Friday, August 15, 2014

Global Citizen

author of Floating on a Malayan Breeze
SHANTINI SUNTHARAJAH shoots the breeze with SUDHIR THOMAS VADAKETH, who chronicled a 2,000-kilometre bicycle journey around Peninsular Malaysia he and a friend embarked upon in 2004

Coordinated by ERIC FORBES

SUDHIR THOMAS VADAKETH thinks of himself as a citizen of the world. “Can’t think of a less clichéd way of putting it,” he says.

While “citizen of the world” may not be original, it accurately describes the author of Floating on a Malayan Breeze (NUS Press & HK University Press)—at least, as far as his passion for travel is concerned. “I have never felt truly comfortable, at home, in any one place, and I’m not sure I ever will.”

Home for Vadaketh is Singapore but the Harvard and Berkeley graduate still feels a strong connection to his family’s native India. “Whenever I am in India, I feel a deep bond with the place and people,” he says. “My mother comes from a family of strict Hindu vegetarians who are Marwadis, now mostly in Indore, while my father comes from a family of whisky-sipping Christian carnivores who are Malayalee Syrian Christians, mostly in Kuala Lumpur and Kerala. I have great affection for both sides of the family and try to visit them once every two years.”

Floating on a Malayan Breeze chronicles Vadaketh’s journey through Peninsular Malaysia with his best friend Sumana Rajarethnam. The two made the journey on bicycles, armed with not much more than a tent, two changes of clothes and a daily budget of about RM10. Why would an Ivy League scholar and senior editor at Singapore’s Economist Intelligence Unit take on such an endeavour?

The answer can be traced back to when Vadaketh and Rajarethnam were studying in the United States. “I was completing my Masters in Public Policy at Harvard. Sumana was doing the same degree at the University of Michigan. The idea for the book emerged while we were in policy school,” explains Vadaketh. “We thought we should do something ‘different’ that might ultimately help to ‘better relations’ between Malaysia and Singapore. It was a bit naïve and idealistic, but that’s what we were thinking back then.”

Idealistic? Perhaps, but Vadaketh’s intentions were undeniably pure. “We wanted to find out more about Malaysia from the ground up. For most of our histories, everything we hear about our countries and each other comes from our governments. There is very little dialogue at the grass-roots level.” As the Singapore-born son of a Malaysian father, Vadaketh has a unique perspective of the two countries. “I have much affection for both places. Hence the main motivation for the trip was discovery—to find out what ordinary Malaysians think about themselves, Singapore, and the wider world around them.”

It might seem strange that Vadaketh and his friend would choose to brave Malaysia’s unforgiving heat and unpredictable tropical storms by opting for the bicycle as opposed to some other mode of transportation but as it turns out, cycling was actually a second choice. “We initially thought of walking, but realised it would take too long.” Trains, planes and other types of automobiles were avoided mainly because they were intent on creating opportunities to speak to Malaysians they met during the journey. “We wanted to go very simply so that we could get access to people,” he explains. “It is very different when you cycle, as opposed to driving. When you cycle into a kampung (village), everybody wants to say hello and talk to you. It gives you a lot of access. That was crucial for our trip and our efforts to get to know ordinary Malaysians.”

The RM10 budget might sound improbable but the two friends made it work. “Most days, we would eat roti prata or nasi lemak. Lots of carbohydrates, some vegetables but not much meat because meat is expensive. We rarely had to buy water, as people would often gladly fill up our water bottles for us,” he recalls.

As it turned out, packing a tent was a great move. “We pitched the tent probably half the time—especially on the beautiful sandy beaches of the East Coast. The rest of the time we stayed in people’s houses or shacks.” Vadaketh and his friend sometimes ended up spending the night at religious institutions and can count one mosque, one church and two Sikh temples as “rooms for the night” during their trip. They even stayed at a police station—twice!

Surprisingly, it wasn’t really food or shelter that proved to be the biggest conundrum during their 2,000-kilometre journey. “We realised what the most reliable ‘showers’ we could take would have to be at petrol stations. So most of our ‘showers’ were in these stations, squatting by knee-high water faucets in the toilets, sprinkling water on ourselves.”

Other than petrol station toilets with questionable hygiene levels, Vadaketh says there were no major challenges. “Everything was—ahem—a breeze!”

However, there are a number of things that he would like to have done differently. “I would like to have been more open and friendly with all the young guys in the kampungs who asked us about our bikes,” he says. “They were just interested in us and our journey, and some might never have seen a 24-speed bike before. But we acted like anxious richer neighbours—scared of getting robbed. So we didn’t chat as openly with them. I regret that.”

Vadaketh hopes that Floating on a Malayan Breeze will prove appealing to everyone with an interest in social, political and economic issues in Malaysia and Singapore. “I have purposefully wrapped serious issues around a light-hearted travelogue in order to make this book accessible to all readers, especially those who might not want to read a very heavy or academic book,” he explains. “I only want one ‘takeaway’—that the reader starts to question aspects of his or her environment and understanding of Malaysia and Singapore.”

Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh on the Similarities and
Differences Between Malaysia and Singapore

“We met a few old Malay men around Malaysia, and they were convinced that all the differences between Malaysia and Singapore could be summed up in a neat parable:
Orang Melayu, bini dulu, baru cari harta. Orang Cina, cari harta, baru bini.
“The idea here is that the Malay philosophy has influenced Malaysians more, and the Chinese philosophy has influenced Singaporeans more. Stereotypes have their limitations, of course, but I’ve heard similar sentiments from many people.

“Before we cycled through Malaysia, we had a feeling that Malaysia’s system is inherently unfair. What we did not expect, however, was for several Malaysians to complain about Singapore’s system. Many of them believe that our exacting meritocracy is inherently unfair, because it allows the rich to get richer, and the poor to get poorer.

“We think Malaysia’s system is unfair, and Malaysians think our system is unfair. At the time, we felt Malaysians were wrong, but in a sense they were very perceptive—income inequality is now a big problem in Singapore.

“In short, our socio-economic systems are very different but they are also similar. Today—some 50 years after both countries gained independence—both systems have led to certain segments of the population being disenfranchised.

“Meanwhile, I think one of the big differences between the countries is that Singapore is a pure urban jungle, albeit with lots of greenery around. Hence the sense of urban estrangement is heightened. People are usually in a rush, bogged down by their numerous endeavours. There are no rural areas, where the pace of life slows, and everybody knows your name.

“So, while big city dwellers in most countries will have an opportunity to live amongst their countrymen in less stressful environs, Singaporeans do not. Every other Singaporean we meet is living in the same metropolitan pressure cooker. Many people who live in Kuala Lumpur actually come from much smaller, more rural areas of Malaysia. Hence, there is a diversity to life that is missing in Singapore, which is much more homogenous.

“In terms of identity, one might argue that Malaysians, despite greater ethnic and religious strife, have a stronger sense of identity. Singapore has tried to position itself as the Asian jack-of-all-trades, a developed world hodge-podge that is both all of Asia and yet not Asia at all. While this may work economically, from an identity standpoint, contradictions abound. So, yes, as a result of being pulled this way and that, you might say that Singaporeans have a higher likelihood of forgetting their own culture.”

Friday, August 01, 2014

August 2014 Highlights

“July had been blown out like a candle by a biting wind that ushered in a leaden AUGUST sky. A sharp, stinging drizzle fell, billowing into opaque grey sheets when the wind caught it.” GERALD DURRELL, from My Family and Other Animals (1956)

1. The Zone of Interest (Jonathan Cape, 2014) / Martin Amis
2. Before, During, After (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014) / Richard Bausch
3. The Betrayers (Viking, 2014) / David Bezmozgis
4. Lucky Us (Random House, 2014) / Amy Bloom
5. I Can’t Begin to Tell You (Michael Joseph, 2014) / Elizabeth Buchan
6. The Lotus and the Storm (Viking, 2014) / Lan Cao
7. Outlaws (trans. from the Spanish by Anne McLean) (Bloomsbury Publishing) / Javier Cercas
8. Sweetland (Doubleday Canada, 2014) / Michael Crummey
9. Falling for Hugh (Doubleday Canada, 2014) / Marina Endicott
10. The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Chatto & Windus/Alfred A. Knopf, 2014) / Richard Flanagan

11. The Secret Place (Hodder & Stoughton, 2014) / Tana French
12. If Not For This (Red Hen Press, 2014) / Peter Fromm
13. The Far Side of the Sun (Sphere, 2014) / Kate Furnivall
14. The Magician’s Land (Viking Adult, 2014) / Lev Grossman
15. The Girl Who Couldn’t Read (Blue Door, 2014) / John Harding
16. Golden Boys (Hamish Hamilton/Penguin Books Australia, 2014) / Sonya Hartnett
17. The Snow Kimono (Text Publishing, 2014) / Mark Henshaw
18. Tell (HarperCollins Canada, 2014) / Frances Itani
19. The Ghost in the Electric-Blue Suit (published in the U.K. as The Year of the Ladybird) (Doubleday, 2014) / Graham Joyce
20. Twilight of the Eastern Gods (trans. from the French by David Bellos) (Canongate Books, 2014) / Ismail Kadare

21. F (trans. from the German by Carol Brown Janeaway) (Pantheon, 2014) / Daniel Kehlmann
22. Windigo Island (Atria Books, 2014) / William Kent Krueger
23. The Eye of the Sheep (Allen & Unwin, 2014) / Sofie Laguna
24. Diary of the Fall (trans. from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa) (Other Press, 2014) / Michel Laub
25. The Golden Age (Vintage Australia/Random House Australia, 2014) / Joan London
26. In Search of Solace (Sceptre, 2014) / Emily Mackie
27. Bittersweet (Simon & Schuster, 2014) / Colleen McCullough
28. He Wants (Salt Publishing, 2014) / Alison Moore
29. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage (trans. from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel) (Alfred A. Knopf/Harvill Secker, 2014) / Haruki Murakami
30. The Long Way Home (Monotaur Books/Sphere, 2014) / Louise Penny

31. The Table of Less Valued Knights (Jonathan Cape, 2014) / Marie Phillips
32. The Sheltering (University of South Carolina Press, 2014) / Mark Powell
33. The Girl Next Door (Hutchinson, 2014) / Ruth Rendell
34. Dear Committee Members (Doubleday, 2014) / Julie Schumacher
35. Nowhere People (trans. from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn) (And Other Stories, 2014) / Paulo Scott
36. A God in Every Stone (Atavist Books, 2014) / Kamila Shamsie
37. Friendswood (Riverhead, 2014) / Rene Steinke
38. Iza’s Ballad (trans. from the Hungarian by George Szirtes) (Harvill Secker, 2014) / Magda Szabó
39. The Silent Boy (HarperCollins, 2014) / Andrew Taylor
40. Mãn (trans. from the French by Sheila Fischman) (Random House Canada, 2014) / Kim Thúy

41. Anna Karenina (a new trans. from the Russian by Rosamund Bartlett) (Oxford University Press, 2014) / Leo Tolstoy
42. The Tongues of Men or Angels (Corsair, 2014) / Jonathan Trigell
43. The Thing About December (Steerforth, 2014) / Donal Ryan
44. The Story Hour (Harper, 2014) / Thrity Umrigar
45. Their Lips Talk of Mischief (Faber & Faber, 2014) / Alan Warner

1. Painted Horses (Grove Press, 2014) / Malcolm Brooks
2. The Miniaturist (Ecco, 2014) / Jessie Burton
3. Further Out Than You Thought (William Morrow, 2014) / Michaela Carter
4. Season of the Dragonflies (William Morrow, 2014) / Sarah Creech
5. Someone Else’s Skin (Headline, 2014) / Sarah Hilary
6. Flying Shoes (Bloomsbury Circus, 2014) / Lisa Howorth
7. A Bad Character (Jonathan Cape, 2014) / Deepti Kapoor
8. What Ends (Oneworld Publications, 2014) / Andrew Ladd
9. The Mysterious Affair at Castaway House (Penguin, 2014) / Stephanie Lam
10. California (Little, Brown, 2014) / Edan Lepucki

11. Dear Daughter (Viking Adult/Harvill Secker, 2014) / Elizabeth Little
12. The Feathers (Piscataqua Press, 2014) / Cynthia Lott
13. The Invention of Exile (Penguin Press, 2014) / Vanessa Manko
14. Your Face in Mine (Riverhead, 2014) / Jess Row
15. The Story of Land and Sea (Harper, 2014) / Katy Simpson Smith
16. Man at the Helm (Viking, 2014) / Nina Stibbe
17. The Scatter Here Is Too Great (Jonathan Cape/Harper, 2014) / Bilal Tanweer
18. We Are Not Ourselves (Simon & Schuster/Fourth Estate, 2014) / Matthew Thomas
19. The Girls from Corona del Mar (Hutchinson, 2014) / Rufi Thorpe

1. Mr. Tall (Little, Brown, 2014) / Tony Earley
2. The Liar’s Wife: Four Novellas (Pantheon, 2014) / Mary Gordon
3. The Dog (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014) / Jack Livings
4. Night: Collected Stories (Faber & Faber, 2014) / Edna O’Brien
5. Spoiled Brats (Serpent’s Tail, 2014) / Simon Rich
6. Flings (Harper, 2014) / Justin Taylor

1. Black Country (Chatto & Windus, 2014) / Liz Berry
2. Poems of the American South (Everyman’s Library, 2014) / David Biespiel (ed.)
3. Fire Songs (Faber & Faber, 2014) / David Harsent
4. If the Tabloids Are True What Are You? (Graywolf Press, 2014) / Matthea Harvey
5. The Stairwell (Jonathan Cape, 2014) / Michael Longley
6. Where the Wind Sleeps: New & Selected Poems (Salmon Publishing, 2014) / Neil Monahan
7. New Selected Poems (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014) / Les Murray
8. Moscow in the Plague Year: Poems (trans. from the Russian by Christopher Whyte) (Archipelago, 2014) / Marina Tsvetaeva
9. The Other Mountain (Carcanet Press, 2014) / Rowan Williams

1. Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014) / James Booth
2. Italian Venice: A History (Yale University Press, 2014) / R.J.B. Bosworth
3. Dismembering the American Dream: The Life and Fiction of Richard Yates (University of Alabama Press, 2014) / Kate Charlton-Jones
4. Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed: Conversations with Paul Cronin (Faber & Faber, 2014) / Paul Cronin
5. Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life (Free Press, 2014) / William Deresiewicz
6. The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014) / David Eimer
7. Chasing Lost Time: The Life of C.K. Scott Moncrieff: Soldier, Spy and Translator (Chatto & Windus, 2014) / Jean Findlay
8. This House of Grief (Text Publishing, 2014) / Helen Garner
9. Bad Feminist (Harper Perennial, 2014) / Roxane Gay
10. The Culinary Imagination: From Myth to Modernity (W.W. Norton, 2014) / Sandra M. Gilbert

11. Augustus: From Revolutionary to Emperor (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2014) / Adrian Goldsworthy
12. Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered (Simon & Schuster, 2014) / Dianne Hales
13. The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection (Current/Penguin USA, 2014) / Michael Harris
14. Watching Them Be: Star Presence on the Screen from Garbo to Balthazar (Faber & Faber, 2014) / James Harvey
15. The Homing Instinct: The Story and Science of Migration (William Collins, 2014) / Bernd Heinrich
16. The Language of Houses: How Buildings Speak to Us (Delphinium, 2014) / Alison Lurie
17. The Art of Daring: Risk, Restlessness, Imagination (Graywolf Press, 2014) / Carl Phillips
18. Iraq: A History (Oneworld Publications, 2015) / John Robertson
19. Berlin Now: The City After the Fall (trans. from the German by Sophie Schlondorff) (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014) / Peter Schneider
20. Susan Sontag: A Biography (trans. from the German by David Dollenmayer) (Northwestern University Press, 2014) / Daniel Schreiber

21. Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014) / Jan Swafford
22. Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary at War, 1914-1918 (Allen Lane, 2014) / Alexander Watson
23. Boundless: Tracing Land and Dream in a New Northwest Passage (House of Anansi Press, 2014) / Kathleen Winter
24. Brown Girl Dreaming (Penguin USA, 2014) / Jacqueline Woodson