A Different Sky

Synopsis

Singapore – a trading post where different lives jostle and mix. It is 1927 and three young people are starting to question whether this inbetween island can ever truly be their home. Mei Lan comes from a famous Chinese dynasty but yearns to free herself from its stifling traditions; Howard seethes at the indignities heaped on his fellow Eurasians by the colonial British; Raj, fresh off the boat from India, wants only to work hard and become a successful businessman. As the years pass, Singapore falls to the Japanese.  While suffering the agonies of occupation, the three are thrown together in unexpected ways, and tested to breaking point.

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A Different Sky

Beginning in Singapore’s first communist riot in 1927, and set against the years before the colony achieved full independence, the novel follows the lives of three families caught up in tumultuous times.  From a traditional Chinese world of female foot binding and submission, Mei Lan seeks to become a modern woman in a male orientated society.  Unable to fulfil ambitions to study abroad, Eurasian Howard is filled with anger against his colonial masters who ignore a man’s merit and hold him to his place, limiting hopes of betterment.

During the Japanese occupation Howard is forced to flee into the jungle, living with communist guerrillas.  In contrast Raj Sherma’s wheeling and dealing under the Japanese allows him to prosper while his sister, Leila, and her husband, Krishna, become infatuated by the charismatic Subash Chandra Bose and join the Indian National Army.  Once the war ends communism spreads its roots throughout South East Asia, and the urge for nationhood grips those countries in the region still under British rule.  Howard becomes enmeshed in the violent birthing of politics in a country that has previously known only British Rule.  Mei Lan, her life blighted by the effects of imprisonment and torture under the Japanese, become an iconic figure in the struggle for women’s rights.

Later the growing violence of post war Singapore, where history sits on the knife-edge of communism, sweeps up Mei Lan’s young teenage relative, Greta.  The explosive era of the 50’s, where workers strike daily and Chinese school children, full of revolutionary ideas, join in vicious communist backed riots, involves everyone.

Reviews

Chand proves herself a master of the modern Asian epic in this tale …she endows her characters with humanity and complexity, …grounding …their histories in solid research, and she offers a credible, compelling panorama of the tragedy and resilience, culture and individuality, political evolution, dissolution, and renaissance of 20th-century Singapore.

Publishers Weekly, starred review, September 2011

A sweeping novel … A Different Sky is a fully engaging experience. The protagonists are richly and deeply drawn, the sights, sounds, and smells of Singapore are gorgeously rendered, and the principal characters’ interwoven stories combine to form a compelling narrative… Chand’s extensive knowledge of Singapore’s eccentricities brilliantly colors the novel, adding an indelible layer of authenticity to the central stories… an emotionally satisfying and historically enlightening experience.

Booklist

…a panoramic page-turner…The epic sweep..[of]…this meticulously researched book is alive with engrossing detail…

The Guardian 2nd October 2010

…puts Singapore on the literary map.

Tatler

A Different Sky is historical fiction at its most complex and engaging…Chand balances the communist groupings, Japanese occupation and emerging nationalism with skill…As history A Different Sky is engrossing: as fiction, highly enjoyable.

Literary Review June 2010

…sweeping Singapore drama…an ambitious look at the effects of political upheaval upon a generation…an illuminating and interesting book.

Waterstone’s Books Quarterly Summer 2010

…[an] extraordinary book…I thoroughly recommend it.

Daily Mail 23rd July 2010

Excerpt

From Chapter One.

Singapore 1927

In the street the shouting grew louder and a metallic screech announced the arrival of another trolley drawing to a halt behind them.  Rose too now stood up and leaned out of the window for a better view, and saw a crowd of unruly Chinese thick in the road before her.  Men were converging on the trolley in a threatening manner waving banners on bamboo poles, craning their necks to peer in at the windows in a belligerent manner.  Heart pounding, Rose drew back in fear but noticed that the trolley had stopped opposite the Kreta Ayer police station.  Just the sight of that colonial building topped by a cupola and a weathercock, filled Rose with relief.  On its veranda Malay constables were already gathering to appraise the crowd, rifles at the ready.  Rose knew that inside the building there would be an English police inspector who would soon put an end to the chaos…

The shouting increased as demonstrators began to beat their poles against the sides of the trolley; the thwack of sticks vibrated against Rose’s knees.  At the Kreta Ayer crossroad traffic had stopped, carts, cars, rickshaw and bicycles all piled up together.  A Sikh policeman in turban, shorts and long black socks, gestured frantically to the trapped vehicles.  His hands were encased in large white gauntlets and white basket traffic wings were strapped to his back.  Standing in the middle of the crowded road, he resembled an incongruous angel but his efforts at order were futile.

‘What’s happening?’ Rose shouted in panic as the beating of sticks intensified upon the trolley; all about her frightened passengers echoed her terror.  Across the aisle an elderly Chinese in a boater hat, beige linen suit and a pair of spats over old scuffed shoes nervously stroked his watch chain.

‘Madame, I fear it is a Communist demonstration.  Today is the first anniversary of Sun Yat Sen’s death,’ the man explained in a courtly manner.  Although he spoke in well-enunciated English the words appeared squeezed from a pair of bellows, so bad was his asthmatic wheezing. Overhearing his explanation, a nun at the back of the trolley escorting two schoolgirls from the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, began to say a loud Hail Mary.

‘What they are wanting?  What is this Sun Yat Sen?’ an old Indian woman shouted, clutching a cloth bag of rice on her lap.

‘Sun Yat Sen is Founding Father of Chinese Republic,’ a young Indian dressed in a limp dhothi spoke up.  He sounded pleased with himself for offering this information but Rose regarded him disapprovingly.  His mouth was stained red with betel nut and she hoped he was not going to spit the stuff at her feet.  She judged him to be a clerk or a shopkeeper, and as such found his manner too forward.  The Chinese in the boater hat nodded confirmation.

‘They are coming from a celebratory gathering nearby and want the trolley buses to stop until the procession has passed.  Such behaviour does not make them popular, but they will loose face if the trolley proceeds before them.’

‘What are Communists?  What do they want?’ Howard pulled at his mother’s sleeve.  His anger had turned to excitement as he sensed the danger of the situation.  Someone might get shot, blood would be shed and he could tell about it at school.

‘They are hooligans and gangsters, that’s what they are.  They want to destroy our way of life,’ Rose answered angrily.  She feared they could be stuck here for hours and looked anxiously across at the police station where the weathercock gleamed in the sun.  Sikh constables with long rifles had now joined the Malay policemen on the steps.

‘What are they shouting?’ Howard asked fractiously.

‘They are shouting, Down with Imperialism,’ the man in the boater hat told him.

‘What is Imperialism?’ Howard frowned observing the protruding mole on the man’s chin from which sprouted several long hairs.

‘Colonial Rule; the rule of the White Man over Asiatics,’ the Chinese explained in a matter of fact way, smiling all the while.