Last week, I decided I need a break from Chennai. So I bought some air tickets, got myself a visa, packed a few Indian essentials I can’t do without, and flew for four hours. And landed in Chennai.
Yes la, I did. And you’ve guessed where I am now, la. InSingapore. In a humungous shopping mall called Mustafa Centre, in Little India.
I could well be right in the middle of my own city, what with the jabber of Tamil shoppers all around me, Tamil salesgirls discussing the sambar and porial they made last night, and a packet of shundakai in the shelf before me to make a typical Tamilian dish. (Hey, I must remember to take this condiment back; I had trouble finding it in my store in Chennai recently...)
Ok, there’s also the jabber of Hindi and Kannada and Chinese and Japanese and Telegu and Malayalam and many more ands, but with several shelves carrying Tamil signages, I felt I was in Pondy Bazaar back home.
There are strong reasons why Mustafa Centre is a must-do tourist stop for many Indians, usually brought here by their eager, helpful relatives living in Singapore. You get just about everything here—all at cheaper rates. I mean even a stethoscope. I swear a friend of mine saw one on sale. And should a visiting doctor feel a need to go bargain hunting at say 3 am, he can set off at once to Mustafa, as this 24 hr shop never ever closes.
Your host relative may also tell you about the remarkable founder of Mustafa, Mustaq Ahmed who came to Singapore in 1957 at age 6, (from Uttar Pradesh, not Tamil Nadu as popularly believed by proud Tamilians). Mustaq, at 7, helped expand his dad’s pushcart business of tea and snacks for Indian locals, by selling handkerchiefs alongside—all bought with his own pocket money.
His remarkable entrepreneurship gradually helped buy up space after space along adjoining streets in Little India. And that’s how he took a small family business consisting of a cart with four wheels in the 50s, to a textile shop of 500sq ft, to the gigantic mall of 150,000 sq ft that it is today. Selling over 150,000 types of merchandise... it’s enough to make you pause and take a deep breath; something I had to do often as I walked the endless aisles. (Good time to buy that stethoscope).
This was also a good time to feel extremely silly about the Indian condiments I had bought from Murugan Stores in Chennai, for some of my Indian pals in Singapore, thinking they’d be so delighted by my thoughtfulness.
You may also hear this phrase “Mustafa The Leveller” by people in Singapore... as you can spot the humble Indian construction worker from Gumidipundi, shopping here; to even the CEO of a large multinational (perhaps in disguise though) walking along these aisles. Thinking, why spend an extra buck for my monthly provisions, my electronic equipment, my cosmetics... and not forgetting, that kitchen sink?
But for the uninitiated, Mustafa can be quite daunting at first. In a pattern of reckless logic, handbags are placed near detergents. And if you’re buying breakfast items, note that after you pick up bread, eggs are just a mile’s walk away (or so it seemed to me) in the other end of store.
My daughter who lives here, and who seems to have done a post doctoral thesis on Mustafa, knows exactly what’s where; and knows that dal is kept at an intriguing distance from rice; and can also advise committed Tam Brahms like me how to navigate the store to pick up vegetables without passing what seems like a large indoor zoo: only the animals here are all in their underwear, willing to be eaten.
Incidentally here’s my own piece of advice on Mustafa, in case you too are visiting Singapore soon. If you’d like to avoid crowds, try not to come here during peak shopping months, which runs from October to the following October.