“I am Karna”, said a voice on my right. Since I didn’t look up from my sketchbook, he said, “You know Karna, the warrior prince from Mahabharata? ”. When I am sketching in crowded public spaces, I am used to people peering over me, breathing over my neck, appraising my work like art connoisseurs, pointing cameras to my face, nudging friends to take a look, but rarely does one talk to me while I am working, except slipping in a few words of encouragement when they leave, to which I nod or smile in bashful acknowledgement.
Jones is not a bugger. He’s a grocer. Well, I don’t know who exactly he or she is per se but the black and white sign hanging at the cheerful, laid back cafe filled up to the brim with people, caught in the post Christmas and pre-New Year limbo definitely said – Jones the Grocer. Why the insinuation? I’ll come to that.
I was having a perfect day. And by a perfect day anywhere in Singapore, I mean – great weather (of course!) combined with a great location combined with an even greater pursuit. The sun was pinned down by cherubic cotton candy-ish clouds. They wouldn’t purge until late afternoon. It was all sorted. The early morning breeze was refreshingly cool and gentle on the skin but pitiless on the gigantic trees, that seemed to be swinging in response to some invisible political agenda and saying yay or nay.
And I, who was chuffed at having an otherwise crowded Dempsey Hill – a 1860s military barrack refurbished and rebranded as an entertainment and lifestyle enclave – all to herself, and a handful of other sketchers, was sent volleying towards my loose sheets of handiwork that flew away the second time in the last half hour. I didn’t mind at all.
Plonked on my yellow folding stool and armed with art ammunitions, I faced Pasardina Fine Living at 13 Dempsey Road, one of the lifestyle stores, out of many in this bohemian jungle retreat and was trying to frame the scene in mind before putting down on paper. Should I include the giant rain tree on the right with silver Christmas decorations hanging from it? How about the island with the signboards and a Balinese stone sculpture as a foreground? “Yay or nay?”. Yay said the trees.
If you’ve lived among anorexic concrete and reflective glass high-rises for too long, the architecture out here will seem earthy, extravagantly stretched out and stunted but oh-so pleasing to the senses, as if you’ve just unbuckled a tight leather belt after a heavy meal and let your tummy expand to it’s fullest girth. During military camp days, each building in the barrack was built to accommodate at least 50 soldiers, which explains their dorm-like architecture. Pasardina’s three tiered red tiled roof structure looked spacious and airy with the many windows built for ventilation in a tropical climate. Woody Teak Collection on my left, which I tackle next, is even longer.
Pleasant and unhurried as Dempsey Hill was at that hour, I knew the impending weekend rush would reclaim it eventually. Cars, shiny from their wash, were already pulling up into the driveways of cafes and garden restaurants for their morning cuppa and breakfast. Instead of marching soldiers, today we have hyperactive kids spilling out on the expansive tree lined roads in the precinct and upon discovering one thing that Singapore is terribly short of – space – and lots and lots of it, 213 acres to be precise, they start running amok in every direction with wild abandon. I fish out my watercolors and quicken my pace.
When it comes to eating, I have been privy to Dempsey Hill’s chic dining culture being branded as ‘atas’, which in local lingo means snobbish or highbrow. On a previous visit, I was bemused by seven red Ferraris decorating Dempsey’s parking lot, if that’s any indication of the flock visiting this area. But to put things into perspective, a plate of sublime and appropriately filling Fish Croquette Benedict at PS Café, costs a little over 20$, which isn’t unreasonable given the quality and ambience, but is probably six times of what you’d pay at a food court.
Atas or not, we planned on having lunch here because once in this dreamy resort-like enclave, you’d want to stretch your time as much as possible. Plus, PS cafe at 28B Harding Road, has the best truffle fries and has a shaded, partly obscured stone pathway leading to a dining area in a glass gazebo with an open verandah running along it’s side. You are barricaded from all sides by stupendous trees and unhindered vegetation. And above the din of clinking wine glasses and fluttering bus boys, birds sing, cicadas hum and frogs croak. Nowhere in SIngapore did we feel so nestled and cocooned by nature.
Wouldn’t we linger for a cup of tea or coffee perhaps before leaving? We most definitely would and that brought us to Jones the Grocer at 12 Dempsey Road. I promptly sketched the set up with the red teapot brewing my berries infusion, my husband’s glass of cappuccino with marshmallows, the sugar sachet holder, the salt and peppershaker, which together made a great bunch of props. Like every other barrack building, this too had a cheerful verandah going round it, now fitted with tables, chairs and high stools. To verify, the ‘grocer’ bit I checked the interiors, which along with a seating area and kitchen, had all sorts of pasta, pesto, olive oil, cheese, charcuterie, on shelves and inside temperature, controlled glass case.
Everything was perfect, till we did the thing. The ‘thing’ everybody does before fresh starts, before going on to the next grade, before starting a new job, before upgrading to a new phone, before relocating to a new country, before, like two days before starting a new year – contemplate. And because they are from two different planets, men and women do not contemplate the same way. While one is drawing up mental Excel sheets of current year, last year and the new year’s goals and agendas in tabular form, the other is trying to remember what he had for lunch. What follows is a game called ‘whose fault is it anyway’.
You mean it’s my fault?
Well, it certainly isn’t mine.
Then whose fault is it?
We never found out. But Jones got unsuspectingly tainted because of a stupid fight.