When Shivaji Das travels, he is as likely to end up chatting with the crew on board a container ship to Hong Kong as he is to be talking to impoverished diamond miners in South Kalimantan. Even a seemingly innocuous stroll in Melbourne turns into a search for what he terms “the leftist heart of the city”.
For the India-born writer who now calls Singapore his home, travel is an opportunity to seek out and listen to other voices. These include people as varied as Nepalese security guards in Malaysia, street artists in Morocco, female boxers in the Philippines, Buddhist monks in Singapore, and homeless communities in Mumbai, India.
Das calls this travelling purposefully.
“I am enriched by speaking to people we don’t usually hear from. People living in very different, often abject, conditions, with very different life experiences. Their stories, the humanity they have, these have left a deep impression in me,” he says.
With about six years of such experiences behind him, Das found that he had amassed a large number of written vignettes chronicling his travels. These eventually became his latest book, a collection of travel narratives called Angels By The Murky River – Travels Off The Beaten Path (Yoda Press).
Featuring a series of engaging pieces – with catchy titles like “The Top Four Nonessential Romantic Places To Visit For Lovers”, “Pengamen: The Traffic Signal Rock Stars Of Bandung”, and “Harvesting Happiness: The Huxian Farmer Paintings Of Shaanxi, China” – the book traverses the world through stories that are simultaneously familiar and eye-opening.
Das, however, thinks of himself as a traveller first and a writer second. His aim with this book, he says, is to encourage people to interact beyond tours or shopping malls when they travel.
“The notion of travel has changed for me. I try not to plan as much, and instead just be open to new experiences when I visit places,” he says.
For 38-year-old Das, it has been a winding journey to writing Angels By The Murky River. Recalling his younger days in Assam, India, he says he comes from a conservative Bengali family that hardly travelled. While he did a lot of writing in his schooldays, he describes those works as “very nationalistic”. Over time, however, this changed.
“I became much more interested in the smaller picture, the trees and not the forest. I began seeing the value in individual stories, in listening to the people who deserve more attention,” he says.
Das’ previous two books display his interest in global cultures and stories as well: the first, Journeys With The Caterpillar (2014), examines life in the Indonesian islands of Flores, Komodo, Rinca and Sumba; the second, Sacred Love: Erotic Art In The Temples Of Nepal (2013), uses photography to explore temple art around Kathmandu.
This outlook extends beyond travel and writing. Having lived in Singapore for the past 11 years, where he is a strategy consultant, Das has taken a strong interest in immigrant worker issues. Outside of his job, he works with Transient Workers Count Too, an organisation that promotes fair treatment for immigrant workers in Singapore. He is also the founder and key organiser of the Migrant Worker Poetry Contest, which began in 2014 in Singapore before expanding to Malaysia the next year.
As such, Das believes strongly in staying connected with the people he writes about.
“It’s not about being in an ivory tower and stepping out sometimes to write about other people. In Singapore, I’ve spent half of my time with migrant workers. I also stay in touch with many of the people in my book – they’re always very happy to see their names in print.
“I also try to make sure my interactions with the people I write about isn’t patronising. How you portray people is important, to not depict people in just one way. I try to give an objective account, and let the readers decide.”
Das does this with an easy, conversational style that nevertheless displays a keen eye for detail and a strong sense of underlying empathy.
Many of his stories are laced with wry humour, like an encounter with a voluble football fan in Shenyang, China. Some are painfully poignant, such as his pieces on the homeless of Mumbai or Seoul. Yet others display an intrinsic awareness of life’s fragilities, as when the salt farmers of Jeneponto, Indonesia, talk about the vagaries of their trade.
Despite the many sobering realities within the pages of Das’ book, the overall feeling is one of joy and openness, aptly depicted by the cover image of a grinning boy jumping into a river – a photo shot by Das on the island of Bohol in the Philippines.
“What I’ve been amazed to discover through my travels is that everyone has a capacity for humour,” says Das, when asked if he found commonalities among the many people he has encountered.
“No matter how inconvenient or difficult life may be for many of them, there is a lot of hope in people. Which leads to a great capacity for kindness.”
Angels By The Murky River is available at the Gerakbudaya Bookstore (gbgerakbudaya.com) and The Good Shop (thegoodshop.com.my).