Asian Books Blog is based in Singapore. Our regular column Lion City Lit explores in-depth what’s going on in the City-State, lit-wise. Here Bhavani Krishnamurthy reports on the launch of Me Migrant, a collection of poetry from Mohammed Mukul Hossine, who was awarded a degree in the social sciences in his native Bangladesh, but who now works in Singapore as a construction worker by day, and as a poet by night. Cyril Wong, the established Singaporean poet, was the transcreator. Me Migrant was published on May 1, International Labour Day, by Ethos Books.
The rapid professionalisation of Singapore’s workforce has resulted in an increased reliance on migrant labour, especially in the construction and domestic help sectors. And no one has managed to capture the collective conscience of the nation, like the hard hats toiling under a fiery sun, juddering through hard earth as sparks fly round, wielding welding and earth moving equipment, sitting high up in scary cranes, generally performing tasks that inspire in us not only awe, but also relief - that we do not have to do them. Looking around at the packed house - latecomers had to stand at the back - I could not help thinking that this book was as much a release for the Singaporean as the migrant worker himself. For after all, these foreign workers take back nothing but their wages, after pouring their blood, sweat, and tears into this land. We owe them a debt and the transcreation and launch of Hossine’s poems was certainly a great way to show Singapore’s appreciation of those who serve her.
The idea for the book first arose when volunteers with Healthserve, a not for profit organisation which aims to provide subsidised healthcare to marginalised people such as construction workers, came into contact with Hossine, and realised his ability as a poet.
It is a slim volume in two parts.
Part 1, Me Migrant, is an honest expression of the author’s sense of his existence: his pain; his loss; his weariness; his longing for his homeland; and most importantly his doubt. A migrant is not a drudge buffeted by fate, however weary and beaten down he looks. He is someone who has taken a very decisive step, a risk taker who is bound to suffer from doubt. Does Hossine believe that he did the right thing, coming to Singapore to do hard manual labour and live a life of suspended animation, postponing the chance of eventual advancement to a profession more suited to his talents and inclination? As he puts it, his mind’s sky is cloudy, he walks, he is lost, he knows not his destination.
Part 2, Songs of Praise, Songs of Life, is more optimistic, as if a foothold has been obtained in this new country, affording a vantage that allows the migrant to look around instead of back all the time. There is a requiem for Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, Closing Adoration, and a poem on Singapore’s Golden Jubilee, which fell last year. But in this second part floats up an anxiety felt by every migrant including myself: the fear of losing the home country. Every other poem in the second section is about memory, that safekeeper of our attachments.
Wedged between the two parts is a section from medical students who work with Healthserve. Their contributions, poems, mainly, reflect on the plight of the workers and their hopes for a new morrow. The structure of the book bears testament to the abilities of Cyril Wong, whose transcreation of Hossine’s poems makes them instantly accessible to a non-Bengali audience.
The launch ceremony itself was direct and moving. The anchorperson was Mr. Fong Hoe Fang, the founder of Ethos books. The High Commissioner from Bangladesh, who unveiled the book, spoke simply of people who leave their homes in order to do their jobs, disarmingly banding himself with Hossine and the entire Bangladeshi diaspora. Dr. Tan Lai Yong of Healthserve spoke from his heart, of his meetings with the young poet and of how the book came to be.
The poet expressed his appreciation of all those who helped the book come about, thanked the High Commissioner and read out in English, two of his poems, Expatriate Dream, and I Want to be King. A few questions were fielded and then, at my request, the poet read out in Bengali the poems Red Signal and Midnight. The transformation of the artist was impressive to behold as he read his poems out in his native tongue. He came into his own, the voice powerful and charged with emotion as he spoke of waiting ... at life’s red light … vultures chase me ... yet I wait … dripping sweat, still I am not valued … don’t want to lose my self-respect … they stare at us… I wait at the red light.
I was thanked by other audience members for having requested the reading. For indeed much can be lost in translation. Bengal has a rich literary tradition and takes pride in having produced the first Nobel laureate for literature from Asia: Rabindranath Tagore. Literary allusions, usage that would be accessible to a countryman, may not be so for someone else. When Hossine refers, in English, to borders, I wonder if the word for border in the original poem is seema, for seema also means limit, the use of which word would change the texture of meaning in the poem. Clearly Cyril Wong has thought this through, for the first section of the collection is charmingly bookended by two versions of the same poem, Today my mind’s sky, and I.
Let me close with a few lines from my favourite poem in this collection, Flourishing Rope:
Do you still think about
moving up in life
do you apply henna like me
On someone else’s hand?
Will you eat neither this nor that
and does another say now?
Do you still bear the news
of how I am surviving now?
Meet Bhavani Krishnamurthy: Bhavani Krishnamurthy is a fund manager by day, a mother at all times, and a writer in the wee hours of the morning. She lives in Singapore with her husband and two children. Born and brought up in India, a desire to explain one culture to another informs her writing. Bhavani has published poetry and short stories, and she is working on a novel in fits and starts. She also unevenly maintains a blog, Views and Reviews, of which she is unreasonably proud.