Meeting of literary minds
Institute of South Asian Studies organises first South Asian Literary Salon
A full house of more than 150 registered participants savoured the best of writing and social commentary from a dozen of South Asia’s leading fiction writers, poets and journalists at the first “South Asia Literary Salon” on Saturday at the Four Seasons Hotel.
Organized by the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS) at the National University of Singapore, the “Salon” aimed to bring the riches of writing from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh to the attention of Singaporeans. The event also reinforced Singapore’s place as a congenial venue where people from various countries can meet without the constraints of government rivalries and intimidating visa requirements.
Ambassador Gopinath Pillai, chairman of ISAS, set the tone in opening the occasion when he said: “We are not just a research institute. We are a think tank that studies, engages and interacts with South Asia”.
He added that “this the very first literary salon that Singapore has organised on South Asia. We organise various events bringing the whole of South Asia into the neutral ambience of Singapore and we discuss matters impassionedly, sometimes passionately. We try to get people from different backgrounds and so on to come and talk. We think that these baby steps that we take brings the region close to a more integrated situation.”
Chosen on the basis of their distinction as writers and with the aim of hearing voices from the four largest countries of South Asia, the speakers brought a wit and incisiveness that held the audience throughout a six-hour program. In total, the speakers have a body of work of close to 100 books published by some of the world’s best publishers. Their accumulated published words run into millions. But to the delight of the audience, they were not shrinking violets, more at home in a private room of their own, just them and their keyboard. Rather, as veterans of literary festivals and hundreds of events, they were practised in engaging an audience with wit, clarity and incisiveness.
Moni Mohsin, a Pakistani novelist and columnist, creator of the “Social Butterfly,” a character developed for a regular satirical column, brought Social Butterfly to life in a couple of illuminating “interviews” between herself and the distinctive accent and language of “Social Butterfly.”
Meeting of South Asian literary minds (from left): Mohammad Hanif (Pakistan), Romesh Gunesekera (Sri Lanka); and Manu Joseph (India)
Hardened journalist-novelists – Mohammed Hanif from Pakistan (author of A Case of Exploding Mangoes), Manu Joseph from India (Serious Men) and Nury Vittachi from Hong Kong and elsewhere (Feng Shui Detective) – spoke of the dangers of being a writer, especially a journalist. Vittachi wryly observed that he once considered relocating to Singapore when pressures on a plain-speaking journalist became too great in Hong Kong.
Publishers face different challenges. Urvashi Butalia, co-founder of the Kali for Women press and today chief executive of the Zubaan publishing house, emphasized the goals of social change and ethical purpose that an activist had to bring to writing and publishing. Niaz Zaman, Bangladeshi critic, writer and teacher, similarly found the need to become a publisher. This led to her founding Writers.ink press in Bangladesh in 2005.
Professor Zaman observed that in the field of women’s rights the deployment of mobile phones had facilitated immense changes. The fact that the Grameen Bank and its successful micro-credit projects worked through women and that women organizers were all equipped with mobile phones gave them new powers of communication. The idea that activists had also to be communicators was echoed by Githa Hariharan, prolific Indian fiction writer and a litigant using the Indian legal system to advance the rights of Indian women.
In keeping with the theme of the salon – “Modernity, Identity and Belonging” – Singapore writers Suchen Christine Lim and Claire Chiang reflected on the ingredients of a “Singaporean identity” and how it differed for each of them. This was a conversation that echoed with all participants, not least Tishani Doshi, a highly regarded Indian poet, based in Chennai, describing herself as Gujarati, and with one Welsh parent.
These questions of belonging, citizenship and migration were seen as central to the work of those who write about South Asia, though the perspectives can be varied. Romesh Gunesekera, the acclaimed author of Reef, a Booker Prize nominee, has moved between the UK and Sri Lanka for many years. Nisid Hajari, on the other hand, was born in the United States, and does not speak an Indian language. But the topic that drew him irresistibly to write his first book was the classic of twentieth-century South Asia – the creation of Pakistan in 1947. Midnight’s Furies: the Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition has just been published.
Singapore author Meira Chand chaired the organizing committee for the event. Organizers were delighted with its success, measured in the size of the audience, the fact that it stayed throughout the day and the willingness of globally distinguished writers to come to Singapore for such conversations.
Professor Robin Jeffrey is a visiting research professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore.