As a young man working in a Penang kittanggi, Chellaia fancies his boss’s daughter. When his life as a moneylender is disrupted by the Japanese Occupation of Malaya, he, like many of his peers, joins the Indian National Army (INA).
After the army disbands, Lieutenant Chellaia makes his way back to Penang and waits to see what the return of the British will bring. He and his fellow soldiers remain close friends, looking out for each other.
Chellaia is eager to rebuild his life but as the war has changed him, he finds it difficult to adjust to his old job. Worse still, he is no longer deemed a suitable match for the woman he had hoped to marry.
“You have before you the one great Tamil novel of Penang.”
– Sunil S. Amirth, Chair, Department of South Asian Studies, Harvard University
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About the author
P. Singaram (1927–1997) is considered one of the foremost Tamil novelists of the modern period, despite having authored only two novels, both set in Southeast Asia, where he spent many years as a young man. His novels are set in Medan in Indonesia and Penang in Malaysia.
Born in 1920 in the Sivagangai district in Tamil Nadu, P. Singaram’s family was involved in the textile business. He went to Singampunari Primary School, and then to St. Mary’s Higher Secondary School in Madurai. In 1938, at the age of 18, he moved to Medan in Sumatra, Indonesia, to work. A few years into his marriage there, both his wife and baby died.
Japanese troops invaded Malaya in December 1941 and Sumatra in early 1942, thus beginning a period of military occupation. While living in Medan, Singaram visited the nearby port of Penang often, where he found solace in the Penang Library. This is where he read Hemingway, Tolstoy, Faulkner, Chekov and Dostoyevsky. He believed A Farewell to Arms to be an important milestone in American literature and rated Anna Karenina higher than War and Peace.
After the war, Singaram returned to India in 1946 and lived in Madurai. He wrote his first novel Kadalukku Appaal (Beyond the Sea) in 1950, and his second novel Puyalile Oru Thoni (A Boat in a Storm) in 1962. He faced many difficulties in finding publishers for his work, and the novels remained unpublished till 1972. Singaram planned to return to Medan, but he ended up working at Dinathandhi newspaper until his retirement in 1987. He gave away his earnings to social welfare trusts just before he died in December 1997. Singaram’s adherence to the very essence of his roots impressed influential Tamil writers such as Ramakrishnan, Konangi and many others.
About the translator
Dr Ranggasamy Karthigesu (1940–2016) was a former professor of Mass Communication at the University of Science Malaysia, where he taught broadcasting and journalism. Before venturing into academia, he was a well-known broadcaster with an illustrious career with Radio Television Malaysia (RTM).
After retiring, he dedicated his time to Tamil literary writing. An award-winning author, he wrote five novels, five short story anthologies and two collections of literary essays in Tamil. Karthigesu held a B.A. degree in Indian Studies (Malaya), Master of Science in Journalism (Columbia) and a Ph.D. in Mass Communication (Leicester).
A short piece on Dr Karthigesu published in a widely circulating Canadian Tamil Weekly newspaper: