The Singapore-based author says one way to understand the stories of nations politically, socially and historically, is to make them personal
Through the pandemic I have been eating a lot of fried bread sprinkled with sugar. There is comfort to be had in this childhood treat. And so I could relate to 10-year-old Pin’s reliance on it while her mother, Jini, is at hospital tending to her mother, the stern Nani ji in Balli Kaur Jaswal’s novel, Sugarbread.
“I think I was feeling nostalgic when I first started writing it,” the 36-year-old writer says over a video call. “I was revisiting my childhood. I am the type of person who thinks of emotions with my stomach. The idea of Sugarbread came from there. It is also quite universal. It seems like everyone grew up with some version of sugarbread. My friends in Australia grew up with fairy bread, which is white bread with butter and chocolate sprinkles.”
Balli’s first book, Inheritance (2013) and Sugarbread (2014) were recently released in India by Harper Collins. “Sugarbread was the first novel that I wrote, although Inheritance was the first to be published. I started writing Sugarbread when I was in university, when I didn’t know everything about writing novels. When I returned to the novel years later, with some with some distance and clarity, it became apparent to me what needed to be done.”
In Sugarbread, Pin gauges her mother’s mood by her cooking. Balli says she does not particularly care for food being described in movies or cooking shows. “They make me hungry! I remember a teacher in high school discussing Like Water for Chocolate. There are a lot of descriptions of food in that book and bonding over recipes. Human beings are the only animals that prepare food. Other animals just eat it. Food for us is connected to other senses and experiences. I found the concept that food could be about tradition and mood interesting.”
The recipes in Sugarbread, Balli says were part of her upbringing. “I think anyone who grew up in Singapore has always known a variety of food. They have grown up eating Chinese, Malaysian and Indian food. It is all quite interchangeable and it is something that we are quite proud of. I think it was very much a characteristic of my identity as a Singaporean. There was always a great deal of diversity in our home in terms of the smells, sounds and flavours.
Sugarbread with its young protagonist seems a likelier choice for debut novel compared to Inheritance with its searing portrayal of mental illness. “Sugarbread is personal, a young girl coming of age. Inheritance is of a family and nation coming of age. The stigma around illness, the way of dismissing behaviour as madness and the fear of madness interested me. There is so much negative connotation to being unwell, a fear of any deviant behaviour. There was this straight line, a tightrope walk that one was expected to do. Anything that stepped out of that line is considered deviant.”
The Singapore-based author said she was curious about the notion of culture-bound syndromes. “I had learned about them in high school. An illness that could be diagnosed in clinical terms as mental illness in a Western context can be explained completely differently in a traditional context. It can be explained as a superstitious thing, or as a problem of the spirit.”
Inheritance tells the story of a 15-year-old Amrit who vanishes from her home in Singapore one night and returns a changed girl. “At the time I was reading a lot about the diaspora and also about post-colonial countries coming of age. I found the thought of a family as being the microcosm of a nation fascinating. One way to understand the stories of nations politically, socially and historically is to make them personal. People feel they are falling behind when a country rapidly modernises. That was how I felt about Singapore. It was a country that rapidly modernised, and I don’t think all of us kept up with those changes. Cultural mindsets and traditional beliefs sometimes don’t want to catch up to that kind of modern. The question is what do we lose when a nation gains politically and economically.”
Amrit’s brother, Naren, says Singapore is very unforgiving of failure. Balli says it defines Singapore at the time that Inheritance was set. “There was the idea that everyone had to stay on this treadmill, and keep moving forward. It was almost like we were in a race with ourselves. We were trying to compensate for our rejection from Malaysia. The infrastructure was certainly built and Singapore became a modern and successful country economically. I wondered about the people. You cannot drag people across the finishing line!”
Inheritance’s timeline is between the late ‘60s and the ‘90s. Sugarbread is also set around the same time. Balli says present day Singapore is different and the same. “The novel I am writing now is set in Singapore in 2017. I want to explore the inequality that has been created by this very wealthy state that still has people living below the poverty line. The novel is about domestic workers from the Philippines. They are the people in the shadows, doing all the work that has made it possible for us to be so successful, but they do not get as much credit as the billionaires.
Sugarbread and Inheritance are set in Singapore. Balli’s third novel, Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows (2017) is set in UK and her most recent novel, The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters (2019) is set in India. On why she returned to Singapore for her latest novel, Balli says, “It is home. It is where I am from. It is the place I know best in terms of its nuances, history and culture. There is also the feeling of being an outsider because I have grown up in other places. Indians are a minority in Singapore and the Sikhs are an even smaller minority. So looking at Singapore from that lens has made it a fascinating place. It is also a place that is always changing, always evolving, always doing different things. I feel like I want to capture the stillness, the moments of humanity before another building gets taken down or another thing gets built up.”
Inheritance Balli says, wasn’t the original title of the novel. “My title was When Amrit Returns. I felt that the family was almost put on pause, waiting for this return to normalcy and waiting for her to return from that disappearance. My publishers didn’t like the title very much. They warned me against having a title that had a name in it, saying it would alienate readers. My publishers suggested Inheritance saying it has connections to many things in the novel like the inherited land, cultural and possibly genetic inheritance.”
Last time we spoke, Balli spoke of Erotic Stories… being optioned by Ridley Scott’s company, Scott Free Productions. “A lot of things are on hold because of COVID-19. They are still very enthusiastic. I read a script that was quite promising. At the end of last year they said they were going to be shortlisting directors.”