Balli Kaur Jaswal’s “Inheritance”

There are two reasons I was interested in reading this book. One, it had a simple, pretty cover (don’t lie; we all judge books by their covers) and two, I had bought Jaswal’s other novel (which I’ve yet to read), Sugarbread, which had been a finalist for the 2015 Epigram Books Fiction Prize. Needless to say, I was intrigued.

The blurb for Inheritance reads: “In 1971, teenaged Amrit disappears from her house in the middle of the night. Although her absence is brief, she returns a different person, and the event causes fissures that threaten to fracture her Punjabi Sikh family.

Over the next two decades, as Singapore’s political and social landscapes evolve, the family must cope with shifting attitudes toward castes, youth culture, sex and gender roles, identity and belonging. Inheritance examines each family member’s struggles to either preserve or buck tradition in the face of an ever-changing nation.”

I remember every time I visited Singapore with my family, my mum would always say the same thing about its population: jutek—which is an Indonesian slang for the resting bitch face. She made remarks about how the people were like machines, systematically working their lives away—there was a time my family and I were involved in a misunderstanding with a blue-collar and when attempting to explain our side of the story, all he said was “I’m just doing my job”. She mentioned how competition and success have been ingrained since they came into existence, that most will take no less than perfect. Having grown up in an environment where everything was quite lax (my parents, with some boundaries and discipline, are some of the most chill people I know), I used to find this hard to believe. Then as I got older and became more aware of the world, I realised that this really was the case. Reading this book only further cemented my belief of this reality.

Having said that, I’m still just an outsider. I am not Singaporean and, more importantly, I am not Punjabi Sikh like the main characters of this book. I won’t make many comments on how far Singapore’s really come or what it’s really like there for the Sikh community. All I will do is relate my experiences with what’s written on the pages.

I got to know Singapore, its history, and the may progresses it made, intimately just from reading this book—it’s something I would never have experienced just by travelling there every few years or so. From an outsider’s point of view, Singapore was nothing more than a bustling metropolitan with countless business—be it government or family-owned, lavish or situated under the blistering heat—to spend your money on. Though Singapore’s socio-economic and political structures differ vastly from my homeland’s—with Singapore being more orderly and seemingly more advanced (though, as this book explored, it contrasts to how little its population have improved little alongside it) —there were significant moments that felt all too familiar to me: the mentions of local cuisine, the apropos description of the unbearably humid weather, locals going about their day in their customary ways, descriptions of racial and religious divides, as well as narratives recounting the gap between two different generations. This book’s timeline may have spanned for two decades—from the 1970s to 1990s—but there were images of the Singaporean lifestyle that were portrayed so eloquently that I knew exactly what Jaswal was talking about the instant I read her words.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then Jaswal’s depiction of Singapore would be represented as a sophisticated art gallery. She weaves cultural diaspora, Singapore’s demanding utilitarian government, as well as the rift that grows between the olderthose who are unable to uproot their traditional beliefs in favour of modern onesand younger generation—who —with such eloquence and poetry that it’s impossible not to be won over by her prose. She doesn’t sugarcoat or mince her words, she doesn’t shy away from addressing the toxic and damaging behaviour the Singaporean government have instilled into their people.

She utilised all five senses to describe the physical as well as the metaphysical. You feel the ‘sticky heat’ beating down your back as you rush with Amrit through and between street vendors in the hawker centres in the dead of the night, lost and penniless. You feel Gurdev’s heart race with rage as his cousin and biggest rival, Karam, as he socked Karam multiple times for mocking his insecurities and taunting him with his nightmares. You feel Narain’s anguish at not being able to find a barber willing to chop off his locks, which he has maintained for as long as he can remember, and fear coursing through his veins as he narrowly escaped arrest for protesting against the government. You feel Father’s shame and misery as he counts the misfortunes his children and wife has brought about with his fingers—and still the numbers continue to grow.

Everything written in this book feels authentic—from the ever-complex characters, the ever-evolving setting, to even the multiple predicaments each person must face—and in the end, it became a memoir of sorts. Jaswal spins a beautiful yet tragic tale of adulthood, change, race, cultural differences, identity, a sense of belonging, packaging it neatly with a bow. Had I not been to Singapore quite a few times and experience the culture firsthand, I would’ve been bewildered by the culture. Had I been raised anywhere else other than South East Asia (in a country where Singapore is only an hour away by plane, no less. And even then some of the events in this book still has me reeling), this book would have baffled me immensely. Even so, I do think this book is worth a read for those who wish to explore the world without having to leave their seats, learn about a different part of world history that wasn’t taught at school, or anyone looking to diversify their reading list.

If you’ve made it this far into my post, I want to thank you for reading. Let me know what you think and if you have any recommendations for any books of this sort, then by all means please share them. I’d love to hear your thoughts on those as well.

Until next time,
Dev.

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