A cosmopolitan population of aquatic beasts dwells in the gardens' larger water bodies, which also confine a handful of swans with mute wings and rude appetites. Frugivorous characids the size of a sack of potatoes patrol the murky pools alongside schools of tilapines and thick-lipped gouramis. Siamese rasboras and Sumatran barbs hug the shallower fringes, which also serve as territories for neotropical cichlids that have outgrown the affections of their owners. Oriental cyprinids add a dash of gold and red to this dull blend, while giant snakeheads lurk in midwater to eliminate the possibility of nesting fowl. New World poeciliids occupy the green-grey space in between the larger swimmers, feeding and fornicating at a rate that ensures the survival of their kind in a habitat of ecological disharmony.
Amid this menagerie paddle turtles from North America and China, which owe their freedom to kind souls who unleashed the responsibility of their care to mother nature without asking if she'd buckle under the burden. Foreign bullfrogs, too, have found a convivial nest in the gardens' ponds, thanks to the devotion of families who revel in blessed ignorance and refuse to see the risks they pose to the health of their home and the future of their heritage.
A father and his brood had gathered on the walkway between the exposed lake, which is ringed in its entirety by a concrete bank, and a subsidiary which has been permitted to nurse a broken wall of shrubs and marshland plants. The sire held in his hand a canister of granulated feed and swaggered between the railings, pouring liberal servings of red and green pellets into the water, which boiled with a flurry of gaping maws. Foot-long walking catfish dominated the scene, twisting and thrusting scaleless bodies in striking numbers that suggest a successive wave of introductions. Sensing a free lunch, a swan crashed the party, encouraging the man to empty the package to the delight of his troops. The animals feast and the people laugh, imagining this to be an idyll where men in their pride and wisdom bestow largesse upon simpler creatures that’d otherwise wither and waste away in a wilderness of recreated dreams.
These dragonflies seldom perch, prefering to float and feed amid the dust of middle aire, and I was beginning to despair of a chance to see this migrant up close when a pristine male popped up by the swan lake at the Botanic Gardens. Dangling from a Casealphinia bush in a pose more akin to heavily built aeshnids than featherweight libellulids, the glider revealed a synthorax with discrete yellow lines that resemble the unfathomable panels of a foo fighter and a rich ochre abdomen bearing anchor-shaped markings. A few diagnostic shots were all I could take before the insect erupted with uncanny energy, zipping over the trees in a blink and leaving nothing but a blank in the headspace of second thoughts.
The hottest hours of the day bring out the fire in diurnal libellulids, which seem to vanish when clouds block the sun but return with subspace speed when the sky flashes anew with pale fury. Blue dashers are among the boldest dragonflies around the ponds of the Botanic Gardens; the stiff-winged males are partial to the tips of emergent rheophytes, from which they intercept rivals and roving midges before returning to wax in blinding pruinescence. The brown females are somewhat less conspicious, but can be spotted at times as they sally over weedy pools and flick their brood into the still shadows of fallen leaves and silty litter.
Common parasols prefer to perch closer to the ground. Some individuals flee long before striking range. Others tolerate prolonged intrusions into their personal space and this male even leapt from his twig to the back of my palm, as if he welcomed the chance to sample a new ride. Possibly the most abundant dragonfly on the island, these stocky libellulids are remarkably difficult to frame, for too harsh a light burns the warm maroon of their wings and washes away the brilliance of an urban gem. And for all their ubiquity, a closer look might still pay off were a regional rarity were to be revealed in the local population.
Higher up on the same soft shrubs, crimson dropwings raised their bottoms to the last rays of the day. Mature males come in purplish pink, but immature ones and females glow amber brown. But last light was fast approaching and an early duskhawk had begun to claim the airspace between the screwpines and swaying reeds. The gardens grew dim and my heart ducked behind the cover of a bed of Canna where dragons rest on every leaf tip and rock to the gentle rhythm of wind-stroked stalks.
“We are staying at Roxy Hotel,” said Naveen, as he stood between his parents and faced me early in the afternoon on Saturday. I was leaning against the raised portion of the bus behind the driver which houses the front wheels and sacrifices precious seats for the sake of accommodating wheelchair-bound passengers. A railing discouraged attempts to place my bum squarely on the wheel pocket so the surface served instead as a handy spot for a heavy bag of gear. Most other passengers had fled to the rear in a frenzy for seats, but I scorned the rackrace and thus was a sitting duck for the trio as they regained their bearings after a hasty search for loose change.
“We are from Mangalore,” muttered Mr Srinivasan, a mousy gentleman dressed a little too formally for a weekend. But it was their final day in Singapore and they wanted to visit a famous Buddhist temple at Waterloo Street. “We aren’t interested in Indian temples,” he said, “We’ve got so many back home.” The family had spent a week in Malaysia before legging it to Singapore for a few days before their return to India. I gave the assurance that I would tell them exactly where to alight and their palpable nervousness gave way to unguarded candour. “Are you Buddhist?” asked Mr Srinivasan, “Did you know Buddha is an incarnation of Lord Krishna?” I feigned surprise and turned to Naveen, a strapping fella with soft, keen eyes and a stubble I envy.
“What do you do?”
“I work at Infosys in Mysore,” he stated. “Do you know of it?”
“Yes, but I’m a mechanical engineer.”
“Oh, I see.
“Er...are you married?”
“Oh no. I’m here with just my father and mother.”
Standing a little away, Mrs Srinivasan maintained a cheerful silence throughout but obliged with toothy smiles when I aimed at her in a shaky sprawl while the bus roared high above Kallang Basin.
“We were taking taxis, but decided to take the bus today,” chirped Mr Srinivasan. “We couldn’t really see the city from the taxi. It was going too fast. With the bus, we can see more and talk to people.”
Naveen scribbled email addresses on a business card as the bus left the highway and approached Rochor. “Turn left after the bus stop and go straight down the lane,” I instructed him. The bus was emptying and they hurriedly joined the crowd that mobbed the pavement before a complex of three fortunes. My mind was already beginning to wander and I caught a final, fleeting glimpse of the family as they headed towards an alley where plastic devotion meets genuine desperation. Two blocks later, they were all but lost and my thoughts flew askance to imagined moments of serendipity that grew from a casual word and rolled with abandon to become a soft, smothering wave that caught us both by surprise and refused to say when, if ever, to stop.