Growing Up Perempuan

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“The last time I was beaten terribly was during my fourth pregnancy.”

“My older sister would ask our neighbours for an egg or something to feed us.”

“[He would] demand sex even when she was still recovering from multiple miscarriages.”

“Colleague: Eh you not bad ah. You Malay but you smart.”

“A little bit over a decade ago, men were told that unless a woman’s response to marriage was hysterical, they could assume they have her consent.”

These are a few lines from a book that has sent so many readers in tears. Growing up perempuan (as a woman) is not easy. Growing up as a Muslim woman is even harder. As Singaporean-Muslim women, most of us deal with being a woman as well as being minorities in a country where the Muslim community & its issues are brought up & represented by our male counterparts. Representational politics render so many people voiceless. The Muslim woman is often spoken over and spoken for. The image of Muslims are often monolithic in the first place. We do not understand sufficiently the diversity in our own community. And rarely are we given the chance & platform to authentically express ourselves with the safety & assurance that we will be heard & that our concerns will not be ridiculed or trivialized.

To be heard & seen as a valid member of society, one often has to conform to a narrow, acceptable view of what a Muslim woman should be. Anything else & you are threatened with being seen as rebellious or heretical. Part of the pain of gendered violence & discrimination is the command that we also be speechless. We are expected to repress our pain & bear it alone.

A culture of silence means that we are unable to connect with each other, find strength in solidarity & to collectively disturb the main narrative imposed on us. Especially in a country like Singapore where most Muslims are also racial minorities, we struggle in speaking out about our issues because to speak about our problems also runs the risk of shaming our community to islamophobic sentiments. Often, while our male counterparts may passionately rail against racial discrimination, they do not extend that nuance & awareness of injustice when it comes to gendered violence & discrimination.

The women in this book struggle with domestic & sexual violence, racial harassment, body image issues, sexuality, amongst others. They talked about internalised racism, workplace discrimination, & being overlooked by their fathers in favour of their brothers. So much of what I read hit so close to home. The body policing, the realisation late in life that you have undergone female circumcision, racial microaggressions, questioning literalist & dogmatic ideas in religion & being met with unsatisfactory answers & so much more.

And then there were things that I could not relate to & could only read with an aching heart: girls who wrote about growing up in shelters, in severely abusive homes, being so poor they had to beg neighbours for food, being so neglected that they took themselves to school each day. There are stories by sex workers who talk about how & why they took up that profession & the struggle & stigma they bear. Women who endure horrific partner abuse or take on responsibilities when their husbands leave them, or are in jail. We often think of these things as exceptional cases affecting troubled youths or individuals. But these are not problems that should be individualised. They are the natural result of a society that is deeply unequal, deeply prejudiced, & unwilling to allow women full agency in their own life-decisions & choices. A capitalistic society that is hostile to helping the poor & provide them with a decent living wage. It is a reflection of our own values & attitudes when people in our community say that the people that have disappointed them most were members of their own community who judged them instead of helped them.

Because the dispossessed do not have the social capital to be heard; because the system benefits from forcing them into silence, there are often people who go through life with the illusion that our society is not at all unhospitable. People think that these kinds of stories are few & far between when the fact is that these everyday violences are so common. You have to approach this book with an open heart. Middle- & upper-class Muslims I think especially are sheltered from so much of the realities that are happening & affecting their brethren. They often discuss issues like gender violence, polygamy & marital rape in the abstract, without understanding the lived realities of people on the ground. This is it. These are women speaking for themselves. It is up to us if we will listen or not.

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Do Not Say We Have Nothing, Madeleine Thien

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I picked up this book mainly because of its first line. One of the most powerful & beautiful first lines I’ve read in a book: “In a single year, my father left us twice,” spoken by Li-ling, or Marie who was living in Vancouver with her mother. In coming to terms her father’s suicide, a whole history of two families are unravelled, & along with them the heavy history in which they were inevitably tangled in. When Marie was younger, Ai-ming, a young woman escaping from the crackdown of the Tiananmen Square massacre came to live in their home. Both their fathers had loved each other, & it is this history that ties them together. Ai-ming would later go on to leave Vancouver & Marie would never see her again.

This is a sprawling book charting the memory & trajectory of 2 families in 3 generations as they live (& died) through key moments in China’s modern history — the great leap forward, the cultural revolution, the June 4th massacre, until today, when the party retains its image of communism while the country is also the navel of global capitalist production & surveillance technology.

I have to admit thought that I was quite tentative about how these political events were written about & it’s quite telling that friends from China did not quite appreciate its approach. I didn’t have this feeling with Han Kang’s “Human Acts” for e.g when she wrote about the Gwangju Massacre. I don’t really know how to articulate it.. perhaps it’s this discomfort we have when intensely political events are the backdrop of a story that is written about so aesthetically & beautifully, & in a way that is aligned with the politics of western liberal audiences.

The narrative & prose is very beautiful & considered as Thien’s prose is known to be. There is a running theme of great individual loss ultimately unseen by the larger narrative of history.

“What was a zero anyway? A zero signified nothing, all it did was tell you nothing about nothing. Still, wasn’t zero also something meaningful, a number in and of itself? In jianpu notation, zero indicated a caesura, a pause or rest of indeterminate length. Did time that went uncounted, unrecorded, still qualify as time? If zero was both everything and nothing, did an empty life have exactly the same weight as a full life? Was zero like the desert, both finite and infinite?”

So many people & their complexities are snuffed out throughout the novel, & it is portrayed in expectedly tragic form, especially with Zhuli’s suicide after the great trauma & violence she faced under the hand of red guards.

“It was just the way of life back then” she said finally. “People lost one another. You could be sent five thousand kilometres away, with no hope of coming back. Everyone had so many people like this in their lives, people who had been sent away. This was the bitterness of life but also the freedom. You couldn’t live against the reality of the time but it was still possible to keep your private dreams, only they had to stay that way, intensely, powerfully private. You had to keep something for yourself, and to do that, you had to turn away from reality. It’s hard to explain if you didn’t grow up here. People simply didn’t have the right to live where they wanted, to love who they wanted, to do the work they wanted. Everything was decided by the Party.

The people in the novel took great pains in order to preserve whatever, whoever they loved during these times. Wen the dreamer, Ai-ming’s great-uncle, had one of the most beautiful narratives in this novel (but of course.. it’s a love story). The Book of Records is a serial-type novel that he copies out by hand & had left behind chapter by chapter when he was courting his future wife Swirl. Later, when Swirl travelled great distances in order to find her husband who had escaped from a prison camp, she would print hundreds of copies of the book & place them in bookshops around the region he had escaped & left clues in the text as to where to find her.

After Wen the dreamer & Swirl were reunited, he wanted to continue the story in the Book of Records in an attempt to commit to pages the history of those who had died in the prison he was in. I had wondered if this book was a kind of intertextual, meta-fictional reference to the Thien’s novel itself & what it was perhaps attempting to do

He would populate this fictional world with true names and true deeds. They would live on, as dangerous as revolutionaries but as intangible as ghosts. What new movement could the Party proclaim that would bring these dead souls into line? What crackdown could erase something that was hidden in plain sight?

Chapters of these book of records will go on to be kept by Ai-ming’s mother in their house in Vancouver, the collection incomplete. It is because of these book of records, in part, that parts of their histories have not been cast up into forgetting. One of the main narratives of the novel is the deep companionship & love between two musicians Kai and Sparrow (oh the music in this book! I listened to the songs as I read sometimes.. what an experience. Classical music lovers would love the abundant references in the book. SO much of it). They were tied together by their love for music but had markedly different class backgrounds, which led to rather different decisions, and personal struggles when it came to where their allegiance may lie during the cultural revolution period. Kai grew up poor, & had only survived because he was taken away from his family into a professor’s home due to his gift for music.

These were musicians who loved each other but were separated due to where their political allegiance lied. In fact, Sparrow did not really even express an allegiance, he simply refused to fully accept the demands of the party, a demand that was too much — the denial of a person’s very self, the denial of expression of their own desires. Instead, they were only allowed to express what was permitted, to deny their own fulfilment if it was not in conformity to the party’s own aims. But anybody could be subject to the torment, there was no safety even if you had pledged yourself to the party.

But, child, when you’ve seen as much as I have, you realize the die is cast. The so-called ‘enemies of the People’ are the ones whose luck has run out, nothing more. One day the traitor is Shen Congwen, the next Guo Moruo. It they want to come for you, they will come, and it doesn’t matter what you read or what you failed to read. The books on your shelves, the music you cherish, the past lives you’ve lived, all these details are just an excuse.

There was a moment when Zhuli, also a gifted violinist who like Sparrow could not make herself prostrate herself to the party tells Kai:

“Jiang Kai,” she said spitefully, “now I understand. I’ll forget Prokofiev. I’ll play the ‘March of the Volunteers’ and ‘The Internationale’ for all eternity. The old world shall be destroyed. Arise, slaves, arise! Do not say that we have nothing. That should win me the Tchaikovsky Competition and please everyone, you most of all.”

Sparrow, the more talented of the two, would while away 20 years working in a radio factory while Kai performed for dignitaries & enjoyed a position in the party. Later, when Kai left China for Hong Kong, he would write for Sparrow to join him so that he could help Sparrow play music again. They wrote back & forth like this, with Kai always trying to find sparrow through the years, trying to coax him back to doing what their political circumstances had denied him. But Sparrow never made it to HK, having died in the June 4th massacre. And shortly after, Kai committed suicide. It’s implied that the two events are connected.

There was a bathos in having Kai’s daughter Li-ling (Marie) try to find each Sparrow’s daughter (Ai-Ming), just as Kai once searched for Sparrow, & just as Zhuli’s mother once traversed across the desert to find her Husband, Wen the dreamer. And there was bathos in how Marie tried to do this by sending out thousands of messages, poems, and songs into the deep, vast web in China, in hopes that Ai-ming might see it, & try to contact her, just as Swirl had once copied out hundreds of chapters by hand & left them across bookstores hoping that her husband might chance upon just one & use it to find her.

This kind of circular, repetitive, generational image reminded of something Wen the dreamer had said earlier in the novel:

The things you experience are written on your cells as memories and patterns, which are reprinted again on the next generation. And even if you never lift a shovel or plant a cabbage, every day of your life something is written upon you. And when you die, the entirety of that written record returns to the earth. All we have on this earth, all we are, is a record. Maybe the only things that persist are not the evildoers and demons (though, admittedly, they do have a certain longevity) but copies of things. The original has long since passed away from this universe, but on and on we copy. I have devoted miniscule life to the act of copying.

Capitalism: A Ghost Story, Arundhati Roy

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I had expected this book to be bigger, and the title is quite ambitious. Nevertheless, Roy’s language, the way she writes, is so compact and punchy that these 96 pages are dense with impact and power. Especially for me, someone who only knows nominally about the politics of India. I know just about enough about the rise of the right-wing there, but of course, the right is rising everywhere with the current global wave of populism (perhaps the most startling thing I found out was the popularity of Hitler’s book Mein Kampf in India..).

The preface alone is worth reading this. Let me quote a little:

“The Minister says that for India’s sake, people should leave their villages and move to the cities. He’s a Harvard man. He wants speed. And numbers. Five hundred million migrants, he thinks, would make a good business model. Not everybody likes the idea of their cities filling up with the poor. A judge in Mumbai called slum dwellers pickpockets of urban land. Another said, while ordering the bulldozing of unauthorized colonies, that people who couldn’t afford it shouldn’t live in cities.

When those who had been evicted went back to where they came from, they found their villages had disappeared under great dams and quarries. Their homes were occupied by hunger, and policemen. The forests were filling up with armed guerrillas. War had migrated too. From the edges of India, in Kashmir, Manipur, Nagaland, to its heart. So the people returned to the crowded city streets and pavements. They crammed into hovels on dusty construction sites, wondering which corner of this huge country was meant for them.”

I found the full preface reproduced here and you can have a read as well. Please do!

As the preface suggests, the book is a lacerating punch back against the severe inequality and violent injustice due to the effects of capitalism. And of course just using the word “capitalism” can seem general and vague, but the demands of capitalism as we know entails a great amount of intervention into aspects of social and political spheres in the interest of corporate profit. It’s sinister. And when we look at the human cost.. it’s frankly evil.

She starts off with an image of the biggest house in India, called Antilla, that’s owned by the richest man in India called Mukesh Ambani. It cost US$1 billion & has a staff of 600 to upkeep. It has six floors of parking space, 27 floors in total, three helipads & nine lifts. I went ahead & got a picture, this is what it looks like:

It doesn’t look nice. But of course wealth of this scale makes everything look vulgar. At the same time this building exists, 80% of people living in India subsist on US$0.50 or less.

She reveals the intricate connections between endowed organizations, NGOs, and the effect they have in politics. All of the power being enacted here is done through the exchange of money, and the tacit, soft power approach of deciding what gets to be considered as “acceptable” in the realm of political stance and charity. Foundations like the Gates Foundation, Ford Foundation and Rockefeller Foundation are some that she talked about. NGOs or groups that are working on more “radical” projects or causes do not get funding, are marginalized, and some eventually are unable to continue. All the while, the limits of conversation or how we think about resistance is being shaped:

“Armed with their billions, NGOs have waded into the world, turning potential revolutionaries into salaried activists, funding artists, intellectuals and filmmakers, gently luring them away from radical confrontation, ushering them in the direction of multi-culturalism, gender, community development—the discourse couched in the language of identity politics and human rights. The transformation of the idea of justice into the industry of human rights has been a conceptual coup in which NGOs and foundations have played a crucial part. The narrow focus of human rights enables an atrocity-based analysis in which the larger picture can be blocked out and both parties in a conflict—say, for example, the Maoists and the Indian government, or the Israeli Army and Hamas—can both be admonished as “human rights violators”. The land-grab by mining corporations in India or the history of the annexation of Palestinian land by the State of Israel then become footnotes with very little bearing on the discourse. This is not to suggest that human rights don’t matter. They do, but they are not a good enough prism through which to view or remotely understand the great injustices in the world we live in.”

Earlier on I mentioned that the wave of populism is global, but why is that? Her book reveals how India itself fell in line with American corporate values and its insidious form of philanthropy. Their strong grassroots movements, ones that comprise of the poor and lower-caste, have to contend with the importation of western liberal values that disregard them.

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The numbers in this book are staggering and something that struck me hard. I could not believe the human cost of capital. There is also the figure of 250,000 farmer suicides due to the detriment of their livelihoods. Then the tens of thousands of people who commit suicide due to the debt they accumulate due to credit. Adding on to the issue of class is the fact a lot of the disenfranchised and the dispossessed are Dalits and Adivasi. But they & the figures related to their lives (or deaths) are inconsequential to the rapid growth of capitalism, the rich, & the government. These are not the numbers they care about. They and the very land they stand on are only valuable if they can provide profit. So we read about things like this:

Having signed over vast tracts of indigenous tribal homelands in central India to multinational mining and infrastructure corporations in a series of secret memorandums of understanding, the government has begun to flood the forests with hundreds of thousands of security forces. All resistance, armed as well as unarmed has been branded “Maoist” (In Kashmir they are all “jihadi elements”).

As the civil war grows deadlier, hundreds of villages have been burnt to the ground. Thousands of adivasis have fled as refugees into neighboring states. Hundreds of thousands are living terrified lives hiding in the forests. Paramilitary forces have laid siege to the forest, making trips to the markets for essential provisions and medicines a nightmare for villagers. Untold numbers of nameless people are in jail, charged with sedition and waging war on the state, with no lawyers to defend them. Very little news comes out of those forests, and there are no body counts.

This was about Kashmir. And the full story can be read here. Please read it as well.

She goes on to talk about corruption as well, and the corruption featured here has a lot to do with the way the government wants more privatisation, something that will not end well for those who are basically not rich. The way geo-politics of India and Pakistan are handled is featured strongly as well — The way evidence is blatantly fabricated to falsely indict an innocent man, and how the courts do not punish police found to have made false evidence; the thousands that have died in undignified ways; civilians killed and then simply called “terrorists” so their murderers can escape unscathed. The border of Kashmir is patrolled by 500,000 soldiers — the most highly militarized place in the world.

I can’t believe how much is said in such a thin book. And of course she knows she can afford to say it due to her position. She’s visible, has international standing, is middle-class, and knows that she can stick her neck out, so she does. In fact she mentioned that there is a law that made it an offence to say anything about the state’s illegal activities that would result in “disaffection,” against the state (and of course a lot of illegal activities by the state is in relation to Kashmir) & she has certainly willingly decided to break this absurd law. She knows very well that she has to speak in part because of her position. I still remember this paragraph near the beginning:

In India the 300 million of us who belong to the new, post-International Monetary Fund “reforms” middle class –the market – live side by side with the spirits of the netherworld, the poltergeists of dead rivers, dry wells, bald mountains, and denuded forests; the ghosts of 250,000 debt-ridden farmers who have killed themselves, and of the 800 million who have been impoverished and dispossessed to make way for us. And who survive on less than twenty Indian rupees a day.

I ended up quoting a lot from this book because honestly I think she explains it best. It is a compact punch, and I recommend it.

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.