Photograph: Preeti Verma Lal
“Salaam”. That guttural voice startled me. In an unknown land, I heard the familiar. Oslo was frosty; it was laden with a breeze so nippy that I could hear it whistling by my long hair. The air was redolent with a heady fragrance and cobbled paths echoed with the onomatopoeic sound of the well-heeled scurrying to work. The shops were shut but in the windows stood mannequins, their stiff fibre body curvaceous beyond the striped bikinis. Oslo was bustling with the usual morning madness and the sun too lazy to step out of the heavens; it was then I heard the salaam. There he was, opening the door of his swank van. In one large syllable, that saalam in Nizami Ali’s baritone vanquished all strangeness from a horseshoe shaped city that was once called Christiania. Ali is from Pakistan, he speaks chaste Punjabi and loves Indian food. He was to take me around Oslo and in this faraway land there were no skirmishes and subcontinental hatred, only a tacit connect.
That day I would not only skip boundaries, I would also walk back in time, to the ninth century when the Vikings were cutting through placid Scandinavian waters in their long wooden ships with flat keel. In the Viking Ship Museum, the rays of the morning slant on ebony boats so fragile that they need to be propped. Built in ninth century, these are two of the world’s best preserved Viking boats, one used to bury a woman, the other held a chieftain along with his other-world pleasures including a dog and a peacock. Spread in the neat museum, there are sledges and carts with exquisite ornamentation, even harness and textiles that were discovered in Gokstad, Tune and Osberg at the turn of the 20th century. Oslo is grateful to the Vikings, for the city was founded by these seafarers. I had once walked into an ancient Viking house turned into a tea house, that day I regretted not being a tea-drinker; at the Ship Museum I was tempted to pick the oars, hold the spear, don the armour and be a Viking. Alas! The boats were too brittle, the armour too heavy and I too petite.
Ah! Elfins cannot be Vikings. In Oslo, I could not hold the chisel either to carve one of the 121 naked figures desperate to reach out to heaven in that famous Monolith in Vigeland Sculpture Park. In the Sculpture Park, there are 212 naked humans carved in granite and bronze – naked men huddled on a pedestal, the little angry boy, a mother smothering her children with love, an old couple brooding against the azure sky and Gianos sitting back to back. I stare at the unclothed sculptures by Gustav Vigeland, but it is not nudity that piques me. Standing by the bridge, all I notice is the purity of the thought, the limpid bodies, the veins that pulsate in cold granite and the eyes that speak even with closed eyelids. By the sundial, visitors invariably make a wish, I did not. I did not want to blemish that chaste moment with a selfish wish.
Thanks to Ali, that day in Oslo had begun with a certain Indian-ness that I start missing after a week in Europe. As I walked by the busy streets, I saw a juggler making his weekly moolah with trite vanish acts, while others walked into Bombay Darbar, the popular Indian restaurant that proudly displays a newspaper clipping about the chef “being the best in town”. Even before I could ask how good the food was, Matilda, the lissome guide, listed all the joys of the Indian aroma and how the Norwegians loved the naan and the tikkas. Far away in the horizon an Ali Kaffe blinked its neon lights gloriously. That was not all, though. Even in Christiano, a hip restaurant by the Parliament known for its wacky décor there stood an antique tin plate that read: Yog Tea from Agra. That day I did not see many of the 40,000 Indians and Pakistanis that live in Oslo, but I felt puffed as an Indian.
The next day as I fastened the seat belt to head to Bergen, a World Heritage Site, a random thought gnawed at me: I thought that was the end of my Indian connection in Scandinavia, I sure would not see any traces of it in Bergen, the old-world fishing village. I held on to the thought, a little wistfully. But not too long – I pick my baggage at the airport and manoeuvre my way out of the unending sea of blonde heads. And then I see him, an old Sardar being greeted by a little girl. I stood there for a moment partaking in what looked like homecoming. Perhaps the old Sardar felt my gaze, he turned and smiled beatifically. That moment, thousands of miles away in Bergen, it felt like family.
Ask Bergeners and they would tell you that the city has its feet in the sea, its head in the skies and its heart in the right place. As I take the funicular to Ulriken mountain, I believe the bit about feet in the sea, as I look at the old houses painted in canary yellows and scarlet and churches with spires reaching out to the skies, the head in the skies aphorism rang true too. When I sat by the Bryggen wharf and an old man told me about the fried porbeagles and the old-fashioned lutefish at Bryggeloftet and BryggeStuene, and vanilla and whisky panna cotta at Kafe Krystall, trolls in Troll, hand-knitted sweaters in Bryggen Husflid, I gleefully cheered for the heart in right place claim as well.
At night as I listened to the Mountain Thrall that Edvard Grieg, Norway’s most famous composer, wrote for a baritone, two horns and strings, I remembered his beige home outside Bergen. There I could not pick the notes from his Piano Sonata; at the Old City I fumbled with the crochet to make dainty lace that Bergen is so famous for. For my scrapbook I picked a fallen dry fern. For nostalgia, I brought back Ali’s kindness and that guttural salaam.
in The Economic Times, 2008