From Sky To Water

Meira Chand, acclaimed author of the Singapore saga, A Different Sky, has a new novel, Sacred Waters, based on the Rani of Jhansi Regiment of women who joined the Indian National Army

1/2/2018 7:28:18 PM
written By : Abhijit Nag Print

Books beget books. Ask Meira Chand, she has written nine novels. Soon after she arrived in Singapore, in 1995, Singapore’s former president, SR Nathan, persuaded her to write A Different Sky, a stirring saga about life in colonial Singapore from the 1920s through the war years till the communist agitations in the 1950s. Critically acclaimed by the Guardian when it was published in 2010, A Different Sky has now spawned a new novel, Sacred Waters. It turns the spotlight on the Rani of Jhansi Regiment of heroic women who joined the Indian National Army (INA) led by Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose to fight against the British during the Second World War. 

Sacred Waters is the story of Sita, who, widowed in India at the age of 13, comes to Singapore, marries her brother’s friend, joins the INA like her husband, sees action with the Rani of Jhansi Regiment, and, widowed again by the war, brings up her daughter, Amita. When the novel opens, Amita is middle-aged, unmarried, a feminist teaching English at the National University of Singapore and living with her mother. Sita is persuaded to tell her life story by Amita’s colleague, Parvati, who is writing about the Rani of Jhansi Regiment. Her reminiscences end in a stunning revelation which leaves Amita gasping about how little she had known about her own parents. 

There is a strong feminist element. Sacred Waters opens with Sita as a child seeing her mother abandon her newborn daughter in the waters of the Yamuna because “She’s just a girl”. Subsequently, Sita gains strength and confidence as a soldier in the INA. The feminist element does not jar, however, for Chand is a master storyteller.  

A PhD in creative writing from the University of Western Australia and a board member of Singapore’s National Arts Council, Chand told India Se how she wrote Sacred Waters. Sitting on a sofa in her spacious study lined with tall bookshelves, the contents ranging from Lee Kuan Yew’s memoirs to John Fowles, EL Doctorow and the Bodley Head Henry James, an iMac on a desk in a far corner of the room, the author recalled the research that went into the book, why she wrote it and her life as a writer. Born and educated in London, where her Punjabi Indian father married her Swiss mother after going to study medicine in 1919, Chand studied art and married an Indian businessman. She lived for five years in India in the 1970s and for 35 years in Japan. In 1997 she came to Singapore and in 2011 became a Singapore citizen. Her cut-glass accent, however, remains utterly English. Soft-spoken, with an occasional smile, she spoke about her books, Singapore and India, and had tips for writers.

India Se: How did you come to write Sacred Waters?

Meira Chand: The book really began in my last novel, A Different Sky. There was a very thick strand through that book about the INA. But the novel became very large and I needed to edit it brutally. So I lifted out that whole strand. At that time, I had a lot of involvement with the University of Western Australia – I did a couple of residencies there. I was persuaded to take a PhD in late life there. I made the INA and specifically the Rani of Jhansi Regiment part of my thesis. It was a thesis in creative writing, which meant that I had to write a novel, but I also had to write an exegesis that examined the sources of the novel. The novel was the early version of the background story of Sacred Waters, of Sita and her life and her life in the INA. 

India Se: Which year was that, when you wrote the thesis? 

Meira Chand: Must be more than seven years ago. But then I discovered that to write a novel for academic purposes is very different from writing a novel for commercial publication. It simply was not adequate as a commercial novel. So I did a complete rewriting. I also put in a modern strand to give it more relevance to today’s young women.

India Se: What do you think of the position of women in Singapore and India? 

Meira Chand: I think that the women of Singapore are terrific. If you look at my last novel which was set in colonial times, I do have a character there who has bound feet. The women in Singapore still say that there are so many glass ceilings to break, but they have gone in perhaps three generations from bound feet to boardroom, which I think is incredible. Indian women, I think, have done very well, but of course India is a much larger, deeper society than we deal with here in Singapore. Although generally urban women in India are in a much better place than they were 50 years ago, you can still find rural women who are almost in the same position that Sita, my character, was in in her early life and childhood. So in parts of India time appears in some ways to have stood still.

India Se: How did you do the research for Sacred Waters?

Meira Chand: I interviewed several women who had been in the INA. I also did research the usual way – reading, going through archives, both in Singapore and India. The Oral History Department of the National Archives in Singapore has quite a big section on the INA, and this was very useful. Generally however, there is not a lot about the INA women, but much more about the men and the history of the INA. 

India Se: Where did you meet the women who were in the INA – in Singapore, Malaysia, or India?

Meira Chand: In Singapore, Malaysia, and also in India. But there was one problem. They were all in their mid-80s, and so their memory was not as sharp. One woman I interviewed three times. And the third time her memory was much less clear than the first time. 

India Se: How long did it take to research and write the book? 

Meira Chand: As I said, much of it was already written for the thesis. I suppose it must have taken at least four years. 

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