One Happy Island

Text and photographs by Ravi Shankar

Downtown Orenjestad

The plane was descending steadily. We were approaching an island. The sandy coastline and the hotels were now visible on the left. I was seated in the last row and luckily had the entire row to myself. The sand was white, and the waters of the Caribbean Sea were a deep turquoise blue. I was fascinated by the depth and translucence of the colours. A few boats and yachts were seen, cutting through the waters and we landed shortly.

Aruba, a small island located just off the coast of Venezuela is a part of the Netherlands. The island is a major destination for sun worshippers from North America. During the cold winter months, they do their surya namaskars (saluting the Sun exercise) in Aruba and other sunny places. The island is small at around 32 kilometres by 10 kilometres. The soil is sandy and there are no rivers. The island was considered useless by the Spaniards who termed it islas inutiles[1]. The origin of the name Aruba is debated. The most accepted version is that the name may have been derived from Caquetio Indian, Oruba meaning well situated. The island is mostly flat and there are four main settlements.  Oranjestad is the capital and the biggest city. San Nicholas is the entertainment hub, and Paradera and Santa Cruz are located more inland. Noord and Savaneta are the other settlements. The legal population is around 140, 000 though there may be several thousand undocumented immigrants.

Tourism has become a major source of revenue for the island like other islands and countries in the Caribbean. The island is well known in North America and the Netherlands and advertises itself as ‘One Happy Island’. During the pre-COVID days, the island used to receive nearly one million tourists yearly. Aruba is distant from South Asia; the most convenient connections are through Amsterdam and the United States (US). The island is well connected to the Eastern US and there is a US Immigration pre-clearance facility at the airport.

I was living in the capital, Oranjestad (orange city — named after the royal Dutch family, House of Orange),working at the Xavier University School of Medicine and my old friend from Nepal, Dr Dubey, was the Dean of Basic Sciences. I stayed near the school in a place called Paradijs.

Trade winds constantly blow across the island bringing down the temperature and keeping things tolerable. Walking in the housing colonies in Aruba can be a challenge. Most houses have aggressive dogs who seem to think their areas of influence extends right to the middle of the road. A house near mine had three dogs who always gave me a tough time.

Rains are not common in Aruba. Clouds gather but are blown away to the mainland of Latin America. Aruba is not built for rain. The streets flood and the college also used to get flooded after a downpour. I enjoyed walking along the seashore.

Once you leave the houses behind, the dogs are absent. A linear park runs from the airport to the cruise ship terminal. The path is paved with red stones and lined with divi-divi trees.

There is also exercise equipment installed at the surfside beach. The view of the sea is great and the sunsets on the island are spectacular. Divi-divi trees are common on the island and always point in a south-westerly direction due to the strong trade winds. Watching the planes land and take off at the airport is fascinating. KLM Royal Dutch Airlines flies the Airbus A330 which is the largest plane flying to the island.      

The carnival is a major celebration in Aruba and started as a series of street celebrations in 1954. The month of February is full of different carnival events. I attended a night parade one year and the event was spectacular. The sun can be hot and this needs to be factored in while watching the parades in the daytime.

San Nicolas has an oil refinery and is the fun side of the island. It also has a more Caribbean feel, and the cost of living is lower than Oranjestad. The oil refinery was once the largest in the Western hemisphere and was the target of German U-boats during WW II. There is a beautiful beach (Baby Beach) near the refinery.

Aruba has a Jekyll and Hyde personality. The Caribbean side facing Latin America has spectacular beaches and calm, turquoise waters. The Atlantic side is a different matter. The coast is rocky and splintered and the waters of the Atlantic Ocean crash with brute force.

There is a gold mine and a natural bridge on the north and a large windmill farm. Semi-domestic goats graze in the arid landscape. I liked going to the wild side and watching the brute force of nature. The Arikok National Park occupies nearly a third of the island and has the highest peak, Yamanota (about 250 m), and spectacular cacti. It also has a cunucu, a traditional Aruban house. A Cunucu has thick walls that are whitewashed with small windows to stay cool in the heat.

Rainwater is collected for daily use. Today the water needs are met by desalinating sea water. The plant is located near Savaneta on the highway to San Nicolas. Water and electricity supply is stable, and disruptions are rare.

Most people have cars while the blue Arubuses provide public transportation. The bus frequency is low. Hooiberg is a mountain that rises steeply from the surrounding plains and climbing to the top provides excellent views of Oranjestad, the harbour, and the surrounding countryside.

The area around Noord is the tourist heartland and the lemon-yellow California lighthouse is located here. The lighthouse is named after the steamship, California, which sank near these waters in 1891. The downtown area of Oranjestad has Wilhelmina Park, Fort Zoutman, and the Willem III tower. The fort was built in 1798 by African slaves. There is also a historical museum nearby providing an excellent overview of the island’s history and geology. The Alto Vista chapel has a spectacular view of the surroundings and was originally built in 1750 by the Spanish missionary, Domingo Antonio Silvestre.

Aruba may be the most Latinised of the Caribbean islands. There is also a strong Dutch influence. Dutch and Papiamento are widely spoken. Papiamento is a Portuguese-based creole language. English and Spanish are also widely understood.

A lagoon

Aruba grows high-quality aloe vera and Aruba Aloe founded in 1890 is the world’s oldest aloe factory.  Aruba has plenty of beaches, Druif beach, Eagle beach, Palm beach, Malmok beach, and others. The island has invested in equipment to maintain the beaches. Turtles lay their eggs in the white sand and hatchlings clumsily move back to the ocean. The natural pool or conchi is located on the north side. Butterfly farm, Philips’s animal garden, and the Donkey sanctuary provide shelter to the fauna. You can volunteer at the donkey sanctuary. In Aruba, many families camp out on the beach during Easter. My landlord and his family used to camp on the surfside beach near the airport.

Aruba has high human development indicators. Healthcare is provided by the government through a corporation financed by taxes. Alcohol is widely consumed but I did not see drunken fights or disorderliness during my time on the island. Drivers need to be careful on Friday nights when parties get going. This arrow-shaped island with a variety of cultures and influences is geographically sheltered from the worst hurricanes with the balmy weather, caressing winds caressing, and inviting waters. The people are friendly. The moniker ‘One Happy Island’ may be well deserved!         

[1] Translates to Islands Useless

Dr. P Ravi Shankar is a faculty member at the IMU Centre for Education (ICE), International Medical University, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He enjoys traveling and is a creative writer and photographer.



Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles



By A Jessie Michael

Temiar people. Courtesy: Creative Commons

I am Busun, born in one world and living in two.

Excitement crawls like insects in my veins and explodes. My friends and I are distracted and hyperactive, packing meagre clothes into haversacks and scheming haphazardly about what we will do during the holidays.

The smells of the forest hit my senses as soon as our convoy of three 4WD SUVs leaves the highway and veers into a small tarred road which quickly morphs into a muddy track. These are odours we grew up with and missed so much – of earth, trees, vegetation, water, dankness, raw animal smells. My lungs expel the city smog and I breathe easier. The canopy rising from either side of the track and meeting over it cocoons us in its green coolness.

Once a year we change worlds and this other world draws us magnetically away from where we spend ten months a year — in a Christian hostel on the outskirts of the city, from where we are ferried to a government school to learn English, Malay, Geography, History, science and Maths. The towns near our Orang Asli community have no residential facilities, so when our elders heard the pastor offering to house and school the children for free, they thought it was a good opportunity for us to learn of the outside world. We get school every weekday, three meals daily, a structured life of learning and a regular input of Bible study. For two months a year we return to our Orang Asli community in the jungle. We call ourselves Temiar, foreigners call us aborigines, the government calls us Orang Asli and rude people call us sakai[1].

The ride becomes bumpy and suddenly it is bright and the green is gone. The heat hits us hard and the air is smoggy brown. Tree stumps stick out on a vast field of red on either side. Last year there was thick jungle here. Now the trees are gone. Our drivers try avoiding the deep wet ruts left by weighty lorries and trucks. Four times our vehicles sink in turn into the muddy tracks. We spend an hour each time maneuvering the vehicles out of the churning mud. There are streams to cross in the upper reaches where the tracks will virtually disappear. Then hopefully it will be jungle again.

Seven hours after setting out, we roll into an opening in deep jungle with a cluster of bamboo shacks. We ecstatically leap out whooping and racing like puppies let loose. Our parents and elders stand around grinning; they are not a demonstrative tribe. A look of gratitude and a laden table is plenty enough.

Our volunteer drivers and chaperons are ushered to the rickety bamboo table piled with food especially prepared for them and for us — yam and rice rolled in leaves and roasted in bamboo, a variety of boiled herbs and greens, roasted wild boar meat and venison — a rare feast for an auspicious day. Everyone digs in with fingers. We eat greedily, having missed this basic diet for months. The food reorients me. The empty vehicles leave soon after in order to exit the jungle before dark.

As we mingle with friends, I notice my father observing me closely. I am surprised to see that I have grown a head taller than him. He approaches me that evening before the night ceremonies begin.

“Busun,” he calls. “How is school?”

He spoke in our Temiar dialect and I quickly swing back into this mode of abrupt, brief speech.

“I don’t understand school….”


“The things we learn…. we can’t use.”

“What do you learn?”

“About past events in places we don’t know…. about cities and countries we never see…. they even tell us about the jungle….but they don’t know the jungle….I know the jungle. They can’t climb trees….no trees to climb, can’t kill animals or use a blowpipe….”

“The house?”

“Nice, clean. There is electricity but we can’t use much. It is expensive. A lot of food but not our food……I don’t like it much.”

“You don’t like the city? …. not happy?”

“No. They change us…”


“We cannot speak Temiar in school…. must speak English and Malay. The other children laugh at us…. they call us ‘sakai” …. They don’t know us. In school they talk of Islam…. At hostel …. they teach about Jesus Christ….no meaning. How are the fruit orchards?”

“The rains have been unseasonal,” my father complains. “The fruit blossoms have been blown down in the storms. The fruit season will be poor this year.”

Juicy pulasan, langsat, medicinal petai and jering and wild long thorned durians are our specialty. Our people foray out in season to sell these to locals for a pittance, who in turn make a hefty profit in market towns further away.

My father speaks to me differently than before. Perhaps he sees I have grown up and that I see things as my elders do. How will the children survive in the jungle? The other children and I have lost muscle and gained more flab. Bigger, fatter is a disadvantage in the jungle which needs agile skills. We have to relearn our forest skills every time we return from school.  We forget much or rather our bodies forget.

At sundown the traditional cleansing ceremony begins. We shed our city clothes and don our minimal traditional woven bark garbs and headgear of bamboo leaves and feathers. Wooden and bamboo musical instruments are taken off the walls. The Halaa or medium arrives to lead the community in removing any malevolent spirit and influences that may have followed us children from the city to upset the balance of our lives with the jungle spirits. Accompanied by crude drum, zephyrs, flutes, rattles and poles keeping beat against each other. The community in chorus echoes the chants of the Halaa as he sings and dances himself into a trance as he performs to our polyphonically sung music — melodies that live under our skin, and that we subconsciously draw out. The cleansing over, the musicians, especially the young ones continue long into the night reproducing magical sounds of birdsong, crickets chirping and animal calls, water flowing, wind whistling.

I fall asleep under the stars feeling strange – sans walls, windows, doors and pillows. The symphony of the sounds of the night sing loud in my ears – insects whirring, frogs in a croaking chorus, animal howls and grunts — so different from the roar of vehicles on the city highway. I strain to identify separately these almost foreign sounds. Still, I awake refreshed, the unfamiliarity gone. I am one with the elements again, dew on my face, dappled light overhead casting shadows that dance on my skin.

I make my way to the river ten minutes away. My unpracticed bare feet stumbling over huge tree roots, vines, thicket and bamboo and slipping on slopes and ledges where once I romped like a deer. The younger children are already there, cutting through the water like little otters. They have not swum for ten months. However, my anticipated pleasure is short lived. The once pristine waters of the river now runs red — bleeding.

I return from the river a little while later to find all the village men gathered at the open area, with machetes and poles.

“We are going to Doso’s village,” my father announces to me.

I ask one of the other young men, “What’s happening?”

“Loggers. Trying to go through Doso’s village. They are cutting the jungle upriver. Already begun. And the loose earth is already clogging the river. The water is dirty. Doso’s village is short of food. The animals are moving out or dying. The loggers want the village to move. There is nowhere to go anymore. We help them and some people from outside are helping us to stop the loggers. From upriver the loggers will move down to our village. We too have nowhere to go…”

I listen in silence. Inside confusion stirs. As we walk to Doso’s village, I recall the vast red field with tree stumps on the way home yesterday. I had not even thought of the dangers it posed. Where will animals and birds go if there is no jungle? Where would I go? Whenever I am home I become one with the jungle. There are no timetables, deadlines, learning of unpragmatic knowledge, no competitions, exams or pride from dubious achievements. Here we all flow with the pulse of nature, living off its bosom and never yearning for more.

Emerging from the trees with the men and some women, we come upon a broad track denuded of trees. The blazing sun and the breeze raise a haze of red dust. Our people have constructed a crude barricade of logs to stop the trailers and tractors from driving further in.

We have hardly ever had confrontations. Violence is alien to us; passive resistance is our way. Even the assumed weapons we carry is to rebuild the stockade which has been bulldozed several times by the loggers. Yet here we are walking straight into a conflict. I hear a rare anger in my father’s voice. He speaks more than I have ever heard him speak before.

 “We have been here forever with the spirits of our ancestors….Now the government says we do not own the land because we have no ownership papers. How can we have ownership papers when we always move our village when someone dies or we need more space? If they take the jungle, we die. It is beyond our understanding… it is beyond their understanding. No one owns anything. We only live, one with the earth, sky, water, animals and plants. We get food, medicine and life here. It is enough.”

Suddenly I remember that yesterday after lunch I had climbed to the mountain top and seen large swathes of red, like blood, and small patches of green. I had not thought about it then but now realise that the skin of the earth was peeled off, showing flesh. The spirits of the trees and stones were homeless.

Today we all squat in the shade of the jungle fringe till we see a convoy of vehicle arriving — visitors from the authorities. That usually means officers from the department of Orang Asli and the Forest Department. Following the vehicles are young men on motorcycles. I recognise them as teenagers who have been lured out of the jungle into settlements prepared especially for them.

A few individuals standing away from the officials approach us and begin to speak in Malay. Those Orang Asli who can understand Malay translate for the others. I too join to translate what is said as I speak fluent Malay and Temiar.

“We support you; some of us are lawyers and we all fight for people’s rights. We will fight for you in court to stop the logging and allow you to stay here.”

Men with cameras move around taking photographs of the stockade and of the other Orang Asli who stand back passively.

The group of officials gather in front of the stockade and one man bellows out through a megaphone in Malay. His voice goes far and wide into the trees. After every few sentences one of the motorcycle riding boys in jeans and smart batik shirts translates the sentences into Temiar.

In essence I gather that we the Orang Asli are in the wrong place. The government has allocated certain areas in the forest reserves where we are allowed to live. The area where we live now is allocated for logging. The loggers have licenses. If we refuse to move, we can be arrested.

The friends of the Orang Asli shout through their own megaphone, “This is a forest reserve. NO logging allowed, NO chasing out Orang Asli.”

The other speaker ignores the protest and continues that these allocated areas are on the edge of the forest near the towns; we will have access to electricity, water, work and education for the children. There are hospitals nearby and mosques; even homes will be built for us. “Look at your friends,” he gestures to the bike boys. “They wear nice clothes and ride motorbikes.”

It is obvious that these people not only want the jungle but also want to change us to be like them — not to be as we really are. The changes have been subtle over time. In previous years, our nakedness had been a problem; our bare breasted women and loinclothed men have been yelled at, called sakai and hounded back into the jungle when they ventured out to sell rattan, seasonal fruits and wild honey or trade them for rice or tools. Now we wear donated clothes and frocks to appease the outsiders. It is the same as going to the far away school where for ten months I become someone else. What will I be after I completely change? A motorbike lay-about boy doing odd jobs for a meal? The motorbikes and their appearance for the day is part of the theater of change.

I hear the man’s voice rise. “Now let us know if you accept this offer.”

My people mutely shake their heads while our supporters shout, “NO! These people were not consulted. We go to court.”

“We are consulting them now. Move away from the barrier,” orders the official.

We do not move away. We close ranks and hope we look pretty menacing with our poles and machetes.

The official gives three more warnings and then there is chaos. Some plainclothes men rush forward. We hear the word police, and most of my people melt into the trees. However, a young man Anjam and I are handcuffed as we are speaking to our supporters. We do not resist and are dragged into a truck while our supporters argue loudly with the police. When this happens, the villagers reappear in alarm. Some outsiders are already breaking the stockade but the lawyers and our supporters pack as many of the Temiar villagers into their own vehicles and follow the truck right to the police station an hour away.

My head is in a whirl. What did we do wrong? A policeman herds Anjam and me into the police station while the others are barred entry. However, a lawyer among them insists on entering with us. We are questioned by a police officer and I answer him in Malay, giving him my name, age and school. I also answer on behalf of Anjam who only speaks Temiar. The officer seems taken aback and his aggressive tone diminishes. He orders that we be put in the only empty cell for the night until the District Police officer shows up the following day.

The next noon we hear an outburst of voices in the compound of the station. I gather from fragments of speech that the District Police Officer has arrived. The activists and the lawyer are protesting to him to release us at least on bail. He agrees and I soon see why. As we exit the station, we see half the village squatting all over the police compound together with our supporters, keeping vigil till our release. I am grateful they have stayed to give us strength. If he does not release us, my people will not budge. Even the ones rehomed into the new settlements behave similarly. When any of them is hospitalised, the whole village follows and sits around the wards or grounds, attempting to feed the patient jungle herbs. The police send all of us  prisoners and families back as far as the stockade in a jeep. The stockade has been rammed to the ground.

Two days later Anjam is very ill. Several Halaas perform all-day and all-night trance rituals searching for Anjam’s missing soul but on the third day Anjam is dead. The elders blame it on exposure to outside malevolence but I remember how when we are in the cell Anjam needs to pee. A policeman takes  him out but the boy comes back a while later bent double and speechless. In the morning he seems alright but fades into unconsciousness at home. When they bathe his body for burial, the blue bruises and swelling on his middle back are obvious.

The day of the funeral the sky weeps in torrents, drowning out the chants of the Halaa and the keening of the villagers. The grave is already dug on the other side of the river and as we mourners cross via the huge log that bridges the banks, the roiling river, tumbling and rolling wildly, threatens to drown us. We have no way of turning back when the omnipresent Thunder Spirit explodes in anger and releases the mountain to swallow us, making us one with the cosmos, with the earth and keeping us home.

What’s left is upended trees, boulders and mud — a movement of the mountain in apocalyptic proportions spreading at least a kilometer in radius. Giant roots reach for the sky and treetops lay buried — a new unmapped terrain of an unmappable people.

[1] Sakai: slang, offensive, ethnic slur, used for an Orang Asli or native people.

A. Jessie Michael is a retired Associate Professor of English from Malaysia. She has written short stories for online journals, local magazines and newspapers. She has published an anthology of short stories Snapshots, with two other writers and most recently her own anthology The Madman and Other Stories (2016).


Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles


What do Rishi Sunak, Freddy Mercury& Mississippi Masala have in Common?

By Farouk Gulsara

Rishi Sunak. Courtesy: Creative Commons

Rishi Sunak’s appointment to 10 Downing Street has made people aware of the significant presence of Indians in the African Continent. Indian-African cultural and trade exchanges had been ongoing as early as the 7th century BC. Africans are also mentioned to have significantly influenced India’s history of kingdoms, conquests and wars.

The second wave of Indian migration to Africa happened mainly in the 19th century with British imperialism via the indentured labour system, a dignified name for slavery. It is all semantics. What essentially happened at the end day is a large Indian diaspora in countries like South Africa, Mauritius, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and many more. Many of the Indians who made their way there as labourers, over the generations, began to play significant roles in the economy and professional representations in these countries.

A certain famous Indian diva born in Zanzibar to British colonial civil service who kicked a storm in the rock and roll is, of course, Freddy Mercury (1946-1991) as Farrokh Bulsara.

Idi Amin declared himself the President of Uganda after a coup d’état in 1971. The first thing that he did was to expel Indians from Uganda. His reasoning is that the South Asian labourers were brought in to build the railways. Now that the rail network was completed, they had to leave. They had no business controlling all aspects of Ugandan wealth.

In Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala (1991), the protagonists, Jay, Rinnu and young Mina, had to uproot themselves from Kampala overnight when Amin decreed that all Indians were no longer welcome in Uganda. With a single stroke of the pen, they became refugees. 

By 1990, they are shown to have become residents of Mississippi. The 24-year-old Mina is entangled with a local Afro-American man. This creates much friction between the two families. That is the basis of the movie. 

It is interesting to note many Asiatic societies complain that the rest of the world practises discriminatory, racist policies against them. In reality, they are quick to differentiate each other within their community — the high-heeled, the aristocratic ancestors, their professions, the fairness of the colour of their skins, you name it. And they call others’ racists. For that matter, everyone is a racist. The Europeans subclassify their community by economic class. The seemingly homogenous Africans also differentiate themselves by tribes. Remember Rwanda with their Tutsi and Hutu civil war? Even the Taiwanese have subdivisions. China and Russia have varying ethnicities across the vast span of their lands.

Interestingly, the politics of the oppressed is much like what we read in George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) and saw in the South Korean 2019 Oscar winner Parasite. Like how some animals are ‘more equal’ than others, the maids of the Parks feel more entitled than the freeloading dwellers of the bunker. Even amongst the oppressed, there is a class consciousness to sub-divide the oppressed.

Photo provided by Farouk Gulsara

Race-based politics is so passè. In the post-WW2 era, when the people of the colonies needed to unite to reclaim their land, it made a lot of sense to join under race. Past that point, it did not make any sense for the dominant ethnicity within the nation to claim the country as theirs. At a time when purebreds are only confirmed to be prized pets, it is laughable that politicians are still using racial cards to get elected. Each nation’s survival depends on its competitiveness, anti-fragility, and ability to withstand a Black Swan event. Race does not fall into the equation. With changing social mingling at school and the workplace, interracial unions are the norm. How is race going to be determined anyway? The fathers? The mothers are not going to take that lying down, of course!

The Afro-Americans were emancipated in 1863 after the Civil War, after generations of living as slaves. The black community, at least, still complained that they had received an uncashable cheque from the Bank of America for insufficient funds. Many Indian (and other races, too) labourers were no longer labourers by the second generation and had managed to springboard themselves out of poverty to occupy important positions in society. What gave? Did the coveted American dream slip them by? 

Coming back home to Malaysia, it appears that we will forever be entangled in race politics. In an era when minions around us who were basket cases decades ago have leap-frogged by leaps and bounds in science and technology, our leaders and people stay inebriated in the intoxicating elixir of race superiority. Imagine starting a political party in the 21st century where only people of a certain race can hold critical positions. In day-to-day dealings, expertise is compromised to maintain racial purity. Intertwined with race these days is religion.

Farouk Gulsara is a daytime healer and a writer by night. After developing his left side of his brain almost half his lifetime, this johnny-come-lately decided to stimulate the non-dominant part of his remaining half. An author of two non-fiction books, ‘Inside the twisted mind of Rifle Range Boy’ and ‘Real Lessons from Reel Life’, he writes regularly in his blog ‘Rifle Range Boy’.



Disclaimer: All the opinions stated in this article are solely that of the author.

Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles


Its Only Hope…

Painting by Sybil Pretious

New year, like a newborn, starts with hope.

The next year will do the same – we will all celebrate with Auld Lang Syne and look forward to a resolution of conflicts that reared a frightening face in 2022 and 2021. Perhaps, this time, if we have learnt from history, there will not be any annihilation but only a movement towards resolution. We have more or less tackled the pandemic and are regaining health despite the setbacks and disputes. There could be more outbreaks but unlike in the past, this time we are geared for it. That a third World War did not break out despite provocation and varied opinions, makes me feel we have really learnt from history.

That sounds almost like the voice of hope. This year was a landmark for Borderless Journal. As an online journal, we found a footing in the hardcopy world with our own anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles: Writings from Across the World, which had a wonderful e-launch hosted by our very well-established and supportive publisher, Om Books International. And now, it is in Om Book Shops across all of India. It will soon be on Amazon International. We also look forward to more anthologies that will create a dialogue on our values through different themes and maybe, just maybe, some more will agree with the need for a world that unites in clouds of ideas to take us forward to a future filled with love, hope and tolerance.

One of the themes of our journal has been reaching out for voices that speak for people. The eminent film critic and editor, Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri , has shared a conversation with such a person, the famed Gajra Kottary, a well-known writer of Indian TV series, novels and stories. The other conversation is with Nirmal Kanti Bhattajarchee, the translator of Samaresh Bose’s In Search of a Pitcher of Nectar, a book describing the Kumbh-mela, that in 2017 was declared to be an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. Bhattacharjee tells us how the festival has grown and improved in organisation from the time the author described a stampede that concluded the festivities. Life only gets better moving forward in time, despite events that terrorise with darkness. Facing fear and overcoming it does give a great sense of achievement.

Perhaps, that is what Freny Manecksha felt when she came up with a non-fiction called Flaming Forest, Wounded Valley: Stories from Bastar and Kashmir, which has been reviewed by Rakhi Dalal. Basudhara Roy has also tuned in with a voice that struggled to be heard as she discusses Manoranjan Byapari’s How I Became a Writer: An Autobiography of a Dalit. Somdatta Mandal has reviewed The Shaping of Modern Calcutta: The Lottery Committee Years, 1817 – 1830 by Ranabir Ray Chaudhury, a book that explores how a lottery was used by the colonials to develop the city. Bhaskar Parichha has poured a healing balm on dissensions with his exploration of Rana Safvi’s In Search of the Divine: Living Histories of Sufism in India as he concludes: “Weaving together facts and popular legends, ancient histories and living traditions, this unique treatise running into more than four hundred pages examines core Sufi beliefs and uncovers why they might offer hope for the future.”

In keeping with the festive season is our book excerpt from Rhys Hughes’ funny stories in his Christmas collection, Yule Do Nicely. Radha Chakravarty who brings many greats from Bengal to Anglophone readers shared an excerpt – a discussion on love — from her translation of Tagore’s novel, Farewell Song.

Love for words becomes the subject of Paul Mirabile’s essay on James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, where he touches on both A Portrait of the Artist as a young Man and  Ulysees, a novel that completed a century this year. Love for animals, especially orangutans, colours Christina Yin’s essay on conservation efforts in Borneo while Keith Lyons finds peace and an overwhelming sense of well-being during a hike in New Zealand. Ravi Shankar takes us to the historical town of Taiping in Malaysia as Meredith Stephens shares more sailing adventures in the Southern hemisphere, where it is summer. Saeed Ibrahim instils the seasonal goodwill with native Indian lores from Canada and Suzanne Kamata tells us how the Japanese usher in the New Year with a semi-humorous undertone.

Humour in non-fiction is brought in by Devraj Singh Kalsi’s ‘Of Mice and Men’ and in poetry by Santosh Bakaya. Laughter is stretched further by the inimitable Rhys Hughes in his poetry and column, where he reflects on his experiences in India and Wales. We have exquisite poetry by Jared Carter, Sukrita Paul Kumar, Asad Latif, Luis Cuauhtémoc Berriozábal, Michael R Burch, Sutputra Radheye, George Freek, Jonathan Chan and many more. Short stories by Lakshmi Kannan, Devraj Singh Kalsi, Tulip Chowdhury and Sushma R Doshi lace narratives with love, humour and a wry look at life as it is. The most amazing story comes from Kajal who pours out the story of her own battle in ‘Vikalangta or Disability‘ in Pandies’ Corner, translated from Hindustani by Janees.

Also touching and yet almost embracing the school of Absurd is PF Mathew’s story, ‘Mercy‘, translated from Malayalam by Ram Anantharaman. Fazal Baloch has brought us a Balochi folktale and Ihlwha Choi has translated his own poem from Korean to English. One of Tagore’s last poems, Prothom Diner Shurjo, translated as ‘The Sun on the First Day’ is short but philosophical and gives us a glimpse into his inner world. Professor Fakrul Alam shares with us the lyrics of a Nazrul song which is deeply spiritual by translating it into English from Bengali.

A huge thanks to all our contributors and readers, to the fabulous Borderless team without who the journal would be lost. Sohana Manzoor’s wonderful artwork continues to capture the mood of the season. Thanks to Sybil Pretious for her lovely painting. Please pause by our contents’ page to find what has not been covered in this note.

We wish you all a wonderful festive season.

Season’s Greetings from all of us at Borderless Journal.


Mitali Chakravarty


Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles


Orangutans & a School in Sarawak

By Christina Yin

Up up, SK Nanga Delok, up!

“Up up, SK Nanga Delok, up!” Clambering up the steep steps from the jetty and over a windy pathway, we reach the administrative office to be greeted by the school’s cheerful motto pasted outside the wooden door. Our small team is made of conservationists from the Wildlife Conservation Society Malaysia Programme, a local artist and myself, a writer and university lecturer of English academic and communication skills. It’s taken five hours on the road from Kuching to Lubok Antu and forty minutes with the sun beating down on us on a longboat navigating the lake created by the Batang Ai Dam and the River Ai’s tributaries that feed it. We’ve arrived at Sekolah Kebangsaan Nanga Delok, a government boarding school where 41 children ranging from seven to twelve years come from homes scattered around the national park.

We are deep in Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo at the fringes of two contiguous protected areas, Lanjak Entimau Wildlife Sanctuary and Batang Ai National Park, where the state’s largest known population of orangutans live untroubled by human activity. Encouraging messages about knowledge, virtue and wisdom are painted in English and Malay on the wooden walls of the school buildings constructed on slopes overlooking the river. Their water dispenser is a simple two-litre plastic capped bottle on a wooden shelf and three green plastic cups hanging from hooks outside different classrooms. A simple message in Malay with a picture of a smiling teacher in a baju kurung, the national dress, says: “Sila basuh cawan selepas minum, Terima kasih.” (Please wash the cup after drinking. Thank you.)The national flower, hibiscus, is painted on the wall right by the water dispenser with the 14-pointed yellow star against the blue as well as the red and white stripes of the Malaysian flag within its petals.

The children are curious and excited to see us: conservation through art and English after-school activities! They are wondering what these could be. But the most stunning message comes to me when I see the t-shirts these young boys and girls are wearing deep in the Bornean tropical rainforest. The names on their backs are bold — foreign and yet familiar: Hazard, Torres, Messi, De Bruyne, Messi[1].

The Dining Hall at SK Nanga Delok

In the dining hall, there are many colourful pictures and messages in Malay and English on the walls. “Welcome to Dewan Sri Nadala” in beautiful calligraphy is posted prominently on the green wall above the open counter that separates the kitchen from the dining area. It’s Tuesday, we’re told in Malay and English. Iban is the mother tongue of most of the student population, but at school, the medium of instruction is Malay and the second language is English. Coming to the boarding school from homes scattered on the banks of the Ai and its tributaries, the children are learning the national language, Malay, and English, the acknowledged lingua franca and the language of the White Rajahs and the former British colonists. Happy smiling cartoons of children urge the pupils to wash their hands before eating. Prayers are posted up on laminated paper framed with attractive borders and cartoon tiger cubs perched above the lettering. There are no tigers to be found in Borneo. The largest indigenous cat is the clouded leopard, but the children learn about tigers from schoolbooks, cartoons, television and the national crest of Malaysia.

The children stand and recite prayers, giving thanks for sustenance before every meal. When they have eaten, they stand and say an after-meal prayer of thanks as well. Indeed, there is much sustenance at the boarding school — so many meals! Breakfast, morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner, supper are served on the wooden tables covered with red and yellow flower patterned cloths protected by plastic for easy cleaning. Red and white checked cloths skirt the tables, matching the blue and white curtains that shade the glass louvres windows.

It is no wonder that many parents are happy that their children attend school, even if it means they have to be away from home at such a young age. At SK Nanga Delok, the government supplies the children with books, pencils and erasers, mattresses and pillows, and meals. Especially meals; six times a day: milky tea, bread, crackers, eggs, chicken or fish, rice, vegetables, fruit, Milo.

Talking about Orangutans

Art and English activities take place after the children’s regular school lessons. So, they are out of their dark blue and white school uniforms and in shorts or light track suit pants and t-shirts. Their hair is damp from baths and they are eager to find out what we’re all up to. The artist Angelina is teaching the older Primary 4-6 children to cut out shapes to make collages of orangutans and forests in one half of the dining hall.

In the other half, with the Primary 1-3 children, I have a plush orangutan on my lap. I give it to the child on my right and it is passed on from one child to another. We are sitting in a circle, telling a story together about Lucy, the orangutan. Each child continues the story with one sentence in English. This is how the story goes: Lucy is lost, but a big kind orangutan helps her find her way back to her mother. Of course, they have a nice meal of fresh fruits together on the way. A little boy named Rio Ferdinand is the one I remember the best. With a name like that, how could I not remember him?

Then it’s my turn with the older children. The story they tell is darker. It is about a “saviour” who takes the orangutan to a new home in a zoo. The orangutan escapes, taking his son with him, but is brought back to the zoo. One day, a scientist comes to the zoo and takes the orangutan and his son back to the forest where they eat durians and rambutans. Students come to the forest and take photographs. They go back to the city telling people that the orangutans are happier in the forest because it is their natural home. We see that some of the children really think that the animals belong in zoos. Our orangutan research team explains that wildlife belongs to the wild, in their natural habitats. We hope they understand that animals don’t belong in zoos.

At that point, the children ask to be excused because they must bring their foam mattresses in. It’s going to rain and their mattresses are airing in the sun. When they come back, we write Cinquain poetry[2] about wildlife. Their English is minimal, but they are happy, excited to learn new things and to talk to us. We talk about orangutans with the help of the Iban-speaking conservationists. The children know about orangutans. One 12-year-old tells us he saw an orangutan when he was five. He was with his father who told him he must never kill orangutans because they are protected animals. Another speaks of a traditional story she knows about orangutans becoming humans. Some of the children have seen orangutans near their homes at Mawang, Nanga Jambu, Sumpa and in the hills at Palak Taong. What, we ask, is the orangutan’s favourite food? The children shout happily: Durians!

Orangutan Stories and the Children of Nanga Delok

There is a group photograph of our team with the 41 children and their teachers at SK Nanga Delok. It was taken shortly after we had arrived and had signed the Visitor’s Book at the school’s office. The children and teachers were proud to have us visiting their school in this remote part of the state and we were honoured to be welcomed as guests. It was a happy moment for all of us.

It’s been four years since the photograph was taken. The children in the four oldest classes, Primary 3, 4, 5 and 6, would have moved on to one of the boarding schools for secondary school-aged children nearby at Lubok Antu or Engkilili. The tiny ones would be moving up the scale, now considered seniors to the new pupils. I wonder about the children and their stories and collages of the orangutans, their Cinquain poems and their shirts honouring their favourite European football players.

Dominic Helan Eric, the Park Warden at Semenggoh Wildlife Centre twenty minutes from the capital city, Kuching, tells me that his colleagues at the Forest Office at Lubok Antu reported that the number of orangutans at the Batang Ai National Park has grown. This is good news. I hope that the stories the children have heard about orangutan ancestors and lessons they have learned from their parents about protecting the red great ape will continue to be passed down to the future generations. And I hope that they will remember our stories about the orangutan belonging in the tropical rainforest and not in the enclosures of a zoo.

We know that the young people are leaving the rural towns, lured by jobs and the modern lifestyle in the cities. It is a natural consequence of development and progress. In a way, this will be good for the wildlife because there will be fewer people competing for the land and the food that can be found among the flora and fauna in the forests. But I wonder, like others do, what might be lost when the young people no longer return to their villages and longhouses. We ask ourselves, is it worth the gain of modern life, technology and progress? But it’s not a question we can answer, we who are city folk, the so-called educated and modern ones. For we live in urban areas and have access to that progress and development, so it’s not for us to say what’s best for those who live in the villages and longhouses far from modern amenities and the hubs of technology.

Although European football superstars may have reached far into the Bornean rainforest, all the way to Nanga Delok, and the lure of the modern connected city life beckons, not all of the young people have left Batang Ai. Some remain to be guides and porters, boatmen and cooks for research teams that seek to study the elusive red ape and conservation education teams that come to meet the longhouse folk. Eco-tourism brings adventurous travelers to the area as well, so there is an alternative livelihood for the villagers who choose to live on their ancestral land. Hopefully, our visit and the stories of conservation and the orangutans help to remind the children of their primate neighbours and how they can live peacefully and safely in the shared habitat.

As we push off from the jetty and the longboat putters out onto the open water created for the Batang Ai Dam, I look back at the boarding school high up on the hill hidden by the trees. I remember the school’s motto, “Up, up, SK Nanga Delok, up!”. I see the children passing Lucy, the plush orangutan to one another, adding to the story of the young red ape. I see them creating collages of orangutans and writing their Cinquain poems. But clearest in my mind is the memory of the children in their incongruous football t-shirts, imitations of the jerseys of European football stars. We are leaving this area where humans created a dam to provide electricity for the modern world; a place where some of the Iban still live the way their ancestors did, but where their children are given an education in two foreign languages, with a glimpse of a world beyond the River Ai and its tributaries.

We are heading for Lubok Antu and the long drive back to the capital. Somewhere in the forest on the far side of the river or behind us, there are orangutans. We hope that the national park and the neighbouring wildlife sanctuary will stay protected and untouched by human avarice. And we hope that the children of Nanga Delok will live happy useful lives wherever they eventually settle, whether it’s near or far from their birthplace where the orangutans still live freely in the wild.

[1] Football players

[2] A five-line poem popular among children

Christina Yin, PhD, is a Senior Lecturer at Swinburne University of Technology, Sarawak Campus. Her fiction and nonfiction writing have been published in eTropicNew Writing, and TEXT, among others.


Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles


Taiping of the Raj Era

Travelogue & Photographs by P Ravi Shankar

Lotuses in Taiping

We were traveling at over 140 kmph. The train felt stable and comfortable. We were just entering the state of Perak, just north of Selangor state in Malaysia. Perak means silver in Bahasa Melayu. Getting out of Kuala Lumpur (KL) was slow with several stops for signal clearance and the train was now making up for lost time. The Electric Train Service covers the distance between Bandar Tasik Selatan and Taiping in around three hours and ten minutes. The train is an electric multiple unit and accelerates and brakes quickly.

My friend, Binaya and I were on the evening train to Butterworth scheduled to reach Taiping at 9.22 pm with a bunch of students. We were making excellent speed. Watching the progress on Google Maps reminded me how far we had come technologically. We pulled into the new Taiping railway station only about two minutes behind schedule. The creation of the railway line right to the Thai border was a major technological achievement and the electrified line offers quick and reliable transportation. The old railway station was next door and we resolved to come visit this heritage property during our stay.

By the time we reached the hotel, it was after ten at night and our first task was to grab some dinner. We thought the huge shopping malls would offer us some choices. A chain restaurant called Nasi Kandar Pelita was open. We ordered rice with chicken curry and vegetables there. While waiting for the food, we noticed they had a website giving the origin of the name — nasi kandar. This was the name given to hawkers who would walk through the streets, door to door, bearing rice (nasi), vegetables, curries and meats in vessels suspended on a yoke (kandar). Eventually many of these hawkers settled down and opened their own stores.

Old lores always interest me. I tried researching the name of the town. The name is said to be derived from two Chinese characters, tai (great) and ping (peace). The discovery of tin in the nineteenth century attracted immigrants from China. For several years, there was a bitter war between rival factions. The colonials eventually restored peace and named the first capital of the state of Perak.

Taiping was among the first town established by the British in Malaysia and was near important tin mines. The first railway was constructed to transport tin ore to the coast. The abandoned tin mines were converted in the 1880s to Malaysia’s first public gardens. The gardens have a well-earned reputation of being well-maintained.

We started by visiting the Taiping War Cemetery. Over 800 soldiers, who lost their lives during World War II, are commemorated here. We visited the Burmese pool and slowly walked back to the Lake Gardens. The area was vast, the sun was becoming hot, and I was soon tired. The garden, spread over 64 acres of land, is famous for the rain trees and angsana trees. Many poems have been written about the splendid rain trees. After wandering through the gardens, we took a ride to the Perak Museum. The museum is the oldest in Malaysia and was founded in 1883 by the British resident, Sir Hugh Low. The museum mainly concerns itself with natural history and the history of the area. There are some excellent assembled animal skeletons. The museum is located in a heritage building opposite the Taiping goal. There are four galleries, Nature Gallery, Cultural Gallery, Indigenous People Gallery and a Temporary Gallery.

 The sun had grown very warm, and the weather was humid throughout our stay. Taiping is famous as the place with the highest rainfall (over 400 cm) but we did not see much of a downpour.

Dataran Warisan

In the evening we went to the Dataran Warisan Taiping, the main public square. The land and district office across the square is a heritage building completed in 1897. Across the street was a lively market with many photo opportunities. As one of the first towns to be established by the colonials, Taiping has several other old institutions including the King Edward VII school and the St George’s institution. Our dinner was again at Nasi Kandar Pelita.

The Taiping Zoo was our primary focus the next morning. The zoo was established in 1961 and is the oldest zoo in the country. The zoo is spread over 36 acres and has over 180 species of animals. We opted to walk around the different enclosures. The orangutang were a major attraction as were the tigers and the giraffes. Animals have enough space to move around, and care has been taken to recreate their natural habitat as much as possible. The zoo also conducts a night safari with animals seen in lighting that replicates natural moonlight. We debated whether to take the night safari, but we did not have our own vehicle and we were not sure if taxis would still be operating at 11 pm when the safari ends. Discretion won and we stayed back in our hotel. 

 After the zoo we went to the Lake Gardens in Kamunting. The gardens are still being developed. The Lotus flowers growing in muddy water are a major attraction at both lake gardens. In the evening, we went to the old railway station and were glad we did. The first railway in Malaysia was built in 1885 to the port of Kuala Sepatang to transport tin. The current old station was built in 1893. The old signalling equipment and the old photographs transport you back in time. Most of the station has been transformed into cafes. We had a wonderful cendol[1] at one of the cafes. Binaya was reminiscing about his university trip to Melaka. The girls in his student group had cendol while he stuck with watermelon juice. We also had a roti tisu [2]at one of the stalls and bamboo puttu[3]. Puttu never fails to transport me back to Kerala.

We were taking a bus to KL next morning. We went to the bus station at Kamunting but our bus was around twenty minutes late. The ride along the expressway was smooth as highways in Malaysia are excellent. We had spent a delightful three days in the oldest town in Malaysia with several firsts to its credit. The town is not on the circuit of most tourists but is well worth a visit due to its historic attractions, old architecture, the lake gardens, the zoo and the friendly people!  

[1] Iced dessert

[2] Sweet flatbread from Malaysia

[3] A South Indian food made of portioned rice and sweet or savoury filling


Dr. P Ravi Shankar is a faculty member at the IMU Centre for Education (ICE), International Medical University, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He enjoys traveling and is a creative writer and photographer.



Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles

Interview Review

The Storyteller of Singapore: Suchen Christine Lim

Singapore moved from being a little island to a trading port to an affluent glamorous city that bridges the East and the West. Spanning the spirit of the wide expanse of this movement within a century are some iconic writers. One of them is Suchen Christine Lim, an award-winning author who writes narratives embedded in history, lined with hope and love — two values that need to be nurtured in today’s war-torn world.

Dearest Intimate is her most recent novel that shuttles against the backdrop of Japanese invasion of not just China but of what was then Malaya and modern-day Singapore. The story revolves between the worlds of Chan Kam Foong and her granddaughter, Xiu Yin. A passion for Cantonese opera that spans across generations weaves all the threads together into a single multi-layered rich tapestry of life. That life is never about a single strand or a single facet is brought into play by her intricate craftsmanship.

Suchen has taken seven years to complete this novel creating a story that immerses the reader in different time periods. The time periods are congealed with a variety of techniques of narration. Both, the first-person narrative — the voice of Xiu Yin — and the third person — the diary which unravels her grandmother’s story — are seamlessly knit into a whole. Though to me, the diary is perhaps more compelling with its historic setting and its interludes of amazing passionate poetry, like these lines:

“Though hills and mountains, rivers and plains separate us,
nothing can separate our thoughts and dreams.
Though a thousand li separate our bodies, no mountains nor
rivers, not even the Four Mighty Oceans can separate our heart.”

As the book progresses, it unfolds Xiu Yin’s journey towards rediscovering her strength and love. She rises from the ashes of an abusive marriage which is in sharp contrast to the marriage of her grandmother, Kam Foong, arranged by the family in a traditional Chinese village in the early part of the twentieth century. That victimisation and abuse see no borders of education and can be born of a sense of frustration and an over-competitive outlook is skilfully reflected in the marriage of Xiu Yin, whose husband is from an educated Westernised Catholic background. She had been brought up on traditional lores among Chinese opera artists. Interesting observations on gender issues and local concerns — like the housing policies in Singapore — are wound into the narrative.

To me, one of the most enduring qualities of Suchen’s novels are that they deal with the common man against a historical backdrop. In an earlier interview, she had said: “I wanted to see the past from the perspective of coolies, the illiterate, who have largely been left out of history books. And yet without them, who would pick up the nightsoil?” In this novel too, she has dealt with the common man — farmers and opera singers only the historic setting and their responses have changes because of changed circumstances. We live, feel, emote with the common people before, during and after the second World War to the modern twenty first century Singapore. The author’s skilful characterisation enlivens her creations. The cruelty of Japanese invaders during 1940s is highlighted in the suffering of the people and their abuse. Published around the same time as Sumantra Bose’s Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s Life, Struggle and Politics, which shows how the Indian leader thrown out of Congress took support from the Axis powers (German and Japanese), it gives a contrasting perspective. Though this is fiction, Singapore history does corroborate that the Japanese invaders were extremely brutal in their outlook, even among the colonials.  Suchen’s reiteration of their cruelty is heart rending.

She has through her characters reiterated on the need of art not just to express but to make people laugh, give them hope and cheer them in dark times. This is an interesting theme which in itself makes one wonder if it is a comment on the perspectives of writers depicting unmitigated darkness. We find this strand of hope in great fiction from the last century — like JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series or Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. They all end with hope as do Suchen’s works.

Suchen’s oeuvre very often encompasses the story of migrants as it has done here. And the interesting progression in this novel is the migrants’ complete acceptance of their new homelands — Singapore and Malaysia. In an earlier interview, Suchen had said, “A man can rise and go beyond borders but the land that he leaves will always be in his bones and heart.” And some of her protagonists had headed back to China. But in this novel, one is left wondering if the characters from China have not transcended their national frontiers to embrace the Cantonese opera, declared an intangible cultural heritage, like Durga Puja, by UNESCO.  Art and love have overridden all kinds of borders — and perhaps, that is why the name of the novel Dearest Intimate, which is used by Kam Foong for her love and for Xiu Yin by her beloved justifies the title. At the end, it is a heartfelt love story between humans and even between humanity and an art form that evolved to embrace the common man. Like all good books — it touches hearts across all borders with its message of love and acceptance as do Suchen’s other novels. To discuss, her world view and her novel, we had a brief conversation with Suchen —

What made you write this novel, Dearest Intimate? What led you to it?

I had a strange dream while I was on the Writers Immersion and Cultural Exchange (WrICE) residency in the ancient city of Hoi An in Vietnam. I dreamt of a pale orange pillow embroidered with two mandarin ducks and two rows of Chinese characters. When I woke up, I wrote down the two sentences in English, which eventually became the opening paragraph of this novel. So, you can say it was an unexpected gift from the universe that led me to write this novel.

In your earlier novels like A Bit of Earth the protagonist always felt for part of their homelands. However, in Dearest Intimate, the protagonists dwelt on the theme of love and Cantonese opera, not so much on homeland. Has your world view changed since your first novel? How and why?

Well, I don’t think there is a quick easy answer to the how and why of change in worldview. The time gap between the publication of my first novel, Rice Bowl, and the latest, Dearest Intimate, is more than 30 years. Over that span of time my novels had examined issues of political /historical import, race and identity, moving from the past to the contemporaneous. Over the course of 30 years, it is natural for an author’s ideas and obsessions to change.  I would be very worried if I do not change, or my characters and themes do not change. For example, my sudden interest in the pipa led to the writing of The River’s Song, which in turn led me to Chinese music and Hong Kong Cantonese opera and the learning of Cantonese.

Tell us about why you took up the Cantonese opera in a major way in this novel?

It was the strange gift of a dream of two mandarin ducks embroidered on a pillowcase, which reminded me of the Cantonese operas I used to watch as a child with my grandmother and mother. Such pillowcases with embroidered mandarin ducks were symbols of love and fidelity and were sewn by young women in love in Chinese operas. Cantonese opera was a part of my childhood that was largely forgotten till this dream. Looking back, I think in writing Dearest Intimate I was reclaiming that forgotten part of my childhood.

Why did the novel take seven years to write? What kind of research went into the novel?

Partly because the research was such fun. I wasn’t concerned about deadlines. I had already flung away deadlines the moment I resigned from the Ministry of Education years ago. And I must admit I was fortunate that I didn’t have to write to fill my rice bowl. My research obsession began after I had watched a Hong Kong Cantonese opera troupe perform at the Kreta Ayer People’s Theatre, and later, other operas at the Esplanade during Moon Festival. Curious about the actors’ training, I went to the National Archives and listened to the many interviews with old opera actors and actresses of local Chinese opera troupes. Every year, I flew to Hong Kong to watch one or two Cantonese operas, and once I even met Chan Poh Chee and Bak Suet Xin, the icons of Hong Kong’s Cantonese opera. When I started writing the novel I would watch one Cantonese opera on YouTube every afternoon, even re-watching a few favourites. Unhappy that I could not understand the literary Cantonese used in the operas I joined a Cantonese class in Chinatown to deepen my understanding of Cantonese.

Why did the novel take seven years to write?  Well, one of the reasons is my troublesome health. I had several health issues to deal with. Very boring chronic issues which, naturally, gobbled up my time and distracted my attention. The most serious of these troublesomes was a minor stroke that affected my movement and speech for some months.

You have written many children’s stories, a play, short stories, non-fictions and novels. What is your favourite form of storytelling and why?

The novel. It is humanity’s greatest literary invention. Within the novel, raw messy lived experience is transformed into coherent narrative.

All your novels have a sense of hope and seem to reach out with the message of love and acceptance. Why is it you feel reiterating this is important?

I am glad you think my novels have a sense of hope. Hope is often the reason we live another day. Hope is what helps us to endure, to wait. To write, to make art is an act of hope.

What in your opinion is the purpose of art? You have repeatedly mentioned in your novel that people will respond better to hope or laughter in opera in dark times. Would you say this also applies to writing? Do you think people in dark times prefer books that give hope? Please elaborate.

I will quote Master Wu in the novel: “Play our music! Tell our stories! Sing our songs! Write our histories! Preserve our humanity! That is what the arts are for. Never, never for one moment forget who we are …”  in the age of robotics, story-generating AI and Twittering twitterati. 

Do you have any advice or message for budding writers?

Suffering is good for the writer. It will deepen lived experience and expand the heart’s empathy. 

Thank you for your wonderful answers and for giving us the time.

(The book has been reviewed and the interview conducted online by emails by Mitali Chakravarty)

Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles


Slices from Life

The Death of a Doctor

By Ravi Shankar

Zhi-Khro mandala, a part of the Bardo Thodol’s collection, a text known in the West as The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which comprises part of a group of bardo teachings which originated with guru Padmasambhava in the 8th Century. Courtesy: Creative Commons

My friend, Dr Ramesh Kumaran first shared the shocking news with me on WhatsApp. Along with a recent photo, the caption mentioned ‘Mourning the sudden and untimely of our dear Joseph Francis (6th batch). May his soul rest in peace. 6th October 2022.’ I felt sick in the pit of my stomach. This was the first mortality among our MBBS batch mates. One of our friends died when he was studying for MBBS, but he had left the course and was suffering from a prolonged illness. Some of our batch mates had close encounters with death during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.   

I was reminded of my own mortality and the fact that we often forget that our time on earth is limited. None of us know when exactly or how we will die. This I believe is a good thing. Movies have explored the sad state of people who knew or supposed they knew when and how they would die. Humans stride through life assuming their immortality. We kill fellow humans indiscriminately. We learn to hate each other. We pursue wealth and power. When we leave our material existence on Earth, we can take none of the accumulated wealth and power with us. The ancient Egyptians believed otherwise and buried their Pharaohs with all they would need in the afterlife. Ordinary people had no such privileges. We do not know much about the afterlife. Here science ends and we enter the realm of religion.

I facilitated a module on Death and Dying for medical and other students and our ignorance about death is profound. Modern medicine has the motto of preserving life regardless of its quality. We have not been trained to let go and make a person’s remaining time on Earth worthwhile. This is slowly changing but change is slow. We do not live life assuming that any moment can be our last on Earth. The Tibetan Book of the Dead (Bardo Thodol) tells us to live each moment in a spiritually fulfilling manner and mentions that we all have the potential to break free from the cycle of reincarnation and become spiritually enlightened beings.

I first met Joseph when I joined the Men’s hostel and the undergraduate medical (MBBS) course at Thrissur, Kerala, India. Our seniors were prowling around our floor abusing us and one of my friends was crying as he had just been forced to take off his moustache. Ragging still exists in India and students who were abused by their seniors wait for the new intake to take revenge. You are not able to take revenge on the powerful, so you take out your anger on the powerless. We see this all around in the modern world.   

Joseph stayed in a room near mine, and we became friends though not extremely close. One of the things I still remember about him is that he used to write with a fountain pen and used black ink. Even in those days when writing was still common most of us used ballpoint pens. He had impeccable handwriting. Joseph was always a perfect gentleman and willing to help others. I believe we did a few of our internship postings together. We collaborated on skits and other presentations during the college day celebrations. I still remember our college trip to Trivandrum Medical College for the Intermedicos festival and we stayed and slept in the badminton court inside the Men’s hostel. Life was simpler in those days. We were beginning to see the end of the MBBS doctor and specialisation, and super specialisation was becoming common. I feel this is a sad development and an MBBS doctor is competent to treat most illnesses. In fact, evidence shows that most illnesses can be handled by a trained paramedic. In most European countries, care is mostly delivered by general physicians while in the United States care is mostly provided by specialists. The amount spent and the health status of these countries/regions tell their own story.  

During those days, failure in MBBS examinations was common. Anatomy at the end of the first MBBS and Medicine at the end of the Final MBBS had the maximum casualties. Grading was arbitrary and there were no clear rubrics to guide the scoring. I was lucky to have squeaked through the anatomy dissection and the medicine courses. Joseph was unlucky and mentioned this often as due to his failures, he could not appear for the entrance exam of PGIMER[1], Chandigarh, one of the top postgraduate institutes in the country. One could not appear for the entrance exams failing the MBBS. A lot of effort has gone globally into changing the assessment system in MBBS and making it fairer and more objective.

Joseph used to join us for an occasional game of basketball. I next met him at Ollur, near Thrissur, when I was doing my post-graduation. St Vincent de Paul hospital was a multi-specialty hospital. I had come down to Kerala for a few days and stayed with Job and Joseph, both medical officers with who I shared a large apartment.

Over the years I lost touch with Joseph, and I next interacted with him in 2018 when I joined a WhatsApp group of my classmates. Joseph was very active in the group and was working as an anaesthesiologist in the United Kingdom. Many of my batchmates were working in National Health Service (NHS) and they often would mention how the NHS is being steadily starved of funds. The COVID pandemic hit the medical community hard. Doctors in practice seem to be especially vulnerable. We discussed this and postulated that it could be because they are exposed to repeated doses of the virus in high concentrations from multiple patients. Many doctors had lost their lives; many others I know were in the Intensive Care Unit for prolonged periods of time. Two of my classmates in the UK had serious illnesses requiring hospitalisation and prolonged intensive care.       

I next interacted with Joseph when I was unable to make a bank transfer to the UK to pay for membership fees of a professional organisation. The transfer was not going through and eventually, I asked Joseph if he could do the transfer from his account in the UK, and I would deposit the money in his account in India. He readily agreed. Joseph was always very helpful. During the last two years, I have lost several friends. Two academic collaborators, one in Malaysia and the other in Yemen passed away. Colleagues I knew in Nepal died due to COVID complications.

Death can be a celebration of a person’s life. An Irish wake is one last party to honour the deceased. Unknown diseases plagued the Irish countryside causing a person to appear dead. Hence a person would be waked in the deceased’s home for at least one night. I had the exact fear while certifying death. What if the person then woke up and disputed my certification? I was very careful and meticulous while writing out a death certificate.     

These deaths have underscored my own mortality. As someone once said, death and taxes are inevitable. Accepting one’s own mortality and coming to terms with our eventual demise makes you aware of the folly of chasing power and glory and can contribute toward a gentler, more decent world. Climate change is a testament to human greed and folly. We are still uncertain how liveable Earth will be during the next hundred years. As Mahatma Gandhi said, we can satisfy human needs, but we cannot satisfy human greed!  


[1] Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research


Dr. P Ravi Shankar is a faculty member at the IMU Centre for Education (ICE), International Medical University, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He enjoys traveling and is a creative writer and photographer.




Dim Memories of the Festival of Lights

By Farouk Gulsara

Deepavali Kolam in Penang, Malaysia. Courtesy: Creative Commons

In my naive childhood, I thought that Deepavali was one big celebration all over India and of those of the Indian diaspora the world over, at least of those of the Hindu faith. Bizarrely, I must have thought the whole of India would be up in jubilation anticipating the arrival of the festival of lights. Obviously not: the discussions surrounding the recent UNESCO recognition of Durga Puja as an Intangible Cultural Heritage are anything but unison. Now the Gujaratis want Navaratri[1] as a cultural loom. Interestingly, the people in power in Tamil Nadu want the harvest festival of Pongal as the main Tamil festival.

Indians who were brought in by the British to work in the Malayan rubber estates in the 1930s were mainly from Tamil Nadu. They celebrated Thaipusam[2] and Deepavali with much pomp and fanfare. Both days were soon declared holidays in many states of Malaysia.

I do not particularly remember my childhood memory of Deepavali being particularly joyous. Deepavali was another unnecessary expenditure in my home. We were a lower middle-class Malaysian Indian family of the 1970s. My thrifty Amma looked at this merrymaking as a hindrance. It was also the busiest time of the year for her. She was a kind of Indian Auntie Scrooge. She would drum up upon us at every moment that if one is healthy and wealthy, every day would be Deepavali. Deepavali comes once a year, right. But then, it comes every year.

Amma was a kind of local rock star amongst the flat dwellers when it came to stitching saree blouses. She was the go-to person for the aunties to enhance their assets and anatomy to look good in their sarees, even though most of them were overtly oversized and out of shape, to look trim and alluring, in their eyes, of course. Amma would use her talent to supplement Appa’s meagre take-home after the creditors’ scavenging.

She took in more orders than she could chew in her zeal to make hay while the sun was out. As the days grew nearer, she would become edgier and edgier. She would burn the midnight oil trying to finish the orders, as her customers would trickle in, demanding in desperation for their Deepavali blouses. She would smile apologetically to her clientele, but once they left, all of us, including Appa, would be the brunt of her frustrations. She would go on a monologue about the hopelessness of life, blaming all the people in her life, including God, for her miseries.

My sister, Sheela, grudging, had to help her, cutting loose ends, stitching buttons, edgings, and general tidying the blouses. Occasionally, Amma would cut or sew something wrongly, and that was when all hell would break loose. No one was spared of her screaming tirade. The smacking of children was legal then.

Deepavali was generally not what Malaysian Indian students, that is, those keen to score well in the Malaysian public examinations, looked forward to. Most, if not all, major public examinations were held at the end of the year. It made perfect sense as that was when the rest of the school would have finished their academic year, and there would be peace and quiet to conduct examinations. The trouble is that Deepavali mainly falls in late October or early November. Sometimes, the celebrations fell right smack between papers. The school would also be holding their end-of-year examinations if it was not for the public papers. Hence, we thought Deepavali was just another off-day to cramp up for the tests.

We, the children, could look forward to our annual sort of ‘pilgrimage’ thronging the bargain-hunting haven of Penang’s Campbell Street’s cheap sale’s stores two to three weeks before the auspicious day. We could look forward to the only two sets of new attire they would buy for the next twelve months. Seeing Amma bargain with the shopkeepers for the best price, I sometimes pitied the sellers. Sometimes, I feel like telling Amma to just pay what he asked. No, she would not do that. She would go to another shop, start another boxing match, loose, and return to the first shop smiling sheepishly.

As the days got closer, Amma would get even more and more high-strung. The children would be at the receiving end as the sewing orders piled up, and she could not find the correct thread colours for her blouses. In the midst of all that, some cloth piece or button would go missing, and then there would be a ruckus. Everyone would be roped in to search only to find the missing item right under her nose, where it would have been all the while.

Amma would become more desperate. The children, all preparing for the examinations, would be nagged for not helping enough, unlike other children – as if we were the only children in the world who needed to study! The sewing sessions would go on and on till the morning of Deepavali. On one occasion, probably due to fatigue, she actually cut out the wrong design for the wrong customer, and Amma had to replace the material later. Probably that customer must have ‘celebrated’ Deepavali that year with no saree blouse!  She might have passed it off as another new fad – as an empress in ‘new clothes’, perhaps!

About a week before Deepavali, cookies would have to be prepared in the middle of this entire melee. By tradition, the first to be cooked must be oil based; hence the opening ceremony was done by pressing murukku (a deep-fried snack made from rice flour and spices) and ghee balls (ney orundei). With a traditional and cumbersome murukku squeezing device, I would be assigned to give my muscle power to press down the murukku dough. A few other cookies would be baked in the then-spanking-new electric oven. To add to the local flavour, Amma would stir up sticky glutinous in brown sugar for a delicacy called ‘wajik‘.

One particular Deepavali eve, I remember an incident that triggered a stir in my neighbourhood. We were living on the 15th floor of a 17-storey low-cost flat. Residents were packed into tiny pigeonholes we called home. Privacy was the most diminutive of the priorities as we paved through life. Sheela was left to guard the fortress as my parents went off to the evening market to get groceries for the big day. I had gone off to school. I was in the afternoon session[3] that year.

I returned home to a big commotion outside my flat. Most of the neighbours were standing outside the unit, banging on the door, calling for Sheela and talking loudly amongst themselves. I peeked through the blind panel of the door. I could see Sheela slouched cosily on a sofa with her hands on her right cheek deep in slumberland. The television in front of her was blaring loudly, further drowning all the commotion outside. She was not too far from the door, but she continued snoozing. I guess all the late nights helping Amma must have gotten to her.

 Residents getting locked out was nothing new in our neighbourhood. I suppose it is one of the events that got the neighbours together to mingle and get to know each other. Among us were self-appointed ‘specialists’ who devised their own gadgets to deal with any locked-out situation. The most typical item used by most was a charcoal stirrer. I guess that is how laparoscopic surgeons got the idea of performing keyhole surgery. One with hyper-flexible joints was sometimes sorted after to insert his hand through the door blinds!

Yours truly saved the day when I managed to manoeuvre my hand through the door to flip the lock open. All through the melee, my sister was in total bliss. Finding her snoring, oblivious to all the pandemonium outside, Appa went on to reprimand her in the usual way – KABOOM! (i.e. smack).

With all that build-up, preparation and countdown, Deepavali was actually an anti-climax – except for the new clothes, the food and the angpows (money packets) we received after distributing cookies to our neighbours. Amma would be sleeping after finally finishing her sewing and cooking. Appa would catch his forty winks on his easy chair, and we, the children, would watch all the special programmes on TV. Nobody actually came to visit us, even on Deepavali day. The afternoon would come, and the family would again manifest in front of the idiot box to watch the Deepavali special Tamil movie on TV. When this was over, essentially Deepavali was over and reality bit in. It was time to prepare for school the following day. On Deepavali nights, we would fire up a couple of Chinese sparklers.

All the money collected in the angpows would go straight into our Post Office Savings accounts in the next few days. The grand finale of the Deepavali curtain would fall a few days later with the family outing to the movies, a Tamil movie, packed with cookies that Amma had prepared as viewing snacks. Then, it was the school holidays, and another school year would come.

[1] A Western Indian festival in honour of the Goddess Durga, celebrated around the same time as Durga Puja

[2]  The festival in January- February (called Thai in the Tamil calendar) commemorates the occasion when Durga gave her son, Murugan (or Kartikeya) a divine spear to defeat a demon. It is also commonly believed that Thaipusam marks Murugan’s birthday. It is a national holiday in many countries such as Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Mauritius. In India, in Tamil Nadu, it  is declared as a holiday but not celebrated in other parts of India.

[3] Schools in Malaysia and Singapore often ran two session – morning and afternoon.

Farouk Gulsara is an occasional writer who blogs at Whenever he gets nostalgic about the time that whisked by, he pens down whatever his grey cells are still able to retrieve.




The ‘New Kid on the Block’ Celebrates…

Dr Kirpal Singh, an eminent academic and writer, takes a nostalgic journey back in time to recall the start of Singapore as an individual entity.

The years 1964-66 were very interesting– not only because on 9 August 1965 we became the Republic of Singapore but also because of the events (some may even term these as “shenanigans”) surrounding to the lead-up to our final independence. I was a little more than fifteen years old and though not fully in the know or swing of things, it was pretty obvious real changes were afoot. The racial riots of 1964 left a deep impression– some may call it a “scar”—and many of us were truly worried and even frightened at what prospects lay in wait.

Nerves were running high and tension was palpable. Much as our teachers tried to hide hard truths, it was abundantly obvious that major changes were bound to usher a new and different ethos. My late Uncle was in the thick of things and though he did his best not to display anxiety, the various insinuations in the media– coming as they did from a variety of differing personalities with radically different perspectives — did not assure much comfort in what was to come. The hubbub left many wondering and many others questioning what had gone wrong. They demanded the “truth” be revealed.

And so it was. Mr Lee Kuan Yew addressed the nation and in-between wiping his clearly moist eyes told us that we had been kicked out of Malaysia! The shock took minutes even hours to sink home. Neighbours chatted across fences just to confirm what they had heard. But it was too late to do much by way of not accepting our fate: Singapore was now out of Malaysia and had to embrace the future alone, without the larger community that had formed in the two preceding years. It was the start of a new chapter in our short history– and a new beginning.

The new chapter in our history began with a clear glimpse of Lee Kuan Yew wiping his eyes. After all his long-cherished dream of a “Malaysian Malaysia” was now, in a sense, shattered. Whatever the details of that critical meeting that is said to have taken place in Cameron Highlands between the Tengku Abdur Rahman and Lee Kuan Yew one fact emerged: Singapore was on its own — no longer a part or partner of Malaysia.

Thus began the slow and arduous journey of our independent Republic of Singapore. In 1965, I was fifteen and though still a teen it was abundantly evident that a truly historic transition had taken place.

Whether it was Lee Kuan Yew’s oratory or his emotional self that made the impact, it was clear that most Singaporeans rallied behind him and resolved to ensure that we survived. Survival was our prime and major consideration, and all endeavours were directed to realising this goal. Crucial to this was the daily recitation of our National Pledge- “We the citizens of Singapore pledge ourselves as one united people…”. Whatever people may say our National Pledge remains sacred and sacrosanct.

As I look back at the tumultuous tensions and uncertainties we faced in those early years of our Republic’s nationhood, I can never state that we were despondent or unable to push forward. Yes, it will be folly to try and claim that everything was hunky-dory. No, far from it. But one thing was totally clear and universally accepted, as Mr Lee Kuan Yew said, we were now on our own and we had to shape our own destiny. All the doubts and unpredictable consequences notwithstanding Singapore was now the youngest new nation on planet Earth and her citizens were committed to ensure the nation survived.

And she did. Indeed, Singapore gloriously more than survived! She soared and within less than a decade of Independence– by 1975– we were showing ample signs of “earned success”, a reward that even opponents of Lee Kuan Yew had to acknowledge as “ real”.

There’s not much need for me to go into all the many new legislations and policies and rules and regulations that were mooted and passed in Parliament and embraced by all branches of our young Republic. The Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary had to be built on strong and impartial foundations without regard to race or language or religion. It was for the young an exciting and sometimes bewildering phase of history. But Mr Lee kept sharing his vision of a thriving young nation bent upon making a mark in history. Slowly but surely, said Mr Lee, Singapore would build her muscles and demonstrate what is achievable when citizen and together in order not so much to “show off” but essentially to survive. Survival was the foremost goal– all else could come afterwards.

And so we worked hard– very hard — and despite all the trauma and pain, we pushed and pushed and soon began to experience for ourselves the fruits of our determination. More and more nations began to realise that there was indeed a new kid on the block in Southeast Asia and that this kid was unrelenting in its efforts to succeed and succeed with distinction.

And so, today, as we celebrate our 57th year of Independence we can proudly claim to have surpassed all expectations and put to paid any misgivings anyone might have harboured.

Before Mr Lee Kuan Yew passed on, he said, movingly, while strolling through our Gardens By the Bay, that looking around he was glad we did what we did. He felt all his sacrifices were more than worth.

And so here we are celebrating our National Day in joy and even glee.

But we cannot ever forget or ignore the harsh lessons we learned along our journey to full and complete Independence. We live in a world crippled by numerous setbacks — the pandemic just being one.

It remains for others to evaluate the progress and strides our young and tiny island nation has taken. For my generation our Singapore is a miracle — a miracle realised through hard sacrifice and unwavering faith.

Kirpal Singh is a poet and a literary critic from Singapore. An internationally recognised scholar,  Singh has won research awards and grants from local and foreign universities. He was one of the founding members of the Centre for Research in New Literatures, Flinders University, Australia in 1977; the first Asian director for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 1993 and 1994, and chairman of the Singapore Writers’ Festival in the 1990s. He retired the Director of the Wee Kim Wee Centre.