what? 'Behind a Cultural Cage' with Dr Pranav S Joshi when? 24 October 09
by Judy Goh
Every one of us is trapped in ‘life cages’ shaped by societal forces and cultural perceptions, which form perceived human limits. Who we are is often defined by structures we are unable to alter: race, nationality, gender among others. We must learn to unlock these cages to push the boundaries and create our own identity.
You might be wondering which great philosopher came up with this exceptionally complicated theory of ‘life cages’, but be heartened to know that it is none other than Dr Pranav Joshi, an environmental professional whose calling transcends scientific nature of his job scope. True to his own advice, he has added a new dimension to his identity as a Mumbai-born scientist and Singapore-based poet and writer. He set out to approach the cross-cultural issue in multi-racial Singapore by self-publishing his novel, Behind a Cultural Cage, about a Chinese-Bengali (or Chindian) man named Kenneth Lai whose upbringing has left him perplexed about his identity in which he is seen as having an “Indian mind” in his Chinese body.
Behind a Cultural Cage is certainly a far cry from scientific research papers that one would expect from a PhD holder like Dr Joshi. Having slaved over this brainchild of fiction every night for 3 years before its publication, he proudly shared his experiences and inspirations that led to the birth of this book in an Experience Singapore Literature talk at the National Library on 24th October.
The protagonist, Kenneth Lai, is the last child to be born in a large Chinese family in Kolkata, India, in the early twentieth century. His mother died of childbirth fever soon after, leading to a sense of rejection and isolation from his siblings, who believed Kenneth, the 13th child, to have condemned their family and killed their mother. As a result of his premature birth, Kenneth was scarred both emotionally and physically by medication that caused his skin pigmentation to darken. Coupled with less-than-aesthetically-pleasing facial features, Kenneth had a hard time in his childhood, preferring to mix with Indian boys and his pet rabbit rather than the Hakka community in his neighbourhood.
Kenneth later went on to enroll at the National University of Singapore, after a chance encounter with a Singaporean lecturer who motivated him to study hard. However, it was not without determination and many setbacks that he managed to secure a place at the distinguished NUS and later on, his job as an Interaction Officer at Life Cage International with founder Dr Deep and his revolutionary ideas about ‘life cages’. The intricately-woven story of this Chindian man is not without secondary characters like the mysterious Dr Deep with a hidden past. To find out more, pick up a copy of Behind a Cultural Cage at any library!
In many ways, Behind a Cultural Cage is a commentary on Singaporean society and the stereotypes entrenched in society, and also a tale of one man’s journey to achieve self-actualization in an increasingly plural world where globalisation has not only created a homogenous culture but also emphasized the differences by which we define ourselves (the latter phenomenon is known as glocalisation, the former is grobalisation). For example, many of Kenneth’s peers did not have his problems as their ethnic roots coincided with their upbringing. They were Indian, simply because they were not Chinese, not Jewish, not Muslim.
While the story centers heavily on the rather sensitive theme of race, Dr Joshi asserts that he attempted to write it in a neutral tone to avoid offending others, as within the boundaries of discussions on race defined by OB markers in Singapore. Stereotypes are inevitable, as Kenneth finds himself being asked for his race (Chinese or Indian) at job interviews because of his skin tone.
There are many philosophical theories on identity, but I’d like to share one of my favourite theories – George Mead’s Imagining of Self. Mead suggests that each of us imagine our self-professed identity using symbols that are related to who we aspire to be. Kenneth, for example, realises that his Chindian heart is hyphenated. ‘-’ is hence the symbol he identifies with.
Dr Joshi is certainly here to stay in the Singapore literary scene, with two more books scheduled for release soon. Both also deal with cross-cultural issues, so do look out for them as well!Judy is a second-year student at the Victoria Integrated Programme. As an aspiring writer and avid reader, she enjoys events organised by the National Library and discovered BookCrossing last year. She also occasionally contributes articles, interviews and reviews to the monthly publication What’s Up, a local students’ newspaper. Read her past review of Felix Cheong’s programme “Finding New Villains in Tween Novels” here.