New book profiles Singapore's Malayalees

Teacher Anitha Devi Pillai took four years to write the book.
Teacher Anitha Devi Pillai took four years to write the book. PHOTO: COURTESY OF ANITHA DEVI PILLAI

It has stories based on interviews with members of the community here and more than 400 photographs

A new book documents the Malayalee community in Singapore for the first time.

Titled From Kerala To Singapore: Voices From The Singapore Malayalee Community, the book contains a comprehensive history of how the community from Kerala came to then British Malaya and Singapore from the early 1900s till today.

It also includes stories gleaned from 130 interviews with members of the community here, along with more than 400 photographs and documented family trees.

The book is a passion project of Dr Anitha Devi Pillai, a teacher in the National Institute of Education.

The 340-page book is an extension of her master's thesis on the Malayalam language, which she completed in 2002 in the National University of Singapore. Dr Pillai, who declines to reveal her age, does not read or write Malayalam as it is not offered as a subject in Singapore. However, she does speak it.

What struck me was the generosity of the community and the amount of time they spent with me. I would call them in the middle of the night and ask, ‘Uncle, can I ask you about the spelling of this name?’ 

AUTHOR ANITHA DEVI PILLAI

She went on to do her PhD in Applied Linguistics, but decided to work on the book in 2012 after her doctorate studies ended. 

The Malayalam language is the only thing that binds the Malayalee community, who are natives of Kerala in south India. They differ in all other ways, such as religion and caste.

According to a census taken in 2010, there are about 26,000 Malayalees in Singapore, making up roughly 7 per cent of the Indian community here.

Prominent members of the community include dance pioneer Santha Bhaskar, lawyer K.P.K. Menon and writer Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh.

Dr Pillai says: "When I was doing my master's, I realised that there was not much documentation of the community."

"Then I realised how massive the project was. It wasn't a matter of talking to 20 people. I wanted to give a composite picture of the Malayalee community and provide different narratives."

She roped in Australian-based co-writer Puva Arumugam, as well as five of her students as research associates.

The interviews in the book are arranged chronologically, in terms of when the first person of the interviewee's family arrived in Singapore or British Malaya.

For example, the first interview is with Ms Vilasini Menon, whose late father, Dr V.P. Menon, came to Singapore in 1906. Ms Menon's late brother-in-law, M.S. Varma, was the king of Pallakad, his hometown in Kerala, but resided in Singapore for most of his life.

Such interesting stories abound in this book.

In fact, Dr Pillai made important discoveries about her own family through researching this book.

While looking through photos in a private Facebook group for former residents of the Naval Base in Sembawang, she stumbled on a photograph with a familiar face. It was taken by a British photographer in the late 1960s or early 1970s

"Someone on Facebook had asked 'whose grandfather is this?' I showed it to my family and they had a shock. This is the only colour photograph of my grandfather Balakrishnan Pillai that we had ever seen," she says.

Dr Pillai is a third-generation Singapore Malayalee on her father's side and fourth-generation on her mother's side. The community practises both matri- and patrilineal systems.

There are also interviews in the book with her mother, a Tamil writer, and her father, a retired civil engineer. Dr Pillai is divorced and has a 13-year-old son.

Another thing she was struck by was how connected the close-knit community is.

In writing her book, she started first with friends of her parents. She then went online to find more interviewees, and from there, people shared their contacts with her.

An album of photos was sent to her from the United Kingdom (where many Malayalees moved to) and documents and photos were e-mailed to her from India.

"What struck me was the generosity of the community and the amount of time they spent with me. I would call them in the middle of the night and ask, 'Uncle, can I ask you about the spelling of this name?'" she says, adding that a lot of her interviewees are now known to her as "Auntie" and "Uncle".

She says she is glad to see the book finally published. It is partially funded by the National Heritage Board.

In the past few years, she has been waking up at 5.30am to get her son ready for school, going to teach at NIE and then coming home to do more work before starting on the book from midnight till the early morning.

She says: "It's my dream project. I'm thrilled that I am able to play a small part in documenting the journey of the community."

• From Kerala To Singapore is available at Books Kinokuniya and Times Bookstore for $48.15. It is also being sold at $40 by the Singapore Indian Association, where part of the proceeds will go to the association’s welfare fund. Go to www.facebook.com/SingaporeMalayaleeStory for details

Correction note: This story has been edited for clarity.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 15, 2017, with the headline 'New book profiles Singapore's Malayalees'. Print Edition | Subscribe