Gopal Baratham



Gopal Baratham (Dr) (b. 9 September 1935, Singapore–d. 23 April 2002, Singapore) was a neurosurgeon and author.1 He won the Southeast Asian Write Award in 1991, and his political thriller, A Candle or the Sun, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 1992. One of the first local writers whose works have been published by British publishers, Baratham received international praise for his fiction works, which are based on Singapore society.2

Early life
Baratham was born into a middle-class Brahmin family in Singapore. His grandfather and father were medical doctors, while his mother was a nurse.3 His parents divorced when he was around nine years old.4


Educated in a Japanese school during the Japanese Occupation of Singapore (1942–45), Baratham remembered not having any “normal schoolwork”, much less a textbook. His education then consisted primarily of drilling and marching, as well as some singing lessons.5

Baratham’s early development was influenced greatly by his parents’ cousin, known to him as Uncle Luther. His father taught him to read English when he was four. At the age of eight, his father introduced him to newspapers and the dictionary, talked to him about “all sorts of things”, including Picasso, surrealism and the space-time continuum, and read Shakespeare to him and his sister in the evenings. Luther, who stayed with Baratham’s family during the war, was a great storyteller who enthralled Baratham with tales such as David Copperfield and Tess of D’urbervilles. Luther also introduced painting to the children, got them books to read, and made them memorise huge tracts of verse and prose. Luther “could never stop talking about literature” and Baratham considered his uncle the most important literary influence in his life.6

After the war, Baratham studied at St Andrew’s School. He excelled both academically and in sports. He topped his class every year, and his love for cricket earned him the captainship of his school cricket team. His poems were also published in the school magazine. He graduated as St Andrew’s top student in the Cambridge examinations.7

Medical career
Baratham went on to study medicine at the University of Malaya in Singapore.8 He then spent seven years in England training as a neurosurgeon. After returning to Singapore, he worked as a neurosurgeon at Tan Tock Seng Hospital until 1987, and went into private practice thereafter. He retired from full practice in 1999.9

Literary career
Like many other writers, Baratham started writing when he was still in school. He enjoyed telling himself stories, and “telling stories to people who listen”. Towards the end of his medical school days, he started writing weekly articles for the local newspapers and continued to do so for a year and a half. Baratham then concentrated on his career and family life, and did not do any actual story writing. He returned to writing in 1974 at the age of 39 when his first short story, “Island”, was published in the magazine, Commentary.10

Baratham’s literary works drew on his personal experiences of colonialism, racism, nationalism, industrialisation, modernisation, globalisation and renaissance longings. These experiences gave him perspectives, attitudes and values that influenced his writings and were said to have given his works a depth and resonance that many younger writers could not grasp. Baratham addressed themes such as the stratification of Singapore society, alienation, fate or choice and certainty, as well as dealt with political and moral issues.11

The characters in Baratham’s stories come from various backgrounds and socioeconomic classes. His stories are peopled by Indians, Chinese, Malays, Eurasians and Europeans. There is an ambivalence about his stories because he leaves the judgement of his characters to the reader. This accords with his sympathetic understanding of events and people, their actions and relationships.12 Another characteristic of his writing is the use of blunt and strong language.13

Baratham was one of the first Singapore writers whose works were published by British publishers.14 His novels, A Candle or the Su (1991)15 and Moonrise, Sunset (1996),16 were first published by Britain’s Serpent’s Tail, while the former was picked up for publication by Penguin in 1992.17 Local publishing houses had rejected A Candle or the Sun.18

A Candle or the Sun became an internationally acclaimed political thriller and was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 1992.19

The National Book Development Council of Singapore awarded Baratham the Commended prize for A Candle or the Sun in 1992. However, Baratham turned down the award and requested not to be considered for future awards by the council, stating that the council had “standards different from what [he had]”. He expressed disappointment that the book had not been considered for the top prize despite the international attention it had garnered. He argued that the panel of judges had been looking for a “Singapore style of writing”, which he did not adopt because he wanted to write for the “wider, international, mainstream audience”.20

Death
Baratham died at the age of 66 from pneumonia. His death was a shock to many in the medical and literary fraternities. They expressed a keen sense of loss for a man remembered as a disarmingly down-to-earth, compassionate and jovial surgeon who always had a kind word for his patients, as well as a prominent, articulate and outspoken writer who spoke his mind without fear.21

Tribute
In 2014, the Singapore Writers Festival (SWF) celebrated Baratham’s contributions to the Singapore literary canon as part of their Literary Pioneer Showcase. This included a panel discussion, a literary reading as well as a short film inspired by his short story Homecoming. Titled That Loving Feeling, the film was directed by Wee Li Lin for SWF’s pre-festival programme, Utter.22 Baratham’s work was also one of four short stories performed as a theatrical piece in 2018, as part of The Arts House’s literary festival programming line-up, The Page on Stage.23


Milestones and awards
1974: First short story, Island”, published in Commentary, a publication of the National University of Singapore.
1982: Highly Commended prize for Figments of Experience, National Book Development Council of Singapore.24
1991: Southeast Asian Write Award.25
1991: Elected president of the ASEAN Association of Neurosurgeons.26
1992: A Candle or the Sun shortlisted for Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.

Works
Novels
1991: Sayang27
1991: A Candle or the Sun
1996: Moonrise, Sunset

Short story collections
1981: Figments of Experience28
1988: Love Letter and Other Stories29
1988: People Make You Cry and Other Stories30
1995: Memories that Glow in the Dark31
2000: The City of Forgetting: The Collected Stories of Gopal Baratham32
2014: Collected Short Stories33

Non-fiction
1994: The Caning of Michael Fay34



Author
Nureza Ahmad



References
1. Klein, R. D. (Ed.). (2001). Interlogue: Studies in Singapore literature (Vol. 4). Singapore: Ethos Books, p. 81. (Call no.: RSING 809.895957 INT); Lee, J. (2002, April 24). ‘Free spirit’ Gopal Baratham diesThe Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
2. Yap, S. (2008, September 7). Burning criticismThe Straits Times, p. 62. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
3. Klein, R. D. (Ed.). (2001). Interlogue: Studies in Singapore literature (Vol. 4). Singapore: Ethos Books, p. 81. (Call no.: RSING 809.895957 INT)
4. Klein, R. D. (Ed.). (2001). Interlogue: Studies in Singapore literature (Vol. 4). Singapore: Ethos Books, p. 83. (Call no.: RSING 809.895957 INT); Yap, S. (2008, September 7). Burning criticism. The Straits Times, p. 62. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
5. Klein, R. D. (Ed.). (2001). Interlogue: Studies in Singapore literature (Vol. 4). Singapore: Ethos Books, p. 81. (Call no.: RSING 809.895957 INT)
6. Klein, R. D. (Ed.). (2001). Interlogue: Studies in Singapore literature (Vol. 4). Singapore: Ethos Books, pp. 82–84. (Call no.: RSING 809.895957 INT)
7. Kraal, D. (2002, April 30). My hero, in many waysThe Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. Klein, R. D. (Ed.). (2001). Interlogue: Studies in Singapore literature (Vol. 4). Singapore: Ethos Books, p. 85. (Call no.: RSING 809.895957 INT)
9. Lee, J. (2002, April 24). ‘Free spirit’ Gopal Baratham diesThe Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. Klein, R. D. (Ed.). (2001). Interlogue: Studies in Singapore literature (Vol. 4). Singapore: Ethos Books, pp. 85–87. (Call no.: RSING 809.895957 INT); Yap, S. (2008, September 7). Burning criticismThe Straits Times, p. 62. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. Thumboo, E. (2000, August 30). Past told with sensitivityThe Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
12. Thumboo, E. (2000, August 30). Past told with sensitivityThe Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. Vasuki, S. N. (1992, March 28). Speaking his mindThe Business Times, p. 25. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. Lee, J. (2002, April 24). ‘Free spirit’ Gopal Baratham diesThe Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. Baratham, G. (1991). A candle or the sun. London: Serpent’s Tail. (Call no.: RSING S823 GOP)
16. Baratham, G. (1996). Moonrise, sunset. London: Serpent’s Tail. (Call no.: RSING 823 GOP)
17. Baratham, G. (1992). A candle or the sun. New Delhi; New York: Penguin. (Call no.: RCLOS S823 BAR)
18. Klein, R. D. (Ed.). (2001). Interlogue: Studies in Singapore literature (Vol. 4). Singapore: Ethos Books, p. 95. (Call no.: RSING 809.895957 INT)
19. Lee, J. (2002, April 24). ‘Free spirit’ Gopal Baratham diesThe Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
20. Tan, H. Y. (1992, September 9). Writer rejects awardThe Straits Times, p. 23; Loh, S. (1992, September 18). No sayang lostThe Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
21. Lee, J. (2002, April 24). ‘Free spirit’ Gopal Baratham diesThe Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
22. Shetty, D. (2014, November 8). Rediscovering Singapore’s literary pioneer. The Straits Times, p. 2; Utter-ly local. (2014, July 23). The New Paper, p. 26. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; National Arts Council. (2014, July 7). Singapore Writers Festival - Utter 2014 Returns with a Showcase of Films Adapted from Four Short Stories (Annex). Retrieved 2018, July 31 from National Arts Council website: https://www.nac.gov.sg/media-resources/press-releases/Singapore-Writers-Festival-2014.html
23. Nanda, A. (2018, March 9). Arts Picks: Textures – a weekend with words, OH! Emerald Hill, and more. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
24. Teachers bag six of the seven 1982 book prizes. (1982, September 4). The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
25. Koh, B. S. (1991, July 13). Neurosurgeon wins literary awardThe Straits Times, p. 26. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
26. Yap, S. (2008, September 7). Burning criticismThe Straits Times, p. 62. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
27. Baratham, G. (1991). Sayang. Singapore: Times Books International. (Call no.: RSING S823 GOP)
28. Baratham, G. (1981). Fragments of experience. Singapore: Times Books International. (Call no.: RSING S823 GOP)
29. Baratham, G. (1988). Love letter and other stories. Singapore: Times Books International. (Call no.: RSING S823.01 GOP)
30. Baratham, G. (1988). People make you cry and other stories. Singapore: Times Books International. (Call no.: RSING S823.01 GOP)
31. Baratham, G. (1995). Memories that glow in the dark. Singapore: PipalTree Pub. (Call no.: RSING S823 GOP)
32. Baratham, G. (2001). The city of forgetting: The collected stories of Gopal Baratham. Singapore: Times Books International. (Call no.: RSING S823 GOP)
33. Baratham. G. (2014). Collected short stories. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions. (Call no.: RSING S823 BAR)
34. Baratham, G. (1994). The caning of Michael Fay. Singapore: KRP Publications. (Call no.: RSING 364.164 GOP)



The information in this article is valid as at July 2018 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

 

Subject
Language and literature>>Fiction
Language and literature>>Literatures>>East and Southeast Asian literature>>Singapore literature
Personalities>>Biographies>>Artists
Authors
Artists
Neurosurgeons--Singapore