It was a place to make connections, a place to find familiar faces and a place for food that was reminiscent of family and home which was more than 4000 miles away. In short, it was a place where a heart hungry for smells, sounds and flavors of home could find some solace. Komala Vilas, the restaurant that has been serving up Indian food since 1935 was as much a landmark in pre-war Singapore as it is now. When Murugiah Pillai and his famiy, chose Raju, one of his five children, to break out of farming which had been the family vocation for generations, to travel to Singapore to make a new beginning, little did he realize that the chosen young man would carve out a unique niche for himself in the culinary history of Singapore. Think of dosa in Singapore and the natural inclination is to think of Komala Vilas, especially the one on the main street, 76 and 78, Serangoon Road. I myself cannot think of leaving Singapore without eating at least one masala dosa at KV. Anyone familiar with the weather in Singapore would know that it rains without warning quite often in the afternoon. So if you’re shopping in the afternoon around two or three o’clock in Serangoon Road and out of the blue there is a clap of thunder and a downpour that sends everyone scurrying for cover, nothing beats settling in a corner in the restaurant with a masala dosa and a steaming fragrant coffee and taking in the color of a vibrant street while the rain comes down splashing noisily.
Murugiah Raju’s or M. Rajus’ beginnings in Singapore were probably no different from that of many other early immigrants. Traveling on a ticket bought with borrowed funds, and with very little money in his pocket, at fifteen he set out for Singapore with stars in his eyes and hope in his heart for a better future for himself and his family, back home in Pattukottai, Tanjore. Soon after landing in Singapore, not unlike many other South Indians, he made his way to 78, Serangoon Road which was then known as Karnanadha Vilas, run by Raju Iyer. Karnanandha Vilas was the place that Indians gravitated to as soon as they landed to feel at home. They would eat, meet people and sometimes leave their luggage for safekeeping in the restaurant while they went out to look for work and lodgings. So like the others, young Raju too made his way to the restaurant. As luck would have it, and it must have been Providence smiling down on the young man, the owner whose name he shared, offered him a job. Raju quickly won the hearts of the owner and his customers with his efficiency and his attitude. Eventually when the owner Raju Iyer, decided to sell his business and return to India, the young Raju bought the business with money borrowed from a milk vendor who frequented the restaurant. And thus began Komala Vilas, one among the three pre-war Indian restaurants. The other two were Anandha Bhavan and Krishna Vilas.
Since many early immigrants arrived in Singapore without their wives and families, they would set up accounts with the restaurant even after they had found their lodgings because this was the place they came back to for their meals. They would settle their bills at the end of the month on payday. My father stills speaks nostalgically of his bachelor days when he had an account with Komala Vilas. He would bicycle from the room where he stayed with four or five fellow teachers to the restaurant for his breakfast before heading off to the school where he taught. In the afternoon, he would go back to the restaurant for lunch before bicycling home. On Fridays, he would leave his bike there and catch a matinee at the nearby Rex theatre before riding home.
The way the menu has evolved in Komala Vilas over the years is very reflective of waves of immigration which brought in people from different parts of the subcontinent in different periods of time. In the early years, the food was purely South Indian. Then Expo ’70 which took place in Tokyo drew Indians from different parts of the subcontinent. Singapore which by then could easily cater to Indian dietary demands turned out to be a food haven for these travelers. Komala Vilas then started serving north Indian cuisine. These days the restaurant, which now has outlets in several parts of the island, serves Indo-Chinese cuisine as well. But one tradition that the present owners, sons and grandsons of Raju, stick to unwaveringly, is the vegetarian fare.