Afternoons and ForksandSpoons
Its a most incongruous location.
Afro-Asia building is located on Robinson road in Singapore. Its the kind of building they show in BBC documentaries when voiceover says "...in the 1970's the oil crisis caused a boom in the Saudi economy" , then they show those lego block structures which still have some art-deco hangovers but with the arrogance that the age of multinational corporation brought in , or the kind of building into which a secret agent enters following a diplomat in one of those movies that only the Germans can make dreary.
Its weird, that rectangular building , painted white with its orderly windows and conservative PWD architecture , having a name with the word 'Afro' in it .When I have to wait at the traffic signal across the road from the building , I sometimes try to picture a huge Afro-wig covering the top of the building .
Robinson road, strangely , is a continuation of Anson road . At one traffic signal it magically changes its name. Yeah , that Robinson road is the same one that MTV had in its address and would exhort you to write to in the 90s when they asked you to send in those laboriously crafted letters , which some kid with too much time(or stationery) on his hands actually sent in.
On one end of this road are the Singapore offices of Ogilvy , a nice old victorian structure , hugging the corner of Robinson and some by lane whose name nobody bothers with . The building itself looks rather like the offices of a bank or insurance company in London in the 20s , until you notice the pony tailed gents walking in and out and the towering Singapore stock exchange behind it.
In the midst all this and somewhere between restaurants with names like Munch and Cedele , on the ground floor of Afro-Asia building is Saravana Bhavan.
(Thats is a picture I pulled off saravanabhavan.com and wondered for a while as to why the photographer decided to cover 15 feet of "non core-interest" space on the right of that pic, until I noticed the narcissistic instinct that placed him in the reflection in the glass there. The fella is not even making an effort to hide his intentions as he stands clearly parallel to the glass and attempts to make the bhavan mere collateral in his aggrandizement )
The first time I walked in , I felt cheated of the kind of atmosphere that the word 'Saravana Bhavan' should bring up . In me mind Saravana Bhavan = 'Ottel'. You know , I'm thinking temple street with its large bindi-ed flower and coconut vendors , gunny sacks , the frustrated rickshaw clamoring for space with his cycle-bell and the passing TVS with its pillion rider family clinging on for dear life. Yeah , like corp whore would agree , life is full of stereotypes ( which is probably why change is so difficult)
Inside too , the decor is in direct contravention to what an 'ottel' should be.There are ergonomic plastic chairs , a circular steel sink to wash your hands in , forks and spoons to be collected from a tray and when you ask the guy at the counter
"Idiyappa-tilla sakkarai irukumma"
(Is the Idiyappam sweetened with sugar?)
...the guy , who'd look at home in Toothukudi (or Tuticorin for you anglicised babus) will reply in chaste queen's language
" No sir, we just add some cinnamon"
This guy also has a tendency to look extremely irritated if you point out that the plate has only two idlis when the photo-menu behind him with the price shows three idlis. (and they dont even bother abt a disclaimer along the lines of 'Accessories shown in the picture are not a part of standard equipment')
I'm given a token number which I have to place on my chosen table . If its between 12:20 and 1:00 , then its guaranteed , that I'd have to elbow out some eager beaver to get a seat away from the aisle. You see , at those times , its a full house and one cannot savor rasam without being arse-brushed by every passer by.
Then theres the game of displaying the token correctly. In all their wisdom , they've gone and hired some chom waiters who armed with your plate of lunch and a token number to deliver it too, will roam the single-aisle managing to turn their head at the precise moment that your token would come into view , where it was obscured by somebody's arse or handbag.
Thats followed by the art of pursuing the full meal .It has all the trappings of south-indian meal in a restaurant which likes to flaunt its north-Indianess (more blasphemy of the "Saravana Bhavan' imagery) . The thali comes with six or seven little bowls filled with carrot-coconut, beetroot, rasam , sambhar , kozhambu , keerai(spinach) , curds and one with the quintessential 'sweet'. Now the curious thing is accompanying this array would be two puri's , which have exactly 1/4th diameter that any self-respecting puri should have . And by the way , which of the side-dishes should this go with? To save you from that mind numbing puzzle is a mound of rice which can be doused with kozhambu to banish those rats in the belly. Then theres the water which is served in plastic cups . Yebba!
When you try to forget your sorrows of the rape of the Saravana Bhavan experience , theyd go and play some song like "Vaaza meenukkum valakka meenukkum kalyanama" which appeals to some part of your heart that longs for things you'd be sick off in 10 minutes and then you'd forget the gross indiscretions and bring forth a happy burp.
The good thing , is this Ottel is situated right next to a book shop.This too is subject to the 12:20 to 1:00 rush , so that you'll find a crowd of post lunch browsers getting their fill of Fall fashion or the lack of it in the new Maxim or FHM. If you thought you had your quota of lunch time butt brushes , tough luck .
As I carefully sidestep that crowd and the crowd around the self-help sections lest I be defiled, I come in view of my favorite shelves. There I spend sometime leching after books like "Ideas: From Fire to Freud" or "Life and Death in Shanghai" . Then , when between that shelf and before I come around to laugh at Mitch Albom's "The five people you meet in heaven" , I come across the table where $5 books are piled. I've combed this table on a dozen occasions , only to be faced with choosing between David Baldacci and the novel version of "The Transporter : 2".
Fate decided that I deserved better and placed this on that table yesterday.
David Sedaris has been hailed one of the funniest writers alive . The first story in the book , which you can read here , had me guffawing in the Singapore public transport system . In the past Nick Hornby and Woody Allen have elicited the same response and not because they write a very different type of comedy. With shades of R.K.Narayan , Salinger , Chekov , Jerome K Jerome , Gerald Durrel and the two mentioned previously , the book is an awesome read. Funny yet poignant as the best of them.
Like Saravana Bhavan and the things in it , Sedaris' world is filled with the eccentricities of everyday life. Or is our world filled always with the same , but only that, quite often , the traffic light that had me wondering of the afro atop the building , instead worries me about the 30 seconds of a conference call that I might miss?