Tekka toy shop inspired migrant worker's prize-winning poem

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SINGAPORE - A visit to a Tekka toy shop inspired construction engineer Rajendran Vijayakanth, 29, to write the whimsical, bittersweet poem that would win him the first prize at the seventh Migrant Worker Poetry Competition.

Vijayakanth, who is from Tamil Nadu, India, was in Tekka in August, accompanying a friend who was returning to India and wanted to buy gifts for his son.

Seeing the toys on display - tigers, cows, cats and cars - reminded him of the idylls of his childhood, a far cry from his working life in Singapore, where he has been for seven years. "I began to play with them," he said. "I forgot myself."

He never expected his poem, The One Who Buys Dolls In Tekka, to win the first prize at the competition. "It's unbelievable," he said.

The competition, in which recordings of the 16 finalists reading their poems were screened on Facebook Live on Sunday (Nov 29), capped off the nine-day Global Migrant Festival.

The biennial festival, which began in 2018 and was held in its first digital edition this year due to Covid-19, featured 30 events, including the Malaysia Refugee and Migrant Worker Poetry Competition; a dialogue with Ms Golriz Ghahraman, an Iranian-born asylum seeker who was the first refugee to be elected to New Zealand's Parliament; and Look Ma I'm British, a play by migrant worker theatre group The Birds Migrant Theatre.

The annual Migrant Worker Poetry Competition, which is organised by Singaporean and migrant volunteers, began in 2014.

This year, the organisers close to doubled the prize money, which they said was due to the savings from not having to host the Global Migrant Festival as a physical event, and also in recognition that this has been an especially tough year for migrants.

They increased the first prize from the usual $500 to $1,000.

Bangladeshi worker Mahfujur Rahman received the $500 second prize, while Indonesian domestic workers Eli Nur Fadilah and Sumarni tied for third place and will get $300 each.

The judges for this year's finals, local writers Alvin Pang, K. Kanagalatha, Nabilah Said and Chow Teck Seng, said their choices were unanimous.

"It's surprising how the quality of the writing and the feelings can come across, even in a digital form," said Pang.

He added: "I find also that just because something is simple doesn't mean that it's simplistic. Some of the (winning poems) look quite simple on the page. But when you listen to them, when you read them carefully, you realise that there are a lot of things going on beneath the surface."

Migrant worker Vijayakanth, who is from Tamil Nadu, was inspired to write the poem after accompanying a friend buying gifts for his son. PHOTO: COURTESY OF RAJENDRAN VIJAYAKANTH

Vijayakanth said he does not yet know what he will do with his prize money, though he is considering donating it to charities in his hometown that support education for the poor.

Like most, he has spent the Covid-19 outbreak in Singapore feeling "scared and worried", doing extra work to make up for colleagues being unable to leave their dormitories and fending off requests from his family to return home. He is married with no children.

"This fear is normal, it is something all nationalities experience," he said. "We are together in this."

He began writing love poems when he was 16, but kept them hidden. "Growing up meant that I could write poetry not only for love but for everything I see, for everything that flies, for everything that suffers, for everything that dies, for the rain, the cloud, the beetle, the bud, the fallen flower, the dead bird, the dying animal," he said.

He hopes to publish a collection someday. "I do not know if I have matured in writing poetry. But the urge to write keeps coming."

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