A high-profile murder case will always rock a society, especially if it’s in a country reputed for its peace and order, namely Singapore. This is the premise of Balli Kaur Jaswal’s fifth novel, Now You See Us (HarperCollins; 327 pages; ₹499). Jaswal, author of the international bestseller Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows (2017) has written books based in Singapore earlier (Inheritance, 2013 and Sugarbread, 2016), which commented on the Punjabi communities there. With Now You See Us, Jaswal returns to Singapore and its migrants.
Jaswal, 38, tells Open, “Both these books were set in previous decades, so I was relying on memory—both my individual memory and the collective memory of historical narratives. There was some distance that allowed me to figure out the narrative I wanted to tell, using history as a backdrop. For this novel however, everything I wanted to write about was happening in real time.”
Now You See Us explores the layers beneath Singapore’s perfect veneer, and focuses on three Filipino maids and friends, Cora, Angel, and Donita, their trials as domestic workers and immigrants, and how their work as domestic help allows them to know the underbelly of the elite. Donita’s friend Flordeliza Martinez, also a Filipino, is accused of murdering her employer Carolyn Hong, which Donita insists cannot be possible, and they conduct their own investigation of the murder. They’re all too aware of the way household help are made into scapegoats. All three friends have worked for terrible employers; Flor’s fate could have been theirs. Donita’s current employer is the ever-suspicious, fault-finding Mrs Fann. On hearing that a maid killed her employer, “Angel’s first fear was that Donita had finally snapped at Mrs Fann and gone after her with a meat cleaver.”
Depictions of domestic staff working for the wealthy are getting more traction in popular culture. Bong Joon-ho’s 2019 film Parasite, and the 2021 Netflix series Maid, were major successes. Singapore-based Jaswal says, “Everybody loves an underdog story. It’s more compelling to see unlikely invisible characters rise up against powerful forces than to watch a film about the powerful continuing to be powerful.”
In Now You See Us, Cora, Angel and Donita know they are invisible until their employers want something done, or when they have done something ‘wrong’, hence the title. Jaswal sees them as more than their professions, and they emerge with their own distinct and vibrant personalities. Each chapter is written from one of their perspectives. Cora, the oldest, is a veteran in working for privileged families, and was once an advocate for domestic workers. Now following a personal tragedy, she keeps her head down, and adjures the other two to do the same. Thirty-something Angel is fond of her employers but must fend off their son’s advances. Donita, the youngest and most defiant, struggles with her overbearing employer. She is also the most social-media savvy of the three. She checks the “Ma’am’s Facebook pages,” where employers across communities discuss and complain about their maids, especially when they ask for leave or more money. The book is interspersed with posts from these pages, which are based on real posts found in Singapore. News reports following the murder pepper the book. The book’s first page is the breaking news report of Carolyn Hong’s murder. These reports give the crime verisimilitude. This is unsurprising, since Flordeliza is based on the real-life Filipino maid Flor Contemplacion who was accused of murdering a Singaporean in 1995 and executed for it.
Jaswal had long been interested in this case as in the course of her parents’ postings she moved from Singapore to the Philippines as a teenager in the ’90s. She says, “Truth can be perceived differently depending on who is telling the story and where the loyalties and stakes are. I felt caught between two narratives in a sense because in Singapore, [Flor] was considered absolutely guilty but in the Philippines, she was wholeheartedly assumed to be innocent.” Jaswal wondered how a story like that would play out in the media today, where people are connected globally and have access to numerous news sources, including alternative media. In the 1990s there was one source of news in Singapore, which was state sponsored. After extensive research, many interviews and reading the accounts of domestic workers in Singapore, she decided to write up her findings as a novel rather than as reportage because she was interested in the narrative and in building characters. She says, “Fiction gives you the freedom to do that. The story came to me before I started researching; I had an outline of who, what, when and how before I began to speak to domestic workers.” Jaswal informally spoke to people who employed domestic workers in Singapore. “Conversations with friends and neighbours who employed domestic workers came up when I mentioned I was writing this novel. There was a difference in how people regarded domestic workers when they were speaking about them to me as a writer who was exploring exploitation and abuse, as opposed to casual comments,” she says. Jaswal’s research led her to recruitment agencies, which identify and employ maids from overseas, for hefty fees. The ironically named Merry Maids agency in the book, which placed Cora and Donita with their employers, is based on these companies. “What I know about the agencies is mostly anecdotal, from accounts by domestic workers and some employers who told me about their methods.” She had wanted to go to the Philippines to do more research on these agencies, but that hadn’t been possible, so she decided instead to focus on the women’s present, rather than their backstories, which makes it a more urgent and compelling read.
Everybody loves an underdog story. It’s more compelling to see unlikely invisible characters rise up against powerful forces than to watch a film about the powerful continuing to be powerful
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Immigrant workers are depicted as second-class citizens, with deportation threats held over their heads. In contrast, the book has lavish descriptions of Singapore’s ultra-rich, and lyrical ones of its idyllic, peaceful surface, with “its sloping suburban streets… crooning bulbuls, and frangipani petals scattered on the path.” Yet this tranquillity and order comes at the cost of severe penalties on lawbreakers and suspected law-breakers. It’s interesting that although Singapore’s law enforcement agencies are considered extreme, they have the reputation of being thorough and following due process. In this novel, the police immediately close in on only one possible culprit, Flordeliza, with little proof. Jaswal explains, “Their evidence is circumstantial. Flor was the only one with access to the home, where there were no signs of breaking in. There’s also a heavy bias and suspicion of migrant workers, and pressure to catch the culprit quickly because the Hongs are well-to-do.”
While many employers mistreat their maids and threaten to deport them, like Mrs Fann and Donita at one end of the spectrum, Cora and her employer Elizabeth are at the other. Elizabeth is extraordinarily kind to Cora, knowing about her abuse by a past employer. She constantly tells Cora to take breaks and treats her like a family member, which makes Cora uncomfortable. Cora thinks, “There are lines that cannot be crossed.” Jaswal explains that as the recently widowed Elizabeth has fallen out with her friends, she is lonely and senses a similar solitude in Cora. She also feels guilty for her wealth. On the other hand, Cora is afraid others will think she is taking advantage of Elizabeth. “She wants to keep her head down and doesn’t like drawing attention to herself. She also firmly feels that mingling with her employers and blurring the boundaries creates more complications,” says Jaswal. The novel also explores other dimensions of class in Singapore, such as the perpetually dissatisfied social-climber Mrs Fann.
These observations of class and communities aren’t new to Jaswal, as her father’s postings in the Foreign Ministry took her across Japan, Russia, as well as the Philippines. Her experiences teaching English in Australia and Turkey may have also shaped her views of the diaspora.
Now You See Us is a sensitive exploration of class, where the murder is an inflection point. Packed with action, it is a darkly humorous, insightful and engrossing read.