south india, tell me more


On 11 June 1993, I was born in India. 4 years later, my family migrated to Singapore and I called the place home ever since. I’ve always thought of myself as Singaporean first, and Indian only by origin. I never visited India again for the next six years.  I had grown up in such a developed city that is Singapore, I was slightly afraid to confront that the country I should call my birthplace was one that was dirtier, more unruly and so much less ‘cultured’. Obviously I hadn’t really grown up.

Even after visiting the country 3 more times since, I wasn’t convinced that I should acknowledge the country as having played a role in who I was. I visited family, and did some shopping with the folks, but beyond that I never got a chance to truly understand India. After catching the travel bug, I decided I should come to India again, this time by myself. I’ll visit as much of family as possible for sure, but other than my grandparents who I prioritized above all else, I was to be independent in my discovery of India. I had heard so much about this country from my friends who weren’t Indian, I needed to see what captivated them so much.

I planned a trip to some major cities and then some tamer areas , to get a good understanding of the region. The first thing I learnt is that India is huge, and because of that it’s so diverse. My political sense is conflicted on how to manage a country that is so rampantly colorful, contrasting it to Singapore’s relatively homogeneous composition. It’s an entirely different set of challenges. I shortlisted it to South India then, and given my two week constraint, planned to hit Mumbai (Maharashtra), Hyderabad (Andhra Pradesh), Bangalore and Mysore (Karnataka), Kochi and Allepey (Kerala) and Coimbatore and Kotagiri (Tamil Nadu).  There’s still so many places I need to see in South India (Goa, Pondi, Ajanta etc.) , not to mention there’s also North India, but this itinerary already gave me such an insightful look into what makes India so special.

Each city offered me something different and I’m still recovering from the range of experiences but here’s a city by city recap of what I did and saw. I’ve been told my travelogues are helpful and I’ll try my best to keep them as functional as possible.

Mumbai (or Bombay)

If you want to see the South India they show in movies, Mumbai is the city to come to. Slumdog Millionaire for those unfamiliar with Bollywood , is based on this city. For those familiar with Bollywood, I need not say more. While not really South India , more of West India, it provides a useful gateway into South India . Residents of this city affectionately call it Bombay, from the Anglicization of the name Mumbai by the Portuguese migrants before. Being on the west coast of India, one of the best things about the city is the view from Marine Drive or Queen’s Necklace, that stretches around the bay.  You can see pocket crowds on Chowpatty beach in the day , although it’s considered dirty, and bigger crowds lining the Drive admiring the view at night. It’s a popular romancing spot.

What caught my eye though was the range of British architecture set up here, like the Victoria Terminus station you see above, amongst various others including the High Court and Flora Fountain. It almost appropriately fits in, emanating a strong sense of colonial history.  These sights are definitely worth a walk through the streets of South Mumbai and will take half a day down to Gateway of India, where early travelers to India would enter under a giant monument.

Perhaps what’s interesting about Mumbai is that it’s position as the Financial Capital of India puts it on the same level as cities like New York and Hong Kong in its dynamics. People from all around India hoard into the city, causing major congestion and overpopulation. It’s essentially a city that’s showing signs of stress, socially having to educate its population on what’s right and wrong, and managing the inequality.  I saw lots of signs like the one above, encouraging women suffrage and empowerment. It was new to me, and I realised this was probably another symptom of an eclectic mix of populations, with people from rural backgrounds moving in without the ‘modern’ upbringing provided in most cities.

This same stress can be seen in the obvious disparities in lifestyles that is perhaps unique to Mumbai. In other big cities, there are homeless people and that’s unfortunately been taken as a given in established cities. Here, not only do the poor and rich live together, they live side by side. Mumbai is home to most of India’s most expensive properties, with the whole Marine Drive area racking up millions of dollars in costs, and also home to India’s most populous slum areas. A lot of people in these slums don’t really care about pity, they just find it a cheap way of living, and work in various industries. In fact, it’s probably the luxurious lifestyles of the ultra rich that drives the population influx as more people come to work and serve their needs whether directly or indirectly through the jobs they create. You can find pockets in Mumbai of quiet bliss where the upper middle class to upper class enjoy sudden ambush of greenery, such as the Sports Clubs and Racecourse.

Mumbai is definitely a cornerstone to understanding India, and provides a lot of context for understanding the development of India. It’s not as cosmopolitan as Bangalore as a city, but boasts the same bravos as the biggest cities in the world. Also if you’ve built up the immunity , try to eat the street food here, it’s rumored to be among the best in India (especially the Pav Vadai).

Hyderabad

Hyderabad is the seat of power for the Nizams and Shahs who ruled over the region in the past. It’s a mainly historical city, holding so many architectural and cultural gems. The Charminar and Salar Jung Museum stand as symbols of pride of this formerly great city, as Cyberabad carries on the legacy of the region nearby. Come during Ramadan (or Ramzan as it’s called here) and be treated to especially delicious meals of Hyderabad Biryani and Haleem , rich dishes meant to help fasting Muslims replenish their calories at the end of fast.

I was lucky enough to be here on Eid, since Hyderabad is a dominantly Muslim state, allowing me to witness such festivities as the city transformed itself for processions, prayers and family gatherings. It compares so differently to Singapore-Malaysian style of celebrations, having a strong Arabic influence.

Take a day out to visit the ruins out in the Golconda area, especially the fort. When the Shahs ruled from here, they built the fort so intelligently and purposefully, you will be taken aback at all the tricks and secrets held behind the walls. Take a guide for this area, it’ll be well worth the 800 Rs. Around the fort is a few other historical areas, but the other one worth visiting most are the Qatb Shah tombs.

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You can skip the guide for this area and just wander around. They have written guides around the campus for reading and the sights are more than enough to overwhelm you. Strongly Indo-Saracenic , these architectural boasts remind you of the ambition of the old rulers and how things used to be so different. Hyderabad is but a taste of the larger historical significance held in India, with so many other features waiting to be explored. It’s definitely a special place to visit.

Bangalore and Mysore

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Bangalore and Mysore are two slightly different cities but are so close by each other we can talk about them together. Bangalore is really a lifestyle city , it’s a city you can live in. While it’s becoming heavily more like Mumbai especially with its developing Hi-Tech City , it maintains a strong balance in having a good mix of arts, culture, food and environment. Above you can see Cubbon Park, a park built during British time, that holds so much rich natural diversity, you could spend a half day here. The park is also in the Central Administrative Region, therefore holding all the important structures in Bangalore in the vicinity.

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Bangalore was built on the empire of Kempe Gowda, with  Mysore being also important. It’s said that the name behind Bengaluru (as it’s called here) comes from the Anglicization of the local term for Boiled Beans which is what was offered to Kempe Gowda by a local when he came here. Visit the Bangalore Palace and see how the Wodeyars (the latest rulers) lived, with its embellished interior. It doesn’t compare to the Palace in Mysore, also owned by them, but you’ll find interesting artifacts like the elephant leg stool made after they killed an elephant for sport. It tells stories of a different time with different norms, but this really killed me a bit inside.

It’s also called the beer capital of the world, so go down to 100 feet road to try some local brews. Check out the arts and culture here, and enjoy life as a South Indian.

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A must do is to visit MTR, and have the rava dosa. It’s so savory and well put together that you cannot resist ordering another. Rava is a kind of flour used by the restaurants here during food shortage post World War II, as it was easy to make and cheap. It ended up being so delicious people stuck by it.

Once you’re done with Bangalore, take a day trip to Mysore, 4 hours away. This is where more historical places lie , like the Mysore Palace famed for its interior halls. No photos are allowed inside unfortunately.

Visit the top of the Chamundi hill for a beautiful view of Mysore as well as the temple that’s there with heavily ornamented features. You can skip Brindavan Gardens if you’re looking for the Musical Fountain, but go to see how locals spend their evenings in the parks, and how the same park is treated so differently in different countries. Here youths play Kabaddi , an aggressive sport, and families have picnics. You also see sights like these:

Coimbatore

Coimbatore isn’t really visited for touristic purposes. It’s normally just a step into the Nilgiris or into Kerala, but it provides an understanding of India probably crucial to appreciating its development. Coimbatore is known as the Manchester of India for its textile industry, but it also holds many other industrial posts  such as the radiator factory I was invited to tour. India is famously known for its cheap labor , and therefore its dependence on labor intensive industries. But every country wants to move away from labor intensive industries to knowledge intensive industries, and you can see the transition happening here. Locals are getting trained and upgrading themselves, already into the capital intensive stage of their economic development. These people aren’t just trained, but they carry the ethos of India – determined, thorough and tolerant. Enjoy Chettinad food while here as well, with true South Indian dishes finally being dominantly available. Skip out on Hot Chocolate, no matter the recommendations from locals, it is a weak attempt at Western style of cuisine and unless you’re desperate for a burger it can be replaced by visiting proper Indian establishments and enjoying dishes like Paya (Goat Feet) and Nalli (Bone Marrow) .  Look for Hari Bavan or Junior Kuppana.

Kochi and Allepey

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When the Portuguese came to India, Keralan cities and towns were used as their main areas of interest, where they built their establishments. Kochi is a beautiful town, reminiscent of Malacca, Penang and Panama City in these sense that it’s a coastal town with similar flavors. It’s full of heritage and culture. Take a visit to the Chinese Fishing nets, shown above, where you can see fishermen try to catch fish using cantilever style nets. It’s well worth the trip and underlies a rich heritage still being held onto here. Seafood in Kerala as a whole is so fresh and delicious, it will take you to another level, but take time to enjoy dishes like Fried Beef as well in Kochi.

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Take some time to visit Mattanperry where the Dutch Palace and Jewish Synagogue are. Built inside ‘Jew Town’ , the area is a hipster dream, with lots of alleyways , murals and photographic backdrops. Visit the antique shops and enjoy the relatively quiet  (there’ll still be the Indian honking) turn of the area. The Dutch Palace is where the Raj of the area lived, and you can see tirelessly done murals etched into the walls of the Ramanaya that are more than worth the meager 5 Rs entrance fee. Also visit St Francis Church, the first European Church built in India that reminds of old Portuguese style architecture. It is now a functioning protestant church under the Church of South India.

After you’re done with Kochi, go down to Allepey to visit the backwaters. No matter what anyone tells you, trust me when I say taking a houseboat and spending nearly 24 hours out on the waters provide some of the most beautiful and magical moments you can experience in India.

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The serene and tame waters allow you to enjoy nature and understand why they call Kerala ‘God’s own Country’. Stop for an Ayurvedic massage (Hindu medicinal) along the way and buy fresh seafood to cook as well. Watch how locals live , and have built their whole legacies on the backwaters. It bewilders me, a city slicker on how people can be satisfied to live here, and I’m reminded how much we distort our own realities to keep us moving, when all most need to do is to live comfortably. It was humbling to see how nature and people coexist so charmingly. Bring people you want to spend time with, because you’ll be bonding with them. I had my grandfather, an old ship captain who told me tales of his shipping adventures. He really lived quite the life.

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Lobsters, crabs, prawns and fish all exist for your consumption, but the most famous fish in the backwaters is the Karimeen. It doesn’t have much meat on it, but when cooked in Banana Leaves and grilled, it goes well with Keralan rice and Sambar. You can’t come to Kerala and not enjoy the amazingly fresh seafood.

Kotagiri

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Around Coimbatore are the Nilgiri Hills. Back when the British occupied India, in order to escape the raging heat , they built roads up into the hills and built hill stations for retreats into the cool climates. Eventually the locals took over and started growing the tea plantation industry that’s dominant here. There are three main Hill Stations – Ooty (the more commercial and touristy one) , Conoor (where the Military is based) and Kotagiri. There’s not much differences between the hill stations to be honest, and the best parts of the hills are actually around the stations anyway. I’d strongly recommend befriending a local who can take you around. I had the benefit of having family in the hills, who took me to some of the most beautiful natural terrain landscapes I’ve seen in my life. Colors mix so beautifully, and it feels almost surreal to be standing in the misty hills overlooking such beauty. If you really can’t find anything, ask for Emerald Lake near Ooty for a dazzling view.

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There’s tons of open wildlife around the area like bisons, leopards and elephants. I wasn’t fortunate enough to see any of them but if you come at the right time, you can hike into the forests (or sholas as they’re called here) and catch good views of them. Another interesting view is that of the tea plantation workers, working hard to pluck leaves every day for the industry. It’s an example of the labor intensive industry that’s still the bedrock of the economy, but also a reminder of the work gone into a simple product like the cup of tea. Supply chains aren’t just paper models, they’re real people living real lives, contributing to the final product.

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South India was such an amazing adventure. I made so many friends (thanks Nalin and Raghav for recommending your friends) and visited some old others. I’ve grown a deeper appreciation for my birthright. Although I still don’t strongly identify as Indian, I can see how the values my grandparents and parents gained by living here passed onto me. I can see how struggles here are real – corruption and recklessness is more rampant than tolerable and it’s bleeding through the cracks of the foundation India stands on. But in those struggles, I’m finding beauty of people making their lives work. I’m finding families , watching out for their own, sticking together, I’m seeing romance against the odds, and I’m seeing satisfaction in the minimal. Things are changing, and there’s hope.

I’ve definitely grown as a person from this trip. It was nothing like traveling in Europe and provided its own set of challenges , but as with every solo adventure you learn so much about yourself.

I’m grateful for the ability to travel. In two weeks time, I’ll be going to the Orient. That should be fun.

geronimo.

wanderlove

If you don’t know it by know, I’m a big traveler. My mother used to say I’d stare out the window when I was a little kid, point at the airplane and shout ‘Bootanna’ – the made-up word I had for the flying machine – repeatedly till it disappeared. The first time I got on my plane, I was so fascinated and excited, I couldn’t keep still. I felt comfortable.

Perhaps it was a premonition, or perhaps it’s just coincidence but till this day, I am hungry to see every inch of this world. The landscapes that tell stories of the earth, the buildings and food that tell stories of culture evolving and most importantly the people themselves that speak their own tales. It’s a romanticism, feeding off the idealistic tinge I possess, that wants to identify somehow with this place I call ‘home’.

I’ve never been romantically in love. I’m 22, and granted in this day and age that’s still considered young, but in a lot of ways I always wished I had taken more chances when I was younger with the infatuations I had. I had always suppressed my idealism in favor of studies (God, it’s such a typical Singaporean tale I’m sad I’m a part of it) but it was only towards my later youth that I allowed myself to chase what I truly wanted. By this point, I was already at a point where no lasting relationship made sense, not till now at least.

And yet, when I finally ‘should be ready’, I’m somewhat unwilling to be romantically involved anymore.I want to keep moving, to keep seeing this world. Yes, I’ve found people in countries I’ve visited that have captured pieces of my heart, but at the end of the day I must leave and move on. I could return; I could stay but my romantic side tells me I’ll play that card when the time is right, and the time hasn’t been right yet.

I shared a Facebook post on my wall recently where it told a story of a couple that met, fell in love and consummated all while on a six hour flight. To me that’s how I want my story to begin, sort of a ‘wanderlove’ experience. Someone who can embrace the spontaneity of life and in a lot of ways also search for lasting truths.

I’ve no longer accepted any one place as my domain. Singapore is my home, now and always, but I cannot exist in it alone. I must continue traveling, continue chasing the eternal unknown – what is it that makes us human?  I’ll document everything and I’ll share my journeys , and hopefully along the way I fall in love the same way the story on my wall goes. Or maybe not, it doesn’t matter , as long as it happens in true spirit of my ethos.

I am the nomad, and I will roam, because there’s something else behind this noise and I have to find it.

geronimo.

kingmaker or king?

A few weeks ago I posted a blog-post on my initial impressions coming back, and I got some interesting responses to it. Like I mentioned , it was more of a thought in progress than anything conclusive. My summer break is divided into three main trips – my time in Singapore where I’ve built a home and to rekindle the friendships I’ve made here, my rediscovery journey to India where I hope to identify more with my roots and learn more about my supposed culture, and finally my discomfort journey to China and the Orient where I hope to put myself in probably one of the more foreign environments I could be in. Three very different kind of experiences, but distinctly important for me to develop my own sense of self and understanding of society.

I’ve had the benefit of having a few experiences in Singapore these past few weeks. I was able to host friends of mine from the Czech Republic and therefore be a tour guide. I was able to integrate my understanding of systems and societies from overseas to deepen my analysis of Singaporean society, and have rich , developed discussions with some of my friends about the future of Singapore. Perhaps most importantly, I was able to spend quality time with old pals and mentors and I guess express my value for their presence in my life.

The time I’ve had here therefore allowed me to think about three distinct points about Singapore. The three points exist on a continuum of sorts – I begin by appreciating what we have, and then end with wondering about our future.

  1. We’re able to squeeze a nation onto an Island

We’re a small country. That’s probably the most important face about Singapore, and the starting point for a lot of the conversations we have about national policy and culture here. Yet, we’ve been able to have squeeze so magically, both old and new Singapore into an island. We have the tropical jungles of Ubin, and the urban jungle of the Marina Bay area.

I’ve been travelling so much in the past year and while I’ve been able to see the same kind of city planning elsewhere, I’m impressed by how we’re able to maintain that dynamism here. Trees are bountiful on the streets, and while we were taught on how uncommon that is in other cities, I only appreciated it after coming back. We have such a diversity here, that you’re able to find most of the world in this country.

It’s beauty then arises from it’s ability to find points where you can bring together those worlds – like the Henderson waves, where the busy roads of Alexandra are connected to the forests flanking them by the modern architecture of the bridge which in itself is naturalistic.

The best part about all this is then that because we’ve squeezed all of this into our country, no trip is ever too long to truly complain that it’s impossible to do whatever you want. I haven’t had to travel too far to see something completely different. I’ve been able to have visit the country’s biggest Starbucks and go fishing in the jungles all in the same day.

Singapore definitely doesn’t let down with lifestyle options. Or maybe I just know the ins and outs of this country well.

2. We’re definitely in a transition moment

Picture by Jerome Lim

It’s obvious that as we turn 50, there’s a lot at stake. We’ve built a nation, but at what costs? As some countries let themselves stumble into the state where they’re at , they faced adversities at every possible turn.  Yet these adversities were opportunities for the country to decide its values and priorities. The people had to come together as one.

Perhaps it’s interesting then, that when we talk about Singapore which was perhaps engineered from the Merger forth, that we realise we’ve had considerably less adversity. Am I hoping we had more problems? Far from it, but it’s a worthy consideration that we’re 50 years in with a very large spectrum of personal values that don’t necessarily resonate with national values ‘prescribed’ by the government.

We’re at crossroads now, where we’re thinking about issues like population and identity. Yet, what’s interesting to observe for me is the conversations that we’re having. There’s no one leading these conversations , they all seem disparate and inconclusive. We’re supposedly an educated population but the conversations degrade because of anger and frustration. I take back what I said before in my previous post – we do care about issues, and yes that concern is seen through the vehement and activism of groups both online and offline. But there’s no solution being proposed.

Suppose a special interest group (SIG) wants to propose a repeal of a certain law in order to achieve its progressive goal (in its own view of bettering society). Perhaps instead of protesting which granted is also a valid way of garnering attention, it should recognise its ultimate goal is to solve the ‘problem’  the law tries to ‘address’. Does it involve starting discussions, does it involve having open forums? There’s a problem solving strategy that definitely would work more effectively.

I’ll continue to insist that solutions to today’s problems need to come from an intersection of the government’s overview and the community’s crowdsourced proposal. If the community wants to be more participative in politics, then we have to be smarter. In all aspects , all causes and all needs. That’s where we’re moving as we transition, and works need to be done on both sides to garner this new model of governance.

3.  Do we still have talent?

This part of my post could possibly rub people the wrong way, so let me premise by saying I’m focusing on a future regardless of the present.

Elections are coming up , all the signs are in the air. Perhaps it’s ideal that SG50 aligns so well with the four year cycle, but the rest of the political signs are there. Quality of life measures are settling in (road blocks , anti-vice runs etc.) , GST vouchers are being issued and talks are getting louder.

I started thinking about the quality of leadership and started becoming slightly worried. Not for the immediate future, but about the future ahead. See, Singapore’s biggest boast was it’s human talent. We had limited land, limited resources but we could always bank on our human capital to leverage us. That assumption held strongly in the forming years, and the Pioneer Generation deserve everything they get these few years, but I’m not too sure about the kind of talent we’re prioritising in the future.

See, Singapore was built on the back of politicians, economists, justices and businessmen who knew how to adapt and innovate. They had a strong mandate – bring this country from third world to first. Goh Keng Swee did a fantastic job, stripping away the assumptions of pundits and innovating how Singapore should develop. Yet, as we continue to grow, I notice less innovations in how we develop. We’re becoming more conservative,  because there’s a lot more at stake, and the population is a lot quicker to point its fingers. But courageous leadership requires a strong mix of technocratic intelligence and political charisma to communicate those plans.

We’ve become pretty comfortable in trusting our leadership, but we should be holding them accountable in every aspect. Not in the sense where we stifle their ability to govern by keeping them restricted, but by encouraging them to do their job – to build a society, strong in identity, stable in growth and protected from harm. But all those things require movement, not stagnation . How about our judicial system? How many of us actually know our Constitution? There should be more feverous , fact based discussions on what the law means to us online , rather than hypothetical blabber on what the law should look like. We’ve built this country on our constitution, and no matter what, the constitution is what should uphold the rights of the people.

Our leadership needs to evolve. We need to go back to innovating, thinking from Singapore outwards, not from the world inwards. Yes, we’re a lot more globally connected, but we’re also proven more than once, that we prescribe our own policies based on our own situation. The world cannot limit us.

Courageous leadership. It’s a loaded term. Will we allow it, is the more important question.

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I’m starting to travel again next week, and I’ll be posting more thoughts as I go on. Again, I don’t claim to be a political pundit, just a youth passionate about his country and societies. Singapore has so much in it, it’s definitely a place to be. But to fully appreciate being a citizen, we have to carry its burdens with us. That’s what I’m keeping in mind as I vote this year. We make or break this country.

geronimo.