“Salaam.” It was a dark night, the stars stupefied in the sky, the trees slumbering, the streets forlorn. Oslo, with its undulating landscape humming in a language I could barely decipher, looked so unknown, so unfamiliar. And then I heard the “Salaam.” I thought my ears were ringing with phantom sounds, but there he was, opening the door of his swank Mercedes van. With one syllable, Nizami Ali’s baritone voice suddenly drove away my feelings of strangeness in a foreign land. Even the forlorn streets of Oslo looked so apna. I felt I was home, even though I was thousands of miles away.
After a week in Scandinavia, I’d started missing India. In the sea of blonde heads, I looked for thick plaits decked with jasmine that I could smell from miles away; contemplating the pasta on my dinner plate, I longed for the aroma of cardamom, the scrumptiousness of a pakora. However many miles I’d trudged, however many air miles I’d added to my frequent flyer account, I couldn’t stop longing for the warmth of the familiar.
Oslo was bustling with its usual morning madness: cars whizzing past at the speed of light, people hurrying as if there were no tomorrow, coffee brewing everywhere, and crowds with fallen jaws looking at naked granite bodies in the Viegland Sculpture Park. Making his weekly moola, a juggler exhorted people to cheer loudly; some moseyed up to him, others walked into Bombay Darbar, a popular Indian restaurant that proudly displays a newspaper clipping which boasts that the chef is “the best in town.”
Even before I could ask how good Bombay Darbar was, Matilda, our lissome guide, was listing all the joys of Indian food. Norwegians, she said, love naan and tikkas. Far away in the horizon, an Ali Kaffe blinked its neon lights gloriously. That was not all, though. Even in Christiano, a hip restaurant by the Parliament known for its wacky décor, there stood an antique tin plate that read: Yog Tea from Agra. That day in Oslo I saw so much of India that I wondered whether it was because of the 40,000 people of South Asian origin who live there, or was it because India is just so beautiful?
Indiska, a retail chain that stacks things from India, had me completely flummoxed. More because of its age and history—it was established in Stockholm in 1901 by Mathilda Hamilton, an enterprising Swedish woman, who had lived in the Himalayas between 1894-1901. She was married to a pastor, but religion was not all that enamored her. Hamilton had a nose for spices and money, and that is how Indiska was started. In its 106 years, the chain has become synonymous with all that is chic and modish. At their tea salon in Hotogret, Stockholm, they sell lassi laced with raspberry and vanilla. You can also get bread and raita and a thali meal (no Swedish tongue-twisting translations here).
In the 1960s, Indiska was known for its cotton Indian kurtas; today, they sell bandgalas and embroidered jackets, stunning beads and silver. Ask an average Swede about Indiska and she’ll tell you, “I go there when I feel rich. When I want to look like a princess, I buy Indian jewelry from Indiska …” In the quaint lanes of Gamla Stan, the medieval town in Stockholm, instead of looking at the moose and trolls or the beer menu in Glenfiddich Warehouse No. 68, I ogled the chintz and georgette from India. On the cobbled path, I got wobbly with pride.
I spent the afternoon in gorgeous Gamla Stan, and, when dusk fell, I walked up the rolling lanes, hiding from the rain under awnings. My stomach was growling and I could see food everywhere but nothing tempting enough to guide my steps. But very soon, something did: Anna Khan. A liveried Swede opened the door into Anna Khan; through a dark corridor, I could hear a mellifluous strain drowning in the chatter of the foodies. Anna is a Swedish woman married to a Pakistani, and together the couple set up Anna Khan, completely revolutionizing what the Swedes have on their weekend dinner plate. They can pick from garlic naans and lacha parathas to kashmiri chooza, palak paneer, and dal makhni. If you think the restaurant fare is clichéd, think again. Nowhere in the world has the Indian food tasted so authentic. I would die for the green chutney at Anna Khan.
Perhaps I found the authentic because I went looking for it.
As I fastened my seat belt and looked out of the aircraft, the blue of the Baltic seemed interspersed with the white of the frothy wanton waves. I thought I had seen the end of my Indian connection in Scandinavia; I surely would not see any traces of India in Bergen, the old-world fishing village. I held on to the thought, a little wistfully; I had not forgotten the guttural “Salaam” in Oslo, or the whiff of cardamom in Stockholm. The plane landed, I picked up my baggage, and maneuvered my way out of the unending sea of blonde heads. And then I saw him: an old Sardar being greeted by a little girl, her hair caressing her waist, her nose ring resplendent in the sunshine. I stood there for a moment partaking in what looked like homecoming. Perhaps the old Sardar felt my gaze; he turned and smiled beatifically. That moment, thousands of miles away from home, it felt like family.
Preeti Verma Lal has worked as a journalist in India and the United States. She now lives in New Delhi, freelances for several publications, and runs her website: www.deepblueink.com