My husband and I are on our way from Madras to Paris. Chennai, actually. Calling the city Madras is more like responding to our pet names quicker than to our formal names. It’s what we called it as children and it’s what’s stuck in our heads. Though every now and then, we catch ourselves calling it Chennai and feel mildly amused at the readjustment.
We land at Charles De Gaulle and hope they won’t ask us why we got our visas from Switzerland and then landed in CDG. What were we doing here? Why wasn’t there a stamp from Switzerland?
“We’ll say we are going there. By train. Ok?” We rehearse.
“What if they ask to see our reservations?”
We panic. We walk in looking every bit like guilty escape artists about to be handcuffed and thrown out of a continent, even before they’ve had a chance to breathe in its air.
They don’t ask us anything.
The fact of the matter is it’s really difficult to get a Schengen visa to Paris, sitting in Chennai. Sitting anywhere in India for that matter. Too many questions. Too many complications. Papers. Tax receipts. Bank balance. Yours. Your parents’. In laws’. Their cousins’. Aunts’. Neighbours’ and their pets’. So if you think about it, it’s almost as if they don’t want us in Europe. Yet, here we are.
We do some touristy things in Paris. Climb up the Eiffel Tower and ask a friendly brown man to take a picture of us, go to the Louvre and stare at the tiny Mona Lisa, as over a 100 other tourists from our continent try to squeeze in a selfie with her, spend a few hours at Shakespeare and Co, secretly clicking pictures of each other, even though there’s a board in there that asks us to not click pictures, and later find enough time to do the not so touristy things. Like meet a friend who’s a local. He takes us on a whirlwind walking tour across the city, to churches, parks and hip coffee shops where some Prince from the Middle East hangs out often. We listen to jazz at Caveau de la Huchette, over at Place Saint Michel and see the beautiful Chateau-de-Vincennes and the spectacular Bois de Vincennes.
In the middle of our three-week Paris trip, we’re squeezing in a small hop to Barcelona. We are very excited about it.
We take an Air France flight late in the evening, when the sun still shines bright like its 9 am, from Paris to Barcelona. We sleep in. The next morning, excited, even before we brush, we click pictures from our very tiny balcony.
We post those pictures on Instagram. Hashtag Barca. Hashtag Beautiful. Hashtag VickyCristina. Hashtag WoodyAllen. You know things like that.
We are staying in the tiniest room in Pension Alamar, at BarriGotic. It is cosy, clean, comfortable and in the middle of all the action. We love it. We walk around the BarriGotic, and it reminds us of Rajasthan. The buildings look like havelis, the tiny alleys, the windows, the art, the jewellery being sold on the streets… We walk down Ramblas and the place is like a fair. Bustling. Little shops selling scarves, paintings coming to life in front of our eyes in the hands of skillful artists and live sculptures moving about in a graceful meditative manner.
Paella + Sangria deals scream out at us and every few feet we are greeted by familiar looking men who stand selling a weird contraption that when you slip into your mouth makes you sound like Crazy Frog. They are Indian men. And then I notice the name boards of stores in the distance that are all… Om Sai Ram. Jai Shri Krishna. And more Sai Ram.
We take a cab down to the Wednesday flea market near Torre Agbar, the next day. And then we hop on over to Dali Museum. Sagra Da Familia. Park Guell. On top of Tibidabo, from where we take in the view of the entire city.
It rains one day and we need an umbrella. We quickly walk into a store in the Gothic Quarter and ask for one.
“Do le lijiye aap. Sasta padega,” the man at the store says. Hindi. He’s from Western India. Asking us to buy two small ones because that’ll be cheaper than one big umbrella. I see women, from his family, climb up a flight of stairs and wonder how many of them lived up there and if above every shop in Ramblas, a family of Indians/Pakistanis lived. How many Indians/Pakistanis were out here in Barcelona? At this point, we are sure that this part of Barcelona is run entirely by our people.
On another day, when we are hungry from all the walking, we decide to finally eat Paella. Two young, petite girls, wearing the brightest lipstick ask us to try the restaurant they’re standing in front of. Because most of them are tucked away in the nooks of the Gothic Quarter, restaurants use young girls, most of them with deep, red lipstick, curly hair falling on their face, and a bright smile, to advertise for them. There’s a board that says 18 euros, sharing. We quickly do some currency conversion and decide 18 for two is a good bargain. It is a charming road-side restaurant with high stools, paellas and sangrias.
“He is Indian,” my husband whispers to me, as our waiter takes our order and leaves.
When he comes back to our table, we learn that our waiter is half Punjabi-half Kashmiri from Norway, and the Paella? It was made by Chef Rajesh.
Later that evening, we go to an exhibit about the Catalan self-determination movement. My Tamil roots help me develop an instantaneous respect for the place’s linguistic politics.
Occasionally, we see Indian tourists in groups. Mostly families. We bump into them at the frozen foods section on a week night, trying to pick up food, and they carefully avoid eye contact, as if acknowledging our presence would somehow make their fancy European vacation less exclusive.
We go to buy souvenirs a day before our flight back to Paris. At every souvenir shop in Ramblas, we speak in Hindi. At one, they play Lungi Dance for us, real loud. Real loud. And ask us to dance. I almost feel humiliated, and wonder if it’s finally time to stop being a Shah Rukh Khan fan. We say there’s no such thing called Lungi Dance in South India. Bollywood made that up. They laugh at us and say we are just shy.
The man from UP, we are talking to, running the souvenir shop in the Gothic Quarter, has been in Barcelona for 13 years now. “It’s so difficult. My brother has not been able to visit me in thirteen years,” he says and my eyes follow the other young men in the shop, also from South Asia, barely able to speak any English or Catalan, working, and wonder who they are if the shopkeeper’s family has not been visiting him.
The boys climb down a stairway and disappear, perhaps into a basement warehouse.
“It’s easier to get a visa if you have no relatives here. The second my brother tells them I own a shop, they don’t want him coming,” he says. He is not sad though or even complaining. Just stating things as they are.
We zero in on two mugs and he says, “If you want anything, you can ask me while you are here. Any other souvenirs or any help.”
We thank him and stroll down to Pension Alamar, with strains of sitar from a street band in front of the Gothic Cathedral, making for a quiet background score.
We are headed to Barceloneta, on our last day. Our first stop that day though is a supermarket. We’re gonna buy us some Tetra Pak Sangrias. We buy two, in fact and walk up to the billing table. The man at the counter looks up at us and says, “Theen Assi.” Three Eighty. He’s from Pakistan. And speaks Catalan, Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, Spanish and English.
At another supermarket, while buying chips to eat while staring at the beach, later in the day, I absent-mindedly speak in English and the man from Gujrat at the counter asks me to repeat what I said.
“Kya bola aapne?” he says, his eyebrows raised, a smile dancing around his lips. The way an older cousin would tease when I flaunted my English in front of him instead of speaking to him in my mother tongue.
I feel sheepish and blurt out in Hindi, “Kitna hua?”
“Aise bolna ta na pehle!” (You should have spoken like this right at the beginning) he says. We have the usual conversation. Where are we from? Where is he from?
At the beach, I dip my legs in the cool water, stretch, watch the waves and the many men who look like our brothers walking the sands selling wares. Henna tattoos. Mojitos. Bed sheets. Beers. Massages.
A couple of tourists, none South Asian, get henna tattoos and tip the men heavily. A Thai woman lands up near me and before I can protest, starts massaging my shoulders. I politely decline and then a man arrives with a tray, “Madam, Mojito?” he asks. The J is not silent. When I say I don’t want it, in Hindi, he replies only in English. This game continues a few times until he gets a call on his mobile phone. He is delighted and his eyes light up, almost instantly. He speaks on the phone in a familiar tongue. Every few minutes the men selling things, all South Asian, gang up and talk to each other, laugh and then go their way.
“Surreal,” my husband says, “How did so many of our people come here and what did they do for visa?”
We try and think up of reasons for this strange Indian/Pakistani presence in Barcelona. That becomes our occupation for the day. Guessing the visa stories of various Indians we spot, because of our own visa ordeals.
“Maybe they are from conflict zones, Sri Lanka perhaps, maybe Kashmir?”
“Maybe they are twice removed Indians?”
We cough up 20 euros for using those stretch chairs on the beach. “I thought they were free!” my husband rues, and that’s when the Indian man selling those cheap bedsheets with black elephant motifs we’d seen in handloom exhibitions back home, makes sense to us.
We are on our way to the airport, stopping for a last minute purchase. Unable to contain our curiosity any further, we ask the shopkeeper, when he came to Barcelona, and how he came to settle down in this place so far away from home.
“It has been eight years since I came here,” says the man in Madras checks from Pakistan and goes silent for a few minutes.
Just as we think we he isn’t going to answer the second part of our question, he says, “Mehnat. Mazdoori. Aur kya?”
Indeed labour and wages. What else could possibly bring the people of our countries together in brotherhood?