Review

Admirable stoicism

NON-FICTION

MARBLES, MAYHEM AND MY TYPEWRITER

By Mano Sabnani

Marshall Cavendish Editions/Paperback/ 208 pages/$21.45 before GST/ Major bookshops/ 3/5 stars

The "mayhem" referred to in the title of former newspaper editor Mano Sabnani's memoirs came early in his life. He was only 13 when his mother died at 40, just a day after giving birth to his fifth sibling.

His father, who worked in the textile industry, and the five older children were plunged into trauma even as the entire family, aided by domestic help, pitched in for the demanding job of caring for a newborn.

Sabnani does not dwell on the shadow that must have been cast on his childhood, during which he recalls playing games such as marbles and kite-fighting.

He writes: "When (my mother) went into labour, the doctor told us, very frankly, that it would be between her and the child."

His restrained prose conveys a stoicism that is admirable in the face of tragedy. It is consistent with the unshowy determination that is evident in his memoirs, which describe, for instance, how he spent longer than usual - almost five years - earning his university degree in science.

He eventually found success not only in newsrooms - he was, at various times, the chief editor of The Business Times and Today newspapers - but also in the banking and investment sector.

But his unsentimental writing style at times detracts from the exciting parts of his story. (Disclosure: I started my career in journalism at Today when Sabnani was editor-in-chief between 2003 and 2006.)

For instance, he only alludes to online commentators' accounts of his "dramatic" exit from Today after it suspended popular blogger Mr Brown, then a columnist with the paper, who had written a piece about rising costs that drew a reaction from a government representative.

Sabnani simply lays out the facts: That he left Today six months after his three-year contract ended in March 2006.

It is a dignified, balanced approach that, nonetheless, is so mild in tone that it sometimes leads the reader to skim past, rather than delve into, Sabnani's bolder pronouncements such as his feeling that the Government "may need to lift the shackles on the mainstream press", which was on his mind in the early 2000s.

The overall impression from reading his memoirs is of a modest man who leaves the reader to draw the lessons he chooses from the ups and downs of his life. Occasionally, though, one wishes for more direction from this memoirist of a quietly accomplished career.

If you like this, read: Singapore In Transition: Hope, Anxiety And Question Marks by Han Fook Kwang (Straits Times Press, 2016, $25, major bookstores and www.stpressbooks.com.sg). In a compilation of columns, The Straits Times' former editor Han provides provocative answers to questions such as "Who is more out of touch - the people or their leaders?"

Venessa Lee

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 12, 2017, with the headline 'Admirable stoicism'. Print Edition | Subscribe