April 22, 2008

My City

My city is often made out to be a boring business city, sterile and lifeless. Not entirely. No amount of protestation at how we’re really unique, though, is effective in driving home the truth about (some parts of) my city — how there are bits you can really love, if you look hard enough.

My city, tonight, started off innocuously enough, with a solo train ride back to the city from the airport. Wondering around the east, feeling like I’m exploring a new country altogether, one I only go to in order to leave and return to the country, before running back towards the familiarity of the places I know and the places I love.

Little India was my first love. It was here where I wandered about, as a kid visiting relations, demanding ice cream and discovering kulfi, my first taste of something new, different, bold — pistachio, spices, cream, all the better to quench the heat. Then as a teenager, discovering the back roads of Little India, talking to everybody, wandering into every shop; how I can always count on being fed for free by Indian hawker families who now treat me as their own niece, how after twenty years, I am still in awe, still finding new places, new tastes, and new people. Then going to places like Triplicane, Chennai, and feeling entirely in my element, knowing where to find things and occasionally, what to say.

Then Arab Street, adjacent, separated only by that canal. It is a walk I make often, in either direction, past the thieves’ market at Sungei Road where I followed my father to as a child, complaining, sweating under the heat looking at old, dirty things and deciphering rude Hokkien shouts they call Hokkien conversation, which I now love. Past Kelantan Road, which I know for the laksa my mother loves. Jalan Besar: that Chinese fringe of Little India. Kitchener Road, Maude Road, Tyrwhitt Road. The parts in which I find myself, often, thinking of as Scissor Cut Curry Rice, Pu Tien (Henghwa restaurant), Min Chung (Henghwa coffeeshop, amazing clams), and Northern Thai (what was once my favourite tomyam soup haunt, with fried fish).

My city, tonight. First off the train into the city, then Haji Lane, Bussorah Street, Arab Street, Kandahar Street. These are the streets where my memories, both happy and tragic ones, were made. Then that walk across that canal and into Little India; years before I was born my grandfather worked at that huge market in the area, now I know it almost instinctively. Desker Road — you know it for the transvestite brothels — I know it for Usman, the Pakistani coffeeshop at the end of the street, in bright blue. Shahi paneer, fried dhal, kadai chicken, and the first palak paneer that even remotely agreed with my by now demanding tastes for food from this region. They knew us, we regulars; after all this is where I once ran up a tab for the copious amounts of tea I used to drink here. Tonight I was here with someone more regular than I, someone who could actually speak their language (someone so regular they deliver to his doorstep when he asks!). My rudimentary Hindi won me plenty of points.

If you don’t know a thing about South Asian cultures, you might find Little India one big, scary, monolith (I still find it appalling that Chinese people here think there is a language called “Indian” and one uniform “Indian identity”). But you get the South Indian, Tamilian influence everywhere along Little India, them forming the primary Indian population after all; but the further north you get, the more diverse. Pakistani and Bangladeshi restaurants and shops, sporadic and not entirely large enough to form Little Pakistan or Little Bangladesh, but thousands of miles out of the subcontinent, co-existing in harmony. Tonight, I wolfed down my lovely Pakistani meal, had a never-ending discussion about travel in Pakistan and Mughal-e-Azam, then popped over to a Bangladeshi restaurant on “Bangla Square” to get us a misti doi each.

Cultures clash so often in this part of the world, I really shouldn’t be surprised anymore — but as I made vain attempts to show off what little Bengali I knew (this doesn’t take very much effort for a yellow girl), the owner of the place spun around from the hilsa he was scooping and said: ni zai wo de guo jia… zou lai zou qu ma? (were you walking around in my country, Bangladesh?), and was happy I’d been to his “native” (Rongpur). He apparently worked in Taipei for a while, and his Mandarin was probably as bad good as my Bengali. But still. The misti doi was great. The misti doi made me ache a little for the subcontinent. As a parting shot, I took a stab in the dark and asked if he would know where I could buy Hemanta Mukhopadhyay’s Bangla music. This being Little India, after all, he shouted out of his shop — someone came running by waving a TV controller about shouting “what is it?” — and promptly led me away to a little cornershop in an alley. The name? Dhaka Corner. They had my Mukhopadhyay, as well as the Ornob album I wanted, and recommended a new Bangladeshi popstar called Habib, who really is excellent. All this, just a stone’s throw away from where I spend so much of my time, Mustafa Centre. So in one evening alone, I had dinner at a Pakistani restaurant with a Nepali boy and some Chinese friends (and generally felt like we were showing them around a new country), bought misti doi from a Chinese-speaking Bangladeshi, found the Bengali music I’ve wanted for ages, then long conversations about Lahore with random intriguing Pakistanis.

Some nights, I really love my city. Tonight was one of them.