With the impeccable local transport operating in Gothenburg, which is always on time, there’s rarely a need to wait in the bus stop. The precise travel planner application never lies, and one can plan to arrive at the bus stops with not an extra minute to while away, in those usually barren shelters that cling on to the pavements. That’s for most others, who want to be efficient and not waste time waiting for buses. I don’t specially like it. Except unless I have an appointment to make, I never check the application and simply wander towards the bus stop. Worst case I might have to wait for fifteen minutes, and most times, I like to spend that time out in the bus stop, hoping I will strike a conversation with a stranger.
When was the last time you spoke to a stranger? Wasn’t it strange and special, as it is supposed to be?
After living in Sweden for close to two years, I seem to have figured out one of the important things I miss – talking to strangers. It is beyond normal here to talk to strangers, I think, and for reasons that might be justified, which I don’t want to delve into in this post. We shall call it culture, for convenience in this post. Returning to my point, even in this culture, I miss striking conversations with strangers, and peeking into their lives for those few minutes, and letting them into my world for that time. Does it sound like intrusion? I like to think of it, more as being social.
I like stories, and more so when it is of real people. Hence, The Motorcycle Diaries is my all time favourite book. During my long travels, I lay back and discreetly study the faces of the people who are sitting across, or passing by. Trying to guess what their lives are about, what extreme events they would have to narrate to me, or what their struggles are. Each one certainly has a wonderful story to tell. From another person’s point of view, I might look a normal Asian guy, but barely can they even guess the turmoil, joy and experiences I could have in my narrative. It is simply fascinating to talk to strangers!
With these subtle motivations driving my unscheduled arrivals at the bus stop, yesterday I had 8 minutes to spare. It was unusually chilly and windy in a week that was otherwise bright and sunny. I huddled into the bus shelter, smiled at a Swedish lady who was already in there; she hurriedly shrugged away, as it is the case with every other Swede. The ones who don’t shrug away, return a warm smile, and it makes me feel connected. Without making her uncomfortable, I moved to the other side of the shelter and was standing beside the bench, when three Eastern Europeans by the look of them, were trickling towards the bus stop. One of them was digging into the trash bin, to spot any recyclable cans – each can can pay 1 SEK, and I was thinking that it being a Saturday, he would not have found many inside Chalmers, but the city centre might have plenty, and it could earn him little money to push the day off.
The leader of the pack, seemingly, had a gait that exuded in casualness, and was wearing a pant with logo of the local super market, printed all over. He got into the bus stop and sat on the bench next to me. He was smoking, and got into the shelter puffing out smoke. I looked behind just to remember if it was allowed to smoke inside, as I can’t stand being even a passive smoker – it was not allowed. If he would have continued I might have pointed him to the no-smoking sign, but he already discarded his half-spent cigar onto the road. I was relieved.
Then, he nudged me and gestured ‘money’, rubbing his thumb to his forefinger. I said, no, I would not give him any money. Next, he gestured again and asked if I smoke. I smiled saying – NO, and turned away. He then again nudged me and gestured for something else, which I did not understand. I assumed he was trying to peddle something on to me, and confidently responded – No. Finally, he spoke and asked “Where are you from?”. I replied “Indien”, with the minimal touch of Swedish pretension. He seemed glad, and asked “You know SALMAN KHAN”, in a thick pronunciation. The ice was broken, and the warmth melted the inhibition of having to deal with someone who appeared to be one of those many homeless people in Gothenburg, who at times can be a menace.
I said, yes. He recollected and asked, “Sharukh khan? Aishwarya Rai?”. I was impressed, and told him that I knew them and I liked them. He started telling me about his favourite Bollywood movies, uninvited and blurted out – “Devdas, is my favorite”. I acknowledged, it is one of those movies where the song and dance actually adds value to the legacy it has left behind, and said I liked it too, and especially for the song sequences. He went on to sing a Hindi song, in tune, with right words and that tipped my inquisition then, and I asked him where he was from. He said, proudly, “From Romania. All three are gypsies”. His other friends maybe did not know what he meant by gypsies, and said no, “Lie lie”. This guy ignored them, lightly and said “No lie. Having fun. Gypsies.”
Home almost seemed imminent as the route number 16 hurried into the lane, and I abruptly ended the conversation. He shouted out “Nice meeting you”. I responded, tried to be warm.
After I got into the bus, and started thinking about the interaction, something had stuck in my head – his casual and light-hearted attitude. He was one of the thousands of homeless in Sweden, who migrate from Eastern Europe, escaping their harsh lives back there, aspiring for better lives here in Sweden. Was it wrong for him, and the others to do that? Was it wrong for the people who got onto those boats crossing the Mediterranean, wanting to live better? I strongly believe it was not wrong on their part. At the same time, I don’t think it is the responsibility of Italy, or Sweden, or UK, or Europe alone to assimilate all these people and heal their lives. It is the responsibility of all humanity.
Immigration, who would have thought, in the 21st century has become a massive problem, and I can’t quite fathom why or how it is worsening. We were supposed to be the global village, when we entered this millennium, or was it meant to be ironic!