The Punkhawala and the Prostitute by Wesley Leon Aroozoo, #123 review

Rating: ๐ŸŒŸ๐ŸŒŸ๐ŸŒŸ๐ŸŒŸ/5


Finalist for the 2021 Epigram Books Fiction Prize

Beneath the faรงade of a land golden with opportunities dwell two destitutes shipped to Singapore in the late 1800s. Oseki, an ingenue forced into servitude as a karayuki, grapples with betrayal by her own father and transforms into a monster she canโ€™t recognise. Gobind, a deaf convict from India, serves his sentence as a punkhawala to a tiger-hunting British master obsessed with killing Rimau Satan, the man-eating tiger; while on a hunt, his butchered memories lurk from the darkness, aching to pounce. When their paths intertwine, they face their inner demons to find humanity and their way back home.


This is a magical realism thriller set in 1800s Singapore during the colonial era. It is true and authentic, written by a Singaporean. Even so, I find that Malaysians will enjoy this story immensely since both of our countries, Malaya (at that time) and Singapore shared many customs, even now XD

It switches up between the POV of:
Gobind, the punkhawala, a worker that manually rotates ceiling fans, a slave from India here to serve this time.
Oseki, the karayuki, a Japanese prostitute, sent on false pretence to be married in Singapore, leaving her family and her beloved country only to be sold to a brothel.
Osbert, Gobind’s master, an Englishmen here to oversee his father in law’s nutmeg plantation business. Call it procrastination or madness, he becomes obsessed with killing Rimau Satan, a man-eating tiger.

This is an eye-opening read that represents those marginalised lower-class people forgotten in history. The title itself is a giveaway to those stories that were buried away in order not to sully the glorified history. Before a country is in its glitz with the tall skyscrapers, let’s all reflect that it was once a developing small town. This book is the remembrance of that.

The writing style of this book is the definition of “show, don’t tell”. Aroozoo writes descriptively in a narrative shift between the first and third-person point of view which separates the past and present setting in the story. It also contributes to the tension and thrill of reading the story. It felt very personal when reading. To me, the separate POVs and stories of their home the protagonists told were like reading a memoir or listening to en elderly recall their golden days. As such, this book isn’t suitable for a beginner reader since it tests the reader’s ability to key out the puzzle for themselves, it is not a “spoon-feed” kind of novel where the context is laid out in black and white. You have to think through the lines when you read this book, it makes it much more interesting and thrilling. The author uses different languages in the book. English being the obvious, there is also mention of Japanese, Hindi and Malay.

I love that it included South-East Asian folklore/ mythologies. I have to comment on the ending of the book, the cliffhanger. His characters are so well written that still know what happened based on your knowledge of the character’s personality.

Thank you to the author for sending me this book. It was both enlightening and educational. I highly recommend readers who finished reading the book to read reviews written by Singaporeans on Goodreads, those reviews explain into detail far more eloquently than my ability.

By elysianbooksish

The Bookish Faerie who loves to read and write, and bake too

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