Singapore’s Sri Mariamman Temple is nestled in the heart of the city-state’s Chinatown. In Mandarin, Chinatown is known as Niúchēshuǐ 牛車水 which means “bullock water-cart”. In Malay–the national language of Singapore–Chinatown is known as Kreta Ayer or water cart. The origin of the precinct’s name comes from the source of its water supply. In the 19th century, Chinatown’s water supply was principally transported by animal-driven carts.
I enter the Mother TempleThe Merchant of Stories by Dipa Sanatani
That which brings life into the world
I get on my knees
And bring my head to the hard floor
The land of my ancestors
The land where I was born
Recently, I had the opportunity to spend many colourful evenings with Dipa Sanatani’s second book and non-fiction debut. The pandemic that has kept us in our homes has allowed me the peace and quiet to simply just read.
In the second half of Sanatani’s book The Merchant of Stories, she tells the tale of how her ancestors came to Singapore on a ship and never returned ‘home’. Her personal account and slant on the historical events that made modern society was original, nuanced and inspired me to look deep into myself. Her multifaceted use of a colourful assortment of narrative techniques succeeded brilliantly at blending history with familiarity and myth with modernity.
“What made you decide to write a memoir?” I ask Dipa as I sit down with her for an interview.
Her long hair flows midway down to her waist; much like the modern image of the Goddess Lakshmi that graces the book’s cover.
“Is it a memoir?” she asks quizzically. “I suppose that’s one way of looking at it. You do know that most memoirs are written by ghostwriters, right?”
I laugh. Dipa has a point. There are many actors who play their part behind-the-scenes as a book makes the journey from blank page to publication.
“So how would you describe The Merchant of Stories?” I ask.
“It’s a series of diary entries that I curated together to create a book,” Dipa says. “I’ve kept diaries and journals for as long as I can remember. I find that if I don’t write things down, I easily forget. It’s a record of my own personal journey as I published my debut novel The Little Light as well as started my business Mith Books.”
“What made you decide to publish your personal diary?”
“The idea came from one of the editors I work with at Mith Books. He said that it’s very easy to write a story in hindsight when everything makes sense. But to write what is going on as the events unfold in realtime is an entirely different experience. A lot of people have said that the narrative style in the book is unique. It implores you to expect the unexpected. Truth be told, that’s what life is really like.
“Life doesn’t fit into a neat narrative, no matter how hard we try.”
“I have been here before. I know this place. Its soul reverberates with mine as though the two are one and the same”The Merchant of Stories by Dipa Sanatani
Singapore is a sovereign island city-state in maritime Southeast Asia. The English name of Singapore is an anglicisation of the Malay name for the country–Singapura–which is derived from the Sanskrit for lion city. In the Nagarakretagama, a Javanese epic poem written in 1365, and a Vietnamese source from the same time period; Singapore is referred to as Temasak, which means Sea Town, derived from the Malay tasek, meaning “sea” or “lake”.
“The first half of your book focuses on your travels across the globe,” I say. “But there is a marked shift during the second half, where the narrative–or should I say your diary entries–shifts its focus to the journey of your ancestors and the rediscovery of your heritage in Singapore. What led to this shift?”
Dipa laughs. She’s dressed in her signature red attire with matching lipstick. I want to ask her why she always chooses to dress in a hue that matches the colour of the city-state’s national flag; but I decide against it. The last thing I wanted to do was to poke questions on her appearance when I was meant to be speaking with her about the delightful annecdotes in her book.
“It wasn’t a conscious shift,” she says, still smiling. “I was condensing my thoughts and expressing what was going on in my life at time. I’d also just returned to Singapore after 12 years abroad. In a way, it was a tougher experience than heading to a new destination and embarking on a new adventure.
“The places and people were familiar; but I was reconnecting with the land and the culture after such a long time. There was a huge vacuum in my heart that I was longing to fill.”
“A vacuum?” I ask, slightly puzzled.
“Yes,” she says. “I mean, I’d been away for over a decade and gone on globetrotting around the world. Most people idealised my life; thinking I’d simply gone away for an extended holiday. They never stopped to consider how hard it is to uproot yourself for that long and to start from scratch over and over again.”
I nod, understanding the sentiment. In the voyages of the past, it was primarily men who left home searching for a better life.
“Must have been very hard for you,” I say.
“It was,” Dipa says with a small smile. “But I made the most of the opportunities that life was generous enough to give me.”
“But in your book, there are tales of heartbreak, failure, and even despair. What kept you going?”
Dipa nods. Her eyes gaze towards the horizon, something I have seen her do time and time again. I never know whether she is daydreaming or contemplating something.
“What do you believe your purpose is?” I probe.
“I have always believed that the human experience is both unique and universal. I know that we are all different–based on culture, country, creed and whatever else it is that distinguishes us from our fellow man. But I also believe that there is a universal thread that ties people together across continents, cultures and even time periods.
“Our individual story is part of the universal story. I believe in honouring the individual and universal story.”
What does it mean to come from a long line of entrepreneurs? What is the legacy they’ve left me? What is the legacy I’m meant to carry forward for future generations?The Merchant of Stories by Dipa Sanatani
Ancestral veneration was and remains an important facet of countless cultures around the world. From the Hindu Shradh, to the Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival to the Mexican Dia de los Muertos. By honouring the lives of our forebears, we understand that we are a part of something greater, larger and far bigger than ourselves.
“You are the first woman in a long tradition of male entrepreneurs,” I say. “How have you handled this cultural shift and transition?”
Dipa laughs. She does that a lot. She even does it when I’m asking her a perfectly serious question.
“Oh,” she says still smiling, “Traditions must reimagine and realign themselves or they eventually fade away.
“My ancestors were pioneers. They came to Singapore in 1901; well before Singapore became the prosperous nation it is today. I don’t think pioneers ever stick to the letter of the law too strongly. I believe it was a certain spirit in them that propelled them forward onto the path of entrepreneurship.
“It is that same spirit that lives on in me.
“As a woman, I have faced idiosyncratic challenges as an entrepreneur; but at the same time, I’m sure my ancestors faced unique challenges of their own. You just have to accept that the journey you are on is not going to be easy.”
Entrepreneurship is never for the faint-hearted–whether you’re building a small business or a large empire. It is not for those who allow their weaknesses to get the better of them. Entrepreneurs are confronted by both themselves and the economy in which they function. It is a daily fight to survive, to compete, to stay competitive and to thrive in the face of adversity.
“In your book you speak of a family legacy,” I say. “But you’re in a different profession and industry to that of your ancestors. How do you reconcile the two?”
“Entrepreneurs are the ones who start businesses,” Dipa says. “They are not the ones who inherit them. If I continued or carried on the business they started, I would not be an entrepreneur. I would be a successor. Someone who succeeds their forebears faces significantly different challenges to entrepreneurs who start from scratch. Entrepreneurs begin with zero. Nothing more.
“Successors have a legacy to live up to. Something to continue and carry forward; or perhaps something they need to maintain or preserve. When an organisation or institution is large and established, it requires a different sort of leader to that of an entrepreneur.
“I am not a successor. I am an entrepreneur.”
This time it’s my turn to laugh. I finally realise that Dipa doesn’t laugh because she finds something funny; but because she lives her life with a certain sense of joy. If she didn’t, it might all be too unsurmountable.
“I have no doubt that many people around you look up to you or find your journey inspiring,” I say. “Do you have any parting words of advice to aspiring entrepreneurs?”
“Build the business that only you can build. There is no point looking up to anybody or putting them up on a pedestal. We have a lot to learn, discover and share with entrepreneurs both past and present. In either case, when we depart from this world; we will have to leave our businesses behind. So enjoy the journey from zero to hero.
“And make sure you relish and delight in every moment of the journey. It’s going to be the adventure of a lifetime.”