Continued from “From Bangladesh to Switzerland”
The Sentimental Terrorist - 30
Inside a closet
I flew to Geneva via Moscow on an Aeroflot flight. The Russian-built aircraft made a great deal of noise as it took off, and I wasn’t sure if this was normal, since this was my first experience of flying, but I didn’t let it bother me, for the fare was at least 5,000 takas cheaper than any other airline.
What a culture shock Geneva was! The spanking-clean airport, the clickety-click of business travellers walking on the polished floor, the shops selling all manner of goods, and the never-ending escalators. I was awestruck, even intimidated in some fashion by the unfamiliar setting. Would there be anyone to receive me outside the airport, or would I have to organise my own transport? I had only 20 euros in my pocket, and most of this was to be spent buying presents for relatives and friends.
I needn’t have worried. A short, thin, blonde woman stood near the entrance carrying a placard with my name on it. Marlene Monaco did all the odd jobs associated with the event, such as ticketing and picking up participants.
Marlene recognised me from a picture she carried, even before I had seen the placard and walked up to her. She greeted me warmly, and quickly steered me towards where she had parked her car. In a few minutes we were racing through the streets of what seemed a quiet, sleepy city to an even more tranquil environment. The venue for the training workshop was a large house in Cartigny, a small village outside Geneva.
‘We’ll give you a day to see Geneva,’ said Marlene, guessing my thoughts, ‘but for the next few days you’ll be kept really busy.’
Inside the house I was met warmly by Angela Schmidt, a middle-aged woman who was managing the event, with Marlene acting as her secretary.
Angela did her best to make me comfortable.
‘You’ll have to share your room,’ she said. ‘We’re putting up each European with one other nationality, so that while you’re together you can learn from each other. Did you have a comfortable flight?’
I nodded, staring out of the window at the green fields stretching away endlessly.
‘Is there a public phone booth somewhere?’ I asked. ‘I need to call home.’
‘Use my mobile.’
You might understand me, sister, because perhaps you too have seen hardship, but many others haven’t. I grew up in conditions of such poverty that I was reluctant to use her personal mobile and thus have her spend money on my behalf. It wouldn’t have meant anything to her, I now realise, but at the time I responded, ‘No, I cannot possibly . . .’
She took my polite refusal well, although I sensed that she was a trifle perplexed. But then I saw her expression change, and I thought I detected a glimmer of understanding in her soft, brown eyes.
As Marlene had predicted, the days went by in a kind of blur of activity. The experts came, lectured us, a coffee break followed and then more lectures, more coffee breaks, and it went on like this until it was almost time to go home.
The day before our scheduled departure, Marlene drove us into town. We were given a general tour of the city, and told to do our shopping and sightseeing, and meet up in the evening to return to the village.
I spent some time with a colleague from Pakistan sitting beside Lake Geneva, watching the water shoot up into the sky from the tall fountain next to the lake. It was a bright sunny day, and there were many tourists milling around the area.
We both turned our attention to shopping. Once I’d finished buying all the soaps, shampoos, perfumes and various household items to be distributed to umpteen relatives back home, I began to look for the medicine that Mr Raza had asked me to bring back for his daughter.
The slender, blonde saleswoman at a pharmacy inside Geneva’s main train station said that they didn’t have the skin patches in stock, but could order them in for me to collect the following morning. It was the day of my departure back to Dacca, but this was important and I told her I would be there.
On the final evening we attended a small ceremony in the lecture hall in which training certificates were distributed to all of us, followed by dinner in the garden. It was my first experience of a barbecue and the first time I had ever seen such a large assortment of wine being served. There was general merriment, and all of us promised to keep in touch by email. But nothing even remotely connected to a job offer or placement was suggested then, nor at any time during the course of the entire workshop.
Had it been worth it, I asked myself, torn with anxiety and disappointment. True, I had learned a few new things, but was that important enough? What I needed at that point in my life was something infinitely more practical: a good job that paid well and allowed me to clear my debts. I remembered Saira’s words, and wondered if I had indeed been stupid to come here. How would I return the money to Dadabhai? This was another thought that plagued me.
The next morning Marlene dropped me off at the train station three hours before my scheduled flight. I had two old, borrowed suitcases which, though crammed full of cheap presents, I could easily carry with me on to the train to the airport.
The blonde saleswoman looked up apologetically as I entered the pharmacy.
‘Your medication will be here in less than half an hour,’ she said. ‘If you could please wait outside, I’ll call you.’
I had sufficient time on my hands to wait for the skin patches to arrive, so I stood outside the shop. I pushed aside my worries and looked around me, taking in my last moments in this famous city, even if they were being spent inside a train station.
Suddenly I heard a tinkling sound, an unusually pleasant one in the general hubbub. I looked round to discover where the noise had come from and was amazed to see a dozen or more coins bouncing on the ground. They bounced and bounced, but I couldn’t tell where they had come from. Who did this money belong to? It dawned on me too late that the manner of their bouncing suggested that they had been made to bounce, and their movement was unlike the motion caused when some loose change naturally falls from someone’s pocket.
At once I turned back towards my bags, which I had kept just beside me, but they were now gone! So swiftly and expertly had the thieves done their job that for several moments I simply stared at the empty space beside me in shock and disbelief. It was the oldest trick in the book. One thief drops the coins to distract the intended victim’s attention, and the other uses the opportunity to make off with the target’s belongings.
‘My bags!’ I shouted. And louder: ‘My bags! Someone has stolen my bags!’
Heads turned and people stared at me. Some clutched their own suitcases more tightly, as if someone might take them away. No one came to my help. I was astounded. Had I lost my belongings in Kamlapur railway station in Dacca, and raised the alarm, at least two or three people would have rushed to my assistance. Had anyone caught sight of the thief, he would have been chased and apprehended, and the public would have descended on him. It’s another matter that they would have nearly clobbered him to death. You might say that is uncivilised, but on the other hand, I ask you, sister, is it civilised to stand aside from someone in trouble, concerned only with your own wellbeing?
My passport, flight tickets and cash were inside my handbag, which was still in my possession, so that was a saving grace, if you could call it that. Anyway, there was no alternative for me but to go into the pharmacy and buy the medicine that arrived a few minutes later, and then catch the train to the airport. The airport staff were surprised to find me without any luggage, but they understood when I told them my suitcases had been stolen. I reported the theft to the police at the airport, and took a copy of the report.
* * *
My throat is dry from all the talking.
‘Why did you stop?’ my companion asks.
I remain quiet, listening to the sound of gunfire close at hand. As well as gunfire coming from further away. Perhaps the police are here at last.
‘Don’t listen,’ she urges. ‘And don’t be quiet.’
‘My throat is dry.’
And, wonder of wonders, I hear the sound of paper rustling and she has put a small object in my hands.
‘A lozenge. I have a cold. I hope you don’t catch it.’ She laughs.
I suck on the sweet and resume my story.
Continued to “Vivekananda Knew What He Was Talking About”