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Still.

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Quiet is the Belgian night. There are no orchestral dogs here, no lone car horn echoing distant. No cry of laughter, anger or pleasure punctuates the night. Where I live, temporary and fleeting, the night is alien.

I take walks sometimes, aimless and wandering, no particular destination or direction in mind. And since there are no alleyways to explore, I trawl the boulevards and the side-streets like a vagabond with nowhere particular to be and no one waiting with the light on. I would call it a respite, if it were not so that everyday life here is not everyday life in Kathmandu. Sometimes, the pell-mell helter-skelter of Kathmandu is missed, sorely. The affect of it all, being buffeted from side-to-side, like a lone buoy in an endless raging ocean. They were times when I was reminded, every second of every day, what it felt like to be a living breathing body. Here, even the days are softer, passing easy like clouds. Now you are today, now you are tomorrow, now you are yesterday.

My European friends marvel at the ‘chaos’ of Brussels. They do not know true disorder; pandemonium of the highest order can only be found on South Asian streets.

Detour

It was maybe three weeks ago that I encountered an unexpected island of disarray amidst this sea of placidity. I walked into a convenience store, the kind they call ‘night shops here, and I met a Nepali woman. I was looking for someone to interview for my urban geography course and she was more than willing to speak to a fellow Nepali. At first, she was hesitant, giving me a false name when I asked for one. Once she got comfortable, there was no awkwardness. She apologized for the false name, explaining that she didn’t have papers and was there because of her husband. She was voluble and ebullient, telling me how she had studied sociology back in Nepal and hence, knew what field work was all about. She offered her services, claiming she knew everyone from unemployed layabouts to 9-to-5 suited businessmen who frequented her store.

She made me coffee and I sat by the counter speaking to her as she dealt with customers in fluent French. She had never taken any courses, she told me, learning French simply by osmosis. She had arrived in Belgium two years ago and had immediately started working in the store, which was owned and operated by her husband. She had arrived her from Italy, where she had been for another two years. She spoke fluent Italian and fluent French. I was impressed. Italy is beautiful, she said, not like Brussels. But Denmark is even more beautiful, especially in the summer. And Germany. She had been around and she knew what she liked.

She looked to be in her late 30s, short and squat. She asked me to guess her ethnicity and I chose Magar or Gurung. She laughed. She was neither. The neighbourhood folk thought she was Thai and I could see the resemblance. But she was a Newar from Dhading.

As we spoke, a man came in, bearing a box of ice-cream. They conversed in rapid French and after he had left, she confided to me that he was a thief. He tried to sell her the box of ice-cream, which he had most probably stolen from somewhere. This was a regular occurrence, she explained. The neighbourhood where we were, Anderlecht Centre Wayez, wasn’t the best. It was a diverse place, filled with Moroccans, Turks, Armenians, Syrians, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis. Up until a year ago, the subway station in front of her store attracted the worst of the lot – unemployed hooligans who simply smoked pot and hung out on the streets, she said. The police had done a good job of cleaning the place up, but there were still ‘thieves’ around. I asked her to describe the neighbourhood to me and she gave me one word, ‘danger’. She brought me around to behind the counter and displayed a long, solid piece of wood. I use this to beat back the thieves when they get aggressive, she explained proudly.

She gave me coffee and biscuits. She invited me over for Bhai Tika. She also tsk-tsked at my physique and what I was wearing. She had some leftover dal-bhat in case I hadn’t eaten. It was instinctive, how quickly she became motherly. I asked her if she had any children and she replied in the negative. I didn’t push her.

We exchanged numbers and I took my leave, a half-eaten pack of biscuits in my hand. She had pressed me to take some more but I had refused, feeling self-conscious. Here was a woman of flux, moving from Nepal to Italy to Belgium, operating a night store in a shady part of the city, beating back would-be thieves with a piece of wood. She was welcome. The whole incident was welcome. I felt at home.

End of detour

Back in my no-nonsense part of town, where the residents are all white and the cars don’t honk at each other even when they narrowly avoid a collision, I listened to a piece of music that seemed to encapsulate everything I was feeling. Rajan Shrestha, friend and artist extraordinaire, has a song called Achal (under the moniker phatcowlee) and it is one of the most beautiful pieces of music I have heard in recent times. It is a song of stillness, a perfect amalgam of form and content. Minimal and moody, it does not rise and fall, it does not soar and dip. It does not stir. It is still. And in that stillness, there is a profundity unbecoming of something so simple.

I miss Kathmandu’s bedlam but there is something to be said of stillness. The quiet of nights in Brussels lays like a shroud over a corpse. It is an unfeeling kind of quiet, a calm that does not breed, does not propagate. Rajan’s stillness is generative, it produces quiet in the mind. It coaxes you to close your eyes and surrender yourself, like the best kind of meditation.

So I lay, on the top floor of a nondescript house in Brussels, under a sloping roof, eyes to the dark and ears to the stillness. This is still. Quite quiet still.

[Listen to Rajan’s Achal here: https://soundcloud.com/phatcowlee/achal]

Published on The Kathmandu Post, December 3, 2016

 

Written by Pranaya

December 3, 2016 at 4:05 PM

One Nepali in Brussels

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[Image: Molenbeek, the most notorious of Brussels’ 19 municipalities]

In line for customs at the Brussels Airport, my passport in hand, I wait anxious. As a brown man with a beard, I expect scrutiny and a barrage of questions. Never mind that I am not from a ‘sensitive’ country or that my religion is not that which evokes fear. But I know the ease with which perceptions take hold. I am dressed in a semi-formal blazer and cotton pants, large glasses and have trimmed my beard down to a stub. I have come prepared.

My turn arrives and I hand over my passport. The man behind the glass asks me if this is my first time in Belgium. I nod. He asks me if I’m a student. I nod again. He asks why I chose Belgium. I reply that the programme I am enrolled in is a fine one. He stamps the passport and hands it back, motioning me to leave. I am relieved and just a bit surprised that things went so easy.

Over the course of a week in Brussels, I discover that Belgians do not cower. After the terrorist attacks at the Brussels Airport and at a metro station in March, I had expected heightened security, armed guards patrolling the streets, a more visible ramp up in the security theatre. I spy heavily armed armymen in twos walking around the city centre and outside the Central Station, but they are less intimidating than I had imagined. As I watch, a presumably homeless man walks up to them and asks them for a smoke, gesturing wildly and laughing maniacally. The two armymen, massive rifles slung across their chests, only smile back and do their best to pretend not to see. I try to imagine just how this incident would’ve played out in the United States, or even in Nepal.

At the European Quarter, headquarters of the European Capital, anyone can simply walk into the courtyard of the European Parliament building, a couple hundred metres from where the head of the European government has his office. There are no security checks, no patrolling guards, no tanks and no heavy machinery. There is greater security outside Singha Durbar, I think.

But besides a few more guards, there is very little that would impress on a visitor that Belgium had just suffered its worst terrorist attack in history just half a year ago. Outside the Maalbeek station, the station bombed in March, there is light art on the walls that spell out in large white letters: ‘REMEMBER’. Right opposite it, on the walls of the station, the corollary: “FORGET.” It is as if to say, remember what happened but do not let it define you.

Brussels is a conundrum. It is as if it is always being pulled in different directions. Often literally. Belgium is nation with dual identities – the French and the Dutch. Half the country speaks French and the other half speaks Flemish. This divide is everywhere, from the top levels of government down to the communes and neighbourhood enclaves. As a capital, Brussels is spared the language divide somewhat, but even the universities that I attend – the VUB and the ULB – were once the same school; now they are divided along language and culture lines. It is not utopian. There are lessons here for Nepal but I am yet in the process of figuring out what they may be.

In Brussels, diversity is not overwhelming, like in New York. It is a quiet kind of difference, one that takes some searching to find. The neighbourhood of Matonge is one of my favourite areas, an African node that attracts people from across Europe and from Africa. It is not simply a black African neighbourhood in Brussels; it is a meeting point that stretches from the Congo all the way across Belgium, France and England. In Matonge, the air smells different, flavoured with African spices and exotic meats. It is noisier, with music shops blaring raucously rhythmic African music. It is also much more colourful, yellow, reds and greens abound on women’s dresses and men’s shirts. It is a welcome enclave in a commune that feels too clean, too sterile, too white.

I have now been in Brussels for a little over a week, during which time I have walked much and I have walked long. This is a city where walking is not a chore. I have rediscovered the inherent pleasure of stepping out of your door with no destination in mind and simply allowing yourself to be carried by the eddies of whim. It is possible here to be a true flaneur, simply observing, not taking part. Last week, when I visited the Ixelles commune town hall to register myself as a resident, an argument broke out between a white woman and a black man, both of them yelling at each other in increasingly louder French. Although they were arguing in public, I felt as if I was privy to something secretive. Perhaps it was that I couldn’t understand their words, and so, felt like a voyeur, peeping into a situation where I had no referent.

Exploring a new place, I feel like a cartographer, treading unchartered territory and drawing my own mental maps. I am starting once again to enjoy getting lost, the simple joy of the aimless wander. Walking is therapeutic for homesickness. It is easier to not long for the wonted while engaged in making a new place more familiar. To most, a new home is not easy to make but for the rootless, home is nowhere. But it can be everywhere.

[Published in The Kathmandu Post, October 1, 2016]

Written by Pranaya

October 11, 2016 at 12:40 PM