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A little land: Klang's Little India

Little India is a land of belonging, rather than of blood

Photo: Joyce Koh

Little India, of Klang, isn’t a Little India of posters and postcards. Little India, of Klang, is one whose music – an exercise of high-decibel exuberance; a cacophony of Tamil chatter, of Bollywood film scores blaring out of speakers – cannot be defined, nor its meaning determined. A snapshot: marigold garlands brightening up the doorways of banana leaf eateries; a woman sitting cross-legged on a kaki lima, peddling a basket of greens already wilting in the heat of the early afternoon; and men staring impassively from behind the bars of jewellery stores, unperturbed by the glint and glitter of gold necklaces and nath.

The sights, the sounds, the smells; and yet, this is a Little India that allows one to linger over a cup of masala, a Little India where the sweets never lose their shine, a Little India that’s home to the community that lives and makes its living here.

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Photo: Joyce Koh

Little India is a land of belonging, rather than of blood. One says ‘land’, though Klang’s Little India is little more than a street, situated as it is along Jalan Tengku Kelana in the south of the royal city.

In recent months, there’s been some scuffle over the reluctance on the part of the Selangor government to gazette the moniker ‘Little India’. This follows an April report by The Star which revealed that the Klang Municipal Council had decided, in a rebranding exercise, to rename ‘Little India’ to ‘Kelana Square’ – this would ‘lend a better image to the area’, according to council secretary, Adi Faizal Ahmad Tarmizi.

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Photo: Joyce Koh

Jalan Tengku Kelana, in a previous life, was named Rembau Street. Sojourners of Indian lands near and far settled here in search of a better life – in search of better opportunities, safety and work – and, over time, gave Little India its name. According to M. Thiagu, a third-generation shop owner right in the middle of Little India, most businesses here have thrived for three generations; up to 95 percent are Indian-owned, not leased from Chinese owners, as is often the case in Malaysia. In addition to fluent Tamil, the shop staff here – mostly Indian nationals employed by local shopkeepers – speak a smattering of English and some Malay.

Apart from two or three Chinese stores, Little India is an Indian area, anchoring the Indian businesses in the area, an intersection of the commercial, the cultural and the community. The stores here are much like shops in Brickfield’s Little India or Penang’s Little India: gold-plated statues of gods and goddesses made of bronze and brass wink down at passers-by; oil lamps gleam at storefront doors; tailor shops and stores selling provisions, prayer items and textiles flourish in the vicinity.

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Photo: Joyce Koh

Little India is a neighbourhood of modest pleasures, of markets; indeed, its most resonant message is to eat and shop well, and variously.

At the time of independence, Indians constituted 12 percent of Malaya’s population. That figure, today, has fallen to only seven percent, but raw statistics do not tell the human story – the history of the hundreds and thousands of Indians who built this nation on their backs, who laid, brick by brick, the foundation upon which modern Malaysia eventually emerged. Take, for instance, the Indian Muslim mosque on Jalan Tengku Kelana, first built by Indian Muslim migrants in the 1900s.

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Photo: Joyce Koh

The trials and tribulations of Rama and Sita – as told in the tales of the Indian epic Ramayana, to which early Malay literature owes much of its influence – and its treatment of the theme of exile engage, in many ways, the earliest Indian immigrants and indentured labourers. It isn’t just mere myth, but a metaphor for the transcendence of the mundane, a cultural, religious and social ideal worthy of emulation and idolation by those who, at the time, found themselves too in a type of exile.

Someone, somewhere, in Little India, is finding support and solace in the same old stories.

Eat sweets, get a saree and more in Little India

Best bits of KL: Little India in Klang

Little India, of Klang, isn’t a Little India of posters and postcards. Little India, of Klang, is one whose music – an exercise of high-decibel exuberance; a cacophony of Tamil chatter, of Bollywood film scores blaring out of speakers – cannot be defined, nor its meaning determined.

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By: Ng Su Ann

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