Even in the most unlikely Belgium street you may meet a fellow South Asian selling something or the other.
"Apa, ekti rose nein na.”
Not sure I'd heard these words right, I did a double take in the direction from which the words had drifted in. Was is possible I'd caught the words right?
Turning around, there, against the backdrop of the lashing furious waves of the North Sea at the Belgian end of the European mainland, stood a face which struck an odd chord for its stark contrast with the rest of the white faces around.
“Apa? Apni ki Bangali?”
I didn't know how to react. Here was a face I'd seen a million times over on the streets of Dhaka during my stay there. Not him, but many many like him. This was a face I've seen a zillion times on the streets in India. Again, not him, but many many like him. How quickly had he identified me as one of his kind, and how confidently he had assumed I'd be from his country.
“Apni to Bangladeshi, na? Ekti rose nein na.”
I stood there motionless for a split second. What made him assume I was from Bangladesh? My foremost reaction was to correct him and say, no, I'm from India. But really, did it matter? I simply smiled and nodded, not disappointing him by breaking his belief.
For a fortnight before that day, I'd come across many from our subcontinent selling small items at the touristy hubs across all major destinations in Europe. I'd seen them selling fake Louis Vuittons below the Acropolis in Athens, before being chased away by the local police; I'd seen them with flowers outside St Mark's Bascilca at Venice's San Marco Square going after the Japanese and Korean tourists; I'd spotted them fluttering a bevy of Spongebob Squarepants balloons against the dusk creeping up on the Duomo in Milan; they'd been roasting chestnuts under Gaudi's Sagrada in Barcelona; I'd seen them everywhere. The slightly better off among our compatriots who've ventured out were, as expected, manning or running food kiosks and smallish shops successfully. But they were everywhere. And they didn't spare an opportunity to approach this face which they knew had come from their land.
Deshi flower sellers can be seen in front of St Mark's Basilica in Venice.
It was easy for them to spot me amid the tourist crowd. One, I was travelling alone. Two, there were hardly any brown faces visible at any of these places, given that I was travelling in the off-tourist-season. And therefore, even the crowds were very thin, so one did stick out like an easily recognizable oddity. But they always came as Good News for me! I had had three of them guide me to the correct bus stop when I found myself completely lost going round and round the massive roundabout several times at Syntagma Square in Athens at 12 in the night; Earlier, when pleasantly surprised, nay, almost ecstatic, at spotting the words “Communication Centre, Internet, PCO, STD, ISD” on the glass panes at a nondescript shop in a bylane in the most non-touristy part of Brugge, I had stepped in to call home (given my abject luck with the ubiquitous phone cards), I was thrilled to see this man from Madras manning the phone booth that looked straight out of a slice of Indian street scene! Then again, one Abdur helped me save several precious Euros by telling me which was the best place to go to for cheap but good pasta in Venice. He was adamant on taking me to his friend's 'Indian' kebab joint, but I had to tell him politely I had no intention whatsoever to taste anything even remotely desi while on my trip!
But back to our man with roses at the beach. Thousand miles away from Bangladesh, here was this man selling flowers to whoever cared to stop by and dig a couple of euros from the wallet in the cold December chill. On the face of it, he was no different from the several of them I'd seen all over. But no, this man somehow did seem incongruous. What on earth was he doing there? I was in Oostende, a good hundred miles from Brussels, one end of the Belgian shore, the town seeing very few foreign tourists even in the peak season. There, to see a person from one among us, trying to do his best to earn a living in this land as cold and alien as it can get, left me numb for a while. I wondered what had prompted him to explore opportunities in this not-so-mainstream place, leaving the more obvious choices aside.
I wanted to ask him how he thought he was faring at this tiny town of about sixty thousand. I was somehow convinced that he'd be the only immigrant from the subcontinent there; wasn't he lonely? How long had he been there? How long had he been away from home? Where was home? Did he miss his family? How was he coping with the difficult language? Weren't his bones cracking in that freezing chill of the North Sea wind? I was dying despite my warm overcoat, he seemed to be wearing the same jacket he'd have worn in the mild Bangladesh winters. Did he ever get shooed away by the locals as an outsider. Questions questions questions. Unlike the other faces that had acted as mere comforters, in the sense that one felt one was not alone in a foreign land, this person was stirring up a whole host of emotions inside me.
So I began talking to him. I guess I must have faltered with my Bangla, because he was quick to point out that I was not a Bangali! I asked him if he was disappointed to hear that. He said smiling big, exposing his chipped front tooth, “Ekhane aamra shobaai aik apa.” (We are all one here).
I asked him if he was the only one there. I was surprised to hear that there were seven more from the subcontinent, just there in Oostende. His younger brother was also one of them. I was glad to hear that, and my face must have reflected it, because he beamed back exposing that funny shaped tooth again!
But within seconds I saw his eyes getting large and that smile vanishing. The reason for it was approaching us fast. It was the local policewoman, and she stopped right next to us and started asking him something, rather furiously. While I couldn't understand a word, the purport of it was more than clear. I saw him reply in halting Dutch, and dig into his jacket pocket to fish out some paper that looked like some license (to sell, maybe?), but the lady sounded only partially convinced. She nodded, but waved at him to follow her.
He gave me a quick glance before beginning to walk behind her. I sent up a silent prayer, for even though I was sure no harm would come to him, he had his papers in place, and thank God for that, I wanted him to wear that awkward smile always. Always.
Sad, I didn't even get a chance to ask him his name.
My eyes followed them some distance before I turned around to face the roaring crashing sea. Somehow, that is the only abiding memory I have of Oostende. What I did during the rest of my day long visit there, I've no recollection.
This morning, I chanced upon a report on the internet which spoke about Belgium being perhaps the most accommodating of the EU nations as far as the 'undocumented aliens' (as they are referred to in Flemish) are concerned. Would that translate into our man, and many more like him, being able to lead a life with dignity, without being harassed, or herded around, I don't know. My eyes closed into a silent prayer again.
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