In October 2012, I commenced my first open-ended, unplanned journey through SE Asia. The idea wasn’t very different from how I had travelled across India and Nepal until that time, which was to do as much as possible spending as little as I could. Apart from getting my Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand visas, I hadn’t done any prep or research and was going to take things as they came. The only instructions running in my head were, “DO IT CHEAP.”
But on the morning of 14th October 2012, the day before I would turn a year older, a fuse went off in my head. I cancelled the dirt-cheap Indigo Airline ticket I had booked for the 22nd of October to Singapore and upgraded myself to an economy seat on a Singapore Airlines flight which was scheduled to depart close to midnight on the 14th itself. These tickets would cost me over three times more but it would be my first trip outside the subcontinent and I wished to bring in a new year of my life in some comfort and style.
I had never flown a 5-star airline with such luxuries as IFE, spacious leg-room and free alcohol before. So I chose to navigate this unknown territory by observing whatever the large, surly man sitting next to me did. As soon as the flight had taken off and the crew had begun to serve food and drinks, this man ordered three whisky shots in quick succession and some starters to go with. I assumed this was the protocol and ordered a Singapore Sling in celebration of my journey to that city-state and two glasses of Long Island Iced Tea to follow.
Soon the entire cabin, packed with Indian passengers, began pestering the crew for food and drinks. The crew serving us, who were initially very patient and polite, got increasingly stressed out as these orders overwhelmed their capacity to deliver. But, feeling light-headed after gulping down my inebriations, I was blissfully unaware of their troubles. In my mind, I was also counting the number of drinks I might need to consume to effectively nullify the hefty 20,000 Rs. ticket cost. So I kept signalling to the crew for drinks. The surly man sitting next to me was now taking a leaf out of my book and began ordering drinks with increasing speed perhaps to show that if I could be so indecorous, he could do better. After two more rounds of LITs, an exhausted airhostess walked up to me and said, “Sir, we can’t serve you any more alcohol.”
“But why?”, I said, looking positively distressed.
“Because we have already served you all the drinks we’re allowed to, Sir.”
I expected support from the surly man who had been ordering drinks as avariciously as I had. But he was now busy fiddling with his IFE screen as if he didn’t want to know what was going on around him.
“But it’s my birthday”, I whimpered.
“I wish you a very happy birthday, sir, but we can’t serve you any more drinks”, she said, visibly suppressing her laughter.
“Not even one more?”
“No, sir”, she said and went away.
The surly man then turned to me and said, “It’s really your birthday?”
I nodded sorrowfully.
“Many happy returns of the day, my friend,” he said, “Don’t worry about the bad service here. Singapore Airlines isn’t what it used to be. Earlier I would have fought for my drinks. They have no right to deny you anything. But that’s how these greedy airlines work. They promise you everything and give you nothing.”
“Thank you. Are you from Mumbai?” I asked.
“No, no, I’m 100 percent Singaporean. I can’t stand Mumbai and its crowd and its filth. I just came here to close a business deal. I dread traveling to India.”
The man ran an export business that took him around the world. When I told him it was my first trip to Singapore, he hit me with a litany of advice like I was an uncivilised chump that needed some schooling.
“You can’t just go around throwing shit on the roads like you do in India”, he said. “Singapore is a very cultured place and you have to remember to always follow the rules. The Singaporean Chinese have many problems with Indians and Bangladeshis because they (the Indians) tend to treat the country like they own it. But you have to remember that you’re a minority and if Singapore has good quality life today, it is because of the hard-working Chinese.”
I just nodded my head non-commitally and wished he would stop talking because I wanted to experience the wonders of in-flight entertainment. I looked longingly at the LCD screen and the numerous film/TV options available while the surly man’s words continued hitting my ears like shards of glass. But since he had already judged me to be a boor, I was conscious not to lower his impressions on me further. I smiled, nodded, looked away often hoping he would stop. But this strategy perhaps only served to create an illusion in his head that I was very interested in hearing what he had to say.
He went on to share his half-baked knowledge of Chinese history, its connections to Singapore and how India would do well to take lessons from it. “You know what India needs? It needs a Great Leap Forward. You know about the Great Leap Forward? It was when Chairman Mao pushed ahead extreme reforms to develop his country. It was disastrous and killed millions of Chinese people. The country was left in ruins. But it disciplined them and when Deng Xiaoping pushed ahead with reforms after, he not only had a country that was hungry for development, he also had the single-minded discipline of the Chinese workforce.”
“Any sign of indiscipline or vagrant behaviour was ruthlessly put down. You know about the Tianenmen Square massacre? Hundreds of students were gunned down when they were protesting. All the Western countries protested, the UN criticized it but Lee Kwan Yew supported it. Because he knew discipline was the key to a successful state. If you don’t agree with what your country is doing, you don’t deserve to live there.
“And that is the attitude India needs. Indians think they’re free to do anything but a lot of that freedom needs to be taken away and some discipline needs to be enforced. They need someone with the willpower to rule with an iron hand. Till that happens, it will always be a mess. Look at Singapore and judge for yourself where you would rather live.”
He continued in this vein for a few hours and wouldn’t shut up for a moment. I too couldn’t summon the necessary curtness to interrupt him and kept nodding perfunctorily to show he had my attention even when he didn’t. His monologue had a circular quality to it but so intense was his hatred for the land of his ancestors that the only purpose any of his arguments had was to point out a critical flaw in the way India was governed. In his vision, that country was populated by the dregs of the world and his missionary purpose was to bring one of them over to the bright side.
We wouldn’t part company even after we arrived in Singapore as he wished to take me on a tour of a ritual he had to do every time he landed in Singapore. At a little restaurant in a corner of the Changi Airport, this large man exclaimed with irresistible joy as two plates of kaya toast and half boiled eggs landed on our table.
“This is my favourite thing about Singapore”, he said ecstatically, “You won’t get this anywhere else in the world.” So pure was his happiness that it was difficult even for someone like myself, who had been so annoyed by his company, to be moved by this sight. And after two morsels of this gooey high calorie butteriness later, I too was melting in happiness. I had barely entered Singapore and I was already in love with one of its most popular guilty pleasure foods.
The man lived close to the airport and we had to part ways but not before he gave me an elaborate tutorial on how to use the metro to get to the hostel I had booked. When I looked out of the window of the train on the 35 minute ride to Bugis, I felt like I had stumbled into an animation film. There wasn’t a speck of dirt to be seen anywhere and in just a matter of a few hours, all the noise, chaos and clutter of Mumbai had morphed into this immaculately clean, ordered, neatly designed metropolis that, on the face of things, appeared to look sternly down on any little iota of imperfection. The city looked fresh and new and I couldn’t perhaps have asked for a more appropriate beginning to a fresh, new year of my life.