Dear friends, after months of planning, am very excited to say that I have begun research for my second book. The project’s working title is From Kerala to Shaolin.
Essentially, I hope to write a book about China and India using martial arts as the narrative thread. The bulk of the research will be a six-month overland trip from South India to North China, Jun – Dec 2013. During that time, I intend to visit at least 6 martial arts studios in India and 6 in China. A very rough route is pictured below, with Kerala and Shaolin marked with stars.
I will take a break once a month, and return to Singapore for a few days, to see my wife and eat nasi lemak. From Jan 2014, I will begin writing proper. I hope to have the book done by 2015.
As I travel across the two countries, I will try to post fortnightly updates and blog posts here; do “Follow” the blog–see button on the right panel –> — or add me on Facebook if you’d like to read about my adventures.
Here are the first few blog posts:
If you have any information, research, or friends in China and India who you think will make for a good conversation, do leave me a message here, would love to hear from you.
If you’re interested in finding out more about the genesis of this book, do read on.
Over the past few months, I’ve had many interesting discussions with family, friends, mentors, advisors, and project funders regarding the details of the trip and my motivations for doing it. Perhaps the greatest benefit of being a published author is that now people actually listen to my crackpot ideas.
It may seem self-evident today, given that Floating on a Malayan Breeze was published last year, but the truth is that in 2004, when I told people that I wanted to cycle across Malaysia to write a book about the country, 9 out of 10 dismissed me offhand. The ratio was probably 6 out of 10 in the US, where I was studying, and 99 out of 100 in Singapore.
Now there’s a lot more support for these shenanigans, particularly in Singapore. My sense is that it’s partly my “track record”–shallow as it is–but also the fact that Singapore is changing, becoming a lot more tolerant of wacky ideas.
It’s hard to tell though, when it is a genuine, intrinsic desire for diversity, and when it is more an obedient, mechanical response to some imagined national drive for more creativity, innovation, craziness, etc. Whatever the case, we still have a long way to go, in terms of support for alternative careers. But there has been progress.
Through my productive conversations in Singapore, several common questions have arisen about From Kerala to Shaolin. Reproducing them is probably the best way to talk about the project.
Why China and India?
There are many reasons why I’ve wanted to write a book on China and India. Perhaps the biggest is intellectual interest. However you slice them, China and India represent the major stories of our generation. What is happening there will affect humanity in a deeper and broader way than anything anywhere else. It is humbling to think that when I write about Malaya, it involves 35m people. China and India together have more than 2bn. The scale is enormous.
When I was working for The Economist Group in 2006-13, I spent much time analysing the two countries, but only a total of about 20 days physically there (Hong Kong and holidays aside). As somebody who believes very much in on-the-ground anthropological research, I desperately need to change that.
Hence, at the very core, the curious explorer in me is absolutely thrilled about this project because it will allow me to see and experience the two biggest countries on the planet, as they are in the midst of seismic developmental changes.
The second reason is more specific to my writing career. My literary ambition is to be a jack-of-all-trades. I do not want to become “an expert” on any area or region. I do not want to spend my life writing about Singapore, or about Malaya. It’s just a personal choice. Of course, in almost every field there is a great need both for the experts, who can provide deep insights, and the generalists, who can tie disparate themes together.
Perhaps I am completely misguided, but I feel a calling to the latter. In that sense, the writers I admire—and pray to one day be a small shadow of–include the likes of Bill Bryson, Ryszard Kapuściński, V.S. Naipaul and Paul Theroux.
Intellectually, it would have been much easier for me to begin work on another Malaysia or Singapore book–and we all know there are plenty of topics out there crying for coverage. But the aim here is to push myself out of my comfort zone to tackle something new. It is certainly daunting–when I embarked on my Malaya research, I felt I already knew a lot about both countries, having grown up here. I don’t have anywhere near the same level of direct, personal knowledge about China and India.
Time will tell how successful I am.
Finally, the third reason is personal, in that I feel some sort of a connection to both countries. I am Indian (like, duh). My dad is a third-generation Singaporean whose family’s roots are in Kerala; my mum is Marwari (Rajasthani), first-generation Singaporean. We have many relatives and friends in India. My only surviving grandparent is my maternal grandma in Indore, Madhya Pradesh. Like many other foreign-born Indians, whenever I visit India I feel a strange sense of cultural dissonance: intrinsic familiarity coupled with a lack of belonging. Or, to put that in gastronomic terms, I love the food, but inevitably, excruciatingly, get stricken by Delhi Belly.
But I also feel an affinity for China, or perhaps more accurately, Chinese culture. My wife is Chinese–combination of Peranakan and second-generation Hokkien parents. Growing up in Singapore, I have been surrounded by Chinese my whole life. Some of my best friends are Chinese; my favourite dish is mee poh. Of course, as any Singaporean Chinese will fervently argue, Singapore Chinese culture is not representative of the mainland. Very different people (or so they like to think). Nevertheless, because of all this, I feel some connection to China.
Why martial arts?
From the time I was young, my father used to tell me “Kung fu came from Kerala”. Like any self-respecting Indian son, I always thought this is rubbish. After all, not only does my father unfailingly exaggerate–or “add masala” to–every story he tells, but he generally believes that about 75% of the world’s inventions are from Kerala. And the other 25% are from somewhere else in India.
But over the past few years, I’ve started reading up a bit more into this. Darn, maybe my dad was right?!? First, there are very old forms of martial arts in India–most notably, kalarippayyattu, which is from Kerala. Second, this comes as a surprise to most people I speak with, but there really is some evidence that China’s martial arts’ antecedents are in India.
According to this theory, Bodhidharma (pictured) was a Buddhist monk who lived in the 5th/6th century AD. He is believed to have travelled from South India to China during this time, and, according to Chinese legend, he began the physical training of the Shaolin monks that led to the creation of Shaolinquan (Shaolin kung fu).
According to the Shaolin Temple website (www.shaolin.org.cn),
“Bodhidharma (d. 536A.D.) was from the Brahman caste of South India and honored as the 28th Patriarch of Buddhism. At the temple, Bodhidharma had meditated in a small cave of the Wuru Peak for nine years and introduced Chan tradition into Shaolin Temple. He was revered as the first Patriarch of Chinese Chan Buddhism.”
“Arriving at Shaolin Temple around 520 AD, Bodhidharma sought to become enlightened. He found a nearby cave and meditated for nine years, constructing the Chan Buddhism philosophy of China. The practice of Mahayana wall-gazing as a type of meditation is ascribed to Bodhidharma and the Lankavatara Sutra is one of the fundamental Chan texts in relation to Bodhidharma. It is said that Bodhidharma was also expert at martial arts and in particular a master of sitting-meditation technique.”
There are, of course, also Indian accounts of Boddhidharma and his influence on China, Buddhism and martial arts. A recent popular depiction was in the 2011 Tamil film, 7AAM Arivu, 7th sense (pictured), which claims Boddhidharma hails from the Palavan Dynasty in Tamil Nadu. The film, which wraps up ancient traditions and a futuristic sci-fi story in Tamil nationalist rhetoric, has drawn a lot of criticism for its allegedly inaccurate portrayal of Boddhidharma’s life. (See the bottom of this post for a Youtube clip of the movie.)
Regardless, in short, according to this theory, martial arts moved from India to China sometime in the 5th-6th C AD, with Buddhism as its vehicle.
But how much truth is there to this idea that martial arts came from India?
If one ventures online, you can find animated debates between proponents and opponents. Suffice to say that at this point in time, we have only circumstantial evidence, nothing more concrete or conclusive.
“I am afraid that until an historian equipped with the appropriate linguistic skills researches properly Boddhidarma, those practitioners of kalari who claim kalarippayattu was taken to China by Boddhidarma are sorely mistaken,” says Phillip Zarilli, a professor at Exeter University who spent seven years in Kerala between 1976 and 1993 learning kalarippayyatu, and is now one of the world’s foremost authorities on the discipline.
From my admittedly brief research so far, it seems fairly certain that there was a Buddhist monk called Boddhidharma who did travel to China in that period, and did teach the people there some things, including about Buddhism and meditation.
However, beyond that, there seems little consensus. Was Boddhidharma Indian, or did he hail from Central Asia? Did he even actually make it to Shaolin? Did Boddhidharma actually teach “martial arts”, as we know it today? Or was he just imparting knowledge about meditation? Are there really any connections between Indian and Chinese martial arts?
Will the book be mostly about martial arts?
Actually, not really. I want to write a book about two countries, with a slight focus on the historical, social and cultural linkages between the two.
Martial arts is simply the narrative thread that I want to use to move the story along. Everybody loves kung fu, no? We watch Bruce Lee and Jet Li on the big screen. Many actually learn the discipline, and take pride in the fact that they can kick ass on the street. In whatever form it takes–film, comics, conversation–kung fu always fires the imagination.
So, I just figure it’ll tie my story nicely together. Thus the point here is not to find out any one “truth” about kung fu. Rather, simply to look at the differences and interactions between the different forms in the two countries—and tell a story about two great cultures around that.
Therefore, among other things, I am less interested in the scholarly debates about kung fu’s origins–important as those are–than in the actual beliefs and oral traditions of people and practitioners in China and India.
Will it be similar to Floating on a Malayan Breeze?
In a sense, From Kerala to Shaolin is simply a bigger, more ambitious version of Floating on a Malayan Breeze. Both involve an intense overland trip where I constantly seek out local interactions.
There are a couple of important differences. First, my perspective will be very different. In Malaya, I was writing as a local. Now, I will be writing as a visitor, albeit one with familial links to both countries. Second, in terms of narrative style, I hope to improve the quality of my prose and bring it closer to a true travel narrative. Shorter chapters, and a clearer story flow.
The actual research for the trip will also be markedly different. First, I will not be cycling–given the shape I’m in today, I am more likely to squish than float. I’ll mostly use public transport: buses and trains (no planes, overland only). Second, whereas in Malaya I could conduct all the interviews myself, being half fluent in Malay, in China and India I will often have to rely on translators. Not only will conversations take longer, but there could be content lost in translation. We’ll see.
What might change?
Everything. I am writing all this on the eve of my departure to Kerala. As I realised nine years ago, when Sumana and I set off to cycle across Malaysia, many things can change in the first few days.
Then, we had actually wanted to cycle across Malaysia without spending a single cent. We had this proletariat dream of exchanging our labour for food and shelter wherever we went. On the first day, we realised this would be nigh well impossible–in the first kampung we visited in Kota Tinggi, there were so many young Malay men hanging around, jobless. It would have been foolish and naive to ask for menial labour. So we finally settled on a very low budget of RM10 (US$4) per day, enough to cover food and water to keep us going.
How is the project being funded?
Over the past four months, I have been raising money from friends, family, foundations and companies. Asking others for cash is not something I particularly enjoy, but a useful exercise, as many of them have given me valuable input, both from an intellectual and commercial viewpoint.
Sometime in the next year, I hope to begin a Kickstarter campaign. Kickstarter calls itself “the world’s largest funding platform for creative projects.” Essentially, it’s a way of raising money for a project from friends and strangers, who can donate small amounts of money, e.g. $1, for the simple return of seeing a project take off. After all, $1 x 10,000 people is a lot of money! Harnessing the power of crowds. So–for those of you keen to support my next book project, in any small way, please stay tuned.
If you do want to make a more significant contribution to my project–either time or money–then please email me directly at email@example.com. Thanks.
That’s about it. Do leave any comments, questions, friend references, recommendations, research ideas below. And, again, thanks for reading.
History of Boddhidharma (as told in 7AAM Arivu, a 2011 Tamil movie. Historical accuracy has been vociferously challenged.)