The hair on my arms is the length of my toes. The hair on my legs has reached my toes. I wouldn’t say it is a completely new experience, but it is certainly most novel to experience it when a country is celebrating, yes celebrating, all 13 degrees of its summers with skin and sunshine. On the cobbled streets of Brussels I am probably the only one wearing stretch denims while the world is sprinting ahead of me in airy, breezy and frivolously delicious summer clothes. The moment I spot a pair of smooth legs enjoying the sunshine, it is as if the jeans grow four sizes smaller to kill me with asphyxiation, or whatever the hell tight jeans can do to your health when the heart burns green.
But my hands are tied.
I am thousands of kilometres away from a long-trusted tin of Shabnam Cold Wax (Rs 70) and a packet of disposable white waxing strips (Rs 25). Are there no salons in Brussels, you ask? There’s one in every Rue, but with my level of fluency in French I believe I might as well discuss foreign policy with a plant, and succeed in having a path-breaking dialogue, than explain to la fille successfully that I need a wax. Um, there is another reason why I have been Google translating salon menus but not garnering the courage to enter and ask for a pure and simple wax.
It seems to me to be a secret kind of … something. It caught me by surprise. And I have been trying to unravel it as much as I have been my overgrown eyebrows from my lashes.
When you shift to a foreign country for the first time, complete with lock, stock and barrels of homemade ghee, you are ready and raring for the new life ahead. You are confident that it’ll be a great experience. So happy you are that it’s not wind under the wings of the airplane but actually your excited panting which floats your craft ahead, right till you land.
Then a few days later you land again, with a minor splash into the pool of reality that surrounds you. It is different!
There is newness at every step of the way. This is not that kind of newness which tourists make happy selfies or informative photographs out of. Their tryst with newness is temporary. It happens with a bang and begins to fizzle once the trip is done, all #nofilters dusted and suitcases of fridge magnets unpacked. I talk of a more permanent interface between you and The Foreign – a kind where from bread and beer to office and school, everything has to integrate harmoniously and seamlessly into the language of your everyday life. Much has to be done, made possible, understood and learnt. And this includes ideas about your sense of self. Very basic and visible ideas too, I do sheepishly confess.
Like my hairy legs.
‘Gosh! No one has body hair here, unless it’s golden and invisible! Were they dipped in bleach before being sent to Earth?’ and ‘Can I really walk my legs into the salon without having the ladies there run out scared of King Kong?’ … just two of the many thoughts which rattle my mind as my caddy rattles behind the French and Dutch ones at supermarkets. During one such musing, with a twang that a thread on an in-growth feels like, I heard a loud ‘What will they think?’ inside my head.
The loudness echoed inside me. I caught it lingering longer than the smell of tadka in an 8-storied building. What will they think? What will they say? It stalked me all over the park, walked behind me right to my building, went up the same elevator and even entered my flat. It is only later that the stress shifted itself, and thank Gouda that it did! What will they think? Hold on! When before have I been so conscious of what people think? Have I not managed to live and let live most of the 34 years of my life confidently and sans self-consciousness? So why am I now eager to theorize ‘A comparative study of hair growth between French and Indian legs’?
More importantly, who is this ‘they’ that I talk about? Who is this … Oh Crêpe!
I realized how, rather easily, I created an entity. I attributed to a whole population homogenous characteristics and in doing so created an absolute ‘other’. In my head! Simultaneously, I ‘othered’ myself in the process. A kind of alienation, where I was alienating not just the others from me but my own self from them too. Hello wall, I built you for free. And now I’m wondering why…
It felt odd. It felt wrong and unfair. Especially so when I looked back on my few weeks here only to realize the locals never made me into a ‘they’. If anything, they had been kinder to me than many of “my own”. Be it book shops or tram stops, Carrefour queues or bars, nowhere and not once did I get a feeling that I am being seen as different. Forget a second look, even a first look doesn’t come your way. You’re just going about your day, like everyone else. At first it feels unflattering, as if everyone else is invisible to everyone else and it’s a very self-centered life out here. But gradually, you realize how it also means you’re being taken as a part and parcel of everyday life here. You’re being integrated as a ‘resident’, a person among others, and not an ‘exotic import’ who ended up guilty of training a magnifying glass on her own Indian identity when no one else cared.
And yet, there continues an acknowledgement that we are new and may need assistance. Where language was a barrier, the toy shop owner drew a map on a napkin to show us the mobile recharge kiosk. Where language wasn’t a problem, people made sure to tell us with pride that they’ve seen the Taj Mahal! If Shakespearean Mercy droppeth from heaven above, then this is Merci heaven itself. It’s what you hear for the smallest of gestures. It is also what you feel right back.
To even linger on the border of a limited world which propagates difference and divisiveness, of any kind, is but missing out on the vast expanse of a very warm and welcoming world, around the world. But then it is easier to commit this crime, than to not commit it at all. I confess guilty to that.
A few moments before I wrote this my son and I bumped into our concierge in the elevator. She only understands French, while I am yet to not pronounce oui as oye! Lots of animated gestures and smiles and words (without comprehension) were shared. She kept pointing at my son, kept circling her face with her hand. Her eyes wide and happy. I have no idea what we spoke but felt good anyway after our “introductions”. There was something more than looks, language and identity at play. And as if to confirm it all my son beamingly chimed soon as we entered our home - ‘I think she likes me’.
Recently, we were given a very old copy of ‘The Little Prince’ by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. We have been reading it aloud, together. This precious copy has lived more than half a century, with a handwritten note that is older than me. This personal note to an ‘Auro’ quotes from the book and says:
‘It’s only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.’
It is with this thought that we begin our short stint in Brussels. It is this that I hope my child learns. And as we go about acquainting ourselves with a new world which is our home now, something tells me he already understands that. [Apart from believing what the little boy in this book staunchly does - ‘Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is so tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them.’ Oh well!]
As for my legs, I’m sure this social media addict will update you with a picture soon. But in case I don’t, you know where they’re headed, don’t you?