I read at least one piece of literature from every country I visit, and I picked this book for Singapore. In a way, it’s an odd choice because – while the book is set in Singapore over a two decade period — the story revolves around a Punjabi Sikh family. The family consists of single-parent father, two sons, and a daughter who is the youngest child. The father is a police officer who’d been posted to Singapore before it became an independent country. (Singapore is a small [in size, not necessarily in population] island nation that was a British colony, was under Japanese occupation during the Second World War, and then was briefly part of Malaysia — before gaining its independence in 1965.) Given the facts that: a.) Singapore is so fundamentally multi-cultural; b.) the setting substantially influences the nature of the story; and c.) the author lived in Singapore long enough to convey its feel, I stand by my choice.
The story revolves around the damage that can be done by shame and the dark side of traditional values – especially when transplanted into a society that is highly competitive, orderly, but also indulgent. That’s where the importance of the Singaporean setting comes into play. While it’s a strict society that prides itself on order, Singapore is also a mega-Asia metropolis where anyone can find a dim recess to do whatever he or she wants.
Amrit, the young woman in the family, is the single biggest point of shame for the father – and, to varying degrees, the rest of the family. She drinks to excess, is promiscuous, is generally dismissive of traditional values, and all of this ultimately results in her being unmarriageable [at least not in a traditional wedding to a family of equal or greater status as is so coveted in Indian culture.] Early in the book, she disappears for several days and throws the family into a lurch. One would think that concern for Amrit’s well-being would be the over-riding emotion during her absence, but it’s tainted by fear that she’ll make the family look bad. The problem is that Amrit is bipolar but no one recognizes this because all the family can accept is that she is misbehaving – perhaps because she never got to know her mother. Because of this, she doesn’t get treatment for her condition until long after she should have. The fear of her being seen as “mad” and the effect that would have on her ability to be wed keeps the family from helping Amrit get the medicine that would allow her manage her impulses and make better decisions.
The middle son, Narain, is a quieter embarrassment to his father. While Narain is not the kind to go on benders or to draw attention to himself, he is gay – in both a culture and a country that are intolerant of homosexuality. At the beginning of the book we see him being sent away to America to college after being prematurely discharged from military service. His father thinks college in America will make a man out of Narain, but what it does is expose him to an environment which is more permissive but at the same time which drives him away from the Sikh values with which he was raised. In short, it does exactly the opposite of what the father hoped for, and we can imagine Narain would have gone through life playing a part as dictated by traditional norms (getting married, having children, and either repressing his sexuality or leading a secret double-life) had he not spent time abroad.
Even the eldest son, Gurdev, is a disappointment to the father despite the fact that he lives life by the traditional script, marrying a wife who has traditional Punjabi values, and having three children who are successful in school. (Though the fact that they are all girls may be an unstated element of the father’s disappointment, it seems to have more to do with the fact that a cousin who was orphaned and spent time with the family is progressing more quickly in his occupation than Gurdev.)
I enjoyed this book and found it quite illuminating. One sees how tradition and modernity come to loggerheads, and how the outcome is influenced by taking place in a setting that is still trying to get a footing on how to be a country – as Singapore was at the time. It seems fascinating how culture and traditional values form – for good or for bad – blinders. The father can’t fathom that Amrit has a mental condition, not just because he’s in denial, but because it’s not a construct that’s part of his world. Narain, at the start of the book, is extremely aware of cultural norms (e.g. in the opening, we see that he won’t step on so much as a brochure because it’s a violation of the tradition he was raised in to step on the written word.)
I’d highly recommend this book. It’s especially good for those who are seeking to gain insight into Singapore, Punjabi culture, or who want to see how mental illness is swept under the rug to the detriment of all involved.