February 2013

Arts & Letters

‘Inheritance’ by Balli Kaur Jaswal

By Peter Pierce

There was no distinctive literary voice in Singapore till after the painful break with Malaysia in 1965. Then, among others, emerged the novelist Catherine Lim and the poet, academic and literary godfather Edwin Thumboo. Now, in the latest generation, a new yet polished talent has arrived with Balli Kaur Jaswal’s long-gestated novel Inheritance. Written while Jaswal was on a fellowship at the University of East Anglia and originally bearing the haunting (and better) title ‘When Amrit Returns’, the book traverses Singapore’s history from 1970 to 1990. Jaswal documents “the loss of the old island: the swampy earth and twisting bark, the constant hum of mosquitoes”, “the night of the race riots”, the spread of “Singlish, that foul dialect of common Singaporeans”, the Social Development Unit for matchmaking university graduates, and the rise of the prosperous but authoritarian city-state that cracked down on “littering and rule-breaking”, gays, protestors, durians on trains.

In the foreground of Inheritance is a Sikh family, originally from the Punjab. Its tormented patriarch, Harbeer, came to Singapore to serve with the British armed forces, as did many of his compatriots. His lost wife makes ghostly “secret visits” to him. His elder son, Narain, dismissed from the army under suspicion of homosexuality, took an engineering degree from a provincial American university, but was called home to care for his younger sister, Amrit. For Amrit, “thoughts made noises too”, and she feels “a teeming hunger for somebody – everybody – to touch her”. Her increasingly reckless behaviour traps Harbeer and Narain in their flat, waiting until “she eventually runs out of places to go”. Jaswal’s complex, sympathetic but unsparing portrait of a bipolar personality is the highlight of the novel. Amrit has suffered a “disappearance of the spirit”.

The conservative third child of the family, Gurdev, endures predictable travails as he tries to adapt to Singapore’s social changes. His three daughters’ demands for independence tax him, so that he is reduced to complaining: “People in my position are grateful because we knew instability.” One daughter retorts that Singapore is “a showroom … It’s not real. It’s so competitive.” These are familiar criticisms of the place, but Jaswal has embodied them in a sometimes desperate, always intimate family drama, and she has done so without passing political judgement. The system of the state is facelessly oppressive. Jaswal’s concern is with the suspicions and ambitions alike engendered by life in Singapore in the 1970s and 1980s. With Inheritance, Jaswal makes a debut of an imaginative boldness and assurance not yet matched by the quality of its prose, but we are tantalised by the thought of what she will do next.

Peter Pierce
Peter Pierce is a professor of Australian Literature at James Cook University. He is the co-author of Vietnam Days and the editor of The Oxford Literary Guide to Australia.

‘Inheritance’ by Balli Kaur Jaswal, Sleepers Publishing; $24.95
Cover: February 2013

February 2013

From the front page

A stadium’s last stand

Arrogance. Vandalism. Victory. It’s the NSW disease

Image of ‘The Seventies’ by Michelle Arrow

Making the private public: ‘The Seventies’ by Michelle Arrow

This new history traces how the decade’s redefined politics shaped modern Australia

Image from ‘Destroyer’

Hell hath no fury: Karyn Kusama’s ‘Destroyer’

Nicole Kidman confronts in this LA crime thriller

‘Exploded View’ by Carrie Tiffany

This new novel is most striking in how it diverges from its predecessors


In This Issue

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Australia II and Liberty

Students sitting a selective school entrance exam. © Peter Rae / Fairfax Syndication

The secret life of them

What it takes to shift class in Australia

Toulouse-Lautrec, National Gallery of Australia, Until 2 April 2013

Toulouse-Lautrec

National Gallery of Australia

David Walsh. © Matthew Newton / Newspix

The gambler

At home with David Walsh


More in Arts & Letters

Image of Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd, 2010

Rats, heroes and Kevin Rudd’s ‘The PM Years’

This memoir answers some questions about his deposal and return but raises others

Image of Gerald Murnane

Tracking time: Gerald Murnane’s ‘A Season on Earth’

Forty years on, the author’s second novel is reunited with its lost half

Image of Matmos

Clicks, plinks, hoots and thuds: Matmos’s ‘Plastic Anniversary’

The American experimental duo embrace the ‘sounds’ of a ubiquitous material

A French Western? Jacques Audiard on ‘The Sisters Brothers’

The celebrated director explains how he made a Hollywood staple his own


More in Noted

‘Exploded View’ by Carrie Tiffany

This new novel is most striking in how it diverges from its predecessors

‘Zebra and Other Stories’ by Debra Adelaide

Difficult-to-grasp characters populate this new collection

The 9th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art at QAGOMA

Politics, culture and colour collide in Brisbane

Still from The Cry

ABC TV’s ‘The Cry’

This Scottish–Australian drama successfully subverts the missing-child genre


Read on

Image of ‘The Seventies’ by Michelle Arrow

Making the private public: ‘The Seventies’ by Michelle Arrow

This new history traces how the decade’s redefined politics shaped modern Australia

Image from ‘Destroyer’

Hell hath no fury: Karyn Kusama’s ‘Destroyer’

Nicole Kidman confronts in this LA crime thriller

Image from Hobart’s school strike for climate

The kids are alright

Climate-striking students have every right to protest

Image of Defence Minister Christopher Pyne

The Teflon Kingdom

Saudi Arabia is confident it can buy out the West, and Australia is happy to oblige


×
×