A person I’d rather not name, from a nation you don’t need to know, on a blind date both of us should forget, left a fleeting impression on me.
In the many years of living in Singapore, she seemed somewhat untouched by the land. As if this city was just a terminal, a safe harbour, a place of utility, and that was all.
I find it strange for people to live in a country different from theirs and not let it affect them.
Do they live in enclaves of the familiar, surrounded only by their own? Do they leave a land and carry nothing with them beyond a chipped replica of the Merlion? It seems like time scorned.
But Singapore has informed me and changed me and while it is not my nation – a citizen of Australia, raised in India – after 16 years in it, I claim it as one of my lands.
As I sit writing this in India, I miss the silence of my Yio Chu Kang street. Noise in India is incessant, rude, nostalgic (from a distant radio, an old film song crosses the lane and floats into your home) and oddly comforting. You rarely feel alone.
To live in another land is chance and design, but also gift and education.
If over 280 million people, says the United Nations, live in lands where they were not born, my tribe is slightly smaller.
In a manner of speaking, I live in two lands at once.
Since the winter of 2020 when my mother had a stroke, I have spent two-three months a year in India.
It is the most time I have spent there since I left those shores as a 37-year-old and I relish the pull each nation exerts.
I feel like a cousin of the bar-headed goose, flying long and high and often at night, but answering to my internal compass which takes me unerringly either to a yellow-painted house in India or to a low-lying condo in Singapore.
I am not a nomad, I merely have many nests.
I have a knitted cap on my head as I sit at my desk and so I must be in India.
Cold sneaks in under a warped wooden door and the smell of burning leaves drifts into the garden. No one in India takes permission for anything. Gods are respected here but rarely in space. But Singapore has no seasons and we miss this valuable ritual of renewal.
Instead, we must buy tickets – to Japan, to Norway, to Canada – to search for winter and understand what Emily Dickinson meant when she wrote of the snow:
“It fills with alabaster wool
The wrinkles of the road.”
To live in two lands somewhat simultaneously is first a privilege in a planet with over 36 million refugees.
What must it be to have no land? Or to be driven from one by fear, hunger or war?
In a world that increasingly values comfort over compassion, we do not adequately consider this.
From inside and beyond
Wandering is essential for it opens the mind and frees the spirit.
To travel between lands is to see them clearer, from inside and beyond, their flaws, charms and peculiarities.
Singapore can feel hectic till I arrive in India and am reminded of the words attributed to Chief Seattle, the great Native American chief. “His people are many. They are like the grass that covers vast prairies. My people are few. They resemble the scattering trees of a storm-swept plain.”I am shaped forever by the landscape of my youth and as I return to it something is clear: Some part of me in India is always a boy. This land is forever in my colour, genes, accent and cricketing stance.
It is there in the way I tear a chapati, swear, cross a road and dance. And yet I never say of India – or Australia or Singapore – that it is the “greatest nation” and I am mystified when any citizen of anywhere does.
It is a phrase that is sweet and speaks of belonging but it is mostly a statement of narrowness and exaggeration.
To live elsewhere is to appreciate that cultures aren’t superior nor are they in competition.
Instead, they are to be investigated, inhaled, reflected on and borrowed from. Food, slang, customs, order, there is so much I’ve taken from Singapore.
Whichever place I am in, I miss the other. Longing is lovely, isn’t it? Often for the littlest things.
In Singapore, I miss India’s birds. In India, I miss Singapore’s pavements (India’s uneven ones are worth a column in themselves) and the green embrace of the Botanic Gardens.
The North Indian town I am in, Dehradun, was once pretty and now drab and draped in a film of dust.
Yet, not far from here, hills rise vertically and forests wander horizontally and it’s here I saw my first leopard, crossing a path with that particular disdain of the big cat.
Singapore feels snug and reassuringly tidy, a place geographically concise, but India, with its tousled look, has a brew of languages and so many colourful threads of difference that in a sense it is a land unknowable to even Indians.
On this trip, at a dinner in Bengaluru, I asked a well-known writer to recommend regional authors whose translated works were available.
He mentioned the famous Tamil writer B. Jeyamohan, whose name was unfamiliar to me, and it struck me – and even Singaporeans might ask this of themselves – how inadequate our knowledge is about where we come from.
Perhaps as we grow older, we begin to appreciate how little we know.
Visitors to a land often see it the way they wish to, their brief experiences sifted and organised. Living in a land is a richer, more unrefined adventure, for it unfolds with no prescribed plan.
Only time allows a city and its paradoxes to settle into the pores.
Tourists who see Singapore simply as safe and sterile, have only seen its skin. Real life always lurks beneath. Lands anyway are more than shops and casinos and parks. They are always about people.
These past three years have been wonderful, a cultural criss-cross if you like, a braiding of disparate experiences.
Every place offers me something – Singapore, the shape of serenity, India, the contours of chaos.
Both keep my brain nimble. One month I am dealing with shyer, circumspect people, the next with emotional, inquisitive folk spilling their life stories. I am simplifying somewhat, but there it is.
Honesty and hope
One land has lines, the other has inventive ways around them. In Singapore, I find honesty, in India hope.
In one land, you feel somewhat insulated from suffering, in the other, you feel the aching and dreaming to overcome it.
In Singapore, competition is real, yet in India newspapers reported that in 2020 “a student took their own life every 42 minutes”.
The world is meaner outside the confines of Yio Chu Kang.
My mother’s stroke stole so much from her but offered me an inadvertent gift. Time in India, to walk down to the corner shops of a small town where shopkeepers ask how she is.
Time with her to laugh and fence and listen to stories of her romantic horse-buggy ride with my father in the 1950s.
She, 90, knew another India, I know one now that is heartbreakingly polarised even as I feel the warmth of its constant little acts of kindness.
Whenever I hear a friend, or their child, is contemplating a move abroad, I say go. The planet is filled with mysteries beyond a single address. Parts of me lie scattered in many geographies and I am filled forever with gratefulness.
Today, I am flying back to Singapore and in April I might return to India. In a way, of course, it doesn’t matter which way I am travelling. Because always, I feel like I am coming home. — The Straits Times/ANN
Rohit Brijnath is assistant sports editor with The Straits Times Singapore. The views expressed are the writer’s own