Sunday, December 28, 2008

By the River

Moral 1: Never forget to charge the battery of your camera before you go traipsing through the city.

Moral 2: Things might not always be what they promise to be, so be prepared for disappointments (but don't give them more importance than they deserve, for they'll most likely be followed by something spectacular as an alleviation).

Moral 3: Even if you binge at a restaurant at midnight, you are bound to get hungry (or have an appetite- however you choose to look at it) early in the morning, before you go to bed.

Moral 4, and the most important one: Never ever go out with a slightly sprained neck to admire a beautiful place, especially one where the structures rise straight into the sky without inhibition or hesitance.

Whew! Moralising done, Miss Preachy Goody-Goody can now revert to her true evil self and get down to the actual business of story-telling.

It started out as any other day. I woke up at my normal time (which would probably be called tea-time in more respectable parts of the world), lamented that another Saturday was going to go waste without a chance to understand better the culture of the city I'm living in, when my roommate suggested we go to the museum. We did set out with that intention, but not at the right time. When you leave home at 8 in the evening, no curator would really be willing to entertain you, so we decided to go to the Esplanade- no difficulty making decisions here- and headed for the sparkling domes that house theatres, a mall (naturally) and a library. An open-air concert was on, people were lounging around, talking, taking pictures, laughing, celebrating birthdays, waiting for a concert to begin, or simply walking around aimlessly, and you would know by now which category we belonged to.

We stopped at a cafe with a German-sounding name for some ice cream. After a sporting struggle with the near-frozen ice cream, the friendly (seemingly Indian) man at the counter gave us our generous scoops of rum-raisin and strawberry ice-cream in crisp cones. The rum-raisin was near-heaven. Absolutely delectable.

We peeped into a toy-shop, not realising that it was for expectant mothers, making a somewhat sheepish exit when the salesgirl asked us in rather unintelligible English if we'd come in to do some shopping for a baby or were expecting one or something to that effect. We wandered into a gift shop, looked through the windows of a darkened store that sold musical instruments- violins in finished and half-finished states, guitars, and other silhouettes catching some light from the brightly-lit passages of the Esplanade. It reminded me of the Old Curiosity Shop (please do not embarrass me by asking me about my progress with the book- that is a taboo topic for the moment).

Our next stop was Marina Bay. We walked half a circle to the spot where the emblem of Singapore, the lion with a mouth that spouts water endlessly, stands looking dispassionately at the massive lighted buildings all around, at the slowly rotating, colourfully blinking Singapore Flyer, undaunted by the numerous tourists making a celebrity out of it and taking pictures enthusiastically. The lights shone down on the thick, black ripples, casting a haze all around. Surprising, isn't it then, that we were actually able to see the stars in the sky? A slight, imperceptible breeze blew the spray in our direction, lion's saliva on my glasses and my arm. The Fullerton Hotel ( loomed majestically in the background, a lovely structure boasting a colonial past and great wealth, bedecked for Christmas and the New Year.

The area around is strewn with such marvels of British architecture- the Cavenagh Bridge, for instance- a brilliantly lit structure, built sometime in 1869, arching over the sparkling waters of the Singapore River. It is named after a Governor of the Straits, and conjured up some fascinating images in my head. Take away the tourists and tourists, strip the bridge of its lights, and you can hear the clash of metal, armies on either side preparing for war, a battle between the Covenanters and the Episcopalians, straight out of Old Mortality. (I know I went overboard with my imagining there, but I just couldn't help it.) The notice at the entrance to the bridge prohibiting cavalry had me confused, until I searched it out ( We walked up the bridge to the opposite side, round to where diners sat at candle-lit tables outside the Museum of Asian Culture. Unfortunately for us, the museum was already closed, and we weren't exactly the tux-black dress type, dressed in jeans as we were, to even pretend to be invitees at whatever distinguished, classy gathering that was.

Nothing quite beats the pleasure of walking in an unknown city. Though the tall, umpteen-storeyed towers with the names of well-known international banks (learnt through distant advertisements, as sponsors of F1 teams or names in the financial sections of the newspaper) have now become familiar, there is still enough scope for discovery and wandering. I can do so in this city without getting lost- for how can I get lost in a city I barely know?

The water reflected the slew of colours thrown by the lights from buildings near and far; every conceivable colour, a rainbow of sorts trembling restlessly even in the still air, a boat quietly slicing through its deep restfulness. For once, I didn't complain about light pollution or man's wickedness in destroying nature and rip it of its beauty to prove his own illegitimate, borrowed supremacy. The architecture in Singapore is indeed marvellous. How concrete can mould and twist itself into such ambitious, domineering or graceful structures is inconceivable to my awed senses. It is a treat in every way, though, walking through unknown streets, not knowing what you are to be surprised by at the next bend in the road. Nights here are vibrant and exciting. You don't have to be a regular club-hopper or party-goer to appreciate the splendour and the thrill of being out in the city at night. (If, of all people, I am talking about going out at night, it has to be true.)

Need I say it another time? Well, I will. I love this city.

PS: The few pictures that I did manage to take before my camera's battery played foul are at

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Festive Season? Oh No!

In my diary, it is official. The festive season is absolutely the worst time of the year. Pardon me if I sound insensitive and crass, but I see no point in watching people have fun and make merry when I am closeted in office with absolutely nothing to do. I may not be the 'have fun and make merry' type, either, but it still doesn't feel good. I like visual and aural treats. I like to hear the carols and have my eyes blinded by blue and silver and golden lights. This is the time you can observe and absorb, capture pictures in memory to be translated to words at the earliest opportunity.

And what did I end up doing, this Christmas day? This. I watched my three monitors for a while, expecting some action. Nothing. So I walked to the window, where a colourless sky cast its colourless reflection on pale green ocean ripples. The ships were not in the harbour, probably cruising around some unknown island laden with people giddy with happiness and alcohol. I went to the pantry. I made six phone calls and three people answered. (Not a bad ratio, going by my normal standards.) I bothered my flatmate working at another desk on a different application. Then I went back to monitor a job and send out a report- the only genuine bit of work. No point doing this, either, because the users the report goes out to everyday were probably, at that very moment, divesting a once-respectable turkey of all its dignity and its flesh and consigning the bones to a heap of waste, the report the thing farthest from their minds. Who says slavery has been abolished by law? It flourishes and thrives and grows in leaps and bounds. Don't even think of looking further for proof.

I went through some documents related to our applications, found nothing wholly relevant or interesting enough (maybe I didn't search wholeheartedly enough- need we talk about that?); read the online version of the Hindu, wondered why Sania had been invited to participate in the Australian Open (no more Injury Fables- what has the world come to?); read some Maugham; went out with my flatmate when she left a good two and a half hours before I did and lost myself within the hallowed walls of one of the chocolate shops at Vivo City; read some more Maugham; indulged in some of the most useless, fruitless conversation with my colleagues; waited, watched the clock, waited some more; read about advertising and auras; heaved a huge sigh of relief when the people from the next shift came in.

You should see me on an ordinary day at work. Tearing my hair out, not knowing which monitor to look at, not knowing whether I'm typing on the right screen. And today, calm and placid like the waters of the Orinoco. (Is the Orinoco placid? I don't know; for my sake, please imagine it is, because that is the only synonym that comes to me easily at this moment.)

I came home in a white Mercedes-Benz, the high point of my day. At 90 kmph on silken highways, a fantastic cityscape of towering buildings brilliant with lights, then cosy, dream-like homes, and a simple avenue flanked by trees and swaying ghostly shrubs, the rain just beginning to fall softly- one of the loveliest drives I can possibly imagine. Sometimes, despite being an advocate of nature, I cannot help but succumb to the dazzle and the glamour of the superficiality of the city. Tempting, forbidden, immensely tantalising.

I love being here. Now. Festive season and all. Even if I am closeted in office.

Or wait. Ask me tomorrow. Boxing Day, London users. Not a very promising combination if I'm looking for some work to do.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Day That Wouldn't Come

With just two days to go for the staging of the play, the excitement in the air was palpable. The children could hardly eat or sleep without dreaming of their costumes and their dialogues. The mellow music of the violin floated forever in their ears, the march Mrs. Braganza played on her piano was in their heads and made their feet dance in rhythm to it. Oh, what fun! It was such a pity Christmas came just once a year.

Mrs. Braganza had indeed had a brilliant idea, replacing the regular Nativity play that the children were quite bored with, with a little fairy story, a mix gleaned from Rapunzel, Cinderella and Snow White, that she herself had scripted. English names became Spanish and Portuguese; blond Margarets and Edwards became brunette Juanitas and Pedros. The village was small, the children grew up and grew bored rapidly. The stagnant little pool of people that still remained had witnessed the Nativity play numerous times over the years with the same actors. The Magi had outgrown their robes and the crowns had lost their sheen, though the timeless story still throbbed and thrived in the collective soul of the tiny, aged Goan village. Some things never could change.

“Ma, I’m going down to the theatre,” Leena called out to her mother, shutting the rickety wooden door of the one-roomed house behind her, bunches of her clean, patched, oversized skirt scrunched up in her fist to keep the hem from the slush of the previous night’s rain. The clouds had dived back into the sea now, grey mantle and all, disappearing in the sparkling, foamy blue-and-white swirls. The sky was just as blue, washed clean and bright, flecked with puffy white clouds.

“As white as Miss Naomi’s frock,” thought Leena, picking her way through the jagged rocks of the cliff that her house perched on, with a confidence born of the recklessness of girlhood. There was an additional spring in her step because she was going to the ‘theatre’ and would get to look at the lovely dresses and hold the pretty little tiara that Naomi would wear as Princess Juanita. It didn’t matter that she had only been picked to play the lady’s maid, and that because all the other little girls had refused to play the demeaning part. Nobody would be Juanita’s maid; how could they? Proud mothers taught their darling daughters to say no. Jealousy stained the pure innocence of childhood, leading to unforeseen consequences. Leena, for the first time in her life, was allowed to participate in the children’s activities. That she went to school with them was of no consequence, she sat in her own corner and ate her own coarse food. Who would mingle with the daughter of a domestic help?

Leena, in typical eleven-year-old innocence, knew nothing of the trappings of wealth and status. She was just overjoyed at the idea of being allowed to play with the others, and didn’t know that her mother’s heart bled at this base act of discrimination and injustice. The other children were the trained slaves of bourgeois discipline, taught to do what their parents told them to and not to commit the grave crime of thinking on their own. Dutifully, they learnt their lessons and repeated them, not daring or willing to go beyond the set boundaries. It was just too much trouble.

Skipping over stones, sending pebbles rolling under her callused, thin-slippered feet, Leena reached the ‘theatre’- a pompous word for a room with a makeshift stage behind the lone church of the village, freshly whitewashed for Christmas, smelling of newness, cookies and cakes. She was very early, as usual. She never could keep her excitement at bay. She peeped into the room warily, and finding no one there, hopped in with gay abandon, her hair swinging on her back in two oiled braids entwined with faded red ribbon. It was quite a marvel how, at the end of the day, Leena’s mother managed to extricate cloth from hair.

The costumes were stacked in a pile on an old sofa in the corner. Naomi’s white gown lay on top, a plain dress made over with all the frills and lace that could be procured at the local bangle shop, and for that very reason of abundance, attractive to a deprived child’s greedy eye. Leena was to have a costume, of course; the wise mothers had decided on a cast-off frock of one of the princess’s friends, for she was, after all, just a lady’s maid, impoverished and plain. Leena had looked on with justifiable envy as the frocks were brought in the previous day, and the girls rehearsed with them on for the first time. How pretty they looked, a sun-browned princess with curly black hair and her sun-browned friends, glistening eyes and rosy mouths over pink and white and yellow frills. And a little maid in a pale green dress, watching quietly from the sidelines, speaking when spoken to, acting obediently, a trained slave of the trained slaves of the bourgeois.

“How I wish I could have a dress like Miss Naomi’s,” said Leena to her mother that night, eyes shining in excitement. Her mother smiled. “You will, some day.” Some day, when she had enough money to afford a new dress; or some day, when Leena found an unemployed man with coarse lips to kiss her hair when he was impassioned and beat her when he was drunk (for that was what often fell to their lot and she couldn‘t imagine anything better than that happening), she could perhaps have a decent dress for her wedding. ‘Some day’ was the answer to most of Leena’s answerable questions and requests- when an already ragged cloth doll torn apart by a pariah dog could be replaced, when a scraped knee exposing a hideous-looking clot of blood would see new skin grow over and scar it closed, when they could visit the fancy restaurant where the lights dazzled and the Christmas tree came into life with trimmings and baubles in December. When that day would come, neither mother nor daughter knew; one viewed the possibility of its arrival with too little optimism, the other with too much. The line between childhood and adulthood.

Leena looked longingly at the white frock. What wouldn’t she give (if she had anything) to be able to wear it once, just once. She stroked the smooth satin bodice with her work-hardened hands, taking care to wipe them against her own blouse first. What a pretty dress it was! Such frills! Longing metamorphosed into intense desire, whittling away rapidly the fear that encased the tiny heart now swollen with greed. A new daring replaced her timidity, and before she knew it, she was pulling the frock on over her head, disappearing in its puffy layers, a model of incongruity in the still, sunbeam-broken air of the empty room. A faint glimmer among swathes of red velvet revealed the tiara, and with less hesitation than before, Leena picked it up and set it on her head.

Trembling with a strange mixture of thrill and trepidation, Leena climbed onto the stage. At this moment, she wasn’t Leena. She was Juanita. She was young, but the raw passion that sows its seeds in human hearts and leaves them dormant, to ripen at their own time, took root now; she was an actress, no, she was Juanita, the fictional princess, now real. She awaited Pedro. She was eleven, she scarcely knew what the love she was enacting was, yet she felt it. She pleaded, she cried, she smiled, she enacted the role perfectly. Juanita. The Princess. She was a reality.

Swirling around at the end of her little play, the skirt revolving in innumerable swirls around her thin legs, she curtsied prettily, facing an invisible audience, a satisfied smile dimpling her face. Her smiling eyes bashfully looked up from the rough wooden floor to the vacant chairs, exuding confidence at the idea of facing the grim, unseeing walls- and oh, horror of horrors, the chairs weren’t unoccupied any longer. Feet had come pattering in inaudibly, bodies had floated in noiselessly, and faces stared back at her now, curiosity and wonder stamped on them.

The chilly warmth of a tense coastal winter afternoon penetrated the silent air. The world came to a standstill, as if awaiting one moment of truth that would change things forever. And then- a sharp wave of applause broke through. One pair, then two, then several pairs of hands came together in loud applause that echoed off the whitewashed walls. Leena looked around in fright and bewilderment, and then sudden joy. Surprise, surprise! They were clapping for her. They were applauding her performance. She was the star they were cheering. Oh, how good it felt!

What took time to filter into Leena’s ears and make itself audible was the jeering. The scornful laughter that accompanied the applause. The sarcasm in the applause. The taunts and the jibes, the comments at the audacity of a maid’s daughter to think she could ever be a princess. Naomi’s eyes were red with wrath when they met Leena’s, and the poor little girl slid off the stage in fright. Hardly conscious of what she was doing, she squeezed into an alcove and dragged the frock over her head in a hurry, the frills swirling absurdly, shreds of lace entangling themselves in her hair and making her look like an absurd scared fairy. The once-beloved dress was discarded with shame, and Leena ran past the angry crowd of well-off, angry mothers and children, her deflated heart swelling again, this time with the hurt seeping in.

Leena ran like the wind. Her slippers tore, her skirt was splattered all over with mud, but she didn’t care. Sobs rose in her chest and her breath came out raspingly, painfully, tearing through her mouth in great gasps. Her childhood was swallowed up in those few unbearably real moments of discernment. Her position became startlingly clear to her, enlightenment washed in like a huge, engulfing wave.

She let herself into the house. Her mother wasn’t home, not that it would make a difference. Because, this time, the question wasn’t answerable. It didn’t have to be answered. It didn‘t have to be asked. For there wouldn’t be a day when she really could be a princess. “Some day?” a tiny voice whispered hopefully. This time, the question wasn’t answered. Along with all the other answerable questions, it was buried irretrievably in the past, never to be sought out again. Some things never would change.

Some Real Bitter Chocolate

By the time I am done with my stint in Singapore, I am sure to have become a real connoiseur of dark chocolate. Who knows, when I return to India, I might be a chocolatier- Jaya and Her Chocolate Factory. There is chocolate from all over the world, particularly dark chocolate- with rum, nuts, almonds, raisins, or just classic pure bitter chocolate- in large stores dedicated only to chocolate. There is so much to choose from, it is absolutely bewildering. Rich dark chocolate from Belgium and Germany, as bitter as it can get, is an absolutely heavenly treat; as usual, most of my flatmates cannot understand my 'weird' tastes. Do tell me, though, what sane person can say no to dark chocolate?!

Sunday, December 14, 2008


The wind chimes clinked as a tall, brown-haired young man walked in, backpack slung carelessly across his left shoulder. The chimes tinkled and jangled every time the door was opened and shut. The shop was warm, charming and tastefully arranged. And why not, when old Mrs. Lim, a rich Chinese lady who had taken an Indian husband against much opposition, had so much money to spend on delightful things, on things other than ‘necessities’. ‘It wouldn’t be too bad to be rich, would it now,’ Aarti thought, when her tendencies towards a life of simplicity and renunciation took a more worldly turn, as often happened the moment she stepped into this wonderful, curious shop to take her turn at the cash counter. Surrealism. The name suited the shop beautifully. In fact, it seemed quite like sacrilege to call it a shop at all. It had spirit, it embodied many unidentifiable, inseparable emotions and ideas, it warmed and comforted broken hearts; it was a shop only in the sense that it drew metal and paper out of unwary, bulging pockets.

Tucked away in a remote corner of the city, Surrealism never did draw enough attention. It wasn’t meant to be a commercial venture, it was just a means for Mrs. Lim to flaunt her Oriental riches, to attempt intelligent conversations in broken German, French and Italian, and fluent Chinese, with the tourists who trickled in, and to provide a decent income to the three young women who worked for her. Aarti was one of them.

Aarti worked part-time at Surrealism. She came in as soon as her classes ended for the day, a slim, weary-eyed twenty-year-old making her way through the narrow streets from college to this enchanting land of dreams and antiquity. The lecherous glances of some men (she wasn’t pretty; but what girl has to be, to draw lewd glances from those corrupt eyes), the bothersome roommates whose ideas were always poles apart from hers, the sorrows of the heart, big and small, all packed themselves into one huge case which stowed itself away into some distant recess of her mind the moment she entered the shop, to be retrieved only when she came out of her stupor. Each new day, every time she came in, she felt like a first-timer here. No matter how familiar the red and gold decor, the positioning of the furniture, the stacks of beads and rosaries and the statues of the Buddha, there was always something new to be discovered, something wondrous and magical. She couldn’t quite put her finger on this one thing, and had several times decided to stop trying, only to unbend her resolution and go back to attempting to discover just what it was about Surrealism that mystified her so.

The week-long Christmas vacation had finally come around, and Aarti was glad of the chance to put in longer hours at the shop to cover for Natalie (who would on no account be denied her Christmas break, come rain or shine, poverty, even absolute penury). The extra money was definitely welcome, but what attracted her most was the opportunity to revel in the surroundings that suited her best, more than home (or the semblance of it in the two-room flat she shared with three other girls), and the company of Mrs. Lim.

“Three days gone, Aarti,” said Mrs. Lim in her papery, not unkind voice, as Wednesday dawned bright and clear, two days before Christmas. “Three days of Christmas week, and I have hardly had any customers.”

“You don’t mind that much, do you, Mrs. Lim?” asked Aarti, pulling off her black cardigan and stowing it away neatly in a desk under the counter. “Except for the conversation, that is.” She put some coffee on, and turned to Mrs. Lim, looking clean and matronly, wrapped in a bright, colourful shawl, booty from the North East of India, her grey hair brushed neatly back into a bun.

“Yes, I miss the conversation. I definitely do. The money doesn’t really matter, it comes and goes, though I must confess things are getting a little difficult now.” She ran her age-withered fingers affectionately over a stack of leather-bound Chinese volumes, flicked some invisible dust off the glass surface of the table by which she sat, ensconced comfortably in a wicker chair. “Surrealism has been my only solace from the madness of the world. This place works wonders on me, Aarti. Though I know it inside out, every time I come in, I feel like there is some niche waiting to be discovered, some unknown spirit beckoning to me to come and make myself familiar to it. I can hardly understand the feeling.”

Aarti was quiet. So she wasn’t the only one. That made her feel a little strange, an absurd pain piercing through her bosom. She had always liked to believe she was different from the rest of the crowd, that there was something about her that gave her an aura of distance and mystery and a deep understanding, unfathomable to others, of inexplicable phenomena. She almost felt angry with Mrs. Lim for feeling the same way as she did. She silently poured out the coffee into two intricately designed cups, handed one of them to Mrs. Lim and carried the other back to the counter. She settled down with a book on Sufism, to all appearance keeping boredom at bay while she awaited the first customer for the day, though her attention was as far away from this brand of mysticism as possible, thoughts running riot at the back of her mind.

The noise. It was in her head again. The same noise that rang out like heavy cymbals, unceasing waves and the roar and insanity of traffic as she struggled to fall asleep every night, coming to a sudden stop the moment she abandoned the effort, the trance-inducing silence gently taking over and guiding her into a beguiling, satisfying slumber. Another of the innumerable mysteries it was, this incongruous noise, followed by an almost equally deafening silence which brought about tranquility and peace, as pure as the snow-fed, clear water of the brooks flowing on the upper reaches of unpolluted virgin mountains.

The first customers came and went. A tiresome middle-aged Indian couple, who wanted to be shown everything, wanted to touch and feel everything, looked uncomprehendingly at the masterly strokes of the Chinese alphabet in the aforementioned leather volumes, and then decided to buy nothing. “Just not good enough,” Aarti heard the husband whisper surreptitiously to his wife as they walked out, the woman’s hands reluctantly letting go of a jade necklace she had been admiring as he strode out, calling to her to come impatiently.

“Not enough taste,” Aarti felt like calling back, but pressed her lips into a thin line and continued with her book. She noticed that Mrs. Lim hadn’t even looked up all the while the couple were in the shop, not bothering to strike up a conversation with them as she did with more interesting, well-read, discerning customers. Mrs. Lim knew. She knew who the genuine lovers of art and mysticism were, who had it in them to appreciate quality. She had, of course, watched out of the corner of her eye as the husband commented and the wife whined, storing up in her mind for later criticism these specimens of inappropriate behaviour and ill-breeding.

The next customers were worse than this silly couple, a group of giggling girls who laughed endlessly at all that was morbid and dreary, tried to shoplift but gave up the attempt under Mrs. Lim’s piercing glance, finally walking out as the air started to get a little too heavy for uninterested minds.

And now, as Aarti settled back on her perch a third time, walked in the next threat to her peace and quiet, or to aggravate the noise in her head, the young man with brown hair. Aarti glanced up, put down her book, adjusted her glasses on the bridge of her nose, pushed back the invisible loose strand of hair behind her ear. Oblivious as she believed herself to be to the charms of young men, of foreign tourists who breezed in and breezed out, absorbed only in the curious things they came to collect, she couldn’t quite resist these little feminine indiscretions. She fell prey, often unknowingly, to the guiles that had been ingrained in her soul as an inheritance of the ages- hoping to be noticed, while pretending not to seek attention, though doing everything she possibly could to that very end.

Aarti slid off the stool, feeling unaccustomedly self-conscious, feeling the keen green eyes of the stranger bore into hers as he asked her a question in broken, exquisitely accented English. For the first time in her life, she simpered and stumbled as she answered a straightforward question, her usual confidence and poise taking an unnatural beating. Seeing that he had managed to elicit an answer where he saw none forthcoming, the foreigner embarked on another, more difficult question, hoping and praying to be lucky this time as well. Aarti hoped and prayed for confidence as well, wondering at her stupidity, angry with this stranger for having shown her in such bad light. Her anger gave her courage; she was soon drawn into a philosophic discussion on Chinese burial rituals with him, and they were both as sombre and as argumentative as they could get. Mrs. Lim, mistress of wisdom when it came to her beloved China, wisely refrained from pitching in when she saw the discussion go horribly off track, the two novices wading into unknown waters and floundering for support.

The discussion came to an abrupt halt. The business of buying and selling had been completely forgotten; Surrealism was ostentatiously a shop, but something else in heart and soul, a place that fostered conversation and a communion of kindred spirits. Then, the young man whose name was Heinz, said hesitantly, “There is something about this place, you know. I have been coming here since I was a boy, on trips with my parents, and now on my own for the first time; I begin to think I know it well, but then every time I come, I feel like it is a new journey. I have never known this feeling elsewhere. Can you tell me why?”

And he bent his head and looked keenly at the ground, as if expecting to find the keys to this great mystery in the smooth stone floor, to come seeping out and engulf him and protect him from the intense embarrassment he was experiencing, having finally asked a question that had bothered him for as long as he could remember.

Aarti stood rooted to the spot. All these weeks that she had worked here, she had heard this weird idea being voiced only twice. And in just one day. By two people, one of whom she loved and respected, the other…she suddenly realized that the noise in her head had abated, a clear consciousness was taking over.

“I know what you mean, Heinz. I feel the same way, and so does Mrs. Lim.” She spoke breathlessly, for this was the only question of Heinz’s that she didn’t have an answer to, and she didn’t want to admit it. She didn’t want him to think her stupid, or to think himself stupid, as he was evidently doing. She wanted to comfort him and tell him that it was okay to ask strange questions, rhetorical questions, questions that didn’t come with packaged answers.

“It’s okay if some mysteries lie unsolved, Heinz.”

“Is it?” A touch of scepticism came into his voice, and he looked askance at her.

“Yes, it is,” replied Aarti, the conviction in her voice wavering a little, as if mirroring his own doubts, but she continued forcefully, building up on the artifice. “All of us have these questions in our minds, and it’s okay to talk about them, because others have the same doubts as well. It is only natural that we should, human that we are.”

“So, you’ve been feeling the same way?”

“Ever since I’ve been working here.” The familiarity should help drive away the awkwardness, she thought, make him feel more comfortable and at home.

“And Mrs. Lim, too?”

“Yes. In fact, she told me so just this morning.”

“Okay. Then I guess there is nothing unique or different about it. Sorry I took so much of your time.” A look of mingled incredulity and disappointment swept into his eyes, he clutched at the strap of his backpack, turned and shuffled out of the doorway. He had worked his way to the Big Question carefully, prepared a great deal for it, spent agonising hours wondering if he would find anybody here capable enough to give him a sensible solution to his problem. Never had he dreamt it was such a commonplace thing. Not a word of thanks, no goodbye, just a wave of disappointment left in his wake.

The wind chimes tinkled as the door banged shut, disturbing the reverie that wrapped the store and its contents in a perennial dream, temporarily awakening the dormant spirits that awaited discovery. Bringing reality barging in like a marauder come to rip the romantics of their right to imagination and dreams. And with such success!


Rain, romance, books. Romance, books, rain. Books, rain, romance.

All the frivolity that my life has been made up of over the past few weeks. I look back at my posts, and I want to be really hard on myself for having done hardly any sensible or introspective writing. I can't really help it, though, while the rain still falls against the sunshades and the window panes, and the roads are slick with the wet.

The houses stand sullen and morose, peas in a pod, all wearing the same mask of disinterest. The windows are hung about with clothes that refuse to dry, or blocked by men and women in search of a strong signal so their mobile phone conversations can continue uninterrupted. One or two odd windows provide more interesting views, into dimly-lit drawing rooms with artistically arranged paintings on pale walls; this must be a house where a young man in his mid-twenties lives alone, playing the violin and the piano, mourning a lost love, seeking comfort in the dull glow of unenthusiastic yellow lamps.

This isn't a day when you would possibly want to step out of your house. It is a day of ruined picnics. The grand plans to go out on the green and fly the growling little aeroplanes with mean-sounding engines have doubtless been scuppered by the unforeseen rain. The grass will not be strewn about with hampers and sheets, the workers will not go around in conical yellow and red hats, the couple in love will not walk, hands intertwined, lost in thought. The skies are heavy and dull with pain, they weep miserably, with the kind of anguish that pours forth without reason- you know how you cry sometimes, not knowing why you do, and it takes but a moment for you to be able to laugh again. The strange play of thoughts and moods.

Your eyes are heavy and drooping with sleep, but you're sleepless. The clothes on the yellow, green and red poles outside are wet and dripping with carbon-flecked rainwater. You see no point in drawing them in, for they will only form sulphurous puddles on the freshly cleaned floor. The bags from last night's shopping are strewn about in unshapely bundles, but despite your fastidiousness you don't find it in you to get off the couch and put things in their place.

The light just grows dimmer as morning lengthens into afternoon, afternoon stretches its weary legs into evening, twilight, one without colours for a change, as the morose clouds continue to behave like unappeased, hormone-ruined teenagers. Then night, then Monday morning.

Oh, the monotony of it all!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

An Alcoholic At Play

I've just got back from the library, stocked up for the next three weeks. I draw four books at a time, and more often than not, I don't have enough time to finish them. I wasn't too impressed with my selection last time; this time, as usual, after much deliberation and vacillation, I settled on four decent (or so I think) choices.

The Old Curiosity Shop- It's been a really long while since I attempted to read Dickens, having started and dropped three of his books midway, because they used to make me quite miserable. This time, though, I'm determined to finish the book.

The God of Small Things- I have been wanting to read this for a while, but always managed to forget about it on previous trips to the library. Hurrah for me, for having remembered it this time. I began reading it on the train ride back home, and I quite like Arundhati Roy's language. Let me see how it goes, whether I am going to draw comparisons with Jhumpa Lahiri and Kiran Desai, the last two Indian authors I read.

The Merry-Go-Round- I read some of Somerset Maugham's short stories during the most difficult two years of my relatively easy life, and found that, though worlds removed from my life, there were certain thoughts and ideas I could very much identify with. I have been trying to get my hands on more Maugham ever since, and I'm glad I've finally done it.

A Book Addict's Treasury- I stumbled upon this book by Julie Rugg and Lynda Murphy quite by accident, having wandered into a section I don't really frequent. And there were these books about books, and I was fascinated by the blurb of this particular book, aimed at people who smell books before they read them, rearrange other people's shelves and own more books than they can possibly ever read. Now, how on earth do Ms. Rugg and Ms. Murphy know me so well? I really want to know. I am looking forward to reading this book.

Homeward bound, I decided to take a different route for a change. Instead of going back through the crowded Bugis mall, I decided to walk through another crowded mall. I wended my way through Raffles City, all a-glitter for Christmas. Now this is a mall that you can really appreciate only if you have just come into a huge inheritance, or experienced a windfall of some sort. Swarovski, Louis Vuitton, Starbucks...oh yes, the last of these I can manage. However, I do choose my coffee with care. I remember how, not quite comprehending the composition behind the names, I ordered American-some-name-coffee, and ended up with a 'small' cup of pure decoction. (The hazelnut muffin was pretty good, though- I wasn't deceived there.)

Since arriving in Singapore and making a tiny discovery at the supermarket some weeks ago, I have been branded an alcoholic. Now, any respectable person would have read enough Enid Blyton to know that her characters live to eat rather than the other way around- buttered scones, macaroons, sausages, sandwiches- often topped off by lemonade or orangeade or gingerbeer. Gingerbeer. The drink of contention. I was delighted when I discovered it at the supermarket, and since I was sure it would be mistaken for beer, the first time I brought it home, I spared the girls the sight of it to avoid scandalising them. But then I thought, what on earth, they need to learn some time that gingerbeer is not beer, and so I got another can one evening and put in the fridge, not in a very prominent position, but it was still an improvement on the secrecy.

Then, at night, when I brought the chilled can out, a voice piped up, laced with mild horror- "Jaya, is that beer?" Consternation and shock from a houseful of girls who have always stayed as far away from alcohol as possible (which is probably why we still haven't come around to visiting Clarke Quay). Patient explanation followed (and I've done this quite a few times since, asking people to go back to their Enid Blyton- how can they not remember?), and thankfully, gingerbeer and rum-raisin chocolate are not treated as contraband substances at home.

Christmas cheer is all around. You can see it in the smile of the salesperson as she says cheerily, "Thank you, Miss", in the coloured lights strung across the avenues, hear it in the chirpy, nonsensical laughter of teenagers, delighted with their newly-filled shopping bags. Walk two steps and you stumble upon a Christmas tree. This is the holiday season, tourists are flowing in, walking arm-in-arm through the aisles of the malls, eyeing the designer gowns and the diamond jewellery, the swanky yellow and red cars on display- looking for an expensive present for themselves?

And oh, I've just bought a cow. There it was on the tray, a black and white cow with sparkling black eyes, and though I felt rather silly buying it, I couldn't resist it. Now all I need is a Swiss name for my China-made stuffed toy. Perhaps a little silver bell too.

I have discovered a shop selling German wooden dolls, and how marvellous they are! Angelic little dolls; pot-bellied, puffy-cheeked, smoking men; a delightful Christmas tree with snow spilling on it continuously. At the moment, I cannot think of going on a shopping spree, especially of spending extravagantly on all these tantalising trifles that are laid out so temptingly, beguiling and bewildering, despite, or owing to, their uselessness. Yet again, I wonder if it is a celebration of commercialisation with saintly voices singing Ave Maria in the background, or just a distraction from the monotony and frugality of regular life.

Basil. Rose. Rotten fruit. Fragrances and odours mingle in the closed air of the train compartment. French. Tamil. Chinese. English. Such a mixture everywhere, a hybridisation of the most curious kind. Something doesn't make enough sense. I have been up working all night, slept three hours when I got back. Now, I am supposed to be in bed, AC on, covers drawn up to my chin. Instead, I'm sitting up alone, enjoying the peace and quiet of half-past ten at night, savouring the anticipation of four new books to read over the next three weeks. Trying to comprehend the mysteries around me. Oh well. You live only once, and it is just as well at times not to know what exactly you're about.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


Now I'm unable to log into the chat channel at work. In this job, you're absolutely crippled without it, because this is the primary way you talk to users, get them to plead with you, threaten you, be sarcastic. This is how you holler to your next level for help.

So I called up the support desk, and poured out my woes to the man in Australia whose name I couldn't quite catch. Not surprisingly, he said he'd never heard of such an issue. People get their accounts locked, lose their passwords, have petty problems of the not-so-important (when it doesn't happen to me, that is) kind. Being entirely barred from the chat channel for no fault of mine, as the support person could easily see, is weird. I wanted to tell him, no, this isn't strange. Because it is me that it is happening to. Extraordinary mishaps almost always begin here.

(Now even the label for the post is throwing an error. Seems like the software demons are out to get me today. When did I last experience an error on blogger?!)

Monday, December 08, 2008

When Things Go Right and Wrong

Does Yorkshire look a little bit like this?

The railway tracks, as viewed from the other side of the road.

I can't sleep.

I can hear the wind chimes down the corridor, their glassy tinkle penetrating through the closed door and the iron grills. A strong, rather cyclonic wind is whistling and huffing heavily through the streets, bending the trees over, sending the raindrops slanting across the sunshades and the windows. It has been raining incessantly since last night. The few pauses, when they do come, don't really last long. The cars and the trucks are splashing through the thin film of water on the roads. The eighteenth floor does give you a good vantage point.

After having been sleepless all night and going to bed at four in the morning, only to realise that I wasn't sleepy yet, my roommate and I rose at seven, planning to pick up another of our flatmates returning from a week-long visit to India. My roommate was equally sleepless, thanks to a phone call at midnight that left her wide awake till morning. We picked up my laptop, fished about for flight schedules, and found the flight number, only to realise the plane had already landed, and getting through a couple of calls later, she asked us not to come all the way- she was already starting for home. While all this transpired, we were already in the elevator, and deciding that it would be a waste of dressing up and perfectly good weather, we went for a walk.

The weather was truly marvellous- a fresh, cold breeze was blowing, the rain had just stopped, and thin, white, filmy clouds were floating across a grey sky, just touching the tops of the trees in the distance. We promptly went crazy. (My roommate and I are normally considered the craziest people at home, for our tendency to set off and go nowhere on our own, not to be overly sentimental, not to be saccharine-sweet girlish- we were just living up to the label.) I had been wanting to go out on those open green areas that stretch out beyond where the eye can see, which I liken, perhaps ignorantly, to the moors. Impulsive that we both were, we crossed the road over to the grassy area, almost running up the slope, feeling the wind and the rain in our bones. I cannot begin to describe the sense of freedom I felt there, standing against the wind, turning in every direction to look at incredible beauty. Then the rain started falling softly, and we made our way home slowly, allowing the wind to ruffle our hair and make our clothes flutter.

Approaching our building by a rather normal route than usual, we had a call from our returning flatmate saying she'd already arrived, and would we please come and open the door for her. We cut the long walk short and rushed back up the elevator, to find her laden with bags, looking fresh and comforted by the trip back home, and rather unwilling, naturally, to set off for work in the afternoon.

I hadn't slept all night. I made an attempt to go to sleep on the sofa. I couldn't, as the girls kept coming in one after another, looking for something or talking. I tried watching the rain, hoping it would lull me to sleep. No good. I read for a while. My eyes grew tired, but sleep still evaded me. After a long while, just as I was dozing off, I heard an uproar in the kitchen. My roommate came and broke the news to me- our electric cooker had just stopped working. I am the eternal optimist, though. I told her it was a blessing the cooker belonged to us and not to the landlady. Also, we have enough chapati and rum-raisin chocolate to last us a day. Why worry?

The rain still hasn't stopped falling, the cars have had their headlights on since last night. The weather is lovely, and instead of curling up in bed with a book, I am setting off for work now. But oh, first I must have dinner. Dal-roti. Followed by chocolate.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

A Superficial Look At People

The house smells of sleep and capsicum, overriding the floral fragrance of the detergent used for a round of washing at two o’clock in the morning. All is quiet and still, as usual, except for the dull roar of the table fan and the odd car passing by. There never is much noise around outside: occasionally, on the train, you hear men involved in an animated conversation, all incomprehensible, alien and safe from these ears wholly untrained to this foreign language and its various sounds.

What does a Chinese family live like? I am curious to know. I want to study their relationships and their spiritual lives. On my way to the LRT station, Kadaloor, I glance at the ‘Kopitiam’ restaurant, omnipresent in Singapore- supposedly multi-cuisine. Here, I see young men and women in shorts and sleeveless tops lounging on lazy afternoons or wielding their chopsticks on unfathomable dishes. A strong, smoky odour assails my senses as I pass by. Occasionally, you’d also find a maami in a cotton sari and wearing diamond earrings, sitting straight-backed, trying to make sense of the Indian food placed in front of her, looking rather uncomfortable, perhaps because she is sitting by the table of a man downing endless bottles of beer. This is also where you can find aged Chinese matrons with short-cropped grey hair, dressed in bright-coloured, flowered shirts and ill-fitting trousers, gesticulating wildly and explaining matters of importance to younger, less enlightened women. They stand there, feet apart, bent at the waist, and though there is a smile of contentment across their wrinkled faces, you know they have seen much and been through their share of hardship and suffering.

I remember how, in my first weeks of the morning shift, as I took the first train to work, it was a strange comfort to see a particular group of elderly women board the train, cheerful and wide awake, while people less than half their age would invariably nod off. Dressed in gaudy colours but never looking odd, appearing full of resolution and purpose, they would set off every morning to I know not where; but it is truly a delight to see such vigour and vim in faces worn by time, age and experience.

The train is, of course, a wonderful place to study people. The loners, the studious ones with noses buried in books (no prizes for guessing what category I’d fall into- though we can get rid of the adjective here), the women with flawless skin, any blemishes well hidden under layers of thick pancake-like make-up (making my own tremendous efforts at putting on lip gloss and kaajal seem like child’s play), children coming home from school or freshly scrubbed and dressed for a party, young gorgeous girls in little black dresses immaculately tailored, coming probably from one of the numerous boutiques in one of the uncountable malls. Men in mismatched shorts and shirts or smart suits, slicked-back hair, one or two coming in with some weird contraption like an oar(!) in hand, or a teenager with a video game console. This latter species is a definite presence in any train you board.

People everywhere. And yet, it’s all so quiet and peaceful. The storms rage only within the bosoms of men and women, and just sometimes manifest themselves in fearful forms. Through it all, the deceptive calm prevails.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

A Parting

The purple clouds have gathered unobtrusively, yet again. They are in a state of indecision, you know that split second when they are trying to make up their minds, Shall we stay or leave? A group decision- and now they're done, and I'm glad they have decided to stay. Very softly the rain starts. A gentle, merry tinkle against the glass; a slanting stroke, then vertical, and then anyhow. Lightning flashes, thunder growls through the clouds, the wind blows in through the open windows, sending the pamphlets from the Expo flying across the hall. I won't be able to see the reflections of distant aeroplanes on the smooth floor today. Indeed, it is delightful when a plane flies by, high, so high, and you see it as a tiny speck moving across the floor.

While I have been romanticising thus, the rainwater has come in through the open window. Oh, bother! I am not going to get up and close it now. The rain that had fallen so heavily a quarter of an hour ago, wrapping everything in white, is slowing down to a drizzle. The clouds are not quite spent, the thunder and the lightning still linger; probably, the clouds have another appointment to keep.

In the midst of this sublime manifestation of bliss and delight, just one thought creeps in to tone it down and keep me mindful of reality- in an hour, I shall have to be up and start getting ready for work. Patches of blue, very faintly tinged with pink, are becoming visible in the sky. Yes, the clouds are parting, reminding me that the brief meeting has come to an end; the briefer these moments, the sweeter they will be. No tearful goodbyes, no hysterical promises, but just quiet, strong, faithful assurance.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Here Come The First Pictures

I have a new camera. Inevitable, isn't it then, that I should go over the top with excitement and fill this page with some pictures of Singapore? What you see here isn't the real thing at all, just a tiny portion of a vast residential colony. Note the sameness, how one building is so much like another; yet, it is peaceful, undisturbed living (except for the grating noise of the construction site across the road). On the next of my travels through the city, I shall attempt to get some pictures of the real thing, of the dazzle and the serenity, of the lovely roads lined with palm trees and bougainvillea, of buildings rising way, way up into the sky, imposing, incredible and splendid in their height and architecture; nature and modernity meeting.