Saturday 20 November 2021

Guest post from Jayanthi Sankar

Though Jayanthi Sankar is a native of India, where her books are published, she lives in Singapore.  Her fiction often explores the diversity of her adopted home. She believes in ever expanding the scope of her creative world. While developing her fictional universe, she interacts with the characters she forms and shapes to create a whole new world. For her, writing a novel is process that she truly lives and she delights in experimenting with her storytelling. 

Here she discusses her two historical novels, Tabula Rasa and Misplaced Heads, and her collection of short stories, Dangling Gandhi

So, over to Jayanthi…


This postmodern historical novel transverses the past two centuries and also gives a glimpse of the 14th and 15th centuries. With the Chinese protagonist Li Wei, and the secondary main character Indian Muthu, Tabula Rasa captures the Singapore life. What are Li Wei’s challenges as a self-employed local, and what does Muthu have in mind as he lands in Singapore as a migrant worker? Each has his own search, and purpose in his life. While Li Wei faces many issues with women and relationships, how does Muthu manage his relationships fairly easily? How are these two guys different in nature? Do they have any similarities? Li Wei has other friends like Adnan and Suresh, who are at loggerheads, yet close to him. Li Wei is past 40 when he decides on Nuwu as his life partner, but what are his different experiences before he reaches that stage? 

The seed for this novel was planted 12 years ago, when I’d often listen to the stories told by an elderly gentleman living in my housing block. Never did I realise his enthusiastic sharing of memories of his youth would help me in creating characters in my fiction. All I have observed over the decades of my living in Singapore has contributed to this novel.


Through the story of Poorna a Singaporean classical Bharatnatyam dancer involved in a long-distance relationship, Misplaced Heads opens windows on the artiste devadasis  - temple dancing girls - in the 19th and 20th centuries. And as well it asks: what were the freedom and plight of Apsaras – celestial dancers - in the mythical world? The novel challenges those who blindly celebrate all mythologies as pure and grand. The novel gives details of many rituals and systems, such as the induction of a new person into the devadasi system, and the the pot-balloting prevalent in the Chola era, and how it was conducted to review temple administration.

As part of my  research for this novel I visited a street at the foothills of Vralimalai, near Trichy, to meet the descendants of ancient temple dancers. I remember fondly their interactions with temple-goers.  


The stories in this collection reference events from the mid-19th century to the present age and show the diversity of the ethnic groups - Malay, Chinese, Tamil, British, Japanese - who have influenced Singapore during that time. The stories are often concerned with the difficulties of immigration and touch on assimilation, maintaining identity, identifying with your mother tongue. Readers are taken along in a taxi, observe a family in domestic surroundings, go on a bus journey, search for a book in a library, and visit settings as various as a school and a newspaper office. The stories also touch on natural disasters such as floods and earthquakes, international politics, and wars beyond the control of the individual. The stories challenge readers to explore cultural diversity, and  different religions, inheritances, beliefs, and customs. 

Dangling Gandhi won the  International Book Award for short fiction at the 2020 American Book Fest.

Details: Tabula Rasa, Misplaced Heads and Dangling Gandhi are all published by Zero Degree Publishing (India) in paperback, priced in local currencies.