There was a small English bookshop next to the hotel we were staying at in Milan. On the evening of our second day, after a round of shopping and walking in the city, I decided to visit the shop. When I entered I found two old men talking in loud voices. There was no one else around, and seeing me the younger of the two stood up: “How can I help you?”
“Nothing specific,” I replied. “Just want to look around.”
“Just browsing? That’s alright, go ahead.” He turned back to his companion.
I scanned some titles on the shelf. It was a small room, and instead of paying attention to the books I found myself listening to the two seated only a few feet away. Their accent was British, and the exchange was about the weather outside. I interjected, and was soon part of their small-talk.
One of them was the bookshop owner, the other – at-least a good twenty years older – was his friend. This friend soon clarified why they were talking loudly.
“You see I’m deaf in one ear,” he said, pointing at his left side, “and,” – pointing now to the right, “I can’t hear through the other!!”
In the laughter that followed, the deaf man’s cackle drowned the rest.
“Where are you from?” asked the owner.
“India.” I replied.
“INDIA,” the owner repeated, leaning towards his friend.
“Ah, India!” The friend suddenly grew excited. “I was in India a long time ago….can’t remember when exactly. You know, Gandhi was a great man. To me he was greater than God. He kicked us Britishers out!”
The owner began to say something, but his friend continued: “There’s a movie about Gandhi….brilliant movie….I can’t remember who played that role…”
“Ben Kingsley,” said the owner.
“Who was that?”
Leaning a little closer: “BEN KINGSLEY.”
“Ah, yes! That’s him! I borrowed this movie from you, didn’t I? I’m not going to give it back!”
“That’s alright,” said the owner, with a faint smile. Turning to me, he asked: “How is Gandhi seen in India these days? Do people still think of him the way they did sixty years ago?”
“Well, he’s in the history books, people respect him for what he did for the nation, but these days he doesn’t exactly dominate the political and intellectual psyche. He’s more of a symbol from the past, I think.”
“What’s that?” The friend obviously didn’t get most of what I said.
“GANDHI IS A SYMBOL.”
“Of course he is! Didn’t you know that?”
The owner looked helpless, a bit embarrassed even. His friend continued : “This Indian gentleman here speaks excellent English, but you know what – we Britishers gave them the language!!”
The friend cackled again and I spontaneously joined him. The owner, though, did so with some hesitation.
“You gave us the railways too.” I said, a little louder than usual.
“There – you see!”
“Since how long have you been in Milan?” I asked, directing my question to both.
“I came to Italy about 40 years ago,” the owner replied. His wife was Italian. He had two sons, both living in Mallorca, working in the property business which, at the moment, was doing poorly.
The friend had a son in Australia, where apparently jobs were not a problem.
“You must send your sons to Australia!” he said.
I wasn’t sure if he was joking, but the owner was not amused.
“The economic crisis will get there too,” he said. “People will start losing jobs.”
“You know a long time ago,” began the friend, “I worked as a dubber in the movie industry, and then one day they changed all the technology behind dubbing and we old-timers were out of jobs!!”
“Well, these days a lot of people lose their jobs due to outsourcing,” said the owner.
“What was that?”
“Outsourcing. Don’t know that word. There’s way too many words these days. You know I was listening to some kids on the tram the other day, and I couldn’t understand a word of what they were speaking!”
“You must get yourself a hearing aid.”
“A bearing what?!”
“You tell me,” said the friend, now turning to me. “How’s the India-Pakistan thing coming along these days?!”
At this the owner grew restless. “That is a sensitive matter.” And then, to me: “Tell me, your Prime Minister, he’s an intellectual, isn’t he? I believe he’s an economist.”
“That’s right,” I replied.
“And he is a Sikh.”
“Is he a sick Sikh?” the friend asked, and laughed at his own joke.
The owner ignored him. “There’s a large Sikh community in Italy, mostly down south, I think,” he said.
“Are you Sikh?” asked the friend, in a clear attempt at wordplay.
“No, I’m not,” I replied.
There wasn’t much time before the shop’s closing hour, and the conversation, though engaging, was becoming predictable. I thanked them for the company, excused myself, and walked into the adjacent room containing books on History and Travel.