Monthly Archives: November 2016

Do you sell masala chai?

I have quelled all sorts of curiosities when I am out sketching on location but never have I been asked this question. There’s a first for everything, I guess. Also this is the sort of thing that keeps one from becoming complacent lest you think you’ve heard it all!

So there I was on Norris Road in the Little India district of Singapore, wiping sweat off my brow. I had walked through a warren of roads and back lanes with many alluring sketch worthy subjects – and though my SPF50 sunscreen coated skin felt invincible, it was no fun wandering in the 2’o’ clock sun – looking for a shady spot to sketch them from.

And then right opposite this row of shophouses (see below), I spotted an awning. And under its shade were two rickety chairs made of plastic. Both the chairs and the awning belonged to a Bangladeshi catering restaurant whose cash counter was manned by not one but two burly men who knew not how to smile unless they saw the face of money, perhaps.

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Row of shophouses on Norris Road, Little India

But I was there only for the chairs, rather for the permission to occupy one of those soon-to- be-disposed or already disposed chairs and remain undisturbed for a while. They couldn’t have cared less. So I got to work but not before doing a quick reconnaissance of my location.

Inside the restaurant were lurid posters of hilsa and mutton curry covering parts of the ochre wall that was peeling off in places. The food delivery guys were marching in and out with urgency, suppliers were parking their big vans by the pavement and from what I could see of the kitchen, there were uniformed men wearing white toques barking orders and swinging their arms to the tunes of spices and gravies.

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Norris Road, Little India

The next 20 minutes were uneventful on my chair except for the usual distractions such as tourists stopping by to check what I was up to, kids pointing me out to their parents and random people rushing with a bag of groceries to their car and slowing down just enough to get a peek at my sketchbook and immediately averting their eyes when I looked up.

The incongruity of my situation – a lone person doodling in the middle of the day in the middle of the road while the rest of the world goes about its business – is never lost on me. But what’s changed over the years though is how I’ve managed the unsolicited attention it generates. Instead of exhibiting reticence which was the go to response in my early sketching days I’ve asked myself time and again why everybody from babies in arms to the elderly hobbling along with the aid of walking sticks take an interest in someone making art. What is so special about that?

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Norris Road, Little India

Could it be that our need to create something is primordial? It may not get tended to very often by a lot of people, but it is sitting there in a dormant state inside each of us and gets stimulated every time we’re exposed to the process of creation. I’ve seen my husband – a guy who loves to eat but cannot boil water in the kitchen without help – watch ‘Jamie’s 15 minute meals’ or Gordon Ramsay’s cooking shows with great veneration for hours on end. I don’t expect a three course meal anytime soon but he’s picked up some cool tricks along the way. For all you know, breakfast in bed may not be a distant dream for me, after all.

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Row of shophouses on Norris Road in Little India, Singapore

In the same vein, I feel that if my art could ignite even a little spark of interest in someone, I wouldn’t mind sitting on a rickety chair so much in the mid afternoon heat in front of a catering restaurant and being asked by a couple of Bangladeshi tourists if ‘we’ sell Masala Chai.

“Well, I don’t know”, I said to them truthfully but they were peeved and left in a hurry probably mourning the death of customer service. Their sour departure was replaced with the most unexpected arrival of one the taciturn cashiers from the restaurant. After a long glance over my shoulders, he wanted to know more about what I was doing. Wait, what? There may have been a smile involved.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Sweet company of strangers

may sound oxymoronic in isolation but in the context of my creative life, it is the most heartening spin-off.

Just the other day I was at Newton Food Centre, a popular hawker centre in Singapore to tend to an urgent and irrepressible desire of eating handmade meatball noodles. And to combat the heat from the red chillies floating in my gravy I ordered a glass of lime juice from San Ren Cold and Hot Dessert Stall, where in between taking orders the lady boss was brashly chopping water chestnuts with a gleaming pocket knife on the same table where I was seated.

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The lady from San Ren Hot and Cold Dessert Stall chopping water chestnuts

Even though we were only a few inches apart, as far as she was concerned I was a fly on the wall. But to me she was a fine subject, one that I hoped would hold her posture long enough to warrant a quick sketch.

“Drawing me, ah?” she said to no one in particular. The words were tossed in the air for someone, mostly me because I was the only one sketching, to catch and respond.  When I looked up I wondered to myself if I had ever in the past wanted someone’s tightened jaws and deeply furrowed eyebrows to relax so badly. All across the table lay freshly hacked pieces of water chestnuts.

Only the ones sealed inside transparent packets with green trimmings remained whole and even they knew what was coming and shrivelled a little in fright. Not wanting to share the fate of mutilated chestnuts I said to the lady as bravely as I could that I hoped she didn’t mind me drawing her.

But I doubt she heard me because I didn’t hear myself.

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(L) A San Ren Dessert stall patron eating Cheng Tng

My mumble was cut short by another retort, not directed at me, yet again. I was still the fly on the wall. “Looks like me ah!..come, look, look” said San Ren’s lady boss and the tormenter of countless water chestnuts in an urgent tone to a uniformed elderly cleaning lady who was clearing our table.

In exchange of a short cursory nod she had pulled my sketchbook away from my hands and was coarsely flipping through the pages.

The white haired cleaning lady joined in and because we didn’t speak each other’s language instead of words she offered me the sweetest smile of approval and chuckled with glee at my most recent work. Then she summoned every stall owner within 50 feet to check out what I was doing.

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An elderly cleaning lady (in uniform) at Newton Food Centre aka ‘auntie’ flipping through my sketchbook.

Meanwhile having retrieved my sketchbook I got back to work again. A patron of San Ren dessert stall was wolfing down a sweet bowl of Cheng Tng. I sketched him and then some random people waiting for their food or eating but it was becoming increasingly difficult to carry on.

When sketching people I try to be as discreet as possible, so as to not make my subjects uncomfortable in any way but this is hard when you have a conspicuous audience made up of bulky, oil stained shorts and t-shirt clad, cleaver wielding stall owners smelling of garlic, palm oil and sambal standing behind you, rather hunched over, following every mark you make on your sketchbook and immediately matching it with the subject by looking at that person directly in the face until he or she feels like a mounted taxidermy exhibit.

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Lunching at Newton Food Centre

From their enthusiastic nods and thumps ups, I knew my hawker center audience meant well but any one I tried to sketch under their intense scrutiny left in a jiffy. “Sketch auntie’, ordered San Ren’s lady boss offering the elderly cleaning lady to be my next subject.

I didn’t fail to notice that the knife and the water chestnuts had been put away. Maybe she was finally warming up to me and if sketching ‘auntie’ would keep the knife under wraps I was happy to oblige. Only auntie didn’t have the luxury of posing for a portrait. Dirty plates beckoned. So we parted with a hug. When her kind eyes met mine, I think she seemed a little proud of me.

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Newton Food Centre, Singapore

I went to Newton Food Centre that day to fill my belly but came back with a fuller heart. It is true of every country I visit or every place I go with my sketchbook. It does not matter if I speak the language or not, whether I look like the locals or not, just by sitting among people and drawing in their midst I’ve been accepted and spurred on by total strangers, even the ones that don’t bond so easily.

As I got up to leave, the San Ren lady spoke again.”Come back soon”. It sounded more like a grunt than an entreaty. Only this time she looked straight at me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A little victory and the big win

Two kinds of people attract unwarranted attention at cafes.

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Out of office but chained to work – I saw this guy sitting at our neighbourhood Starbucks with one hand on his head and the other checking emails on the phone oblivious of the beautiful breezy evening, the sound of  birds and music flowing in the air. 

One, babies because they are tiny, cute, cuddly and non-judgemental humans who if you happen to catch after a recent feed-poop-nap session will bear smiles that will warm the cockles of your heart. From what I’ve seen one doesn’t even need to know the baby. It is perfectly acceptable to nod, wave or point at them from your table  without offending anyone around.

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(L) How many ways are there to hold a pen? This girl was wielding it like a dagger! (R) Here’s a elderly woman seen at Tiong Bahru Bakery wearing a short polka dotted dress and red lipstick( with matching nail polish!) rocking her wrinkles and laughing with wild abandon. I never liked the phrase – ‘twilight years’. This is how you turn it upside down.

The other kind is me. I have nothing in common with babies. But I still get pointed out, fussed over and smiled at by strangers. Shy reluctant children have been shoved in my direction by mothers with utmost urgency.”Go kiddo go, see what she’s doing!”. And then right behind the kiddo you find the guardian standing at a safe distance peering at me with equal interest.

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Spotted at Coffee Academics on Scotts Road. This guy demolished a heaped plate of food in mere seconds and left. I had a really hard time keeping up!

The sight of an adult playing with crayons and watercolours in a room full of adults doing adult stuff like buying bread and drinking coffee is often met with the same amount of incomprehension as is reserved for all kinds of anomalies. What’s interesting though is how people react to this anomaly!

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(L) Even though it’s difficult to hold a large baguette sandwich in one hand and eat, do not ever, not even for once free the other hand by letting go of the phone –  that kind of guy.

That same reluctant kid would turn around chuck the phone, notepad or whatever he was being engaged with and demand a sketchbook pronto. If not that day, I will see him or her appear the next weekend armed with a colouring book, efficiently applying a green crayon over a lion’s mane. Little victory!

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(R) Quick sketch of my husband eating his free birthday cake (from Starbucks), reading Vikram Seth’s Suitable Boy on kindle and watching the 5th One Day International : India vs NZ on his phone, all at the same time. Indians beat the kiwis by 190 runs that night. 

Adults on the other hand need an acceptable reason for doing something they were weaned off in fifth grade. “You must be an architect/ engineer/designer.” – I am not asked this but told. Only then can they explain to themselves why I have the permission to sketch or paint and they don’t because they are none of these things.

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A passionate speaker seen at Starbucks who used her hands much more than her voice to get the point across. I was very convinced even though I don’t understand a word of Malay.

I do it for fun, I say and am met with blank stares. Even an year ago I’d have been uncomfortable with such attention and would have looked up Craigslist for a cloak of invisibility. But not anymore. I’ve been sketching rather feverishly over the last couple of months to know that practice not only makes perfect, it also makes courage and confidence in reasonable amounts.

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(L) This guy had a laptop cover that looked exactly like a shiny marble countertop! I had a teeny weeny urge to chop vegetables on it but it passed very quickly. (R) This lady was eating alone at the table next to mine and before taking each bite she’d hold the sandwich in front of her with both hands and contemplate.

So now I hold my ground and sound convincing not to defend my actions lest I am adjudged frivolous but to get at least one of them to pull out the child that got buried under years of adulthood. And sometimes it works.

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The most common sight at our neighbourhood Starbucks is that of students of all ages studying alone or in large groups.

I am plied with questions starting from how expensive my sketchbook is to what paints I use to where I bought the paint box from. And then I’m invariably told how much each one of these people loved to draw when they were small.

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(L) Girls in cropped halter neck tops, nose rings, green hair highlights and beaded bracelets. The cuddly soft toy didn’t seem to fit in but it was trying very hard. (R) Stripey here had little hope of getting his assignment done that night coz he constantly looked up to check out every passing girl. 

I don’t see them wielding a sketchbook the next day or the week after but the stares become infrequent. Maybe some day I’ll catch one of them absentmindedly picking up a stray pencil and doodling the coffee mug they’ve been drinking from on the back of a receipt. What a big win that would be!

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Behold the rare sight of a man holding and reading an actual newspaper, turning pages instead of scrolling up and down or zooming in and out on a screen. Sorry about the morbid headline but that’s what he was reading.

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Two random people eating and drinking at the same cafe, minding their own businesses, oblivious of each other’s presence but united on a double spread.  I like when that happens.

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This lady looked like someone who’d look fabulous in a mid 19th century Victorian gown complete with a flowery hat, silk gloves and a parasol! 

These sketches above are from my latest sketchbook of random people I’ve seen in various cafes in the city along with my observations. I hope you enjoy looking at them as much as I have enjoyed drawing them!