Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Shipwreck on a Dinner Table

Table number 15 looks like an island- just like Singapore- multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic and densely populated.

I sit at this table like a ship wrecked sailor, along with nine others of different nationalities and racial features. Marooned in this strange island, unlike a naturally ship wrecked sailor I feel happy even in the indecisiveness moments of witnessing and confrontation. I don’t look for a savior ship to come along at the horizon line as I could see my friends-artists-sitting at table number 8, another island of strangeness and intimacy.

It is a grand gala dinner, to be precise, a black tie dinner- the guests should be wearing three piece suits and a neck-tie, and they should be extremely sophisticated in their demeanor. Women should come in elegant party clothes, the blacker the dress, the better. I am in my black best, including my proud black skin.

The yellow light oozing out from the chandeliers hanging low from the roof light up the predominant yellow skin, turning the hall into a pack of embers; black suits and glowing faces, hands and legs. It feels good like a hearth, still comforting in its frightening warmth.

My artist friend G.R.Iranna is here to receive an award instituted by the Asia Pacific Breweries Foundation in collaboration with the Singapore Art Museum (SAM). Named ‘APB Signature Award’, it would be bestowed on five artists from the South East Asian region; one Grand Award (S$ 45000), three Jury Awards (S$10000 each) and one Popular Award (S$10000).

I am sure Iranna is going to get one of the awards. At the table number eight, I can see, Iranna animatedly talking to the artist friends that he made during the five days of his stay in Singapore. His wife and artist Pooja Iranna looks gorgeous in her black party outfit and she too beams with happiness. From the shipwrecked sailor’s loneliness I look at her, with some kind of desire. The candle flame adds a dash of red and white mix on her cheeks and the puffed up hair glows. She looks more Spanish than Indian. I feel like making salsa movements with her- a shipwrecked sailor’s wild dreams.

(Later, after the party, Pooja would tell me, ‘Forget this dress and happiness. I just got an sms from India that my maid is going on leave for the coming ten days. So I would be spending most of the time in kitchen.” Another Cinderella story’s endless rendition)

I am reluctant speaker in parties. The white woman who is on my left makes some attempt to talk to me and I found her immensely boring in her hush-hush judgments on the works of art that she had seen in the morning at SAM. Her opinion sucks. Next her there is a white guy, another ‘freelancing’ journalist, who seems to be confused in making a choice between the white woman on his right or the Singaporean woman on his right. His middle-aged face becomes a screen of passions that flit between pure flirtation and burning desire. On my right, there are five women, all of them more or less look plump and pompous in their party mood.

Polite and pretty maids move amongst the guests as if they were doing a slow moving dance to a music which is played out in their minds. When I don’t want to speak to my fellow guests, I wistfully look at these angelic maids. They have trained eyes and they understand the meaning of each facial expression. Wasting no moments, one of them comes forward to replace the empty glass before me with a glass full of chilled beer.

There is some kind of cannibalism in drinking beer, I imagine for I think a glass of beer is a ‘live’ thing. It comes before you as if it were going to die and it leaves the last whiffs of breath in a continuous releasing of bubbles. But unlike a live animal that goes cold in death, beer turns warm in its death and its death intoxicates you slightly and you start to see things in its colour- the golden bubbly sheen.

I am a bad conversationalist in parties. People find me a boring company. But I have reasons for keeping quite. I believe in a seducer’s enigma. They guys who go out and out to talk and win, lose a lot of energy and grace in the process, whereas the enigmatic one would hold a lot of charm for a prolonged time, though he would go back to his bed alone.

Besides, I feel the party conversations are like a beautiful ancestral dress mended and worn again and again. The one who wears it should be supremely careful, if not any casual or mindless movement could reveal the stitches and mending. If you are not careful, your conversation could lead you into a disaster.

So I keep quite but the lady next to me wants to speak to me. I am not able to make out her nationality. In Singapore, everyone looks as if coming from every other place. I have not met a real Singaporean yet.

She too is shipwrecked and I look at her name as she looks at my name placed on a card before me. She is Soffy Hariyanti.

“Are you a journalist?” she asks.

“Yes, from India,” I tell her. Table number 15 is for journalists and she seems to know that.

Between silent interludes, I tell her about my mission and she tells me that she is the Press Secretary to the Minister of Transport and Home Affairs, who has come here to give away awards to the winners.

I am impressed. I have seen several press secretaries in Delhi, all throwing their weights around (literally). But this lady is quite. I am curious too. For me it is a chance to see an original Singaporean, if she is one.

“I have not seen a native of Singapore. Are you one?” I ask her. This is why I say I am a bad conversationalist. I ask things without frills.

“Hmm…my mother is from Malasia and father from Indonesia. But I am born and brought up in Singapore,” Soffy says. Now it is my responsibility to accept her as an original Singaporean and she does not seem to have any particular affinity for her parent’s original nationalities.

Soffy Hariyanti is a Singaporean and we talk. I ask the meaning of her name. She is confused. ‘Soffy’ means ‘wise’ but Hariyanti, the Malay word, she does not have any clue.

The official language of Singapore is Malayese. But people have accepted English as their first language for the number of linguistic groups settled in this island country is as varied as their racial features. So Soffy too speaks English and she is a graduate in Business Administration. The government job, initially was an experiment for her and now she enjoys it. Once in every two years, she is deputed in a new department and she enjoys the challenge of learning new things. “Many people don’t like government jobs as they are asked to take different responsibilities,” Soffy says.

During the last two days, I had noticed one thing in Singapore streets- no presence of kids. This country does not have too many kids. I had counted four pregnant women in the last two days.

Singapore has a population of around 5 million people that includes the permanent residents and the floating migrant population. But as the space is less, they say, it is thickly populated and the government had to take population control measures in 1970s. But now the government seems to be in a different mood. It gives tax exemptions and other incentives to the people who are in the family line, encouraging more to make the ‘plunge’.

“There was a time when the maternity leave was just for two months. Then they increased it to three months and now it is four months with full salary,” says Soffy. And soffy has two kids; three year old Alya and one year old Aamir.

“The ‘sublime’ and the ‘Prince,” this time she does not forget to translate their names. Then we change into parental modes. We talk about the behavioral changes in a three year old, their schooling, their demands, their interests etc etc.

“My daughter is very choosy about her dresses,” Soffy says.
“My son, Maitreya is also choosy about clothes,” I tell her. She asks me the meaning of Maitreya. I tell her that it is the name of the Last Buddha, which she understands but is intrigued why we chose a ‘Buddhist’ name for a Christian child. I tell her that I am Hindu with a Christian name, still cherishing a ‘black’ desire to call my son after my favorite film actor, ‘Denzel Washington’, to which she laughs her heart out.

Soffy is a Muslim and she is married to a Financial Analyst working with corporate sector. Her parents are around so that they could afford to have children as they promised to take care of the kids, which many of the grandparents refuse to do these days in Singapore. The maid servants are available and they do only stipulated jobs. They simply don’t look after kids.

What about the youngsters who want to come into the family line? What is the supporting system they have? “The society is changing quite fast and western values are readily adopted. There are many living in relationships. People are reluctant to get married. Then it is all about personal choice, none can pressurize them,” Soffy says.

How does this society take care of the emotional breakages and hurts, I wonder. “The young generation is not excessively sentimental like the previous generations. They have learnt to move on even if a relationship fails. This society cannot afford to have too much of emotional burdens,” Soffy comments.

Soffy tells me about the television channels that the young generation watches. There are several channels that play up traditional values, but those are watched by the older people. The fast track generation wants it now and here and they know how to choose their channels.

It is time to leave. Soffy has given me a few valuable insights about the Singaporean life and society. She says her chauffer must be have come around by this time and with a chuckle she says that her chauffer is her husband himself.

I have this itch to ask her one last question: Is she a 1969 born?

“No, 1975,” she smiles.

We shake hands and say good bye. While she floats away from the table, I see Iranna walking towards me with the Jury Award Trophy in his one hand and his Spanish lady in the other.

I hold the loneliness by its waist and waltz into the liquid yellowness of the Singaporean night.

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