Last Fortnight, in Singapore

A pedestrian bridge across the Singapore River

Evening at 7:30, before the Orchard Central Mall on Orchard Road, people milled about on the sidewalks while above them birds came home to roost. They were returning to nine big and small trees before the mall, making noise as though they were filing in great hurry the day's report to one another, all at once. Their cries would rise to a single collective crescendo, and fall, and quickly rise again—on and on and on. Traffic moved with a matching sense of urgency on the famous street below, and on the sidewalks people wove in and out of pedestrian traffic, many in a great hurry, and a good number with no regard to time. I looked up to the branches because a white man was pointing them to his white companion, and I paused to gaze up too, at birds which drowned in the foliage soon as they flew into them. Seeing me, two young local women paused too, and then, like me, they stopped altogether and settled and watched. The number of returning birds was huge, yet the trees swallowed all of them into their foliage, revealing not one of the avians teeming in them. They couldn't conceal their sound, though, which in pitch and urgency was somehow unsettling, and in severe contrast with their sweet, hope-inducing, morning-cries.

That was on an evening during my ten-day visit to Singapore last fortnight, where I'd gone to attend the Air Show. It was a compact affair, with the exhibitors all in a single hall, and the hall facing the air-field with its display of airplanes. Compared with the Paris Air Show where I went last June, this one was tidier, the check in was every day quick, and it took less then twenty-minutes to get in a taxi in the evening, no matter how long the lines. Out at the air-field it was possible to see in comfort (yes, it was hot, but still) the combat planes showing off in the air, shooting straight up to meet the maker of man—the straight white smoke that they left behind the new Towers of Babel. Then, after a time, they reappeared, unscathed, in eerie free-falls. But my memory is of the C17, a portly airplane that seemed not to move at all, just hung about here and there in the air at all angles. The commentator spoke not of its use in war; he spoke of its role at the time of the inexplicable acts of God—how it rose to help man at the time of the Japanese tsunami, and then again and again during Indonesia's unceasing trials with nature. Huge, windowless except in front, a little more attractive than a toad, that is the C17 for me, and it is the aircraft that hangs in my mind even now, back home in Bangalore.

It took only a day to get used enough to the clean city, so much that a crushed empty cigarette pack on a lawn, a squeezed can of coke left behind on a public staircase, a bag of takeaway-leftovers not removed to a rubbish bin, outraged me. In Singapore? Walking early morning by the Singapore River, I was surprised to see on two tables in an alfresco bar by the promenade, two glasses on each table with wine still in them. A bottle of white stood on one of the tables, with some wine still in it. And an ice-bucket, shining and empty. Ah, I told myself: This is a story of four customers at two tables who continued to drink after the staff had shut down the place and gone home. With that thought I walked on, peacefully. The civic bosses are a little disturbed though. On a spot on the South bank of the river, a green board lists the top five items of litter, empty cigarette packs one among them, and exhorts Singaporeans to keep their city clean and green.

I pray for Singaporeans to always obey. The world must have a Singapore, to serve as a standard for the world's other cities. But when I surfed now on the web to look up again the top five types of litter in Singapore, I found Singaporeans complaining that tourists and foreign workers are to blame for it.