The Merlions are coming to Singapore
On a humid summer evening in 2005, I stood outside the door of my service apartment in the heart of Singapore, panic swelling in my chest. I valiantly attempted once more to open the door, and failed. I was surrounded by my three suitcases, which appeared to stare up at me in mute rebuke.
I had landed in Singapore just two hours earlier. It was my first time travelling alone outside my home country India. I had travelled widely before that. In fact, by age twenty-four, I had covered more than ten countries. My formative years were spent in Oman, during the roaring eighties. Using Muscat as our base, my family and I had travelled to Europe for a whirlwind tour that lasted fifteen days but left us with years of precious memories.
Later when my sister moved to Belfast, I stayed with her for a stretch of four months to help her take care of her toddler daughter.
Each time, I had the benefit of being accompanied by an adult. Even when I visited my sister as a precocious twenty-year-old, I handled the passports and immigration interviews by myself, but my mother assisted with filling up the required forms.
So when the opportunity to travel to Singapore for a work assignment landed in my lap, I jumped at the chance, without even sparing a thought to the fact that I had never travelled alone.
For me, bravery is possible only if I don’t think too far ahead. If I project too far into the future, my wondrous imagination steps in, and conjures up scary images that put most realistic worst case scenarios to shame.
While the Indian monsoons were in full swing, I boarded a Singapore Airlines flight from Mumbai airport and landed at the Lion City five hours later, shortly after dusk.
As I stood there staring at my keys, wishing for a magic wand that would open the door for me, an elderly gentleman emerged from a room a little ahead, talking into his cell phone. Normally I would rather swallow raw eggs than accost strangers for help, but on that day, I threw caution to the winds. I patiently crouched nearby, waiting as a tiger does for his prey, and the instant he hung up, I sought his assistance in opening the door. It posed a challenge for him too, but he managed it, and I thanked him profusely.
Over the next few months I broke a record of personal firsts. For the first time, I rode alone in cars with strangers – respectable estate agents – to look for good houses.
Once I did select a house, I moved into it, set up the gas and electricity connections, signed the agreement with my landlord and paid him rent in cash. Those were things I’d never done alone.
I opened a bank account with difficulty, having to hunt for a bank that would accept my Q pass (a work permit given to less-experienced professionals).
When my mother visited me for a week, I took her to an AR Rahman concert. We took a cab and returned home well past midnight, driving through roads illuminated by street lamps.
In time, my husband joined me in Singapore. Barely two years later, we decided to pack up and move to India. He went ahead and took the trip back home, so while returning too, I de-cluttered the house, donated surplus baggage, and packed everything on my own.
On the evening I had first landed in Singapore, I sat in the three-bedroom service apartment with all the lights on, as the sinking feeling of loneliness and depression crept into my bones. I called my sister. She instantly detected the gloom colouring my voice. When I shared my problem, she said, “You have done very well! What are you worried about? Do you know how proud I am of you? Even I haven’t done what you achieved on your own.”
That’s when I realized the import of her words. She was always the “brave” one in our family, and even she had never undertaken a cross-country move in her early twenties.
At the turn of the fourteenth century, a Prince named Sang Nila Utama accidentally came across the land that was Singapore. He spotted a lion which disappeared in a flash into the jungle. He considered this a good omen and named the city “Singapura” – combining the Malay words for lion (“Singa”) and city (“Pura”).
So Singapore came to be known as the Lion City. Its symbol is the merlion – a half-lion, half-fish creature.
I can say for sure that the city brought out the lion in me.
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