Tag Archives: sketching people

Life sucks but first, coffee

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Alver Cafe in Gangnam, Seoul

said the coffee cup sleeve at Alver cafe (see above) near my house in Gangnam-gu.

Without a modal verb – may or might, the message seemed frighteningly definitive, especially when I picked up the tumbler to drink and my fingers covered the last three words!

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(L) I was sketching this animated bunch of girls at La Eskimo cafe, and by the time I drew two the group left. The guy was promptly picked up from another table and put with the girls that got drawn. Talk about creative license!

It can be the strangest of things at the most unseemly places that prompt you to run a spot check of your life.

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People of Paris Baguette below my apartment.

I’m almost 4 months old in Seoul. Among other things I still pine for my friends, the huge libraries filled with English books and the well-stocked art shops of Singapore where I spent many good hours. And I am still discomfited by the fact that I don’t live a mere 4 hours away from my parents anymore and should they need assistance, it’ll take me a while to be with them. But in these 3 months, we’ve ironed out most of the kinks relating to the move and by extension, our lives because that’s what moving forward entails.

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(R) My husband was watching India vs Pakistan:ICC champion’s Trophy on his phone and reading William Dalrymple’s “Return of a King” on his kindle thus proving men can (selectively) multitask.

The initial surprises (like, what! local banks don’t have provision for joint accounts?; A watermelon costs 14 dollars?; Supermarkets don’t store half the things we are used to buying) and challenges (like properly separating trash or paying utility bills online) have been had and subsequent discoveries (you can get anything from a skillet to a golf ball home delivered; apartments have speakers on the ceiling through which you hear random announcements being made in Korean by the building management) have been made.

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(R) Two men eating Mango ‘Bingsu’  – Korean shaved iced dessert with sweet toppings at Paris Baguette. 

I don’t convert the price of every item I buy into Singapore dollars anymore. And I definitely understand the subway system better. The wide-eyed, fresh off the boat look is wearing off.

As more time passes, I feel that the memories we made in the last seven years of our lives in Singapore are migrating further into the cortex of my brain.  I don’t reach for them as often as I used to because I am making fresh ones.

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(L) Sketched this lady wearing work clothes and eating a big salad on a late Sunday night at Paris Baguette.

Just the other day an elderly lady in the subway asked me where I was from and after I answered, she said, “Welcome to Korea!” with such burst of enthusiasm and warmth that I almost didn’t believe she was real. Then she hugged me, patted my arm and went on her way.

So from where I stand, life doesn’t suck. Also I am a tea drinker. I may adore Alver cafe’s brick walls with vertical gardens and glass partitioned interiors, but I am going to be a dissident and pass up on those wiseass cup sleeves next time!

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(L) Sketched this guy in Alver cafe wearing a blue silk knotted neckerchief especially because it seems to be a popular fashion accessory in Seoul at the moment among both men and women. Most accessory shops I’ve come across were stocked to the hilt with these!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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. 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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!