The radio did not hum with devotional songs and homage to Ma Durga in the predawn hours on Mahalaya. There was only the news and, if I cared to look out of the window, the occasional car speeding by to another working day in Singapore.
However, the ornately decorated Veerakaliamman Temple on Serangoon Road in Little India was more crowded than usual with devotees and priests alike preparing for the Navratri festival. A marquee had sprung up near the temple where the devotees queued for prasadam – lemon rice and sweetmeats.
Hindus have worshipped and prayed in Singapore ever since they arrived with Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, from Calcutta, to build the city in 1819. The temple on Serangoon Road is more than 150 years old.
And, yet, and, yet, oh to be in Calcutta now that the Pujas are here! I know I would tire of the music, tire of the crowds, but to look into the eyes of Ma Durga and her children in some gaily decorated pandal with the dhakis playing, the priest in his corner, the devotees and revellers streaming in and out, dressed to the nines – it’s a unique experience. My mind goes back to the pretty girls I have seen and the music that used to be played – not only Bengali and Hindi songs, but also the Ventures and the Shadows. If you have never heard Wipeout by the Ventures, watch them on YouTube. The pounding drums and the plangent guitars capture the exuberance of the Pujas as much as any lilting melody of Salil Choudhury, my favourite Bengali composer.
Excuse me if I am raving, but seldom in Singapore have I felt closer to India than now, watching the Commonwealth Games on the internet. As much as the Games, I am enjoying the ads being shown. Especially the one where an elderly gent in dhoti and kurta sits down with a newspaper while men run past him in single file, each grasping the shoulders of the man in front, forming a human chain, making noises like a choo-choo train. They run through a living room, up and down houses and streets, and disappear behind the logo of the Indian Railways. I love it. It’s so playful and whimsical. A railway ad which shows grown men running like a train.
I love it – and also miss the old times when the trains themselves inspired songs, stories and poems. We had to read WH Auden’s Night Mail in school:
This is the night mail crossing the Border,
Bringing the cheque and the postal order,
Letters for the rich, letters for the poor,
The shop at the corner, the girl next door…
Past cotton-grass and moorland boulder
Shovelling white steam over her shoulder,
Snorting noisily as she passes
Silent miles of wind-bent grasses.
On YouTube, you can watch a clip of the famous documentary where John Grierson recites the poem as a train speeds through the English countryside. My favourite, however, is the Monkees singing Last Train to Clarksville:
Take the last train to Clarksville
And I’ll meet you at the station,
You can be here by four-thirty,
‘Cause I’ve made your reservation,
Don’t be slow,
Oh, no, no, no,
Oh, no, no, no.
It’s silly and infectious as only we could be in our teens. Watch the clip with the mandatory train and the long-haired Monkees in bright red shirts and blue jeans singing Last Train to Clarksville on YouTube.
Trains, what a spirit of adventure they summoned every time I found myself on a platform of the Howrah Station, eyeing a hulking diesel engine, at the beginning of a long journey, a book from Wheeler in one hand, my luggage at my feet. What a feeling it was once the train began to roll and the land sped by, the telegraph poles rising and falling, only the endless horizon never disappearing from sight.
Now, the pleasure of long railway journeys is beginning to pall; people are more likely to fly than take the train. The flights are certainly quicker and safer. Railway journeys used to be considered unsafe through Bihar and Assam. Now the danger has spread to West Bengal.
Isn’t it an irony that there is a Maoist insurgency in a state which has been under Marxist rule for more than 30 years?
This is not meant as criticism. I felt pleased when The Economist magazine published a favourable profile of Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, describing him as an old-fashioned Bengali gentleman with a love for literature. I would love to hear what he has to say of Mario Vargas Llosa, who won the Nobel prize for literature this year. One does not necessarily have to agree with his politics to like his other qualities. Jyoti Basu had friends who were not communists.
This eclecticism is something to be appreciated in a divided world. I may be mistaken, influenced by the Puja spirit of peace and goodwill towards all, but I think Indians are notable for this.
I read an article in The Hindu by Vithal Rajan, who argued India should give up Kashmir. India should not “harbour” Tibetan governments-in-exile either, he added, and said China is “bigger, and better” than India.
China is certainly bigger, richer and stronger than India, but better?
Rajan, of course, is free to say what he thinks, being an Indian. We know what happens to the Chinese. This year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, Liu Xiaobo, sits in a jail. Beijing is furious that the Norwegian Nobel Committee ignored its objections and honoured a “criminal”.
But consider what he sacrificed: a 54-year-old former literature professor, writer and critic – an intellectual like Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee – who could have been teaching at a university, living a peaceful life loaded with official honours and recognition, who ended up in jail instead for calling for democratic reforms.
I wouldn’t go into who is right and who is wrong. But one has to acknowledge the sacrifice he made. I saw the announcement on the Nobel website. It said:
“The Norwegian Nobel Committee has decided to award the Nobel Peace Prize for 2010 to Liu Xiaobo for his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China…”
The phrase “long and non-violent struggle” reminded me of Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela.
Now a Chinese is being honoured for the same qualities that distinguished an Indian, an American and a South African.