Siddharthya Swapan Roy looks past the gleaming facade of an international airport and gets comfortable with the migrant minority.
I had spent over an hour in the corner of the large open bookstore when the storekeeper’s looks made it clear that I had far overstayed my welcome.
The balding, clean-shaven man from God’s own country had been nice and welcoming when I, from his own country, had walked into the store in that foreign land. Glad to have found a compatriot he had smiled broadly and I too had smiled back.
But now, in after-thought, I guess the smile was more for my fine suit than for the coarse man it hid underneath. In fact it had deluded the poor man into thinking I was just the kind of customer who would buy one of those expensive coffee table books about fine art and culture and cuisine. Little did he know that my suit was only a ploy my employers used to impress clients into getting convinced that we were good at what we do — the same inane logic that good looks is a reflection of a better intellect.
Little did the shopkeeper know that the cost of my suit notwithstanding, my lower middle class background had ensured I had converted the price tag written in Euro to Rupees and found it to be more than my daily tour allowance. There was no way I was going to buy a book with photos of cannabis-smoking Indian sadhus for that much!
Had it not been for the green cover of a paperback version of Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude jutting out from its fellow tomes on the shelf, I would have been content taking a lung-ful of book smells and exited the place with dignity. In any case I wasn’t going to buy it. I already had it and had read it twice over. But I couldn’t resist pulling it out and going through — “just a bit” I told myself.
Needless to say, the bit turned into many bits more and I lost my way in the familiar roads of Macondo. Magic took over reality, and the book’s resin and paper smell mixed with warm coffee wafting in from the shop next door, turning the shop floor’s thick maroon carpet into a flying carpet which I rode on, along with the first generation of Macondo’s children, and went from door to door meeting old friends, foes and all things in between.
Problem was, Marquez had lulled me into revealing my true gauche identity and I was soon sitting in a far less than sophisticated pose, and my coat had come off and was hanging on the outstretched handle of the suitcase.
The fellow Indian at the helm of affairs realised his misjudgement. A young white woman, fellow reader-on-the-floor, faced with similar expulsion made peace by paying for the book she was reading and settled on a seat nearby. As for me, I mumbled something to distract my dignity from the failed farce of being a potential customer and left the scene quickly.
Of course I can’t complain too much here — the urge to read Marquez can’t be labelled as a need can it? And this was too fine a place for me to be allowed to sit on the floor for that long. So what am I agitating about? But rational conclusions notwithstanding, I cursed the fancy world of rich people who buy fancy books just to show off. “I’ll never ever fit in,” I told myself and headed to the coffee shop to get myself something to eat.
The coffee shop was equally glossy and expensive. But unlike intellectual dismissals done at book shops, I would have to compromise. In other words, eat.
Two glass showcases stood side by side. One hot, holding various combinations of bread and meat; the other cold, having breads stuffed with cold slathered vegetables and sweet items. Perhaps I had taken a bit longer than necessary to choose what I should order when the voice of the pretty young woman at the desk brought me back.
“Are you going to buy anything?” her voice had changed from coy to curt. But she wasn’t talking to me. Five or six people collected in a group were, like me, choosing something to eat.
The difference was that I was looking around to see what would fit my hunger, while they were looking for something that would fit their wallet.
They were an ugly sight in the glassy fantasy of the expensive European airport. They were a bunch of migrant labourers who spoke Nepali. Despite having turned up in their best, they wore stained shirts and colourless pants. They spoke in soft voices and treaded cautiously trying not to fit in but to disappear into the mosaic of fast life. But even a fleeting glance at their swarthy faces would lay bare their working class pedigree.
Try as they might, they just couldn’t find anything in that showcase which would fit their wallet and at the same time give a semblance of satiety to their grumbling stomachs. The lady had grown quite exasperated by then and turned her attention to me — dismissing the bunch of cheapskates wasting her time.
If you think she was rude, don’t. She had been through this routine many times before and yet, true to her duty, she had given them time. There was no way these fellows were going to be able to buy food at what was one of the world’s largest coffee shop chains. They themselves knew it. But true to their unrefined selves their animalistic urges made them try the impossible. In fact just when they were turning back towards the recesses of the airport, two fellow migrants joined them, informing them about a similar failed expedition to the tobacconist. These men, I thought, for lack of education couldn’t even differentiate between their need for food and want of tobacco.
I don’t quite recall why, but I mumbled some excuse and left the counter without ordering anything. The pretty woman backed out from the counter into the small kitchenette, paying an ephemeral glance that said “what happened?”
I found myself an empty seat — two actually. I sat myself down on one, the laptop bag on the other and looked around.
The darker sections of the airport were quite full of the other type actually. I just hadn’t noticed. I had been distracted perhaps by the overbearing sophistication of the establishment.
Migrants of all sizes and colours walked around — some recognisable, some less recognisable, some better dressed than others, while some a little less fed than others. Some spoke Nepali, some Bangla, some Hindi, some Italian and Spanish. Some, like the God’s own man, even thought they weren’t part of the unfortunate lot and tended to their professional duty of carrying on the cycle of being bad to those under their layer of income.
So many so few
But as fate would have it, all were migrants — and irreversibly so. All of them running around from place to place, muddled in a mess of needs and wants. And as I counted, their numbers swelled and swelled until the fine fellows were a terrible minority. Clearly the power of the establishment lay in its ability to use gloss to blind out numerical facts. And as is well known, blinded and brow-beaten people accept norms favouring the fine as facts of life.
But this story isn’t a dour account of tragic class realities. It’s a better one.
By the time my airport wait ended I wasn’t bothered anymore about that being an eyesore. From what I had seen in the hour or so gone by, all I had to do was take my coat off and I’d fit in with the majority. So asking sophistication to take a hike I made full use of the two empty seats, stashed my laptop in a corner and took a sound little nap — legs raised on the seat using the fine coat as blanket.
And that was after the Nepalis and I had had a gala time of coffee, microwave-heated spaghetti, some bread, cheap jokes and expensive drinking water — a working class “party” if you will. It had taken us barely a couple of minutes before we dropped troublesome formalities like belonging to different countries. They spoke far more Hindi and English than what people in most places in my own country do, and whatever was lacking in words was made up for by laughs and gestures that need no spoken word.
And no, this isn’t a tale of an altruistic moneyed man either. We all chipped in like equals — my allowance and theirs. And as my full stomach and a buoyed spirit that saw me retain my happiness on the flight back (despite being bullied by airport security) would confirm, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” is a damn good formula.