Saturday, June 17, 2017

Sugarbread by Balli Kaur Jaswal


Sugarbread is a tour de force by Balli Kaur Jaswal and I believe it's one of the better #SingLit novels out in the market today.

I first noticed it as it was among the bumper crop of books published by Epigram as part of their first Epigram Books Fiction Prize in 2016 but I didn't pay it much attention as I have a huge pile of books to be read.

When my friend Tania De Rozario praised it effusively on Twitter earlier this year, I decided I had to take a look at it.

And my, oh my, what a story it contains!

*Spoiler alert*

This novel is about a girl, Pin, and her relationship with her mother who pours her emotions into her cooking such that her daughter can taste how she felt at any one moment. It is set in 1990, and describes Singapore well. The writing is not nostalgic, but is an accurate snapshot of Singapore with a pungent wet market experience, coupled with life in the HDB heartlands.

The story takes an interesting turn as Pin's grandmother, ill and about to die, decides to spend her remaining days at her house. We see how that changes her mother who no longer cooks delicious meals but makes roti that the grandmother likes.

When she dies, the story unravels and we find out why Pin's mother suffered so.

~

I loved this book and the above summary does not do it justice.

Coming from the perspective of a minority of a minority in Singapore (Pin is a Sikh and they speak Punjabi as opposed to Tamil and are often mistaken to be of the same group when they are in fact, different), it is a refreshing yet familiar take on life in school.

I could relate to it very much as I have friends who are although intelligent and otherwise kind people, make racist jokes casually, like it was the most normal thing in the world. Pin experiences racism of the worst sort, bitter, vindictive, and sometimes she swallows the injustice, but eventually she one day explodes on her classmate Abigail who well deserved it.

I think this book provides an interesting insight into several things all at once, without it being clunky or pretentious. There is the concept of owning one's identity as Sikh and being part of a minority group and how one negotiates with that; of being a girl playing football amongst a group of boys and suffering for it; of being a daughter of a longsuffering mother; of a student in a Catholic school questioning her faith; and so much more.

I would encourage all to grab a copy of this book, whether from the library or the bookstore, and savour this marvellous Singaporean dish slowly. You'll enjoy it, trust me.