Ex-schoolteacher Nisha Mehraj explores lives of ordinary Singaporeans in first novel

Nisha Mehraj's We Do Not Make Love Here is a family saga told from the perspectives of four ordinary Indian Singaporeans. PHOTOS: EPIGRAM BOOKS, MUBARAKH RAHMAN

SINGAPORE - Three years ago, Nisha Mehraj made a bold decision - she quit her day job as a secondary school teacher to focus on writing.

Her efforts paid off when her manuscript for a novel was shortlisted for the 2022 Epigram Books Fiction Prize.

We Do Not Make Love Here, a family saga told from the perspectives of four ordinary Indian Singaporeans, is now published.

"It's a kind of validation," says the delighted 37-year-old, now a private tutor.

The Epigram Books Fiction Prize is an award for unpublished English novels. The 2022 winner - Malaysian Karina Robles Bahrin - won $25,000, while the other finalists, including Nisha, received $5,000.

The prize is a cash advance against future royalties.

One of the judges, Intercultural Theatre Institute co-founder T. Sasitharan, hailed Nisha's novel as "a tightly focused story with an intense spotlight on the deep subjectivities of seemingly everyday ordinary people... found throughout is a strong, visceral presence of women - as daughters, wives, mothers, girlfriends and workers - which serves to knit the story together".

The other judges were Shirley Chew, a Nanyang Technological University (NTU) professor; Amir Muhammad, founder of publisher Buku Fixi in Malaysia; the Association of Women for Action and Research then-president Margaret Thomas; and Epigram Books publisher Edmund Wee.

Nisha, an only child, grew up in a Housing Board flat in the Bedok Reservoir area. She was raised by her single mother - now a senior payroll officer at the Ministry of Finance - and her grandmother, who used to be a mee goreng hawker.

In polytechnic, she studied film before heading to NTU to pursue English literature and creative writing.

Her few publishing successes - a short story, Chai, in the Mascara Literary Review; and We Do Not Make Love Here, her debut novel - came amid numerous rejections. The rejection letter for one of her short stories, however, had some helpful feedback.

"One of the publishers wrote back and said, 'Are you sure you are done with the characters?' That made me think - actually, I'm not really done with them. I always shut them up."

She ended up writing We Do Not Make Love Here, which delves into the lives of the unhappily-married couple Chandru and Meera, their son Siddharth and their neighbour's granddaughter Malli.

The manuscript Nisha sent Epigram was her 10th draft. "I didn't really have a plot. I listened to the four characters talk to me. I wanted to mute the situation and make them larger than the situation itself," says Nisha, a self- described method writer.

"If I am writing about Meera or Malli, I can do only them that day. When I get into their psyche, I'm thinking like them, I'm acting like them."

    Nisha - who admires writers such as Arundhati Roy, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Alfian Sa'at, Balli Kaur Jaswal and Haresh Sharma - says writing was a rather lonely enterprise.

    "I always felt like if you want to be a writer, you need to be part of a circle, you need contacts, you need to be from somewhere, know someone. I was not part of anything."

    Asked how to better cultivate students' interest in literature, the former secondary school English literature teacher suggests that schools might do well to focus less on grades - although this is "easier said than done".

    She notes that many secondary school students who plan to go to junior college avoid narrative and personal recount essays - going instead for argumentative or discursive ones because they think those would be more practical and useful.

    "I feel it is an achievement if my 'C' or 'B' student goes on to take literature because he or she loves it so much. Instead of an 'A' student not wanting to do it because he or she thinks it is risky. A lot of students don't take literature because they think it's a gamble. They want a formula to get an 'A'. Sometimes, teachers promise them that there is a formula, basically 'follow my answer'.

    "More than educating the students, teachers have to be educated. Teachers have to have the passion re-ignited in them."

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