Between cultures

Having been an outsider in the countries she has lived in, concerns of identity and belonging are major themes. ANU KUMAR looks at the world of Meira Chand.

April 30, 2011 07:09 pm | Updated May 01, 2011 10:25 am IST

A Different Sky by Meira Chand is a novel set in Singapore. It is as much about how the present city-state came into being as it is about the three main characters whose story it tells. Howard, Mei Lan and Raj Sherma have made Singapore their home, but the conflict about what ‘home' could be, what belonging really means and how identity is arrived at is something all three share.

Howard is of Eurasian descent; his painful awareness of being an ‘ outsider' comes early to him when he's evicted from a ‘Whites only' men's room. And his sense of confusion only grows. Howard finds the British are happy to receive the loyalty and service of people like him but will do little to help the local communities rise. As the Second World War breaks out in Singapore, he wonders at the patriotism he sees everywhere, among the Indians and the Chinese, especially for a homeland far away. Inside him though there is only ‘emptiness' and he is “convinced he could lay down his life, if only he had something to lay it down for.” His struggle, as those of Mei Lan and Raj's, is part of Singapore's story. The colonial Singapore of A Different Sky is a melting pot where communities never mix, and the three of them wage their own struggles to find themselves in a country still making itself.

In 1997, Meira Chand had just moved to Singapore. As she has said elsewhere, the idea for the book came to her on the suggestion of Singapore's President, S.R. Nathan. As she gathered material, her objective was to explain Singapore's history to a new generation, in a manner that would bring it alive.


Concerns of identity and belonging, and the outsider's painful confusion have always engaged Meira Chand, as evident in her early works. These were perhaps shaped by her early experiences of growing up in England. She was born in London, and spent the early part of her life there. Her father moved there from India in 1919. He married Meira's mother who came from a Swiss family that had migrated to London earlier.

Her parents found themselves in an England very different from the multicultural entity it is at present. For them, the test was to settle in to a new country, one relatively mono-cultural and conscious of its superior empire status. Meira Chand says her parents were trying to fit in and quite understandably couldn't pass on their culture to her. The sense of an outsider came to her early as she realised she was the only Indian in her school. And that her looks made her ‘different'.

Soon after her marriage, she moved to Japan in 1962. Kobe was a city that had few foreigners and Meira found herself isolated. Her first books are all set in Japan, and deal with the outsider woman, how they resolve the dilemma of fitting in while still retaining their individuality.

In her first novel The Gossamer Fly (1979), Frances, a young British woman and her daughter, Natsuko are outsiders in very different ways. Frances tries hard to feel at home in Japan, but is unable to accept a society totally different from the one she has grown up in. There is Horiko, the maid who has an affair with Frances' husband, Kazuo, once Frances leaves for England. The affair deeply affects the children Natsuko and her brother Riichi. Without her mother and a father who finds it difficult to understand her, Natsuko finds herself in a world she cannot figure out.

In a related way, the question of women and their concerns, how they carve out their own identity, forms a central theme of her work. Mei Lan in A Different Sky learns as a young girl the injustice that accompanies women's lives. She learns how her grandfather had taken a second wife, cruelly sidelining his first wife. Second Grandmother's feet, as small as a doll's, had first impressed Mei Lan's grandfather. In her time, Second Grandmother bemoans, men looked only at the feet. “If you had a tiny foot and an ugly face you could make a better marriage than if you had a big foot and a beautiful face. Nowadays men judge beauty only from a face. Everyone has gone mad.'”

Mei Lan resents the fact that her brother can go away to England for studies. She wants to be a lawyer but it is unheard for a woman to be one. Mei Lan's work with the China Relief Fund helps raise funds for mainland China ravaged by Japanese occupation. Later, Mei Lan is subjected to unheard of horrors by the Kempeitai, the dreaded Japanese military police. Yet by sheer spirit and will, Mei Lan in time does become a lawyer.

Voice of Women

In their distinct way, women characters stand out in all of Meira Chand's novels. Mei Lan's First and Second grandmothers are creatures of their times, and yet are survivors. There is Rose, Howard's mother, who makes a success of running her guest home after being widowed early.

Meira Chand's second novel, The Last Quadrant (1981) takes its name from the contours of a typhoon as it sweeps down on a orphanage in Kobe; it is a particularly difficult time for three women and the difficult answers they seek: about where they must belong, loyalty and following one's heart. The young British woman, Kate in The Bonsai Tree, Meira Chand's next novel (1983), finds the traditional role of a wife very stultifying in Japan. Wishing to confront her domineering mother-in-law, Kate looks for her own individuality. But in her desire to ‘get away' she discovers facets of Japan she didn't know before: Japan's race of untouchables called the ‘Burakumin', the gangsters, the discarded of society and the areas demarcated for prostitutes which is a place like none other. The remade modern miracle that is Japan appears a chimera to her.

Meira Chand lived in Kobe from 1962 to 1997, except for a brief period of five years in the early 1970s when she moved with her young family to Bombay. She remembers the isolation of the times and how very closed the Japanese society appeared to her. Four of her novels are set in Japan and bring out the complexities of 20th century Japan; how a martial identity was shaped in these years, and also the continued inability in part to confront the war guilt during the years 1930s and 1940s.

A Choice of Evils deals with the terrible Japanese occupation of Manchuria in the 1930s. It is told on several levels, employing various characters: There is a young Russian researcher Nadya Komosky who loves a British journalist Donald Addison and yet has an overwhelming passion for a compassionate Japanese diplomat, Kenjiro Nozaki. Tilik Dayal, an Indian nationalist on the run, working for Japanese intelligence, a Chinese professor with secret communist sympathies, and an American missionary doctor all come together dislocated by the war. The violence each is witness to brings out their ability of survive against odds.

In A Different Sky also, the Japanese characters remain the most striking, with all their hidden complexities. Shinozaki, drawn from real life, is press attaché at the Japanese embassy in Singapore. He is appointed adviser of defence headquarters soon after the Japanese forces invade but in this position he helps many Chinese prisoners escape, even suspected Communist sympathisers. Shinozaki is somewhat reminiscent of Kenjiro Nozaki, the Japanese diplomat who acts according to his conscience in her earlier novel, A Choice of Evils.

Meira's work also reveals her fascination with the unexplored aspects of history; incidents that slip through the gaps of history and also those that later come to embellish received history. The Painted Cage (1986) is based on a real life trial in Yokohama in the late 1890s, when a young British woman, Amy, is charged with murdering her husband, Reggie. Amy marries him against the wishes of her parents, but soon she discovers her husband's philandering and his addiction to arsenic. In Japan, Amy seeks out her independence but also makes enemies. And when she is implicated in her husband's murder, too many people are willing to believe her guilt. The Far Horizon (2001) takes on the story of Chief Magistrate Holwell who wrote of the Black Hole incident of Calcutta in 1756. Holwell bore grudges against the East India Company and thought he had been unfairly passed over for governor twice. As he travelled down the river from Murshidabad to Calcutta he wrote his account depicting the ‘Black Hole' and embellished it over time in the course of his trip. Once published, this narrative of the ‘Black Hole Incident' created a furore in England.

Stories set in India

Her first novel set in India appeared much later in 1989, House of the Sun. It features the Sindhis, a refugee community who moved to Bombay following Partition, seeking a new life. There is the Hathiramani family, the wife obsessed with astrology and the husband, an inveterate diary keeper and obsessed with the project of his life – writing the story of the Sindhi poet-philosopher Abdul Latif in a way that would bring alive the contribution of the entire Sindhi community to the world. The novel has a personal touch, as her husband's family were forced to move from Sindh to the Punjab and then to Britain in the chaos of Partition.

During her stay in Bombay in the early 1970s, Meira also wrote several short stories. She found a kind of mentor in the late poet, Nissim Ezekiel. She says she felt a sense of completion when in India though she never really belonged here. She says, “In India, I am considered a British writer, and in Britain, a writer of Indian origin.” It is this position of outsider that lends her novels a considerable acuity and depth. Her writing reflects her own position; someone writing not from the margins but from the ‘ cracks between cultures'. A collection of Meira Chand's short fiction may appear as early as next year. In the recent Sunday Times Short Story Competition, her story ‘The Pilgrimage' was long-listed along with few others in a competition that saw several hundred entries. A recent piece also appeared in the Asia Literary Review. This new collection will feature stories that Meira had worked on while in India; some have been reworked for this collection. It should make this wonderful writer deservedly better known in India than she is at present.

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