Spaces of Intersection
Confluences are where change happens – whether in a book or because of it.
By Pamela Ho
Chickpeas to Cook & Other Stories
Singapore is a melting pot of races, cultures and religions – so we've heard it said. The problem with such environments, said an American lecturer who taught in Singapore for several years, is that whatever is in the pot is expected to surrender its form to whatever is being cooked. He wasn't big on conformity, so he left – for an environment he described as more of a colourful tossed salad.
When I picked up Chickpeas to Cook & Other Stories, I was reminded of his analogy. The chickpea is a humble ingredient you'll find in recipes across cultures, cooked in a variety of ways and seasoned with a variety of spices to create dishes from chana masala to falafels. The title of this book was not inspired by a recipe but a poem by 13th century Sufi poet, Rumi. You'll find this quote upfront:
To author Nilanjana Sengupta, it signifies a moment where "senses are heightened", a moment of readiness. These "chickpea moments" hold a hint of revelation, she says, something the Persian poets called "a seed of light, when the chickpea leaps nearly to the rim".
Chickpeas to Cook captures such moments through the stories of women from some of the smallest communities, often no more than a few hundred families in Singapore – communities like the Dawoodi Bohras, Jews, Sikhs and Parsis. The book invites us into the private worlds of these ordinary women as they navigate daily life, grapple with duty and desire, and arrive at moments of readiness "to embark on a journey of self-annihilating love, of a denuding union with a vaster identity".
There is a lot to unpack when one writes about religion and culture. An individual's identity is shaped by layers of culture (almost impossible to separate), of which ethnicity is just one. Religion is often used interchangeably with faith and spirituality. They overlap but are not synonymous. Sengupta does tease out the nuances by providing glimpses into the women's public and private selves, where religion and spiritualty aren't always aligned.
Another area to unpack is the "obscure" community. Is it always determined by relative size? Post-colonial hang-ups aside, I don't know if I'd put Chinese-Taoists and Eurasian-Catholics (though smallish communities) into the same basket as the Jews, Parsis or Dawoodi Bohras in Singapore. With categories and labels, there's always a risk of oversimplifying things.
Sengupta does her research though. She has been a writer and editor with The Straits Times and a research fellow at the National University of Singapore and Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. As such, we do see footnotes and detailed explanations of concepts in the book. Her published books include A Gentleman's Word: The Legacy of Subhas Chandra Bose in Southeast Asia (2012), The Female Voice of Myanmar: Khin Myo Chit to Aung San Suu Kyi (2015), Singapore, My Country: Biography of M Bala Subramanion (2016) and The Votive Pen: Writings on Edwin Thumboo (2020), which was shortlisted for the Singapore Book Awards 2021 and the Singapore Literature Prize 2022.
She spent three years researching for this book. Religion was something she had thought about, read about, and turned to for solace during the Covid lockdown. The result is Chickpeas to Cook, which also builds on her takeaways from her previous books: A Gentleman's Word first drew her attention to gender issues, The Female Voice of Myanmar built on that by providing a gendered perspective on Myanmar's history through its female writers, while The Votive Pen opened her eyes to the importance of multiculturalism in Singapore through the writings of Edwin Thumboo.
Still, what did she hope to accomplish with Chickpeas to Cook? My initial reading of it elicited mixed feelings, and my need to understand her motivations led me to a book club where she was speaking. Although it was organised by the Hindu Centre, I did not anticipate that I'd be the only non-Indian, non-Hindu person in the room. My jeans and tank-top felt grossly out-of-place in the presence of women in beautiful sarees. I suddenly felt conscious of the colour of my skin and how unfamiliar everything was, from the religious images on the walls to the prayers that began the session.
When everyone rose to their feet, I did too. When they closed their eyes and clasped their hands in solemn reverence, I lowered my head and positioned my hands in a prayer pose. Then they began to sing (a prayer of invocation) in a language unfamiliar to me. It wasn't an unwelcoming space. I was warmly greeted at the door, no one made a fuss about my presence in the room or gave me undue attention. But I was observing my own internal state. While I felt awkward and out-of-place, I also felt privileged to witness this simple Hindu ritual that started the book club. Though brief, the experience revealed something to me about the book and its intentions.
We are all minorities at some point in our lives. The experience of being different extends beyond race, religion and gender. In some contexts, our class, caste, age, disability or sexuality become intersecting factors that reduce the common ground we share with others. To me, Chickpeas to Cook is a book that explores this kind of intersectionality.
While my experience was temporary and contextual, there are ordinary women in Singapore who experience it daily. How do they navigate this space I also occupy? How does Singapore look like through their eyes? Coming from small communities where their beliefs and practices are so niche, what pressures do they face to preserve their cultures and retain their identities? What if these duties and expectations conflict with their personal desires? And if they are mothers in Singapore, what would they choose to pass on to their children?
Such a book needs to be written, and I hope that it will be the first of many such books. But as a reader, I was somewhat distracted by how the stories are told. From the cover illustration, title and synopsis, I had the impression that the book would be about women and their stories. However, a glance at its Contents page suggested otherwise. The book is organised according to religion: Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity, Sikhism, Buddhism, Taoism and Zoroastrianism. Other than Zoroastrianism, which might have compelled me to Google it, the rest made me feel like I-kinda-know-this-already, which is an unfortunate first impression. Under each religion is a description of a small community within it, followed by a short story featuring a woman in that community.
While I read the whole book from cover to cover, including the footnotes, I felt that the book could have presented the information differently. This structure implies a hierarchy of information. A featured woman would be slotted under a religion and further pinned under an ethnic community within it. Other than the narrative, the rest of the information is presented factually. While I did learn from reading the facts, I couldn't help but wonder if it was necessary in this age of Google.
For example, in the chapter featuring the Nattukottai Chettiars, a small Hindu community in Singapore, I learned about its history, religious beliefs, and the connection between this mercantile community (known for being moneylenders in early Singapore) and the Thaipusam festival. Could the author have done away with the factual write-up? I think so. Because in the story 'Brahman' which followed, she weaved these very details seamlessly into the narrative! Vishnupriya's story is a compelling one. It highlights the parental and communal expectations imposed on a Chettiar woman, no matter how educated or "Singaporean" she is. It also touches on academic expectations on Chettiar children, losing face, and the seeds of desperation that lead to muttered prayer.
I was curious about how women like Vishnupriya were selected. Why them and not others? For example, how did Mingxia's story come to represent Taoism or Chinese-Taoists in Singapore? Representation is implied by the structure of the book. As a reader, I'd prefer to read an intimate story about Mingxia, with the tenets of Taoism and the cultural practices of Chinese-Taoists woven subtly into the narrative. As a writer, I feel it would allow for greater freedom, authenticity and intimacy, because her personhood could be explored in all its complexity and contradictions. I would have preferred to experience the expository details through the women's "chickpea moments".
Because I believe that readers of this book aren't lazy readers, I think dismantling the rigid structure can achieve three things: It can free the women from the burden of representation, create more space for the stories to expand and dig deeper, and to do away with the footnotes.
While I found the footnotes well-researched and informative, they were also disruptive to my reading experience. The inclusion of foreign, colloquial words plays an important role in anchoring the stories to worlds. Worlding is important in a book like this. As a reader, I want to immerse myself in these worlds; but the need to consult the footnotes tugged me away from these worlds again and again. I often felt like I was toggling between a storybook and an academic paper. The footnotes can be lengthy too – the explanation of Ignatian spirituality took up more than half a page. Perhaps, some of these terms or concepts can be contextualised in a way that the reader can choose to read over them without feeling like important information is being missed?
Having said that, I did find some of the stories compelling. For example, Sakinah is a divorcée in the Dawoodi Bohra community. The story touches on domestic violence and the stigma of women walking out of marriages. You sense her dilemma, her internal struggle being non-conformist in a tight community. But you also see compassion and moments of strength from faith. What will Sakinah choose to pass on to her daughter who is getting married? The story is written from the author's point of view. It worked for me because Sengupta was able to explore her own thoughts, reflections and emotions, and I was privy to the inner worlds of both women.
The story on Wilhelmina and Ruth is presented in the form of a play. Sengupta had interviewed these two Eurasian-Catholic women separately but used creative licence to "cast" them as mother and daughter. While I found the scenes a little static, some topics raised in conversation are telling of a diminishing culture and an intergenerational gap. I like how Ruth questioned her mother, "Why did we stop going to church, Mama?" Also, by including words in Kristang, a mix of Portuguese and the local dialect in Malacca, Sengupta is indirectly documenting a disappearing creole language.
However, for a "Eurasian pageant", there was a lot of sitting and talking. There's so much potential for movement and physicality in that story – to explore where the feet take these women, and how the situations they find themselves in present tensions that draw out their characters and their faith.
I do appreciate that Sengupta experiments with forms of narrative and points of view. Besides writing about the Eurasian-Catholics in the form of a play, she employs the epistolary form in the Taoism story. There are stories written from first- and third-person points of view, where the first-person narrator could be the author, one of the interviewees, or a person in the interviewee's world. One cannot assume that the narrator is always a woman (even though this book is about women). Sometimes it's a man. In the Burmese-Theravada Buddhist story 'Nibbina', it took me a while to figure out who the narrator was. The repeated use of "my wife" made me wonder if the narrator was a man or a married lesbian. I feel these narratives are too short to keep the reader constantly guessing. After all, narrators are characters in stories too, and it takes time to "round" them. I feel these deliberate variations make the reader work too hard for too little.
For me, the chapters vary in depth and resonance. I found it more interesting to read about the women whose cultures and religions differ vastly from mine. Those that are more familiar to me felt somehow more two-dimensional and generalised. But Sengupta qualifies,
I like the book's intent. I like that Sengupta chose to give voice to women and obscure communities, especially women with intersecting identities. I like her writing. The language softens an otherwise serious and heavy topic and injects humanity and lyricism into the storytelling. I like how thorough her research is. I admire her courage to tackle a topic like religion in Singapore.
The book has created opportunities for open conversations with different communities. I remember during the book club, there was a moment I looked around me and saw copies of her book resting on women's laps, and pieces of paper with questions scribbled on them. Questions flowed that day – causally, one after another, from all around the room. It dawned on me that their questions matched those scribbled on my list. There was a moment I leaned in and felt connected to something larger than myself. We were all bound by a book. The room became a space of intersection, of empathy; a microcosm of a society I'd quite like to be in.QLRS Vol. 22 No. 3 Jul 2023