O Lucky Man
19 August 2015
Singapore's Little India is a colony within a colony, one of the few neighborhoods in the city-state that is still redolent of its 19th-century origins. With its many pre-World War I shops and upper-floor flats, its flower merchants, incense dealers, sari sellers, mehndi hand painters, vegetable vendors and flamboyant restaurateurs – not to mention an ever-present soundtrack of Hindi tunes blasting forth from myriad radios and CD players – the place is a riot of colors, aromas, sights and sounds. If sensory overload is what you seek, Little India is the spot for you.
I always make a few swings through the neighborhood during visits to Singha Pura, whose Anglicized name is derived, appropriately enough, from the Sanskrit words meaning "Lion City." I keep going back because, unlike most of the rest of the island on which it stands, Little India has not been skyscrapered, gentrified, polished or expatriated. It is what it is, and that, to me, is its charm and appeal.
Last year, during my most recent excursion through the enclave, I was happily wallowing in the local atmosphere and following my nose toward the smell of freshly cooked samosas when my quest was interrupted by a middle-aged Indian gentleman who was walking toward me on the same stretch of pavement.
"O, sir," he said from a few feet away. "You must be a very lucky man."
"What's this now?" I thought, smiling warily at the man. "Some sort of scam in the making?" It seemed as if he might have more to say, but I just kept walking, puzzled about the intent of his comment yet unwilling to stick around to learn more.
Two days later – the brief encounter in Little India long forgotten – I was clumping down Boat Quay in search of a pub that offered, of all things, a full English breakfast, when a nearby voice distracted me.
"I think you are a lucky man, yes?"
Here now was another Indian gentleman – a few years younger than the fellow I had encountered two days earlier and nearly a mile away, but one who seemed no less sincere in his belief that I was the possessor of remarkable good fortune.
"What's going on here?" I thought, passing by my interlocutor without breaking stride. "Is there some sort of organized gang in town? Are these guys dacoits who accost total strangers with promises of good luck before offering to sell them diamond mines in Kansas City? Why does this keep happening?"
Later that day, back in my hotel room, I fired up my laptop and went online, determined to find an answer to the enigma of the Friendly Indian Gentlemen of Singapore. It took some digging, but eventually I came across what I believe is the explanation.
The answer, it turned out, was wrinkles.
Because I do not wear sunglasses, I often squint in the glare of a typical Singapore day. Naturally, squinting only accentuates the appearance of the various wrinkles and vertical creases that have developed on my forehead over more than 60 years of living.
By a strange quirk of fate, vertical forehead creases are considered in certain corners of Indian culture to be unmistakable signs of very good luck indeed.
And with that, the mystery was solved.
It goes without saying that I will be back in Singapore in 2016, since it remains one of my favorite cities in the world to visit. And I have no doubt that while there I will once again encounter an Indian gentleman or two who will remind me of my extraordinary good fortune. This time, though, I will have a ready reply.
"It's not luck, friend," I'll explain. "I'm just getting old."