Melaka – Jonker 88 and other sweets

“Hey, how you doin’?”, squeaked a voice from behind me as I turned a corner on a random stroll through Jonker street.

“Me?”, I asked the lady who posed the query.

“Yes, you.”

“Doing fine. How’re you?”

“It’s a hot day. You wanna try some sweets?”

If it was India, I would have moved on but since I was in Melaka, I was curious to know what she was selling. It was a tiny little shop with a couple of chairs put up outside and boxes of sweets piled all over the place. The woman who called me out and ran the shop was dressed in a bright red floral skirt and had layers of plastic surgery and make-up on her face to cover the wrinkles and her age.

“I knew you like sweets because you’re from India,” she said.

“How do you know I’m from India? I could also be Malay or Pakistani.”

“Because you carry your bag on one shoulder. Malay would never do that because he know he would get robbed by bikers. Anyway, come sit. Taste some of this.”

She opened a large enamel bowl filled with a thick, gooey, jelly-like substance, carefully ran a spoon in to pluck the smallest amount possible and gave me what was easily the tiniest portion of a dessert I’ve ever been offered. It tasted mildly sweet, a bit eggy, with a hint of saltiness. It was weird but as soon as I was done consuming it, I hankered for more.

“How do you like it?”, she asked.

“Interesting, although I’ll need to taste some more to know if I want to buy it.”

“Some more? It’s expensive, lah. One spoon 30 dollars. A full box 2000 dollars. You have money?”

“Never mind then. What is it anyway?”

“It’s called Bird’s Nest, one of the most expensive delicacy from China.”

“Oh, interesting. What’s it made of?”

I wish I hadn’t asked because what I heard had the effect of making me want to throw up right away.

“Bird saliva”, she said casually, like it was the most normal thing in the world. “Take it to your family, lah. It’s precious and rare. You don’t get it in India.”

“It’s too expensive”, I said.

“Only 50$ for this one box. Not expensive. It’s diluted.”

“I don’t have that kind of money and I don’t plan to be in India for a few months. How do they get the saliva anyway? Someone stands under trees while the birds spit?”

“No, lah”, she said, laughing, “We have a factory where birds make nests. I can take you if you want.”

“I think I’m okay not seeing that. Is there any place nearby where you get a good dessert that doesn’t cost 2000$ and isn’t made of bird saliva?”

“You want to eat dessert?”, she asked, looking at me as if it was the most ridiculous notion in the world.

“Yeah, dessert would be good.”

“Give me a minute”, she said and then hollered at a fat kid who was playing a couple of blocks away. She gave him some instructions in Chinese and then turned to me and said, ”Okay, let’s go.”

She took me to a place called Jonker 88, a claustrophobic cafe set in an old Chinese shophouse. The atmosphere was remarkably old-fashioned with quaint pictures of old Melaka and Chinese artwork adorning the walls, shelves packed with ornamental trinkets, little Chinese dolls and toys stacked on a mirrored gallery and a few wooden stools and tables packed close in a tiny space. It was packed to the gills with people slurping laksa bowls and cooling themselves off with icy desserts.

We had to wait in a queue to place our orders and when Yue Xi, for that was the name of the Bird’s Nest lady, saw that the Australian couple in front of us was taking an inordinately long time to decide, she took matters into her own hands and told them she could order for them if they wished. Bowled over by her confidence, they relented. Xi invited them to eat with us and when they agreed, she ordered four different things in super quick time. The people making our dessert were equally quick as big globs of ice were shoved into a machine to be shaved and then transferred onto bowls where they added the ingredients as per our orders.

We carried our four large bowls of cendol, Malaysia’s favorite dessert, to the only vacant table we could find, right below large red and blue frames of Mandarin calligraphy. Cendol is essentially shaved ice, gula melaka (a local variety of palm sugar), santan (coconut milk), a sprinkling of flavoured syrups and sometimes green rice noodles and durian. I thought the durian version was too sweet but there was one bowl with peanuts and jelly and an assortments of tangy syrups that was absolutely fantastic.

I learnt a few things about Yue Xi from the conversation the Australians had with her. They had been to China the previous year and wondered if she too came from China. She did, but her family left the country during the volatile period in the 60s to take refuge in the town of Ipoh in Malaysia. She had a tough childhood when her parents worked around the clock, working in a tin mining factory during the day and selling noodles in the market at night. But they pulled through and eventually moved to Melaka when one of her cousins had the enterprising idea of harvesting swiftlets for the much sought-after birds-nest delicacies in China. She then went on to explain the entire laborious process of extracting the raw material and processing it to make it ready for consumption, information that I could have done without because it made even the amazing cendol bowls on the table feel unappetizing.

Just as I was stopping the cynic in me from wondering if this entire conversation was a marketing pitch, Yue Xi snapped in her trademark squeaky tone, “I can take you to see the factory if you want. And then you can come to my shop and see if you want to buy some to take home.” The Australians sounded very excited by the idea and said they would love to go. She looked at me sardonically and asked, “You still don’t wanna go?” I was absolutely sure, I said.

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Melaka – Crossing the border, inebriated conversations, thosas

Border crossings don’t come easier than the one between Singapore and Johor Bahru in Malaysia. Although I was glad it happened the way it did when it did, today, as I write about it, I’m disappointed at how boring and undramatic it was. A quick bus from the Queen Street Bus Terminal dropped me off at the immigration where my passport at both points was stamped with lightning quick efficiency. Since I had a through ticket, I could hop into any bus that went to Johor Bahru where I had to wait for a few minutes for a bus to Melaka to come through.

The sparklingly clean AC bus wound its way on a perfectly tarred road through small towns, palm oil plantations, roadside diners, a winding river and a gaudy theme park to drop me off at the Melaka Central Bus Station on the outskirts of the city where I quickly found bus no. 17 that took me up to the Dutch Square close to the old historic part of the town where all the backpacker digs were helpfully clustered. All of this was remarkably easy but I wasn’t complaining. It felt good to finally hit the road in the more spacious landscape of a country as opposed to a city-state like Singapore where one could traverse its length and breadth in a matter of an hour.

I hung about the Dutch Quarter for a bit gaping at the Church and the clock tower, both incredibly old but looking so bright and shiny they could have been built just the day before. Then I crossed the bridge over the murky waters of the Malacca river, where a monitor lizard poked its head up to stare at the new arrival in its city, to get to Jonker Street whose entrance, for some reason, had been adorned with a large colourful balloon resembling a furious dragon whose body curved around the buildings in the street.

This was the old quarter of Melaka with a substantial sprawl of old architecture, principally Chinese shop-houses, spread around its lanes. But even if many of the houses looked beautiful and the area had an unmistakably timeless atmosphere to it, it also felt considerably gentrified. Many of these quaint, old houses were now either boutique hotels or cafes or “homestays” or some business establishment to serve touristic needs.

After walking in and out of numerous guesthouses, I finally settled into the Riverview Guesthouse which seemed to have the best mix of affordability, comfort and character. The owner was highly affable and when he saw that I came from India, he told me to go to this place called Selvam across the river for the best “Thosas” in Melaka. I scoffed at this suggestion saying, “I’m not in Malaysia to eat Indian food.” He laughed and said, ”That’s what they all say.”

As someone who likes his history, walking by the riverside promenade made my head spin. I was walking in the ancient Malacca town by the Malacca river which flowed into the Malacaa Strait, the legendary port of call that was the prime hub of trading activity from Arabia, China, Persia and Africa and that, even today, thousands of years later, serves as one of the busiest shipping routes in the world. The promenade was littered with bars and cafes and I chose a place that looked quaint and pretty to read quietly with a beer in tow.

“You reading Graham Greene?”, said a patronising voice from behind me.

“Yeah”, I said, a bit rudely, hoping he would go away.

He came closer to read the title, “Collection of Short Stories. Ah, how’s it?”

“It’s good”, I said, “Some of them are good, some not so great.”

“I love Graham Greene”, he said, “The Quiet American? Great book that. Do you mind if I join you?”

I said he was welcome to. This gregarious dude who had invited himself to my table was Dave, an American property consultant who handled real estate projects in Singapore. He had married a Malaysian woman who had worked as his secretary when he was working in Singapore and lurked about the bars of Melaka when he had nothing to do. We talked about Graham Greene for a bit and I quickly learned that The Quiet American was the only thing he had ever read. He wasn’t a big reader, he confessed. But he was a big talker who had dunked a fair few intoxiacants down his liver that afternoon.

“I love this town”, he said, “It’s quiet, peaceful, nothing like Singapore. I hate that place, feels like you’re living in a mall. Melaka is more authentic, you know what I mean? The houses are small, the life is easy, you can relax by the river, have a hundred beers without going broke. I never live in Singapore. If I had to, I would rather live in Johor. God I love Malaysian food. Have you had any Malaysian food yet? Finish your beers and we’ll go to this sick joint that does the best Malaysian food ever.”

He droned on about his job, his irrational hatred for the neighboring city state and life in Melaka in a repetitive, circuitous manner and I tuned out, nodding my head perfunctorily while guzzling my beers. It was only when he thumped the table ferociously and said, ”Let’s go eat some Malaysian food!” that I woke up and rejoined the conversation. They say the best things happen to those who wait and it was certainly true in this case because just as I was about to bail out of the “Malaysian dinner”, Dave pulled out his wallet and paid for all my beers. I told him he didn’t have to do that but he said, “Don’t worry about it, my man. You helped me kill an afternoon. Consider this a gesture of gratitude.” I felt guilty about not paying attention to our conversation earlier.

“You’ll love the food here”, Dave said animatedly, “Everyone does.” The place looked familiar, a cluster of tables strewn everywhere, a clientele that conversed largely in Tamil, the pungent smell of sambar mingled with the sounds of crackling rice batter. When I looked up, I knew why. It was “Selvam” and as we took a table, I could see a familiar face walking towards me. It belonged to the owner of the Riverview Guest House who had come with his wife to eat there. He laughed uproariously and said, “’I’m not in Malaysia to eat Indian food’ someone said”.

Thankfully, the Thosai Masala, served on a banana leaf, was good enough to make up for the embarrassment.

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Tommy Emmanuel, middle age crisis, touristy stuff

When we met at the Esplanade to watch Tommy Emmanuel play, I learnt that C had a friend circle so extensive, it would fill up an entire row in the hall. I asked him if they were all rabid Tommy Emmanuel fans like he was. He replied dismissively saying, “None of us are fans, lah. We just here to have fun. He’s good but not ‘that’ good also.”

But I, on the other hand, thought he was quite good. Emmanuel played with no back-up band or metronome and used the entire body of his guitar to create both the music and the percussion to go with. It was electrifying to watch as he launched into dazzlingly fast arpeggios to go with speedy percussive rhythms. In the middle of his gig, he had an impromptu workshop where he showed how a novice could learn to play The Beatles and spoke about how he would want everyone to pick up a musical instrument and play because that’s the most positive change one could make in a life, an idea I vehemently disagree with having spent large chunks of my teens hanging out with terrible guitar players. After this little digression, he went back to shredding his fingers off and I was going to turn to C to thank him for introducing me to such a good musician when I found C turning to me and whispering, “Hey, we’re getting out of here. Do you want to go have some fun?”

“But isn’t this already fun?”, I said.

“No, this is getting boring now. Come with us. We’re getting late.”

“Can’t it wait after the gig? I’m guessing it’ll be over in less than an hour.”

“No, we’ll be late. Come fast”, he said.

I was angry at my concentration being snapped out of the gig. But I was also curious to know what these guys were up to. So, highly reluctantly, I joined them outside where once we’d assembled, we had to run to the metro to catch a train to Tanah Merah.

Inside the train, I asked C where we were going in such a hurry.

“Pulau Ubin”, he said, excitedly, “It’s an island in Singapore. We have to hurry because if we don’t, we’ll miss the last boat. We go there to camp on the beach all night.”

“But I have all my things in the hostel”, I said, “I can’t just leave it there.”

“It’s okay, lah. Only one night. Do you have anything important? You go back tomorrow.”

“What about food? We haven’t eaten anything.”

“Haha, we just hunt for something, lah”, he said mirthfully, with a pat on my back.

There were 25 people other than myself, with three girls from South Korea, two guys from Kenya, four American dudes, half a dozen Malaysian boys and girls, three Indonesians, a guy and a girl from Australia, two Indian boys, a girl from England and the two Singaporean friends of C that I had already met earlier that week. All of them studied at different Singaporean universities. Until I met this bunch, I had considered myself young but surrounded by college going kids talking about their espadrilles and fizzy hairstyles and Justin Biebers, I felt like an elder statesman with grey hair and arthritis watching his grandkids talk about stuff beyond his understanding. I was also on a different plane of consciousness altogether because most of them were already high on alcohol and I felt like a sober elder gent trying to keep up with their non-stop rickety rack.

C then justifiably got bored of my company and went over to go talk to the girls and I was left all alone to fend for myself. I’m ordinarily quite uptight and terrible at non-nerdy small talk but this crowd of people was so strange, unfamiliar and out of my league that I felt even more alienated and awkward than I would otherwise. I hated myself for ditching a perfectly good gig for some kind of impromptu Spring Break party with tweens. I thought, if I felt so out of my depth at the very outset, an entire night on a beach with these kids was only going to make me even more depressive and lonesome. So I ditched the group by getting off at the next station and took the train that went back to Raffles Place.

I walked down to Esplanade Bridge and Marina Bay to get over the mildly depressive blues I had been feeling. Here, Chinese tourists were faking pictures of themselves drinking water pouring from the mouth of the Merlion, the Singapore flyer was gleaming in the distance with tourists taking overpriced rides on its giant wheel, the Singapore River Cruise was floating daintily in the waters with the people inside flashing their cameras at the skyscraper ship of the Marina Bay Sands.

These scenes felt familiar and comforting and I felt, at that moment, that however much an “outsider” may try to “blend in” and have an “authentic” experience, it’s never possible to see a city one doesn’t belong to like the people who live there do, especially not in the short amount of time one is allowed to spend in a foreign city. Arguably, going with the kids to a part of Singapore a lot of people don’t travel to might have given me an insight into the lives of college going kids in the city but I doubt I would have learnt any more than what I already had from my conversations with C. I consoled myself with the thought that it would have largely been a long night of alcohol and partying where, knowing myself, I would have felt too awkward to get a word in edgewise.

So, to perhaps compensate for this aborted trip, I chose to be an ordinary tourist in Singapore for the next 3 days. I went to the Asian Civilizations Museum to have a look at the spectacularly organized ancient artifacts from all over Asia where I learnt more about Indian art than I did in Indian museums, I walked around the Botanical Gardens for a slice of peace and tranquility, I walked up and down the electronic malls at Sim Lim Square and Funan to shop for electronic gadgets, I visited the Peranakan Museum housed in an old, sprawling Peranakan house with two Chinese dudes from my hostel where the Singaporean guide who took us around was highly curious to know how what he was showing me compared to what I had seen in India, I fought vertigo and the humid heat to walk the 11 km trail in the MacRitchie reservoir over the canopy of the tropical rainforest to the mighty suspension bridge dangling hundreds of meters above the ground and of course, I wasted my money at the Raffles Hotel doing that much maligned touristy thing of having a sugary sweet Singapore Sling in its colonial garden on a warm afternoon.

The more you did in a capitalist construct like Singapore, the more you felt you had to do. And it was only a conversation with an Australian backpacker who was staying in the same dorm as I was and who had travelled on a bicycle all the way from Japan via Taiwan, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Laos etc. that I realised there were other places I wished to see and that if I wanted to do so, I had to get the hell out of Singapore. The next morning, I packed my bags and took a bus to the border at Johor Bahru to cross over to Malaysia. Although it’s undoubtedly a city made of and for money, I had a terrific time in Singapore. It wasn’t as cold and sterile as some travel literature led me to believe (I’m looking at you Paul Theroux) with a true cosmopolitan core that gave it diversity and life, a place I could easily go back when I needed some comfort and order.

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Kinokuniya and Zam Zam

After the prolonged power nap and the coffee and eggs at Wang Café at the Plaza Singapura, my newly energized body walked past the hulking jungles of the first world malls of Concorde, Orchard Central, Orchard Gateway and the Mandarin Gallery to enter Ngee Ann City, where I was told lived the largest store of the Japanese bookshop chain in Singapore, Books Kinokuniya.

In October 2012 when I had begun my first tour across SE Asia, I had been obsessed with travel literature. I read everything I could get my hands on and had read all the books I could find by the doyens of travel writing like Colin Thubron, Paul Theroux, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Dervla Murphy, Wilfred Thesiger, Redmond O’ Hanlon, Jan Morris, Tahir Shah, all wildly different writers traveling the world in wildly different ways. The one writer everyone raved about that I could never find in any bookshop in India or Nepal was Freya Stark, a woman who had, during the early decades of the 20th century, travelled extensively, often alone, through some of the most unexplored corners of Arabia, Iran and Turkey and written many books documenting her journey.

So imagine my delight when my eyes fell on the generously endowed travel writing section at the Books Kinokuniya which was furnished with an entire shelf of books by Freya Stark. I pored over half a dozen of these and they were so fascinating, I instantly wished to buy every single one of them. But my delight soon turned to depression as I looked at the price tag and saw that each book would cost me north of 20$. I ran through the amount I had already spent in my 12 hours in Singapore and not including my 30$ bed at the hostel, I had expended over a 100$ for travel, coffee and cinema and I hadn’t even eaten a proper meal yet.

I began thinking how far this money could have taken me if I had been traveling on the sort of budget I usually travel in India and the answer was very far, perhaps more than a week of food and board. Then I calculated how long I would get to travel in SE Asia if I kept up this rate of spending and arrived at the figure of less than a month. I wanted to go for a year. I kept the books down despondently but as I was walking away, I reminded myself that it was my birthday and it was only right that I bought at least one of these as a gift to myself. So I picked up the least expensive book of the lot, one called “The Southern Gates of Hadhramaut” which cost me 20$, and strode hastily out of the Ngee Ann City Mall, into the metro and back to the hostel.

As I entered, a guy sitting at the reception called out to me and said, “Hey, why do you carry your big bag?” He was referring to the rucksack which I had been lugging all day. Like I said in a previous post, I had never stayed in a hostel before and I had read plenty of stories online of how backpackers lost stuff in hostel dorms. The hostel had lockers but I had no padlock of my own and erred on the side of caution and carried everything I had everywhere I went. SK, the guy at the reception who also turned out to be the owner of the hostel, was understandably flummoxed when I explained my distress and he said not to worry about my baggage because only good people stayed at the Tree Inn Lodge and I could rent a locker and safely keep it in the lockers.

Many years ago, SK had done an epic journey on a bicycle from Europe to Singapore through Central Asia, Pakistan and China and he started this hostel because he was incredibly passionate about bicycles and wanted his place to be a meeting point or hub for people who were doing long distance cycling journeys around the world. But cyclists weren’t the only people staying here. As we made conversation, we were joined by a Brazilian photographer who had an exhibition running in a gallery in the city. His photographs were a surreal documentation of women in natural surroundings with their heads taken off to bring attention to the brutal fact of the scores of women who go missing in the country every year.

I could have sat at the hostel and chatted for hours but the grumblings in my stomach reminded me that I still hadn’t had a proper meal all day. I asked SK if he could direct me to a place that wouldn’t make me go broke and on his advice, I walked 10 minutes down to North Bridge Road to this small place called Zam Zam. It was packed to the gills with people and I had to wait for half an hour to get a seat at one of the tables. It was the first proper Indian-looking place I had seen in Singapore, a bit grubby at the edges, hot and sweaty with only perfunctory fans cooling the place, inexpensive food, and the smell of roasting meat and cooked dough wafting in from the kitchen.

I ordered a chicken murtabak, a heavily stuffed pancake with meat, eggs and veggies with excessive oil dripping from the surface. When I looked at it, I didn’t think I could finish it but when I began eating it, it melted so succulently in my mouth that I finished the entire thing in 5 minutes. It was exquisite and even though it wouldn’t come close to the best murtabak I would ever have, which would be in Penang in Malaysia, it made me a lifelong fan of this greasy meaty delight.

On the way back, I took a detour to one of the little lanes off Arab Street where gaudy neon lit signs announced a row of bars. There were some backpackers dancing with young Singaporeans on the street and a few tables and chairs strewn on the pavement. It had been 24 hours since I left Mumbai and I still had half an hour left on my birthday. So I sat outside and watched people dance while quietly sipping a Tiger Beer. It had been a good day.

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The SQ423 to Singapore

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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.

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