Friday, August 12, 2005

Back from Holland/ India: II

People I

The trip started with nearly a dozen friends bidding me goodbye at the airport. It is an overwhelming sight to have so many people wave at you when you enter the airport. The place was Atlanta, and the present friends had come to see-off my former apartment-mate and friend who was leaving US for good. So in this farewell, I had role of Laxman and not of Ram (and there is no Sita and Urmila yet in the stories). As we both travelled to Amsterdam, I felt the soft pain that over the years has returned to haunt me, a soft pain of the knowledge that many people who I part with are nearly gone forever. Perhaps the last year we spend together is the only time we might get together. In future there would be phone calls and emails, the frequency of which will decrease every passing year, and maybe some decades later we will run into each other somewhere. While I stayed at Amsterdam, he flew away!!

I am back in US now, and am still coming to grips with his absence. Who on earth will drink tea with me now?:) Who on earth will watch as many movies with and without me and talk in dialogues from all sort of movies?

A new student said, "I am here to replace N." My immediate response, "N cannot be replaced!"


"The talk of Panjabis"

I had walked through the streets of Amsterdam all day. There was not a single soul I knew or talked to. A day without conversation is far too much for someone like me to handle. So I decided to go to a desi restaurant and try my luck. I walked by several desi places, till I came to this one where a balding man, somewhere in mid-fifties asked me, "Where are you from my son?" The words instantly became music to my conversation-deprived self. As I answered he bade me to sit down, and few minutes later called out, "Tapan, Get coffee beta: on the house." I felt unconfortable. This was a total stranger who I had met only a few minutes ago, and all I had gathered so far was that he owned the place, and all I had told him was that I was in Holland for 10 days: why must he then offer coffee to me? "Daal mein kuchch kaala hai," was my first thought when he asked me if I was hungry. I said I will eat my dinner and he ventured to bring the menu himself and then also tell me what the house speciality was. My brainwaves somehow told me that he was going to fleece me off. As I placed my order, he said, "Tapan: Get the special salad for this gentleman, and bring the fried rice." For anyone who has eaten at Pipli in Haryana or at the Delhi bus-stand, this spells trouble. Everything accrues an amount and the final bill is often overwhelming. I was now cursing myself, thinking that I would be overcharged, and I was going to get into trouble... all because I needed to talk to someone!

The food was delicious. In fact, much better than what I have eaten in most US desi places! Our conversation moved on. He had come to Germany right after a bachelor degree, and knew only a few words of English. He made a guess of my age and said that it was half a decade before I was born.

"First few years were the hardest. Food and lodging were as big a problem as language and loneliness. Hum bhi kahan himmat haarnay waaley thay! Ghar war toe chodd aaye thay, toe koi chaara bhi nahin tha (We were no push-overs. In any case we had left our home and there were no choices) So I worked at any job I could find. Hotels, taxis, cloth-shops: Germany, France and then I came here more than 20 years back. It was after an year and a half that I took a pleasure trip in a car with a friend. I wrote to India ki yahan sheeshay ki sadkay hai (the roads are of glass). Years later when my mom came to visit me she was wrecked to see that roads were not made of glass: though by that time she would have convinced anyone she knew in the village that her son was in foreign where the roads were made of glass!":)
"Kya baat kar rahe ho beta (What are you saying son) Panjabis have progressed? Panjabis have progressed no shit. These are the most crass and loud people and dirty every place where they go. They bloody are uneducated fools who live their lifes dazed and confused; no Panjabi is happy outside Panjab; its only Scotch that manages to keep them alive and they bloody don't even know how to drink. A large peg in one gulp. I am from Haryana and sometimes people think I am Panjabi: oh how it hurts!"

Having known some brilliant and many loving, caring, endearing Panjabis, I was feeling quite bitter at his words. Though I knew how scotch was one drink that has had routed lassi as the favorite panjabi drink, I have had all found Panjabis endearing. The food was good so far, and other talk had been interesting, but this hatred for Panjabis was irking me. Meanwhile four Panjabi men and a woman walked by. While the woman and two men sat at the table next to ours, two disappeared inside and reappeared with large whiskey pegs in their hands. I could see that those guys were already drunk, and the woman who was richly dressed, just simpered on as her loud husband giggled on what he and his friends narrated saying "ek non-veg joke hai ji; bura na maan na." Even before she drank three sips of her mango juice, these people had gulped their large pegs. "We are going on the canal cruise," they said as they left.

"Did not see for yourself son? I am totally embarrassed by these people. When they come to eat in my restaurant I curse my luck. These people are bad for business. They spill everything; cleaning these tableclothes is expensive. Kids run around and shout and cry and throw stuff here and there. Dads are too drowned in whiskey to bother, mothers to busy calculating how rich they have gotten in last few years. If I were at consulate I would bar their entry into this and every other country. But these bloody people come illegally. They are everywhere. Now those bloody fools will go on the canal cruise and shout and jeer and create a ruckus. Because of these bloody bastards , all Indians get a bad name. There is no bloody toilet on that ffing cruise: all their scotch is going to pump them into hell."

The bill came. No surcharge, nothing. I paid the bill. The coffee was really on the house. I looked at my watch. We had chatted for three hours. Besides the Panjabis, our conversation had moved through his life story, how he was able to rise over the years, and learnt not only English and German but also French and Dutch. Now he was learning Italian. He smiled saying it was good for business, and in Italian he would limit himself to few words only. We discussed of how American news was full of propaganda and garbage, how and why Haryana and India was not able to progress as well as it could. He even handed me his cell phone and winked "gande jokes dekh beta." The jokes were just hilarious. Finally when I stood up to go, he offered another on the house coffee! He also gave me some tips about places to visit and many good wishes for a career in research.


I had woken up early and trodded through empty streets of Amsterdam. Suddenly I heard a Panjabi song. A Panjabi song in Amsterdam!! I was delighted to the core, looked around and since no one was present, did a bhangra step or two. The sound came from a restaurant located few shops down the street. As I walked towards the music, I saw a young Panjabi guy cleaning counters and washing utensils inside. Our eyes met briefly and I gave him a big smile. That was it. He opened the door, and said in Panjabi "Tussy ghooman aaye ho?" (Are you here for travel) I said yes. "India which kithon?" "Himachal" "te ki pilaawaana: tussi thanda laoge... naaaji... aiwen kidda... coke ta chalunga" (What should I offer: cold drink... what no?... coke will do. eh?)

"Te ji tussi legally aaye ho ya illegally aaye ho?" (You have come legally or illegally?) "legally" I said... "and aap?" His responded with a shy smile " Mein ta shaadi karke aaya han" (I have come through marriage")

The rhetoric of restaurant owner about Panjabis was still echoing in my ears, while I sipped the cola and talked to my newest friend! He was just 21 years old, in fact got married as soon as he turned 21 and come to Holland on the very next day. Coming from a very very poor family, the marriage offer to this girl was considered a windfall in his village. Now he lived with his in-laws and was biding time till he gets his papers in order. The Panjabi songs played on; this particular one was a heart rending one sung in a deep baritone saying how the poet missed the village where he grew up. My friend was depressed though he added that he could not talk to anyone about it. "Who can I talk to here. People hear about miseries first and then tell make them into stories they can laugh about. Everyone is ready to exploit your sorrows for their mirth. (Sigh!) I wish I had studied. At least I could have fared a little better even in marriage prospects or better still could have found a reasonable job in India. I call home once a week. My sister is still studying. I am sure I will earn enough to build a house and get her married...... I work two jobs... so if you had come in day time you couldn't have found me......" Our conversation went on... He even offered me temporary stay at his place, and to ensure that I considered his offer seriously, he provided me with his address and phone numbers.

As I walked out of this restaurant, I felt for this guy. He had come three months back... His english was bad.... lived with in-laws... and he looked visibly devastated... A graduate student's life is paradise in comparison, even for the ones with idiotic advisors...! He was living a life that he seem to despise, though for feeding himself and family, this seemed like the best choice. I could see that this guy would need to work his ass off for next 15-20 years before he would be capable of having an independent business and family: by then he will have new trouble from children growing up, he would have lost his connection with country, his miseries would have made him bitter..... he would be another one living through his bitterness with endless pegs of whiskey!

What was unforgettable was when his boss came in, he said, " Sahibji! Meet my good friend Vivek. He lives in America and is studying for a PhD."

I hope I will get to see him some day.


As I flew out of Amsterdam, there were two Panjabi families sitting close by: I sat near a window seat, with a snorer on my right. Then in four seats sat two kids and their parents; and behind them was another family. Plus there were two more kids in the seats right in front of me. How could I tell they were Panjabi? No, not only because I saw turban on a kid's head, no not only because they spoke Panjabi and their English was also in Panjabi accent, but even before a word was uttered and the kid spotted, the girth of mummies, the mirth of half-drunk daddies and kids running around made it clear where they came from. Its said that a Panjabi female starts off as a baby, grows up into a babe and invariable ends up as bebe!! The girls at 16 are beautiful and slim, at 36 its hard to see how they could have worn anything they claim as their "jawani ke kapde seegay" (clothes from the youth). Many recover their teenage breadth by the time they cross 60! Anyways, for the first time in my life I witnessed pakran-pakdai in the plane!! (pakran-pakrai= catch me if u can)! I never imagined it could be played inside a bloody plane, for eight hours, under the eyes of the seemingly unbothered parents, and included nudging at dozing passengers, shouting when someone was caught, pushing through the line outside the restroom. One kids must have weighed a ton, and he was the only one who was not playing. He was busy in the celebration of simple biological machinery: every 15 minutes he got a new coke can on his way back from the toilet! When his daddy said, "put, buss bhi kar" (Son, enough), the mommie threw a tantrum, "ajj kede paise lag rahe hai twade! Peee, put peee"

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