Char for Charudati

Regrettable Things That Happened Yesterday by Jennani Durai (Singapore: Epigram Books, 2017)
by Priscilla King


        ‘That’s what your beat should be called,’ she says. ‘Regrettable things that happened yesterday.’

“She” is Nithya, in whose immediate family a regrettable thing—a homicide—has recently happened. “You” is Jessica, her old school friend who has become a reporter, and the “beat” Jessica has been assigned is summarized at the newspaper office as deaths.

Most of these ten stories are not, however, about the deaths of characters. Some of them are about small successes. “Tenali Raman Redux” updates an old traditional story about how a clever, but dishonest, man gets the neighbors to irrigate his garden. “Inexplicably” is a light happy romance with some reflection on the current advantages of marrying within or outside one’s own ethnic group. In “The Employee’s Guide to Transporting Customers to Mexico,” the multi-ethnic Asian workers in a Mexican-style restaurant pass as Mexicans so successfully that the restaurant is accused of discrimination and has to shut down. Even the title piece, which is not a happy story, has as much of a win-win ending as could be expected, given that it is about a woman who hates her job and another woman who is still in shock, not even in mourning yet.

Tragedies in this collection of stories are offset by comedy, and vice versa. “Tenali Raman Redux,” mentioned above, uses a plot traditionally told as a comedy, but sets that plot against family tragedy: Raman gets neighbors to irrigate his poor old parents’ field, but he is still in prison and his parents are still ashamed. In “Never Have I Ever,” two young people who have never had a romance get one, but the girl believes she is badly allergic to the boy’s pet cat.  Some of the stories are funny, but, as Ng Yi-Sheng warns in the foreword, none of them is frivolous. The comic ironies build up slowly, juxtaposed with serious reflections on current social issues. The regrettable things that happen to some characters are balanced by benign effects on other characters. “Body on Board” is about a man’s breakthrough into mourning for his estranged dead brother. Each story is reasonably plausible--because of its mixture of elements—as something that might have happened in the real world we know.

The author Durai is part of what Ng Yi-Sheng describes as a boom in short fiction from Singapore. Details in these stories reflect Singaporean culture, including the subtle ethnic conflicts between the Tamil-speaking Indian minority (to which most of the main characters belong), the ethnically Chinese majority, and other groups. Everyone speaks English, several characters have English names, and the plots could have been set in the U.S. or the U.K. or Australia—but they’re not.

For one thing, the survival of Tamil in Singapore is a recurring theme. In “Yours Truly, Vimala” the Tamil-language newspaper prompts writers with the warning that “If young people do not start speaking Tamil in social situations, the language will die.” Some of the characters in this collection conscientiously preserve Tamil, an interesting language in its own right, with its own literature, largely untranslated. One reason for their doing so is that a secret language can be useful: a lover avoids embarrassment by adding to his proposal of marriage, “If you’re going to say something other than yes, could you please say it in Tamil?”

Indian cultural influences seem subtle in these stories; perhaps South Asians feel less conspicuous in Singapore than they do in the United States. Singapore is notorious for strictly enforcing the standards of etiquette and cleanliness upheld by each ethnic group, so that nobody offends anybody too much. Durai’s readers get word pictures of a Tamil-speaking family’s mourning rituals but generally meet Tamil-speaking people as they would meet nice, likeable neighbors and co-workers.

Everyone’s cultural rules might seem “conservative,” in the nicest way, to U.S. readers. Babies are still symbols of hope and joy. The fifth, sixth, and seventh child in one house have to live with sibling rivalry, but all of them are being fed and educated. The couple who find themselves bonding as friends consider marriage rather than flopping into bed. Grandparents are loved even if they slap their grandchildren. Nobody needs drugs—except, arguably, a schizophrenic character who may have needed them sooner. One character drinks alcohol and disgracefully gets divorced, and his family loses contact with him, and he dies tragically young. One character insists that “Only Chinese people have gangs” for years, while living in the same house with the leader of a very secret Indian (not exclusively Tamil) gang. So perhaps the competitive display of niceness (see, our kind of people are as “clean” and “nice” as yours! see what good neighbors we can be!) is covering up some deficiencies of real moral virtue.... On the other hand, at least niceness and tidiness and politeness are still being upheld as ideals, in a way Jordan Peterson’s fans might appreciate.

Most characters are not identified in terms of religion, although given names reflect a mix of Hindu, Christian, and other traditions. “Revelation to Amala Rose” features a very young, devout, naïve Christian; it’s not her family’s religious identity, but her own childish interpretation of her beliefs, that becomes grimly ironic as the story unfolds. “Funeral Gifts” features an Indian-style funeral; again it’s not the family’s religious standards, but the deceased man’s having secretly lived in violation of those standards, that becomes a focal point of irony and conflict among characters.

Even in India, Tamil-speaking Indians are a minority. In the rest of the world they are so much of a minority that, as in one of these stories, young Tamil-speakers meeting overseas resist their initial mutual attraction, not wanting to date merely because they belong to the same language group. In Singapore they seem to mingle socially with other ethnic types, free at least to consider marrying non-Tamil or non-Indian people. The girls who form a social clique at school in “PG-13” are Priya, definitely Tamil; Shu-en, probably Chinese although not the one who can teach the others rude things to say in the Hokkien dialect; Rachel, possibly Tamil-speaking and Christian but who knows; and Char, Lena, and Tina, whose names might be anything. Parents living in multicultural societies often choose “international” names that everyone around them can pronounce. “Char” might be a short form of Charlotte or Charity, or Charudati, a less-common Indian name derived from the Sanskrit words for “intelligence” or “good student.” This detail fits so neatly into the story as to raise the question of symbolism; sometimes, in their passionate social lives, teenagers try to deny their intelligence. For teenagers dealing with social bullies, there may be some comfort in knowing that this is global.

For most readers “Tamil-speaking Indians in Singapore” may be the obvious unifying theme in all ten stories, although “Never Have I Ever” is set in a U.S. university and “Body on Board” on an airplane. There is, however, a secondary unifying motif: each story features a newspaper in some way—the newspaper advertising jobs that bring immigrants to Singapore, the newspaper with the writing contest for which the siblings submit stories, the newspaper that sends out the junior reporter to cover all the “regrettable things”; the foreword tips readers off to watch for the newspaper in each story. In some Indian poetic traditions there is a rule that the writer embeds his or her “signature” in the words of a poem, often directly as the poet’s name or pen name. Jennani Durai, like many fiction writers, first practiced telling stories in a newspaper, so the newspaper motif might be regarded as her “signature” in this collection. How conspicuous the newspapers are varies between stories.

By U.S. standards these are reasonably tasteful stories. Evidently Durai has never been told to demand attention with an explicit sex scene or some other grab at readers’ emotions. It works for this reviewer; though generally more of a nonfiction fan I find that, when characters are not shoving their most visceral feelings in my face, I am more likely to appreciate the insights into the human condition they have to offer. “My best buddy stole my wife’s/husband’s affections” has been done. What about “My sister stole my writing contest entry”? “Chemical sensitivities stole my dignity”? “Our son, by becoming an embezzler and going to prison, stole our social status”? When other people are screaming, whispering sometimes works. I feel more empathy for the writer relegated to writing about “regrettable things” than I do for many of the immoral people (and their victims) in many recent works of fiction.

In addition to the cultivation of quiet empathy, another “serious” use that fiction can serve is documentation. Singapore as a modern city-state, its self-governance, its independence from China or India or Malaysia or Indonesia, are perennially interesting topics for students of sociology or “political science.” Jennani Durai joins Alfian Sa’at, Shelly Bryant, Yeo Wei Wei, Gwee Li Sui, and a few dozen other writers who are still “new” to U.S. readers, in documenting the Singaporean political experiment through fiction, poetry, memoirs, and reportage. For future historians, these writers’ books will one day become Primary Texts. Of course fiction and poetry document cultural history in a selective, subjective way—but then, so do memoirs and reportage.

For most of us, though, the bottom line is that reading fiction is optional. We read fiction because we enjoy it. Fiction is especially good for passing time in waiting rooms, on long commutes, or before falling asleep, and Regrettable Things That Happened Yesterday is adult enough, light enough, and warmhearted enough to be excellent for that purpose.

 

Priscilla King is a writer and bookseller. She reviews older books at priscillaking.blogspot.com.