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Sunday Sentiments

  • Singapore sojourn

    Posted On December 9, 2002

    By Karan Thapar

    Forget the rain in Spain, it’s the downpour in Singapore that matters. I’ve seen cloudbursts, with water falling in sheets, hard, relentless, blinding. And I’ve seen them continue for hours. Yet what I’ve never seen before is what followed in Singapore. When it stopped the roads drained instantly. The water vanished as fast as it fell and I could walk without fear of soaking my shoes.

    This happened last week when I was trapped inside Takashamiya, a large shopping mall, by a surprise and prolonged cloudburst. I thought it would pass. I was wrong. But when it ended – just as suddenly as it began – the roads were dry, the pavements clear and there were no puddles, rivers of water, or lakes swooshing in the breeze.

    The secret is a network of underground drains. They were built in the ‘60s and ‘70s and they are not a legacy of the Raj. They’re a product of sensible town planning.

    In contrast, we, in India, have drains gifted by the British which we’ve allowed to become silted and clogged. So when it rains we swim. Or we drown.

    It can be disconcerting to see oneself through someone else’s eyes. They observe things you’ve overlooked or weren’t even aware of. That’s what happens when you read about India in The Straits Times.

    But first a word about The Straits Times. It’s Singapore’s leading newspaper. Like the city it’s glossy, commercial, placid and sterile. Even if it runs to 70 pages you can finish it before your morning coffee goes cold. And nothing takes you by surprise.

    Last week, however, three items shook me. The first was a headline proclaiming “the poor starve in India”. No doubt they do but I hadn’t realised this was how the world still saw us. Yet the telling bit was the last paragraph. “The sad part is

    they don’t need to. The food is there. In fact, there are record food stocks to fall back on. The government, however, won’t release the grain.”

    “Husbands pay for their wives” was another headline that caught my attention. Usually they do but the paper had something else in mind. It was a reference to Haryana where the local gentry have so effectively done away with their daughters their sons are in want of partners. I’m not sure what lesson the article sought to convey. But if the bride price keeps rising daughters might return to fashion!

    “Vodka for the President” was the third. I thought it referred to Putin tippling in secret. But, alas, no. The vodka was to clean the cutlery in the hotel where he stayed. A microbiologist on his staff refused to trust the local disinfectant. Hence all the knives and forks destined for Putin’s mouth were first doused in vodka. Oh, to be his chamcha!

    I dined at the Singapore Cricket Club. The establishment dates back to 1852 but is maintained with 21st century efficiency. Our Gymkhana is half as old but three times more ancient in appearance.

    Cell phones are not permitted inside the Club. Being Indian I assumed this was a regulation made to be ignored. So, without thinking, I reached for mine.

    “Sorry Karan” Uday, my host, hastily informed me. “Those things are not allowed here.”

    Minutes later I had forgotten what he’d said and reached for the phone again. Someone had sent me an SMS and I was about to respond.

    “Karan!” Uday muttered. “Honestly, you can’t use it here.”

    “Sorry, sorry” I said, genuinely contrite.

    Fifteen minutes later the phone rang again. I had failed to switch it off. I reached for my pocket but Uday was faster.

    “This way” he said as he pushed me towards the cricket pitch. “You can talk on the green for as long as you want.”

    It was 9.00 at night and there were several others with phones in hand. They were members, of course. I was a guest. But not one of them was prepared to flout the Club’s rules.

    I switched off my phone before I returned to the members bar.

    Late night at the Four Seasons I found myself reading the Singapore Tatler. I had no idea such a magazine existed. Now that I do I think it’s an excellent one. The December issue carries a photo feature on the home of Ruby and Sajjad Akhtar. From the pictures they appear a wealthy, cultured, well-travelled couple with an attractive if over-furnished house. More importantly, the Akhtars resemble similar couples in India who would love to feature in a desi Tatler.

    Inside, a signed editorial explained that the magazine is more than just a chronicle of the rich and colourful. “We celebrate the good life …. and set the pace.” In other words, a hundred page 3s!

    When can we expect something similar?

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