All In Good Time
Krishna Udayasankar, 3, 2015, Ethos Books
Throughout the city’s history, the story of Singapura’s founding by a 13th Century prince, Sang Nila Utama – famously related in the Sejarah Melayu, and reproduced in independent Singapore’s national celebrations – has proven fertile ground for retelling and reinvention. Latest in this tradition, and more successful than most, is Krishna Udayasankar’s new novel, 3, which sets out to tell a more courageous and cosmopolitan version of these familiar events through the eyes of their chief protagonist.
Udayasankar reimagines maritime Southeast Asia in the last days of the Srivijaya Empire, where Nila’s father, who has already married off two daughters to the Chinese Emperor and his Ambassador, must relinquish control of the dynasty’s crown jewel, Palembang, to his new relations. Driven by a conviction that ‘the seas are what matter’ for the family’s survival, the emperor forges yet more marriage alliances that allow him to retain his navy, until finally Nila is the only child left. Then the beautiful princess of Bintan requests Srivijaya’s assistance against a band of pirates, and Nila is smitten. The young heir – who claims that he ‘does not know what it means to be king’ – must choose between inheriting the Srivijaya crown (and marrying her as the new emperor), or resigning himself (as his sisters have) to be prince of Bintan, without his own throne or title.
All this – from the Srivijaya fleet’s royal symbols to the tenor of its court intrigues – is meticulously researched, and Udayasankar makes good on both the book’s premise and promise with an academic’s care. Even if she occasionally asks too much of her readers (anyone unfamiliar with the region’s early geopolitics might find themselves referring, at the end of each brief section, to the map and genealogy at the front of the book), the sheer relatability of her main characters makes it easy to live vicariously through them. As the court celebrates the birth of Nila’s child, for example, Udayasankar paints a domestic vignette that rings true across the centuries:
Vikrama, barely the size of the Damang chieftain’s forearm, appears to be the old man’s master, making him dance and sing and play … Vani jests about how incongruous it looks – a majestic old man holding a perpetually tousled baby. Yet none of us finds the scene absurd at all. It is as it ought to be.
Any diligent readers eager to read up on the scholarly material that underpins such moments (as I was) will find a helpful survey of sources at the end of the text, including Nicholas Tarling’s highly readable Concise History of the region, and John Miksic’s seminal Singapore and the Silk Road of the Sea.
Like all good historical novels, however, 3 is equal parts historical and novel. Udayasankar’s fine-grained historical detail makes room, at all the right moments, for refreshingly modern considerations. One such instance occurs when Nila approaches his father with a decision that, he knows, will put an end to everything the ageing Srivijaya emperor has fought for:
‘I want to marry her,’ I say, ‘but not like this, not if she doesn’t want me. She is not a thing that can be given in return for protecting Bintan. And I don’t care how valuable a political alliance it is to us.’
Here Nila – who speaks at other points with the ponderous tone of the chronicler – is a candid youth sticking to his guns, and it’s easy to imagine a 21st Century son taking his case in not-too-different terms to an obstinate father. A similar moment takes place in the final chapters of the story where Nila, having established his young trading-port on a hitherto-unnoticed island across from Bintan, reflects on the old world he has left behind and the new one he has helped create:
When empires crumble, legacies are the least of what is lost. Something invisible yet irreplaceable goes: the sense of being a people, a people who deserve to live in peace and happiness, not for what they give to those who rule but because they are a nation.
Less the thoughts of a late medieval prince in a period drama, and more those of a perceptive novelist in our post-colonial, post-national times. Some might dismiss such uncharacteristic re-imaginings of the past as awkward or anachronistic. But what are myths for, if not to hold something of the truth?
Towards the end of the novel, a telling transformation takes place. Nila, the fumbling youngest son of a proud but powerless family, who has spent years avoiding the trappings of kingship, is finally led to see – through several humbling experiences – that lasting legitimacy derives not from the kris or crown but the citizens under one’s rule. Without over-emphasizing this ‘moral of the story’, Udayasankar’s reveal is well-timed and elegant. As Nila discovers that the seaborne marauders he has been brought up to fear and fight are, in reality, the humble sea-people he is called to lead, parts of his narrative begin to join up: this is, we remember, the boy who watched street urchins with envy from the window of his palace, and as the leader of his troops refused to see his adversaries as mere numbers.
All this brings us to what one suspects is Udayasankar’s true goal, a much broader, democratizing vision of the past. Having come through the novel in Nila’s shoes – a wry and compassionate perspective, but ultimately still that of a prince – we gain, at this point, the ability to see the vast sweep of history for what it really is: the countless lives of those whose are expected to ‘bring gold (for the powerful) when all they have is dried fish and rice’, woven into the larger fabric of what happens. The light that Udayasankar holds up to the many-sided past surely warrants, for us, a kinder present.
3 is available online from Ethos Books and at all leading Singapore bookstores.