The house smells of sleep and capsicum, overriding the floral fragrance of the detergent used for a round of washing at two o’clock in the morning. All is quiet and still, as usual, except for the dull roar of the table fan and the odd car passing by. There never is much noise around outside: occasionally, on the train, you hear men involved in an animated conversation, all incomprehensible, alien and safe from these ears wholly untrained to this foreign language and its various sounds.
What does a Chinese family live like? I am curious to know. I want to study their relationships and their spiritual lives. On my way to the LRT station, Kadaloor, I glance at the ‘Kopitiam’ restaurant, omnipresent in Singapore- supposedly multi-cuisine. Here, I see young men and women in shorts and sleeveless tops lounging on lazy afternoons or wielding their chopsticks on unfathomable dishes. A strong, smoky odour assails my senses as I pass by. Occasionally, you’d also find a maami in a cotton sari and wearing diamond earrings, sitting straight-backed, trying to make sense of the Indian food placed in front of her, looking rather uncomfortable, perhaps because she is sitting by the table of a man downing endless bottles of beer. This is also where you can find aged Chinese matrons with short-cropped grey hair, dressed in bright-coloured, flowered shirts and ill-fitting trousers, gesticulating wildly and explaining matters of importance to younger, less enlightened women. They stand there, feet apart, bent at the waist, and though there is a smile of contentment across their wrinkled faces, you know they have seen much and been through their share of hardship and suffering.
I remember how, in my first weeks of the morning shift, as I took the first train to work, it was a strange comfort to see a particular group of elderly women board the train, cheerful and wide awake, while people less than half their age would invariably nod off. Dressed in gaudy colours but never looking odd, appearing full of resolution and purpose, they would set off every morning to I know not where; but it is truly a delight to see such vigour and vim in faces worn by time, age and experience.
The train is, of course, a wonderful place to study people. The loners, the studious ones with noses buried in books (no prizes for guessing what category I’d fall into- though we can get rid of the adjective here), the women with flawless skin, any blemishes well hidden under layers of thick pancake-like make-up (making my own tremendous efforts at putting on lip gloss and kaajal seem like child’s play), children coming home from school or freshly scrubbed and dressed for a party, young gorgeous girls in little black dresses immaculately tailored, coming probably from one of the numerous boutiques in one of the uncountable malls. Men in mismatched shorts and shirts or smart suits, slicked-back hair, one or two coming in with some weird contraption like an oar(!) in hand, or a teenager with a video game console. This latter species is a definite presence in any train you board.
People everywhere. And yet, it’s all so quiet and peaceful. The storms rage only within the bosoms of men and women, and just sometimes manifest themselves in fearful forms. Through it all, the deceptive calm prevails.