Sunil Sharma is Principal at Bharat College – affiliated with University of Mumbai, Mumbai – at Badlapur, Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR), India. He is a bilingual critic, poet, literary interviewer, editor, translator, essayist and fiction writer. Some of his short stories and poems have already appeared, among others, in prestigious journals like: Beyond The Rainbow, Transnational Literature, Writers in Conversation (all from Australia); Hudson View (South Africa), Munyori, The Plebian Rag and the Bicycle Review (all three USA e-zines), Asia Writes; New Woman (Mumbai); Creative Saplings, Brown Critique, Muse India, Thanali and Kritya (Indian e-zines); the Seva Bharati Journal of English Studies (West Bengal), Indian Literature (of Sahitya Akademy, New Delhi), Labyrinth (Gwalior), Poets International (Bangalore), Contemporary Vibes (Chandigarh), Indian Journal of Post-colonial Literatures (Kerala), Prosopisia (Ajmer), and Seven Sisters, a daily from Assam. Some of his poems and shorts have been anthologized in national and international collections, published from India, Canada and USA, and have been featured on Boloji.com and Destiny Poets. Sunil was declared as the ICOP (International Community of Poets) Poet of the Year---2012 by the leading UK-based The Destiny Poets. His book on the Philosophy of the Novel – a Marxist Critique has generated a good critical response. His debut novel – The Minotaur – dealing with dominant ideologies and sociopolitical realities of the 20th century-- was published from Jaipur (India) in 20009. The novel was released in South Africa in December, 2009. He serves on many advisory boards of quality international literary and online journals. Besides that, he is a freelance journalist and blogger. He has had more than 1,000 news articles published in DK Plus and Times of India, Mumbai.
We were on the Milan-Paris train. It was an early June evening. By accident or design, all four of us Asians had been assigned seats together, in a second-class carriage, with a dual side-by-side/table-for-four formation. We were three of a family, and the fourth, alone and younger, sat on the aisle seat.
Milan was hectic. We had rushed through some tourist spots in the morning and then headed for the station Milano Porta Garibaldi to board the afternoon train for Paris, our next stop.
I was no longer sure if going by train was a good idea. A seven-hour journey seemed more daunting than a shorter one by air. In India, we had often journeyed more than 36 hours at a time, by train – it was the common mode of transport. In Europe, I felt we ought to act like the wealthy Europeans and travel by air rather than a long ride by train. This was putting a damper on my mood.
Another thing that darkened my mood – I get easily irritated and angry – was the unexpected delay in the start of our journey by the gleaming high-speed train, which I was seeing for the first time in my life. It came as a surprise. The train was late by more than an hour due to ‘a technical problem’; and therefore, expected to arrive late in Paris. Exhausted and dehydrated, thanks to my habit of drinking lots of black and sugarless tea and not enough water, which costs more than coffee or tea in Europe, I plopped down on my seat and scowled at everybody.
I’m not surprised this happened.
In my very ordinary life of 55 years on this crowded planet, I have been frequently dogged by bad luck. Wherever I go, it is bound to follow. When travelling, the train, bus, or plane, will invariably be delayed by a few hours at least. And if that isn’t enough, I will undoubtedly get the worst seats: those near the toilet. The perpetual sound of the doors opening and closing, grating on my overwrought nerves, and the stench we won’t speak of. At a theatre, I will inevitably get a caved-in seat, or one with a loose spring that creaks at the slightest shift in body weight. And if appearing for an interview, it is either postponed or cancelled.
In Europe, I thought I would be lucky. I was wrong.
As the minutes dragged by, I fumed and burned, while my spouse and son smiled benignly and did what Asians do: contentedly make small talk in the most unlikely settings.
We were visiting our son in Germany after almost four years and were now on a week- long trip around Europe with him. For his mother, every minute was crucial. She and my son had settled comfortably in the plush seats and were beginning to recall shared moments in Mumbai. I secretly enjoyed their animated and incessant chatter.
Was he from our home country? He looked like he was.
An Italian family of four across the aisle was doing the same – talking loudly over one another while munching on cold sandwiches and sipping what looked like lemonade. The setting seemed all too familiar, as if I were among fellow Indians, not supposedly prim and proper foreigners. Other than those few occupied seats, the compartment was almost empty.
I looked away.
There was at least one attraction of train-travel: the pretty landscape of continental Europe could be savoured on a long train ride. From a plane, it’s all clouds and altitude. Here, you can see things at eye-level. Rolling scenery without parallel.
But right now, the train stood stationary, and I felt bored.
“Wah! Europe also has trains running late,” I said. “Why does India get bashed for its poor infrastructure then?”
“It can happen anywhere,” my son said. “It is technology.”
“If it can happen in an advanced nation, then a developing nation can be easily forgiven for its chronically late trains. Merely doing one’s best in adverse circumstances, they are. So many odds facing a developing nation.”
“Janaab, trains here usually run on time, and there are very few delays. Whereas trains in our country do not ever run on time.”
This new voice and confident assertion in Punjabi-accented Hindi brought my attention to the fourth man, our co-passenger. He was right. But I was in no mood to discuss my peeves with a rank stranger. So, I smiled genially and said, “Yes, you are right,” and shut him out.
He smiled back. It was the gentle smile of a confident young man. I observed him from the corner of my eye. Tall and muscular, he was wearing a light grey suit. Black hair slicked back over a broad forehead. As I was watching, he plugged earphones securely into his ears. Aloof, yet exuding an air of accessibility.
The four of us, somehow, presented a family resemblance. His features intrigued me.
Was he from our home country? He looked like he was. My son often told me that there were many Sri Lankans and Bangladeshis that bore a strong resemblance to us.
Hearing somebody speak Hindi in a foreign country is pleasant – a feeling of home, away from home. That is the task of a language: to make you feel included or excluded. I suddenly had the urge to speak in Hindi with someone outside my family. That someone was sitting before me, of all the places, on the Milan-Paris train. I didn’t know why I’d shut him out.
So, bored and waiting for my journey to begin, I started to make small talk in my first language, my beloved Hindi.
“Are you travelling for the first time?” I asked, like a typical, curious Indian passenger.
“Ji?” He asked, removing his left ear-piece. Polite enough.
“Travelling for the first time?”
“No. I travel often. Second time by train due to last-minute change in travel plans.” His tone was excessively courteous.
“Where do you live?”
“That’s nice. From India?”
He hesitated. Then: “No, Janaab, from Pakistan.”
“Oh!” I tried to disguise my evident disappointment. I could hear missiles going off somewhere in my head, fed by screaming TV and print media coverage.
Now I could see his disappointment. And heard the same missiles hissing in the air.
The train began rolling…
During the long journey, we entered a borderless terrain. No longer Indian, Pakistani, or South Asian, we hurtled forward on a high-speed train to our destination amid the enchanting landscape of Europe. The seductive Alps, mysterious woods, gurgling streams, quaint cottages amid rolling farms, tiny picturesque towns – so different from the dust, heat, grime and impenetrable crowds of the loud and chaotic Asian cities.
And, during this journey, I came to discover the meaning of home, humanity, and friendship.
“Your name, please?” I asked.
“Sahil,” he said.
“Which part of Pakistan are you from?”
“From Punjab. You?”
“Mumbai,” I said.
We kept silent for a long time after that. The train entered a long tunnel; then emerged into the fading light. A quiet scene unfolded. In the silent forest and hills beyond, a stream flowed over white worn-out pebbles.
“What do you do?” I asked.
“I am a house painter.”
“The unknown has its own beauty.”
“Very good!” I tried to mask my surprise. He didn’t look like a painter.
“I am a lawyer.”
He smiled. “One of my cousins is a lawyer.”
Feeling peckish, I took out some bananas and shared them with my wife, my son, and Sahil.
“I thought you were here, studying,” I said.
He smiled more broadly. “I am not educated. Came down to Greece at the age of twelve,” he said.
“At twelve?” More surprise.
“Yes. We are many brothers and sisters. Abu is a farmer. I wanted to see the world. One of the villagers was Greek. We called him Uncle Khan. He took me there. I worked there with him in his business for seven years.”
“Remarkable! A young, uneducated lad from rural Punjab going overseas. To Greece, no less!”
He nodded. “The unknown has its own beauty. Our land could no longer feed a large family. Somebody had to move out and explore.”
“You are brave! Very few teenagers would ever think of making such a journey. Asians pamper their children so much. Did you ever revisit your home?”
“No. Last twelve tears, I have been working hard. From Greece, I went to Italy for a few years, and then from there I moved to France.”
“How long have you been in Paris?”
“You do painting jobs?”
“Yes. My partner and I, we take on contracts in France and Italy.”
“Business is good?”
“Do they give contracts to Asians?”
“Oh yes. The French are very fair.”
“No. They are very tolerant. Most Europeans are. You can see so many illegal immigrants, from Africa, Bangladesh, Vietnam, and Philippines flooding their streets. Human rights groups are very active.”
I nodded. Yes, they were very welcoming.
“The situation is so different in South Asia.” I said. “We are becoming very intolerant.”
“Yes.” He agreed. “People still trust one another in Europe. They respect you and take you at face value.” I was taken aback. A young, illiterate man making such an apt observation. My own brief encounter with Europe had also been positive so far. I found the people sunny and open.
Away from home, yet at home.
“In Asia, you are not taken at face value,” he said. “You get divided by the system along so many lines. Here, I breathe easily, and do not get marked for my skin, religion or language.”
“True,” I said. “They are very friendly and non-judgmental.”
“You work hard here, stay on the right side of law, and there will be no problem.”
“Got a home here?”
“Yes. A shared apartment with my partner.”
“No, I’m not.”
“Miss your home in Pakistan?”
“Your parents must be missing you?”
“I chat with them daily. They understand. It is a borderless world now. You make your home wherever you feel accepted.”
In that borderless moment, I found the meaning of home for myself.
I was enjoying this conversation. A practical immigrant giving a tutorial on the trans-border movement of people, changing identities, ambitions, goals, aspirations, nationalities.
“It takes guts,” I said. “To spread one’s wings and fly away from the familiar into the unknown and then settle down in an alien country.”
He grinned a boyish grin. “My parents say the same thing.”
“I can understand. My own son here is working in a foreign country just like you, but the trade is different.”
He was silent awhile. Then, “Next Eid, I plan to make a visit to Pakistan. I have saved some money. I will be taking gifts for my family there.”
“What is home for a trans-national guy like you? A man on the move. From Paris to Milan and back in a fortnight for business purposes.”
He pondered over this for a minute and then replied simply, “Janaab, home is where you truly get a feeling of belonging. Where you are able to do what you want to do. Where you feel respected, wanted and loved. Not a place, even if it is one’s home country, where there is always a sense of dread amongst the people and in the streets.”
Just then he got a call and Sahil, still looking dapper in his well-cut grey suit minus the tie and stylish hair, now easily switched over to Punjabi with a long-distance caller, presumably. His eyes danced and his face broke into an unabashed smile that comes automatically when speaking to a loved one.
He was now talking softly of the fields back home, of twisted alleys, and of long ago friends.
We arrived in Paris at midnight. It was time to say goodbye to our new friend.
We exchanged biscuits, tidbits, and information about Paris. Just before leaving, he also gave my son a few unused tickets for the Metro. “Did you pay for them?” I asked him. He told me he tried, but Sahil had refused payment. And then we rushed to the Metro for our connecting service.
A few minutes later, Sahil came running up behind us, breathless.
“Oh!” I exclaimed. “Thanks for the tickets. Please take the money for them.”
He paused and replied, “No, it is not about money. I will not take it. They were extra. Please use them. Anyway, since you are new to the city I thought I should guide you to the right platform for your next Metro train.”
Sahil explained everything to my son. They shook hands, and then shepherded by our silently efficient son, we got going.
I stood still for a second and looked back.
Sahil was standing and looking in our direction.
He smiled again and waved. I, too, did the same, the way I would have done at my own son or nephew at a busy terminal.
In that borderless moment, I found the meaning of home for myself.
Home means recognition of essential humanity in others and forging unconditional bonds.
Home also means strangers becoming friends forever.
I could hear the guns in my head going silent.
An ‘enemy’ had become a friend.
Is it not a borderless world where manufactured politics of hatred have no place, where we are destined to discover the meaning of love, home, friendship and core humanity, in a moving train?
Paris, where it all started with the French Revolution in 1789, demolished all these perceived barriers for a travelling Indian family.