Although there is a huge amount of fiction covering the Indian diaspora, it is more usually set in Western countries, including Australia, than in Malaya, as it was, and Singapore. In Kopi, Puffs & Dreams, a finalist for the Epigram Books Fiction Prize, Pallavi Gopinath Aney explores the experience of Indian immigrants to Singapore in the early 20th century. Aney’s subject matter will be new to many, her novel interesting as a record of Indian experience to the east of India.
Her plot revolves around two boys from different social classes, who both leave India under a cloud. Middle-class Puthu is sent away by his parents after they learn he’s been carrying on a relationship with homosexual overtones. Although he’s unsure of his own sexuality, his parents insist that before he leaves he become engaged to Gayathri. Meanwhile, Krishnan, who has been caught stealing rice, flees not only the fallout from that, but also the stigma of a chaotic family—his mother having become a drunk, after his father abandoned his marital and paternal responsibilities.
Puthu and Krishnan become friends on the voyage from India to Malaya. On arrival, they become indentured laborers on a failing rubber plantation. Puthu quickly gets pulled from agricultural work to become the right-hand man of the rubber planter and his wife, Mr Oliver and Justine. Krishnan is an excellent cook and Puthu ensures his friend is soon employed in the kitchen.
Mr Oliver’s and Justine’s house burns down in mysterious circumstances, and Puthu and Krishnan move to Singapore where they lodge with the Pillai family. Krishnan falls in love with Pushpa, the daughter of the house. Puthu and Krishnan establish a restaurant business and are quickly successful.
In the teeth of Mr and Mrs Pillai’s anticipated opposition, Krishnan marries Pushpa in a secret ceremony arranged by Puthu. Years later, Gayathri comes from India to marry Puthu. The stage is now set for adultery, the main thrust of the plot.
The author is sympathetic to immigrants’ dreams. Thiruvar, the Indian supervisor on the rubber plantation is a bully, but his bullying is set in context. He’s building a house back home:
That was the labourer’s dream. To build a home for ageing parents or a wife who had stayed behind. So what if their son or husband wasn’t with them, these houses said, they had those who sacrificed their own interests to grow the family’s wealth.
Settings are well-evoked, particularly Singapore, the dominant setting. The confusion of new arrivals is deftly captured. Here is Krishnan thinking about his new home:
Puthu had described it as a place filled with opportunity and energy. A city of wealth and colour and many races. It certainly had colour. But it also stank and was loud and crowded … Singapore made him claustrophobic. Shopfronts jostled with houses; the streets were narrow and full of people, motor cars, animals, carts. It felt like the city might have grown busier over a period of time and the streets had shrunk in response.
Epigram Books Fiction Prize was founded to promote contemporary creative writing in Singapore and Southeast Asia. It is awarded annually to an unpublished manuscript and as well as a monetary component the prize includes publication.
Aney’s language is interesting. She uses many Indian, Anglo-Indian or colonial terms which were new to me, and which I enjoyed looking up: an almirah is a cupboard or wardrobe, from the Portuguese almario, with the same root as the French armoire; in Kerala, tharavad is the word for an upper-class ancestral communal home; a kenajeevaram is a special-occasion silk saree.
While the plot can at times seem a little contrived, as when Justine reappears towards the end and becomes a governess to Puthu and Gayathri’s children, the novel is throughout well-paced.
Puthu and Krishnan are clearly drawn and distinctive, although Aney herself seems to take sides, throughout favoring Krishnan, and, to a lesser extent, Gayathri. The partisanship towards Krishnan is perhaps indicated by the author’s choice of his name, since the connotations of the name Krishnan do seem to include that its bearers are lucky and successful, but I found myself rebelling against the author’s preferences, and bestowing my own sympathy on Mr and Mrs Pillai, and Pushpa.
Mr and Mrs Pillai welcome Puthu and Krishnan as lodgers, but after Krishnan has clandestinely married Pushpa, little attention is paid to how they’d have perceived the romance, and the anguish their daughter’s marriage evidently caused them. Mr Pillai becomes embroiled in Puthu and Krishnan’s business; when that involvement unravels and bankrupts him, he is presented as being entirely in the wrong and though he is bankrupted and receives little sympathy from his creator.
Poor Pushpa’s feelings are similarly almost completely ignored. She is a clever, but spoiled girl who marries young, then finds her loyalties split between her husband and her parents. Faithless Krishnan, perhaps repeating a pattern set by his father, treats her with increasing disdain. But rather than showing any sympathy for the plight of a betrayed wife, Aney piles on the indignities: Pushpa is childless; Pushpa eats to excess for comfort and becomes morbidly obese; Pushpa is smelly; Pushpa conveniently dies.
But if the Pillais and Pushpa perhaps get a raw deal, this is nonetheless an absorbing novel which will keep you guessing until the end when, inevitably, the adultery is discovered.