Thursday 23 July 2015

Lion City Lit: Exploring South Asian Identity, by Verena Tay

Asian Books Blog is based in Singapore. Lion City Lit explores what’s going on in the City-State, lit-wise. Here, Verena Tay talks about the South Asia Literary Salon, organised by the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore. It was chaired by Meira Chand and took place earlier this month.

Given the size and complexity of the region, any discussion on South Asian identity is bound to be problematic, raising more questions than supplying answers. And so it was with the Salon, which was conceived as a means to explain South Asia using the lens of prose and poetry. Ten writers from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and the USA, and two Singaporean writers were invited to share their views on the theme Modernity, identity and belonging. The various candid panel discussions brought out issues that ranged from the informative and engaging to the inconsequential.
The first panel, Life and times of a writer, moderated by Shirley Chew, generated some insightful notions about history. Feminist publisher Urvashi Butalia cautioned against the linear and chronological model of history; within the South Asian context, history is more an unfolding mosaic as the perspective of minorities are continually being revealed. In her writing, what concerns Githa Hariharan is the secret histories of ordinary people who are not in the centre of big events that are deemed historical by those in power. When writing fiction, Mohammed Hanif is quite clear that he is not a historian, preferring to explore: “stuff that is written out of history”.
Identity and its discontents: the dangers of a single narrative was a lively second panel moderated by Preeti Dawra. Tishani Doshi, daughter of a Gujarati father and a Welsh mother, has always clung to Madras/Chennai, the city she grew up in, for her sense of identity. In his fiction thus far, Manu Joseph writes about a particular type of Indian man that he has frequently encountered in his journalistic experience, one who frequently vents his anger about the current state of Indian politics and society. Known for her satirical columns on rich, upper class Pakistani women, Moni Mohsin is deeply concerned about how Pakistan is becoming increasingly intolerant of multiculturalism and non-Islamic religions.

In response to Preeti Dawra’s query about whether the panellists felt they shaped society in any way through their writing, Manu Joseph made a facetious comment that proved to be quite contentious. He questioned the need for writers to be “moralistic” and “righteous” in their writing since, in his view, writers often did not live up to the moral standards they were upholding.
Further views on history emerged during the third panel, Deconstructing history: how do we arrive at who we are?, moderated by Prasenjit K. Basu. Despite the topic having been explored extensively, Nisid Hajari still regards the history of Partition as extremely rich territory for research. Romesh Gunesekera is fascinated with how colonialism was experienced differently by diverse countries, thereby shaping unique post-colonial perspectives. Nury Vittachi “likes colonialism” for the clash of cultures it produced and he revels in the resulting confusion when different cultures associate dissimilar meanings to certain English words.
After lunch, Tishani Doshi gave a gentle 15-minute recital of her poetry that was followed immediately by the fourth panel discussion: The Singapore story: the search for an identity, moderated by Meira Chand. Born in Malaya, Suchen Christine Lim came to Singapore for her education and only became a Singaporean citizen as an adult; hence for her, the concept of identity is flexible and based on personal choice. By comparison, Claire Chang considers herself to be a daughter of Singapore; her experience of growing up in a multicultural and multilingual environment enables her to be versatile on the world stage and allows her to connect easily with people from diverse countries.
Perhaps due to mid-afternoon malaise the fifth panel, Speaking truth to power: reflecting, interpreting and shaping South Asia, with Mohammad Hanif, Manu Joseph and Romesh Gunesekara as speakers, was a little unfocussed.  But the last panel of the day, The politics of gender: shaking the status quo, moderated by Preeti Dawra, was impassioned and informative.
During this session, Urvashi Butalia returned to the question of whether an author needs to be moralistic in his or her writing - she said it was necessary for her to be moralistic, given her commitment to the feminist ideal. To defend her rebuttal of Manu Joseph’s earlier comment, she argued that much more must be done for women, given that increasing urbanisation and the large numbers of women joining the workforce in South Asia are creating unprecedented social and political pressures. Githa Hariharan agreed and was adamant that any discussion about gender politics must be carefully framed. Niaz Zaman wondered why the panel comprised only women and stressed that the women’s movement cannot progress unless men actively contribute too; she also shared examples of how women are gaining economic independence and yet are facing multiple levels of social backlash in her native Bangladesh. Moni Mohsin described Pakistan as a society in flux: as the country becomes more urbanised, women must work and receive an education, but they face increasing violence and discrimination.  
A singing recital by Namita Mehta helped to end the Salon on an enjoyable high note.