i wasn’t giddy with joy at the thought of walking in little india. long before i’d even stepped into singapore i’d heard of the wondrous mustafa of course. if you’re indian and you go to singapore, then you must shop there, it’s in a place called little india. i’d made a resolution back then not to go anywhere near mustafa unless absolutely necessary.
came here, got a job, found out both my chinese bosses loved mustafa. “how can?” is all i can say.
aj and i started out at towner road which has pretty row houses and is more part of kallang/whampoa i think. we walked down toward serangoon road, one of the main arterials running through little india. the day was bright and sunny, it must have been about ten in the morning.
i have never felt little india is anything like india. not the india i know at least.
its architecture, its colours, its food, its layout, its not law abiding pedestrians, its jostling crowds, and bright yellow gold… nothing reminds me of the country i grew up in. not even the “national bank li…” written in bengali over masjid angulia, the pretty matt yellow mosque just before syed alwi road where you turn toward mustafa. certainly not the tamil signboards everywhere.
firstly, it really has a littleness to it, while india is essentially the opposite of that. also, i have lived mainly in the east and the north, and have never been to chennai or other parts of tamilnadu, though i have spent four great years in bangalore and traveled in kerala. perhaps small towns in the south are akin to this, i don’t know… the temples here, apart from the lakshminarayan mandir, are south indian in architecture. it’s easier to identify this kind of architecture for those with asia travel experience under their belt. i’d never seen such gopurams before with their colourful apsaras and other mythical creatures.
we turned right at the central sikh temple and took the road going towards bukit timah. shops were beginning to open. next to a mama shop (from tamil mama, meaning uncle), which is a convenience store run by indians, packets of idli and sambhar were being assembled at an eatery, for a catering order possibly. just past that was the balaji temple and right beyond it the chinese acupuncture place. dancing goddesses and sharply poking needles, prayers for boons and pinpricks for cures, ancient skills and practices in a city that grabs the future. no awkwardness in the mix. there’s place for everything here.
whenever i think of little india i remember one of the most successful bankers in singapore comes from a family which runs a popular shop in one of the lanes. she helps out at the store on sundays even now it seems.
and yes, mustafa (sigh)… started by a man who came to singapore with nothing and set up a tiny shop, which has now become the behemoth it has, spreading both over and under ground. it’s open 24 seven, get whatever you need or want or even don’t want right here. from blood pressure machines and sugar testing kits (my resolve to stay away from musty’s was broken by the endless orders for such things from family back home) to vegetables and groceries to gold and diamond jewellery… the widest variety of dates i am sure and the tackiest range of noisy toys. mustafa has a hotel, a money transfer service, many money changers, restaurants, a travel agency… every now and then the leviathan grows and another stack of shopping aisles opens up. need saffron from iran? need paratha from india? need paratha from america? need kosher groceries? need your pocket picked?
i had never had my purse stolen till it happened in mustafa one saturday afternoon. within minutes, the thief landed up at the levi’s store in ngee ann city on orchard road and spent nearly a thousand dollars on jeans. it was funny, after it had stopped being chaotic that is. the little india thief who dreams of splurging on orchard. both thief and i got an unforgettable experience i am thinking… after all, it’s m…, you can get anything here.
(it’s my husband’s dream to go to mustafa at three in the morning and buy a refrigerator. why? because he can.)
the flower stall was bright and pretty with both real and plastic garlands. the man stood inside the stall in his nondescript clothes and not at all artist-like look, and deftly twisted a coarse white string around delicate white jasmine making a chain of flowers… a mala. it was lovely to just stand there and watch.
there was a statue of gandhi ji somewhere between serangoon and its parallel race course road. i believe there used to be a race course here, and so the name, but now it’s all hdbs and shops and rows of indian restaurants.
serangoon was one of the earliest roads built in singapore. initially there were lots of farms along it and the rochor canal was constructed to bring water close. unlike chinatown and kampong glam which were designated for the chinese and the muslim communities, this area was not meant specifically for the indians. in fact, when the race course came up, several europeans moved here.
sometime in the mid to late 1800s, when cattle trade and the dairy industry became big, indians began settling along serangoon. some of them were owners; there were several indian labourers involved in the trade too. over time the community grew and little india came into being.
off the main road there are quaint lanes with names that speak of a people and a time… hindoo road, baboo lane, desker road (named after one andre desker, the owner of a largest slaughter house and butchery), dunlop road, hastings road. there’s also buffalo road and kerbau lane, kerbau is malay for buffalo.
at tekka market, the chia brothers’ vegetable store blares jazz music as usual. they are these three siblings with attitude and the freshest and most varied greens. not cheap. their playlist is not too bad though. fish heads are lined up nearby soon to become curry, buying and selling is on full swing. i pick up some carrots and broad beans, because you can’t come to tekka and not buy anything. i believe the word means bamboo or bamboo clumps in hokkien.
speaking of hokkien, i think i have seen more chinese jewellery shops here than i have in chinatown. they say one of the nicest, and also affordable, french bistros in singapore is somewhere on serangoon, there are great bangladeshi eateries tucked away in the lanes, my israeli friend loves living in one of the new condos nearby. may be little india, but everyone is having a good time here, even as people break traffic rules and temples and mosques and churches and gurudwaras go about their business and pickpockets theirs while mustafa makes you go mad.
road to singapore, towner road, serangoon road, jalan besar, buffalo road, race course road, 18/03/2015 #SG50
end of 1997, we moved to singapore from india. in 2015, the country celebrated fifty years of independence. singapore has given me much and i am fascinated by the spirit of this gutsy city state with hardly any land or resources, but oh what dreams and chutzpah (the finest interpretation of the word), the ability to reach big, hunker down and hold and strategise and act and grow. despite my many years here, i haven’t seen a lot of the island, which started out at only 28 miles by 18. now of course it’s bigger, thanks to that spirit i spoke of. so anthony john or aj as i call him, my walking partner, and i decided to do fifty walks in the island to celebrate #SG50. well, we didn’t stop at fifty; couldn’t. there was still so much to see and feel and also how not to let the hot, merciless, climate-change sun not have its way with us. so the walks continue, as does the walk talk. hope you enjoy, try to bring an umbrella.
nice bangladeshi eateries on this road, had a happy lunch here once.
was hard to walk away from tekka without buying much.
flowers mainly used in prayers, some real, some pure plastic, i guess god doesn’t mind.
a virtually empty plot at the crossing of towner road and serangoon road, i wondered how long before a building came up here.