Tuesday, 26 November 2013

A tale of two men

Zurich Airport

I was waiting for a connecting flight to Geneva. Being first time in Europe and that also in the German dominant city, I was keeping mum. I was just waiting on a bench and letting the time tick by.

The aroma from Starbucks next door was challenging my craving for a hot cup of capuccino. I suppressed the urge. Then a man grabbing a huge Subway sandwich, munching in between, hurriedly passed by my side. Although I had resisted the desire to have a capuccino I could not stop myself from fetching a yummy sandwich for my tummy.

As I was gobbling the piece of newly-found amusement, a young man in his early twenties approached me. He was neither tall nor short, was strongly built and looked smart in his blue uniform. "Excuse me, Sir," he initiated the conversation. "Are you a Nepali?"   

"Yes," was my terse reply.

"Oho dai, what a relief. I met a Nepali after six months. I am from Ramechhap." Within seconds, he had discarded the robes of formality and addressed me as an elder brother. Finding him in a new city was a relief to me as well. 

"It's so nice to meet with you in a foreign land, are you studying here?" I asked the young man. He was well-mannered and humble and his concern for a fellow countryman drew my interest towards him.   

He had come to Switzerland to work. He had completed his Bachelor's in the neighbouring country (I forgot the country's name) and was working for a private company in the airport. Switzerland was the best place to work in whole of Europe, he said. The companies were concerned about employee security and welfare. And he was happy to be there, though being thousands of miles away from his home. 

He briefed me about the dos and don'ts, advised me on the rules and regulations, and accompanied me to the boarding area. On the elevator, he asked about the political turn of events in Nepal. He was enthusiastic about the peace accord signed by the rebel Maoist leaders. "Now I wish our country will also be like Switzerland," he said. "I hear they are talking about federalism and inclusion. They should learn from Switzerland. In spite of being a land-locked country and smaller than Nepal, we have 26 cantons (federal states) here. The poor cantons get support from the Confederation (central state)."

I was amazed by his knowledge on the issues of federalism, ethnicity and inclusion. He was talking about a society which takes care of both equality and equity. Silently I saluted his opinions and wished the decision makers also think on the same line. "Well said bhai, Nepal should follow Switzerland," I advised, "Why don't you write Op-Eds in some leading dailies in Nepal?"

But the devil's advocate inside me was sarcastic. Might be he was saying that because he belonged to the Tamang community which was marginalised and discriminated. I was thinking about the worst examples of Nigeria where federalism has done more damage than good. My Kathmandu-centric thinking, upbringing with elites, and belief on capability (ability) and identity were taking toll on the poor guy's opinion on federalism and inclusion.          

"Utopia is what Maoists, indigenous peoples and Madhesis are talking about," I quipped. "It was so nice to meet you. Thanks for your guidance to get to Geneva."

"I hope Nepal will show the world how Utopian society can be built," he was shouting with a gleam in his eyes as I proceeded towards the boarding area.

Zurich Railway Station

I had survived the first snowstorm of the season. Never had been the trains delayed. Thanks to the heavy snow, most of the trains had to halt and take to alternative routes. And I was the one to benefit. I got to travel through many cities in Switzerland though the landscape was draped in white. I abandoned the direct train from Geneva to Zurich and followed a kind lady who volunteered to help me find the alternative trains and routes. The announcement made in the train was in German and I wasn't able to get anything, so I had to depend on her.

Finally I made to the Zurich Railway Station, kept the luggage in the locker and waited for my college friend.  

It was Friday evening and the streets were full of fervour and merriment. The snowstorm hadn't arrived in that part of Switzerland. The weather was chillingly cold and the people were in the mood to party till the arrival of the first snowstorm.

A young man had sprayed cans of silver paint on him and was entertaining the crowd. Nearby a group of youngsters was rolling tobacco and marijuana. A man was strumming a guitar and singing from the depth of his heart. 

I was amusing myself and trying to mix with the crowd. Then from nowhere, a well-dressed man, probably in his early fifties, inebriated and stuttering, came towards me. Like the young man I had met in the Zurich Airport, he enquired, "Are you a Nepali?"

I said, "Yes."

I had expected the same warmth as that of the young man. But with him it was just the opposite. Knowing that I was a Nepali, his expression turned cynical. "So, how did you manage to enter?" he posed the question with a smirk on his face. "What was your excuse to apply for the visa?"

I was irritated by the man's sneering and domineering attitude. However, I remained polite. "I had come here for an induction course and am leaving tomorrow for Paris," I clarified. "From there I shall leave for my country. I have no intentions to overstay in this country."        
"Everybody says the same," he sneered. "They come here as academicians, students, sportsmen, artists, throw their passports in those dustbins," he was pointing to two huge garbage cans, "And stay here illegally, working in restaurants owned by Indians."

I was horrified to hear the details. I tried to convince him that I was hell-bent sure that I would return back to Nepal. But he was adamant on his conviction. He even proposed to provide me work in one of the Indian restaurants if I throw away my passport down the gutter.

I have the gut feeling that with age a man mellows. He turns into a sensible fellow, with all sorts of experiences and sufferings. I took him as an exception. Probably his frustration and anger was suppressing the good man inside him.

I was keeping mum, just listening to his murmurings. It was the perfect situation to practise "selective hearing". Seeing me silent he said, "See gentleman, you need money to survive and I bet you won't be able to earn enough in Nepal." He then narrated his own story. He was a Director in one of the well-known INGOs (International Non-Governmental Organisation) in Nepal. What he used to earn was enough for a luxurious life. However, it was just the salary. His peers in the government having lesser salaries had built houses in the capital, but he was still living in a rented flat. Likewise, his classmates settled in the USA and Australia had earned enough to build houses in Kathmandu and start businesses of their own. So the only thing he could do was to throw the passport while he was in Switzerland to attend a workshop.  

"Now I have four houses in Central Kathmandu," he said triumphantly. "My children attend top-rung schools, my family members are happy and I feel that I have done my part of the job."

The only unhappy soul in his family was he himself. It appeared so to me. He was drunk, the knot of his tie was dangling near the third button of the shirt, his pants had dark smudges near his knees and his coat was in shambles.

He again babbled, "Seems you are one of those idiots who want to stay in Nepal." He solemnly advised me, "Listen, if you want to be a successful man, think about yourself first then think about your family, community and country." According to him, Nepal is a country doomed to fail.

As I was gathering facts in my mind to counter his claims, I could see my friend coming at a distance. He was working in Zurich at that time and had promised to take me around the city. "Thank you for your suggestions dai," I said, in an attempt to conclude the conversation. "Though you are right somewhere, I can't follow it. Good luck with your earnings." I waved to my friend and ran towards him.

We had met after nine years. We hugged each other and started throwing questions at each other to quell our curiosities. As we mixed in the crowd, the inebriated man was waving to me and shouting, "I am damn sure you will join me, sooner or later."  

That night we partied until dawn. It started snowing from early morning. I bade farewell to my dear friend and boarded the train to Paris. Mine was a window seat, so I got glued to the passing panorama. The white blanket of snow was a newfound amusement for me.

The TGV was gliding at a breakneck pace. The blanket of snow in the surrounding was getting thicker and thicker. And in the void of the whiteness, I was comparing the souls of the two men. One was like the white snow, pure, beautiful and welcoming. Another was like the big buildings piercing out of the white blanket of snow, like sharp nails pointing to the sky.             

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