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Bhalo Italia

Bhalo Italia
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All Indians planning to visit Italy this summer are advised to take a crash course in Bengali

Staff Writer
June 09 , 2014
04 Min Read

In Genoa, I introduced myself in Bengali at an Internet café as a Gujarati Indian from Gurgaon whose family had settled down in Bhowanipur, Kolkata. Out of the rafters, cubicles and side doors poured a full dozen Bangladeshis dying to converse with me, inquiring about the World Cup, the weather in Dum Dum where they had left behind residual families and where, they swore, one could find the best notun gurer sandesh in the world. Disappointed that I wasn’t entirely familiar with the back streets of Dhaka and Chittagong, they nevertheless escorted me to a Bangladeshi store nearby where I was given a favourable rate for my dollars, a discount on a bottle of cheap Tuscan wine and a free bag of chips.


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It’s perfectly obvious why Bangladeshis congregate in Genoa. It has Europe’s largest aquarium and no good Bengali, whether from East or West, can be persuaded to stray too far from his fish.


Florence was a bit of a disappointment in that respect. The streets were full of North Africans, culturally deprived since they knew naught of Bengali, Rabindra sangeet, and the green fields of Sonar Bangla. Rosalind, my Italian guide to the Uffizi, spoke the Queen’s English in the plummiest Brit accent, reminiscent of the drawing rooms of some of the more refined families of Calcutta (no Kolkata, old chap, that’s for the plebs). I met the odd Pakistani or two but, sadly, Bangalis and Bangladeshis were missing.


In Rome, one was back in familiar territory. My wife’s friends had arranged my stay at a pensione run by nuns of the Loreto order (get him to a nunnery, she’d said, since I was travelling alone), some of whom asked whether I was familiar with the Loretos of Calcutta and Darjeeling, thus renewing the Bengali connection. But it was the trattoria across the road that drove home the importance of the Bengali language.


My waiter, seeing in me an obvious South Asian proclivity, addressed me in English in an unmistakable Bengali accent. I politely inquired — in Bengali — whether he was Bangladeshi and when he acknowledged his Chittagong roots, I shook his hand and congratulated him. Perplexed, he asked why. I told him that not only had Bangladesh thrashed the Indian cricket team but they had gone on to beat South Africa as well.


That was it — nothing more needed to be said. All activity in the trattoria came to a grinding halt. A huge cheer went up and to the astonishment of the other patrons, all the waiters did that little sprinting-on-the-spot jig that we saw the Bangladesh cricket team performing. A small queue formed to shake my hand and console me briefly in Bengali, making me feel worse than a Mohun Bagan fan when defeated by East Bengal. My order of pasta arrived garnished with slivers of white truffle and my all-vegetable pizza had the aubergines replaced with the finest prosciutto. At the end of the meal, a small cup of espresso miraculously appeared accompanied by a glass of Sambuca into which two small coffee beans had been delicately dropped. I was billed only for the pizza and the tip was refused. Long live Indo-Bangladeshi solidarity! And I hope the Indian cricket team visiting Bangladesh is reading this.


Its little things like this which helped me forget the less pleasant side of Italy. Whilst the countryside is beautiful, the monuments magnificent and Italians a very lovable people, they’re a bit too much like us Indians. Taxi meters are often tampered with, pickpockets abound and begging on the streets is not unusual. Racial profiling by the Italian police is probably the worst in Europe: at the Vatican, of all places and with over a lakh of visitors, an Indian family with two small boys was singled out and asked for identity papers. At Genoa airport, I only escaped being questioned by the police because in front of me was an equally swarthy man, but he had a moustache. At Rome, I was the only passenger on my flight to be asked to place my shoes on an explosive detecting machine. It’s a bit more than disconcerting because the police all carry pistols or sub-machine guns and they don’t look as if they know how to use them.

But you can console yourself with the fact that the Italian birth rate is negative now and in a century or so, Bangladeshis will probably outnumber Italians. Then, as long as the Indian cricket team continues to lose to Bangladesh and if my experience is any indication, there will be free potato chips, prosciutto and Sambuca for Indians.

Joi Bangla!



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