Review of Sugarbread by Balli Kaur Jaswal (Singapore: Epigram Books, 2015)
by Caroline Chang
Sugarbread is Balli Kaur Jaswal’s second novel to be published, but it was written first. It captures, above all, the voice of a young girl recognizing and learning to negotiate life’s complexities. As Jaswal’s protagonist, Pin, observes her family members and classmates, her fellow members of Singapore’s Sikh community, and the residents of her city more broadly, she begins to see the contradictions and injustices inherent in the world around her. Pin does not resolve the complex problems she perceives; she is a child, and Jaswal convincingly and sensitively examines the way a child begins to see the world for what it is. Pin may very well grow up to become a teacher, an activist, or an agent for change, but the novel’s success lies in its wise restraint. Jaswal avoids the simplicity of a neat, didactic story by letting Pin remain a child and inviting readers to make whatever use they see fit of the novel’s portrait of Singaporean society.
Among the most successful passages in the novel are Pin’s honest, frank meditations on God and religion. As she describes the daily morning assembly at her school, Pin explains that the teachers have “urged” girls who “[aren’t] Christian” to “pray to [their] own god” while the daily Christian prayers are recited. Pin goes on to explain that
[she] knew it was useless praying to [her] own God because He would not be at the First Christian Girls’ School. He would not even listen to [her] unless [she] had [her] head covered and [she] was sitting on the carpeted floor of the temple listening to the drone of Punjabi prayers. He did not understand English, which was the only language [they] were allowed to speak at school. It was the language of [her] thoughts once [she] left [her family’s] flat every morning and stepped onto the school bus.
Pin’s voice is convincingly that of a child: she takes the traditions and rules of her own religion seriously and literally, assuming that a prayer without the proper attire, offered outside the temple, would be inadmissible, rejected by a God who decides in real time which prayers to attend to. Her compartmentalization of English and Punjabi also captures a childlike desire to apply order and predictability to the world: we speak English at school, Punjabi at home and at the temple. Pin recognizes, however, the challenge of embracing religious activities—even well intentioned, allegedly inclusive or pluralistic opportunities for prayer—in a diverse society. Pin knows that the teachers’ suggestion that she simply “pray to [her] own god” is not really so simple. She has also experienced firsthand the challenge of managing two languages on a daily basis: not only must she negotiate the logistics of what gets spoken where, but she must face the impossible task of relegating aspects of her identity—like her relationship with God—to school only or to home only.
What Pin does not explicitly recognize, but what is evident in her observations, is a hierarchy of languages rooted in colonial history: more than a neutral lingua franca for classroom instruction, English is the only language “allowed” at school. Pin, who spends much of her time at school, thinks in English as soon as she leaves home each day; she is becoming more and more comfortable with the language demanded by her school—indeed, by the institutions and other loci of power the school is preparing its students to engage with—at the expense of comfort with and fluency in her mother tongue.
Jaswal admirably manages not only to critique the ongoing Anglo-centric cultural and linguistic homogenization suggested by Pin’s experience, but also to point out the limitations of rigid, literal religious dogma. Pin’s understanding of God as a person with whom she can communicate in spoken, linear language—and only in that way—is charming, and is certainly inherited or learned from adults in her faith community. Because it represents a child’s perspective, the reader is free to recognize and acknowledge the lack of sophistication and near-absurdity of such a simple understanding. While religious faith has the capacity—given the abstract nature of “God” and the very premise of “faith” as transcending logic or evidence—to be flexible and to offer strength, guidance, or respite in any situation, a rigid understanding like Pin’s yields a missed opportunity: her faith is rendered “useless” at school. Through Pin, Jaswal illustrates how counterproductive strict dogma can be.
Sugarbread begins and ends with Pin. Sections of the novel, however, tell the story of Pin’s mother, Jini, as a child and adolescent. Overall, the alternating sections are effective, enriching the narrative without complicating it unnecessarily. Jaswal’s decision to narrate Jini’s story in the third person and the present tense prevents a potentially distracting confusion about which narrating character is which; the reader never thinks the Jini sections are narrated by Pin, and cannot forget even for a moment that the story is Jini’s. Furthermore, Jaswal avoids presenting the Jini sections as a quoted story told by Jini to Pin. The third person narrative eliminates the possibility of an edited or otherwise modified version of Jini’s life story, as she might present intentionally or unintentionally to her daughter. The narrative reads instead as a complete account of her experiences, made even more immersive and immediate by the present tense.
The novel’s weaknesses do not outweigh its successes, but they are not insignificant enough to ignore. While Pin and Jini are richly developed characters, others—Pin’s father, grandmother, and neighborhood playmate, to name a few—remained fairly flat, even if useful for the plot or for prompting Pin’s reflections on particular topics. Jaswal did not take advantage of the opportunity to develop those characters beyond their primary functions, even though she is certainly capable of creating convincing, complex supporting characters, as she did with Pin’s schoolmate Farizah. In addition, by about halfway through the novel, the plot becomes predictable; to avoid spoiling the plot, suffice it to say that a major climax of the Jini narrative is not a surprise but rather a relief, in a way: an attentive reader sees it coming and is waiting for it to happen. Given the nature of this climax, it should not feel like a relief, nor should its surprising nature—as it occurs to Jini—be compromised. This particular climax would be far more effective if the reader were to experience the same surprise as the character, even if the reader can recognize predictive indications in retrospect.
Occasionally, but frequently enough to notice, Jaswal explains culturally-specific vocabulary or Sikh beliefs and practices. While the information is useful, the explanations are jarring: they are not believably part of Pin’s narrative or part of the dialogue between characters. The explanations are also not necessary, as the reader can infer the meaning based on context or look up words and basic facts about Sikhism as needed. For instance, Pin relates that
one afternoon after school, [she] went to Ma’s room and got a gutka, a Sikh prayer book, from her dresser drawer. [Ma] had three of them, and each one was wrapped in a handkerchief. The oldest one had a tattered cover and pages that spilt out the minute [Pin] tried to turn them.
For Pin, a gutka is not an item that needs explanation. It is not a word she would stop and define unless she were to take on the project of explaining her religion and culture, item by item, to a stranger. The reader may be a stranger, yes, but in general Pin does not take that tone. Interjecting a definition, as happens here with the gutka, disrupts the continuity of Pin’s convincing narrative voice. Given the other details in the passage—that the object can fit in a “dresser drawer” and be “wrapped in a handkerchief,” and that it has a “cover” and “pages”—it is apparent that a gutka is a book. Pin goes on to describe how, after opening the gutka, she saw that “the prayers were all written in Punjabi script.” The book is, evidently, a prayer book. The definition is unnecessary. In one of the Jini sections, Jini’s mother exclaims that “Sikhs do not drink and smoke!” when her husband suggests that he enjoys drinking after a hard day of work. This exclamation is not a convincing piece of dialogue: both characters are Sikhs and know this rule. Jaswal would have done well to make even a slight adjustment, so that Jini’s mother spoke about “we” rather than “Sikhs,” or to have avoided the informative statement altogether, letting the character express her disapproval rather than state a fact familiar to all parties involved. A perceptive reader could infer the unacceptability of drinking based on the disapproval. Again, these weaknesses do not outweigh the novel’s strengths; the criticism is born of a belief in the fundamental success of the novel and in Jaswal’s capability, generally, as is evident in the novel’s strengths, to write something that is not didactic and pat, and to create a convincing narrative voice.
Finally, I understand that, in Singapore, Pin’s voice is a minority voice. That said, as a person born and raised in the United States—even in New York City, where people of many nationalities, religions, and ethnicities reside—I am aware that I do not understand the complete context for Pin’s story: the cultural, religious, and racial dynamics implied in the narrative are different from the cultural, religious, and racial dynamics at play in my own city and nation. I am less familiar with Sikhism, regrettably, than I ought to be, and than I likely would be if I lived in a place like Singapore where a larger, even if still minority, Sikh population lives.
Even as I acknowledge that I cannot assess the accuracy, so to speak, of Jaswal’s portrait of Singaporean society, I do not intend to relegate Sugarbread to a “Singaporean literature” category or to imply that it is relevant only to people who are familiar with Singapore’s history and culture. I can learn from a text whose geographical or cultural specifics aren’t immediately familiar to me. More importantly, in the novel I recognize conflicts, desires, challenges, and moments of beauty and wisdom that transcend a particular place—all a great credit to Jaswal and evidence of the novel’s staying power.
Caroline Chang lives in New York City, where she teaches English at an independent school. She is currently pursuing graduate study at the Middlebury Bread Loaf School of English.