OPINION

Hidden Places: Blogging from Geneva

February 08, 2007
Jawahara Saidullah

I arrived to blue skies and crisp weather in Geneva on Sunday. That was the first day. Now it's dark, grey and gloomy. Still I pack my sturdy umbrella and walk around.

This temporary apartment is near the Cornavin station so each day I gather my umbrella, put my purse in my knapsack, a book in hand and set out to discover my soon-to-be new hometown.

I window shop and buy a cup of coffee, sometimes a Nutella crepe at the little Creperie. Sometimes I even get my coffee at Starbucks, though I shake my head at myself. For an instant, when I step in I find myself in familiar circumstances. It looks the same as the Starbucks near my office in Boston, near home. I know the language of Starbucks - the language of corporate America. I can order things here even if I speak no French. Perhaps if I was a tourist I would never step foot in a Starbucks. But I am trying to find my places of comfort in my new city.

"Un (or is it une?) grande capuccino, sil vouz plait," I butcher the language and the accent so much that most often people respond to me in English. I try to use the language when I can remember. For, in most instances, words fly out of my head.

"Merci. Au revoir," I flash a smile at the young man who places my coffee over the counter. He goes back to grinding beans. I drink my coffee, read the biography of Noor Inayat Khan, and conversations in many different languages filter through my consciousness.

I walk some more. To the Alimentation owned by an Indian man. I had tried to buy lentils there two days ago. I tried to use my card. He only took cash.
"Mein phir aa jaoongi," I said and he said,"nahin, nahin. You take. It is not that expensive. You take and pay me later." I had never seen him before. But it took just a few words in our language, a hidden language among the signs in French, an occasional one in German.

I smiled and declined his kind offer as I walked out the door. He kept insisting. "No, you wait. You wait. You take it." But to be honest I wasn't sure I could find my way back to his store. I had been quite lost.

Today, I bought two packets of lal masoor and some jeera. He avoided my eyes. He was arguing with his wife in Punjabi and Hindi. She was oblivious to the fact that I could understand them. And he and I perhaps didn't want to call her attention to it. She wanted to go home to India permanently. He could stay on this godforsaken, cold place if he wanted. I smiled at him as he handed me the bag but didn't say anything. He had to deal with his life. The fragments of our lives had touched for an instant.

I ended up at Payot, as if by predestination, a bookstore that sells English books. The words made instant sense to me. Thrillers. Fiction. Light Fiction. No trying to approximate meanings from an alien language. I searched the faces of the others clustered around the shelves, like addicts needing a fix. Their eyes seemed to be drinking in the words, the familiar arrangements of letters. In another world.

In the center, there were tables on which books were arranged. Sometimes there were books behind the books. I could occasionally see an enticing corner of cobalt, or make out the cursive character of a letter. I lifted up Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games to find Minaret, a story of some Muslim woman in London. Behind Hannibal Rising is placed Mukhtaran Bai's book. There are a lot of these books.

You know, the veiled, exotic Muslim woman. The woman who escapes persecution (from Saddam, from men, from patriarchy, from traditional societies, and Islam) and finds freedom in the West. If she is so free, why does she stare at me, her almond-eyes, rimmed in black, the only part of her visible? Or wearing a pink, net dupatta, managing a curious blend of shyness and bravery, of East and West?

And the irony, the delicate irony. These veiled women, veiled again by the weight of others' words - men's words. I wonder why I feel compelled to reach behind the displayed books to find the ones that have been hidden from my gaze. As if I am discovering a mystery, sharing a secret, finding something I didn't even know that I had lost.

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#1
Geoffrey
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February 8, 2007
09:50 PM

Nice. I enjoyed the hint that things might be subtler behind the veil than "The woman who escapes persecution (from Saddam, from men, from patriarchy, from traditional societies, and Islam) and finds freedom in the West." Are you reading the Basu biography of Noor?

#2
Jawahara
URL
February 9, 2007
02:20 AM

Thanks for the comments Geoffrey. I actually just finished reading Shrabani Basu's biography of Noor Inayat Khan. It was actually from the same publisher who published my book :-). Fascinating story. Are you reading it?

#3
temporal
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February 9, 2007
12:54 PM

good touch j!

#4
temporal
URL
February 9, 2007
12:56 PM

geoffrey:

would you like to become a desicritic and contribute?

#5
Geoffrey
URL
February 10, 2007
12:03 AM

Hmm, so what is your book? Do tell! I've read Shrabani's book, and in fact we might be doing some readings/performances together over here (USA) in September, but it's all in the early stages of planning for now.

Temporal, I have a blog running on my site--www.geoffreyarmes.com/ga that I have trouble keeping up with--but thanks for the invitation and let me know what becoming a desicritic entails!

Cheers,

#6
temporal
URL
February 10, 2007
01:39 AM

geoffrey:

Check this out

a different view point AND something interesting to say ... and say it well (and a relatively thick skin if you are outspoken) is all it takes

:)

#7
Jawahara
URL
February 10, 2007
05:02 AM

Where will you be doing your readings? That sounds really cool. My novel was published by Roli (same as Shrabani's) in Januray. Was released on Jan 10 in Delhi actually. It's The Burden of Foreknowledge.
I know the blog info was for temporal but I'll check that out too.
J

#8
Geoffrey
URL
February 10, 2007
01:18 PM

As you can see my blog has degenerated into news/promotional stuff of late---I'll have to get back to more thoughtful work!

Once I know more about September I'll pass it on. It's early days for planning, but 'Spy Princess' has been picked up by Omega Publications (omegapub.com) who also sell my (Noor) CD, so we'll be doing something together in NYC/DC in September. Email me through my site?

I was never able to complete a novel....

#9
Deepti Lamba
URL
February 10, 2007
09:31 PM

So J where are our review copies?:)

#10
Jawahara
URL
February 11, 2007
05:41 PM

Hey Deepa, Sujatha will be doing the review. I believe she might already have the copy. So now she only has to read it and write the review :-) Yikes! Slightly scary!

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