It was day 0 of my project, and I thought to kickstart my adventure I'd eat in one of the oldest and most recognised Indian vegetarian restaurants in Little India, Komala Vilas. When I first stepped inside I immediately felt like I had entered an almost sacred space in the Little India community - there was a system to doing things here that I as a visitor was not in the know of.
One friendly but busy service staff came up to me and said: "upstairs for full meals and downstairs for light meals". So upstairs I went, I was there for lunch after all.
There was a large crowd of standing customers waiting at the top of the staircase, and I was unsure if they were waiting to make payment, for seats, or to order food. Feeling a little intimidated and lost at the situation, I decided to head back downstairs where it was relatively quieter.
I then told the nearest staff: "I'll have a light meal". He immediately ushered me to a 4-seater table with a Chinese and Indian man seated side-by-side to one another. What I later realised was absolutely normal was then a new and unexpected turn of events. No other restaurant I had been in Singapore so far would offer you a table seated directly opposite another customer. I sat opposite the Indian man, composed myself, and ordered one of my favourite Indian dishes - masala onion thosai.
As I sat there waiting, I thought to myself: "Okay, I'm here to immerse myself in the Little India community, to get to know people, and to challenge myself." Mind you I'm as introverted as can be, and striking up conversation with strangers is far out of my comfort zone. I said to both the gentlemen: "do you come here often?".
The conversation that ensued was extremely surreal and a pivotal point in my own Little India Journey. I learnt that Edward and Tzong Sheng were both colleagues working nearby who simply love coming to Little India. I began to share about my project, and they began to share about their experiences in Little India.
Edward began to share how he remembered coming to Komala Vilas since he was a little boy, and how things are still more or less the way it was then. He began pouring out a wealth of personal experiences about growing up in Little India, his fond memories of specific vendors, how his mother would bring him here and befriend shopkeepers, his own birth at the now KK Women's and Children's Hospital, familiar sights and sound of Little India festivities, and much, much more.
We then exchanged contacts, and I told them I'd be in touch after they expressed willingness to be involved in my project. Over the course of the project we met up again multiple times to get to know one another better before eventually beginning the collaborative creation process.
This encounter with Edward and Tzong Sheng remains one of the most memorable events in my Little India Journey, and I am immensely grateful to such a wonderful start on day 0.
By Neil Chan