When we first arrived in Prague last August to study, my husband and I came to view a flat in a lovely, non-touristy neighborhood. Just as we walked out of the metro, a dark green sign stared directly at us from above a shop, the word Haveli curvaceously painted upon it in gold. I did not know until later that Haveli refers to a private royal residence, but I knew from the sound of this word as I whispered it in my head that it was India calling, and that I would be very happy to have this neighborhood as my new home.
Now that we actually do live in this area, on most days we find four or five incense sticks planted into the ground below a tree that grows on the sidewalk across the street from the restaurant. So as you emerge from the deep cold of the metro, and a rose-sandalwood-jasmine-scented breeze hits you in pleasant surprise, you know that something wonderful from far away awaits you very close by.
I succumbed very quickly to the attraction of Haveli, and it became a place for me to feel comforted by good hot chai, fresh naan, and butter chicken; and the shop upstairs a place where I could slowly relish the colors and silky soft textures of Indian cotton blankets, scarves, dresses, and kurtas, and maybe imagine that I was no longer in Prague.
One day in February, I had dropped off some clothes at a dry cleaner down the street from my flat, and thought, okay, I have an hour before it’s ready for pickup, why not walk down to Haveli and have a chai while I wait? I had been invited many times before to “drop by, have some chai, and relax.” As I entered, I found the staff sitting around the bar, chatting and watching and nodding along to a program of bhajans that was being televised through some Indian satellite channel. They greeted me enthusiastically, motioning for me to have a seat at the bar and immediately set a hot cup of chai before me. Of course, instead of milk, there was a little Czech creamer cup on the saucer. I dumped in the cream, took a sip, and began to relax into the familiarity of their faces.
Three of the staff worked downstairs in the restaurant, two were cooks, one was the waiter and cashier. The fourth man worked upstairs in the store, and he was busy explaining to a curious Czech woman the significance of a wood-carved Krishna statue that she had picked up from a shelf. There were three different sizes of the statue, and she eventually purchased the largest one, leaving the store with a happy grin.
The head cook was Adnan, a long-haired, slightly balding skinny man, and I quickly discovered that he was always ready to talk. He began speaking to me in Hindi, then switched to Bangla, and then back again to Hindi. He smiled brightly at my constant nodding, and seeing that I wasn’t able to reply to him very quickly, he returned to English.
“You know some Hindi? But you must learn Bangla, it is your father tongue!”
I had discovered from the last time we had spoken that he came from a town very near to my grandparents’ home in India. The store manager, Rehman, an even skinnier curly-headed man, also came from this geographic area and had also urged me to pick up Bangla.
“I will teach you Bangla,” Adnan asserted excitedly. By instinct, I took out a notebook and pen from my bag and laid them out on the bar, opening the notebook to a fresh page, awaiting my lesson.
A look of serious intention descended upon his round face, and he began to write down the Bangla alphabet, sounding each letter out and making me repeat after him. The others stood around watching for a moment, and then returned to the bhajan. Against the strains of harmonium and tabla and bells, surrounded by a permanent scent of incense and garam masala, I became a little schoolgirl, attentively and eagerly repeating the sounds I heard, nodding vigorously, forgetting that just beyond the door lay the streets of central Europe, not India. I wanted to forget the cold air and the curious stares peering out of woolen scarves and heavy dark coats. All I needed was to hear this sound of my father tongue, to see water buffaloes grazing in the middle of the street, and feel the breeze upon me in the open-air room where I could bathe with water taken from the well of my grandparents’ home. Lemon trees sprung up, mango trees, ricksha drivers pedaled by.
“Who, what, how, where, when, why,” Adnan was saying, pointing to what he had written. Then he began writing the equivalent in Bangla next to each English word.
I thought of my basic journalism courses from college back in the Indiana, where I had first discovered this essential list of questions for journalistic writing. If I asked these questions in Bangla now, would the answers given to me be any different? Was the question any different because it sounded so different to me, so much more formal?
My head spun with these strange thoughts, knowing that I was missing out on what Adnan was trying to teach me. But I repeated after him once more, tasting the words, turning them over and upside down, feeling them crunch like a hot luchi. How could I possibly ever learn Bangla beyond these few questions? If I spoke only in questions, would they think I knew Bangla?
I had already escaped once from where I was born, a place where my parents were not even born but had also escaped to, and still I wasn’t where they began.
What was I doing here, struggling to learn the local Czech language, which was only useful if I stayed here? It was not like learning English or Spanish or even German, which could come in handy in many places.
And so, if I tried to commit to these Bangla “lessons,” how would this also be useful to me? But we are always doing something which is useful, practical somehow, isn’t it? Some work that will make us some money, some purchases that will be needed in the future, some planning that will keep us ahead in life.
Trying to learn Bangla did not fit into these categories. But I felt its pull within me, a stronger force than my rational thought.
“Ke, ki, kibhabe, kothai, kokhon, kano.”
My tea was getting cold and the waiter noticed this, chiding me to hurry and finish it. The bhajans continued festively, the singing carrying on all the way from somewhere in India to this little Indian island stranded in central Europe that the subcontinent did not even know it had.
“I am going back on Monday. My sister is getting married,” Rehman chimed in when he saw that I had taken a break from my mesmerized stare into the notebook page now full of letters and words that were familiar, as if from a dream.
I asked him how long he would be away, and he said until sometime in May because in early May he had an appointment with a Bollywood director to discuss a script he had almost completed.
“It is 80 percent finished now,” he added. Rehman had arrived in Prague four years ago, invited by the owner of Haveli, a good friend, to work in the restaurant. Rehman had already been running an Indian goods exporting business, and now the Haveli store carried some of his goods as well.
But aside from business Rehman was a playwright and lover of literature. He had studied Urdu literature in university, and had written many stories and small plays. After having worked on sound production in Bollywood for a couple of years, he finally decided to leave the chaos of Mumbai, and moved to Kolkata to set up his export business. But his time spent in the midst of the magical Bollywood world had inspired him, so now, in Prague, while he tended to business at Haveli, his mind spun with new scenes for a screenplay.
After a few visits to the restaurant and store, Rehman had disclosed how lonely he really was here in Prague. I asked him about all the other Indians living in the city, those who came to the restaurant and the store to chat or stock up on supplies.
“They don’t have any time. They are just busy, busy. Nobody has time,” he lamented. I wanted to point out that he was pretty busy himself, working the store from open to close almost every day, from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., but I did not. I understood that Rehman was talking about the lack of community and brotherhood he had experienced growing up in India. People around the world crave company, but after having spent one year in Mumbai myself, I have come to find that “company” is defined very differently depending on where you are. I knew exactly what Rehman meant, and could only nod my head sympathetically.
So, feeling like it was my Indian duty to offer him some company, I invited him to drop by at our flat sometime for chai. I felt rather excited and proud of myself. It was finally my turn to be hospitable as I had always seen my parents be with complete strangers that they would meet in the rice aisle of the grocery store back in Indiana. I was the one with the power to console and comfort, and it all stemmed from somewhere far away, as if I was an ambassador of goodwill posted to this city in central Europe to do what I could for the time being.
As I was making the tea in the biggest pot we had, throwing in a heap or two of the tea masala I’d bought from Haveli, I realized I didn’t even have a strainer for the tea, and reluctantly began to scoop out the chai with a ladle into the teacups, trying very hard to keep out the tea grains. Even before Rehman arrived—and exactly on time, to my surprise—a nervousness had overtaken me. I was playing hostess to a true desi. I worried about his reaction to my simple offerings, how he would see the ladle in the pot of tea and smell the overly crisp papad and think, what a poser this Indian American girl is. Later, when I mentioned my snack of chai and papad to a friend from Mumbai, she pointed out that the combination was actually a bit strange. Rehman was polite enough to keep this to himself, even if he was thinking the same thing.
My husband and I ended up having an interesting conversation with Rehman about his script writing, about literature, about films, and he left us with a profoundly inspiring statement.
“Only those who dream, do,” he said to us as he looked into his emptied cup of chai.
That evening had gone over smoothly enough, but it was a few weeks later when my worst nightmare actually came true.
* * * * *
I was at Haveli because Rehman was leaving the next day, and I thought I would say goodbye. Rehman stood behind the glass counter, which contained gorgeous necklaces and anklets in silver and gold, going over what seemed to be an inventory list for the store, while Adnan and the restaurant waiter argued and joked about what else should be brought back from India. Suddenly Adnan turned to me and asked, “Why don’t you ask him for something? What do you like, maybe some nice gold or silver jewelries? He can bring for you some nice Indian things, like if there is something you always use at home.”
I wasn’t sure what kind of request to make, but before I could think of something, Rehman looked up at Adnan and scrunched up his face in tired frustration.
“What does she know about Indian culture? Come on, she doesn’t know anything, yaar.”
I wanted to run out of the store, but the trio went back to their jovial discussions as if the world had not suddenly collapsed around them. Somehow, I stood there for a few more minutes, not understanding what to think or say, until finally I announced that I would take my leave. I shook Rehman’s hand, wished him a good journey, and quickly left the store.
* * * * *
After that day, I have gone back to Haveli only once to introduce my brother to the waiters, as I had told them earlier that he would be visiting me for a couple of weeks. My eagerness to sit and chat at Haveli, to soak in the familiar atmosphere, has not been dampened, but I know I cannot stride through that door just as easily as I might have a month before. I know that those Haveli waiters do not really know much about me. I know that they do not know what I went through in one year of living in Mumbai, and how that has changed my life. But I also know this: the Indian culture that Rehman claimed I was ignorant of has nothing to do with any of the colorful items in the shop, nor with the spicy food served downstairs in the restaurant. This Indian culture is something not for sale.
Suchi Rudra Vasquez recently moved from Texas to Prague to study. She lives there with her husband.