Snow in Singapore: On Cosmopolitan Melancholy
By Al Lim
Shantih Shantih Shantih
Imagine if it snowed in Singapore, a hot tropical country on the Equator. What would happen then?
Daryl Qilin Yam's novella Shantih Shantih Shantih (2021) takes up this premise. The novella is composed of 12 intertwined vignettes connected to this sublime weather event. As a sugar baby ponders outside the house of her client:
For 4 minutes and 26 seconds, she relishes the snow and its magical qualities. This too, was how I felt reading Yam's book, which is to say, his vignettes felt like something icy landing on my lips and melting onto my skin. It is an experiential set of narratives. Each individual portrait shines a perspective from and onto Singapore. As mentioned in the Author's Note, these narratives can be read in any order the reader chooses. They involve a variety of media – including a narrative, a metanarrative, a photograph, a letter and a dream sequence. Coming together with multifarious interpretations of a single weather event in Singapore, I found that a lingering sense of loneliness and unrealised aspirations pervaded throughout the book.
A single occurrence of snow can unfold in so many ways. A lover's interaction illustrates this dynamic. He wonders about snow's equivalent in Tamil, musing whether pani refers to droplets of water in the morning or simply, snow. Another character, Jalil, expecting that snow is the central trope of the book and narrative, breaks the fourth wall saying how it is probably expected for him to talk about snow. Well, it did snow, and "That's just how it goes, I guess," he mentions. He does so sitting in the open deck of a ship after a wedding, as his partner goes to bed. For Jalil, snow is something that simply happened. For others, like the sugar baby, it is something magical – an impossible occurrence that is "amazing, just amazing". And for a drunk husband, it creates a treacherously wet floor, causing him to slip and fall down a flight of stairs. These interactions with snow open it to unending possibilities, but what do they mean together?
To frame this, I propose thinking with its titular reference that borrows from the ending lines of T.S. Eliot's famous 1922 poem 'The Wasteland'. Shantih Shantih Shantih is a mantra that refers to peace among the three realms – the physical, the divine and the internal – drawn from the Upanishads. Eliot draws a parallel between this Hindu text and a Christian idiom by connecting it to "The Peace which passeth understanding" from Saint Paul's letters to the Philippians. For a modernist poem in the wake of World War 1, so distant from the Upanishads, this benediction has puzzled readers since the early 20th century. As Cleo McNelly Kearns notes in her book T.S. Eliot and Indic Traditions: A Study in Poetry and Belief (Cambridge University Press, 1987), the formal ending to Eliot's poem revises it "from a statement of modern malaise into a sacred and prophetic discourse." A century later, how does this mantra work in Singapore, after what seems to be multiple "post's" to the modern? As the author notes in an interview with Esquire Singapore, he discusses how the British empire was the largest in the world when Eliot was writing, and as such, his poem was set in "the quagmire of a truly global culture, a patchwork of voices, belief systems and points of view that culminates, ultimately, with a sense of spiritual release that lies in the Shanti mantra." Here, the global aspect of the British Empire is translated into contemporary Singapore, with the question of spiritual release at its core.
Shantih Shantih Shantih inverts what has been true for Singapore through magic realism – that it is on the equator with zero likelihood that it snows. Ironically, this is what makes it a particularly Singaporean book. In one portrait, as it snows, a taxi driver remarks that "it is like I don't even know where we are, I tell you." The same taxi driver has a favourite point-point-rice store in Golden Landmark shopping centre and takes the reader through his own slice of the urban cityscape. Besides details of quintessential Singapore experiences, there is a tacit and natural acceptance of a configuration of class and ethnicity in the global city. A migrant worker (Arman) yearns for a distant Deepa in his home country, while finding short-term comfort in meetups with a domestic worker from Manila (Marilyn Mendoza). In addition, Marilyn is taking care of a Singaporean Chinese mother (Madam Phua) and her daughter that goes to school in Chicago (Veronica) who is dating an Ecuadorian photographer (Luis). Singapore has drawn communities from all over the world as a dynamic city-state, and the diverse choice of characters reflects its global culture.
Alongside the book's local and globalised dimensions, Yam's characters seem to also be finding their own spiritual release. Many of them try to do so through photographs. Marilyn attempts to lie to her lover Arman about having taken a photograph in her employer's house. She says that Arman will probably find her delusional, but she will try to persuade him "that [she is] indeed the taker of that photograph". This photograph is of two strangers in blue coats holding onto one another walking through snow, taken on Veronica's iPhone while was on holiday in Shirakawa-go, Japan. Veronica's partner, Luis, is taken aback by how this was an unplanned shot on her iPhone, when he himself was wondering if she knew his shots are "crap" and "not very good". In another vignette, the wife (presumably the woman in the photograph) flips through her photo album and wonders how that photograph is the last sign of happiness to be preserved.
In this manner, photographs mirror a parallel reality where characters' aspirations had been achieved. They echo what Eliot had written earlier in his poem:
In other words, winter seemed warmer with the snow covering up the ground and previous memories, where life was like dried-up bulbs of plants in the earth – suppressed. Loneliness and alienation creep in through the onset of snow, as several characters grapple with unrealised aspirations for themselves and for an absent companionship. For the fragmented realities of characters such as Arman, Marilyn, Veronica, Luis and the wife, photographs offer alternative paths that remain out of reach – "within a realm of impossibility". In Marilyn's section, she ponders how her love "will never last the way snow or I will ever last? That this is the very thing all of us have never learnt to live with?" For her, Arman remains out of reach. And for Arman, Deepa remains out of reach. In this manner, Yam's novella raises questions of the extent to which Singapore's current conditions, like its configurations of class, race and gender, allow for one to find a sense of purpose or meaning. Or perhaps it is about the construction of alternate realities that are beyond reach. Or instead of release, what if a spiritual awakening is in order?
As I read the book, I found myself drawing a diagram of how each character was connected to the other. The entanglement of Yam's characters has been carefully curated, creating a wondrous puzzle for the reader to experience. With the kaleidoscope of characters, what I found myself mulling over was the question of representation. How do writers capture the realities of another, especially given the tensions of gender, race and class in the current political moment? More specifically, to what extent can a character like Arman speak to the realities of migrant workers in Singapore? To be sure, there is no simple answer to this question and Yam has created a compelling and emotionally grounded set of narratives. Yet these questions of voice remain salient, and this novella could be paired with alternative modes of representation such as books of migrant poetry or ethnographic vignettes to allow for a wider set of views across Singapore.
On a similar note, by evoking Eliot's ending line as a title, how much can a book live up to its canonic, modernist counterpart? How might the novella look like if it was also full of allusions to Singaporean authors, just as Eliot drew from myriad sources in his own work? For instance, Hedwig Anuar's 'Fragments of a Wasteland' (1951) in Under the Apple Tree: Political Parodies of the 1950s (Landmark Books, 1999) similarly draws on Eliot in a political parody of 1950s Singapore and points out the deep material inequalities and discrepancies in the British Empire. Bringing them into conversation, how have these historical lines of inequality shifted or become entrenched in the city-state?
Dreamscape, portrait and meditation, Shantih Shantih Shantih is a distinctly Singaporean book that echoes the loneliness of living in a global city – together yet apart, intimate yet distant, aspirational yet melancholic.QLRS Vol. 21 No. 3 Jul 2022