10pm. The journey was going well. I was traveling to Delhi from Kerala by train and had just crossed Erode. All except two middle berths were occupied and I was the sole lady passenger in the compartment.
I woke up the next day to see two Nigerians sitting opposite to my seat, victims to the glaring stares of other passengers in my compartment as well as the ones nearby. Though I felt sorry for them, they both seemed completely okay with it and were busy talking to each other in some language that seemed far more perplexing than French.
I enjoy talking to people. So, when our eyes met for a fraction of a second, I offered them a wide and welcome smile, which they returned hesitantly. I then tried to strike a conversation with older guy among the two, asking him which language he was talking in, to his friend. Though he looked surprised at my sudden query, he smiled and replied “Igbo”. Having been successful enough to get a reply, I introduced myself and gradually, we became comfortable with each other. I learned that their names were Kingsley and John Xtopher. They had boarded the train from some station in Tamil Nadu and were off to Delhi.
Conversing in English was tough, mainly because our Indian accent is far way different from theirs. But then, with a little effort from both ends, we were able to understand each other fairly well. Talking to them, I learned a great deal about Nigeria. It is the largest of the countries in Africa and English is the official language of the state (Thanks to the British colonization!). The country was formerly agricultural, and today, it is one of the most rapidly developing economies in the world. All through our conversation, they spoke very highly of their land and their culture. However, I was a bit disappointed to hear their reply when I asked them about their experience in India.
Kingsley told me that he had to face a lot of trouble in India, during the last 2 years of his stay in New Delhi, mainly because he was a ‘black’. And when he told me that I was the first Indian woman whom he spoke to in all these years in our country, I was literally shocked! He read out the shock from my face and told me that no one actually cared to talk to them, as they found them ‘scary’. He, in a resigned tone, said that most people in India were prejudiced to a great extent and for them; blacks were either drug-dealers or people who came to India with ‘hidden agendas’.
I befriended both of them within a very short span of time. And I tried my best to make them feel comfortable all along the journey. It was a joy to see their face lit up with bliss when I offered them the snacks I had taken along. They seemed to love the banana and tapioca chips. Though tapioca or cassava (as known in Africa) was one of their staple foods in Nigeria, they hadn’t tasted chips made from it.
We discussed almost 2/3rd of the topics under the sun during our journey – history, geography, science, business, politics, education, society, culture, friendships, and love. When I informed them that my brother would be soon getting married and I would love to have them as my guests, they accepted my request wholeheartedly and said that given a chance, they’d never miss a trip to Kerala. The only request made by them was that they wanted to eat lunch from plantain leaves!!
Both of them, during our conversation, told me that they longed to return home. They miss their family, especially their mother and their siblings, badly. I remember Kingsley saying ‘Wherever I go, I believe God will protect my family. That’s what gives me strength.’
Another conversation which made me realize how different the culture of India is as compared with the Western culture was when I asked John about his marriage plans. I must have sounded obviously stupid to him when I asked him whether he would opt for an arranged marriage or a love marriage because after I finished my question, he started laughing at my face as if I had cracked a hilarious joke of the century. He said in tears that arranged marriages happened only in India or maybe in the East, and it was something unheard of, in the West. People were free to love and be in love and marry the person of his choice (Provided the other person had the same feelings!)
All this while, no one from the usually nose-poking public tried to interfere in our conversation (PS: I cared the least!). The journey was all exciting; however, the change in climate gave me a terrible throat-pain. Kingsley and John, understanding my situation without my words, tried their best to make me feel comfortable.
By the end of our 36-hour train-journey, we felt as if we had known each other for ages. We parted our ways after sharing our contact details and promised to keep in touch.
My faith in friendship gets restored every time I make a stranger my friend. Hope life remains this rewarding until the end.
Every experience gives me something to ponder upon. Why don’t some people realize that races, ethnicity or colors are not the criteria to term someone as ‘inhuman’? Why are people judged by the way they look, talk or eat? Why do we tend to label a whole section of people as ‘anti-social’, when just a person or two in the set go off the right track? Is it really that hard being a logical human being? Think!