I’ve been quite disillusioned by Singapore Tamil literature. I was toying with a theory in mind, whether the strict laws and comfortable way of life in Singapore was preventing the birth of good writing. And hence, it was with some skepticism that I picked up this book, which I knew was shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize in English this year. And it turned out to be that ray of optimism that shines through when the clouds are bleak!
This book is made up of interconnected short stories that are about men and women, who’re either lost in life or feel empty inside or are unsure of their identities and what to call their home. This book is also a very subtle commentary on how the lawful Singapore sometimes suffocates its citizens and causes them to drift. How in its attempt to discipline its citizens, it perhaps smoothens their edges so much that their bodies begin to feel alien to themselves.
What makes a story Singaporean?
I was bored of all the Singaporean Tamil stories, their taxi drivers and Nasi Lemaks, neglected elders and tortured housemaids. They didn’t feel genuine or sincere. This book, in sharp contrast, avoids all things that are quintessentially Singapore. There are no wet markets, there are no shopping malls, no taxi drivers, no MRT travel, none of these. And yet these stories are about Singaporeans — each and every one of them.
Leaving things unsaid
Jeremy Tiang has crafted each of his stories such that there are lots of things he leaves unsaid. He also weaves symbolisms into each story.
Schwellangst is a good example. The story is about Joy, an MOE teacher, who accompanies her students to a foreign trip to Germany and she walks all by herself one night and spends the night with a couple, who were kids when the Berlin wall was demolished. While casually chatting up with them about walls, Joy wonders if there are any walls in her country. She can’t remember any, other than the one separating her condominium from the outside world. Here Jeremy leaves it to us readers to fill in the gap and answer the question in Joy’s mind. Are there really no walls in Singapore? Even as he describes Joy’s dream that night, he lets us wonder what the walls actually signify.
Joy dreams of being in a maze, of running through a limitless number of turnings and crossroads, all of which might lead to more choices, or to a dead end. And on either side of her are walls too high and smooth to climb, so tall she can only dimly see the sky above her, and a glimmer of the moon. It feels like just the other side of the walls are all the people she has lost, not visible but still present. Those who died, those who drifted away. The missing teacher is there too, the one who taught at her school and then just disappeared last March holidays. Where did she go?
In Meatpacking, the female protagonist in New York’s meatpacking district, thinks of slabs of meat being “hacked into manageable chunks” and packed, while back in Singapore the National Day parade is going on. Here too, the author leaves it to us to make the connection.
In Harmonious Residences, the new condominium that’s being built is symbolic of Singapore as a whole. It’s posh and well-planned. Even when an accident occurs, there’s a protocol that’s followed, procedure, everything being done in a mechanical, aloof sort of way. The system sorting things out so that it can regain its equilibrium. But then, the wife of the decapitated Chinese worker does something which shakes our souls. She smashes the office to pieces and smears his ashes all over the floor on which he died. Some of the ashes seep through the gaps in the lift doors. And the narrator feels that it will take ages to clear those ashes. The story seems to suggest that Harmonious Residences, however shiny and polished it may look on the outside, it’s built up of the flesh, sweat and blood of workers. People who live there may not realize it because it has been wiped clean several times over, but the traces of their ashes will continue to remain.
In fact, the author makes construction workers express this verbally in the story National Day. A bunch of workers who travel by boat to a nearby island to spend the night of National Day, point out different buildings and remark to each other which ones they built. And this story has a moment that I could perfectly relate to. In fact, it’s a moment that I’ve written in one of my short stories too. On the island, as the labourers are peacefully spending their time around a fire, a man walks up to them and demands that they put out the fire. Even though the workers tell him that there’s no way this fire is going to trouble him, he reiterates that they should follow the rules as long as they’re in this country and that if they can’t do so they may go back to their own country. I’ve seen several such confrontations between locals and foreigners during MRT travel, especially along the purple line.
Of course, in this story it did feel like the author didn’t have first hand experience of the workers interacting with each other. The dialogues as they talk among themselves somehow didn’t flow as naturally as they did in other stories.
For instance, the dialogues in Sophia’s Aunt were terrific. Sophia is a sophisticated Singaporean woman with an Ang Mo husband. She travels to Beijing for his heart transplant operation. And while he’s admitted to the hospital, and while she’s unsure if he’ll survive, she has to navigate the alien streets of Beijing. The little bits of conversation she has with her aunt are absolute gems. You can sense her aunt’s firm persona and how unsure and confused Sophia is about everything. You can also clearly sense her social awkwardness, intensified by her inability to speak Chinese and her need to be extremely polite in sharp contrast to her aunt who is blunt and to the point.
But, in the final story Sophia’s party, Sophia is back to normal after her husband’s successful heart transplant. This final story brings together various characters from other stories and sums up the questions that this book wishes to raise. In this story too, the author cleverly juxtaposes Sophia’s elaborate and well-planned party with the National Day parade that’s telecast on TV. What does the National Day spectacle signify? Why does Sophia host a party at her home every year? What does she get out of it? It gives us the perspective of Sophia and her cousin. For them it’s a familiar yearly phenomenon that they’ve grown up with since childhood. The parade is a yearly reminder to them that things are fine and will always be the same. Whereas for someone like Sophia’s husband, who’s come to Singapore from a foreign land, it’s a moment to question if he really belongs there. It’s also a moment for all of them to raise a question together and attempt to answer it. Can a home be built by people from diverse backgrounds? Can those people live happily in those homes without losing their identities? And what exactly are those identities?
P.S: You can get this book from here — http://shop.epigrambooks.sg/products/it-never-rains-on-national-day