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Books India Singapore

Indians in Singapore

Once upon a time, there were more Indian than Chinese voters in Singapore. Hard to believe but true.

Indians outnumbered the Chinese when the first general election to the Legislative Council was held in 1948. Only British subjects were eligible to vote. Out of a potential electorate of more than 200,000, only 23,000 registered to vote, and more than 10,000 of them were Indians, recalled CM Turnbull in A History of Modern Singapore, 1819-2005.

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Books India Media Singapore

Raffles, Singapore, Calcutta and Bengal

When a young man came to Singapore from Calcutta many years ago, he didn’t know he was following in the footsteps of Sir Stamford Raffles. The one difference: He came by air. Raffles came by sea — on the ship Indiana, with his deputy, Major William Farquhar, on board another vessel, the Ganges.

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India Singapore

North Indian temples in Kolkata and Singapore

A temple in Kolkata

I loved this temple in Kolkata. Quiet, well-maintained, it’s a welcome refuge from the world outside. Located on busy Diamond Harbour Road in Kidderpore, it’s an island of tranquillity. There is complete peace as you walk up the long flight of steps from the gate to the interior of the temple.

I was reminded of the Shree Lakshminarayan Temple at Chander Road in Singapore. It is bigger than the Lakshminarayan Temple and the architecture is different too. While the Lakshminarayan Temple is an ordinary-looking house standing on a quiet lane, this temple with its long flight of steps and high dome is clearly a Hindu religious building.

So why did it remind me of the Singapore temple?

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India Singapore

Raffles and his East Indiamen

What a coincidence that India celebrates its independence on August 15 while Singapore’s National Day is August 9. Singapore’s founder, Sir Stamford Raffles, arrived on the island in on 29 January 1819 from Calcutta (now Kolkata) in India. Even the ship he sailed on was named Indiana. I couldn’t find details of the ship but here are pictures of other East Indiamen, as they were called, built in India.

East Indiaman HMS Trincomalee

East Indiaman HMS Trincomalee

This ship, HMS Trincomalee, was built in Bombay (now Mumbai) and launched in 1817. It’s still there in Britain. See this report, which was published with this picture.

Ship built in Calcutta

Ship built in Calcutta

The HMS Hastings was built in Calcutta for the East India Company but was bought by the Royal Navy in 1819. It was sold by the navy in 1886, according to Wikipedia.

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Books India Singapore

Indira Gandhi and Lee Kuan Yew

Indira_Gandhi1 lee_kuan_yew1

Singapore's Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew is compared to Indira Gandhi by the Indian journalist, Sunanda Datta-Ray, who once worked for The Straits Times.

In his book, Looking East to Look West, exploring India-Singapore relations, based on his interviews with MM Lee, he writes:

Lee and Indira Gandhi shared a brutal commitment to power, an almost brutal pragmatism and a fascination with mystic predictions of the future. Both dominated the scene around them. So much so that though lacking the alliterative resonance of the loyalist chant during the Emergency, 'Indira is India, India is Indira', it might be more accurate to recite 'Kuan Yew is Singapore, Singapore is Kuan Yew'. He is probably the world's only democratically elected leader who can boast, as France's Louis XIV is believed to have done, 'L'etat c'est moi' (I am the state). That, too, has an Indian parallel. It was only half in jest that British newspapers bestowed on Indira Gandhi the 'Empress of India' title invented for Queen Victoria.

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Books India

Paul Theroux on Kali and Calcutta

In A Dead Hand: A Crime in Calcutta, Paul Theroux describes an animal sacrifice at the Kali temple in Kalighat. A goat, garlanded with flowers, is led bleating into a walled enclosure to the beat of drums. Once inside, the terrified creature is thrust between two upright stakes and caressed by a barefoot priest, who then hacks off its head to screeches of delight from the crowd.

The narrator, Jerry Delfont, an American travel writer invited to give talks in Calcutta (Kolkata) by the US consulate, is horrified by the spectacle. He is then led inside the temple, which is also frightening:

We shuffled past an inside window where the image of the goddess Kali, gleaming black and brightly marked, stared with orange lozenge eyes from a stack of blossoms and offerings. I was briefly frightened, jostled by the mob in this stifling place of incense and flowers and dishes of money and frantic pilgrims, who were twitching with gestures of devotion and gasping, seeming to eat the air, all of them staring wildly at the furious image.

Theroux is clearly writing as an outsider, who doesn't share the religious sentiments of the Hindus. The scene is nightmarish. Even Hindus may recoil from the animal sacrifice. And was it necessary to give such a lurid description of the image of the goddess?

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Books India

Nandan Nilekani: Imagining India

Nandan Nilekani’s book, Imagining India, has been called both exhaustive and exhausting. It is a big book – a clear-eyed look at one of the world’s fastest growing economies where, nevertheless, millions are still poor and illiterate.

For a quick summary by the author himself, watch this video.

Nilekani begins by pointing out India with its huge young workforce will be the only young country in an ageing world and ends by saying why India matters:

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Books India

Incredible India: Through a newsman’s eyes

Inspiteofthegods India is an unlikely economic giant. The vast majority of its people don't even have steady jobs, points out Edward Luce in his insightful book on India.

Fewer than 40 million of its 470 million workforce are employed in the "organized sector", which offers job protection and other benefits. The government and the public sector are the biggest employers, employing 25 million people. The big Indian companies we hear about such as Infosys and Reliance Industries employ far fewer people. Less than 1 per cent works in the IT industry and yet India has become a software giant.

 Edward Luce aptly calls his book In Spite Of The Gods: The Strange Rise Of Modern India. India is a deeply religious, largely superstitious country, he says, where most people continue to live in the Edward_lucevillages because there are not enough jobs in the cities. Unlike America or Britain, India has not industrialized on a large scale before setting up high-tech industries.

Luce knows India inside out. He was the Financial Times' South Asia bureau chief based in New Delhi from 2001 to 2006 before becoming the newspaper's Washington bureau chief. And his wife is an Indian.

Luce traces India's lopsided growth to the policies set by India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. He promoted capital-intensive industries and poured as much money into higher education as in primary education. The result: India produces about a million engineering graduates a year but only 65 percent of the population is literate.

India has to change into a more urban, industrial economy, says Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and Luce agrees with him. Yes, they have met, not once but several times.

This is a tight, well-written book which describes the country, its people and politics with interesting details and anecdotes.

Luce recalls an interview with Sonia Gandhi in 2004:

"You know politics does not come easily to me," she said. "I do not enjoy it. I do not even think I am very good at it. Politics killed my mother-in-law and it killed my husband. But when I saw what they were doing to India's secular culture, I felt I could no longer stand by and watch it happen without doing something," she said (referring to the Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002). "Secularism is the most important legacy of my family. I had to stand up and defend it. I could not watch them tear it." Sonia's eyes were brimming with tears. She was not sobbing. But there was an intense sadness in her face.

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Books India

An absorbing history of India since independence

India After Gandhi: The History Of The World's Largest Democracy by Ramachandra Guha

Ramachandra_guha Ramachandra Guha's India After Gandhi: The History Of The World's Largest Democracy is a riveting account of India since independence  in 1947. 

The narrative never flags. Historical figures are brought to life and history re-enacted in its pages. It makes you appreciate the greatness of Gandhi and Nehru as well as India as it is today.

The leaders may have shrunken in stature, the country pulled in different directions by political parties representing various groups and communities, but democracy has deepened, not weakened, says Guha. The coalition governments that have come and gone over the past two decades are a sign that the country today can be governed only by consensus. No one can do another Indira Gandhi.

Indira GandhiImage via Wikipedia

She was Nehru's daughter in her secular outlook. Nobody can say she discriminated against any community though she was forced to fight Sikh separatists and sent the army after them into the Golden Temple, their holiest shrine, for which she paid with her life – killed by two of her Sikh bodyguards.

But, apart from their secular outlook, father and daughter had little in common. Nehru respected democracy, the independence of the media and the judiciary. The Congress party in his time was also more independent, run by powerful politicians who did not necessarily listen to him though he was the prime minister and their leader.

Nehru had friends even among his political opponents. Guha writes in absorbing detail about the countless actions taken by Gandhi and Nehru to keep India secular. He makes you admire them simply by describing what they did.

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Books India

Calcutta hosts world’s biggest book fair

I am surprised the BBC didn’t mention the Scottish writer Alexander McCall Smith is in Calcutta (Kolkata) for the Kolkata Book Fair. Maybe the BBC presenter and the Indian correspondent Subir Bhowmik ran out of time discussing the size and scale and the city’s passion for books that has made it the world’s largest retail book fair. Yes, that’s what the BBC said, the Kolkata Book Fair is the world’s largest retail book fair. Attended by millions of people.

The queue to enter the fair could be kilometres long, said the BBC correspondent. That’s why it was moved away from the Maidan. Environmentalists worried the vast crowd was polluting the Maidan, the green belt in the heart of the city.

Book sales in Calcutta are not likely to be hit even by the global downturn, said Subir Bhowmik. Bengalis – that’s people like him and me – can’t do without books and travel, he said.

He has been attending the fair since it started in 1976. I was there too. That’s where I could pick up the Larousse encyclopedias and the Thames and Hudson art books on the cheap. They used to be sold at discounts by booksellers from New Delhi, where apparently there were few buyers for those books.

Here in Singapore I like Borders and Kinokuniya, the Japanese bookshop which is even better and has a larger collection than Borders.

But I enjoyed nothing better than visiting Rupa’s, the old bookshop on College Street. It used to be thick with Penguins – PG Wodehouse, AJP Taylor, John Updike, Gerald Durrell, Alistair Cooke, Graham Greene, Kingsley Amis, Michael Innes, Raymond Chandler, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald, Franz Kafka, Albert Camus, every author neatly arranged.

And it was at Oxford Bookshop on Park Street that I first saw the USA Today.

I also remember the bookshops in New Market, which used to keep neatly pressed copies of The Times and other British newspapers for delivery to the clubs in Calcutta.

Alexander McCall Smith tribute to RK Narayan

Alexander McCall Smith has been praising Indian writers such as RK Narayan, Vikram Seth and Vikram Chandra. The Hindu reports he said:

“The works of R.K. Narayan have steered my writing to a certain direction… The Man-Eater of Malgudi was the first of Narayan’s books that I read, and the effect was profound.”

Allen Ginsberg and Calcutta

But of all the writers who have visited Calcutta, the one who made the deepest impression was the poet, Allen Ginsberg.

He made friends with famous Bengali writers, poets and journalists when he visited the city in the early 60s. They did things I better not write about in Singapore. But here’s a report.

Calcutta is non-conformist, anti-establishment, said the BBC correspondent Subir Bhowmik. But the younger generation is more career-oriented, he added. Still, there’s hope…

Barack Obama is the biggest sensation this year. The Times of India reports:

Audacity of Hope and Dreams From My Father are out of stock in most bookstores. Distributors have placed huge orders for these two books, expecting a rush for them during the Kolkata Book Fair.