Author: Balli Kaur Jaswal
Sugarbread is the bitter-sweet tale of a girl growing up in Singapore in the 1990s. It gives us a glimpse into a Singapore far removed from the fab city-state it is today, to the yester-years of poverty, and the undercurrent of racial tension simmering in every walk of life.
The novel’s protagonist is ten-year old Pin, a little Sikh girl who attends a CHIJ convent school at Toa Payoh. Most of the novel is written from her point of view. She takes us through the alleyways of her life, which may feel oddly nostalgic to those who grew up in Singapore – from going to the wet markets in search of bargains, worshipping at the local Sikh temple and life at school.
Her mother, Jini, is one of the greatest mysteries in her life – right from how she cooked her food, her moods, and her strained relationship with her own family. Pin was aware that her mother had suffered some tragedy in her life. This was evident whenever they went to the temple and women there either gave sidelong glances or started talking in hushed tones on chancing upon them. Pin’s grandmother, Jini’s mother, was equally curt to her daughter, always nit-picking and siding with her daughter-in-law over petty issues.
Pin’s father is a relatively silent figure in their lives, trying to find the silver lining in every situation and generally playing peace-keeper in the household. Pin and her father take great pleasure in deciphering Jini’s moods through the food she cooks, which always took on a life of its own depending on how Jini felt each day. Jini also had a skin problem which she was extremely fearful of her daughter contracting, and her single enigmatic advice to her daughter was – ‘Don’t ever be like me’.
Inspite of being a bursary girl, Pin has a good school life, with a best friend who understood her, and lots of school and bus friends.
Pin’s life changes suddenly with the arrival of her grandmother to stay with her family, displacing her from her bed and room. Gone were the days of her mother’s cooking experiments; they were now reduced to dal-roti* at every meal because that was the only dish her grandmother would eat. There are vague innuendoes about her mother’s past scattered throughout the novel, and also flashbacks showing her mother’s teenage years in the 1970s.
The rest of the novel seeks to address the mystery of Jini’s life – why she became the way she was, and how that coloured her relationship with her only daughter.
I loved the book for being an honest voice about how parochial family could be, bowing down to society pressures and expectations, instead of being supportive of a family member in need. The book does not view Singaporean life with rosy-tinted glasses, and is a powerful voice in modern Singapore, that still grapples with some of the cultural issues described. I enjoyed the book and look forward to reading more of the author’s work.
*dal-roti = lentils and Indian bread