Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Sum of our Follies -- a review

The Sum of our Follies by Shih-Li Kow
published by Silverfish Books
A review by Peter Duke.

This is a beautifully written story about an unlikely group of people brought together by a series of accidents. The setting is a small rural town in Perak, northern Malaysia. The main characters include a young girl from an orphanage in Kuala Lumpur, an irascible elderly woman, the child's guardian, and a middle aged man who has given up his career in Kuala Lumpur for a life of peace and quiet. However, things do not work out quite as he expected when a guest at the elderly woman's home stay is attacked and killed by a large carnivorous fish in a nearby lake. The arrival of a transvestite at the home-stay complicates matters even further leading to the middle aged man being injured.  As the young girl grows up she makes an important discovery about her mother who abandoned her when she was an infant. This discovery changes the relationship between the elderly lady and the child. Then there is the occasional intervention of an older girl from the orphanage who complicates matters even further when she falls out with the elderly woman. The author has successfully brought the characters to life and I find myself engrossed in their lives and stories and empathising with them as the story progresses.

 Shih Li is a wonderful writer, picking her words like gems and stringing them together. But there are enough twists and turns in the stories and the reader is ambushed with totally unexpected events, such as a sudden death, unexpected humour, sex and even acts of violence. There is also a touch of mysticism in the story with the giant man-eating fish and the boy ghost, but these are such an integral part of the story to be readily acceptable.

The author told me that in reality she wrote a set of short stories that she brought together to create her tale. But the book is in no way disjointed and flows well from one scene to the next as the characters lead us through the twists and turns of their lives.

The book raised a range of emotions in me - amusement, surprise and expectation amongst others. I recommend the book to anyone who wants to enjoy a beautifully written story about not so ordinary people thrown together in a seemingly charming setting with hidden dangers and surprises. It's an intriguing tale.

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Ruined Nest and other stories


Probably one of the best translations of Rabindranath Tagore I have read, if I may say so myself. Being a native speaker of Bengali and an English professor, MA Quayum has been able to get into the innards of the author's culture, language, history, humour and politics, to present the stories intact, authentic and honestly, as is possible to be in a work of translation. Some are funny, some are sad and some are horrifying, not in a supernatural sort of way but in what man does to man (or women). Some of the stories in this collection (hand-picked by the translator) are so exquisitely multi-layered, so pregnant with the unsaid, that they will leave the reader breathless. Here is a glimpse of what an exceptional writer the man, popularly known as Gurudev (divine mentor), was. For those who have only heard of Gitanjali, get a peek of why so many Indians (especially Bengali speakers) love him so. In 1913, he became the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Quayum’s translation of Tagore’s stories is exceptional in its retention of the subtleties of Bengali expression. It not only transfers the colloquialisms commonly used in a daily Bengali household but brings alive the minutiae of the rural milieu … The other outstanding feature is … Quayum’s success with translating what is more complex – the intricacies of human relationships … Generally, the stories read almost as though they had been written originally in English. At no moment does the reader get lost in the translation, either linguistically, culturally or psychologically, and this surely is the ultimate test of a translation.
Transnational Literature, Australia

In any translation it is very difficult to keep intact the sense of each context. Quayum’s translation is as close as one can get: clear, contemporary and accessible to a modern English-reading global audience. It is not handicapped by the ignorance of the translator of certain delicate nuances of the Bengali language, especially in the context of intimate household expressions. There is commendable fidelity and honesty in Quayum’s translation. It once again opens up the possibility of discovering a relevance of Tagore's creations more than a century after they were composed…. Without hesitation I recommend Professor Quayum’s volume as an authoritative and eminently readable translation, an essential Tagore for collectors. It should find a place on every discerning reader’s shelf.   
The Daily Star, Bangladesh

Quayum has a lifelong passion for Tagore's writing….. His translation shows a feel for Tagore's voice, vision and cultural milieu, and he is skilful with the suggestive undercurrents of Tagore's stories.
Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Hong Kong


In this multicultural age, it is an absolute necessity for all of us to read diversely and think universally. Quayum’s highly readable translation of Rabindranath’s short stories will serve that cause, and also help to revive interest in the works of a literary genius who was once described by a French writer as “an eagle-sized lark.”
Humanities Diliman, The Philippines

I can safely vouch that in giving us a high quality rendition of some of Tagore’s best stories written over a span covering more than fifty years, Prof Quayum has filled more than just the simple gap of translation. Prof Quayum has now invited us to enjoy, rejoice and then, hopefully, act on the morality prompting both the creator of these rare gems as well as its current-day conveyor. Both deserve our undivided attention.
Professor Kirpal Singh, Singapore Management University

Trivia. Rabindranath Tagore was the only person to have written the national anthems for two countries: he wrote the songs which are now the national anthems: Bangladesh's  'Amar Shonar Bangla' and India's 'Jana Gana Mana'.

Available (soon) at all major bookstores in Malaysia and Singapore, or  online (now) here: (This annotated edition will be well suited for colleges and universities. Please email Silverfish Books for more information.)

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Stories of Singapore

Isa Kamari offersReviews of three books by Isa Kamari by Harry Aveling of La Trobe and Monash Universities for the Asiatic:  IIUM Journal of English Language and Literature

Isa Kamari, 1819, rendered in English from Malay by R. Krishnan. Kuala Lumpur: Silverfish Books, 2013.
ISBN 978-983-3221-42-4.

Isa Kamari, Rawa, rendered in English from Malay by R. Krishnan. Kuala Lumpur: Silverfish Books, 2013.
ISBN 978-983-3221-43-1.

Isa Kamari, A Song of the Wind, rendered in English from Malay by Sukmawati Sirat and R. Krishnan. Kuala Lumpur: Silverfish Books, 2013
ISBN 978-983-3221-44-8.


Isa Kamari is a major Singapore Malay author. Born in 1960 in Kampung Tawakal, his family moved to a Housing Development Board apartment in Ang Mo Kio while he was still in his teens. After studying at the elite Raffles Institution, he went on to take the degree of Bachelor of Architecture (with Honours) from the National University of Singapore in 1988 and now holds a senior position with the Land Transport Authority. Isa has also earned a Master of Philosophy degree in Malay Letters from the National University of Malaysia, 2007. He is a prolific writer and has so far published two volumes of short stories, eight novels, six volumes of poetry, one collection of stage plays, and several albums of contemporary spiritual music. Isa’s literary work has been widely honoured: he received the SEA Write Award in 2006, the Singapore government’s Cultural Medallion in 2007 and the Singapore Malay literary award Anugerah Tun Seri Lanang in 2009. He is married to Dr Sukmawati Sirat, a graduate of the University of Southern Carolina, and the couple have two daughters. In 2001 he completed the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Isa’s novels are increasingly being translated from Malay for wider audiences. Satu Bumi (One Earth, 1998) was published in Mandarin in 1999 as Yi Pien Re Tu and in English in 2008, under the title of One Earth (translated by Sukmawati Sirat). Two other novels appeared in English translations in 2009: Intercession (Tawassul, 2002, translated by Sukmawati Sirat and edited by Alvin Pang); and Nadra (Atas Nama Cinta, In the Name of Love, 2006, translated by Sukmawati Sirat and edited by Aaron Lee Soon Yong). In 2013, four translations have been released: The Tower (Menara, 2002, translated by Alfian Sa’at); A Song of the Wind (Memeluk Gerhana, Embracing the Eclipse, 2007, “rendered in English from Malay” by Sukmawati Sirat and R. Krishnan); Rawa (Rawa: tragedi Pulau Batu Puteh, Rawa: The Tragedy of White Rock Island, 2009, “rendered in English from the original Malay” by Sukmawati Sirat and R. Krishnan); and 1819 (Duka Tuan Bertakhta, You Rule in Sorrow, 2011, “rendered in English from Malay by Sukmawati Sirat and R. Krishnan”).

1819, Rawa and A Song of the Wind have been published by the same publisher, Silverfish Books, Kuala Lumpur, and packaged as belonging to the genre of “historical fiction” so that they appear to form a natural chronological progression of books “about Singapore”. 1819 deals with the foundation of Singapore by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles; Rawa describes the changing lives of three generations of the one orang seletar (sea gypsy) family, from the1950s to the 1980s; and A Song of the Wind, presents a lively account of a young man’s coming of age in a rapidly developing newly independent nation, from the 1960s to the 1990s. The books were, as we have just noted, originally written in the reverse order to this. Nevertheless, for present purposes we shall continue to follow this order as it will be a natural one for English readers who come to the works for the first time.

The approach to history varies with each volume. In 1819, the great events of international colonial expansion take centre stage. The major characters are the colonialists, the Malay Sultan of Singapore and the Temenggung (chieftain), and two communal leaders, Habib Nuh, a Muslim holy man, and Wak Cantuk, a traditional healer and teacher of the martial arts. The transfer of sovereignty over the island is presented as the result of deviousness and treachery on the part of the British, and stupidity and an addiction to opium on the part of the Malay aristocracy. The community leaders are figures of respect but do not have the necessary skills to help their followers navigate the new political circumstances. Lesser, but extremely lively, characters are the young people: Nuraman,  Wak Cantuk’s leading silat student, Marmah, Wak Cantuk’s adopted daughter, and the three “boys” Ramli, Sudin and Ajis. Much of the latter two-thirds of the work is given over to their involvements with Habib Nuh and Wak Cantuk, and the various stories of their own adolescent experiences, their relationships and their love for Marmah. These characters of ordinary Singapore Malays are a strong feature of Isa’s writing in general and become increasingly prominent as the Singapore story develops in the other two works.

Rawa is “the name of the land” where the sea gypsies live, between the north coast of Singapore and the mainland of the peninsula, and of the main character himself. The story describes how Rawa and his family (his daughter, Kuntum, her husband, Lamit, and their son, Hassan) are steadily caught up in the relentless modernisation of the Republic, including their settlement in the confines of an HDB apartment block. Besides the opportunity to live their life in a huge multi-tenanted but anonymous building, modern Singapore offers them the conveniences of “a car, a big television and fridge, air-conditioning in every room, and expensive furniture”. It offers the parents steady, although somewhat insecure, work, and it offers the grand-son a good education and the chance to follow a highly regarded profession of naval architect. Yet they no longer have the freedom that the original inhabitants had. With this relentless rationality of human existence, comes a loss of the links with the environment, and indeed with the simplicity and purity of human nature itself. They are also increasingly assimilated into the opaque ethnic category of “Malay”. And the Malay community’s position in Singapore, Isa suggests, is one of severe disadvantage. “The Malays now are not what they used to be,” Rawa muses, watching the television in his daughter’s flat. The newscast confirms his worst fears: “Divorce is highest among Malays. The number of Malay addicts in rehab centres is not decreasing. There is a rise in gangsterism, and births out of wedlock. And there is no shortage of ‘forums’ to address these issues” (p. 93). Both 1819 and Rawa, in their different ways, are stories of the difficult transitions of the Malay community in a wider society that is indifferent to their special needs. In 1819, the community is betrayed by its leaders; in Rawa, the community has no clear leaders, only an old man who represents increasingly anachronistic values in the midst of vast and amorphous changes. The task for Malays is to learn to be proud citizens of a complex multi-racial society and to keep “in touch with their essence, the spirit” (p. 94).

A Song of the Wind fits easily into the well-established category of a young man’s growth to maturity in the turbulent setting of a newly independent Singapore, through the experiences of childish playfulness in a narrow domestic setting, formal education, first loves and National Service, as brilliantly developed by Goh Poh Seng in If We Dream Too Long (1972) and Robert Yeo’s The Adventures of Holden Heng (1986). Isa’s novel can be divided into these same themes: childhood in Kampung Tawakal and Ang Mo Kio, education at Whitley Primary School and Raffles Institution, and National Service in the Police Force. The novel touches on many of the themes of the Malay culture of disadvantage dealt with in Rawa and other works by Isa: poverty, economic discrimination, lack of education, drugs, teenage pregnancy and hooliganism. Unlike the works by Goh and Yeo, A Song of the Wind also explores the role of religion, specifically Islam, in the development of the main character. Told in the first person, the second half of the novel describes Ilham’s involvement with a heavily politically committed form of his faith at a time of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the spread of Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East, and a fear in Singapore of secret organisations whose intentions might be to overthrow the government. Ilham is arrested for his na├»ve involvement with a group that models itself on the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and studies not only the scriptures and the hadith (traditions relating to the life of the Prophet Muhammad) but also the controversial works of Syed Qutb, Hasan Al-Bana, Maududi, M. Natsir and Maryam Jameela. Still only 21 at the end of the novel, Ilham is slowly leaving behind him the darkness of the “eclipse” into which his experiences have taken him (as clearly indicated by the title of the original Malay novel). He writes:

I was surprised how quickly I had matured. Not many youths were ‘fortunate’ enough to have had my experience.

My teenage years were ending ominously, everything was happening too quickly, spiralling out of control, and I was emerging into adulthood, crippled and alienated. (p. 234)

Despite this gloom, Ilham has the promises of a positive future that includes marriage, entry into the university, and a worthwhile career to come. His faith has been deepened and shaped in the direction of an Islam that is, as Isa writes elsewhere, “a tolerant faith that is based on goodwill, consensus and humanitarian love” (Intercession, p. 162).

“Hope and harmony” are the keystones for Isa’s vision of a racially integrated Singapore (“Some Personal Reflections on Political Culture in Contemporary Singapore Malay Novels”, p. 67). These three novels struggle with disharmony and tension within the Malay community and beyond, and their historical and sociological origins. They are deeply important works and a sure sign of the growing recognition that will be paid to his significant literary analyses of “the Singapore dilemma” and the choices for a peaceful way forward.


Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Pioneering Malaysian Photography 1923-1971 (Limited Edition)
RM 180.00

HRH Sultan Ismail Nasiruddin Shah : Pioneering Malaysian Photography 1923-1971

This monograph is my attempt at defining my grandfather's life as a photographer, about what he had done in his own unique ways and what he had achieved in the process. It also recounts and analyse his contributions towards the development ans progress of Modern Malaysian Photography for more than 50 years (from 1923) and his unwavering support for his fellow photographers. He contributed significantly too, to Modern Singapore Photography, particularly in the late 1950s and early 1960s through his support of their photographs and salons at local and international levels.

-- Preface, Raja Mohd Zainol Ihsan Shah --

Raja Mohd Zainol Ihsan Shah lived with his grandfather, HRH Sultan Ismail Nasiruddin Shah, Sultan of Trengganu from the time he was born on 12 May 1960 until he was 19 years of age. He holds a Master of Science Degree in Business Management and was a Doctoral candidate in International Business until he decided to return home permanently in 1985. He is a keen observer of the Arts, being especially attracted to a range of genres ranging from Modernist Photography of the 1930-50's to Malaysian and European Modern Art (Lyrical Abstracts and Pop Art). He has dedicated himself to the care and study of his grandfather's photography archives - that includes original negatives, vintage prints, cameras and photographic laboratory equipment. As a boy, and well into his teens, he has shared many moments with his grandfather and witnessed him take and print many photographs.

Since 1997, he has organised several exhibitions of the photographs and published catalogues of them, namely, HRH Sultan Ismail Postcard Album, Malaya Through His Eyes, and August 1957.

Saturday, August 10, 2013


Down memory lane with Isa by Errol de Cruz
Malay Mail -- WEDNESDAY, JULY 31, 2013

I just heard that Errol has passed away today. It was such a shock because  had exchanged emails yesterday to meet up on Monday. He was such a dear friend. Below is the last review he did for Silverfish books on Isa Kamari's three Singapore Stories on July 31. We love you Errol.

MULTI-AWARD winning Singaporean author Isa Kamari must be extremely glad that three of his novellas are finding a brand new audience.

Thanks to Silver fish Books, based in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur, the trio — Duka Tuan Bertakhta, Rawa and Memeluk Gerhana — have been translated into 1819, Rawa and A Song Of The Wind, respectively.

“The three originals were written for Malay readers and he asked for them to be adapted and translated into English for an international readership,” said Silver sh Books director Raman Krishnan who translated two of them himself and one (A Song Of The Wind) with Isa’s wife, Sukmawati Sirat.

The essence of all three are how the island nation’s premier, Lee Kwan Yew, ruled with an iron st and the displacement of Malays from Singapore. In A Song Of The Wind, Ilham is a 21-year-old whose family moves from Kampung Tekad to Kampung Tawakal and eventually a Housing Development Board (HDB) at in Ang Mo Kio.

It is the typical story of how a boy matures into a man, huffing and scu ffing with friends, falling in and out of love. Ilham, on his journey, unfortunately and unwittingly falls in with the wrong crowd and collides dramatically with the realtime history of an emerging independant Singapore.

The sad part is that the lad is blissfully unaware of the political changes and his ‘uneducated’ character is exploited by ruthless people with their own agenda. Author Isa is an engaging storyteller, who spins his tales eloquently and simply, painting vivid pictures with his words, and he proves that you do not have to be a Ludlum, Archer or Brown to keep your reader captivated.

All three novellas speak of the past. In Rawa, the title character relives his past and this includes living in and rowing his pau (rowboat) along the Seletar River and gradually nds he has to move his family to Johor because Singapore will not issue identity cards to the Orang Seletar.

Rawa’s story spans three decades and narrates how he falls in love with a village girl, raises a son, Lamit, is entrusted and loses an emerald ring given to him by the Sultan of Johore.

Rawa is a mystical story of how the character goes in search of his lost ring, crashes his boat and goes missing for two months, during which his wife Temah leaves to look for him and disappears.

The essence of this piece is that life comes full circle when a (not so) mysterious man reappears after Rawa dies and returns the ring to his grandson, Hassan.

1819 is the first of the three, chronologically, and in this, Isa writes about Singapore again, only this time it’s about Sir Stamford Ra es and his relationship with the Muslim saint, Habib Nur, who came there from Penang in the same year.

All said, Isa’s trio of novellas are sad. They tell of loss, the loss suffered by the Malays (orang asli, especially) as they bear the burden of progress and development and how they were ‘sacri ficed’ by Singapore. What do people in the higher echelons of espionage and national security call it all? Collateral damage?

Isa Kamari is a prominent figure in Singapore’s Malay literary scene. He has gained critical acclaim for many of his works, which range from novels and short stories to poetry and essays. He is also a musician and has crafted scripts for television and theatre.

In 1997, his short story Pertemuan won the Hadiah Sastera, Anugerah Persuratan, a Malay literature award given by the Malay Language Council of Singapore.

He received the award for the second time in 2001 for his essay, Milik Siapa Bumi Yang Satu Ini. He has received numerous awards for his other works, including his first novel, Satu Bumi. Released in 1998, Satu Bumi was translated and published in Mandarin and English in 1999 and 2007. It was also selected for the launch of the nationwide reading initiative Read Singapore! in 2005. Another novel, Kiswah, was shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize in 2004.

Isa was presented with the distinguished Southeast Asian Writers Award (also known as the S.E.A. Write Award) in 2006 and has received two of the most prestigious cultural awards in Singapore, the Cultural Medallion in 2007 and the Anugerah Tun Seri Lanang in 2009.

He sits on various government committees, including the steering committee for the Singapore Arts Festival (organised by the National Arts Council), the implementation committee for the National Art Gallery project (under the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts) and the select committee for the promotion of the Malay language (under the Ministry of Education).

He frequently presents papers in international conferences and seminars on literature and the arts and conducts creative workshops for children, regularly.