As we landed in Changi airport, I tried to muster some enthusiasm for the benefit of my eight-year-old twins. After all, my husband and I had decided to stop over at Singapore for five days on our way back to Mumbai from Beijing primarily because we thought the city-state had many sites that the children would enjoy visiting.
But I had been reluctant to leave Beijing. My appetite for things Chinese had picked up towards the end of our stay there. Besides, I had already visited the major sights in Singapore during previous visits. Sure, some were worth repeat visits, but not when the alternative could have been staying on in Beijing. Yet, instead of continuing to explore an exotic city larger than some countries, I found myself in a familiar country smaller than some cities.
On the recommendation of friends, we set off early the first day for the National Museum for an exhibition on Mozart. Four hours whizzed by as we wandered through the highly imaginative exhibition with stalls aplenty trying to recreate the life of Mozart. The children got to dress up in corsets and wigs; make toothpowder used in that era; use quill pens and write notes in the various secret codes that Mozart’s family devised to communicate with one another.
While the children moved excitedly through the hall, my husband and I drifted to a corner where several books about Mozart were laid out. After browsing through some of them, I settled down to read Michael Morpurgo's The Mozart Question. In this book for the pre-teens, a cub reporter, by stroke of luck, lands an interview with a celebrated but reclusive Jewish violinist from Venice. The only pre-condition is that she must not ask the ‘Mozart question’. But as the interview progresses, the musician opens up and tells the reporter his life story, in the process providing an answer to the mystery of why he never plays Mozart. A beautifully crafted story, it addresses deep and difficult topics like the horror of war and the power of music.
If the Mozart exhibition had lifted my spirits at the start of the Singapore visit, the Rainforest Walk organised by the Botanical Gardens refreshed me like spring rain towards the end. The guided tour of one of the last remaining tracts of the island’s original jungle was supposed to last an hour. But three hours breezed past as we learnt how the latex tapped from the towering jelutong tree was traditionally a key ingredient in chewing gum; that the native kempas tree that forms the rain forest’s canopy, is so tall that you must learn to recognise it from its bark; that the rattan, a vine-like plant used to make furniture, can grow up to a 100 metres.
When we came upon a batch of banana plants, my children turned guide for once in the tour, explaining to everyone how every part of the plant is used in south India, describing how they eat on banana leaves when they visit my mother-in-law’s village in Tanjore each year, and then feed the leaves to the cows in the shed at the back of the sprawling ancestral house.
The five-day stopover’s high point, however, came during a day on Sentosa Island, a hub of resorts and theme parks that I had once dismissed as commercialised and tacky. It was during an animal show in an amphitheatre, after getting macaws, a monkey and an eagle, to do various tricks, the animal handler said he needed a strong and brave ‘lady’ volunteer for the last animal on the show. He didn’t let in what animal it would be and that made the children doubly curious. And it was upon their insistence that I raised my hand.
On stage, the handler introduced me to the audience, while his assistant went backstage to bring the animal out. After five minutes, he returned and declared it was missing. The handler said it was hiding and brought out a Siberian husky to hunt the absconder down.
After sniffing in various corners of the amphitheatre, the big dog stopped near a wooden crate set amidst the audience. I began to flex my biceps. The handler opened the crate. He found only a smaller one inside. By then, the husky had begun to bark. I began deep-breathing: in, one-two-three; out, one-two- three. The handler gingerly opened the second crate. Victory! He bent down and scooped the animal up with both hands. I could see it clearly from the stage. Closing my eyes, I began chanting 'Om'. In seconds, I was face to face with Lucy. What a deceptively sweet name for a 20-kg yellow-and-white albino python! In no time, she had coiled herself around my left leg, all the way up to my neck and around it, and hung her head over my right shoulder.
Meanwhile, the man running the show was explaining to the audience, “Folks, pythons are not venomous snakes; they belong to the constrictor family. They don’t bite their victims; they strangle them.” Lucy slithered, and pushed herself further down over my right shoulder on to my chest.
I thought I had exuded insouciant calm throughout the excruciating three minutes, but my husband claims I was hysterical. We will never know the truth, because our digital camera’s battery had died on us 10 minutes before that. If it had not been for the tiny glitch, I would have blown up the photograph and hung it on my bedroom wall. Then it would have reminded me every day of a vacation I thought would be humdrum but which ended up being anything but predictable.