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