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Slumdog Recessionaire

The Raffles, of course, is not such a curious place in which to discuss recession. It has seen worse. This is the place where the Singapore Sling, that nightmare cocktail of gin, cherry brandy, Benedictine and splash of soda, was created, writes Sudeep Chakravarti.

india Updated: Mar 28, 2009 00:04 IST

I like the Long Bar at Raffles Hotel, about the only place in Singapore where it’s permissible to litter. Along with drinks at prices that might make the spirits of former guests Somerset Maugham, Rudyard Kipling and Joseph Conrad, quail, come bowls of pleasantly plump unshelled peanuts. Patrons shell these, and with casual glee flip husks to the floor. Expensively shod feet descend on such hapless detritus; catharsis in this blessedly clean city that assumes special meaning in these times of global economic churn.

The Raffles, of course, is not such a curious place in which to discuss recession. It has seen worse. This is the place where the Singapore Sling, that nightmare cocktail of gin, cherry brandy, Benedictine and splash of soda, was created. It happened about 15 years before the Raffles went into receivership as a result of the crash of 1929. And, about 30 years before invading Japanese monstrously turned the place into a barracks; later, quite a few blew themselves up with grenades in shame for Allied reoccupation of Singapore. During a recent visit to give a talk about my books, some old and new friends took me to the Long Bar one balmy evening. It lived up to its surreal reputation.

“In six months to a year,” said a banker friend, delicately sipping a generous measure of single malt in the verandah, “people could be jumping from rooftops here.” This former schoolmate shook his head, dropped some shells on the floor and smashed these under his impeccable Oxfords.

“I see,” I said, and in empathy, dropped some shells at his feet. “What will you do?”

“Oh, I’d like to pick up another apartment,” he said politely. “Prices are going to head south pretty soon.” He sighed.

A lady, promoter of some publishing businesses, sighed too, and then talked dejectedly of an impending visit on the Eastern & Oriental Express from Singapore to Bangkok, at the cost of several round-trip first class plane tickets on the same route. An economist, a regular talking-head on several Asian TV channels, moaned about the cost of travel. He had to pay so much to keep travelling back and forth to supervise this tea estate he now owns, near Darjeeling. A day earlier, I had seen him make an impressive down payment to lease a penthouse; the pool by his bedroom had clogged up in the penthouse he lived in at present.

Of course, there are signs. Singapore’s ships, worth a quarter of its carrier tonnage, are moored at various ports. Singapore Airlines, the holy grail of world aviation, has talked layoffs; some flights have been withdrawn, some frequencies lowered. Officials of a vast new entertainment development near the Singapore Flyer — a ferris wheel taller than London’s Eye — were at pains to clarify the project would go ahead as planned, and not become an eyesore of empty spaces wrapped in green construction netting. Road works have erupted in a rash of public spending across Singapore, an injection of policy antibiotic.

And, as a relatively sunny aside, in the morning papers a regional low-cost carrier cheerily offered an even lower cost balm for recession blues at a nearby destination in Thailand: “Phuket! Let’s Go!” Enamoured, I went.

It is all quite dignified.

The cathedral to commerce that is this island city is supremely evident in the newest hub at Singapore’s Changi International, Terminal 3. As with the other terminals, its cavernous interiors offer travellers as much solace as they can handle. I had a few hours to kill on my way back to Mumbai, though not enough to trek into town and back; and quite hungry. Expectedly, there was a restaurant serving Chinese food, across the busy Body Shop outlet.

They had a dish that had for long intrigued me, Buddha Jumps Over the Wall. It’s a fabled soup with big mojo. Among other things, it contains abalone, sea cucumber, quail egg, and taro. Legends vary, but a poster I saw outside a famous eatery in Chinatown had it down as a banquet dish of such fine aroma, it made some vegetarian Buddhist monks climb over the wall of their monastery and, as the pot of soup cooled in a kitchen of a nearby village, steal it. It’s expensive, but at Changi they had a recessionary portion. I decided to order it, minus the shark fin; shark finning is a bad business, and I sincerely hope the recession kills it, along with the trade in tiger bits.

“Big man-lah,” the waitress winked at me.

“Not too big, not too big,” I graciously replied, and waited for the feast.

In Singapore, I had finally arrived: slumdog recessionaire.

Sudeep Chakravarti is the author of Red Sun and Once Upon a Time in Aparanta.