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 Sun (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

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

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.

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

1994: The Caning of Michael Fay34

Nureza Ahmad

1. Kirpal Singh, ed., Interlogue: Studies in Singapore Literature, vol. 4 (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2001), 81 (Call no. RSING 809.895957 INT); Jane Lee, “‘Free Spirit’ Gopal Baratham Dies,” Straits Times, 24 April 2002, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
2. Stephanie Yap, “Burning Criticism,” Straits Times, & September 2008, 62. (From NewspaperSG)
3. Singh, Studies in Singapore Literature, 81.
4. Singh, Studies in Singapore Literature, 83; Yap, “Burning Criticism.” 
5. Singh, Studies in Singapore Literature, 81.
6. Singh, Studies in Singapore Literature, 82–84.
7. David Kraal, “My Hero, in Many Ways,” Straits Times, 30 April 2002, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
8. Singh, Studies in Singapore Literature, 85.
9. Lee, “‘Free Spirit’ Gopal Baratham Dies.”
10. Singh, Studies in Singapore Literature, 85–87; Yap, “Burning Criticism.” 
11. Edwin Thumboo, “Past Told with Sensitivity,” Straits Times, 30 August 2000, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
12. Thumboo, “Past Told with Sensitivity.” 
13. S. N. Vasuki, “Speaking His Mind,” Business Times, 28 March 1992, 25. (From NewspaperSG)
14. Lee, “‘Free Spirit’ Gopal Baratham Dies.”
15. Gopal Baratham, A Candle or the Sun (London: Serpent’s Tail, 1991).  (Call no. RSING S823 GOP)
16. Gopa Baratham, Moonrise, Sunset (London: Serpent’s Tail, 1996). (Call no. RSING 823 GOP)
17. Gopal Baratham, A Candle or the Sun (New York: Penguin, 1992). (Call no. RCLOS S823 BAR)
18. Singh, Studies in Singapore Literature, 95.
19. Lee, “‘Free Spirit’ Gopal Baratham Dies.”
20. Tan Hsueh Yun, “Writer Rejects Award,” Straits Times, 9 September 1992, 23; Sharon Loh, “No Sayang Lost,” Straits Times, 18 September 1992, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
21. Lee, “‘Free Spirit’ Gopal Baratham Dies.”
22. Deepika Shetty, “Rediscovering Singapore’s Literary Pioneer,” Straits Times, 8 November 2014, 2; “Utter-Ly Local,” New Paper, 23 July 2014, 26 (From NewspaperSG); National Arts Council, “Singapore Writers Festival - Utter 2014 Returns with a Showcase of Films Adapted from Four Short Stories (Annex),” press release, 7 July 2014.
23. Akshita Namda, “Art Picks: Textures – a Weekend with Words, OH! Emerald Hill, and More,” Straits Times, 9 March 2018. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
24. “Teachers Bag Six of the Seven 1982 Book Prizes,” Straits Times, 4 September 1982, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
25. Koh Buck Song, “Neurosurgeon Wins Literary Award,” Straits Times, 13 July 1991, 26. (From NewspaperSG)
26. Yap, “Burning Criticism.” 
27. Gopal Baratham, Sayang (Singapore: Times Books International, 1991). (Call no. RSING S823 GOP)
28. Gopal Baratham, Fragments of Experience (Singapore: Times Books International, 1981). (Call no. RSING S823 GOP)
29. Gopal Baratham, Love Letter and Other Stories (Singapore: Times Books International, 1988). Call no. RSING S823.01 GOP)
30. Gopal Baratham, People Make You Cry and Other Stories (Singapore: Times Books International, 1988). (Call no. RSING S823.01 GOP)
31. Gopal Baratham, Memories That Glow in the Dark (Singapore: PipalTree Pub, 1995). (Call no. RSING S823 GOP)
32. Gopal Baratham, The City of Forgetting: The Collected Stories of Gopal Baratham (Singapore: Times Books International, 2011). (Call no. RSING S823 GOP)
33. Gopal Baratham, Collected Short Stories (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2014). (Call no. RSING S823 BAR)
34. Gopal Baratham, The Caning of Michael Fay (Singapore: KRP Publications, 1994). (Call no. RSING 364.164 GOP)

The information in this article is valid as at July2018 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.