False Flowers and Real Wasps
My headscarf by another name is called a ‘chunni’. And this broek I call a ‘gharaara’ with a lange aaaa. They are both made of the flimsiest of cotton and fall in folds. The gharaara, from my large hips amply spreading around the clogs my feet are in. Big flowers in blues, yellows and greens spread themselves over an orange background. I wear it with a kurta, a loose tunic that the traders from Delhi sell in the market nearby. When I look at the Euro price on these, I wonder what the profit for the Indian sellers on both sides of the world could possibly be. The tunics are quite popular with a certain section of the population here. The outfit makes me stand out. To stand out is not good practice in the Netherlands is it? As the saying here goes, ‘you are odd enough when you are ordinary’. Is that why the wasps found me?
‘ I haven’t been here in so long’, said the woman who settled down next to me on the bench. ‘It’s changed. The trees have grown bigger’. Her headscarf had been pulled tight across her forehead and scalp and neatly pinned at the temples. The flowers on the fabric were light brown on a beige background. Here in Amsterdam where the tendency is to grow short brown buildings, not ones in hot colors, and the sky prefers to wear grey, the muted contours of the landscape around us were in harmony with her dull headscarf. My headscarf had flowers too. But it wasn’t stretched and pinned. And it wasn’t dull. It fell unfettered on my shoulders and the bright flowers on it fluttered in the breeze, as real ones do. And the wasps flew around.
‘Did you come here often before?’ I wanted to know.
“Yes when my children were young and we lived in the neighborhood’.
‘Where do you live now and where are your children’?
‘I have 4. Between 16 and 11 – two boys and two girls. They refuse to go to playgrounds anymore and we have moved further east. So I haven’t been here in a while.’
‘How old were you when you had your first one?
‘I must have been 19’, she said. ‘And you?’
‘There he is. He’s 7,’ I said.
The other looked at the child and then at me with a puzzled expression.
She wanted to know what went wrong in the planning. I know she was looking at the grey hair peeping out from under my colorful headscarf. I think it was at this moment that I began to shake my gharaara because I thought I felt something in it. Don’t you know I wanted to ask, ‘life is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans’?
Instead I asked about her. She grew up in Utrecht. Her parents had come to the Netherlands from Morocco. All her siblings and her immediate family are here. And no, they don’t go to Morocco every year. Not only is it expensive but also what is one to do there? It is just so different from the Netherlands she told me.
We were both waving our hands to chase away the wasps flying around us. I seemed to think one was visiting the inside of my gharaara. This was the first time I had been invited by someone in ‘another’ headscarf to chat so I wasn’t about to let go of the chance. So I hoped the wasp would sooner or later find the exit.
‘Look at her’, she said, pointing to the lady across the sand pit in a super tight dress that stretched over her huge belly. A friend who had visited me from India had said to me that she found it so incredible how some women here celebrated their bodies when pregnant by wearing tight dresses that accentuated their ‘bumps’.
I guess I was thinking of what my visiting Indian friend had said and was slow to react. ‘Would you ever dream of wearing something so tight when you are pregnant?’ Then she quickly answered her own question. ‘I needed to wear loose clothes that fell away from my body, like the tunic you are wearing now’.
Quite suddenly we were joined by a group of ladies, all in headscarves. Two hugged and kissed each other several times. Way more than the three kisses almost hastily given in the air but meant for the cheeks, that I had grown accustomed to seeing around me. There before me, the two clasped and held and exchanged intense intimacies vocally in a singsong way, and kissed and kissed and kissed. They spoke in a tongue I couldn’t recognize. They wished my recent acquaintance, as the whole group settled onto the two benches that were on either side of the table. The language changed into a blend. Every now and then I caught a word, a phrase, an expression in the Dutch I knew and then it flowed into other sounds I didn’t. And every now and then there was a peal of laughter at my attempts to help the wandering wasp out of my gharaara. ‘They like your flowers’, one of them said in the Dutch I recognized. ‘They think they are real’.
As the conversation and laughter around me continued, I began to wonder if I should move away. Was it expected of me? No one in the group around me gave me a clue. I could smell the lady next to me. We were so close and yet so far. Then a cup of couscous was placed before me, as it was before all the other the ladies with whom I was sharing the table. I was given a spoon and asked if I would like some karnemelk in my couscous. I said yes and wanted to know if there is karnemelk in Morocco. Of course they said. And in India? In India we love everything that comes out of cows, I told them. Are there cows in India, someone asked? Yes I said but quite different from the ones here. Thinner.
Then they got into an intense discussion most of which I didn’t get. I understood enough to know it was something to do with parking fees in the nearby market. As I listened, I began to digest this language as couscous with karnemelk. I wondered, when folks, like me have to take the Dutch language test in India to qualify to live in the Netherlands, would it be ‘Dutch Dutch’ or ‘Couscous Dutch’? I decided it would be ‘Dutch Dutch’. Then I thought that in Morocco if someone has passed the ‘Dutch Dutch’ exam and begins to live in Amsterdam, would they use more ‘Dutch Dutch’ or switch to ‘Couscous Dutch’? This was a tricky one for me to answer. Just then, the wasp struck. Right on my upper thigh.
I fled towards the toilet to inspect the damage, one hand firmly placed on my head to prevent my scarf from flying away. No show of high-thigh in public for me. ‘We’ just didn’t do these things, toch?
I think my ‘other’ friend in the ‘other’ headscarf would agree.