Tag Archives: Singapore

Seven sketchbooks later

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when I crack open the eighth, run my fingers across the first white page and prepare to draw the man sipping coffee next to me I still freeze.

I recoil. I do not want the sketchbook to spoil. But the voice in my head says, start. 

Start even when you are filled with hesitation and packed to the gills with self doubt. 

Start because you’ve done it many, many times. 

Start because once you start it’ll come to you. Start anyway. 

And when I start, put pencil to paper, it’s a breeze. 

 

Seven sketchbooks later I still wonder if it’s any good. What should I be doing?

Just keep going, says the voice. Again.

Keep going because it doesn’t matter what others think. 

Now, let that thought sink.

So I pick up a crayon and colour the man’s coffee mug pink! And chuckle.

 

Seven sketchbooks later I still have as much fun as I did when I was drawing in my first. But can I make it last? 

 You want to keep having a blast? the voice is amusedperhaps at my avaricious scheme to hoard the riches of creativity.

But such riches are boundless and for anyone to grab, I yell.

Well, that’s swell, says the voice and offers the last tip – experiment, improvise, take risks and y’know, mix it up a little! 

give it your best – every jot and tittle.

7 sketchbooks

I use Muji sketchbooks for sketching people. They are small, lightweight, square shaped and can take water colour well. Oh and cheap too!

And that’s what I’ve been doing. I now have 7 sketchbooks filled cover to cover with sketches of people who I see around me everyday at cafes, restaurants and in the subway. It’s not a big number but it is something considering how afraid and hesitant I was when it came to drawing people an year ago. Several times, especially when the drawing didn’t go my way and was cringeworthy beyond measure, I second guessed myself and wanted to give up. I still do.

But as trite as it may sound, something kept me going, rather keeps me going. The voice in the head is real. It is born out of doggedness. Besides having fun which is primarily why I draw people and everything else, to observe and to document that on the spot, in that very moment feels like actively participating in my own life. Here’s hoping the feeling never goes away!

Below are sketches from my 7th sketchbook. The last sketch in the series is also the very last one I made in Singapore before leaving the country two months ago.  Enjoy!

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Tall and tattooed. Seen at Tiong Bahru Bakery, Singapore

 

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People at Hanis Cafe, outside the National Library of Singapore, my absolute fav place to go. 

 

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Sketched the lady on the left over a bowl of rich and creamy lobster bisque at Soup Stock Tokyo in Singapore. She was waiting for her food. There was no slouching!

 

 

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A lonely guy seen at Starbucks who kept looking at people very longingly, perhaps waiting for someone to fill the seat opposite him. 

 

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Lobster red French tourists on the right were sitting at the next table at Tiong Bahru Bakery (TBB) in Singapore. They were pretty amused to see me sketching them. 

 

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On the left is a Caucasian dad tending to his very cute half Caucasian-half Asian child. Also seen at TBB. 

 

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Seen at Newton Food Centre, Singapore. They were eating shrimp fried rice, I think. 

 

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Guy on the left reading Financial Times and the lady on the right in gym clothes reading a book on kindle and forgetting to eat. Both seen at TBB, Singapore

 

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Started drawing the guy on the left because he had ordered a lot of food. I thought he’d stay put for long giving me enough time to finish drawing. But he was acutely hungry, finished everything in seconds and left!

 

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Starbucks patrons drawn on a depressing Sunday night (because next day was Monday, duh!)

 

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Ladies on the right – One ate voraciously and the other looked expectedly. Seen at TBB, Singapore

 

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Couple on the right was sitting at the table of superlatives. The lady had the longest nose and the gentleman had the narrowest chin in the entire cafe. They were having coffee together at TBB. 

 

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View from my table at our neighbourhood Starbucks in Singapore. It is heartening to see kids holding actual books and reading! Such are our times. 

 

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Seen at Tiong Bahru Bakery, Singapore. The cafe was 5 kms away from our apartment. We walked there every Sunday morning for a whole year. I drew and my husband read.

 

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The lady on the right was straight as a ramrod. Hardly get to see such perfect posture! Drawn at TBB, Singapore

 

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Just some people eating at Newton Food Centre in Singapore. I went there  often for the excellent meatball noodles. 

 

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Ladies on the left were part of the lunch crowd at Hanis Cafe near the fantastic National Library of Singapore. They were having fish and chips with Ice tea. It was a breezy afternoon, only a few days before I left the country. 

 

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Lady on the left had a remarkably colourful woven bag that I instantly coveted. The next best thing was to draw the bag and the owner. The lady on the right was dutifully photographing her food before eating because, Instagram. 

 

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Lady on the right was the last person I sketched before leaving Singapore. Seen at Tiong Bahru Bakery. 

 

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So, are you settled yet?

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Room 632 at Glad Hotel, Yeouido. We stayed here for a month after landing in Seoul.

Ever since we moved from Singapore to Seoul two months ago, my dad has been asking me the same question every time he calls. Between, ‘how are you’ and ‘how’s the weather’, which act as the beginning and end to all our conversations, this new question makes up the vast uncharted middle. To be fair, it’s not just my dad, although he’s the most frequent and punctual inquirer, my sister, relatives, and close friends have been wanting to know the same thing.

‘Am I settled yet?”

“I don’t know.”

“What do you mean, you don’t know?”

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First sketch after landing in Seoul. The guy on the left was eating dumplings at the hotel’s breakfast table.

The day we flew into Seoul, we checked into a hotel and stayed in room 632 for the whole month of March. I remember craning my neck out of the room’s only window facing the road Uisadang-daero, and looking at the green dome of the National Assembly on my left and repeating to myself myself in a reassuring tone that we are here.

We are finally here.

We made it.

After months of planning, researching, debating, questioning the decision of moving, making pro/con lists and checklists, checking items off that checklist, after selling furniture, donating books to the library, having occasional meltdowns and then cheering ourselves up by eating at all our fav places one last time, after making trips to the Salvation Army with impossibly heavy bags, after endless packing, cleaning the apartment, handing over the keys of the apartment to the landlord and finally after saying painful goodbyes to our friends we are here.

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Seen at Gontran Cherrier cafe. He was reading The Big Short by Michael Lewis about the build -up of Unites States housing bubble during the 2000s. I had a peek at the cover!

All this while I thought once we hop on that flight to Seoul, the nagging feeling of displacement, the feeling of ground shifting beneath your feet, the feeling of being in limbo, floating in ether, the neither here nor there, sitting on the threshold with one foot inside and the other outside the door kind of feeling will slip off  like a magician’s silk scarf. A pack of white doves would fly across the stage. Confetti will fall. People will applaud.

Instead my dad asks if I feel settled yet.

I should’ve. But I have a feeling that the show isn’t over. The doves fly back to the magician. There’s a second act. “Baba, we are looking for an apartment. Once we get one, we’ll be settled then”, I tell him. And to myself.

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Two girls seen on subway line 9. The girl on the left had a red blotch on her face next to the nose and kept checking it out on her phone. Her friend kept reassuring her that it was nothing!

As soon as we get our bearings, we start looking for an apartment. Within a fortnight we sign the dotted line on a rent agreement. This place is much bigger than the one we lived in for 7 years in Singapore. We have a floor to ceiling shoe rack. No more shoes lying about like fallen soldiers in the hallway. There are three bedrooms, so I have space for practicing yoga. No more trying to squeeze myself in between the living room sofa and the dining table. No more pining for a luxurious reading chair with a floor lamp beside it right by my bookcase because the study can accommodate one.

We can stow away our 5 large suitcases in various niches in the walls away from view. No more shoving them under the bed and ruining the wooden slats under the mattress. The kitchen is big enough for the two of us to be working together without getting in each other’s way. “No more, ‘I’m behind you, watch out’, warnings”, I tell Baba jokingly over the phone.

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People on Subway line 9

At the end of the month, we pack up again, say goodbye to room 632, the hotel staff, some of whom we came to know by name and move into the apartment. We order furniture from IKEA. We change the password of the electronic lock on the main door. We buy ourselves a frying pan, two pairs of spoons and forks, two dinner plates, bowls, one kitchen knife and a stirring spoon. We unpack our bags, hang clothes in the wardrobes, arrange the toiletries, spread the newly bought cerulean blue sheet on the bed and fluff the cushions. I even hang a pretty white and blue chequered tea towel on the oven door.

But when my dad calls again and asks the same question, my answer is laced with irritation. ” I don’t even have my own pillow...”, I say. The lump in my throat was hard to swallow. Was his need for me to be settled, chafing against the time I needed to be settled?

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Seen at a Starbucks in Gangnam. 

If I had handled it better then I’d have said to him that I didn’t have my pillow or my books, my computer, my writing table, my paints, sketchbooks, or my favourite Tefal non-stick frying pan.  They arrive with the movers in a week. All 42 boxes.

And maybe when they’re here I will be finally settled. With that I’d have headed to the kitchen to whip up something warm and comforting.

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A mindless doodle of few objects and sights I came across during our stay at the hotel in Yeouido.

I have never made Spaghetti Aglio E Olio quite as frequently as I did in between the time we moved to Seoul and until the movers walked in bearing my kitchen paraphernalia. Why? Not just because I’ve made it hundreds of times before but also because it is incredibly easy to prepare and doesn’t involve anything fancy in terms of ingredients or utensils. Just warm some olive oil in a pan, throw in chopped garlic and red pepper flakes, cook for 2 mins on low flame. Infusing the oil with the flavour of garlic and pepper flakes is key. Add the cooked pasta to the pan. Toss well. Done.

Serve with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of Parmesan on top. To this simple, rustic dish, I create variety by adding either shrimps or chicken and/or mushrooms, zucchini, green beans, chickpeas, even boiled eggs. My husband has been a saint for lapping up every strand of spaghetti cooked the same way day after day during this period. Then again, maybe not that big a saint, I realised later.

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Seen at A Twosome Place in Gangnam

When you’re in the process of adapting to everything new and foreign, all it takes is the old familiarity of an oft cooked meal to anchor you like an astronaut’s safety tether that keeps him from floating away in space. Every evening when two souls lost in a trail of thoughts and apprehensions gathered across the table in their hotel room under the glow of an overhead lamp hundreds of miles away from what they knew as home, this food brought them together and comforted them in a way nothing else did. Over forkfuls of spaghetti we made plans for the future.

We laughed and we loved. We said to each other that we’d be alright. It was a great feeling. Sacred even. In a modern vehicle, the axle plays a role in the driving, braking and steering functions. Every dinner of Aglio E Olio felt like that axle – the steady shaft at the centre of two spinning wheels.

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I saw this girl doing her make up at Starbucks and I realized how no one ever says, “I’ll be right back. I have to powder my nose” anymore!

In a week, as per schedule Lucy, a short sprightly Korean lady who flicked her hair a lot while talking, knocked on our door at 9 am sharp. She was from the movers and was here to oversee the last leg of this move. Two men were bringing our boxes from a van parked downstairs at the back of the building. She handed us a sheet with numbers from 1 to 800 printed inside little squares. “As each box comes through the door, you need to check its number and cross it out on this list” she said.

No. 12…books and decorative items…put where?”, called out a tall Korean guy, walking in with a carton balanced on his shoulder. He had a thick mop of wavy salt and pepper hair and a gait that would’ve matched a business suit more than his flannel shirt and jeans which had pearly gates embroidered in cursive letters over the back pocket in lurid pink thread.  The owner of the ‘heavenly derriere’ was pointed towards the study where the bookcase was. My husband crossed a box on the sheet. I exhaled.

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 Men chatting at the table next to ours at cafe Cattle & Bee in Gangnam 

No. 37, TV…No. 8, kitchen utensils.’

As more boxes came in I exhaled some more. For days on end I had this feeling that every ounce of energy in my body was being used in blowing up this giant inflatable zeppelin. And now the job was done. I could set it free to float in the sky. The pressure was off.

No. 10“, pearly gates, called.

A big fat hen. I wish I said that out loud.

No. 27“, he called again.

Gateway to heaven. I definitely wish I had said that out loud.

It took us eight hours to put away the contents of those 42 boxes after Lucy and her entourage left. They had unpacked every box and laid their contents on the floors of the respective rooms where they belonged. It was all very neat and organised. I had horrid dreams of my books drowning in the sea but they made it in one piece without a scratch. Everything arrived in pristine condition except two casualties discovered in the souvenirs carton. Eiffel tower had a severed leg and Statue of Liberty had fractured her arm.

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Saw this man chowing down on a large salad at Gontran Cherrier.

But that didn’t matter so much because I had finally reunited with my pillow. Everything that made my home in Singapore was here in Seoul. Things that needed attention now were in the realm of home improvement like hanging picture frames on the walls, buying plants and decorative items, getting cleaning equipments like mops, detergents, dishwashing liquids and so on.

So when Baba called a few days later and before he could ask me anything, I volunteered how impossibly difficult it was to get a proper ironing table. “They’re either too big and expensive or too small and fragile“. Then I ranted about how the tap water isn’t potable and how I didn’t find green beans or minced chicken at any supermarket and how ridiculously expensive watermelons were and how cable network had barely any English channel and how every letter box in the building was without locks and how banks in Korea do not have the provision of opening joint accounts.

I guess I answered his question even before he could ask it.

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Seen on subway line 9. This guy had really chunky boots on with bright yellow laces! I had so much fun sketching him.

But that didn’t stop me from asking it to myself. And probing even further. What does ‘being settled’ even mean? How long until you can be fully settled? What did my dad actually want to know from me?

Maybe we have different definitions of the same word. To my 65 year old man who is 4034 kms away from his daughter, being settled may just mean her safely landing at her destination and checking into a hotel. As far as he was concerned, the move was done. Singapore was behind us. I should’ve settled. A month later when we moved into the apartment, surely then I should’ve settled. And finally when our shipment arrived, that should have been the ultimate finish line of being settled. Maybe he would’ve cheered from the metaphorical sidelines if only I said the word.

But I didn’t. Because we were never on the same page. The dictionary definition of ‘settle’, a verb, is to establish a residence. A residence has been established. My father expects a crisp past perfect but I am dwelling in the present continuous tense.

I am settling.

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Sketched these girls on the night of South Korea’s Presidential Elections at Angel-in-us Cafe near our house. They were the most fidgety people I’d ever drawn but in the end I got them down safely on paper!

Out of the 7 years we lived in Singapore, I can’t say exactly how much time it took for us to settle when we moved there from Munich. But at the end of those 7 years if a newly bought shoe felt too tight, I knew the exact place to get it fixed under $10. If I needed to buy a rice cooker I could list at least 5 places to buy it from. I had a ‘fish guy’ who’d only sell me the freshest fish and a ‘grocery guy’ who at the sight of me would leave other customers waiting to disappear inside his shop and fetch me the freshest yoghurt he had made that day.

I knew which movie theatres had the most leg room and the cafes where you could be served unparalleled Egg Benedict or Kouign Amman. I had friends with whom I could have deep spiritual discussions and friends who I could call in the middle of the night if I got into trouble. Did all this make me feel settled? A resounding, yes. Did all this take time to build? Yes, again.

And I need that time here because I start from scratch. Because trying to replicate your old life in a new place is utter foolishness. Believe me, I tried.

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Seen at Gontran Cherrier. 

So instead of ranting about everything that I couldn’t’ find or isn’t easily available or is different from what I was used to, I surveyed the nearby supermarket to make a note of every thing that is available. I researched recipes of dishes I could make using those ingredients and on my 4th visit to eMart I exited with a packet of kimchi, gochujang (Korean chilli paste), sesame oil and mung bean sprouts. My kimchi-bokkeum-bap may have been low on taste but it was a pathbreaker.

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A girl with lurid pink hair. Seen at Cafe Cattle & Bee, Gangnam.

Since then, we’ve strolled under cherry blossom trees at Yeouido Park and drank coffee and licked ice creams with the locals sitting on benches with our faces to the sun; found a shop at Itaewon that sells all kinds of Indian spices; and gone on a weekend trip to the port city of Busan. We’ve learnt how to separate the trash into common garbage and recyclables, how to operate our washing machine with labels in Korean and gotten used to buying bottled water just like everybody. I have started sketching in cafes again (as you can see from these drawings), which are aplenty here. And at the end of this month I’m going to join a book club and then take Korean language classes.

A more expensive ironing table that is nothing like the one we used to own before has been bought since. Our kimchi fridge, a common fixture in all Korean apartments still remains empty but I am hopeful that it’ll have a chance to serve its purpose one day.

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Seen on subway line 9

Sometimes when I am looking out from the window of our apartment in Gangnam my eyes glaze over and I feel like I’m living in this very intuitive and extremely realistic dream from which I would wake up any minute and find myself in my old bed in Lincoln Road. I’d stop the alarm, tie my frizzy hair – by courtesy of Singapore’s humidity – in a tight bun and walk into the kitchen to make us some tea.

Settling, as I have found out is a work in progress. It requires time and patience. It is also a lot of fun if you don’t take things too seriously. But most of the time it feels like climbing an incline. You are allowed to make as many stops as you like to take a breather and to absorb your surroundings like those sure footed goats I once saw bounding up an almost erect mountain in Greece. From a sailboat on the bluest of blue seas, I envied their view and the wonderful rhythm of their steps. Two months in Seoul and I am already beginning to see the view but when I find my rhythm and I will, I hope my dad calls.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One smart cookie

Few weeks ago I was having dinner with few of my sketching  pals when a friend pulled out some fortune cookies from his bag and passed them around. Now I am a very ‘if you want something you gotta work for it’ kind of person and do not wait for the stars to be in right allignment to act upon what needs to be acted upon but once in a while I do amuse myself with a light read of the horoscope in the daily newspaper.

The problem is, once the knowledge of how my day is going to pan out has been acquired, I use that intel to corroborate everything that happens from then on. For example, my inclination to take up a new language the other day was obviously because cafeastrology predicted that ‘..with the moon in your communications sector, dear Virgo, you tend to want to be ‘on the go’, making connections, learning ( and there’s our key word!) and sharing. Today the same column predicts that my ‘boredom threshold level’ is supposed to be very low which must explain my pillaging the larder and finishing a bag of garlic breads while watching Gilmore Girls. See, how this works?

This extends to fortune cookies as well. And this is what the first fortune cookie I ever opened in my life said –

How could I have ignored such a potential life altering edict from a smart cookie like that? I couldn’t. So this happened a week ago –

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Rarely do I get a chance to recycle an old illustration. I made the original last August when we visited Seoul as tourists. Little did we know that seven months later we’d move here. 

Yes, we moved! And we are settling quite well, better than I imagined. Well, all that practice from before is coming in handy. Our first move was from Delhi to Munich and then from Munich to Singapore and now after seven years of expat life in the tropical city state, we’re here in the capital of South Korea, living in a nifty service apartment for now from the window of which I can smell spring which is just round the corner and can see the dome of the National Assembly building if I really crane my neck.

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Aboard Singapore Airlines, flying to Seoul. The final goodbye was very painful but also looking forward to new beginnings.

The first week as expected of settling in at a new place has been predictably eventful. We got our tuberculosis tests done (required to apply for a residence permit) at a public health clinic where not a single soul spoke English.

Everything went remarkably well, considering we managed to fill out forms that were in Korean except for a little confusion towards the end when our names got swapped and my husband was asked to take the test again when they actually meant to ask me. But we handled it with all the charm we could muster. Never underestimate the power of miming. Grocery shopping happened on Tuesday and I was bummed because I couldn’t find most of the vegetables I was used to buying but loved the fact that supermarkets don’t hand out plastic bags.

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From 23 degrees C in Singapore to -3 degrees C in Seoul. But spring is coming!

Also, basmati rice costs more than 3 times of what we paid in Singapore. On Friday, President Park was impeached, on Saturday we went apartment hunting with a property agent named Elvis who looked 30 years old but was actually pushing 50 and thought that it was inappropriate to celebrate the impeachment of a country’s president even though the desired outcome had been achieved. On Sunday we sniffed out a cafe by Gontran Cherrier (his Kouign Amanns were to die for even in Singapore) and on Monday we applied for our residence permits at the Immigration office. Phew!

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At Incheon Airport. We had so much luggage that it wouldn’t be fit into a regular taxi, so we had to hire a ‘van’.

There are still a million things to be done like finding an apartment, opening a bank account, getting a local phone number, applying for internet, finding an Indian grocery store that sells all the spices I use in my cooking and so much more which cumulatively may feel overwhelming but every time I sense my patience fraying I remind myself that we are doing exactly what we always wanted to do, which was to travel.

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This fantastic service apartment is our home for this entire month until we find our own apartment. We have a kitchenette and the first meal I made after buying groceries was pasta Agilo e oilo!

To travel to a new place and make it home for a while. To explore and discover our new home. To experience all over again the full gamut of emotions from being surprised, shocked, disgusted, livid, bemused to being excited, joyful, exhilarated, inspired, happy and possibly a lot humbler than we were before (not necessarily in that order) as a result of those discoveries and explorations. It is akin to suddenly being apprised of the fact that you have a beating heart, although you had it all your life and never cared and feeling how marvellous that is! It is akin to feeling alive!

Oh! there will be stories to tell. And I know it’ll all be fun, just as my cookie predicted.

 

 

 

 

Santa’s been benevolent

How? Here’s a round up of the all the gigs and interesting events that landed on my plate..errr in my stocking last month. First up was a..

Portrait commission 

A lovely lady who is a regular at Tiong Bahru Bakery where I visit every Sunday approached me mid-sketch and asked for my card. Next day, in the mail comes a request to draw postcard sized portraits of her two cute little sons and her two cute little nephews which she’d then give out as Christmas presents to her husband and her sister.

Here’s my take on her youngest son Marcel who was such a treat to draw!

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The next treat in the sock was a chance to be…

In the Changi Calendar

Singapore’s Changi Airport had the noble idea of making their 2017 calendar using hand drawn sketches of the airport. They wished to collaborate with the Urban Sketchers Singapore, a local community of artists and I along with a big gang of sketchers got to scope out the airport, find all the interesting sights and draw our hearts out for one day.

The outcome is as noble as the idea!  A unique piece of artwork represents each month. I was honoured to have not one but two sketches selected, representing August and December. Well thank you, Santa! Here are some pictures:

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The Changi Airport’s calendar for the year 2017

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This is my original sketch of the Butterfly Garden located inside Changi Airport’s Terminal 3. I sketched this using dip pen and ink.

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Here’s a page from the calendar.  If you even happen to find yourself in Terminal 3 at Changi Airport, do visit the Butterfly Garden. It’s spectacular!

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Artist at work! Sometimes the butterflies, which were massive in size, would land on my hands and stay awhile as I sketched. Without their unwavering support this collaboration wouldn’t have been possible.

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This is the original sketch I made of the shopping street at Terminal 3.  I used dip pen and ink.

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Each artist whose work got selected received a calendar in the post which came with a hand written note. Such a nice touch!

Then right after Christmas I got…

Featured on WordPress Discover

which was one of the highlights of last year because overnight my art and my stories reached a much wider audience. I received heart warming messages from bloggers all over who wrote to tell me how much they appreciated what I did. One lady said after reading my blog she wants to start carrying a sketchbook instead of a camera to document her life!

And that meant a great deal to me because the truth is whether there’s a murmur of approbation every time we send our art into the world or not, we continue to fulfil our need to create, which most of the time is solely for the artist’s own pleasure (Oscar Wilde in his 1891 essay The Soul of a Man under Socialism, said “Art is the most intense mode of individualism that the world has known”) but when this creation matters to someone other than the creator, moves them, encourages them, inspires them in a tiny way even, then I feel what we’ve achieved has much greater value. Also it seems like a less selfish act to be engaged in with a fair ‘sense of purpose’ creeping its way into the equation.

Coming back to what the feature was about, here’s a screenshot of my quote in WordPress Discover’s series on New Year’s Resolutions where they asked selected WordPress bloggers: What’s in store for you – and your site – in 2017?

 

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WordPress Discover’s Glimpse into 2017 is a 3 part series and there are many interesting and thought provoking entries. You can read the first part here, the second part here and the third part here.

And this brings me to the end of 2016 and the beginning of 2017,  a time I spent with my parents in India on my much awaited once-a-year home trip, about which I will write in a separate post and share the sketches I made during my visit. Until then, here’s a quick one I did at the airport while waiting for my flight to India.

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Fellow passengers waiting to board the Air India flight from Singapore to Kolkata

 

Lastly and most importantly, before signing off, I’d like to wish all my readers who’ve grown exponentially from 54 until recently to 534 now, a very HAPPY NEW YEAR! A warm welcome to each one of you and thank you for choosing to follow my blog and showing your appreciation in the form of likes and extremely encouraging messages.

Thank you!

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dickson Road

 

in Singapore’s Little India neighbourhood is at a 10mins bus ride from my home. It has a row of slightly run down, mismatched yet beautiful shophouses which I only ‘discovered’ the other day after having lived in the vicinity for 6 years. Six years! Over a glass of lime juice bought from a hole in the wall eatery I began sketching this scene from a sunny spot all the while mulling over one question – what took me so long to find this place?

I hadn’t started sketching until recently is the answer I’m going to settle for. There are millions of things vying for our attention day after day and in our bid to process all the information bombarded at us we see everything but observe nothing. Not if you are somebody who likes to draw from life, though! You sirs and madams, single out the Mandarins on the supermarket shelf not because they are on offer but because you are wondering how much Quin Gold mixed with Cadmium red will get you that specific shade of orange.

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Shophouses on Dickson Road sketched using my fav tools – dip pen and ink

In a rare instance when you are stuck in a subway without your sketching supplies you start making invisible contour drawings with your eyes of the people in the compartment. You scrutinize the shape of their nose, the arch of their back, colour of their eyes and hair along with skin tones, postures, attires and so on. Because you have this wonderful habit of documenting what you see you’re forced to slow down and focus on your subjects and with continued practice you inculcate a keen sense of observation. When your station arrives you leave with the image of a tired construction worker carrying take-out food in a red polythene bag typical of hawker centers and a Zen mom snoozing peacefully while her toddler tries to pry her eyes open. Or something of this sort.

Sure, this kind of information doesn’t serve an immediate purpose but instead of thinking about doing laundry, calling parents, cooking dinner, checking Instagram, unclogging the kitchen sink and chasing an overdue payment all at the same time, when sketching I get to park a single thought in my mind for a prolonged period of time. It is akin to meditation with all the promised benefits but without the numb legs from sitting cross legged in lotus posture.

Since I frequent Little India so much, it is impossible to have not walked on Dickson Road before but I clearly didn’t remember it. And now that I’ve drawn it, I won’t forget it.