The ones in Celtic shirts used to call him an 'Orange Paki bastard'. The ones in Rangers shirts used to call him a 'Fenian Paki bastard'. The British soldiers used to just call him a 'Paki bastard'. He laughed it off, and served them all with unfailing courtesy in his north Belfast shop. Now Brij Sharma is dead, the victim of a brutal assault in the Co Derry village of Moneymore last Sunday.
Police are investigating a possible racist motive. Two men have been charged, one with causing grievous bodily harm, and the other with intimidation. They denied them. The charges were put while Sharma was in a coma in hospital. Since his death on Tuesday morning, the PSNI has said the men may face further charges.
"People used to say to him, 'How the hell can you stick it on the Limestone Road?'" said his older brother, Bahrat, this weekend. "He just always had a belief that whatever he did, he could make it work. He'd say to me, 'Bisa' - that means older brother, in our culture - 'you have to take the rough with the smooth.' But he loved India, and his plan was to retire in Goa." He was born in Gujarat in 1966. "We grew up in a picturesque place," said Bahrat.
"Palm beaches - where a man hadn't put his foot." The
family later lived in the Punjab and, when Brij was ten, they moved
to Ireland to a big old house on the Limestone Road.
They lived on the nationalist end of the road, Newington, and went to school on the loyalist end, Mountcollyer.
"Brij started work in the catering trade - he was in Belfast's
first real Italian restaurant, Ciro's," said Bharat.
"He'd say he was Antonio, from Italy. He liked to play. Our family is Hindu, but we believe the greatest religion is humanity." Two years ago, the Sunday Tribune interviewed Sharma during a period of daily rioting outside his shop, a few doors down from the old family home.
Heather's Mini-Market had endured firebombs, paint bombs, blast bombs and bricks.
He spent a lot of time barricaded inside, or clearing up rubble after riots. Despite a steady trade in cigarettes and painkillers, he was losing money, and said he kept the shop open only because he couldn't sell it.
"There used to be a very good sense of community here," he
said. "The park used to have bowling and tennis and bandstands
and children played there. Now there's a wall through it to keep
the sides apart... Some of the people who attack me are my childhood
friends. Now their children are calling my children racist names."
"These guys have a few drinks and the hatred just glows in
their eyes. I feel very let down. I used to be part of the community.
Anyone comes into my shop needing help, they get it. I'm a self-employed
businessman. Politics and religion can't come into it. But these
people attack me for serving both sides. They just need someone
to pick on." He still had customers who supported him. "I
can't thank them enough," he said. "But the good people
These people are the bricks and mortar of this area, and they've been destroyed, like the listed buildings. People are living on tablets. Their nerves have gone." The shop, the last on the Limestone, was named after Sharma's wife, Heather, now a widow with a daughter, Kavita (16) and a son, Amit (11).
This used to be one of Belfast's grander areas. Now there are shuttered windows and charred walls on many of the redbrick Victorian mansions, and a smell of damp from bricked-up houses in the terraces behind them. "This is fragile ground," Sharma said in 2002. "Neither side is willing to give an inch. The hatred runs too deep." The shop is empty now too, its steel grilles turned into a shrine to Sharma at which women stood crying. "If you were upset he'd sit you down and give you tea and cigarettes and listen to your troubles," said one. Local community worker Ann McGuinness pinned up a display of children's tributes, its centrepiece a photograph one of them took of Sharma. His big smile lit up the sad scene.
"Brij was a good friend to everyone," said McGuinness.
Her brother, Pat, said, "This community will be the poorer without him. He told me he was dreading the summer." Summer in north Belfast is often tense and violent.
"Dear Brij, I will miss you because you were always singing me songs and calling me Princess. Love, wee Maria." Maria (8), who wrote this tribute, lives round the corner. "He gave me free sweets and he let me use the till," she said, before hiding behind her granny's skirt.
Her granny, Maria Branniff, knew Sharma since he was a child. "He was a nice person, always jolly and happy," she said. "He'd do a lot of slagging and shouting, same as the rest of us here. He was very kind. He'd give me a lift to the hospital. We are devastated."
Sharma lived in Carrickfergus, while his parents had moved to the suburb of Glengormley, where this weekend they were graciously receiving a stream of callers, Indian and Irish. Bharat said, "Some people have said to us that no matter what the divisions on the Limestone, their grief for Brij is the one thing in which they are united."