Ahead of Valentine’s Day, we bring you a series about love stories of people living in Singapore.
By Arti Mulchand, Contributor
It took under 15 minutes at India Emporium, his father’s sari store on High Street. She said hello, he said hello, and Kishin and Alka Ramchand’s Happily Ever After was under way.
It was January 1973 – a “simpler time” when good Sindhi boys did not date, mainly because “Sindhi families with daughters never let them out of the house”, remembers Kishin, now 70. So often, third parties were involved.
Several weeks earlier, a customer from his father’s High Street store had been asked to be on the lookout for a suitable groom for a 22-year-old girl from Jakarta, and volunteered Kishin, then 26. His parents arranged to “bump” into the girl at a temple in Katong – so chosen because she would be barefoot and could therefore not hide her height with heels.
“I was quite tall, and my dad didn’t want a girl who was too short,” Kishin remembers.
It led to that first India Emporium meeting. Kishin, completely unaware of what was going on, was summoned from his finance job at Leela Department Store mid-day. “I’m not sure Alka got more than a glance at me – she looked down the whole time.”
They were engaged in a ceremony at the Singapore Sindhi Association ten days later.
For the ten days leading up to the engagement, they got to speak to each other on the phone from 7.45pm till 8.15pm daily. “He was soft-spoken and really nice. And he didn’t drink, smoke or gamble. I was not scared about marrying him at all,” Alka, now 66, remembers.
Once they were engaged, they were allowed to meet for coffee on Saturdays, and “dates” on Sundays. Kishin took Alka to the Singapore Botanical Gardens and the Jurong Bird Park – initially with his sister-in-law as chaperone.
But even when left to their own devices, it was all “clean dating”.
“We might have held hands at the movies, and I gave her a kiss on the cheek, but nothing else,” he says. He brought a red rose each time and dropped her home in a taxi. “We were engaged so I had to show that I had pangkat (Malay for having standards or status),” he says.
Just over three months after that first ‘hello’, they were married at the Chinese Chamber of Commerce.
Love? Well, there would be plenty of time for that after the garlands had been exchanged.
For the couple, it was found largely in the simpler moments.
“We could hold hands at night, and could talk until late. And then the feeling grew,” he says.
They waited to start a family, especially since they shared a three-bedroom Clemenceau Avenue apartment with his parents, his brother and sister-in-law, their baby, and his younger brother.
When they could, they stole away for couple time, to the snack bar at Cold Storage Centrepoint for a milkshake, or to Glutton’s square at Orchard Road for noodles.
In December 1976, they finally rented their own apartment in Fair Drive in Katong. It was a thrill, says Kishin. “We had room to move around, could have a TV in our room, and watch whatever we liked.” In October 1978, their daughter, Nareen, arrived. Three years later, their son Arun completed the family.
“He would change nappies and make bottles in the middle of the night, telling me to sleep. When you see that in a man, love really blooms. I also realized that some of my friends didn’t have husbands like that. I felt so lucky.”
Even then, he continued to court her. He bought her kuih from Bengawan Solo, Polar curry puffs, and flowers.
When his job got stressful, he “took out all the anger on a chopping board with the knife and the vegetables”. Kishin, as it turned out, had inherited his “mother’s hand” for cooking, and whipped up roast chicken, pork ribs, as well as South Indian and Chinese cuisine. He also did all the prep for his wife when she dished up Indonesian or Sindhi fare.
But in 1998, a new job took its toll. He developed high blood pressure, and was diagnosed with diabetes. Three years later, he suffered his first heart attack. The list of medical issues grew longer, and their shared patience for the job shorter.
It was the worst time of Alka’s life.
“I was really scared that I would lose him. I didn’t want money, I just wanted him to have his health.”
When his elder brother passed away in 2003, he realized what was at stake and quit. For a year, he took on a less stressful and more fulfilling position at the Singapore Indian Development Association, then he retired, and the duo travelled to Pune, a hill-station in India, where he could relax and recover.
Now, they split their time between three cities, enjoying the cool Pune winters, the mild Adelaide springs where their son and his family are based, and time with family and friends in Singapore.
He still rules the kitchen, and does all her cooking prep. And they still date, taking long walks daily, and planning lunches or dinners out. Every now and then, Kishin presents her with a treat from the Imperial Bakery on Tras Street, and she plays him his favourite ghazals by Jagjit Singh and Chitra Singh.
Ultimately, their love story is one based on accepting a partner for who they are, which has helped them weather even the worst days, they say.
“When one person is unhappy, the other just has to be a little kinder and more tolerant. Someone has to compromise, so why not me?” says Kishin.
But he has another handy trick.
“If she’s in a bad mood, I leave my hearing aid in the cupboard so I can say I didn’t hear her what she said,” he laughs.
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