Call of two cities

Call of two cities

Seven writers, four from Singapore and three from Kerala, come together in this little book to “create a fusion of cultures”. Part of a project to “bridge the gap between Tier 2 cities in India and global business hubs such as Singapore through business and cultural exchanges”, this book begins a Singapore-Thiruvananthapuram link.

There are two forewords. Singapore’s Kirpal Singh quotes activist poet Muriel Rukeyser that the universe is full of stories, not atoms. He proceeds to “reflect” on the stories in the book, even giving us the ending of one.

In the second foreword, Shashi Tharoor takes a breathlessly comprehensive dip into the cultural wealth of our country, Kerala in particular, as he defends Indians writing in English. He cites the Kerala success story in a land rushed with colour and natural bounty, enriched by “a combination of enlightened rule by far-thinking Maharajahs, progressive reform movements within the Hindu tradition (especially that of the remarkable Ezhava sage Sree Narayana Guru), and changes wrought by a series of Left-dominated legislatures...” Tharoor constructs a podium to place the Kerala stories, making us wish that Singh had done the same for Singapore. Once we’ve entered, though, the geography quickly turns human, common, familiar. They hold us with their startling simplicity, ordinary lives enlightened through brimming moments.

The first story by Suchen Christine Lim traces a mother-son bonding from a difficult moment in his Principal’s office to the comfortable time years later, when he finally acknowledges her solid, dependable support. Written with unsentimental intimacy, Lim’s story sets the pace for a remarkably true-to-life collection that appears to placidly skim the surface while offering us a glimpse into rich — often troubled — lives, of kaleidoscopic relationships that coalesce, part and regroup, allowing us the reader’s luxury of discreet perception.

The mother’s efforts to route her child’s life through the father’s absence will touch a chord in anyone in a similar situation. “I wanted to handle it myself,” the son explains later, while always knowing her need to “come first in her son’s life” though “she will never admit it.”

Tharoor’s The Death of a Schoolmaster, written more than 20 years ago, is a poignant slice-of-life that proves his point that language can be adapted to tell a different story. The strict, impoverished schoolmaster who inherits agricultural land he knows little about, his reticent relationship with his family that breaks out in moments of wordless love, the wily tenant and the irony of the politician son stewing in his own juice, echo classic Malayalam stories of the forties and fifties. Tharoor’s intuitive images convey attitudes effortlessly: “his head bending so low in respect over his folded hands it looked as if he was going to drink from them”. The story mops up social changes that transformed Kerala’s feudalistic landscape and the strong family structure that often rested on responsible, undemonstrative love.

Felix Cheong’s little boy sees secrets. When he hides, he sees stars, God’s eyes. There are people, mother, sister and their men, tickling each other with no clothes on. He sees it all. He’s concerned about his mother. He wonders if Jesus (of the bleeding hands) also “hand-washes many, many clothes”. The 16-year-old’s viewpoint senses much, misses little. Here too there’s only Mama. Dada’s gone.

Jaishree Mishra’s story about a joint family that now keeps in touch through occasional encounters and emails is held together by the correct, concerned Manichettan whom the narrator visits on a trip to Singapore. Their easy banter and closeness, their nostalgia and catching up bely the significance of the breathless, discomfiting secret that soon tumbles out, taking her by surprise. (When Mishra writes Kunyamma-Kunyachen, it gives us pause — the language we use has the additional responsibility of conveying the pronunciation of new sounds.)

O Thiam Chin’s Patchwork, of a couple’s visit to a neglected, accident-prone old aunt to collect an heirloom, and Anjali Menon’s story of an unbending matriarch waiting patiently for a past acquaintance from Singapore are beautifully etched homages to the values of an earlier generation. Both (even Chin’s story) are somehow essentially feminine perceptions of old-world dignity struggling to surface.

Editor Verena Tay brings up the rear with a tale of vicarious fulfilment. Personal loss moves towards a different sort of closure, for life is, after all, life and even familiar roads often lead to revelation. In all the stories she has collected, the most enduring theme is that of the family and the passing of a generation. It’s interesting to note the cross-occurrence of Indian and Singaporean mentions in each other’s stories. In a world that’s getting increasingly interlinked, a volume like this forms a proactive literary bridge.

A Monsoon Feast
Edited by Verena Tay
Monsoon Books
2013, pp 167