You’ve read some stories about the non-academic staff and personnel in law school — Remember Auntie Saddiah from the NUS Co-op @ BTC, who’s always game for a little chat with us students? There was also Summit chef Suresh Krishnan, the ‘Briyani man’, who’s pretty much the teacher-shifu to current Senior Chef of the Indian food stall, Rajasekaran Manjini. It’s our great pleasure to share with you our informal conversation-cum-interview with Raj, enjoy!
Danny: Hello Raj! Can you tell us where you’re from?
Raj: I’m from the southern part of India, Pondicherry! It’s a familiar place, people from around the world know it.
Allison: Oh, how big is your family that stays over there?
Raj: My family is quite big – 6 people! (Editors’ Note: referring to his parents, brothers and sisters)
Allison: Wow okay what made you want to come to Singapore to work?
Raj: Well first of all, it’s a nice place. Second, the law is good. I tried London last time, but compared to Europe, Singapore is peaceful. The rules are very strict. One Singapore Dollar is 47 Indian Rupees and one US Dollar is 65 Rupees, but I can get peace here. It’s very homely – I can work during the week then Saturday go jalan jalan (Editors’ Note: This means “walk walk” in Malay) and see friends. It’s difficult in other countries. This is the second country I’ve worked in.
Allison: Oh, what was the first one?
Raj: Last time I worked for 9 years in India as a sous chef. But the first foreign country was Qatar. It was very hot in the morning so cannot work, and very cold at night time, so if you don’t have a shuttle or anything you cannot go outside at night… You also cannot sleep unless you have a heater.
Danny: And the work there? How’s it like?
Raj: Working there is difficult because they are mostly the same group of people and they treat Indians differently… You can tell. After Qatar, I went back to India for one year and worked near my home, then I came over here.
Danny: Hmm, so Singapore is better ah?
Raj: Yes. Compared to what I earned in Qatar, I get more than 3X the pay in Rupees. So the pay here is very good. I send the money back to my parents and my wife in India.
Danny: Oh okay, could you tell us about your wife and family?
Raj: I met her near my home in Pondicherry. She’s uneducated in Singapore’s education terms, she is only at a Primary 6 level. But the way she manages our finances, she is like a lawyer – her mind is sharp! Everything (Editors’ Note: $) I send back, she can take care of it. She never refuses me when I say anything, and when I do something wrong, she accepts it but she will come to me afterwards and tell me what was good and what wasn’t. She is very patient. She takes care of the whole family, and I take care of things here. That’s why I’m always smiling, she makes it easy for me to work here. But we have different religions, she is Muslim and I am Hindu. It can be quite difficult.
We married very young at 21, and we have two girls, Al-Nishma who is 10 years old, and Al-Nishila who is 7 years old. The name of the first one means calm and quiet, and the second one means peace. Their names start with N, like my wife. My kids are very good to me and I Skype them everyday. I will try and bring my first one to study here this year.
Danny: Huh your kids are so grown up already? But you look quite young leh.. How old are you now?
Raj: I am 34 coming to 35. 15 years back, getting married at 21 is normal. Now, minimum is 30 plus because everyone has so many ambitions and responsibilities so very difficult. Last time, once you finish studying at 21, when I finished my undergraduate degree, just go find a girl and a nice job.
Danny: Oh, how often do you go back?
Raj: Last month I went back. Usually, I go back during school holidays. Every year December I go back, and June to August. That’s another reason working here is good, I can go back 2 times a year, unlike other places!
Allison: Do your family ever come to visit you in Singapore?
Raj: They will come this June for one week. They will be quite happy!
Allison: Wow that’s nice! Where are you going to bring them when they come over!
Raj: Just jalan jalan in the Botanic Gardens. They will come here (to Bukit Timah Campus). I really like this place. On Saturdays, I come here to walk and relax.
Danny: Oh do you go out with your friends on Saturdays to jalan jalan?
Raj: No, they are all busy on Weekends. Only I have free time.
Danny: I see, where do you stay, Raj?
Raj: The boss gives a room in Telok Blangah, near Harbourfront. It’s a two-storey building and we stay upstairs. I stay with the the other Indian boy working here, the short short one.
Allison: Hmm how did you end up here in BTC?
Raj: Actually last time, I worked in a food court under Kopitiam in JEM (Jurong East Mall). It was very difficult because it gets very busy. After I finished there about 2 years ago, I saw an advertisement in the Classifieds for an Indian chef. That time, Suresh was working here and we speak the same language so communication was easier. There was a trial, and after he tasted my food, everything was okay and then I joined. My renewal is up in April.
Allison: I see, can you tell us more about what you do here?
Raj: I cook all the Indian food here and am in charge of the Indian side. But the Aunty will do the green vegetables, satay vegetables, mee siam, mee rebus and nasi lemak. She’s quite old already but her food is very good, the mee rebus especially. I like to try the Singapore food here, especially the kway teow, and chicken rice also!
Allison: (fangirling) !!! I like the prata at your stall!
Raj: (laughs) Thank you! Actually everybody can do good prata. It depends on the mind of the person who makes it. If your mind is good, you can do excellent prata. If not, you give nice dough also cannot.
Danny: (laughs) So your mind is good lah!
Raj: Always, always! I control myself and relax. Pressure go up, I can also control myself.
Danny: What’s the nicest dish here?
Raj: You can always get nice Briyani, curry chicken, morning prata with fish curry, masala vegetables, potato masala. I make all of these things.
Danny: Do you try to create anything new (dish) here?
Raj: Sometimes, but rarely. I see some things on the Internet and I try it out.
Danny: Yeah the food here is really nice, Raj!!
Raj: (laughs) Thanks!! When you guys appreciate my food, I am really grateful.
Danny: Do you like the work here?
Raj: Yes, for sure lah. You can meet a lot of different types of people from different countries. I meet people from places I’ve never even seen on the map. At the same time, when you have holidays, I also have holidays. Getting Sunday off is very difficult in the Singapore food industry because whenever you get holidays, you go out to hotels and food stalls to eat, right? How do people like us get holiday? But here, I can get Sunday off. In the future, I will go back to India.
Danny: Ah okay… Anyway Raj, a last question before we go: any life advice you’d like to give to the students here?
Raj: Advice… Education is very important, but at the same time, experience is also very important. Education cannot give you practical knowledge. This is what I’ve learnt from finishing my MBA, where I learnt about management and all that, and then working in real life. The education didn’t do much for me, but I worked two years then I became senior chef because of my experience. Don’t think that just because you have a degree, you can get the job.
Through Dialawgues, we hope to show that caring for our neighbours is simply befriending them and showing kindness in our normal relationships and the rhythms of daily life. Get to know those who serve us in school, talk to the ladies serving you at the student counter, greet the uncles and aunties selling you a cup of coffee as you would your seniors, strike up small talk with the aunties as they roll their carts through the 3rd floor corridors, ask the Co-op auntie about her life. We promise you, they have much to tell, and they do want to be our friends — if only we’d stop and listen. Let’s learn to bless the people we live alongside, with our time and care, just as the ones who’ve gone before us bless us still, daily.
PS: if you’d like to contribute/share the life stories of any of our staff on campus, please contact one of us below! (Ally on Facebook or Danny @ 92394160)