By Zafar Anjum
Movement is life—that’s what I had learnt at an early age. Prophets, sages, poets, soldiers—all had taught me this lesson. I was born in a nondescript part of India where most of my relatives lived in a 30-kilometre radius, making me feel claustrophobic, making me yearn to get out and see more of the world. As an Urdu couplet goes:
The essential thing is to undertake a journey; of hospitable persons there is no dearth; There are a thousand shady trees on the roadside. (Khwaja Haider Ali Atish)
After the early years, came a succession of reliefs—just before my high school exam, I moved from my native village to a small town, and after my matriculation exam, I moved to a university town, Aligarh, close to Delhi, India’s capital.
Even in that sleepy university town, the five years that I spent were restless, filled with a longing to escape. Finally, I moved to Delhi where after attaining some more degrees I started upon my first job. With my new-found salaried existence and the umbilical cord with my parents snapped, I walked like the happiest man on the planet, free to make my own destiny.
That feeling was not to last for long.
In nearly eight years, I changed five jobs. Not all my fault. New businesses were forming and bursting like soap bubbles, emanating from the straw out of Manmohan Singh’s new bottle of ‘economic liberalisation’ policy.
In 2004, when my career was teetering on the precipice of uncertainty and a tsunami of regret of not opting for a government job was about to wash off my remaining confidence, a miracle happened. I was picked up for a job in Singapore. My career was saved from a crash landing.
When I came to Singapore, life unspooled for me in a slow motion in this Big Apple of Asia. The country’s prosperity, its clean and transparent system, its open-hearted people flashed like a beacon of hope. I thought my suffering was over. I thought I was going to achieve nirvana by the bank of the Singapore River.
It was not to be so. The lightening of misfortune struck me once again.
Within a year and a half, my employer, the National Kidney Foundation—at that time, Asia’s biggest non-profit organisation with S$120 million in reserves—was hit with a scandal. The poisonous effluent that spurted out of NKF CEO TT Durai’s fabled ‘gold tape’ devastated the organisation. As a result, when the knife went over the beast’s belly, hundreds of employees floated out like dead babies covered in the slime of stigma. I was also one of them.
Most of my compatriots went back to India. I stayed back. For me, there was no escape from struggling, either here or in India. I was a member of the minority and a migrant worker in both the countries. I did not want to struggle in the heat and dust of Delhi. Delhi’s crumbling public transport system, the regular power cuts, the daily fight for water—were nightmarish enough.
In Singapore, I was jobless for nearly six months and I had a pregnant wife to support. Life seemed to be an interminable series of misfortunes and humiliations. The bed of roses turned into a thorn-filled haystack and my constant companions were worries—how to pay the rent, how to take care of the spiralling medical bills and how to put food on the table. There were times when I was scraping the bottom of the barrel and coming a cropper. By nature I am shy of social company. My circumstances made me a social recluse. Many times I politely refused dinner invitations because I didn’t have enough money to pay for the taxi and buy that bottle of wine as a gift. My writing ambitions made for the window and bankruptcy began to knock on my door. I forfeited thousands of dollars in an insurance policy that I had painstakingly built up for my daughter’s future education. The sleepless nights made me sick with high blood pressure.
Look at my misfortune! The lasso snapped,
When the edge of the parapet was just a shot way off! (Qaim)
I was never afraid for myself. I just wanted a decent life with ample time to read and write. The suffering was more on account of my wife and my child who were the unintended victims of this mishap.
Later on, some of those bitter experiences seeped into my writing. They became the blood and sinews of my collection of short stories, The Singapore Decalogue.
It took me several years to get back on my feet and I am indebted to many friends and well-wishers who held my hand in my days of want and suffering. I am still reeling under the impact of my ‘lost decade’ and clearing the debris of the disaster. I still feel like a ghost, an apparition, slowing emerging out of that haze of ignominy and defeat.
Along the way, some good things happened that helped me survive.
The same Singapore where my dreams soured gave me ample opportunities to get back on my feet. I got my first newspaper job here. I received a writing grant for a book from the National Arts Council, and I succeeded in signing up with the same literary agent in Singapore whom I had failed to entice a decade ago in India. Last year, I also turned a homeowner from a rent-paying tenant. All along, my family enjoyed the ease of life and the sense of security that Singapore offers. Today, we hardly miss India as we find the sounds and flavours of our motherland right at our doorstep.
What my struggle taught me is resilience. Failing and falling is a part of life and the only way to get through the storm is to endure it. God is with those who are patient, says the Quran.
It was precisely for this reason that the story of Satyam, one of India’s top IT services companies, attracted me in 2009. Resembling the NKF saga, Satyam was hit with an accounting fraud and its mastermind was its own founder and chairman, B Ramalinga Raju. When I heard of the scandal, my heart went out to the company’s thousands of ordinary employees who I knew would suffer for no fault of theirs. How would they pay their rents and mortgages? How would they support their families? How many of them would develop hypertension and insomnia? Miraculously, the government of India stepped in, brought in a league of extraordinary gentlemen who stabilised the company and auctioned it off to the Mahindra Group. Thousands of jobs were saved in the process.
Satyam’s story of falling and then rising again made a perfect subject for me to pursue. In its resurgence I could see my own story’s reflection. That was one reason why I decided to chronicle it in The Resurgence of Satyam, which has now become a business bestseller in India.
My story is not over yet. I am still at a sort of crossroads—between a nascent writing career and achieving literary success, between leading a bottom-of-the-middle-class existence and the creamy layer, being wedged between Singapore and India and the world beyond. There are many possibilities and many challenges. It can cut both ways, hurting me or healing me. For sure, there will be more struggles in store, more rejections and failures. Where there are dreams, there will be setbacks and struggles. But afraid I’m not. I’ll keep on moving in pursuit of my dreams, ready to embrace whatever comes my way.
Even like the wave, the caravan of my life does not know the course it is destined to pursue;
I know not whence it has come and whither it will go. (Qaim)
Zafar Anjum is a Singapore-based journalist, writer and filmmaker. He is the author of The Singapore Decalogue and The Resurgence of Satyam.