Sikit-Sikit Lama-Lama Jadi Bukit: An Anthology ed. by Annaliza Bakri

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[a version of this review was published in Karyawan vol. 13 issue 1, Jan 2018]

What does it mean to lose a place? In a capitalist city-state like Singapore where economic interests supersede sentimentality, nostalgia, & even history, where heritage sites are mowed over or revamped for a highway or a new shopping district, what does it mean to remember a place except to participate in a kind of mourning?

Sikit-Sikit Lama-Lama Jadi Bukit is an anthology of poems edited and translated by Annaliza Bakri. The poems, placed in their original language and translations side by side, are focused on specific places in Singapore written by Malay poets both award-winning and established, as well as more contemporary, younger voices. These poems were selected based on their rumination on specific sites in Singapore, such as the poets’ individual kampungs, Orchard Road, Tebrau Strait (commonly known as Straits of Johor), and the area most associated with the Malay community, Geylang Serai. As the book progresses however, one realises that it is too simplistic to reduce the anthology as a collection of poems on places. Additional considerations had also been “to include voices that spoke of loss, nostalgia, identity, problems, dreams and aspirations.” In a way, the places were either central, or tangential, to these other considerations.

A considerable number of the poems are meditative, caught in a rumination of a place in a past era, recounting its now vanished sights and sounds, such as “Silent River” by Mohd Khair Mohd Yasin, “Geylang Serai” by Yatiman Yusof and “Bukit Timah Sidewalk (memories from the 60s)” by Nordita Taib. Some are more experiential than descriptive such as poems “Bus 67” and “Haji Lane” by Isa Kamari, while others are odes to specific places, or a retelling of a historical episode. For the most part, a sense of nostalgia pervades the collection of poems, regardless of the voice or form it takes.

This tendency to poeticise places in a wistful, even mournful rumination is a telling one. It is as if one cannot speak about these places without invoking the ghost of its former streets, its former people, and the memories the poets associate the place with. It is no small fact that a considerable number of the poets lived through a developing Singapore, and some even remember a pre-independent Singapore, before the split with Malaysia.

“Song of Tebrau” by Juffri Supa’at, for example, is an almost loving ode to the Tebrau Strait that one can’t help but read in parallel with Singapore’s relationship with Malaysia. Mourning the absence of intimacy and warmth that was once felt, he asks

Is this…
because we were once
disappointed and failed in love?

Similarly, “Tebrau Strait” by Mohamed Latiff Mohamed is also a loving, even an almost erotic ode, at the end of which he presents the Straits as a place subjected to the political wills of men, while she herself is indifferent –

and you remain silent
calm and gentle
letting clams and cockles rodents roam about
moving on with life
without thinking
who will earn profits
who will carry the burden.

Presenting these places as innocent victims to development and capitalist imperatives of profit is something we see throughout the text. The spectre of development is never far, and often spoken of as a kind of violence, a tide, a wave that has swept over these places, changing them so completely that the poets are at a loss to comprehend the fact that they are no longer the same. As Yatiman Yusof writes in “Geylang Serai,”

Now the wind blows
and everything is gone.

This sense of standing unnerved, helpless only to watch as change happens in a blink, is a familiar sentiment of those who have lived through the rapid development of Singapore.

Part of the pain of development is the way former prized places, often seen as places of peaceful natural respite and pristine slowness, is helpless before the violence of development. In “Geylang Serai” by Mohamed Latiff Mohamed, we are given the following image:

A distance away
a bulldozer roared madly
flattening the attap houses
the old mosques.

This image appears again in Norashikin Jamain’s “Kampung Melayu” where she writes “your chest is scoured / by lorries and bulldozers.”

Interestingly, even the very air is mentioned in several poems, to mark perhaps the corruption that development brings – with Jamain describing “the freshness of the morning / disturbed by the stale vapour from vehicles’ fumes,” and Ahmad Md Tahir in “Shenton Way” writing “The air gets viscous / as it dissolves in monoxide.”

Corruption is an interesting concept to turn to at this point. To point out that the air is corrupt, or to look back and remember a place as one of natural simplicity, is perhaps something only truly done in retrospect, after it is compared against the current tide of development. Corruption isn’t only spoken of in the physical and literal definition but also through a lens of morality and value-judgement. Development is seen as a corrupting, almost immoral force. When combined with the strong presence of Islam in the lives and words of these poets, we see how the language of religion is employed to further reiterate the loss felt. In “Wak Tanjong Will Continue to Stand Here,” Suratman Markasan writes an ode to the madrasah that stands in the face of moral and religious degradation: “there are many signs everywhere / that made us confused and the ulama sorrowful” – with the students being the ones “who know the real truth.”

The mosque especially is important in our discussion here. The mosque for the Malay/Muslim community is a religious place, but its value extends beyond its practical purpose. It also functions as a place where the community gathers. The aspect of community, one which is contrasted against the alienation and isolation replete in capitalist city-states like Singapore, is important for us to keep in mind when understanding the sense of alienation.

In “Kampung Race Course Mosque,” Faridah Taib writes:

what is left is just history
no more kalima
the rhapsody of the prayer call
can I buy a nostalgic past?
can the unyielding tears be its replacement?

Masjid Al-Falah makes a couple of appearances in the book as well. In “Saturday Night (In Orchard Road)” by Juffri Supa’at, we read the following lines:

From a corner
the call reverberates from Al-Falah
audibly fading
in the midst of roaring
vehicles and city dwellers.

This is perhaps one of the more elegant, quiet expressions of insecurity and loss in the face of development. The mosque, a place that represents spirituality, communal gathering, and the Muslim community is not only in the corner, but audibly fading, drowned out by the sounds of deafening progress.

National narratives often present the speed of development Singapore went through after independence as a success story. One that proves our miraculous and meteoric rise from “third-world to first.” But of course, it is imperative to remember that this is a national narrative, a constructed one, or at the very least a kind of wilful selection and shaping of facts. The poems in the collection present a different narrative: one where the speed of development people bore witness to was experienced with a sense of longing, mournfulness, loss, and even a sense of disassociation and dislocation. More importantly, the poems are also a form of resistance against the speed of forgetting that accompanies the kind of development we are caught in, where places are destroyed and rebuilt faster than our memory and recording can cope with.

For a moment, these poems throw us into the personal narratives and memories of these places. In just another decade, perhaps this book would provide the only lasting piece of existing memory to remember some of the historical images and memories recounted. Who else will remember the smell of a river so many decades back, or the call of the birds? Who else might remember that a place once had another name, and that for a long time, nobody had called it any other way? Perhaps this anthology of poems can be a call for us to also participate in the act of slowness and remembering; to write our own kind of poems to fossilise what would be swept away so quickly by the winds of capital and national development.

 

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The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Arundhati Roy

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Her first fiction book in 20 years! For some it may feel like a huge gap, a great absence, if one were not familiar with the fact that Roy is a committed activist and has in fact published books in between these 20 years and worked tirelessly in her activism in her home country of India. Knowing this is important, and I do think that my knowing, and my enjoyment of her works in the interim, listening to her interviews, has sharpened my enjoyment of this novel, or at least made it more accessible to me. This book is dense, it is not easy. It can be slow, and it can make you feel lost sometimes with its references to the complicated politics through the decades of India’s contemporary democratic existence.

This book is a whole world. The scope of what she has included, the breadth but also the depth of it, is so staggering and utterly amazing. How did she fit it all? How did she talk about it all with so much tenderness, humanity, and love? At no point did she discount the amount of violence that we have to also think about. I thought that she captured the complexity very well too, especially if she were to talk about the politics without the characters. Some characters are quite obviously stock, in terms of the opinions they have (like the typical of ‘liberal’ or ‘centrist’ types, and one of course one of them is a journalist! lol) but I guess it is quite necessary especially for people who are not familiar with the politics, just so they can get some sort of approximation of what the different viewpoints are. (Also definitely, while she is nuanced she does have a firm stand which is why the book pisses off so many nationalists). Having watched/read enough Arundhati Roy interviews I could recognise that some parts were based on her own experience too.. I’m glad that her writing this was just so fully human, so full of the blood that made senseless violence feel a bit more human.

Despite some stock characters, she still manages to write about it all with the heartbreaking intimacy that I love about her writing… this quote:

God’s carotid burst open on the new border between India and Pakistan and a million people died of hatred. Neighbours turned on each other as though they’d never known each other, never been to each other’s weddings, never sung each other’s songs.

When I mention how ambitious it is however, I also have to mention that there were some moments when it felt strained. The book is populated with characters, and you can feel a bit lost sometimes. The chronology can confuse you too. Furthermore, the fact that she has included a kind of ‘parody’ with certain characters means that it will bring about some less-than-serious passages than are a bit of a contrast to her beautiful prose.

This is an incredibly political book. And I think when I see negative reviews of it, it is often incredibly apolitical. They cannot stand how the inclusion of the politics disturbs their experience of reading. At the same time, I guess Arundhati Roy is such a firecracker of an activist it obvious that she can’t help but go off sometimes in the text.. sort of running away from the story for a while when it hits on a certain political hot spot. Basically sometimes it isn’t done with the sort of finesse that is considered ‘literary’ and elegant. The density of the book’s politics also meant that I was acutely aware that there’s a lot I will not fully understand because I am not living in India or fully immersed in their politics, life there, nor experienced the decades that have unfolded.

Reading this goodreads review for example gives us an example of the references that she puts in the book:

There are unflattering depictions of characters based on AB Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh, Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal. And, of course, Roy’s favorite Gujarat’s Lalla, who happens to be a very popular PM currently. For these reasons, it won’t be surprising if in the way things are handled these days (in India and in many other parts of the world), there would be widespread criticism of the book (some nutcase might even call for its banning!) by many who haven’t even read it.

Ultimately though, I still do find it an incredibly beautiful, tender book that makes me feel quite awed.

The way she wrote about what Kashmiris feel, go through, were parts where I felt most touched.. nobody really goes into that level of human understanding where you try to understand what violence can do to a community, how they regard each other, how it affects the way they might trust or view each other, their own history or survivability. How that level of violence and trauma affects the deepest level of human affection and relational experience.

Of course on the other side of it all is that it can be so chilling how she writes about the mechanical cruelty of the ‘right’, the way they clean up the street after a massacre-

The post-massacre protocol was quick and efficient- perfected by practice. Within an hour the dead bodies had been removed to the morgue in the Police Control Room, and the wounded to hospital. The street was hosed down, the blood directed into the open drains. Shops reopened. Normalcy was declared.

The way they systematically torture and kill. The way they practice their lies so easily. The way the deaths of people are rewritten in official reports. Think I’ll never forget that part of the book where they made one Kashmiri man try to bring out another severely injured Kashmiri man they were chasing who had hidden in sewage. For one a half hours they had looked at each other until the suspect died there, in sewage, and then he was reported to be a terrorist/militia member the authorities had captured in a supposedly tense face-off. It was these kind of episodes that really revealed the cruelty and inhumanity so much, & it was parts like this where I the aforementioned heartbreaking exposition on Kashmiris really tore through me:

Those eyes that stared at us for one and a half hours – they were forgiving eyes, understanding eyes. We Kashmiris do not need to speak to each other any more in order to understand each other. We do terrible things to each other, we wound and betray and kill each other, but we understand each other.

I know it’s really unfair to compare to her first novel 20 years ago but I really can’t help it. I didn’t give her a full 5 stars on goodreads because this novel did not grip and move me as much as the God of Small Things, which I found so breathtaking, spellbinding, and just.. god I feel so emotional just thinking about it. Truly one of the most beautiful books I’ve read. But I think in a way there is something to say about the experience of the novel, of fiction, of whether the book allows us to fall into itself. For The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, there was that kind of falling that Arundhati Roy’s writing has the magic to induce, but not as deeply… but I feel like I can’t possibly hold that against her. She is writing around a bloody history. Do we want to experience that as fictional pleasure? Nevertheless.. it is still an enjoyable read.