Breakfast at Changi

Changi airport is a personal favorite of mine. I have seen a large number of airports, but I must say this is one of the best run and homely airports ever. It does not signal aggression like American airports nor does it seem cold and aloof like the European ones. It is not chaotic like the Indian ones nor is it noisy like the Korean or Thai or other Asian airports. To put it all simply, I like it. And so after a long long flight from LAX, via Narita in Japan, yea! Finally I stepped foot on Japanese soil, if only for an hour, and then again it was another long leg to Singapore, the old colonial watering hole.

After a short rest, I went up to the Kaveri for breakfast. I knew that it was the confluence of all Indian visitors to the airport, it was where I assume they met kindred souls, smelt home and felt like at home. This time, there was a huge hoarding on the way announcing that Chutney Mary was on her way to compete with Kaveri. But she had not arrived yet and was expected by late fall. I marveled at the guy who created that name. Whew! Chutney Mary! What a name…It does evoke interesting ideas in one’s mind…I wondered was it meant to mean a gora angrez with blond hair and blue eyes and a lot of spice or chutzpah? Or was it our Malayali or a Goan Mary? I don’t know, but when you are on vacation and footloose, such thoughts fleet through your happy mind.

The guy at the counter was being harried by a queue of impatient guys who wanted to get their morning fix of caffeine and ‘nashta’. The regular staff was yet to come and he was doing his best to keep thing moving. A very pleasant man, I thought, after observing him. Well brought up, calm and dignified in his approach. I decided that he would go a long way with his attitude.

I placed my order for dosa and vada, the man was apologetic, he said, that the Filter coffee would be ready only after half an hour. I said that was quite OK (though it was not OK but you know how we are, we desi’s always say yes when we actually want to say no) and he wanted my name to call out when the order was ready. I knew what was coming when I said it. Normally Malayali’s take it on their stride, for they try their best not to show any kind of emotion (as Usha Didi explained once). I wanted to tell Usha Iyer, yes! They do show a lot of emotion, like when they hear the name Shakeela or the name Johnnie as in Johnnie Walker.

Anyway my name seems to evoke the strangest emotions in Tamilians. If it is a sales girl, they look coyly up at my face and quietly giggle, or loudly if a friend of theirs is nearby. Men take a long quizzical look and keep their lips tightly shut and the grin under control. Older men sometimes become effusive and make all kinds of great comments that make me go red. And when my wife is with me, I can see her happily grinning away, seeing my displeasure…Ah! I wonder, what made my grand uncle give me this unique name?? The chap looked at my credit card to ensure that I was not pulling his leg uttering the name (In the US, it is very tricky to explain, so I quickly say Maddy for short. Even that is not acceptable for Maddy is normally short for Madeline. So some write Marty or Matty on orders!! Anyway I have given up).

I was in a happy mood, as you can make out, so I complimented him for his lovely calligraphic handwriting and the young man beamed with pleasure. He must have remembered his dad or teacher castigating him in his younger years telling him things like ‘handwriting maketh the man’…all so silly & untrue in today’s world, where one builds up muscles on their fingers instead, typing furiously at key boards creating voluminous amount of text without any belying character and finally suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome, instead of producing fine writing that will remain for centuries (just yesterday I was marveling at the handwriting of a 12th Century traveler, writing at Malabar). My children cannot even read cursive writing fluently and if I write with a fast flowing hand, I have heard people asking if it is another language. The world has changed, I say.

As I waited for my order to come, I observed all around. That by itself is a fascinating experience, if you are in the right mood, as you can imagine. The first person that caught my attention was the weirdest. He, obviously a south Indian, probably from Karnataka, was sitting with his wife and young kid. The lady was prattling away, the child was squealing about being hungry and the man was serenely nodding his head now and then and even replying at times. I could see that the lady was talking seriously and then I saw the silly aspect to the situation. This man had his Ipod (obviously a new acquisition) earphones, with the telltale white cords, well plugged into his ears. Now what on earth was going on? How was he able to convince his wife that he was indeed listening to her? Was he shutting her out and listening to Shreya Ghoshal singing a Mano Murthy song or perhaps his guru’s sayings? Ah! Who knows, I smiled and cast my eyes back to the busy counter. For Kaveri had lots to offer, Idli vada, sambar, roti chana, dosa…..and many people wer elining up for breakfast.

Now it was a Rowther or probably a marakkar wife, all burqa clad with just her eyes showing. She, with two kids in tow, was asking for Iddli vada, or anything that would fit within the limits of some kind of a coupon she had. It was indeed incongruous, a fully veiled and covered woman and right at the next table, a couple of European girls with those micro denim shorts showing super long and lovely legs and much more. I wished I had my camera, unfortunately even my phone was in the room. These extremes would have made a great photo of the times.

The Chettiar was back at the counter complaining, he had been waiting too long for his coffee. Looking at him, I could see how they had changed with time. Earlier days would have shown them in fantastic green & red bordered dhotis, silk shirts and great long gold chains. Gone are all that, now that was replaced by a loose and tailored white pant, white slippers (I am sure Jeetendra was his hero) and a shirt struggling to come below his great big tummy. He had the trademark Sindoor kuri on his forehead, lots of gold rings and now the latest cell phone brandished often in the left hand for good effect and lest I forget, a man Friday in tow following at his heels and taking in the orders.. The trader was getting ready for his day of wheeling and dealing, once he reached his destination, wherever that was - until then he had to use forceful arguments to get irritants out of the way, like the breakfast at the hotel, the guy at the counter or the flight or whatever. That was his hypertensive and pseudo masculine demeanor, I guess

The cute IT girl was next, with trademark looks – laptop bag – strap cutting diagonally across her bosom and accentuating the overall effect, tight jeans, a simple Kurti and short hair, no make up. She came by timidly, took a look at the menu, all the Desi crowd seated, first assessing her level to theirs and wondering if she should do the normal thing or what. After she hung around and had taken a few deep breaths, she built up her confidence and walked off, having made up her mind once again, to say no mentally - as this kind of Desi stuff is not cool, so walking next door to the burger king and surely, to order a ‘Veggie burger’ with medium fries and Coke.. Reminded me of the same lot in the US, after a month, they were desperately looking for desi food and desi shops having realized that ordering a veggie burger probably makes it even more nerdish out there. The rice burners - as Indians and Chinese are called in California

The Udupi man was next, I am not sure about it, but it must be, fair and looking like a Settu, he had a yellow shirt, was well past his 50’s and the shirt was inserted perfectly into a high waisted pair of chinos. The clean cut man, was waiting for his order, and then my look went to his feet. Man! he was wearing white sneakers. He patiently took out his brand new sleek digital 12Mp Exlim camera and took photos of the kaveri, the menu and the steaming Iddli vada in front him. For what I don’t know, and then he got his teeth into the idli..

Then came the clincher, a security guard. Immaculately attired, in the tight fitting black uniform, a glock ( I guess) pistol in the holster with the trademark leather strap, a taser or truncheon in another holster, I don’t know which, a cartridge case, and so on. The glock pistol was riding high on the right lobe of an ample butt, giving it a majestic air and lots of moving freedom. The boots were well polished, the belt was neatly buckled and there was only one jarring note to all this. The pretty and well built girl of Tamil origin wearing all this, had a big Kumkum – Sindoora pottu on her forehead. This, I thought, one would never ever see anywhere else. For a while I was lost in thought wondering about her story, as she finished ordering her iddli vada and came by to sit at the next table. I was half expecting the dialog of Quick gun Murugan – ‘Muthal –le sambar, appurama nee…mind it’.

She took out her phone and said in characteristic Malay Singapore English Tamil lingo, I assume to her kanavar – ‘naaa (short for anna) what la, reached office la?’ And their homely conversation went on. She was probably at the tail end of her night shift..

My food came by; the man with the great handwriting brought it personally to the customer who had started his day well. He apologized for having made me wait, but I could imagine, he was probably wondering “How on earth does this customer go around with such a name??”

The food was good, the vadas were great, the dosa so so and for once the chutney (not Mary’s) made with real coconut and not ‘thenga pinnak’ (the reminder of copra squeezed dry for the oil and which one feeds cows) or desiccated coconut. The sambar had plenty of ‘hing’, which was good though a little heavy for a breakfast breath. The masala tea was miserable, making me long for that filter coffee..

As I walked back to the waiting areas and to check out the shops, I saw that the IT girl was plugging away at the Xbox parlor. I cast one more look at the pretty security guard with the big butt and the gun riding high above it and wondered how she would react when faced with a real life situation, and had to shoot somebody. Who knows? She must be well trained I suppose. She was eating her ‘idli’ demurely, putting dainty little bits into her mouth and I thought back of the beefy and aggressive lady guards in the USA chomping away at massive double or triple burgers and washing them down with large swigs of coke, talking in very loud assertive voices…I could not but help compare, the interesting disparities of this world and I wondered how she would behave back at home in the evening with kanavan…I guess, I better stop here before I raise the ire of all the lady readers…

Off to Kochi and then to Palakkad…My vacation as you can see, has started, finally

Pic - thanks Murukku_stud


mathew said…
thorougly enjoyed reading this post...lot of colorful people in this airport...thinking of it the airports here in europe are so boring...and absolutely lacking in characters like which you talked about..everyone looks the same...its almost like this in Dubai too..a melting pot...but something which makes u sad seeing the wide disparity at the same time..poor labourers sleeping on the floors next to rich passengers in the business lounge...
Pradeep said…
At airports, bus stands and railway stations, we can see humanity in all its variety and manifestations! Only like you said you should be the right mood, and keep eyes and ears open... Wonderful essay. I am sure you had more than breakfast there.
Jennifer said…

Wow what an account.. with that kind of skill you can write a novel from anything!!!

About the filter least what is on the menu has some future at this place! Look at the extensive menus in Kerala hotels! So many items- sometimes hundreds- but what's available? Four or five things (if you're lucky) that are not even on the fancy menu!

Maddy- you know only once you bought up it's a girl's nickname, I remembered Disney channel.. there is a show with 'Maddy'... but there are so many names even in America that are unisex like Terry, etc. And, the thing is American don't know you're name (even nickname) is a traditional name and not one of those modern Mallu names :) Or Baby- now that would get some interesting reaction in US!
Loved it, Maddy. You have caught the atmosphere of the place so wonderfully, and the character sketches are too good.

People watching is an interesting exercise if time is not a luxury.
Vijay said…
Great post on Changi. I've spent hours there as well, and you're right in that it is a great combination of efficiency with warmth.

Oberoi used to run a hotel there where you could rent rooms to nap and freshen up before one's next flight- wonder if they still run it?

As for Chutney Mary's, there is one in Chelsea in London- great (and expensive) avant garde Indian menu. In many cases, and attempt at "fusion" ends up as "confusion", but these guys do a good job. they've also acquired the venerable Veeraswamy's on Regent Street. Don't know if the one coming up in Changi is related, but here's their URL:

Safe journeys to you as make your way homeward!
scorpiogenius said…
Nice anecdote.

I've heard similar observations from many people who transited through the Changi. I've never been there yet but even more longing to pass through the airport after reading this. :)
Ashvin said…
Moody Brain said…
Good observation & blog piece. I personally liked Changi the best, only because its so quiet inspite of all the heavy traffic.
An utter contrast is Dubai terminal; quite mistakenly an airport in a shopping mall :D

@Vijay - the transit hotel still exist, infact expanded since my last visit in 2007; owned by Harilela Group
Sid said…
Wonderful post and such a nice analysis of all the wonderful characters you come across.

And now I am really curious to know what you real name is if it can be so funny :)
Reshmi said…
heyy...was at Changi on 22nd for a connection flight to Melbourne...we should have missed each other just by hours...

i'm in Melbourne now, will put a post soon..

Anil Nair said…
Maddy - great post. I could not check your blogs for some time now; must go back to read all missed ones.

This one brought back old memories..

Chutney Mary - Probably a place where you get dosa, chutney and bloody mary?


harimohan said…
maddy enjoyed this
me too love observing in such places best pastime
iam in kerala till 5th feb
I fully enjoyed your stopover at Changhi. It is really a beautiful Air Port. The people are extremely polite and cooperative.
It was very difficult to figure out the spot I need to click to scribble my comments. The clickable "Comments" was not visible.
Maddy said…
Thanks mathew, Predeep, Jennifer, narendra, raji, Nikhil, Vijay, Scorpiogenius, Ashvin, Moodybrain, Anil, reshmi, Hari, Sid and PNS..

Some places evoke great reactions. Changi I suppose helps get your creative juices running...

Jennifer - unfortunately could not find one good filter coffee this time, whatever I got was tame & lame..
Maddy said…
Hope you are enjoying your holidays
you didnt NEED the camera - the pen portaits did the job much better than any snaps could have.

I think there is chutney mary in UK as well? Why does it sound familiar? i remember the name stuck for precisely the same reason - quirky enuf to be interesting.

But what a lovely descriptio of the diaspora