False flowers and real wasps: A short story by Nandini Bedi
An Indian woman living in Amsterdam sits on a bench in a playground. As she enters into a conversation with another woman, also in a headscarf, she touches upon family, pregnancy clothing and wasps.
My headscarf by another name is called a ‘chunni’. And this broek I call a ‘gharaara’ with a long aaaa. They are both made of the flimsiest of cotton and fall in folds; the gharaara, from my large hips amply spreading around the clogs my feet are in. Big flowers in blues, yellows and greens spread themselves over an orange background. I wear it with a kurta, a loose tunic that the traders from Delhi sell in the market nearby. When I look at the price on these in euro, I wonder what the profit for the Indian sellers on both sides of the world could possibly be. The tunics are quite popular with a certain section of the population here. The outfit makes me stand out. To stand out is not good practice in the Netherlands is it? As the saying here goes, ‘you are odd enough when you are ordinary’. Is that why the wasps found me?
“I haven’t been here so long,” says the woman who settles down next to me on the bench. “It’s changed. The trees have grown bigger.” Her headscarf is pulled tight across her forehead and scalp and neatly pinned at the temples. The flowers on the fabric are light brown on a beige background. Here in Amsterdam where the tendency is to grow short brown buildings, not ones in hot colours, and the sky prefers to wear grey, the muted contours of the landscape around us are in harmony with her dull headscarf. My headscarf has flowers too. But it isn’t stretched and pinned. And it isn’t dull. It falls unfettered on my shoulders and the bright flowers on it flutter in the breeze, as real ones do. And the wasps fly around.
“Did you come here often before?” I ask.
“Yes when my children were young and we lived in the neighbourhood.”
“Where do you live now and where are your children?”
“I have four--between 16 and 11; two boys and two girls. They refuse to go to playgrounds anymore and we have moved further east. So I haven’t been here in a while.”
“How old were you when you had your first one?”
“I must have been 19’, she says. “And you?”
"There he is. He’s seven,” I say.
The other looks at the child and then at me with a puzzled expression.
She wants to know what went wrong in the planning. I know she is looking at the grey hair peeping out from under my colourful headscarf. I think it is at this moment that I begin to shake my gharaara because I think I feel something in it. Don’t you know I want to ask, ‘life is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans?’
Instead I ask about her. She grew up in Utrecht. Her parents had come to the Netherlands from Morocco. All her siblings and her immediate family are here. And no, they don’t go to Morocco every year. Not only is it expensive but also what is one to do there? It is just so different from the Netherlands she tells me.
We are both waving our hands to chase away the wasps flying around us. I think one is visiting the inside of my gharaara. This is the first time I have been invited by someone in ‘another’ headscarf to chat so I’m not about to let go of the chance. So I hope the wasp will sooner or later find the exit.
“Look at her,” she says, pointing to the lady across the sandpit in a super-tight dress that stretches over her huge belly. A friend who visited me from India once said that she found it so incredible how some women here celebrated their bodies when pregnant by wearing tight dresses that accentuated their ‘bumps’.
I guess I was thinking of what my visiting Indian friend had said and was slow to react.
“Would you ever dream of wearing something so tight when you are pregnant?” Then she quickly answers her own question. “I needed to wear loose clothes that fell away from my body, like the tunic you are wearing now.”
Quite suddenly we are joined by a group of ladies, all in headscarves. Two hug and kiss each other several times. Way more than the three kisses almost hastily given in the air but meant for the cheeks, that I have grown accustomed to seeing around me. There before me, the two clasp and hold and exchange intense intimacies vocally in a singsong way, and kiss and kiss and kiss. They speak in a tongue I can’t recognise. They wish my recent acquaintance, as the whole group settles onto the two benches that are on either side of the table. The language changes into a blend. Every now and then I catch a word, a phrase, an expression in the Dutch I know and then it flows into other sounds. And every now and then there is a peal of laughter at my attempts to help the wandering wasp out of my gharaara.
“They like your flowers,” one of them says in the Dutch I recognise. “They think they are real.”
As the conversation and laughter around me continues, I began to wonder if I should move away. Is it expected of me? No one in the group around me gives me a clue. I can smell the lady next to me. We are so close and yet so far. Then a cup of couscous is placed before me, as it is before all the other the ladies with whom I am sharing the table. I am given a spoon and asked if I would like some karnemelk in my couscous. I say yes and want to know if there is karnemelk in Morocco. Of course they say. And in India? In India we love everything that comes out of cows, I tell them. Are there cows in India, someone asks? Yes I say, but quite different from the ones here. Thinner.
They enter into an intense discussion, most of which I don’t get. I understand enough to know it is something to do with parking fees in the nearby market. As I listen, I begin to digest this language as couscous with karnemelk. I wonder, when folks, like me have to take the Dutch language test in India to qualify to live in the Netherlands, would it be ‘Dutch Dutch’ or ‘Couscous Dutch’? I decide it would be ‘Dutch Dutch’. Then I think that in Morocco if someone has passed the ‘Dutch Dutch’ exam and begins to live in Amsterdam, would they use more ‘Dutch Dutch’ or switch to ‘Couscous Dutch’? This was a tricky one for me to answer. Just then, the wasp strikes. Right on my upper thigh.
I flee towards the toilet to inspect the damage, one hand firmly placed on my head to prevent my scarf from flying away. No show of high-thigh in public for me. ‘We’ just didn’t do these things, toch?
I think my ‘other’ friend in the ‘other’ headscarf would agree.
Nandini Bedi is a documentary filmmaker and writer.
Visit life in the Netherlands with Indian flavours at taal-tale.com
Picture credit: Nathalie Gaston
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