Loving portrait of Deepavali and family

The Lights That Find Us (above) is by Singaporean author Anittha Thanabalan (top).
The Lights That Find Us is by Singaporean author Anittha Thanabalan (above).PHOTO: EPIGRAM BOOKS
The Lights That Find Us (above) is by Singaporean author Anittha Thanabalan (top).
The Lights That Find Us (above) is by Singaporean author Anittha Thanabalan.PHOTO: EPIGRAM BOOKS



By Anittha Thanabalan

Epigram Books/Paperback/ 193 pages/$20.22/Major bookstores/3 stars

With Deepavali coming up this weekend, what better time to dive into Singaporean author Anittha Thanabalan's debut?

The Lights That Find Us, a finalist for last year's Epigram Books Fiction Prize, puts a local young adult twist on Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol (1843).

Instead of an elderly miser visited by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet To Come, a Singaporean teenager, Shreya, is forced to reckon with a deed she committed two Deepavalis ago that tore her family apart.

The book opens with Shreya and her family dragging themselves through the motions of Deepavali. Missing from their midst is her older brother Dhiren, who left home two years ago and whose painful absence nobody in the house will address.

In a moment of misery, Shreya calls on the Hindu gods to bring her brother back to her - and they answer by sending Apurva, a gandharva, a type of celestial being, the first of three who will guide her towards redemption.

He proceeds to yank Shreya back through time to rewatch key scenes from her past, so that she can realise how her conviction that she means less to her parents than Dhiren and her growing resentment of his achievements coalesced into what she did to him that fateful Deepavali.

This is the kind of book where character development has to be painstakingly explained to the reader - after all, the premise is psychotherapy by playback - and this, coupled with Shreya's dramatic outbursts and constant bickering with her spirit guides, makes the narrative feel laboured.

Where it shines is in its loving portrait of the festival of lights, from the mouth-watering descriptions of butter thosais, masala chai and murukku to the chaos of interrogations from nosy relatives and children setting things on fire.

Syrupy as a gulab jamun dessert, it earnestly stresses that a festival is nothing without family.

If you like this, read: Nimita's Place by Akshita Nanda (Epigram, 2018, $26.64, major bookstores), another food-laden story about family ties. Two women, both named Nimita, try to make a life for themselves, one in pre-Partition India and the other in 2014 Singapore.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 22, 2019, with the headline 'Loving portrait of Deepavali and family '. Print Edition | Subscribe