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The long and hard journey from Tamil Nadu to Singapore, told through sweat and some poetry

Vishal Daryanomel’s documentary is a macro study of migration through one man’s experience.

N Rengarajan moved to Singapore in 2014 to work as a labourer on a construction worker, and three years later, he already has strong opinions on his adopted home. In his poems, he describes his journey as “a pilgrimage that reeks of money,” reciting his Tamil poem Life Overseas: Pluses and Minuses.

Filmmaker Vishal Daryanomel’s documentary Between Pudukkottai and Singapore uses Rengarajan’s poems as the basis for an exploration of the hopes, dreams and anxieties of migrants in Singapore. Using Rengarajan’s three poems that primarily juxtapose his migration to Singapore and its effects on his personal life, the film is shot at places such cricket grounds and parks in the Little India district in the country. “We wanted to depict spaces where migrant workers would usually spend their time,” the director said. “And in Singapore, those spaces are limited. Some Singaporeans might not even frequent those places when it is really busy. So we wanted to use his lines and put a visual to it.”

The 18-minute documentary will be launched at the Singapore Writers Festival on November 10. “The goal for the film is to raise awareness about the human elements in our migrant worker population, which is sometimes lost in Singapore,” the independent filmmaker said. “It is to make people understand that they are not in Singapore just as labourers, but that they also have the dreams and talents that a lot of us have.”

A Singaporean of Indian descent, Daryanomel was drawn to the subject during his volunteering days at the Annual Migrant Workers Poetry event in 2014. Rengarajan was the only Indian poet at the event, competing against migrant workers from other countries. “His poetry resonated with me and that is why I thought we could go on this project together,” Daryanomel said. “The dynamic was very interesting because the Singapore migrant population is made up of Bangladeshis, Indians from South India and largely from Punjab. At the same time we also have migrant workers from Thailand and Cambodia. Being the only Tamil poet without a support system performing at the event was pretty great.”

The film uses observational footage to subtly point out the differences between aspirations and actualities. Between Pudukkottai and Singapore sticks with the poorer sections of the Tamil community in Singapore – the labourers who have incurred financial debt, have to face entry barriers in finding jobs, and general stereotypes about the Indian community. The Tamil-speaking community in Singapore has coexisted peacefully in the country except for riots in 2013, which were sparked off by an Indian construction worker’s death in a road accident.

But the film is not a sob story. In one of the film’s best sequences, Rengarajan describes the one thing he loves the most about his life away from his homeland. “Back in my country, if it is crowded, we tussle for a ticket and a place in the bus. But here in Singapore, we follow suit and don’t cut the queue,” he says with a smile.

Between Pudukkottai to Singapore (2017).
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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.


This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.