There is no one way to describe Mustafa, a place that to me, has come to be synonymous with Little India, and somehow, with Singapore. The monolithic structure squats beside Syed Alwi Road, all green tinted glass and steel, a steady crowd funneling in, out, in, out, in again through its open maw, breathing out sporadic bursts of air conditioning every time the sliding doors opened. Opposite, beyond an inexplicably empty field stands the Farrer Park MRT, and a smattering of uniformly sleek malls and hotels, utterly indistinguishable from one another in their sameness- the kind of eerie, manicured conformity I had come to expect out of Singapore’s urban cityscape. But not Mustafa; the building is almost artistic in its profound ugliness. At the very least, it elicits a sort of wide eyed wonder as one takes in its daedalian design, the organised chaos that seems to just go on and on.
I sit directly outside the goliath, nursing a cup of ginger chai overlooking the street. I sip my tea the way my father taught me- head bowed, slurping in the too sweet liquid in between my front teeth, catching the spice at the back of my throat. All around me, conversations ebb and flow, surrounding me completely in a babel of voices. I catch bits of words I recognise- urdusinhalatamilhindi weaving in and out of each other until I am completely overwhelmed.
From one of those little phone shops across the street, so ubiquitous in Little India, tinny music blasts out. I vaguely recall the tune. As I sit there, the lyrics come to me and almost unconsciously, my lips form the words to the song- a Sonu Nigam track from a long forgotten Bollywood movie. This was a landscape I knew, from Sunday morning sing alongs with my grandmother’s old radio and nonsensical Hindi movies watched furtively when my father wasn’t home, and a place I did not know at all.
A bus boy slams trays against a large plastic bin; the thud of stainless steel on plastic is an effortless tabla- th, th, th, over and over again. The rhythmic clink of cutlery calls to me like the bells on a dancer’s ankle. The hot oil fries fresh pani puri with a sharp sigh; the sibilance of it lingers in the low ceiling of the tiny outdoor cafe. There is music in the wind and outside my skin sings in the heat of the midday sun.
If I look up, the towering skyscrapers beyond Serangoon Road loom imperiously. There are signs for a new boutique hotel and spa, clinically chic. Next to me, three sweating, swearing Germans persevere, red faced, through their fish head curry. Opposite, a Chinese couple hauls two handfuls of the famous zip tied white plastic bags bearing the words “Mustafa Super Centre”, while a little boy tags behind them, happily lapping away at a kulfi stick. An Indian woman walks past me, a strand of yellow flowers braided into her thick, dark hair. I glimpse the strong, stark line of a tattoo peeking out from the neckline of her pink shalwar kameez. I like knowing that first appearances hide more than they reveal.
Mustafa is in itself a microcosm of Singapore. I have been sitting here for thirty minutes and already I have seen countless shades of skin, heard the lilt of more languages than I can count. Judging by the enthusiastic, sweaty straggles of Europeans flooding into the building, Mustafa is also a tourist hotspot, drawing in the crowds with the mystique of its labyrinthine interior and the endless possibilities that reside within it. Around me there are signs advertising plane tickets to Mumbai, discounted bio-oil and lamb kebabs- and that’s all just within a 100 metre radius. In a way, it is not far removed from its cousins on Orchard Street, that other beacon of mass consumerism, reminding us with its flashing lights and tastefully muted showrooms that capitalism is, lest we forget, alive and well. But unlike Orchard Street, Mustafa remains adamantly uncategorisable. Is it a supermarket? A department store? Or is it, as it so ambiguously claims, a “supercentre”? During my brief foray into its cryptic depths, I saw the usual- sportswear, fresh fruit and vegetables, stacks and stacks of Yakult and Maggi Mee. But if you look a little harder, hidden on the top shelves, in the back corners, in all the places we sometimes forget to look- vials of herbal medicine, stuffed Merlions, “snail scrub face masks”, spices in every colour the subcontinent has to offer. It is a melange of the exotic and the exciting, with the unexpected at every turn, not unlike the city it resides in.
I drain my cup and get up to leave. There is a flower seller right by one of Mustafa’s many entrances; the sickly sweet smell of jasmine crushed underfoot lingers in the air. I walk past the building, and stop, right before I cross the road to get to the MRT station. Grimy neon letters spell out “Mustafa”; its doors open and spit out yet another mass of shoppers. I wonder what I’ll find the next time I come around. Maybe the thrill is in not knowing: like tattoo peeking out from under silk covered skin, like an unexpected trouvaille in dusty bottom corner, like cumin scented alleyways in a city so otherwise immaculate.