BANGALORE: Kuala Lumpur or KL glitters by night. It is Fritz Lang’s Metropolis where towers and spires of chrome and glass exuding a diamond brilliance stretch towards the stars. The city is futuristic and a grand sonnet in steel. It is also a city of brand names and numerous malls—Southeast Asia's offering to the capitalist gods.
As we are driven to our bed in the 22-storey tower in the heart of the city, we are shocked by the contrast with our own home city of Kolkata from where we boarded the flight some 4 hours ago. The two cities are a study in opposites and if there is one place they converge—that would be in its largesse—in welcoming migrants and refugees and offering them a home.
It’s two days before Christmas and a nice feeling to wake up to a gorgeous view of this uber modern skyline. Late to rise, short on time, we sped through the sights that we had earmarked to see. And the first of these was Petaling Street with its impressive gates opening on to an older world removed from the glamorous malls and corporate skyscrapers—the city's age-old Chinatown.
Once inside, we were greeted by herbal concoctions being served out of beautiful Chinese tea pots in tea shops, vendors selling 'fake originals', stores with dozens of roast ducks skewered through their hearts and hanging from hooks. There were stalls selling Indian food, typically parathas, curry and virulent orange tandoori chickens. Then there were the famous Malay Chicken Rice stalls. There were the old toothless ladies waving bowls under our noses, a live advertisement for their stalls which were slightly less conspicuously placed. Unable to survive the sensory assault, we stopped at a stall which had a crowd milling around it.
Chicken Rice could very well be the national dish of this country, considering its ubiquitous presence just about everywhere —from the Air Asia flight into the country to mall food court kiosks. Our dish came with a giant bowl of stock, little servings of red chilli paste, sliced cucumbers and a large portion of sliced chicken. The chicken was poached with its shiny outer skin providing nice texture. The reason this dish is so popular is because it’s a simple balancing of flavours and textures—the smooth tender chicken, the sticky grains of rice, the sharp edge of the red chilli, the cool crunch of cucumber and the hot broth to dunk your rice into.
KL despite being the capital city of a predominantly Islamic country, was the proverbial melting pot of food, language and culture. Its population is largely made up of Malays, Chinese and Indians with Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism being predominant religions and yet, none of these facts deter its cosmopolitan crowd from coming out with its Santa Hats and bells and whistles and celebrating Christmas eve with an unmatched gusto.
We were told to make our way to Changkat Bukit Bintang, the busy-buzzy street lined with bars, al fresco restaurants and cafes specializing in food from across the world. This was a street with character and drama. Quiet and sunny during the day, this looked like a street grabbing a quick afternoon siesta in preparation for the big night ahead. As I sipped on fruity cider in a quaint wine shop, we watched the late afternoon sun fade into a dusky orange, I watched the city begin to heave and awaken for KL was a city of the night.
I pondered over the cultural chequered fabric that clothed this country and marvelled at its ability to integrate with all. It was a traditional country keenly aware of its history, its religion, its language and its roots. It was also a supremely liberal country. A small case in point was the fact that I was sitting in an outdoor cafe, drinking my cider near the heart of a predominantly Muslim city. Across the road, a Tamilian family in traditional attire were dumping bags of groceries from an international supermarket chain into the boot of their car. A few streets away, pretty young things were powdering their noses for a night out on the party strip at Jalan Sultan Ismail. Intersections away, Chinese housewives were gathering their pots with simmering soups and crackling roasts and making their way to the night markets on Petaling Street.
While we were eating lunch, Bukit Bintang had bedecked herself with tinsel, silver bells and fairy lights. Even in the sharp humid air, the smell of Christmas cake and mulled wine were hard to miss. As the muezzin gave the call for the evening prayer, I linked arms with the husband and made our way back to our temporary home in the clouds only to emerge a few hours later when the Christmas Eve celebrations were in full swing. Malaysians (the mixed Indian-Chinese and Malay populace), migrants, expats and tourists jostled for space on Bukit Bintang. It was a night that took me back to Park Street in Kolkata, where people of all faiths and all walks of life come together on a brightly decorated stretch of the city, celebrating Christmas, far away from the land of its origin, with great bonhomie and fervour. Maybe the two cities weren't so different after all.
My thoughts were interrupted by a group of bikers who looked straight out of the Terminator series who had arrived at a pub across us with much fanfare. They just added to the oddball mix of people. We readjusted our Santa hats with glittering light baubles on its end, dug into our roast turkey with stuffing, counted down to midnight with the rest of the street and burst into crazy impromptu jigs with strangers who had become friends over the course of this crazy evening and we ushered in a truly merry Christmas on a balmy tropical night.