Flash floods, Paul Theroux and loving Singapore

Waterlogging at Liat Towers
Waterlogging at Liat Towers

Flash floods hit Liat Towers and other parts of Orchard Road, reported AsiaOne, but PUB, whose tasks include flood prevention, begged to differ. No floods in Orchard Road, just “ponding”: Pub, said the headline in Today. “Flooding” did occur in a section of Cambridge Road/Owen Road, according to the PUB website, but not in the Orchard Road shopping district, where there was only “ponding”.”The affected areas are mainly low-lying areas,” Today reported, quoting the PUB, as if that explained everything.

I loved this quibble over words, it’s so like Singapore. I haven’t seen anything on the latest “flooding”/”ponding” yet on The Online Citizen or Singapore Daily, which takes a break on weekends, if I am not mistaken.

There were no blogs, of course, in the Singapore described by Paul Theroux in The Great Railway Bazar (published in 1975) which I happened to be reading again yesterday.

Theroux, who taught at the university, had mixed feelings about Singapore. “The North Star Night Express to Singapore”, the chapter on Singapore, ends with the words, “Like me — like everyone I knew in Singapore — he had just been waiting for his chance to go.” “I had felt trapped in Singapore,” he says, complaining about government control and press censorship. But he also admits: “I felt kindly towards Singapore.”

It’s impossible not to love Singapore.

Even Theroux, the critic, feels an affinity for the place.

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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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Paul Theroux revisits Asia

Ghost Train To The Eastern Star by Paul Theroux

Paul Theroux has written an immensely readable sequel to The Great Railway Bazaar, repeating that railway journey from Europe to Asia and back which earned him fame and fortune more than 30 years ago. It is bursting with people and places, rich in indelible portraits. I can’t forget the Korean monk Theroux meets in Myanmar who carries all his possessions in a little cloth bag and the English-speaking urchins in Amritsar, India, who can’t read or write.

There is drama too. A government agent sneaks into a talk by Theroux at the US embassy in Turkmenistan and photographs a dissident before an American  official seizes the film and turns the agent out of the building. But the agent files a report and Theroux has to leave the country in a hurry as a suspected troublemaker.

Not everyone will be pleased with Theroux’s accounts of the countries he revisits. He describes Bangalore, India’s IT capital, as a high-tech sweatshop. Singapore, in his account, is rigid with rules and taboos, a virtual one-party state with licensed brothels. Myanmar is ruled by fear, Sri Lanka drained by insurgency, Cambodia yet to recover from the Khmer Rouge nightmare, China dispatched in a couple of paragraphs as ugly beyond words, the Central Asian republics — formerly part of the Soviet Union – are primitive, polar opposites of Western democracies.

Only Vietnam gets a glowing treatment. Even its prostitutes are more colourful –- biker chicks in Hanoi screech to a halt in the writer’s path and ask: “You want boom boom?” And there is Japan –- kinky, high-tech, like no other country in the world but rich, peaceful, stable –- where, Theroux claims, the police actually prefer organised crime to the unorganised variety because it is organised. Japan certainly seems like paradise compared with Siberia, where Theroux travels next, taking the dirty, unkempt Trans-Siberian Express with Russians who spend days and nights making the long journey in a drunken haze.

A writer’s journey

But Ghost Train is not just a travelogue. It’s also a writer’s journey –- Theroux is revisiting old places to connect with his past and see how he himself has changed.

“Memory is a ghost train too”, he writes and explains why he made the journey:

“Older people are perceived as cynics and misanthropes –- but no, they are simply people who have at last heard the still, sad music of humanity played by an inferior rock band howling for fame. Going back and retracing my footsteps… would be for me a way of seeing who I was, where I went, and what subsequently happened to the places I had seen.”

He reflects on the price of his literary success. The Great Railway Bazaar brought him success -– at the expense of his first marriage. He returned to London at the end of that long journey in the 1970s to find his wife was having an affair. He recalls his emotional torment as he wrote that book.

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Paul Theroux on Singaporeans and Indians

“Singapore is an example of a place where people are self-conscious in the presence of foreigners,” says Paul Theroux,” because they feel that you’re going to criticise them for having accommodated themselves to their government and this way of living.”

“It’s like a gated community,” he adds. “You go in definitely feeling (a) that you don’t belong there, (b) that they’re not particularly interested in your staying there, and (c) that they’re very, very defensive. They feel they have to explain why they’ve settled for Singapore. And do you know, the sex trade there is booming, but their boast is, ‘These aren’t Singapore girls . . . they’re Burmese, they’re Vietnamese, they’re Filipina . . . but not us!'” 

Singapore still rankles in Theroux’s memory, from his remarks to the Wall Street Journal.

But he has good things to say about Indians. “I love traveling in India,” he says, “because Indians are approachable. If I were traveling in the U.S. and asked people some of the questions I ask in India, I’d get a very dusty answer. People would say ‘Who are you?’ ‘You work for the government?’ When you’re in India, you can ask, ‘Where do you live, what do you do, how much do you earn, how many children do you have?’ It’s the accessible poor. You can do that in Southeast Asia, too.”

But apparently not in rich little Singapore.

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Paul Theroux, Singapore and Naipaul

Paul Theroux is in Singapore, planning to write a sequel to The Great Railway Bazaar, reported The Straits Times yesterday. I can’t recall what he wrote about Singapore in his famous book about the various trains he rode on an epic journey from London to Tokyo and back. I was more interested then in what he had to say about the Indian railways and the Trans-Siberian Express.

But Theroux has a Singapore connection. The American from Massachusetts taught English at what was then the University of Singapore — now the National University of Singapore — from 1968 to 1971.

His former students didn’t speak well of him, said The Straits Times. That surprised him, it added. He should never have been a university teacher, said local poet and academic Kirpal Singh, adding he was much better as “a personal coach, sharing stories during lectures and over a few drinks with a small group of students”. He cut a dashing figure, said Singh, and girls were attracted to the young lecturer — Theroux was in his late 20s when he came here.

His experiences were not entirely happy.

“I was essentially fired,” Theroux told The Straits Times. His contract wasn’t renewed, it added.

What the newspaper didn’t say is that Theroux was already bored with teaching. He wrote his fifth novel, Jungle Lovers, in Singapore and decided to become a full-time writer.

He moved to London in 1972 and hasn’t looked back. Saint Jack, his novel about an American brothel-keeper in Singapore, came out in 1973 and made into a film by Peter Bogdanovich, the hotshot director of The Last Picture Show, What’s Up, Doc? and Paper Moon, in 1979. It was banned in Singapore, where it was filmed. But Singapore is a tiny market and Theroux was on a roll. The Great Railway Bazaar published in 1975 became an international bestseller and in 1981 he wrote his best-known novel, The Mosquito Coast.

I haven’t read Saint Jack but enjoyed his travelogues, The Great Railway Bazaar, The Old Patagonian Express, The Kingdom By The Sea, Riding The Iron Rooster.   

He can be acerbic but is immensely readable like his former friend, VS Naipaul. They first met at Makarere University in Uganda, where Theroux taught before coming to Singapore. Naipaul, who went to the Ugandan university as a visiting scholar, was already famous then for his novel, A House for Biswas. He wasn’t keen on academics either and spent time drinking, whingeing and doing his own writing. So says Theroux in Sir Vidia’s Shadow, the book he wrote after falling out with Naipaul. It’s a bitter book. He portrays Naipaul as rude, arrogant and a bit of sponger. But he admits there was a time when he looked up to Naipaul as a writer.

Naipaul won the Nobel Prize in 2001, three years after Sir Vidia’s Shadow came out. So in a way Naipaul had the last laugh.

But Theroux, now on his second marriage (again like Naipaul) and living in Hawaii, is still going strong. He celebrated his 65th birthday on April 10. The father of two — the elder son born in Uganda, the younger in Singapore — spoke to The Straits Times about his healthy lifestyle.

“I’ve written 40 or so books — could I have done that if I didn’t have a good night’s sleep, good diet or exercise?” he asked.

“I don’t smoke. I hardly drink. I’m a healthy person,” he said.

“If you  want to be productive, you need to be healthy.”