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Singapore theatre and never feeling at home

Plays that explore identity and home


Published: 18 Nov 2023

Pen 2

Updated: 20 Nov 2023

Time taken : ~10mins

Moving somewhere new is always going to be difficult, and it certainly was for playwright-director Shiv Tandan when he relocated to Mumbai in 2015 after spending nearly a decade in Singapore.

“A lot of stuff that makes me who I am came from my life in Singapore—my accent, my way of life, my work ethic, my values,” the 32-year-old explains. “Getting used to Mumbai and how people here worked was an uphill battle. Time moves differently here.”

As if to illustrate the point, Shiv is calling in from the passenger seat of a vehicle inching through one of Mumbai’s infamous traffic jams. Unruffled, he continues, “But I kind of figured it out eventually.”

Shiv channeled his fish-out-of-water experiences into Fistful of Rupees, a semi-autobiographical play that paints a colourful, chaotic portrait of Mumbai and its young, eager-eyed immigrants trying to find their footing amidst the hustle and bustle.

Mirroring Shiv’s life, the character of Raghav graduates from the National University of Singapore (NUS) and moves to Mumbai. Raghav’s Singapore-based beliefs are challenged from the get-go, from his expectations of punctuality and safety to his experiences with the local weather.

Shiv and his theatre company Stone Paper Stories have been presenting Fistful of Rupees all around Mumbai since 2019. When the production finally makes its Singapore premiere on 24 Nov 2023 at the Esplanade Recital Studio, it will find itself in good company with the plethora of Singapore plays that have explored the all-too-familiar struggle with not feeling at home.

The identity crisis

When you throw yourself into a new environment, you are forced to examine your beliefs and values.

“[Immigrants are] trying to see themselves in a new light, answer questions that nobody seems to have asked them before: Who are you? Where are you from? Why are you here? What do you do?”

Shiv Tandan, playwright-director of Fistful of Rupees

Raghav is certainly put through the loop in Fistful of Rupees figuring out who he is now that he is in Mumbai. In a stark moment of introspection, he ponders, “Am I just faking through it all hoping no one will notice?”

When you’re mired in self-doubt, there is typically a tussle between choosing which parts of your old self to keep so you stay who you think you are, and which parts to change to better suit your new environment. This disconcerting experience of disassembling and reformulating your identity is brilliantly portrayed onstage in the much-loved monodrama Rosnah, written by Haresh Sharma and first staged in 1995 by The Necessary Stage.

Rosnah, a young Malay Muslim Singaporean woman, moves to London for her studies and finds her new life in London accentuating her Malay ethnicity, her Islamic faith, her familial duties, and her Singaporean identity. She questions whether her British boyfriend likes her for who she is, or just because she is “exotic”. She resists changing what she considers the core parts of her identity, even chiding herself for altering the way she speaks and adopting their “slang”.

As a counterpoint to Rosnah’s reticence towards shifts in her identity, the audience is introduced to her childhood friend named Muslinda. Since moving to London, she has restyled herself as “Linda”, hardly speaks Malay, and only mingles with White men. Linda gives Rosnah a friendly warning: “You have to change. If you want to survive here, you must change. You are not in Singapore, so don’t behave like you are. You have to change. You will.”

In the play, Rosnah does change, in ways that she can accept, and in ways that trouble her. But after returning to Singapore and discovering her family marred by tragedy, she learns another hard truth—home changes as well.

You can never go home again

In Shiv’s debut full-length play The Good, the Bad, and the Sholay, which he developed in 2011 under the mentorship of local theatre company Checkpoint Theatre, he draws heavily from his childhood in the North Indian city of Ambala. But after spending so much time in Singapore, the return to his country of origin was not an easy transition.

“It’s difficult when you come back to India and you look like this, but you’re not really the same,” Shiv admits.

 I’ve changed, and so has India. And so has Singapore [since I left]. The question of where I’m from—it became more and more complicated as time went on.

Shiv Tandan

Shiv would be what sociologists call a ‘third culture individual’, someone who does not quite identify with the culture of their birth after spending an extended period of time elsewhere. In Fistful of Rupees, Raghav meets a host of returning expatriates who face difficulties finding their bearings in their home country and experience varying degrees of alienation.

Characters living overseas and returning home is also a hallmark of early Singapore plays. In the essay collection 9 Lives: 10 Years of Singapore Theatre, theatre scholar David Birch notes the motif of the “Singaporean abroad” in English-language plays of the 60s and 70s, reflecting the experiences of a small group of returning English-educated Singaporeans who ventured into theatre-making.

For example, Mimi Fan was written in 1962 by Lim Chor Pee who schooled at Cambridge. In the play, the protagonist Chan Fei-Loong is a figure of disconnection, an orphan who once had a dream that “everyone in the world lost his [sic] memory completely” and “the entire population on earth had to start again in search of itself”. His uncle had sent him to the UK for school and he returns to Singapore, commenting on the alienation felt by those who had received an overseas English education: “They all knew about William the Conqueror and could write little essays about the beautiful mountains of Scotland without having seen them, but they knew nothing about their country... What is worse, all our values got mixed up—some are borrowed, some are improvised, and some came ready-made from American films.”

Furthermore, Singapore itself was undergoing huge tectonic shifts. Within the two decades prior to when Mimi Fan was penned, Singapore was part of the British Empire, then occupied by the Japanese in World War II, and, during the timeframe of the play, on the cusp of becoming a state of the Federation of Malaya. A few short years later in 1965, Singapore would become an independent nation. Mimi Fan presents a Singapore that, in Fei-Loong’s words, was “in search of a soul” and had to “learn the hard way and find out our own identity”.

But feeling disconnected from where one considers home is not exclusive to those who return after an overseas stint—it is entirely possible to never leave home, and yet never truly feel at home.


Shiv wrote the first draft of Fistful of Rupees in 2015 when he was making his transition from Singapore to Mumbai and flying back and forth between the two cities. He presented a reading of this early version that year at an event organised by Checkpoint Theatre, with which he is still an Associate Artist to this day. Shiv continued working on the script in Mumbai in a series of workshops with a team of actors.

“We started discussing a lot of different stories of belonging in a city like Mumbai,” Shiv shares. “[The discussions] became more about any city, any person who has faced this kind of discomfort. This uneasiness seems to be a universal feeling.”

“The play became about a lot of people, a lot of different stories, [including] people feeling like they never belonged even when they’ve always lived there their whole lives.”

For example, in Fistful of Rupees, a resident native to Mumbai shares the story of her nani [Hindi for maternal grandmother] being her sole caregiver as child: “It was my nani who raised me, and she was my mother till third grade. And then after many years, [my parents] just came and took me back. It was really disorientating. And then after that I’ve never really felt at home.”

In the 1990s, late theatre doyen Kuo Pao Kun raised the idea of Singaporeans as ‘cultural orphans’ whose identity lacked any stable, deep-rooted foundations. He articulated this sense of rootlessness in the landmark play Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral (1995), a lyrical depiction of a people cut off from their heritage and set adrift in a modern cosmopolitan world. 


Here are a couple stanzas from the final scene of the play that speak to feeling unmoored:

Home? I have no home
My home is across the ocean, on the seas
Home? I have no home
My home is in alien countries, on far away waters

I have no name
I have no sex
Departing is my arriving
Wandering is my residence

But if home is nowhere, can the converse be true? Can wandering be your “residence”? Can home be everywhere, and how?

Home is everywhere and anywhere

There is one straightforward solution for intrepid newcomers to a big city like Mumbai – find your tribe.

“The first thing I did in the first six months [of moving to Mumbai] was I met everybody I could think of—someone’s cousins here, someone’s old classmate who they recently reconnected with on Facebook etc.,” Shiv shares. “That initial brush of Mumbai became the first draft of [Fistful of Rupees].”

And that is what Shiv’s play, at its heart, is all about—a lonely immigrant meeting different people in search of community and kindred spirits. It is an incredibly empowering thought that a sense of belonging can be created through building one’s network. And, that home has less to do with location and more about people.

Shiv has arrived at the same conclusion. When asked where home to him is now, he answers by whip-panning the camera to the driver on his right. It’s his wife, Maanavi, at the wheel, whom he had met while they were both studying at NUS.

“This person is home,” Shiv says, bringing his face back into frame. “We’ve moved apartments so many times in the last few years. If I have to move countries, that’s fine too.”

“As long as I have Maanavi and my family, home is everywhere and anywhere for now.”


Catch Fistful of Rupees from 24–26 Nov 2023 at the Esplanade Recital Studio as part of Kalaa Utsavam – Indian Festival of Arts.

Contributed by:

Daniel Teo

Daniel Teo is a freelance writer. Previously, he worked at Centre 42, a theatre development centre, as a researcher, archivist and documenter.

Experience the diversity

Kalaa Utsavam – Indian Festival of Arts

Feast on the sights and sounds of Indian arts and culture at Kalaa Utsavam!

17 – 26 Nov 2023
Various venues
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