Notes for a changing world

June 13, 2021

Here’s a unique mélange of cultural interaction and trite social ethos as well as search for identity in an increasingly polarised world

The anthology, The Best Asian Stories 2020 edited by Zafar Anjum is a unique mélange of cultural interaction, longing for family ties, questions about a trite social ethos, economic downturns and reversals and search for identity in an increasingly polarised world. To top it all, it talks about the new world which has come about in the wake of a global pandemic. While the stories are immersed in these themes strong undertones of eco-critical, migratory, colonial, diasporic and sometimes a fable-like inclination is perceptible. The reader is at once riveted and transported into the cocoa bean and sugarcane plantations of East Asia. Although the entire collection is replete with meaning and conviction, I have chosen a few stories - due to the space constraint - of that deliver home some of the most important lessons to learn in our rapidly changing world.

The very first short story, Mud Bound Country by Scott P Salcedo, is a story of the Philippines of the early 1900s that was an American colony. It is the story of the family of Simeon Pedregosa, who arrives in the locality to plant sugarcane to eke out a living as railway networks are being laid. The place is green, nature is at its zenith and the humans are out to tame it for immediate gains. The colonial undertones of the story are equally harrowing amid the simple saga of a family whose dreams are thwarted. Colonial ambitions end up destroying humanity and the environment; and in the long run, the colonisers as well. Simeon later marries a woman who is an expert at planting sugarcane, has kids with her but the business never comes to fruition. Family relations are stressed and valued. As Herminia, his wife, goes away to deliver their child, “Simeon felt loneliness creeping like the swarm of night-time mosquitoes in the monsoon season.” There are references to local seasons, flora and fauna in almost every sentence of the story. There is this important lesson for modern-day couples: “Even when they fought like couples did, no one ever packed a bag and threatened to leave.”

Later on, one of their sons, in the Japanese attack in 1940s, goes missing and the family undergoes an implosive depression. Eventually, all dreams prove delusionary: the railway never gets laid, the house amid utter greenery soon vanquishes to the prior state and greenery takes over as the family abandons the promised land, ironically, for greener pastures. Their circumstances dwindle after decades of hope for establishing a new town. It is a beautiful example of post-colonial fiction.

In The Singaporean Dream, by Kelly Kaur, themes of diasporic depression, feelings of marginalisation and dispossession are captured through the character of Desmond. Living in Calgary, he undergoes ‘winter stress’. He finds the snow flakes “ugly and harsh”. While the place is home to a thriving oil industry, and huge skyscrapers he feels alone inside missing his family back in Singapore. He remembers when he used to critique Singaporean life with his dad as, “Work. Succeed. Strive. Do or die. The Singaporean Formula. Stress. Pressure cooker”. Desmond now thinks that only when one remains in the country of one’s birth can a person change it for the better. Being thousands of miles away is not the answer to problems back home. His wife is a nurse and his daughter a waitress. Now as Desmond analyses his life in the West he is faced with the existential question of identity. He misses Singaporean food and the sun there. This story is a shout out to rootedness and commitment to the soil.

Although the entire collection is replete with meaning and conviction, I have chosen a few stories... that deliver home some of the most important lessons to learn in our rapidly changing world. 

Another intriguing story, The Route to Lucky Inn, by Murali Kamma, is a portrayal of dichotomies between public images, realities on the ground and the true motives of various human beings. Some people are providing, even in this wretched world, an umbrella to the oppressed. The story revolves around Rita, Hari, Jagan and his daughter. These three are journalists and friends in the end. As Rita picks up Diaspora Weekly and reads on the missing journalist, Jagan, and his daughter she is interested in the story. The three of them have a chance encounter, when Jagan, Jag for short, is running the Lucky Inn which houses all the immigrants in distress. It houses, clothes and feeds diaspora people. Jag, although now publicly known as a missing person himself, is rendering the society an invaluable service that contradicts social expectations and his image formerly as a journalist and later as a missing person. There is the insight, “publicity can be a double edged sword.” It can be used positively as well as negatively. People tell tales about Jag but his reality is different. He is making a difference. He says, “This was the right thing to do amid this toxic environment.”

Another memorable one is by Donna Tang, How She Knew; a fascinating account of a woman and her dreams. How her dreams guide her towards the reality of her circumstances, which was otherwise enigmatic. This story explores at length a woman’s psychosis and a virtual nervous breakdown due to a cheating spouse. At one place the narrator says, “the bed lies open between them like a wound. And the air is very still”. She keeps seeing in her dream an airport where her husband is departing for a woman and she is arriving. It is also a metaphor for the wife; while she undergoes betrayal she arrives at her real self, becomes at once cognizant of her true essence, role, responsibilities and comes home to her true being. While the man, going around in the whirls of a crooked path, departs from even his quintessential self as he charts the road of disloyalty to a faithful, loving and sacrificing spouse. Her days are spent with “hope growing cautious, then weak, then still.” Doubt has infested her home “like a mould that one can’t get rid of.” Eventually, she faces off her husband and he admits to his affair.

Jon Gresham’s story, Dog at the End of the World, based in Indonesia, provides strong migratory, colonial and psychoanalytic undercurrents to the post-Covid world. The world is seen through the lens of a dog who is loyal to his mistress. The mistress is undergoing post-Covid depression and forgets about the dog but the dog does not. The dog says “we stay, we’re their people. The people must stay together.” This is a critique of the world where people are secluded in their lockdown towns into their homes. Gresham provides a refreshing outlook on the post-Covid world. “Since the plague, our lives are simple. Extraneous features have been stripped away… to the bare minimum.” While the mistress is despairing about the future and not caring about the dog as much, he says, “Oh boy! I love her, isn’t that enough?” This is again an indication that we are not valuing our loved ones enough and are more worried than thankful for what we have left. “I’m valued for my loyalty. They don’t pay me for my brains,” is a clear hint at the brain drain going on in these countries of East Asia where people move to greener pastures for monetary benefits.

To conclude, quoting from Mud Bound Country, when Simeon asks Herminia, “Aren’t we the foolish couple who waited for a train that never arrived?” Herminia replies, “No, Simeon, we were the ones that dared to dream, and life brought us some surprises”.

The Best Asian

Stories 2020

Edited by: Zafar Anjum

Publisher: Kitaab, 2020

Pages: 286

Price: $18

The writer is a columnist and the author of A Child of the New Millennium Stories and Essays from Pakistan (2015)

Notes for a changing world