Bong Joon-ho’s Academy Award winning South Korean black comedy, Parasite (2019), brought the unseen elves who ensure our lives run smoothly to the foreground. So it is with Balli Kaur Jaswal’s latest novel, Now You See Us (HarperCollins), which shines a spotlight on the lives of three very different women, Corazon, Angel and Donita, who are united by their profession as domestic workers in Singapore.
“ Parasite is an incisive exploration of class,” writes Jaswal over email. “It opened up conversations and it was also vigorously entertaining on many levels. There are stories and films out there taking the perspective of marginalised and invisible people. We all love an underdog story and, hopefully, we also see the areas in which we are complicit in certain oppressive structures.”
It is a hard life for Cora, Angel and Donita and sometimes their “Ma’ams” are a trial, but the women (except Donita) keep their heads down and carry on till a death turns everything upside down, dredging up memories of the execution of a Filipino domestic worker accused of killing a child in Singapore.
Shifting points of view
The case was a pivotal moment for Jaswal as a teenager. “I was struck by how different the truth could be depending on who was telling the story and where the loyalties and stakes were.” There were two narratives, the 38-year-old writes over email. “In Singapore, she was considered guilty and in the Philippines, she was assumed to be innocent.”
Jaswal’s debut novel, Inheritance (2013), followed by Sugarbread (2014), are set in Singapore between the late ’60s and the ’90s. Wanting to see how a murder would split loyalties and create conversations in the era of social media, Jaswal chose to set Now You See Us in the present. “Singapore has changed tremendously in some ways — in terms of wealth and landscape — but unfortunately certain attitudes towards migrant workers haven’t shifted at the same pace.”
According to her, what has changed is access to nuanced and diversified stories and sources, and a capacity for speaking out due to the emergence of social media platforms. “It is an advantage for domestic workers, too. They stay connected to each other and to their families back home. They also have access to important information and conversations that build solidarity during difficult times.”
Jaswal’s earlier books Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows (2017) was set in the U.K., and The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters (2019) in India. This time she returns to Singapore to tell a story without Indians being front and centre.
“I wasn’t drawing from my life for the first time,” Jaswal says. “I had to consider the intricacies of culture, language, regional differences, food, etc, when shaping the characters. The novel went through authenticity readings with two Filipino writers whose feedback and suggestions were instrumental, especially when it came to contextualising certain Tagalog words/ phrases.”
Reclaiming power and voice
While Cora, Angel and Donita are protagonists, Jaswal says, “Cora’s story feels the most centred because of her back story and struggle with her recent past. Donita, with her tight-fitting, unapologetic clothes and painful plight, was the most fun to write.”
In the course of her research, Jaswal came across some whopping eye-openers, including unscrupulous agents and illegal deployments to factories. There were also fun discoveries. “Several women told me about going through training sessions on how to set a table for a five-course meal, and how to starch a linen table cloth, as if they would be serving royalty, only to come to Singapore and realise that most dining arrangements were quite casual.”
The book opens with a surreal description of the Merry Maids office where maids do different tasks at store windows and there are brochures listing maids from different countries with their suggested monthly wages and strengths. It is based on reality, Jaswal says as are Ma’am Facebook pages which she lurked around for material. “The posts that appeared in the book were barely altered. Some were too ridiculous to write; readers would think I was exaggerating.”
Jaswal describes Now You See Us as an optimistic novel. “It shows the women reclaiming some power and having a voice — within the constraints of Singapore society. It is our fundamental right to feel connected and loved. Yet domestic workers’ bodies are constantly policed, whether it’s through the clothes they wear, the employers’ restrictions against days off, or the shaming photographs that get sent around on social media when they are seen interacting with men.”
Donita’s employer, the hilarious Mrs Fann, is a composite of many entitled women Jaswal has come across in Singapore. “They barge into spaces, cut in line, throw tantrums and behave terribly when they don’t get their way.”
Now You See Us has a murder at its centre and finding out whodunit is vital for Angel, Cora and Donita. “I have some interest in murder mysteries, but only when they are adjacent to other narratives and topics.”