pieces that form the Decalogue, is someone the reader will come to like, sometimes dislike, sometimes disagree with, but always resonate with in one way or another.