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QUICKSILVER CONVERSIONS
- Venice has always been pragmatic about strangers

We have been eating curry and rice in our hotel room between Venice’s Piazza San Marco, which Napoleon called the “finest drawing room in Europe”, and the rippled waters of the Bacino Orseolo Canal. The hotel restaurant didn’t cook the chicken and mutton curries. A Bangladeshi caterer did, courtesy young Amin from Munshiganj who sells fruit and vegetables in the Rialto Market. The curry is cheap, tasty and wholesome. It also keeps happy the young Bangladeshis who think our hotel a criminal waste of money.

Teen hajar taka!” one of them exclaimed when the hotel’s name was mentioned. I don’t know if he was speaking of euros or Bangladeshi currency. They call both taka, and glibly switch from one to the other. Handing over the small packet of peaches and cherries we had bought, Amin declared “Ek hajar taka’r jinish!” He laughingly acknowledged how awed he was initially by the taka value of everything in Venice, Italy’s most expensive city. An older man with a bunch of roses sells each stalk for a taka. He means a euro. Quicksilver conversions come easily to them. It’s what life is all about.

I tend to be impatient with the phoney patriotism of non-resident Indians. But these unpretentious Bangladeshis are true inheritors of the adventurous spirit that created La Serenissima, The Most Serene Republic of Venice, thriving Bride of the Adriatic. If there is friction, it is because of competing enterprise. Venice became rich by mopping up the produce of the East and selling it throughout Europe. Jan Morris reminds us that that meant tight control. Trade was obliged to use Venetian ships. Surplus colonial produce had to be sent to Venice. All Adriatic commerce was routed through the 118 islands of the Venetian lagoon. Venetian officials in Italy, Greece, Asia Minor and North Africa — Venice’s colonial empire — controlled all mercantile activity.

Amin and Akbar, Mintu and Muzaffar also know Italy is facing a depression. Jobs are scarce even for natives. They interpret the police’s studied indifference as friendliness. The boys melt away as a man and a woman in blue uniform walk slowly towards us. The blue uniformed duo pretends not to notice. Afterwards, Mintu tells me that the worst to happen is confiscation of the goods they sell. Nobody is ever jailed or deported. “But a fine would mean more than five lakh takas!” he exclaims, converting again.

A 2010 report says some Bangladeshis pay up to $20,000 to intermediaries whose promise to provide proper documentation and a job, often as a labourer, isn’t always honoured. Irregular channels of entry can cost up to $10,000. For all their mercurial conversions, the boys can’t grapple with dollars. They say each spent about 12 lakh takas to get to Italy. It surprised me to learn that so many of them had flown in from Dhaka with visas and work permits, unlike Bangladeshi youths in Barcelona who reached North Africa clandestinely, then crossed the Mediterranean in dangerously leaky tubs.

Apart from superior beings like the Bangladeshi bellboy in my hotel or restaurant chefs, those with regular job or boys with a “bunker” — which seems to indicate a roadside barrow — earn between 800 and a thousand euros a month. A youth who moves to a different streetcorner every day with his toys makes a clear 30 euros daily. Another lists the day’s takings from different odd jobs and is delighted when my wife tots it up to 52 euros. Living costs in their shared apartments in cheaper Mestre, a 15-minute bus ride away, amount to 300 euros. But they manage to send a few thousand takas home every so often. Amin has enabled his father to build a pucca house in the village. Akbar supports a wife and two children in Kishoreganj.

The novelist, Jhumpa Lahiri, who then lived in Rome — perhaps she still does — wrote in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica that in contrast to the Italian-Americans she had grown up with in Rhode Island, the Bangladeshis she met in Rome were often unable to climb the host country’s social and economic ladder. “They say that they find it difficult to create a new life here,” she wrote. “Even if they have been here for many years, they still feel they are on the margins, barely tolerated, disconnected from the rest of society. Their children, born and raised in Italy, are not Italian citizens.” Under Italian law, children born in the country take the parents’ citizenship. An Italian report says that relatives in Bangladesh sometimes have to send financial help to stranded migrants.

But Amin and Akbar, Mintu and Muzaffar didn’t sound despairing. They still marvel at the fact that those who have been here long enough to acquire citizenship are not just Italian citizens but enjoy full rights all over Europe. “We have a life here” they say. A man is killed in Bangladesh for his money. That can’t happen here. Venice is safe. “We have hope.” An older shopkeeper quotes Sheikh Mujib as saying that mining in other countries produced gold or oil; mining in Bangladesh yielded only corruption.

They are a chirpy lot, unlike the one or two sad-faced Bangladeshis I found lurking in desolate corners in Greece. There, they live in constant fear as much of racist thugs as of the fiercely anti-immigrant Golden Dawn party or the Greek government’s no less severe Operation Xenios Zeus to round up illegals. Here, they are almost as exuberant as those young Barcelona Bangladeshis who pressed us to stay on with them, promising our status would be legalized as theirs had been. Or like those other slightly older men from Dhaka and Barisal selling readymades in Sicily who were deeply chagrined because our boat back to Malta didn’t leave time enough for them to entertain us to a home-cooked meal.

Their background isn’t uniform. Amin’s family have a small jewellery shop, he says, in Munshiganj. Mintu’s sister is married to a doctor in Saudi Arabia. One young man graduated from Dhaka’s Jagannath College and would have gone to London to study business administration but was refused a visa. He is the exception. Many of the others would be classed in Bangladesh as landless labourers. In that they are very different from Indian visitors. The Hindi-speaking tour groups I see prompt wonder at their being able to finance a holiday in Venice at all. But, obviously, there are others from India. A glass factory on Murano island shows me images of Ganesa, Lakshmi and Saraswati, the glass decorated with 22-carat gold, marked around 9,000 euros each (nearly Rs 7.5 lakhs). They are shipped to buyers in India. The Bangladeshis are not uninformed of Indian shenanigans. More than one asked if we paid for our tickets or wangled them. Indian officials visit Venice on tour, they say.

All poses and pretensions fell away when we talked of desh, home. Most are from Kishoreganj. But not Muzaffar. When it emerged my ancestral home was Brahmanbaria, he impulsively threw his arms around me in a warm embrace. His desh was only a station away, perhaps Akhaura. The spontaneous gesture didn’t take into account differences of nationality or religion. It recalled for me the ignored corollary of Kipling’s “and never the twain shall meet”.

Venice has always been pragmatic about strangers. The Natural History Museum was the Fondaco dei Turchi, the business centre for Turkish merchants even though Turks were the sworn enemy. Gypsies — distant children of India, better known today as Roma, and discriminated against all over Europe — were welcomed because of their skill in horse- breeding; Jews because of their scholarship and financial acumen. There were more than 135,000 legal and illegal Bangladeshis in Italy in 2010. Now they must number a couple of lakhs. Men mean money, historically, Venice’s only raison d’être.