Friday, December 16, 2005

Singapore soliloquies

City of lights....and what lies beneath

Me back after a long absence. I know this may sound like I am boasting, but I have been zipping around (boy, does that sound good!) quite a lot and, I must admit, seemed to have lost the steam I started out with when I got blogging for the first time.
However, a couple of things happened (of which, more later) which have made me keen to get back on.
So, here goes.
First things first. Singapore (from where I got back a few days ago) is not a city I expected too much from
when I got a chance to jazz down there. My earliest memories of the city (``We are an island-nation-city-State'', my tour guide Carol informs me) were from the movie Ninaithalae Inikkum (in which a horribly bell-bottomed Rajinikanth tries to help a pathetically-mustachioed Kamal Hassan woo a short-haired and snappy Jayaprada in all the ways a woman would not want to be wooed) and that is saying much. A few years back, one of my neighbours showed me a woe-begone letter from a relative in Singapore which spoke of a pauper's life in Midas land. So, to cut a long story short, I was prepared to pick holes even before I set foot.
Singapore did not disappoint. It was everything I always thought it would be. Much too organised, much too governed, much too muchness of everything. Our car effortlessly touched 100 plus on the
superbly oiled roads, the cars were the gleamiest ever you would find, the buildings an architectural symphony of cement, concrete, steel and glass, glass, glass....
But then where are the people? In this city, touted to be Asia's richest and most futuristic, the buildings clearly have been allowed to overtake humans. Inside the befuddlingly vast shopping spaces on Orchard Road, for example, you try to look among the slim-waisted, hi-haute women to search for somebody with whom you could bookmark your memories of the city.
And then you find her....thirty-eight-year-old Valsamma, tightly-oiled bun, dirty saree hem peeping out of a fast food counter overall, silently and devoutly wrapping up tacos for Chanel-scented women who would have cared nought had they known that the Nagercoil native has been working here for nearly three years, earning a measly Rs 10,000 a month (of which Rs 4,000 goes for rent for a one-room apartment she is sharing with a Malaysian coolie), hoping to whip up enough to put her twelve-year-old daughter (growing up with grandparents back home) through medical school a few sweaty years later...
Singapore could not care less. It wouldn't want you to know the Valsammas existed, though. Every effort has been made to ensure that visitors breathed in opulence and breathed out the electronic baubles that choke the shelves of Mustafa's.
To know more, you would have to visit, what else, Little India. Finally, here I breathed free, surrounded by the sights, smells, sound and the utter (dearly loved, dearly missed) chaos. Serangoon Road is serendipity indeed, a nucleus of the promise that Singapore holds for the thousands of Vasus, Christophers, Shantis and Serenas....
Suddenly, it all makes sense. At the Night Safari, chef Mohammed (who worked for three years at Hotel President, Chennai) rustles up a quick vegetarian meal for me when he is told I am hesitant to choose anything from the 67-course buffet as I do not know what went into which...The hotel I am staying in takes special pains to ensure a copy of the overseas edition of The Hindu is delivered to my room every morning...Ricky, our driver, smiles when I tell him my car would crumble if ever I tried to top 60 plus on Chennai roads and says, ``But I am sure that has made you appreciate life more than I do...''Little acts of kindness from totally unexpected quarters....a city is after all, what its people make of it.
At Sentosa Island, after a high-decibel teen beach party, I try to make eye-contact with a Tamil-looking conservancy worker (his name badge simply identifies him as Cleaner 1) who is picking the litter off the sands where the rich kids have tossed them. He avoids looking at me, as if just by doing so, he could keep himself out of trouble's way. Does he have an ailing mother, alcoholic father, unwed sister back home who are depending on the few dolllars he earns cleaning up trash on a distant land?
I would never know.
I remember how, a few years back, I stood entranced when a blues musician strummed away on a guitar on a Toronto sidewalk. After five minutes of goosebump-inducing music, he held out his tattered hat and said, ``A few cents, please?'' There was such cool poise--SUCH DIGNITY-- in his voice. He was not asking for alms, but payment for services rendered. A great city is made out of the pride it makes its lowliest feel.
Will Valsamma ever be able to wrap her tacos with the same pride? I would never know. I never stayed long enough to find out.