The ‘kampong’

“My life is an open book”, she said.

It was at a time and age when I had to look up at the dictionary to understand what that meant. I pretended to know it all though, and simply nodded with a smile. I remember that moment distinctly, for I knew I was completely ignorant, yet behaving like I’d known it all. I remember it, also because the phrase has come to remain with me ever since, for all the wrong reasons.

When I came to understand it, I was old enough to ponder at how that was even possible. As I grew older, I would think more and more of it, in increasing bewilderment. As more years passed by, the feeling would even turn to envy at times. For by then, one was grown up enough to have lived a life however small and lugged around enough in the mind.

At times I think we find ways of avoiding ourselves. We keep ourselves amused, each in one way or the other. For some, it is family or work. Yet others find other means of entertaining themselves. And then there are those who find dangerous means of escape. It pays to try and pause once in a while, and pay a visit – to the deepest, darkest recesses of our inner selves. It is an inexplicable feeling. There is a strange, paradoxical silence amidst all the voices. There are secrets, some old enough to be forgotten. It feels like even the emptiness is speaking with you. It isn’t exactly painful, but it kind of haunts you and perhaps that is why we tend to avoid ourselves.

It isn’t particularly exciting when your time is being wasted. Not that us bums live in the illusion of our time being precious. It is the feeling of lack of respect – for I believe that everyone, however lowly, deserves respect. And that respecting anyone or anything doesn’t need a reason. We respect because they exist.

So, when a promised appointment was cancelled, on a Monday morning, I was sitting in the room. Looking at emails, hoping I’d do some desk work, for there was no dearth of that. A small town bum in a country like Singapore isn’t exactly a great fit. And if you are from India, it’s even worse. One has to be very careful about a lot of things.

I hadn’t exactly looked around, and all the agitation in the mind wasn’t the most conducive for any productive work to happen. So I was looking for places to see, places that might interest me and may not be heavy on the pocket. Indeed, Singapore can be expensive, especially if alcohol and cigarettes are part of one’s menu.

Sentosa, Botnical Gardens and a whole list of such other things had been repeatedly read about in the past few days, and deliberately ignored. And that’s when a random conversation with a stranger, just the previous day struck me. It was apparently on the newspapers. As luck would have it, the super clean Singapore hotels wouldn’t find the previous day’s newspaper even the very next morning. So on impulse, I decide to go online and see if I can recollect the details.

It took me a while to find the place. When I hopped on to a metro and there from there to a bus and then asked for the church, where I had to get off, I couldn’t find too many people around. I waited for a while, and every now and then, would ask a passerby for Buangkok. Sheepishly so, for unlike India, I had come to learn that it wasn’t common to ask around. There were maps to give you directions, robots to sell you tickets and earphones to keep you company. Indeed, just about everybody on a train or bus was ‘plugged’. I would think during those few days that if that was in any way a picture of what the future beheld, it sure wasn’t something I looked forward to.

The few I met did not know. One person pointed me towards a high rise structure. I was heartbroken. I thought it was the end of the place. I continued to walk on, and in time, met another person who directed me towards what looked like a thicket, strangely placed in the midst of an urban jungle. By the time I found the entrance, I was pretty much exhausted.

Obviously someone had put it up to tell the outsider

What I saw in that place was quite unlike the rest of the country, or what little I had managed to see of it.  Small, individual houses were scattered around. I was cautious, for I had read in the papers that the residents were upset that they had become a spectacle. Indeed, I was in the last surviving ‘village’ in Singapore. In a so called ‘country’ where space was scarce, it was understandable why this hamlet was gaining attention. I hadn’t had the time to read up about the history of the place, but had heard later that it belonged to a Chinese lady who had rented it to different families for several decades.

“4 digit door numbers belong to another era”

As I was walking around, I felt a familiar silence engulf me. A silence filled with mysteries and secrets. It was almost like I had stepped into a void, akin to exploring the deepest darkest recesses of my mind. It was almost like there were people waiting to tell me things I didn’t want to hear, for I belonged to another world.

A picture of silence

Aslam was loading his truck and talking on his phone at the same time. I waited around a bit, smoked a cigarette, and finally when he hung up, tried to make conversation. His family had been living there for about 80 years apparently. He wouldn’t talk much more then. When I asked him if I could take a picture of his, he refused. “I am half naked”, he retorted, as he moved into his house, waving his hand. I took it he wasn’t any more interested in entertaining a stranger.

I walked around a bit, as silently as I could, soaking in the place. I could hear curious sounds, mostly of birds and insects and I don’t know what else. I looked around, if I could find people. Despite being anxious as to how they would receive me, I was hoping to talk to people and understand how they lived, what they did, and what that place meant to them, especially in a place like Singapore.As luck would have it, all I got to meet was locked gates, empty courtyards and a barking dog. Thankfully he was locked inside one of the houses.

Out to make a living

As I was leaving, I heard a vehicle at a distance. Exhausted as I was, I ran, to find that it was actually Aslam’s truck. I shouted out to him, just in time and sought a ride. As we drove, I quizzed him about the report on the newspaper. He hadn’t read it, but could understand what I was referring to. Apparently off late, there were people visiting them on Sundays. “They come in big cars. They park in front of our houses, not realizing that we have our own vehicles. They’d barge into our courtyards, to pose and click photographs. It is the only day we get with our families.”

“I am sorry if I barged into you, I did not meant to”, is all I could say.

We drove silently for a while. He only asked me once where I wanted to be dropped off. After a while, he volunteered, “They are all educated people. Sometimes, when you get educated, and you grow bigger and richer and supposedly more important, you lose your IQ. You do not know how to treat other people. You lose respect for them.”

I did not what to say. I thanked him for the ride. He had brought me back to the din of the world outside, where I could hide again, from the silence of the inside.

From Aslam’s truck


10 thoughts on “The ‘kampong’

  1. I felt uneasiness while reading this post. It is happening everywhere now. Nothing is left to feel nostalgic!

    “They are all educated people. Sometimes, when you get educated, and you grow bigger and richer and supposedly more important, you lose your IQ. You do not know how to treat other people. You lose respect for them.” Very true!

    • Sandhya, good to see you here 🙂 I think as we move on, we’ll just have to find new things. Slowly they will become old, as still newer things crop up, so that we can have something to feel nostalgic about 🙂

  2. Dearest Dharma
    I am glad you got to see the concrete jungle I grew up in. Back then it was more natural, more kampong (villages). I grew up in a kampong in the east of the island. Now, my family lives in the east too but in colourful and clean flat. The number you see on the board is the old type of postal code (1954 and i think now it is 540xxx – followed by the house number). There are kampong houses still in Singapore but not on the mainland. You need to go to Changi VIllage, take a ferry from the jetty there to Pulau Ubin (ferry ride takes about 10 minutes or less and will cost you about 2 SG dollars) In Pulau Ubin, you will see many sights of Olden day Singapore, I love such sights. And of course the kampong houses, small fruit farms. Most usually rent bicycles to get them around the island. I wish you had contacted me earlier then I could recommend you places to see that doesn’t cost too much or even free or enjoy! Like the Hort Park or Bukit Timah Hill or Sungei Buloh. And walking around Kampong Glam or even Geylang (the cleaner side) will show you so much more the real Singapore too. I always feel like they shout out to me like as if to say, please tell the government to preserve us and not bring us down to build more flats or shopping malls. It is a very expensive island to live in and that is why we have chosen to live here in Belgium instead. Thanks for sharing another great piece Dharma. This one hit home for me and pulled all kinds of strings in my old asian heart.
    Hugs, M

    • M, glad we could connect again – this time SG being the cause 🙂 Well, I did walk through Geylang. Not sure what you mean by the cleaner side but I wanted to see the red light area 😀 It was fun. I think I will write in to you the next time I get a chance to go there. Thank you

  3. I grew up in a kampung house too although I’ve been told now that by the standards of that time, ours was a rich man’s house (it belonged to my grandfather). Still, we lived in the community where neighbours became family and children could disappear to a neighbour’s house and our parents wouldn’t worry about us. Some still have that spirit in the concrete jungle that is Singapore now but that community, kampung spirit is not as vibrant and strong as before. Most of us try to reclaim our nostalgia by watching old black and white 50s movies, better known as P.Ramlee’s movies (although there were more made by a rival movie studio but he’s the most famous one). I hang onto them dearly and I so do miss those innocent carefree days. Thanks for writing this.

    • Enniamerrican – Happy to have you here 🙂 Yes, I do understand about the neighbourhood spirit. It is the same here in cities in India too. I think people are too scared of each other nowadays. I shall try and find a Ramlee movie now. Thank you

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