The Serangoon Road I know and remember from the 1990s is not a place where people overturn police vehicles and attack emergency responders. In my memories, it is far from the battle zone it had become when an Indian worker died there in an accident last month, and dozens of angry Indian migrant workers turned their fury on the police and ambulance workers.

Serangoon Road is messy. It is one part of Singapore where its famed enforced discipline collapses, for it is an Indian neighbourhood, and others follow the Indians’ lack of regard for rules, particularly on weekends, when the road turns as boisterous and crowded as any Indian street.

The road doesn’t have the picture-postcard manicured look you associate with Singapore. Shops have signs in Indian languages. Multicoloured shop houses stand in a row and sell bargain-priced clothing. Goldsmiths polish and refine jewellery. Hawkers at the Tekka Centre sell vegetables from all parts of Asia, vegetables that you wouldn’t find in the shrink-wrapped packaging in supermarkets along Orchard Road, barely a 15-minute walk away. Workers squat on pavements, extending their palms before astrologers or parrots in cages, in the hope of divining their fortunes.

Women carrying pots of milk during the Thaipusam festival

Serangoon Road is where most Indians in Singapore meet every weekend. The migrant workers who build the city’s high-rise towers and maintain its roads visit the temples and mosques, meet friends, call home, and remit funds to families back in India. Then there are eager middle-class parents, forcing their children to sit through lessons at the Hindi school on Sunday mornings. And there are the well-heeled elite Indians, who come to Komala Vilas in their chinos and Ralph Lauren T-shirts for their weekly fix of dosas and uttappams costing less than 4 Singapore dollars in those days (around 195 now), and only marginally more today.

The sounds that reverberate across the road are in Tamil. These sounds don’t emanate from loudspeakers, not even during festivals, because some strict Singapore rules still apply here. But these are the Tamil syllables of the chatter you can hear over all other sounds. For over 200 years, Tamil people—from India, but also from Malaya, and from Jaffna in what was then Ceylon—have been coming to Singapore to work. Some were convicts from India whom the British brought to Bencoolen in Sumatra, and later to Singapore, to do hard labour; some were traders who sailed from India; some were plantation workers in Malaya who moved south, making Tamil one of the four official national languages of this island.

When you step off at Changi Airport, you read signs in the Tamil script; the immigration officer stamping your passport could be a woman called Vanitha d/o Supramoney; and the city’s mass transit will make announcements in school-marmish English with its precise accent and tone, then the stern and staccato Mandarin, followed by lilting Malay, and finally, polysyllabic Tamil.

Metallic hooks attached to men’s bodies

Why would I, I asked, saying that I didn’t know anything about Thaipusam. Later I read up and found that it was a festival where men attached metallic hooks to their bodies and held aloft shrines and walked to a temple in a procession; and women carried pots of milk on their heads, as they did on 17 January this year. They would start at the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple on Serangoon Road and go to the Sri Thandayuthapani Temple on Tank Road.

The 4.5km route can take a young person 40 minutes to walk, but the weight of the kavadis (flower-bedecked, semi-circular pieces of wood bent and attached to the shoulder of the man who carries it) and the packed crowds of the procession could make the painful journey last much longer, as it went on down Orchard Road and Penang Road, through Clemenceau Avenue below Fort Canning, ending at the other temple near River Valley Road. I had never seen Thaipusam in India. When in my second year in Singapore I went to look at an ostensibly Indian custom, being filmed by tourists and expatriates, I felt very much a foreigner.

That sense of dislocation is what exile brings—you feel you belong and yet you don’t—you see cultural manifestations that others associate with you, but which aren’t really yours, and you look at what others think of as yours, but with foreign eyes. It is authentic and yet it isn’t.

Singapore uses that exotic appeal to its advantage, reminding visitors that the island offers Asia without its traffic jams, without the smells, without the pollution, and without the hustlers in the bazaars, and where you can drink water from the tap. And yet, amid that modernity, this ancient ritual, of piercing one’s flesh. What matters more, the form or the essence? And which is Indian, and which foreign? What do you embrace, and what do you avoid?

Salil Tripathi writes the column Here, There, Everywhere for Mint.

Also Read | Salil’s previous Lounge columns

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