Of Indian and Swiss parentage, Meira Chand grew up in England and began to publish novels while living in Japan. This is her eighth full-length work of fiction, and of those, only two have been unconnected with this country — though one of those, “House of the Sun,” set in India, is probably her best book. Four have been historical recreations, and they include her new novel about Singapore, where the author now lives.
“On the journey they spoke about the island,” runs the prologue to the story, as it imagines the new immigrants and settlers traveling there: “Singapore rested beneath the tongue of Malaya, fabled treasure of the crystal seas, the Golden Chersonese.” Famously, the city was invented by an Englishman, Stamford Raffles, who had seen its rich possibilities for commerce “at a point pinning down two oceans.” It grew and flourished under the British Empire.
The story begins in 1927, when Rose Burns is sitting on a tram with her son Howard, and their journey home is interrupted by an anti-British demonstration, during which someone is killed. The demonstrators are of Chinese origin and communist in sympathy, while the passengers are a mixed bunch as befits a trading city. These include Indians and Chinese, while even Rose, despite her name, is not British but Eurasian.
Unlike more recent immigrants, Rose and her kind are of mixed ancestry, not quite belonging to any group. “We are a people of shadows,” she thinks.
Meira Chand’s fiction often deals with adults and children who fall between racial and social groupings, and there are other such characters in this panoramic novel. But the two other main foci are a prosperous Chinese family whose patriarch runs a biscuit factory, and an Indian boy who arrives in the city with nothing and gradually prospers. For many of the inhabitants, especially the Chinese, “Singapore was never more than a temporary place to acquire wealth before returning home.”
The novel is divided into four parts, two of them dealing with the war, and ends in 1956. It thus encompasses the Japanese invasion, the British surrender, and how at first the Japanese arrival seemed to augur well for those wishing to be free of the colonial yoke.
For Howard and his lover from the neighboring Chinese family, Mei Lan, this dream soon sours when their homes are commandeered: One of them suffers in a communist camp in malarial jungle while the other is imprisoned and tortured. Only the pragmatic Indian, Raj Sherma, befriends the new invaders and learns to speak their language. Once the war is over, there is more trouble as the local people seek their freedom from the British.
Today, Singapore is an independent country, and Malaya, of which it used to be part, is called Malaysia, but none of this is quite concluded when the story ends.
The sweep of the story is large and includes much fascinating detail — from the erotic value of footbinding to the problems of a wartime blackout in the tropics. A number of real people appear in the foreground or background such as Subhas Chandra Bose, or Lee Kuan Yew. One of these is a Japanese official called Shinozaki, who rather improbably tells Raj that the “Shino” of his name means “China.” Surely this is a mistake, unless it refers homophonically to the French word “Chine,” which is sometimes used insultingly in Japanese? Yet Chand maintains in an afterword that she used the man’s own words from a real account.
In this wide-ranging novel many types of experience are represented, and these involve of course forms of subtle and insidious discrimination, as well as brutal suppression. Howard and Mei Lan happily survive them all to be reunited after years of separation. Others are not so lucky, but Chand writes of all her characters with much heart and feeling.
Another novel that covers the period of the Japanese occupation from a postcolonial perspective is “The Singapore Grip” by the late J.G. Farrell. Where Farrell has a narrower time frame and an outsider’s wit, Meira Chand offers her characters a bright and hopeful future, and as one of them prophetically observes: “The future lies under a different sky.”