Written by Samuel Lee
Dated 4 Nov 2015

Chandran Nair attributes his father, Malayam writer V.R. Gopala Pillai, as an early influence on his decision to pick up literary writing. Besides the exposure to his father’s own writing and wide circle of literary friends, Nair was also active in theatre and the literary arts in secondary school and university. His first experiments with poetry were published in school magazine The Rafflesian in 1963, and he also worked extensively with the theatre practices in both his secondary school and university. In 1972, for example, he directed a staging of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, which had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature four years prior. It was during this extended period of deep involvement with the literary arts that he wrote the poems that would later comprise his first collection, Once the Horsemen and Other Poems (University Education Press, 1972). In response to positive reviews of the first collection, and after his win at the New Nation Singapore Short Story Writing Contest in 1973, he published his second poetry collection After the hard hours, this rain (Woodrose Publications, 1975). In the same year, he worked with Malcolm Koh Ho Ping to translate Poems and Lyrics of the last Lord Lee (Woodrose Publications, 1975), a volume of poetry written the last Emperor of the Southern Tang dynasty. At the same time he was also the founding President of the Society of Singapore Writers, a position he held for a decade before leaving for Karachi in 1981.

Like fellow poet Arthur Yap, Nair also developed a parallel interest in painting—a mode of artistic expression that seemed to, at least in the most recent years, overtake his interest in writing and theatre. In Karachi, he took up painting in addition to stage directing and poetry-writing, but admitted, in his preface to his collected poems reaching for stones (Ethos Books, 2010), that in retrospect the demands of settling himself (and indeed his wife and children) into the radically different cultural and linguistic landscape of Paris had “mechanically reduced the impetus to create”. In spite of this, his writing has been anthologised widely in publications such as Calling of the Kindred (Cambridge University Press, 1993), Idea to Ideal (Firstfruits, 2004), &Words: Poems Singapore and Beyond (Ethos, 2010).

Nair has often been regarded as a product of the then-newly independent Singapore. Specifically, that his coming-of-age as a young man and a writer had coincided with merger and separation between Singapore and Malaysia in the 1960s seems to be the unshakeable historical fact that frames his writing not only as ‘postcolonial,’ but as a reflection of the political mood of the period. Edwin Thumboo, in his introduction to reaching for stones, observes that literary writing, especially that produced by undergraduates in the universities, was driven by pressing questions of race, religion and ultimately nationalism. For Thumboo, the narrative of Nair’s development as a writer can be explicated in similar cultural terms: having grown up in a Chinese-dominated neighbourhood, he “thought lowly of India” at one point, but received his “first major corrective” during a visit to India in 1963 to resolve a dispute involving a tract of land owned by his family. It was, Thumboo explains, after meeting his extended relatives that he wrote “grandfather,” which in imagery and in tone attempts to register an attitude towards a spirituality rescued from superstition:

gods bothered him,
but temples missed his sacrifice.
he found truth, relief, away from divinity,
spacing out years in padi fields,
unfolding particular nuances, lack of attainment

Similarly, in “hindu cremation,” a poem from the same collection, the speaker detaches himself from ritual and tradition if only to re-inscribe the transcendent universality of life and death into a moment of grieving. While the self-anthropologising eye lists each stage of the cremation—“the pot is broken [ . . . ] flames leap the sandalwood pyre [ . . . ] and your body laid without ceremony”—a parallel impulse to re-capitulate the universality of grief, which transcends cultural particularity, co-opts the reader into its meditation on humanity:

we see death each day, die in turn,
some buried by priests, others burn.

While one might bristle at the heavy-handedness of its meter and rhyme, it is possible to consider Nair’s early poems as an important ground for the development of his poetics, specifically, one that is preoccupied with the idea of ‘residue’—an excess that marks itself in the sonics and imagery within poetic language, and which presents itself in painting as the visual traces of perception and subjectivity. The images in “for laura,” also from Nair’s first collection, suggest that the excesses of memory have to be remanded as language; only then can experience be interrogated, even if in vain:

and the hair that you cut
which the wind will now miss
and the wine in your smile
which the rain will not wash,
what of them?

In later work, such as “rising above being broken by stones” (included in reaching for stones), the crystallisation of these ideas is apparent. The speaker declares that “[i]t is imagery that hunts us down / in this changing landscape,” at once gesturing towards the notion of visuality as not only a record of experience but also proof of the possibility of immutability. Ephemera—the erosion of rocks and of the heart, “the northwind, the southwind, the eastwind”—leave behind the possibility that “one is haunted by their imagery, never the reality.” The final observation, that “when the vegetation / has finally dried, blown away / we lust for the image of lovers” suggests that the visuality of poetry exists, at the end of the day, as both proof and remainder of language, and works in a central way to weave together experience, memory and language. Likewise, in “a japanese sage speaks”:

after loss there came wisdom
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

wise you did not shout into action
but wrote poems

What we are left with is the impression that Nair’s poetry is not simply an attempt to represent physical landscapes—postcard-like dispatches from Singapore, Karachi and Paris that might seem redolent of travel literature—but is instead a record of emotional geographies, rendered as traces in language. Having written a poem titled “grandfather,” Nair inverts the roles of speaker and poetic subject in the later “poem for granddaughter (for menna),” but the anxieties of cultural inheritance are reworked, instead, as the beginning of wisdom. Just as experience leaves behind its visual traces in poetry as with painting, the Malayam and Cantonese terms of endearment that pepper the poem are not merely ways of signposting multiculturalism, but function as the residue of decades of transcultural, trans-boundary work.

Works cited

Nair, Chandran. After the hard hours, this rain. Singapore: Woodrose Publications, 1975.

—. “Chandran Nair.” Personal Web Page. Web.

—. Once the Horsemen and Other Poems. Singapore: University Education Press, 1972.

—. reaching for stones: collected poems (1963–2009). Singapore: Ethos Books, 2010.

Thumboo, Edwin. “Introduction.” reaching for stones. By Chandran Nair. Singapore: Ethos Books, 2010. 12-22.