Bengalis rock. The insight hit me with the force of a revelation during the Pujas when, after evening prayers at the Ramakrishna Mission on the night of Mahanavami, I went to the Bengali Association in Singapore. Ma Durga and her children could be seen from afar, gracing a corner of the big white marquee on an open field, but the action seemed to be at the far end, on a makeshift stage, where singers were crooning into microphones.
They had about a hundred people up on their feet , dancing in joyous abandon. Men and women, adults and kids, gyrated and jived, swayed and shimmied in Bollywood style. Hands waved, hips swivelled, bellies jiggled, eyes smiled and heads tossed in rhythm with the music. Lips moved in sync with the lyrics. The singers belted out popular Hindi songs, which were lapped up by the crowd. People leapt up from their chairs and danced in front of the stage and between the tables piled high with food.
Two young women at the table next to ours suddenly got up and started dancing to cheers from their friends. Another young woman stood up and, putting fingers to her lips, let out a piercing wolf-whistle. Yes, the Pujas were a blast in Singapore.
The revelry continued on the night of Dashami when the Bangla band Parash Pathar played for more than an hour. It was a new experience for me to hear a Baul song performed with electric guitars and drums. But the songs were familiar to many in the audience, who sang and danced along. It was so different from the Bengali cultural programmes of my youth with their staple Rabindra Sangeet, when the audience decorously sat on the chairs instead of dancing in the aisles.
The dancers swaying to the music, unabashedly enjoying themselves, were light years removed from those sedate Tagore soirees. These hip-swivelling, feet-tapping trippers of the light fantastic knew how to party. This was the India of Jai Ho, I thought, recalling the song from Slumdog Millionaire, which some of the dancers wanted the band to play. They did not get their wish, though. Parash Pathar played other lively songs instead, both Hindi and Bengali, keeping the crowd on the floor.
What caught the eye was not just the dancing but the fact that almost everyone in the crowd was an Indian. Now that was really unusual in Singapore, where Indians are only a tiny minority and three-quarters of the population are Chinese.
The Indian population is growing, however, along with the number of people from other countries as Singapore’s booming economy attracts professionals and skilled workers from all over the region. The island’s population increased from four million to five million in the last decade. The locals resent the foreigners, seeing them as competitors for jobs and housing. Mindful of the growing resentment, the government has cut back the intake of foreigners. But the move comes after thousands were allowed to settle as permanent residents and citizens in the last few years.
For all I know, many of the Indians I saw at the Pujas had already become Singapore citizens. The reasons vary. Those who have to travel frequently for work or business say Singapore passports make travelling easier. Others find Singapore an attractive place to raise their families.
You never know who’s going to settle down or move on, though. Old familiar faces flashed through my mind during the Pujas. People I had known who had left Singapore. The young couple my wife first met on a flight who are now in Texas. Another couple who have returned to India but will be visiting their daughter and son-in-law in Singapore. I recalled an old friend, who went back to India because his wife wanted to return home. Shortly after, she fell ill and died.
There are others who have stayed on. They celebrate the Pujas and other festivals, visit the Ramakrishna Mission and pray at the temples. They are the immigrants who keep the faith with the old customs and rituals while getting on with their new lives in Singapore.
It has always been so. The oldest Hindu temple in Singapore is almost as old as the city itself. The Sri Mariamman Temple on South Bridge Road was founded in 1827, eight years after Raffles arrived in Singapore. No wonder so many Indians feel right at home in Singapore. They may be a small minority, but they have always been part of the city – an integral part, inseparable from its history and development.