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Inheritance:
A New Novel by Balli Kaur Jaswal

Book Review by ED WRIGHT

 

 

 

INHERITANCE, by Balli Kaur Jaswal. Hardie Grant Books, 2013, pp 300. ISBN # 1742705472, 9781742705477.

 

The novel traces the fortunes of a Sikh family whose father, Harbeer, migrates to Singapore from the Punjab at the end of the British era. The family comes of age as the small nation-state develops into the economic powerhouse it is today, yet the trajectory of these fortunes is at odds.

Harbeer is a policeman, but his family is a source of constant embarrassment to his career and standing in the Sikh community.

Harbeer's wife, having provided two sons, dies while giving birth to a daughter. Harbeer is left to rear the three children, as well as a nephew, Karam. What follows is a beautifully woven tale of conservatism and aberration, and of the shame and misunderstanding that blossoms in the interstices.

Harbeer is contemptuous of his oldest son, Gurdev, who has underachieved, even though he has fulfilled his filial duty of getting married, having children and holding down a job. He favours the big-talking hyper-ambitious Karam, who seems bound for success in Singapore's notoriously competitive education sector.

The other two, son Narain and daughter Amrit Kaur, are the source of many paternal nightmares. Having been kicked out of Singapore's national service for "unnatural acts", Narain is sent to the US to study and straighten himself out away from the notoriously gossipy Sikh community. His story, which involves dodging the Sikh expectation of marriage, is reminiscent of other coming-out tales set in South Asia's sexually conservative societies, Sri Lankan-Canadian author Shyam Selvadurai's Colombo-set novel Funny Boy for one. As for Amrit, she is completely wild, but the reasons for this are horribly misunderstood.

Inheritance spans the period during which Singapore went from an outpost of the British Empire renowned for its licentiousness to a well-ordered if socially constrictive island state. There's no doubt Singapore's leaders have been able to conjure something out of nearly nothing, but Inheritance, with its interest in deviance, questions the cost of this and indeed whether such well-controlled subjectivity is even possible.

For instance Harbeer is an upstanding policeman who frets over his family's reputation in the Sikh community, but he is also burdened by hallucinations of his dead wife's presence in their house. It's unclear at times what is more repressive: the traditions and superstitions of his community, prone to moralising medical conditions as moral weakness, or the hyper-competitive Confucian-derived ethos of Singaporean society.

Jaswal's prose is pellucid and evocative. It drops the reader easily into the mind of her characters and their dilemmas and captures wonderfully the paradox of order in the tropics. Having lived in Singapore, Jaswal also offers a nuanced vision of Singaporean society and the workings of the Sikh diaspora within it. Inheritance builds its world simultaneously with anthropological awareness and intimacy.

It's a novel you leave knowing more about the world and is highly recommended.

 

BALLI KAUR JASWAL
Balli Kaur Jaswal grew up in Singapore, Japan, Russia and the Philippines. She attended university in the United States and in Australia. In 2007, she won the David TK Wong Fellowship at the University of East Anglia, where she wrote Inheritance, her first novel.

 

[Ed Wright is a Newcastle-based author, poet and musician.]

[Courtesy: The Australian. Edited for sikhchic.com]
March 30, 2013

Conversation about this article

1: Jini freedman (New York, USA ), April 01, 2013, 9:48 PM.

I just finished reading this. A beautiful and slow burning tale of a family breaking down while their country is building itself up. I highly recommend it to members of any immigrant community. You will recognize yourself in these characters.

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