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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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A New World by Amit Chaudhuri

A New World by Amit Chaudhuri

Amit Chaudhuri is one of the finest but possibly less known Indian authors writing in English. His language can verge on poetry and be as vivid as a movie. But nothing much happens in his stories.

That didn’t matter very much in his early novels, A Strange and Sublime Address and Freedom Song. Both were critically acclaimed. I can think of no better books in English about my hometown, Calcutta (Kolkata), except Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, my favourite novel, but there only part of the story is set in Calcutta; most of the action takes place in the Hindi belt.

To get a feel of Calcutta, what it looks like and understand us Bengalis, the natives of Calcutta, A Strange and Sublime Address and Freedom Song are invaluable. They portray our ideas, attitudes and lifestyle. And the writing verges on poetry, which is something we Bengalis love.

A New World unfortunately lacks that poetry. The writing is fluid and flawless. But as I turned from one page to the next, it felt like a lazy summer afternoon. It’s uneventful by deliberate design.

The story

Jayojit, a Bengali economist teaching in America, visits his parents in Calcutta during his college holidays with his seven-year-old son, Bonny. He has recently divorced his wife, also a Bengali from Calcutta, who has left him to live with her lover -– and gynaecologist — in America. The story describes his stay in Calcutta. In the process, we see his interaction with his parents, his parents’ relationship and his own relationship with his parents. There are also flashbacks to his broken marriage and his parents’ abortive attempt to arrange a second marriage for him with a Bengali divorcee. He had met her on his previous visit but they had got nowhere. She had backed out, he now learns from his father, because he had seemed to be looking not so much for a wife as a governess for his son.

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Bengalis in 1920s Singapore

I am glad that Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke at the Global Indian Diaspora Conference this morning. His presence there while Singapore officially went into recession underlines the deepening ties between the two countries.

India too is caught in the economic turmoil.  Indian banks from tomorrow will be allowed to keep just 7.5 percent cash in hand, down from 9 percent. It’s the steepest cut in the cash reserve ratio in India since 2001, reports Bloomberg, releasing 600 billion rupees ($12.2 billion) into the financial system.

But this post is about what the Prime Minister said at the conference. The full speech can be read here. I only wish to draw attention to this remark he made:

Many early Indians started out here as humble labourers and plantation workers, but succeeding generations have made their mark in government, business and the professions.

That is only part of the story, passing over details like this: Sir Stamford Raffles founded Singapore with soldiers from India. But anyone can learn that from a history book.

What’s more interesting to me is this Singapore scene painted by Somerset Maugham in his short story, P & O. It appeared in his collection of short stories, The Casuarina Tree, published in 1926. He mentions “sleek and prosperous” Bengalis. Where did they go? Maugham captures the buzz, but it’s a totally different Singapore:

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The poetry of Amit Chaudhuri

Amit_chaudhuri_three_novels Three Novels by Amit Chaudhuri: A Strange and Sublime Address, Afternoon Raag, Freedom Song

Amit Chaudhuri is like no other Indian writer I have read recently. He writes about ordinary day-to-day life like RK Narayan and Ruskin Bond, but in a language so vivid and evocative it sometimes rises to poetry.

His novels are not sweeping sagas or rich in symbolism, nor do they carry any messages. Their pleasure lies entirely in their language. Chaudhuri, who graduated from University College, London, and then went to Oxford, makes music and paints pictures with words.

Take the first page of Afternoon Raag, where he describes Oxford:

"On the first day of Michaelmas, men and women in black gowns walk to matriculation ceremonies, and at the end of the year they wear these gowns again, unhappily, to take exams; then, after the exams, the town is nearly empty, and the days, because of that peculiar English enchantment called Summer Time, last one hour longer; and Oxford, in the evening, resembles what an English town must have looked like in wartime, the small shops open but unfrequented, an endangered, dolorous, but perfectly vivid peace in the lanes, as the eye is both surprised by, and takes pleasure in, a couple linked arm in arm, or a young man conversing with a woman on a polished doorstep, and then the early goodbyes. It is like what I imagine a wartime township to have been, because all the young people, with their whistling, their pavement to pavement chatter, their beer-breathed, elbow-nudging polemics are suddenly gone, leaving the persistent habits of an old way of life, the opening and shutting of shops, intact, a quiet, empty bastion of civilisation and citizenry. It is because of its smallness, repetition, and the evanescence of its populace, that Oxford is dreamlike."

Chaudhuri writes beautifully about Calcutta (Kolkata) too.

No Indian writing in English has described Bengali middle class life more faithfully. If anyone wants to know what we Bengalis are like — our love of gossip, arts and culture, our gentility, our modest ambitions and the closeness of our family ties — Chaudhuri is the author to read.

His privileged background shows through in his first novel, A Strange and Sublime Address. I was surprised to read someone owning a car in Calcutta in the late 1980s or early 1990s could have been considered hard-up. True, it’s a battered old car, but a car — any car — in Calcutta then would have been a symbol of wealth.

Chaudhuri, who was born in Calcutta, clearly grew up in more affluent circles in Bombay (Mumbai).

But the last novel, A Freedom Song, captures the Calcutta I know beautifully. He could have been writing about people I know. And no one has described them better, not in English.