I have been a sucker for conversations all my life. Blame it on my “addabaj bangali” genes, but I love every time somebody cares to stop and say a hello and probably share a story or two with me about anything- love, life, politics, sports, market prices of potatoes and onions…just about anything. I have observed that these conversations often turn into stories that I never thought that I could write.
It is, however, an extremely challenging task to complete a conversation nowadays. All thanks to the everyday presence of social media. People of my age hardly talk. I mean they do voice their opinion, but they prefer to ‘tweet’ it. Not that old school ones do not exist. I can call up my friend Runjhun anytime and I am always sure that we can end up talking about the latest Bollywood release, price of everyday goods, weddings, people, foreign affairs, gossip, national politics…and just about anything. But yes, I have seen that it has been absolutely impossible to strike up a conversation with random strangers nowadays (Gosh! how much I miss Calcutta Metro sometimes). Bonn is otherwise a very friendly city, but people here are also fiercely protective about their privacy. And so I hardly overhear (with my limited German proficiency) lazy chit-chat on the tube over the weather or the nation’s politics.
I had almost given up hope, when last Thursday, I met a very elderly gentleman in the metro (U-bahn in Deutsch). I was done with my language classes and had to get some work done in the Bonn Central area. It was a sunny afternoon and I was sitting nonchalantly when I saw this gentleman staring at me. He was sitting in a seat opposite to mine and appeared to be of South Asian descent, but my presumption could have been entirely wrong and he might have turned out to be Spanish also. He was old, almost 70 or 75 years of age and to tell you the truth, his constant stare did make me feel uncomfortable. No, it was not lecherous, but somehow I felt uneasy about it. He was looking for something and I had no idea till he decided to say a hello in the most unexpected fashion-
“Indian ho ya Pakistani?” (Are you an Indian or a Pakistani?)
I was startled but was assured that my initial guess about his origin was correct. I told him that I was an Indian. He seemed amused and asked me- “Indian? where from India?”
“Yes” I grinned. The pride that I feel while proclaiming my Calcuttan Bengali identity every time is unmatchable and I have no plausible explanation for that.
“You see I am a Pakistani. I am from Islamabad. But yes, I was born and brought up in Bombay…paidaish to meri waha ki hi hain (I was born there)” I did not ask, but he went on “You are new to Germany? you should see how much development they have done in the last 50 years. When I came here they were just a war ravaged nation. They were not even together.” He spoke in a dialect which I identified as Hindi with heavy influence of Punjabi.
“You stay here? When did you come here first, Sir?”
“Near Bonn Central. You see, I cam here in 1953. There were not even proper roads then. And now see, wheat they have done. When I came their currency value was even lower than our money. You must not have been born then.” I thought in my mind that even my father was not born during that time.
He continued “Germans are extremely hardworking. And look at ‘us’. Ek ko America nachate rehe gaya aur dusre ko Russia (One danced to America’s tunes and the other danced to Russia’s).” He was obviously referring to the polarisation in the India- Pakistan relationship of 1970’s which was heavily influenced by the stand of two heavyweight nation of those times- the USA and the erstwhile USSR. But this was of hardly any significance to me. I was surprised that he kept on referring India and Pakistan as “us”.
Now, I belong to a time when domestic politics is earmarked by partylines and cadres demarcating themselves as “us” and “them”. thus, it is all but surprising that somebody who had witnessed one of the most gory events of world history, one which led him to vacate his land of birth and move to another place, would refer to these two sworn enemies, one his land of birth and one earmarked for him just on the basis of his religion, as “us”. I am generally not very quiet during a conversation, but this one was a googly.
“Actually, yeh jo divide and rule ghusa diya na humare rag mein… (This “divide and rule” policy that was fed into our blood stream from early on….) Bura mat maan na, but India ke logon ko Gandhi ko nahi maarna chahiye tha. (Please do not mind, the people of India should not have killed Gandhi.)”
I kept on being silent while he went on talking.
“Gandhi was the only one who could have brought peace into the subcontinent. Everyone was bloodthirsty. Nobody gained anything.” I felt like countering him that Gandhi could have actually stopped the partition from taking shape but I realised that nostalgia is a happy antibiotic. He looked frail but his eyes glistened with joy when he spoke about Gandhi. “You guys cannot imagine what a man he was. I have seen him with my own eyes. He wore a small piece of dhoti, lived in extreme penury. Not like today’s politicians.”
His criticism was meant for the leaders across the border who are often known for their 10 percent cuts. He went on and talked about Bombay, his place of birth.
“Bombay is a very big city nowadays, right? I have heard.”
I told him that yes, it was one of the biggest in Asia, if not in the world and definitely one of the most expensive ones also and that life there was very hectic too. He seemed to understand but somewhere the idea of a hectic life in Bombay appeared to be a distant reality for him.
“Yes, Yes…I have heard. I have heard that a flat costs almost INR 2 crores in Bombay nowadays? Is it true? I went back to Bombay only once after partition. The place where Shahrukh Khan’s bungalow is…what is the name of the place?” he asked.
I told him that his bungalow is called “Mannat”.
“Yes, yes…all those places surrounding that area…and other place also where all those skyscrapers have come….all of that was mere jungle during our times….and now it has changed. Even Karachi also. Calcutta is also a very big city, right? In our times, it was the biggest. Is it still so?” He belonged to a generation which had seen and heard about Calcutta in all her glory. I did not want to spoil the romance of my city which had probably enthralled his growing up years.
He went on to tell me that a house in Karachi which previously cost 5 lakhs of Rupees now costs almost 5 crores. He offered me a chocolate in between and asked me where I stayed in Bonn. I was a bit embarrassed about being offered a chocolate when the next question came – “So you are a student here?”
I told him that even though I attended language school here, but I was technically not a student and that I came here after my marriage. And it was my turn to surprise him.
“You are married? How old are you? How much have you studied” He was looking for a visible sign of marriage that Indian Hindu women generally carried with themselves everywhere.
I told him that I was on the wrong side of 25 and that I was a Lawyer by training.
He was surprised and complimented me that I did not look my age. He was also happy to know that I have a professional degree and emphasised on why educating women in ‘our’ society was very important. He told me that when he had put his daughter into the American School in Islamabad, the only English school in his neighbourhood during those days, he was much criticised in his society about sending one’s girl child to school. This was before he came to Germany, i-e, 1953. In my mind, I smiled and thought how the situation remains frightfully similar in ‘our’ surroundings even today.
Then he asked me “Please do not mind me asking, but are you a Hindu?”
I could understand the palpable surprise in his voice but I just decided to say “yes”. It would have been a probably very long discussion if I went on to explain why many married Hindu Bengali women of my age did consider it a very personal choice to flaunt their marital status to anybody and everybody. Besides, the train was approaching the station where I had to get down. I decided to say a “Bye” and a customary “nice meeting you” when I realised that grandfathers, age, religions, caste, borders notwithstanding are extremely affectionate and lovable.
“Beta, there is a very good Pakistani restaurant near by your house. Please do visit. I went there today to have my lunch. Pakistani aur Indian khana to ek jaisa hi hain. Zyada farak nahi hain. Bangali log to khate hain non vegetarian khana. Akhir apna Khana to Apna Khana hota hain na? (there is not much difference between Pakistani and Indian food and you Bengali people even eat non vegetarian food also. After all our own cuisine is our cuisine only, right?”
I smiled, said a courteous “Thank you” and rushed. I was in a hurry. A hurry that marks the fast paced hunger of our generation. During this entire conversation, I spoke rarely…probably only during the times when he asked me a question. I generally prefer doing all the talking, but this conversation was an exception. I do not know why. He went on talking, talking about the past and the present and I listened, but it was good to find somebody who spoke my language in this crowd where there are faces who say a “Hello!” everytime you see them in the train, but beyond that, it is a dead end.
Much later, I thought why a nearly 75 year old man who spoke my language would have gone out alone to have his lunch? I could not find a plausible answer. Did he live all alone in this faraway land where neighbours do not know each other?
I have heard that while you grow old, you continuously grow fond and nostalgic about the places which marked your childhood. You pine for them. Was it through that conversation with me that he wanted a piece of India that he had left behind, long back? Was he looking for that Bombay or Calcutta that I will never get to know about?
Update: The husband man pointed out that if his daughter was already born before 1953 and was of school going age, then the man I met must have been older than 75, his presumed age. I am not so sure about the dates and it may have been so that his family moved to Germany to live with him much later. I did not confirm that. But he did tell me that his daughter now lived near Duisburg, a city near Bonn.