Somehow it sounds just a little Somerset Maugham-ish when you bark “Serangoon Road, please” at the Singapore taxi driver. It is the name of the main thoroughfare of Little India, the former Tamil settlement, one of the most colourful and exotic parts of modern Singapore.
During his few visits to Singapore in the early 1920s Maugham would have been fascinated by Little India’s chaos, cacophony and bright riot of exotica.
The network of streets, lined with brightly decorated old colonial shop houses, is home to thousands of Tamils. When you grow bored with the glitzy monoliths of Marina Bay and the financial district, a few minutes in a taxi or a quick trip on the underground MRT gets you to Little India for a bite-size taste of the foods, customs, sounds and sights of the old country.
Maugham found great material for his collection of short stories The Casuarina Tree from observing the people: “…the dark-skinned Tamils walk on their silent, naked feet, as though they were but brief sojourners in a strange land…”
Nowhere are the silent, naked feet more in evidence than at the Sree Veeramakaliamman temple, the focal point of Serangoon Road and one of the key houses of worship in the City State.
Dedicated to the wife of the Hindu god Shiva, devotees pack the temple day and night. Hundreds of shoes can be found in neat rows at the entrance to the temple and it has always fascinated me how the owners find their sandals when they all appear to be the same make, size and colour.
Little India is a vibrant vortex of commerce that seems never to sleep. The main shopping emporium, the Mustafa Centre, is open 24 hours and you can buy anything from spices to stoves and bargain clothing in the crammed aisles.
Business is perennially brisk but the shop assistants have an uncanny way of finding the most obscure item in the midst of the sea of merchandise. On my last visit I only wanted a little plastic lemon squeezer but almost surrendered before asking a shop assistant, who spoke almost no English, where they might be hidden. Once he had established my needs, off he shot and returned triumphantly with the now-treasured juicer.
The sari shops – glorious kaleidoscopes of colours and glittering gold – do a roaring trade. The other outfitters are marvellous sources of the fabled 360, a cotton wraparound sarong affair worn by men as daywear and by rotund recidivist colonials as comfy night dresses.
The fresh markets are piled high with vivid red chillies, yellow saffron and coconuts. The scents of the spices are heavenly and you can spend hours stocking up on all your curry requirements.
The dozens of little family-run grocery shops are treasure troves of Indian delights, from sweet meats to every kind of pickle a gourmand could desire. I always buy a can of Achar Pachranga, which always involves a scratch around at the back of the dusty shelves. The knowing glances of the shopkeepers are a compliment, as few are in on the secret of how delicious the common pickles are.
Food is a frenzied focal point all through the day, from the freshly squeezed mango juice and morning samosa to tandoori delights. My favourite is Khansama’s opposite the main temple where you can swelter on plastic chairs along the sidewalk or upstairs in air conditioned refinement. The chicken tikka with garlic naan is the food of the gods.
Even a haircut in a barber is an experience. The little backstreet shops have that ancient hum of Vitalis and the chairs are fresh from a Hollywood back lot set. You rely entirely on the discretion of the barbers as dialogue is stuttered at best.
If you suffer from agoraphobia avoid Little India on weekends and religious holidays. The swarming crowd moves as one as the workers from the construction sites gather on their day off. You would think you were in an Indian town, complete with Bollywood music blaring at every corner.
Veerasamy Road carries the name of the first Indian doctor to practice Western medicine in Singapore. Then, around the corner is Buffalo Road named for the slaughterhouses that used to line the street. One street up is Kerbau Road, kandang kerbau being the Malay term for cattle pens.
Unlike Chinatown or even nearby Arab Street, which have an ersatz aura about them, Little India feels like the real deal. It doesn’t take long to walk it flat, depending on how often you stop to bargain with the merchants and organised walking tours are available.
Getting a taxi can be a nightmare so the MRT is a better idea. Little India and Farrer Road stations are easily accessed and the train is a fraction of the price of Singapore’s notoriously complicated taxi fares.
Another great place to eat is the Tekka Market where myriad stalls sell moderately priced delicacies from India, China, Malaysia and Indonesia. The name comes from the Hokkien Chinese word for bamboo, tek-kah, which grew along the nearby Rochor Canal.
Perennially acerbic, Maugham would no doubt have found Little India a little too gritty for his refined tastes. That said, I am sure a succulent cube of Khansama’s finest chicken tikka washed down with a Kingfisher strong lager might have swayed him.