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Little India – Life along the laneways of Singapore & Penang

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Singapore 
is like a second home to me. I have lost count of all the times I’ve stayed in Little India on my way to and from Asia from Darwin, drifting with the monsoon winds to stories of intrigue. My home away from home, Singapore was my first port of call prior to covering stories on the social and ecological unrest occurring throughout SE Asia. Flying in for my second time since moving to Brunswick Heads, NSW, I thought it time to birth a story on this place I love so much for my website @ Ian Browne Academia.

Change was occurring along the back lanes of Little India by night, especially leading up to the Deepavali Hindu festival. Where chairs and tables were once laid out for late night drinking, you are now forced in doors. Night and day, security groups patrol the laneways of Little India, making sure everyone behaves. During my first sortie to Little India from Darwin, I sat out on these laneways and made friends with colourful characters; Malay, Chinese, and of course Indian folk, being invited into clubs for ‘lock-ins’. Nowadays, many of those clubs have gone from the back lanes of Little India, but wading through the steamy midnight trails of this fascinating village, still provides nostalgia.

Little India smells of jasmine, curry leaves and pooja incense. The array of shops include clothing and materials stores, cultural artefacts, jewellery, and of course a huge range of both North and South Indian cuisine. Serangoon Road, the main street of Little India, was named after a Marabou stork that lived along the muddy banks of the river. He was named Rangon by the local Malay villagers. Hordes of Indian folk flood the muggy streets of Little India on dawn. From underground train stations, parklands fill with those wishing to greet conversation, and to relax away the hot day’s work. Families shuffle along with produce from food markets, or delight in running naked fingers along shining banana leaves, which rice, curry and flavoursome condiments smother. As the night edges in, many women return to their abodes, leaving single men to watch Indian film dramas from plastic chairs, wetting parched throats.

The Indian-ethnic population of Singapore accounts for 9.2% of the total population. Of this total, 60% derive from a Tamil Nadu ancestry. The Hindu population of Singapore is 5% of the total, while the Muslim community makes up 15%. The Deepavali Festival celebrates the triumph of good over evil, it is known as the ‘Festival of Lights’, and homes around Singapore hang little oil lamps to invite happiness and good fortune. As the illegal burning of forest in Kalimantan saw Borneo’s jungle turn to smoke and flood Singapore’s stifling pre-monsoon night, I entered the Srinivasa Perumal Temple to a sea of Hindu folk, and an intensely important Hindu ceremony. It was the ‘Feast for Vishnu’ and I was the only Westerner on site. I was so excited, I love these moments. I would also cover a story on two kind-hearted Indian tattooists; an Indian Alexei Sayle lookalike who was once a bodyguard to the president of Singapore, and being a womaniser and peddler of aphrodisiacs to ex-pat Westerners. I also interviewed proud mum Megha, a shop owner homesick for Gujarat in the western Indian region.

Similarly to Singapore, the three major ethnic groups residing in Penang include the Malay, the Chinese and Indian folk. From my lazy seat aboard a trishaw, it would be Raj who would show me the laneway communities of Penang’s Georgetown. From his grandmother’s side, he was a 3rd generation Sri Lankan Tamil. Raj was Hindu, but suggested his name was actually a Chinese symbol for the dog. In the humid 35oc heat, this elderly man peddled me around the old streets of Penang, explaining its history and showing me the famous street- art. Once I hit downtown Little India though, I searched out the places and people I wanted to speak to alone.

Abdul Malick, a jovial fella of the Muslim faith, has been importing spices into Penang’s Little India for 35 years, from nations including Indonesia, China, India, Eygpt and even Australia. Off a laneway, I am welcomed into the comic relief that is Sri Mantra Glass. Raj, Rajan and Sare, glass carvers, sit around a giant portrait of Lakshmi, as they determine their next move in the relative cool of the open-facade workplace. They were a good spirited, humorous bunch, who had the fella across the road pour and deliver me an Indian tea. They also gifted me with a beautiful glass engraved Ganesh with a blue backdrop, set within a wooden frame. It is hanging here in my lounge room as I type away. When I was taking my photos of Hamid Khan and his band members, he left his keyboard and vocals to ready his sitar for me. The Hamid Khan Live Band play live three nights a week in the downstairs section of the Kashmir Restaurant- to families and other guests gorging themselves upon delicious Indian cuisine. Hamid is a well known musical talent on Penang, and is very humble and sharing by nature. These guys have had their time in the sun too with an appearance playing their traditional music on the second series of the English television drama ‘Indian Summers’.

Part of the reason why I visited Penang was to indulge in what is said to be some of the finest Indian cuisine on the planet. I wasn’t disappointed, the biryani and tandoori the best I have encountered. I timed my visit well, as the Chinese Lantern Parade was in full swing, and I enjoyed the old townhouse districts of Georgetown so much with the animal-effigy lantern displays, the high school students’ evening dragon parades. On two occasions I was swept up in the crowd following the red dragons, and marched down the narrow laneways all lit up via the festival lanterns. The old Chinese townhouses, and the cafes within selling excellent coffee, were very relaxing indeed. There are some peaceful and charming guest houses in these old townships too.

Bollywood on Penang & Langkawi: I entered Lakshmi Video in Penang’s Little India to meet a middle-aged man happy to discuss his business and the culture of ‘Bollywood’. Mr S. Sathish explained how 75% of those enthralled by the Bollywood classics are of the younger generation. He imports Bollywood films from both mainland Malaysia and India. “I place orders six months in advance to ensure I obtain the best and biggest films of the moment for my customers. Bollywood films are so very popular because they are funny, and there is plenty of dancing on offer.” On Langkawi Island I met the producers of an Indian film, and I am welcomed to go on set to photograph the story of the Tamil hero ‘Ramarajan’. A fan of Indian film, but not so much Bollywood, my eye contact with the leading lady in red ensured a conversion to the cause. Returning home from Malaysia to Australia, I become a mediator in what appeared to be a terrorist plot, only to discover the felon in question was suffering from anxiety, and I needn’t have pulled apart the plane’s bathroom walls looking for explosives after all! ‘Little India’ a free ebook @ Ian Browne Academia.
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Ian’s journey into journalism began back in Sydney in 1991 while studying to become a radio and television copywriter. He has completed courses in cartooning, environmental science and later turned his attention to Indigenous education, working with many language groups across Australia. Ian’s passion is writing about culture. He continues to release free ebooks of his journeys into SE Asia and across Australia for his website @IanBrowneAcademia. Blessed with both an investigative and art-creative brain, he finds this planet intriguing and adores nature. He craves the exotic, and searches out intense landscapes and multifaceted societies. Ian has lived in the Northern Rivers for seven years. “Every day I drive through the forested Nirvana here, it is a bounty of kindness and inspiration. I love the care-free cosmopolitan lifestyle; I cherish the conversations in our cafes. I really enjoy the friendships I have made while interviewing folk and while sharing the lives of people. I feel my journey within journalism and creative writing has just begun and there are thousands of stories out there with my name pasted across them”.

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