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.


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