There are a half-million Indians and Bangladeshis in Singapore. On my last day here I do believe I was jostled by most of them.
South Asians have been coming here for almost two centuries, and continue coming today. Especially today, as it’s just a four-hour flight from Chennai (Madras), Kolkata (Calcutta) or Bangladesh’s capitol Dhaka (Dacca). As today’s migrant workers they often live in crowded dormitories—lean young men working six-day weeks to keep Singapore fed, cleaned, and glittering.
I went to Little India on Sunday, the workers’ day off. The neighborhood was a loud, colorful, congested warren of alleys and side streets lined with shops and blaring speakers. Men and women in both Western and Asian dress were an undulating organism slithering up and down the sidewalks, spilling into the streets, laughing, gesturing, eating, and oh yes, sweating (in the usual 95 degrees, 95% humidity).
Old men at sidewalk tailor shops quietly worked their ancient sewing machines, oblivious to the crowd. Self-educated young techies pried apart and (maybe) repaired mobile phones (“Iphone, Samsung, we fix everything, no cares!”). Gaggles of sari-clad women, arms linked, selfied their way from shop to shop, corner to corner. And everyone south Asian, except for me and the occasional tall European pinkie out for a gawk and a meal.
I asked around for “mild” food, and was pointed to “any” Northern Indian restaurant. I finally settled on Hindustan, and squeezed into a battered chair at a battered table on a battered floor at the corner of chaos and cacophony. I told the waiter “must be mild!” and patted my stomach with feigned distress. He shrugged. I ordered the biryani. “OK mild?” I asked. “Yes, good mild,” he replied.
Well, I won’t say the food could peel paint (although it could, I swear), but even the raita—supposed to cool me off, right?—was the spicy kind, loaded with onion. They were both tasty, but my watering eyes were warming the diet coke, so I ate what I could, paid, and left.
I walked another few blocks, managed not to buy any trinkets (plastic or gold), and withering in the heat, headed for the Gandhi monument. I admit that I was more grateful than disappointed to discover that it was closed on Sundays, so I could just head back to the air-conditioned part of the city. A cab suddenly appeared and disgorged an elderly couple, and while Madame was still gathering her sari into a dignified handful I jumped through the cab’s other door, pretending to not notice the small family slowly organizing itself to enter.
We drove toward my hotel, surrounded by bicycles, motorbikes, trishaws, and pedestrians. I didn’t mind the traffic, as I was (a) sitting and (b) sitting in air conditioning. Crossing the Singapore River we slowly passed Esplanade Park, where Filipina domestic workers and Indian restaurant workers were spending their precious day off. A crazy-quilt of homemade food, recorded music, and worn shoes covered the grass, as groups of friends chatted in the shade of huge trees.
And then I was back in my hotel. And then I packed. And then I was off to the world’s cleanest international airport, flying north.