Monthly Archives: January 2014

Skewer-y Thaipusam

“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.

 
But not Karna, the warrior prince from Mahabharata. He wanted to butt right in.
 
Thaipusam celebrations in Singapore

Thaipusam celebrations in Singapore

 
His gigantic frame in an untucked white pinstripe shirt and loose trousers leaned against the yellow barricade and faced me. A mop of dark curls, slick and shining with oil was pushed back; round dancing eyes like two pingpong balls smiled under the shade of bushy eyebrows and an inch wide moustache revealed the largest, whitest pearls I had seen in a long time.  ’The skill you have there’, he said pointing to my sketches and folding his hands and looking heavenwards, ‘is God’s gift’. He scrunched up his eyebrows such that the long tilak on his forehead disappeared between the folds. First time in my four year stay in Singapore, when I finally mustered the courage to watch Thaipusam – a Hindu festival celebrated by Tamils by honouring Lord Murugan –  up close, I was victim of small talk.
 
Thaipusam in progress

The kavadi bearing men are bare chested, bare footed and wear yellow, orange or red loincloths

 
But, when you’re on foreign soil and want to make sense of the place, it isn’t a bad idea to indulge local voices to tell you their stories, from their perspective, laced with their sentiments. I didn’t want to kill the story yet, if there was one. So waving at the pilgrims, I asked Karna, a question that was on the top of my mind, “Aren’t they in pain?”.  There was no blood, it was hard to tell.
 
 
“When you fast and pray for 48 days, your body is prepared to endure such pain”, said Karna,  slightly irked at the mushy overtones. But for the uninitiated, Thaipusam is extreme. Thaipusam isn’t for the faint hearted. Even the befuddled spectator needs to keep her nerves. The sight of these men, regular men – perhaps one of them is your office colleague, your school teacher, a neighbourhood grocer – turn into a pincushion overnight, with scores of metal skewers fastened to their chest and back, one going right through the cheek or tongue, a gigantic, elaborately decorated canopy balanced on the head will elicit the question I just asked.
 
 
But bearing a kavadi or physical burden by undertaking such painful ventures is how one expresses gratitude to Lord Murugan, the god of war and victory. “In return the god, protects you from misfortune.” says Karna.  As each devotee passed by, I searched his eyes for signs of exhaustion, discomfort, resignation. All I got was a misplaced sense of calm.
 
Devotees approaching Tank Road

Devotees approaching Tank Road and the supporters are cheering them on, singing religious songs and clapping

I had joined the procession midway on foot from Dhoby Ghaut station, and reached Tank Road, where they were slowing their march and queuing up to enter the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple, which would terminate their 4.5 km trek from Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple in Little India. Canary yellow barricades had been laid on roads directing the devotees and separating them from the curious spectators, omnipresent photographers and culture-shocked tourists. Volunteers were directing people at road crossings with urgency and handing out water in plastic cups and food from capacious tents pitched along the road, to exhausted participants and their families who were walking with them, cheering them on, singing religious hymns to drum beats. The police were calm and observant from their posts.
 
Close-up of a Thaipusam participant

Some kavadis are flower and peacock feather embellished wooden structures with arched metal frames that are supported by skewers hooked to the chest and back of the bearers.

 
‘It wasn’t like this before, you know’, said Karna, when a group of devotees slowed before us, offering a close up. A bunch of supporters, perhaps friends and relatives circled a thickly skewered and canopied man and broke into a perky devotional song, clapping their hands animatedly. The man started swinging and swaying to the chants along with his kavadi. The ankle bells tied to his feet tinkled. The energy was palpable. I don’t understand a word of Tamil but my feet didn’t need to. They were tapping on their own.
 
“Even a few years ago, there was much greater fanfare and spirit; now there are too many restrictions on what you can and cannot do”, said Karna, reminiscing. “ The music used to be so loud, it would ring in your ears long after you left.”
 
Thaipusam in progress

A kavadi bearer, swinging to the beat of drums

I was frantically sketching, trying to capture the guy with at least three dozen lemons hooked to his back, quickly outlining the exhausted drummers catching a breather and getting the many kavadi bearers balancing a gigantic mass of flowers, peacock feathers, folded metals and sharp skewers down on paper. The jubilant yet awestruck crowd guarding the fanfare made the scene complete. There was almost a kilometre long wait to enter the temple and at having their subjects come to a halt, the photographers went delirious.
 
Kavadi bearing devotee swinging to the drum beats

A not-so-extreme kavadi of milk pots balanced on a wooden rod. He still has his tongue pierced.

Few steps away from the temple door, decorated with banana leaves, a pilgrim was approaching with his kavadi on two wheels. It looked like a wooden toy chariot. The steel skewers hooked to his back flexed under the load and stretched his skin, while he negotiated a bump on the uneven stretch. Standing on the sides, we clenched our fists and held our breath. The remaining few steps would end his arduous yet spiritual journey. He tilted his head, arched his back and pumped his chest. Then he pulled hard. The sidekicks cheered him as loudly as they could, their heave-hos bold and distinct, but the kavadi slumped back. Others glided past him with no trouble. Some people have a bumpy ride till the end. Or perhaps he’d asked for a much bigger favour.
 
The pilgrims entering Sri Thendayuthapani Temple to offer their kavadis to Lord Murugan

The pilgrims entering Sri Thendayuthapani Temple to offer their kavadis to Lord Murugan and end their arduous trek

 
Pilgrims exiting the temple, freshly relieved from their kavadis, seemed visibly transformed – smiling and spirited – with only red holes on their body – that they were now proudly flaunting as a proof of their penance.
 
Karna didn’t accompany me till the end. In fact, midway through our conversation, he abruptly shook hands, wished me luck and left me alone to experience the festival and make my own stories. When I reached home, the songs, the chanting, the drum beats and fervent clapping were still ringing in my ears. I think Karna would’ve approved.

Jones the bugger

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.

Pasardina Fine Living

Pasardina Fine Living

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.

Woody Teak House

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.

Jones the Grocer is where we have the talk

Jones the Grocer

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.