Culture and religion are an accident of geography, we are just people at the end of the day. I have had countless encounters with this, and it always fascinates me. Sayeda was one of such encounters that changed my normal day, made me pause and reflect a bit longer.
I realised I will not be staying in that house the minute I stepped in. Although it was big, spotlessly clean and had an Asian vibe to it. But my prejudices had kicked in, making a mental note of the fact that ‘Chaudhary’ could also be a Bengali surname from across the border.
I remembered a book I had read a few years ago titled ‘Borderland’, where the author travels many of the border cities/towns of India. In the synopses, we come across a conversation between the author and a fisherman. When asked by the author if the fisherman considers himself as Indian or Bangladeshi, ‘Ami Bangali’ was his simple reply!
My Encounter with Sayeda
I was in south London on my house hunt. It was 27th February 2019, and the chilling weather was unhelpful, to say the least. My landlady had given me a month’s notice to evacuate my current accommodation. It had been a long day, and this was my last viewing. The lady who opened the door welcomed me in and asked if I wanted tea or coffee.
‘Just water’ I said returning her courtesy.
She showed me the kitchen with all its amenities- fridge, dishwasher, and even the washing machine, all the while speaking in her Bollywood inspired Hindi, with a thick Bengali accent. She asked me where in India I was from. My reply, ‘Mumbai’ lit up her eyes.
She was a middle-aged woman, a housewife with a genuine smile. She told me about the girl who previously stayed at their home and that she is still in touch with her. We went upstairs and she showed me the room.
‘If you want another cupboard we can provide’ I heard her say.
The room was well kept with a bed and a wardrobe. The curtains were a combination of green with white flowers and had a perfect bedside lamp. I did like it.
Sayeda and her Family
‘This is my daughter’s room’, she said opening the adjacent door. ‘It feels empty now without her’.
She had lived in London for the past 27 years, yet as she spoke, I sensed a rhythm that Asians or any other second language English speakers have. Even I do. I am sure she did not ‘think’ in English.
‘We can negotiate the rent if you are not okay’ she said cutting my chain of thoughts.
‘Oh no no’ I heard myself say. We made our way back into the living room, where she insisted on me having a cup of tea.
‘You have come from the cold, you need it, she said, gesturing me to sit down.
I sat there wondering it would be nice to stay with them, but my brain interrupted with the subconscious details.
‘I don’t like the English tea’ she said adding a spoon full of sugar to the boiling milk.
‘Neither do I’ I concurred.
Her young son sat by the dining table studying. He showed me his sister’s photograph with her husband on their wedding day.
‘My daughter, she is a pharmacist and that’s her husband’ she said with a spark in her eyes. The little boy came and sat next to me.
‘What’s your name?’ I began with the simplest question.
‘Aman as in A-M-A-N?’ I asked, surprised.
‘Yes, A-M-A-N’ he said with a smile.
‘That’s my friend’s name’, I heard myself say, conveniently deleting the rest of the details, including his last name, Bhatia.
‘That’s my name too’ he said spontaneously in a thick English accent, unaware of my underlining preconceptions that led to my astonished expression. A familiar smell wafts the room and along with the tea, the lady offered me some biscuits.
‘They are from Bangladesh; you will like it, she assured me. I like people to be unassuming, yet I was not offended by that sentence. I resisted at first, but she said something so Indian that I had to take at least one, ‘Sirf Chai Nahi Pite’ (you cannot have just tea). True.
I surprised myself by answering all her questions without a single lie. Somehow it felt she would not hurt me with all that information. She asked if I had any siblings. ‘Allah, Baghawan, your parents must be missing you’, she exclaimed after I told her I was the only child. I had never heard the first two words next to each other so smoothly reside.
There is another viewing on Saturday she told me. I had almost forgotten I was here to view the accommodation. She told me about the girl who came for viewing last week. She was in a mood to talk, I could see. ‘Wo na, kali thi’ (She was black, referring to her skin colour. I do not think there was anything more to it in her mind) she informed.
Fish, Rice & Good Bye
‘Do you like fish?’ she said, attempting to change the topic. ‘Yes,’ I confessed. ‘Then there is no problem, you can eat so much here’ she said, her body language changed a little. Many Indians are vegetarian, is what she must have known. My contradictory reply was happily received.
‘Bengali fish is a speciality, right?’ I asked a question whose answer I already knew. I felt like talking to her too.
‘Yes, and rice. Do you eat rice?’
‘I love rice’ I said. I do, not a lie again.
There was an un-awkward silence, as I sipped tea, and she directed her attention to the television program. Zee TV channel was on, and she asked me if I watch the Hindi series. I told her that I did not. The next thing I know was she narrates the plot of the series.
Her effortlessness in venturing into a new topic was fascinating and genuine. My phone vibrated and flashed along with the message notification, the time. I told her that it was getting late and I should leave.
‘Will you eat some chicken rice?’ was her reply. I refused politely.
‘Take some home then’ she offered.
‘No, thank you I said. I was staying with a strictly vegetarian Gujarati family. Aman waved me goodbye interrupting his video game.
I gave her my number and saved her number, ‘Sayeda’.
‘It was really nice meeting you, she said giving me a hug.
‘It was nice meeting you, and thanks for the tea’ I reciprocated
Realisations and Reflections
She opened the front door and waved me goodbye as I stepped out on the chilly London night. I did like that accommodation, but I could not reason why some part of my brain wanted me to continue on my house hunt.
This incident has been a tiny bit of my life in London. But a tiny bit I can never forget. A tiny bit that made me more conscious of my own beliefs, values and understandings. It gave me a reality check lesson I did not think I needed.
Read more enlightening thoughts about life and lessons here!
About the Author
Gandhali Bhide is a researcher in the field of culture, history, identity and diplomacy. Has special interest in national flags and world capitals. Avid reader, movie buff and Sudoku enthusiast.Has a Masters’s degree in Cultural Policy, Relations and Diplomacy from Goldsmiths, University of London.