Little India filling up later on Sundays?

Little India thoroughfare
Originally uploaded by rana2u.

I got up too late to visit the church and the temple this morning. So it was with a sinking feeling I left the apartment early in the evening. Buses bound for Little India can get very crowded then, packed with Indians going shopping, to visit the temple or meet up with friends.

I decided to visit the church first. I could travel in relative comfort then on a bus that didn’t go to Little India.

But from the church I had to go to Little India. And what a surprise it was. There were empty seats on the bus even though it was going to Little India.

I had a pleasant walk from the bus stop to the temple and could pray in peace.

The Indian workers who fill the temple on Sunday evenings were not yet out in full force. But they began to arrive as I walked back to the bus stop to get home. They came on foot and chartered buses. Little India began to fill up as I left the place. It was almost 6 pm.

Do the crowds begin to gather in Little India later on Sunday evenings now? That makes sense considering how hot it gets in the afternoons.

The Prophet, planes and “kala pani”

Three boys who were expelled from a Malaysian government high school for wearing Islamic-style turbans had their appeal rejected by the country’s highest court. Malaysia is a multi-religious country, said the Federal Court judge Hamid Mohamad, and the education system has to mould the children into moderate Malaysians. 

"I accept that the Prophet wore a turban. But he also rode a camel, built his house and mosque with clay walls and a roof of leaves of date palms, and brushed his teeth with the twig of a plant,” the judge said.

"Does that make riding a camel a more pious deed than travelling in an aeroplane?"

Talking of flying and planes reminds me of an old Hindu taboo. Hindus were not allowed to sail the seas. Crossing the "kala pani" or dark waters made them pariahs or outcasts.

One reason why Hindu soldiers revolted against British rule in 1857, along with their Muslim counterparts, was the sea voyages they were sent on to conquer Burma and Hong Kong and defend other overseas possessions such as Singapore. Hindus believed they lost their caste if they crossed the sea.

But there seemed to have been no such taboo in earlier times. Some of  the ancient Hindu kingdoms maintained fleets and navies. The Hindus on the Indonesian island of Bali could not have arrived there overland; they had to cross the sea.

Hindus today are more likely to fly than sail across the oceans. They don’t even breathe the sea air, let alone get wet from the foam and spray of "kala pani". Their castes undefiled by "kala pani", they are no longer pariahs and outcasts. Instead, if they settle abroad,  folks back home automatically assume they must be rich "non-resident Indians".

Religious revival in Bengal?

"Today’s Bengali youth is no longer afraid to express his religious self," said an article in The Telegraph yesterday. It quotes a lecturer in Calcutta’s (Kolkata’s) prestigious Presidency College who says his students are much more religious than he and his peers.

The lecturer, Prasanta Ray, who studied political science in the same college in the 1960s, says: "We were more secular. We grew up being exposed to a Marxist critique of religion — religion as a source of oppression, a justification for exploitation. In fact, in Bengal, education in the social sciences was modelled on the western value system — rationality, objectivity, scrutiny, secularity."

I myself was a student in Calcutta (Kolkata) in the 1960s and ’70s and remember the leftist ethos very well. It was the rich and the hippies who joined the Hare Krishna movement. While religion was very much a part of the lives of the poor and the middle class above a certain age, it was not something we discussed among friends when we were young. I did attend prayers with my relatives and have always believed in God, but when I mentioned those prayer meetings to my friends, some of them laughed. Religion did not matter very much to my friends who were more interested in cricket, literature, arts and culture and the social sciences.

Ray is right when he says our education was modelled on the western system, but he is being too simplistic when he equates the western system with "rationality, objectivity, scrutiny, secularity." If that was all the West had to teach, there would be no Christians in America or Europe. The beauty of western education is that it allows us the freedom to think and believe what we will: it does not insist there is no God but one or that there is no God at all.

If religion is indeed taking hold among young Bengalis once again, they are experiencing the same resurgence of faith that is being reported from America and the Muslim world.

British media of a certain persuasion tend to extol the fact that Britons are less religious than Americans as if it is something to be proud of. They blame the Christian right wing as well as Muslim militants for the current violence and intolerance.

But religion also teaches love and compassion. And can rationality explain everything? For that matter, how objective can we really be?

Sceptics sometimes ask if one has seen God — or if there is God, why does He allow so much suffering and violence in the world. I don’t know. I can only pray to God and hope He listens to my prayers. I say He but as a Hindu I am as likely to pray to a goddess. Maybe for the same reason I turn to Mother Mary. That may make me a bundle of contradictions, but at least I don’t insist my religion is superior to others’, a sure prescription for hate and violence.

Religion is the opium of the masses, said Marx. The poor and the helpless pray to God because they see no other way to get what they want, say some. That’s certainly true of me. God knows I have no alternative but to pray to God. It may be a sign of weakness but what is religion but acceptance of a higher power? I pray to God for the same reason I love being with my wife and my son and chatting with my friends. They are all we have to comfort us.

Bob Dylan on Roy Orbison and Ricky Nelson!

Bob_dylan_chronicles I have just started reading Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, taking it slow and easy. This is a book to savour for anyone who remembers the music and culture of the 1960s and ’70s. And the first few pages are just like his songs — evocative and impressionistic. He recalls a room full of books where he spent much of his time in his early days in New York and he writes about the books with the same feeling he describes his own hunger to hit the limelight as a singer.

What is surprising is his regard for singers who passed out of fashion because of artistes like him. He admires Roy Orbison. The passage where he describes Orbison’s unique range is extraordinary coming from him because they are so different in style: Orbison is dramatic, rising from throaty growls to sweet falsettos sometimes in the same song, while Dylan is deadpan, taunting, teasing, often in a flat monotone. But they are both great, though Dylan of course is greater by far because of his style and lyrics which are absolutely unique. But as he himself points out, Orbison can’t be boxed in as a rocker or a torch singer because of his incredible range. I love his Pretty Woman which is so different from Only the Lonely, my favourite Orbison classic which invariably gives me goosebumps. 

I was even more surprised to discover that Dylan used to be a fan of Ricky Nelson. He writes about hearing Travelling Man for the first time. Travelling Man, Hello Mary Lou and A Wonder Like You are my favourite Ricky Nelson songs. Dylan sums up Nelson perfectly. "Ricky had a smooth touch… His voice was sort of mysterious and put you in a certain mood… but that type of music was on its way out." Thanks to artistes like him — Dylan himself. It’s a pity.

Popular music has got grittier and grittier until it’s even kicked off melody now to gyrate to the herkyjerky rhythm and rapid-fire bursts of rap, which doesn’t sound like music at all to an old-timer like me. We Bengalis did have something like rap music in the olden days. It was called "kabir larai" in Bengali which means fight of the poets — "kabi" is Bengali for poet and "larai" means fight — and it was something like a poetry slam with musical accompaniments. But give me blues, soul, rock’n'roll any day.

A computer microphone for my son

I bought a microphone-cum-headphones for my son today. I will give it to him when I fly to Calcutta (Kolkata) later this month. He will take it back to his college in America. Somehow we forgot to get one when he enrolled in college last August. So he borrowed one from a friend to chat with us online on his laptop. But he will be moving to a new room when he returns to college now that he will be a sophomore. Of course, he could have bought a microphone from Wal-Mart. That’s the only big store they have near his college. But to go there, too, he needs a lift from someone. He has friends and some of them have cars. But here in Singapore shopping is so convenient. There are electronic and computer stores almost everywhere. Still I went to Sim Lim Square off Little India to buy the microphone because that’s one of the more popular computer malls.

My wife also asked me to check the price of the Encarta CD. One of her colleagues at her college wanted to know how much it costs in Singapore. At Sim Lim Square, I found the Encarta Standard costs 49 Singapore dollars and 90 cents, the Encarta Reference 99 Singapore dollars and 90 cents and the Encarta Premier more than 120 Singapore dollars. One Singapore dollar is about 63 cents. So the Encarta Standard costs 31 (US) dollars in Singapore and the Encarta Reference, 63 dollars. But the price may vary from one shop to another.

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Happy birthday, Ronni!

She has been called "the dean of older bloggers". The Guardian newspaper said: "Ronni Bennett does a great job of demystifying the later years of life". Naturally. She is a pro who has spent years in the media working with the very best on radio and television. Like any media magpie she can peck away on anything from music to movies to Medicare. And she does it with style. She can be tart and meditative, critical and reminiscent, mixing commentary and autobiography in a style that’s distinctly hers. Some writers have a style so personal it’s almost like hearing them speak. Ronni is one of them. She has a distinct voice.

She also podcasts on her blog, Time Goes By. I love the title. It reminds me of Casablanca and Humphrey Bogart and Ingid Bergman. It’s a classic and so is Ronni’s blog. She has lots of fans who will be posting tributes to her today. Some have even been sending out email reminding the others it is a special day. Happy birthday, Ronni! And many happy returns of the day. Write on, we love to hear from you.

Veerakaliamman Temple, Little India

Veerakaliamman Temple, Little India
Originally uploaded by rana2u.

This is the first temple I visited in Singapore and I still love to go there. Located in the heart of Little India, it attracts tourists -like the woman in the white hat – especially in the morning and late afternoon. The temple, open till noon and again from 4 pm every day except Tuesdays when it reopens earlier in the afternoon, attracts a lot of devotees during evening prayers. The Singapore Tourism Board’s Uniquely Singapore website, which calls it the Veeramakalimman Temple, says:

"Built as early as 1855 by Bengali labourers, this magnificent temple was constructed for the worship of Goddess Kali, the consort of Lord Shiva. Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple is thought to be the first temple in Singapore to venerate her. The goddess is often portrayed as having many pairs of arms and hands; each hand carrying weapons of destruction used to fight evil on earth.

"Temple doors are covered with tiny bells. Devotees ask God to grant their requests by rining the bells before entering. Inside, the ceiling is rimmed with statues of the many Hindu Gods while the main shrine housed a jet black statue of Goddess Kali, flanked by her sons Ganesha and Murugam."

There’s one mistake there, however. The temple could not have been built by Bengali labourers. Hindu Bengalis never came to work as labourers in Singapore. The Bengalis who ventured abroad back then were more likely to be Muslims, called Lascars or Lascars, because they were usually sailors. A Lascar is mentioned in a Sherlock Holmes story: The Man with the Twisted Lip.

One possible reason why the Singapore Tourism website says the temple was built by Bengali labourers could be the Indian soldiers the British brought with them to Singapore could have come from the Bengal Army. There was the Bengal Army, the Bombay Army and the Madras Army when India was ruled by the East India Company, which also colonised Singapore. And the Bengal Army was not filled by Bengalis but Hindi-speaking recruits from neighbouring provinces. The Hindus among them resented being sent abroad because they became outcastes if they sailed overseas. The Muslim soldiers had their own grievances.

The soldiers rebelled in 1857 — two years after this temple was built — in what’s called the Sepoy Mutiny or the Indian Rebellion of 1857. That put an end to East India Company rule.

Queen Victoria then became Empress of India. Queen Victoria, whose great-great-granddaughter "Lillibet" just ended a three-day State visit to Singapore yesterday.

India’s Airbus/Boeing binge

Asian Aerospace 2006 — the world’s third biggest air show after Paris and Farnborough, England –ended in Singapore last weekend with a fourfold jump in business, racking up $15.2 billion worth of deals. And the biggest spender was India, ordering more than $3.8 billion worth of planes. That’s $300 million more than the total business done at the last air show here two years ago. Indian Airlines ordered 43 A320 and A319 Airbuses worth $2.5 billion, another Indian carrier GO ordered 10 A320 Airbuses estimated by Agence France-Presse at $640 million based on the catalogue price while Indian low-fare airline SpiceJet  ordered 10 B737 Boeings worth $700 million, according to Forbes.

The Indians were the darlings of the air show, said at least one Singapore news report, and my foolish Indian heart swelled with pride. Never mind that I might have never flown unless I came to work in Singapore, there are always ties that bind one to the motherland. I love Singapore, but of course I am thrilled by the remarkable turnaround in India’s fortunes. There was a time when people here used to say I would be a rich man when I return home. They no longer say so. Everyone is aware of India’s growing economic power.

Of course, there will always be nay-sayers. The International Herald Tribune yesterday ran an article with the headline, India’s War on Poverty: Easy Victory Unlikely. Take care of your own underprivileged, I say.

What the article says is true, but look at how far we have come. There was a time when there were just two Indian carriers — Air India flying overseas and the domestic Indian Airlines. Travelling anywhere in India usually meant taking the train. Ordinary people spent entire lives without flying even once. Planes were for the rich or those on a corporate or a government account. Now the middle class can fly as well.

Yes, there are still beggars on the streets, landless peasants in the villages, slumdwellers in the cities who do not even have a proper roof over their heads, let alone dream of flying.

That is a tragedy not about to end. Globalisation is increasing, not reducing, economic disparity.

But it is also improving some people’s lives marginally. Slumdwellers may lack proper amenities but some of them also have taperecorders and television in their homes. Some of them are also going to work in other cities, other countries. Among the Muslims, for example, there are workers who have worked in the Gulf.

An Indian’s economic status can no longer be deduced from his accent, his manners, his appearance or his lifestyle. And expectations are rising. People who barely speak English are sending their children to English-medium schools. New engineering colleges and management institutes have sprung up offering more students a chance to get a better education. Things are looking up — India needs more planes.

The kiss: An Indian invention

Indianmovie_kiss I was surprised to read we Indians invented the kiss. Indians were apparently smooching as long ago as 1500 BC. The Greeks picked up the habit when Alexander the Greek conquered Punjab in 326 BC; they passed it on to the Romans, who spread it throughout the western world. How did the Celts and the Goths and the other Europeans show their love before the Roman invasion? I wonder.

But once they started kissing, they never quit. It’s the Indians who turned shy. One hardly sees Indians kissing in public. There was a time when Indian movies did not show lovers kissing, instead they danced around trees! So I was surprised when I read this in a New York Times article which was reprinted yesterday in The Straits Times in Singapore: 

"Vaughn Bryant, an anthropologist at Texas A&M, has traced the first recorded kiss back to India, somewhere around 1500 B.C., when early Vedic scriptures start to mention people "sniffing" with their mouths, and later texts describe lovers ‘setting mouth to mouth’. From there, he hypothesizes, the kiss spread westward when Alexander the Great conquered the Punjab in 326 B.C.

"The Romans were inveterate kissers, and along with Latin, the kiss became one of their chief exports." 

I wonder how, from the earliest kissers, we regressed into a tongue-shy people unlikely to lock lips in public. It was a big change from the sexual liberation seen in ancient Indian sculptures. The sexual excesses might have provoked a cultural backlash, but society might have grown more conservative also with the coming of the Muslims. The Muslims enriched art and culture. They built the Taj Mahal. The finest Indian cuisine is Muslim. But Muslims are conservative. And their influence was bound to be felt on the rest of the country, as they were the rulers too.

But India was later conquered by the British, who did kiss in public; so why didn’t we follow their example? I don’t know. One possible reason: India spent centuries under Muslim rule, while the British Raj lasted less than 200 years.

A word from the (TLS) editor!

Peter_stothard_1 Gosh, mine is the first blog to get a comment from TLS editor Peter Stothard! I am amazed. After all, he is Peter Stothard, the editor of The Times Literary Supplement, whose latest issue contains articles on the writer Anthony Powell and "What Mozart and Sid Vicious had in common" (that sounds interesting). I am just an unknown blogger writing about my wife and my son and whatever starts me up. I never expected to be noticed by someone like Stothard though I did write about him. I noted that the Times blogs were appearing on TypePad and how I enjoyed reading him. Well, this is what he had to say:

"After four months blogging, I have just posted my first reply to someone else’s site – and it was not as easy as posting a reply on mine here at The TLS.

"I discovered that Rana from Singapore, ‘A navel-gazing Indian gone to the blogs’, had found space in his thoughts about phone prices, Aussie cricket and snowy winters to say that I am ‘pretty good reading’, a Bob Dylan and Beatles fan, but that I should ‘not forget The Rolling Stones in their prime’.

"I thought I would thank him – and point out that in "Rolling Boustrophedons" (see below) I had indeed already not forgotten Mick and Keith."

Here’s the link to the complete post by Stothard. And he has good things to say about the Stones. Their latest record, Abiggerbang, is their best since Exile on Main Street, he says. I can’t afford to buy CDs any more now that my son has gone to college in America, so I haven’t heard the Stones’ latest. But any man who loves books and the Beatles and the Stones and Bob Dylan — and Stothard loves them all — is a "man of .. taste". Yes, that’s a line from Sympathy for the Devil. Not that I am calling Stothard the devil himself. But he can’t be bad. After all, he did notice me! Here’s where he blogs.

Kids and (good) stuff

I love checking out the nominees for the various weblog awards because that’s one way of finding good stuff. And the category that interests me most is the one for good writing. Naturally. Just look at the nominees for the Best Writing of a Weblog award in Bloggies 2006 — the incomparable Dooce and the entertaining Go Fug Yourself are up against three others, two of whom identify themselves first and foremost as writers. "My name is Alice Bradley… I am a writer," says the author of Finslippy while Mimi in New York is an Englishwoman, a Cambridge graduate who wanted to be a journalist in America but ended up as a stripper. She ran into visa problems, she says. But while that put her journalism dreams on hold, that didn’t stop her from writing. And she is doing good, or she wouldn’t be up for that particular award. Mimi’s colourful background adds spice to her blog, but Finslippy is good reading for just the opposite reason. She writes about her little boy and her husband in New York, but the way she writes, it’s like scenes from a movie. She describes the scene and quotes the words used. And because she writes about her little boy, that makes it all the more charming. A bit like Dooce? There are differences.

But what is it that makes writing about children so readable? Some of the writing I have most enjoyed reading in Singapore newspapers has been about children — parents writing about children. When you write about someone you love, you try to describe him or her as best as you can, and parents writing about kids, of course, show all that’s funny, touching and adorable about them.