Spotlight on Singapore at Hyderabad literature festival

THOUGH Hyderabad is famous for its biryani and pearls, it recently had a "taste" of Singapore - a brush with the island nation's art and literature.

The richness and diversity of Singapore's literature and culture was on show at the Hyderabad Literature Festival (HLF) 2016 from Jan 7 to 10 where Singapore was featured as the "Guest Nation".

Mr Roy Kho, Singapore's consul-general in Chennai, was a guest of honour at the inauguration of HLF 2016, and six writers and nearly as many artistes presented their work at the festival in readings, panel discussions, workshops and cultural events.

"Although Singapore didn't have a literary scene until recently, people are getting more interested in literature, poetry and other works of art. There are many libraries and theatres that have opened up and creative writing is taught at many universities now.

Also, being a nation that embraces four different languages - English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil - there is scope for building a diverse literary heritage," said Singapore-based poet Yong Shu Hoong, winner of the Singapore Literature Prize in 2006.

Along with Yong, writers Rosemarie Somaiah and Rama Kannabiran also hit the local headlines with their deep observations on the growth of art and culture in Singapore.

I also had the honour of being invited as a speaker at the event.

I spoke on poet Allama Iqbal, along with London-based writer and editor Marion Molteno who spoke on Mirza Ghalib. Iqbal and Ghalib are the best-known Urdu poets in the 20th century and have millions of fans across the world.

I also moderated a session with three very famous personalities: Human rights lawyer Flavia Agnes, novelist Tabish Khair, and artist and writer Esther David.

The discussion was on a very delicate but relevant topic - Minding the Minority.

While the topic was serious, the speakers managed to keep the audience in splits with their sense of humour and personal stories that obliquely highlighted the plight of minorities in India as well as the West, where new forms of xenophobia are taking shape.

But clearly the star of the festival was novelist Nayantara Sahgal, who spoke fearlessly about the rising tide of intolerance in India and the "Award Wapsi" movement by Indian writers.

"Award Wapsi was a necessary politicisation of the awards," she said.

"It became more than a fight for freedom of speech, it is for the fight for freedom itself. The fight is very much on."

Trip down memory lane

Sometime back, I was handed this curious memoir, In My Own Words (below), written by one of Singapore's most successful businessmen and philanthropist, Shaikh Hatim F. Nakhoda, whose family legacy is F.M. Noordin & Co, one of the most successful trading companies in Singapore.

This beautifully-printed book, full of sepia-tinted photos, takes you down the memory lane of a Gujarati business family that called Singapore its home.

Dedicating the book to the future generations of his family, Nakhoda relates his life experiences as the son of a merchant who settled in Singapore in the 1890s.

Coming from a family of Gujarati traders from the town of Surat in India, pioneer Fidahusein M. Nakhoda overcame all odds, including internal strife, to build a business that has endured for well over a century.

The book's foreword is by the sixth president of Singapore S.R. Nathan.

"It is as much a book on his family history as it is the story of Dawoodi Bohras. Merchants by tradition, many of them left Surat in the 1850s to seek their fortunes in trade and commerce in South-east Asia," writes Mr Nathan in his foreword.

"Hatim Nakhoda's memoir is a fascinating read. It gives me a better understanding of his people, their unique culture and philosophy of life."

Born in 1924 in the Singapore General Hospital in Sepoy Lines, Nakhoda has lived a life of excitement and achievement.

A devout Muslim and an active Freemason, he is proud to have written a paper on the compatibility of Islam and Masonry. Now even Dan Brown would love that combination in a Singaporean businessman!

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