Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh
Pictures by Margaret Bourke-White

My last read was chilling, sobering, illuminating and perspective setting. It really puts ‪#‎firstworldproblems‬ into context.

The images… oh boy, the images.

Before I write about the book, let me give you some personal context. I wanted to read the book out of general interest but also to get a better insight of what happened to my parents’ generation. My father personally experienced the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947.

What is this “Partition”?

In a nutshell (as this is not a history lesson or a political discourse but a book review with context) it was the British authorities’ decision to split the British Indian Empire into the sovereign states of the Dominion of Pakistan (which later split into Pakistan and Bangladesh) and the Union of India (later Republic of India). Broadly, the partition was to divide colonial India into a state for the Hindus (India) and a state for the Muslims (Pakistan). But that is a very broad simplification. It affected Sikhs, Bengalis and even the small dialect group of the Sindhis in different degrees.

My family are Sindhis from the Hindu stock (I have since adopted Christianity as my religion and that is another story). My dad came from a wealthy family in Karachi (now in Pakistan). As Hindu Sindhis, the family had to leave *everything* as refugees and make their way across to India.

Most of Sindh’s prosperous middle class at the time of Partition of India and Pakistan were Hindu. There were an estimated 1,400,000 Hindu Sindhis, most of them concentrated in the cities of Hyderabad, Karachi, Shikarpur, and Sukkur.

According to the 1951 census of India, nearly 776,000 Sindhi Hindus (more than half) fled to India.

Initially it seemed that the Hindu Sindhis could stay and live peacefully with their Muslim brothers. However, the Hindu Sindhis were forced to leave their homes and everything they owned behind because of communal rioting and a threat to their lives. Most anti-Hindu violence in Sindh was precipitated by the arrival of Muslim refugees from India. The local Muslims, who had lived peacefully with the Sindhis did not support the violence.

But the Hindu Sindhis had to leave or potentially face death. As a result, The Hindu Sindhis left as penniless refugees to cross barren lands into India in search of rehabitation.

It’s no wonder the Sindhis are now found successfully surviving, and in many cases, thriving, all over the world. Forced into diaspora, but unlike the Jews, the Sindhis have no real “homeland” to return to.

Context done. Back to the book.

Train to Pakistan is a historical fiction that attempts to humanise the anguish of the people who experienced the Partition. The book is set in Mano Majra, the fictional village on the border of Pakistan and India.

Although the major change was political due to Britain’s splitting of India into Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan, the author did not write this to be a political narrative. Rather, it takes a fictitious small village and paints the picture of the realities of the Partition to everyday people.

The human effects of the political change were very real. In the book, Singh shows how religious groups who had lived peacefully with one another rearranged loyalties and clashed violently (and often fatally). The author does not take sides and makes it clear that many personalities played a part in the chaos of partition and many were equally worthy of blame. He stays away, and rightly so in my view, from blaming any particular group.

The book is chillingly juxtaposed against real life photos taken during the partition by Margaret Bourke-White.

Here are some of the images (PG Guidance advised).

Dead being transported.

Vultures picking on dead bodies.

Dead in the river.

(All images from the book)

Be thankful for what we have.

Is it worth a read? Yep.




Mr Renganathan was the personal security officer to Singapore’s first foreign minister, Mr S Rajaratnam. He’s retired now. I interviewed him for a book I worked on documenting S Rajaratnam’s life through our first foreign minister’s photography.

The book is called Private Passion.

Mr Renganathan and his wife held Mr Rajaratnam is exceedingly high regard. In a personal tragedy that befell the couple, Mr Rajaratnam stepped in to help in his personal capacity. “He saved my life,” said Mrs Renganathan.

Although Mr Rajaratnam was assigned a personal security officer, he preferred to do things on his own. Not many know that Mr Rajaratnam was an avid photographer and his preferred shopping venue was Cathay Photo. He was very fond of nature as well.

I’ve been very blessed to have met so many people in the numerous books I’ve written. I’d estimate about 50% or less of our conversations make the book. Many times, after we’ve become comfortable with each other, we shoot the breeze and speak “off-the-record” about many things.

And they will remain off-the-record.

It’s my job.


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Charlie Chaplain is known for his silent movies. His one and only work of fiction (ok, the silent was a joke) is going to be launched soon. Unpublished for 60 years, it’s being made public for the first time.

The Guardian described it as “a dark, nostalgic novella which was the root of his great film, Limelight.”

Incidentally, Charlie Chaplain only went to school for 6 months his entire life. And he’s published. No excuses.

Here is a scene from “Limelight”.


I’m going to get the book.


I finished the book over a leisurely holiday week.

I enjoyed it. I learned a lot from it. That’s not to say that I appreciated the entire book. I just wanted to present the big picture, my macro takeaway – it was a good book from which I learned.

LKY is very much a big picture kind of guy. He has an amazing ability to see the forest for the trees. Actually, he sees both the forest and the trees. The book covers his point of view on China, the US, Europe, Japan, Korea, India, Southeast Asia, Middle East, the Global Economy, Energy & Climate change, and his personal life.

When LKY paints his point of view of a country’s future (or a region), he draws not only on current affairs and leadership but also on the collective history and psyche of the nation. In my view, this lends substance and gravitas to his analysis. He has a firm grasp (or at least a strong point of view) on political systems, and their advantages and limitations.

In the process, I learned a lot. And I like learning.

Though I respect this man, I recognise that he is not God. At points in the book, he comes across to me as self-indulgent. For example, when he cites a conversation he had with Deng Xiaoping in 1978. Deng was apparently impressed with Singapore and congratulated LKY on the job he had done so far.

From the book:

He had congratulated me over dinner and when I asked him what for, he said: “You’ve got a beautiful city, a garden city.” I thanked him but added: “Whatever we have done, you can do better because we are descendants of the landless peasants of south China.* You have the scholars, you have the scientists, you have the specialists. Whatever we do, you will do better. He did not answer me. He just looked me with his piercing eyes and then he carried on and switched the subject. That was 1978.

In 1992, he went down to Guangdong in his famous southern tour to urge the leadership to carry on with the opening up and he said, “Learn from the world and, in particular, learn from Singapore and do better than them.” I told myself, “Ah, he has not forgotten what I told him.” Indeed, they can do better than us.  

There were some missing bits I would have liked to hear his point of view on such as the wisdom of his support of the “graduate mothers” scheme and on his political opponents, especially those from the 1960s to 1980s.

Although LKY is a thorough pragmatist, there is an aspect of the man, in this man’s view, that breaks down when he contemplates religion and the after-life. He admits to being some sort of nominal Buddhist, admits that he does not belief nor disbelief of a God, makes reference to “heaven” not having enough “space” for the dead who may inhabit its realm as spirits, and admits “not knowing” if he will meet his wife again.

Some excerpts: (read the book for proper context)

“I wouldn’t call myself an atheist. I neither deny nor accept that there is a God.”

“I am not a Christian. I am not a Taoist. I do not belong to any special sect.”

On Buddhist traditions he admitted that he would “go through the motions and the rituals like offering to his ancestors food and so on.” He went on to say, “It is like clearing the graves during Qing Ming. With each passing generation, fewer people go. It is a ritual.”

I wish I can meet my wife in the hereafter, but I don’t think I will. I just cease to exist just as she has ceased to exist – otherwise the other world would be overpopulated.” (Emphasis mine)

“I am not given to making sense out of life – or coming up with some grand narrative on it – other than to measure it by what you think you want to do in life. As for me, I have done what I had wanted to, to the best of my ability. I am satisfied.”

“But human beings on this earth have developed over the last 20,000 years into thinking beings, and are able to see beyond themselves and think about themselves. Is that a result of Darwinian evolution? Or is it God? I do not know.

So I do not laugh at people who believe in God. But I do not necessarily believe in God – nor deny that there could be one.”

For me, the most telling in that there is a hint of his wishing to see his beloved wife again:

“All that is left behind are her ashes. I will be gone and all that will be left behind will be ashes. For reason of sentiment, well, put them together. But to meet in afterlife? Too good to be true.” (Emphasis mine).

For all his pragmatism, LKY’s love for his wife is incredible. It’s  divine – a match made in heaven. Oh wait. (See my blog post on the Humanity of Lee Kuan Yew).

My favourite bits must be LKY’s opinion on world leaders.

It’s easy to see whom he respects and whom he doesn’t. To be fair to LKY, he does give credit where credit is due, even if he doesn’t think very highly of a leader (Sukarno).

His non-answer when asked for an opinion of a certain leader is particularly scathing – for example, when asked about Jimmy Carter. Read the book to feel the sting of his answer. Ouch.

He clearly has his favourites.

I can see why this book is called “One man’s view of the world”. It implicates no one but himself. It’s not Singapore’s view, it’s not the party’s view;  it’s LKY’s view. At his age and with his accomplishments, I think it’s ok to indulge him.

The book has been referred to as a “no-holds-barred” account of the world. But I sense he has held back in some places. But still, it is interesting, insightful and for me, I learned. It is also readable. I’d recommend it.

PS: LKY makes a lot of reference to iPhone and iPads but I don’t think he ever mentioned Android. He’s still got some to learn. And knowing him, he will.

* DD note: As an Indian Singaporean, it makes me feel ignored.

Source: Wikipedia

Last night, I took a very old book of Brothers Grimm Fairy Tale off my bookshelf and read a few. I’ve had this book since my Japan days (1964 – 1974) and the book print was dated 1967. The book is beautifully illustrated. The above is not from the book.

I re-read a few interesting ones.

I like stories like these. Imaginative and simple. One of them I read was the Shoemaker and the Elves.

The Shoemaker and the Elves (Brothers Grimm)

A shoemaker, through no fault of his own, had become so poor that he had only leather enough for a single pair of shoes. He cut them out one evening, then went to bed, intending to finish them the next morning. Having a clear conscience, he went to bed peacefully, commended himself to God, and fell asleep. The next morning, after saying his prayers, he was about to return to his work when he found the shoes on his workbench, completely finished. Amazed, he did not know what to say. He picked up the shoes in order to examine them more closely. They were so well made that not a single stitch was out of place, just as if they were intended as a masterpiece. A customer soon came by, and he liked the shoes so much that he paid more than the usual price for them.

The shoemaker now had enough money to buy leather for two pairs of shoes. That evening he cut them out, intending to continue his work the next morning with good cheer. But he did not need to do so, because when he got up they were already finished. Customers soon bought them, paying him enough that he now could buy leather for four pairs of shoes. Early the next morning he found the four pairs finished. And so it continued; whatever he cut out in the evening was always finished the following morning. He now had a respectable income and with time became a wealthy man.

One evening shortly before Christmas, just before going to bed, and having already cut out a number of shoes, he said to his wife, “Why don’t we stay up tonight and see who is giving us this helping hand.”

His wife agreed to this and lit a candle. Then they hid themselves behind some clothes that were hanging in a corner of the room. At midnight two cute little naked men appeared. Sitting down at the workbench, they picked up the cut-out pieces and worked so unbelievable quickly and nimbly that the amazed shoemaker could not take his eyes from them. They did not stop until they had finished everything. They placed the completed shoes on the workbench, then quickly ran away.

The next morning the wife said, “The little men have made us wealthy. We must show them our thanks. They are running around with nothing on, freezing. Do you know what? I want to sew some shirts, jackets, undershirts, and trousers for them, and knit a pair of stockings for each of them, and you should make a pair of shoes for each of them.”

The husband said, “I agree,” and that evening, when everything was finished, they set the presents out instead of the unfinished work. Then they hid themselves in order to see what the little men would do. At midnight they came skipping up, intending to start work immediately. When they saw the little clothes instead of the cut-out leather, they at first seemed puzzled, but then delighted. They quickly put them on, then stroking the beautiful clothes on their bodies they sang:

Sind wir nicht Knaben glatt und fein?
Was sollen wir länger Schuster sein!
Are we not boys, neat and fine?
No longer cobblers shall we be!

Then they hopped and danced about, jumping over chairs and benches. Finally they danced out of the house. They never returned, but the shoemaker prospered, succeeding in everything that he did.

NB: I checked. It’s a public domain book 🙂

ISEAS Library

ISEAS Library


I’ve been commissioned to write a book and as a result I’ve been given access to and have been spending a lot of time at the ISEAS (Institute of South East Asian Studies) library at Heng Mui Keng Terrace which is within the NUS (National University of Singapore) environs.

The library is usually empty so I have the privilege of having the whole place to myself. The people who work here are really nice and helpful and so far, it has been an altogether pleasant experience. The surrounding environment is also green, quiet and peaceful which suits me fine. It’s still the beginning of the project and I’m still on the research phase and I’m enjoying it thus far.

It really feels like I’m back in university with the environment, jeans and t-shirt, vending machines, researching and writing. I’m hoping to do more of this.

The book is to be launched in February 2009 and most of my work should be done by November.

Well, back to work.