Monthly Archives: August 2015

“Which part of India are you from?”

I’ve been asked this question countless times during my 5 years of stay in Singapore. In most cases it’s preceded by, “where are you from?” or just “you’re from India, right?” served with varying degrees of certainty reflected on the interviewer’s face.  It ranges from completely clueless to somewhat sure to ‘so sure I that can bet my life on this’.

For some, my one word answer seems sufficient. Whether they’re in the know or probably don’t care much, the conversation drifts to other things.

On the other hand, anybody who’s been to a yoga retreat in Himachal, read Shantaram or was gifted a miniature Taj Mahal would go a little further and ask which part of the country I’m from. ‘Kolkata’ or Calcutta, however I say it, would draw blank stares. It’s mostly downhill from there. I watch them plunge into the deep recesses of their minds, trying to find something that remotely looks, smells, sounds or feels like the word I had just uttered. The pressure of offering a quick rejoinder seems like trying to diffuse a bomb only seconds away from exploding.

This yellow building on Selegie Road houses Mr. Bean's cafe which is open 24 hours for 365 days.

This yellow building on Selegie Road houses Mr. Bean’s cafe which is open 24 hours for 365 days.

You’ve got to act now and hope for the best. The first answer the mind contrives becomes their opening salvo. “Last year, my friends took a train from Delhi to Varanasi. Is it near any of those places?” No ; “Near Nagpur, maybe? I heard a lot about Nagpur’s oranges!” Nope, (also the orange part was irrelevant); “Goa, then? Goa’s in the west, dude; “How about …Kerela?” South.

It doesn’t bother me when people don’t know about the place I come from. I like them for trying to connect with me on some common ground, making suggestions, sometimes with pleading eyes because if I can give them one approving nod, they can finally attribute some definitive qualities (albeit oversimplified) to my being. They can identify, label and file me away in their memories.

But till they do, I enjoy this anonymity because in that short window of time you can be what you are without being overshadowed with what you should be. It doesn’t last long though, not in this day and age. Just the other day, standing under the shade of this huge tree (see the sketch above), somebody asked the question, and got really chirpy upon hearing my answer. “Man, you guys love your fish, don’t you? So is it the season for Hilsa yet?

See what I mean?






Whimsical Vowels

Sunday evenings are rife with the sweet pain of separation. The sought after ‘weekend’ buoyant and alive in your arms a moment ago grows listless and impatient as the day proceeds. You already feel the tug and in utter despair try finding ways to stretch whatever time you have with one another.

In our case, it leads to a frantic internet search for cafes, preferably somewhere we’ve never been to and can spend the evening there, reading, lounging, chatting, eating and drinking, and of course sketching till the staff puts away their aprons and chef hats and the ‘open’ sign on the front door has been flipped. In short, a place where we could save ourselves from moping till bedtime.


AEIOU Cafe sketch closeup

The success rate of finding such a place maybe abysmal – if the ambience works, the coffee disappoints; if coffee’s good, the chairs are stiff; if the chairs are comfy, the staff maybe unfriendly – but we do get lucky sometimes. Last week’s search yielded the names of few interesting places in the Jalan Besar area, out of which we picked ‘AEIOU’ because it’s been popping on my newsfeed a lot lately.


AEIOU Cafe sketch: Of all the items that were on my table and around me, I picked out some at random and designed an illustration that expresses the wonder I felt sitting among such outlandish and whimsical decor

If this cafe was a person, I’d imagine him wearing mismatched socks with self doodled converse shoes paired with black suit, pinstripe shirt and his grandfather’s beret.  He’d also have a ponytail, dyed purple and a satchel fashioned out of discarded denims or burlap sacks slapped across his shoulder. He’ll stand out in a crowd but is oh-so-sure of himself. And in the midst of gawking at this interesting bloke and trying to make sense of his persona, if you simply extend your hand, he’ll take it warmly and make you feel comfortable. That is how we felt for the rest of the evening.

AEIOU Cafe - close up

AEIOU Cafe sketch close up

“Look at our table – it’s made out of a grilled window!”, whispered my husband. The glass in which his drink appeared was a chopped off portion of Grey Goose Vodka bottle. About us were mismatched old fashioned chairs, battered drum working as a flower vase, robots made out of tin cans that used to hold salad oil, hanging lamps made of kettles and toolboxes, pipes and window frames, suspended hot air balloons that doubled as decorative plant holder, jaded 70s furniture with funky paint on them and so much more that even before we ordered, I started sketching this whimsical mess and became extremely unsociable until the ‘root vegetable fries’ arrived. My husband picked out the potatoes for himself and piled the yams and sweet potatoes on my side. This sneaky underhand tactic worked only because I loved the taste of my side of tubers.

AEIOU Cafe sketch closeup

AEIOU Cafe sketch closeup

In another two hours I finished sketching over several cups of green tea. Reluctant to leave just yet, we ordered dinner with enough apprehension. If the food was meh I would’ve let it slide because you can’t tick all the boxes plus we were already having a good time. My chicken burger with a light salad atop a dino shaped wooden platter was gourmet standard. So it scored a last minute place in the sketch before the calls of ‘last order’ came and with it all the signs and signals of closure.

Monday was inevitable and looming large. We were ready.


Seeing anew

Three years ago, Pico Iyer, whose travel writings and essays I’m immensely fond of shared one of his travel habits at the Singapore Writer’s Festival. He said that he carries a pocket notebook with him at all times, in which he jots down everything he sees, smells, hears or feels in the destination he arrives at.

The Symposium name tag now decorates my bookshelf

The Symposium name tag now decorates my bookshelf

This makes sense because, first impressions are the freshest opinion of our new surroundings, our immediate reaction, and they as I have found out on my travels, are stark, honest feelings with frighteningly short shelf lives. If not recorded in some way, the initial shock, joy, disgust, intrigue, wonder, distaste, humility upon arriving at new shores gets diluted with each passing day to their watered down versions. The longer we stay, the initial discord with our surroundings which birthed such emotions in the first place gets ironed out, persistently, until one day we numb them and call ourselves acclimatised or acculturated.

View of Purvis Street from Killiney Kopitiam

I’ve sketched Purvis Street a million times, but never this inside out view from Killiney Kopitiam – which by the way is my favourite haunt for lime juice and french toast with a ‘view’. I like how trying to see the same place differently forces you to think outside the box! This view of Purvis street framed by the arch of the five foot way is now one of favourite sketches.

I have a copy of the 50th anniversary edition of MFK Fisher’s Art of Eating, that has a quote by Ruth Reichl, a former restaurant critic of the New York Times. She wrote to someone who was about to familiarise himself with the legendary author’s writing, “I can’t tell you how much I envy you the joy of reading Mary Frances for the first time”. 

Whether good or bad, joyous or gut-wrenching, there is always this innate sense of ‘feeling alive’ found in first impressions. And a sense of loss, lament and envy when it passes us as swiftly as it came and moves to the next person fresh off the boast, whose eyes you can see are glinting, vision focussed, ears pricked and spine upright. Only a few days ago, Singapore was inundated with people of this kind, who’d flown in from 36 different countries with their clean slates (minds and sketchbooks, both) to participate in the annual Urban Sketchers Symposium.

Waterloo Street

This beautiful building on Waterloo Street was cordoned off and workers were restoring it. Though nobody I asked could say what it was used for, I was happy that instead of getting bulldozed it’ll be repurposed.

As you can see from the picture of my symposium name tag, I was part of this interesting motley, but more than witnessing their supreme artistic talents which I already knew about, I was interested in knowing their first impressions of Singapore. ‘How do you find it?’ is what I repeatedly asked everybody I met, yearning to see what these people saw, hear what they heard and try to feel what they felt, even a little bit to dust off the ennui that comes from living in a place for long.

‘You live in a paradise and don’t even know it’; ‘It’s so futuristic’; ‘ political tension, clean, safe, peaceful, what else does one need’; ‘the heat and humidity is killing me’, ‘when it rains, it really pours’, ‘what comes through is the generosity of its people’, ‘for a country so young, I didn’t expect to witness such rich cultural heritage’ and so on is what I heard.

View from the Kampong Glam Cafe

Bussorah Street, in Kampong Glam probably gets one of the highest footfalls in Singapore. Most photos and drawings of this street are of the front on view of the Sultan mosque. Here I tried to tell the story from a different angle by seeing differently. Sure there’s a hat tip to the mosque on the right, but the focus is on the sketchers in the foreground who form a part of the scene itself. This was drawn from the Kampong Glam Cafe.

What I saw was hundreds of interpretations (there were about 400 participants) of the very sights we pass by on our way to work, schools, cafes or foodcourts and each one of them – from drawings of clothes drying on bamboo sticks sticking out of HDB buildings, elderly uncles eating noodles, religious motifs of the Hindu temples to the ‘New Moon’ branded red and yellow umbrellas on Waterloo street – jabbed at my metaphorical blinkers.

The final blow came from watching a symposium participant crouched on the floor of the Bras Basah building, making an extraordinary drawing of an ordinary stationary shop I never spared a thought for only because I had depleted my well of wonder.

The Sultan Mosque in Kampong Glam

The Sultan Mosque in Kampong Glam. Every visitor in Singapore probably has this view locked in their camera or recorded in their sketchbooks. I have one too but didn’t stop me from sneaking in another one!

The three days of the symposium, packed with workshops, lectures, demos, activities and mass sketchwalks with international artists should’ve left me motivated and inspired, which it did, amply, but that’s not it. My little stint as faux tourist in the place I live has armed me with the ability to see things anew or at least believe in its possibility! The sketches I’ve posted here are of sights I had blatantly ignored before but starting to notice like the building on Waterloo Street or those I’ve seen, visited and drawn aplenty, only now I try to see them differently and draw them from different angles like the ones on Purvis Street and Bussorah Street.

Truth be told, I’d never have a second ‘first impression’ of Singapore, but I’m glad I figured ways to reinstate some of that curiosity and wonder I felt when I first arrived at her shores.

Bhumi’s ‘messy’ Kitchen

When I pulled out my sketchbook and pen from my satchel, Bhumi was standing with her back towards me. She was wiping sweat off her brow with one hand and stirring a pan of creamy green palak paneer with the other. Then almost instantly, hunching over a mushy brown curry simmering on the other burner, she inhales deeply, nods to herself and, mutters softly, ‘You like aubergines, don’t you?”.

I do but I’m not sure if she expects an answer. I say ‘yes’ anyway and settle down on the dining room chair, trying to clear a little space for me on the table, which by the way seems to be the apartment’s principal depository. Everything from a pack of purple grapes, house keys, scissors a basket of mung bean sprouts, a bottle of aloe vera, torn packet of bay leaves to pickle jars jostle for space on the yellowed table cloth with leaf patterns. At the far end, a purple curtain tries to conceal shoes boxes, milk cartons, laundry and discarded furniture.

Bhumi's 'cluttered' Kitchen in a 2-room HDB in Kelantan

Bhumi’s ‘messy’ Kitchen in a 2-room HDB flat in Kelantan

I’ve known Bhumi for four years, when she and her husband had moved to Singapore in search of work.  “Someday when I have a nice place to myself, my own kitchen..and refrigerator.. I’d invite you to lunch,” she’d said to me countless times, until last week, she actually did invite me to lunch. “What would you like to eat?” wait..don’t tell me..I’ll surprise you!”. I came bearing a tub of mango icecream which she immediately snatched from my hand and put in the freezer.

Her husband who works at a bar, waiting tables was home, peeling almonds and chopping bananas for the fruit custard. “Guess what, I don’t have appointments today!” announced Bhumi, while letting me in. She works at a beauty parlour for a paltry sum, a chunk of which goes into educating her only daughter at a boarding school in India. When I offer to help with the cooking she directs me to a chair. “Just sit, relax! We don’t have air conditioning, but…!!”. She disappears inside and I hear something heavy being dragged out of the rooms. The two other tenants with whom the couple share their apartment aren’t in, so I have not one but two table fans directed at me.

‘Seriously, how can I help”, I offer again, but she changes the subject. ‘Let’s go for a walk after lunch. I’ll change into something nice’ she says looking disparagingly at her attire for a second. I see two spindly legs covered in blue varicose veins – from standing long hours at work – sticking out from a pair of pink shorts. Her hair is tied up in a messy bun. She picks up a spoonful of heaped coriander powder from her spice box and throws it into one of the pans. The light breeze from the window, catches the smell and perfumes the kitchen. Unable to assist, I settle down to sketch and halfway through I find Bhumi cleaning the table and clearing the clutter. “You shouldn’’s messy, it’s really messy”, she says frowning. ‘But I want to sketch the mess’, I say, alarmed at my subjects disappearing one by one.

As any sketcher will tell you, there is immense satisfaction gained from drawing the clutter, the chaos, the disorder but in doing so, as it turns out the owner of that clutter may often be chagrined. Probably Bhumi knew I meant well. “After you finish, just label it as ‘messy’ kitchen’, okay”, she said, and turned her back once again to finish cooking our lunch.