Wesley Leon Aroozoo. The Punkhawala and the Prostitute, Epigram, 2021. 352 pgs.
A finalist of Epigram Books Fiction Prize 2021, Wesley Leon Aroozoo’s The Punkhawala and the Prostitute tells the tale of two Asians—an Indian convict serving European masters as a punkhawala (a fan-wielding servant) and a Japanese girl sold into prostitution—whose paths converge in Singapore. The breadth of Aroozoo’s work is already impressive, from short stories to documentary films and travel writing. This book is proof he is equally adept in long-form fiction, and he continues to expand his repertoire, having recently branched out into live storytelling performances.
In fact, this book has probably been in the making for a while. On a trip to Singapore a few years ago when I met Wesley for the purpose of reviewing his previous book, I Want to Go Home / 帰りたい, he told me that his next writing project would involve the history of Japanese settlements in Singapore in the late 19th-century. This novel is the result.
The story begins with alternating sections on the punkhawala Gobind’s serving his underachieving and under-esteemed European master, who is in turn obsessed with hunting a mythic and fearful man-eating tiger called Rimau Satan, and the Japanese girl Oseki who is sold by her poor and corrupt father to Singapore as a prostitute, adopting the name Panjang instead. The latter is a well-documented practice called karayuki in Japan, where particularly in western Japan (such as Kyushu, where Oseki is from) poor families would sell their daughters off to pimps known as zegen to be shipped off to Japanese brothels in Southeast Asia. In the novel, Oseki is shipped off to Singapore after being sold to the pimp Muraoka, which is perhaps an allusion to the real historical zegen Muraoka Iheiji and whose story was made into the 1987 film Zegen by the Japanese director Imamura Shohei.
In this respect Aroozoo has clearly done solid research into a historical phenomenon. He deserves credit for juggling three worlds in one novel—Japan, India and Singapore in the late 19th century—and for painting vivid scenes that illustrate the two narrative arcs. Nor is it an easy feat to control the gradual convergence of the two characters. Descriptions of 19th-century Japan and Singapore are accurate. The only hiccup may be the words “what the hell”, uttered by a few characters in the novel; corpus suggests that the expression would not have been used that often in the late 1800s.
One of the key realisations while reading the novel is the role Singapore played as an enabler of cosmopolitan encounters between Asians from all over the region (as well as European colonialists). And each individual’s story is different. In this sense, 19th-century Singapore too can be seen as a “character” of sorts of the novel. This is perhaps why the novel receives a recommendation from Singaporean writer Suffian Hakim on the cover, saying that the novel “is the Singlit work I’ve been looking for”. Quintessential Singlit should be able to show Singapore as a place full of stories—stories about migrants from Asia and beyond congregating in the city. At the same time, a migrant’s experience away from home will always trigger troubled yearnings for home or an idealised past, and this is clearly expressed in Gobind’s internal soliloquy with his lover Renuka, or in Oseki’s imagined dialogue with her father. As Oseki settles more into the identity of Panjang, she also says “I feel distant from Oseki; I can barely remember who she is” (p. 274). While this can be read as a self-awareness of growth as she becomes more and more disillusioned at what her father has done to her, this is a particularly poignant statement for the reader.
There are two key techniques that Aroozoo uses to great effect. The first is the blending of flashbacks with the present moment without a clear distinction. Occasionally, this creates confusion in the narrative flow, but Aroozoo is deliberate in blurring the line between reality and hallucination, and this speaks to the messy nature of memory and trauma. Other good moments in the narrative are those that involve multiple perspectives. In literary stylistics, a “stretch” is a narrative where the time taken to read an episode exceeds the narrative time (the actions or chain of events in the episode). This creates an effect akin to watching a very brief scene, which would normally be over in the blink of an eye, in extreme slow motion. Aroozoo uses stretches often, so that a scene that may last only for seconds in action is narrated in so much detail and internal dialogue that it takes the reader minutes to read. Moreover, Aroozoo then pieces different stretches of time one after another, effectively narrating the same scene from different characters’ viewpoints. Thus, for the reading experience, the narrative sometimes rewinds to a slightly earlier moment to retell the same event with a different focus, creating a slightly different impression. The final scene when the two main characters meet is written in this way, and this brings a refreshing treatment to the concept of a novel’s climax.
The novel has a fascinating ending that I must not give away—it may be confusing at first, but soon the reader will realise what has happened and what the narrative is doing. And the creative closing will leave the reader with a long sigh, wondering what a beastly Singapore has done to helpless souls. This, too, is part of the reflection that a good work of Singlit should evoke.
How to cite: Tsang, Michael. “Quintessential Singlit? Wesley Leon Aroozoo’s The Punkhawala and the Prostitute.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 20 Sept. 2022, chajournal.blog/2022/09/20/quintessential-singlit.
Michael Tsang is a native of Hong Kong, and is Lecturer in Japanese Studies at Birkbeck College, University of London, with previous academic experiences in Newcastle University, the University of Warwick, and the Chinese University of Hong Kong. His interests lie in East Asian literatures and popular cultures, as well as postcolonial and world literatures at large. He is the co-editor of Murakami Haruki and Our Years of Pilgrimage (Routledge, 2021). He writes stories and poems in his spare time, and is always interested in languages, literatures and cultures. In April 2012, Michael joined Cha’s editorial team as Staff Reviewer. He is a founding co-editor of the academic journal, Hong Kong Studies (Chinese University Press). [Cha Profile]