Pioneer poet and publisher Chandran Nair dies at 78

Chandran Nair was an active and prominent poet and publisher from the 1960s to 1980s when he was based in Singapore. PHOTO: COURTESY OF CHANDRAN NAIR

SINGAPORE – Singapore pioneer poet Chandran Nair died of a heart attack at age 78 in the arms of his wife Ivy Goh Nair in Montigny-le-Bretonneux, just outside Paris, on Monday afternoon.

Mrs Goh Nair told The Straits Times (ST) over Facebook Messenger: “Chandran was a great poet, publisher and diplomat. But for me, the greatest thing about him was that he always stood for the underdog and those who were persecuted. It didn’t further his career very much, but he succeeded.”

She added: “I am grieving and have not accepted that he has gone yet.”

An active and prominent poet and publisher from the 1960s to 1980s, when he was based in Singapore, Nair is best known as the writer of Reaching For Stones (2009).

The anthology published by Ethos Books surveyed his work from 1963 to 2009, written in Singapore, Karachi in Pakistan, and Paris.

Pioneer writer Robert Yeo, 83, who describes Nair as a “dear friend”, fondly recalls writing and discussing poems together in Yeo’s house in the 1960s. “I cannot remember discussing poetry with many people, but Chandran was the one I remembered the most.”

Yeo said that while Nair would be remembered more for his poetry, he also recalls Nair as a short story writer who was an “experimentalist in the Joycean sense” and as a “literary activist” in the 1970s, when Nair co-founded Woodrose Publications and published Singapore writers like Geraldine Heng.

Writer Felix Cheong, 58, who described Nair as “one of the best poets of his generation” in a Facebook post, told ST that Nair was “surprised that someone from (Cheong’s) generation would know about his poetry” when Cheong approached Nair to contribute an essay for a book on Singapore poets, Idea To Ideal (2004).

Born in Kerala, India, in 1945, Nair moved to Singapore at the age of seven and studied at Raffles Institution – where he published his first poems in the school’s annual journal The Rafflesian – and then at the University of Singapore, where he received a Master of Science in marine biology.

He published his first book, Once The Horseman And Other Poems, in 1972, and a sophomore collection, After The Hard Hours, This Rain, in 1975.

In 1977, Nair edited a literary anthology, Singapore Writing, which surveyed the landscape of pioneering Singaporean writers working in different languages, including Edwin Thumboo, Angeline Yap, Abdul Ghani Hamid and Wong Yoon Wah.

Nair spent the earlier part of his career working in publishing houses such as Eastern Universities Press, Federal Publications and Times Books International before leaving Singapore to work for Unesco in Karachi – where he also took up painting and theatre – and subsequently France.

Joshua Ip, chairman and station director of Sing Lit Station, says the literary non-profit will organise a memorial for Nair on Sept 28 at 8pm, with more details to come.

Nair is survived by his wife, three daughters – Radha, Meera and Chandrika Nair – and six grandchildren.

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