In the company of familiar strangers


“What a rage of life flows around us all the time, invisible, inaudible, but intense and ever present.”
— TEJU COLE, The sense in turning away

The new car arrived last Wednesday, two-weeks late. We’d returned the old one in July, before our US vacation, so for three weeks in between I rode on trams and buses and trains to work and back. The Deutsche Bahn app laid out my morning plan:

8:00 am: Walk 4 minutes to Bismarkplatz
8:05 am: Bus 34 to Heidelberg Hauptbahnhof. Reach at 8:12 am
8:18 am: S4 to Wiesloch-Walldorf. Reach at 8:28 am
8:32 am: Bus 707 to Walldorf. Reach at 8:41 am

You could call this rush hour, but while there was briskness — people streaming in and out of platforms with an energy seldom seen in this small city — there was no rush. I always got a seat. And often there were people nearby willing to talk openly, if not loudly, amongst themselves or on the phone. I could not get myself to do this in such closed public spaces, but I was glad — for once — the others were not like me. One morning, not long after I boarded the S4 in Heidelberg, a dark-skinned young man facing me began to speak on the phone in Kannada.

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At the Frauenbad


A middle-aged woman sits on a sofa, flipping through a book. A large photograph of a decaying indoor pool hangs behind her. It is a simple picture, but I cannot take my eyes off it. Why?

The photograph was taken during the launch event of Sabine Arndt’s new book, ‘Das Alte Hallenbad Heidelberg. Ein Tempel des Volkes’ at the Frauenbad. The Frauenbad, a public swimming pool for women until 1981, is now a party arena with a bar and a dance floor. We stood there on a Sunday afternoon in May, listening to speeches in German describing the building’s history and the making of the book. Later the crowd milled around the hall looking at the exhibition of Sabine’s photographs. Many stood drinking and talking. A few sat on sofas lining the walls. I was on my way out when I noticed this woman.

We know these moments. A real world scene jumps out as a photograph. It demands to be framed. Would the iPhone capture what I saw?

It did. The photograph works, although I’m not sure why. Colour gives it character and the seated woman appears striking. But there is something else: the inner photograph.

The woman stood out that afternoon among all the Germans, and she seems an odd figure in the photograph too, more a part of the inner photograph than the outer one. The colour of her skin, her dress, her hat, her handbag: they blend into the interiors of the old Frauenbad. There is an understated elegance there, in her dress, the tilt of her head, her leisurely manner of leafing through the book. She belongs to a different time, the era of the Frauenbad bathers perhaps. And I cannot help wondering if the page she is looking at holds the same photograph that hangs behind her.

There are other intriguing symmetries. The woman’s hat and the lamp, similarly shaped and positioned at the diagonal edges of the inner photograph. The large rectangle of the inner photo, the small white rectangle below it to the right, and the (partially obscured) dark rectangle above it. The semi-circle of the table and the semi-circle of the exposed pool in the photograph. The inverted dome of the lamp, and the similar arc we see in the upper portion of the photograph. The shaft of light that angles down towards the woman’s face.

I’m still not certain what makes it work, but I now understand the photograph better.

The spell of heat


The screen displays a ‘Sunny 40’. Switching to Fahrenheit, it says 104. There is no air-conditioning at home. The scorching heat seeps inside, its force inescapable.

The body senses this before the mind grasps it. Skin turns sticky, breathing is a labour, eyes squint in the white heat, thirst is hard to slake, flies pester the ears. A lethargy sets in. Sleep descends, like a drug promising relief.

The spell of heat turns the neighbourhood foreign, like someplace distant and unfamiliar. Women walk hugging the church wall, following its sliver of shade. Men lick their ice cones like babies. Decent girls tread the streets in swimwear. Buildings wear an unfriendly, shuttered look. Their shadows seem darker, sharper. Shops lure passersby with air-conditioned drafts. Temperature figures in every second conversation. The drowsy librarian blames the soporific heat. The erratic barber cannot deal with the stickiness of hair.

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The other morning, there was an incident on the tram. A hundred meters from the Hauptbahnhof stop, where streams of passengers bound for another city pour out each day, the tram stopped. Through the driver’s cabin I saw a bus blocking our way. We waited for the bus to move. It didn’t. Minutes passed. A tram went by in the other direction, then a bus. Our driver, a woman with short golden hair, spoke with the driver of this passing bus. Then she left her cabin and walked through the tram’s length, passing word that the bus ahead had stalled due to a problem. We had to return to the previous stop. Some passengers sighed, looked at their watches. A woman standing near me said, in a distressed voice: Lass mich aussteigen! — Let me get down! I have a train to catch! But the driver had moved on. She entered the cabin at the other end, and the tram began its journey to Stadtwerke, the stop we had passed a while ago.

The woman’s agitation grew. Where is this going! Why can’t they let me out? The others sat unmoving, unmoved. No one commiserated with her, nobody vented their own frustration. The woman, middle-aged, in a yellow overcoat, clutching a black suitcase, remained the sole campaigner.

It was a rainy morning. On the street umbrellas glided past, sprinkling much-needed colour to this unseasonal grey summer day. The tram windows framed blurry outlines of stately old buildings and misty hills in the distance.

Some minutes later the driver trotted back across the tram, toward the original cabin. The woman asked again to be let out.

I can’t do that, the driver replied firmly. I’m not allowed to!

I’m going to miss my train! the woman cried. Can’t you see that? She followed the driver to her cabin, wheeling the suitcase.

We are in between two stops — I can’t let you out! The driver stepped into her cabin and shut the door.

I’m going to miss the train! I have an important business meeting! Who’s going to pay for the damages? You? Why can’t you simply let me out? You have no right to hold me in here!

The rest of us looked on, like members of an audience watching a drama unfold on stage. No one shared this woman’s urgency, but her persistence got the driver to yield. She asked the woman to get off the tram from the small door inside her cabin.

And this is at your own risk! It’s not my fault if you get injured!

Yes, yes — I do it at my own risk.

The woman hopped across the track onto the road, with her suitcase in tow. Then the tram lurched forward, swiftly gaining speed, and half a minute later we were at the Hauptbahnhof. A man sitting nearby clicked his tongue: If she had waited, she’d probably have reached the station earlier.

We carried home a story that day, the woman, the driver, and the rest of us. Each a different story.

Hex River Valley and the stolen grapes

[ The fifth and final installment in the South Africa series. The others, in sequence: Cape Town Weekend, Clanwilliam and the rock art trail, Tankwa Karoo and the CIA plot, Sutherland and the moons of Jupiter. ]

Cape Town is four hours by car from Sutherland. The entire stretch was paved, and in the first hour and half, on the R354, the rolling shrubland I’d seen the day before continued. The road was deserted. Moderate traffic appeared on the N1, a single-lane highway where trucks made way for faster vehicles by shifting half their bulk onto the shoulder. The vehicle that passed always turned on its left and right indicators: a gesture of gratitude to the truck now in its wake. The discipline and manners were European, a pleasant surprise.

This was still high country, fifteen hundred meters above sea level. When road began to descend, following a short pass, the scene ahead took my breath away. Set in a narrow gap between two rows of barren and rugged mountains was the greenest valley one could imagine. The transformation was unusual, startling. Beginning at the foot of the desolate mountains, row after row of grapevines filled the entire valley, a pattern broken occasionally by a white barn standing out from the green carpet. A slim line of water shimmered in the sun, and groves of trees wove patches a darker shade of green. It was a stunning aerial prospect, and after several days in the colourless desert I felt the emotion of a weary traveler stumbling upon a vast green oasis.

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Sutherland and the moons of Jupiter

South Africa

[ Part 4 of the South Africa series that began with Cape Town Weekend, continued in Clanwilliam, and had last stopped at Tankwa Karoo. ]

In Cape Town and later, when I spoke of my plan to visit Sutherland, eyes always lit up. It was a place most wanted to visit but few had, and their pupils revealed something of the reputation the town carried. I knew nothing of this character when I included it in my itinerary, relying solely on town’s proximity to the South African Large Telescope (SALT), “the largest single optical telescope in the southern hemisphere”, where visitors on a guided tour look through the instrument’s eye at the night sky. I planned one night in Sutherland, and prayed silently for a clear sky.

The sky was clear when I left Gannaga Lodge on Thursday morning. The evening before, Johann had suggested I follow the Ouberg Pass to Sutherland: this route was more difficult, he said, but the scenery was spectacular. At breakfast that morning Louis had seconded this view, and he gave me directions to get on the route. Following the Gannaga pass into the veld I had crossed the previous day, I turned east after the park office. The gravel track curved toward another arm of the Roggeveld mountains, and soon the track turned narrow and steep. I drove slowly, halting, at one bend, to watch a small pack of springboks saunter downhill.

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Tankwa Karoo and the CIA plot

[ Part 3 of the South Africa series that began with Cape Town Weekend, and continued in Clanwilliam. ]

On Wednesday morning, following two nights in Clanwilliam, I started for the Tankwa Karoo National Park. Named after the Tankwa river that flows near its southern border, the Tankwa Karoo is an arid region at the western edge of the Great Karoo desert. On Google Earth the park terrain looks like a rusted tin sheet with tiny ridges the colour of mould. Few roads are visible, and there is no settlement large enough to merit a mention.

About forty kilometers from Clanwilliam, not long after the Cederberg Wilderness Area, the tar under the wheels disappeared. I was expecting a gravel track on the route, but not so soon. With a hundred and seventy kilometers still to go, I recalled the YouTube video I’d watched the previous evening. ‘Changing a flat car tire step by step’ featured a serious-looking American in a full-sleeved shirt, grey pants, and formal shoes, who used terms such as ‘lug wrench’, ‘lug nuts’, and ‘hub cap’. He made the technique look straightforward but I remained unsure, like the MasterChef contestant who has never cooked a meal, only committed recipes to memory.

The unpaved road, about fifteen feet wide, was sprinkled with small stones and crushed rocks fragments. Avoiding the sharp ones I followed the faint trails of tyres, keeping a steady sixty kilometers per hour, but the occasional bumpy patch of small rock outcrops slowed me down to twenty. After ten minutes or so I settled down and looked at the landscape. The red earth was freckled with dust-ridden shrubs. A brilliant blue sky was patched unevenly with white. In the distance grey mountains rose to meet the sky. There were no trees, and no signs of animal life.

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Clanwilliam and the rock art trail

Clanwilliam Route

When I began to consider places to stopover on my road trip after Cape Town, Clanwilliam turned up on the map as a good option. It fell on the route to Tankwa Karoo, the national park I wanted to visit, and its attractions were not of the sort that draw scores of tourists. There was a dam nearby, a wilderness area ideal for hiking, and a few rock art sites. Clanwilliam’s modest size caught my attention too: I was curious for a glimpse of small-town life in South Africa.

The rental car, a 4×4 Nissan X-Trail, was delivered to my hotel on Monday morning. Waiting for the car in the hotel lobby, I read in a book guidelines for driving in South Africa:

  • The faster you drive through a red light, the smaller the chance you have of getting hit.
  • Indicators will give away your next move. A real motorist never uses them.
  • On average, at least three cars can still go through an intersection after the light has turned red. It’s people not adhering to this basic principle that cause the big traffic jams during rush hour.
  • Under no circumstance should you leave a safe distance between you and a car in front, or the space will be filled by two Golfs, a BMW and a Getz, putting you in an even more dangerous situation.
  • Never, ever come to a complete stop at a stop sign. No one expects it and it will only result in you being rear ended.

I had noticed that South Africans drive on the wrong side of the road (in Germany we do the right side), so I stayed alert within city limits. After Cape Town, driving north on the N7, factories and barns and small settlements gave way to a flat, dry, and mostly uncultivated landscape. Two hours later the road climbed over a line of hills and wriggled back into a valley. I stopped at a service area to withdraw cash, and in the shop, which stacked unfamiliar biscuits, chocolates, fizzy drinks, and newspapers, I asked for a map of the area. At first the lady at the counter seemed not to understand. I repeated myself.

“We do not have maps here,” she said.

She meant the shop, but it could have been the country: after Cape Town I did not find a map anywhere.

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Cape Town weekend

CT view

On the South African airways flight from Frankfurt to Johannesburg, all stewards were black and the captain was called ‘Commander’. The stewards seemed to be enjoying themselves, laughing as they passed a juice can across, or chatting merrily in the steward area, and their English accent carried no hint of the American drawl or British elocution: listening to them was a pleasure.

“What would you like to drink, sir?”

I want to hear that again.

“Sir, would you like tea or coffee?”

“Tea, please. Do you have Rooibos?”

“We’re South African,” she smiled. “We serve only Rooibos.”

At Johannesburg, following my wife’s advice, I did not stray far from the hotel during the three days the conference was on. When I left the city, on a Friday morning Kulula airlines flight to Cape Town, the only authentic Jo’burg experience I could claim was a petty crime. Perhaps ‘crime’ is too harsh; ‘swindle’ is better: swindled by a smart black waiter at a pizzeria. The bill had come to fifty three rand. Keeping in mind a seven rand tip, I dropped seventy rand in notes — a fifty and a twenty — on the table. The waiter, a thin young man with a brisk manner, collected the notes with a wide grin, said “Thank you, Sir”, and disappeared inside. I sensed what had happened, but refused to believe it. Ten minutes later when I saw him idling in a corner, it was time to get up and leave.

The woman beside me on the flight — white, in her late forties — was traveling with her husband to Cape Town for the weekend. She lived in Pretoria, commuted daily to Jo’burg, worked in the Pharma industry. Weekend getaways to Cape Town were ideal, she said. She could not imagine living there — the city’s pace was too relaxed (Slaapstad, she said it was, Sleepy Town not Kaapstad, Cape Town). When she learned this was my first visit to South Africa, she grew animated and began to list places I must visit in Cape Town, pointing on my map also areas to avoid (black-only neighbourhoods), offering tips on how to stay safe: don’t walk with your camera in the open, don’t talk to strangers, avoid deserted streets — reasonable advice, none of which I had the necessity to follow. We talked cricket, the Hansie Cronje scandal and what money had done to the game, the ongoing world cup (“When you are in South Africa, support our team!”). She bought me a drink, tapped my arm when she pointed at something on the map, and tried, unsuccessfully, to draw her husband into the conversation. With him she spoke Afrikaans, but when I asked if she had Dutch ancestry she said she wasn’t sure. She had never visited Europe. “Maybe I will, someday,” she said.
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A fever like no other


Among the electronic appliances at home, our television falls at the bottom of a list ranked by usage. Its screen stays blank most of the time, unless we decide, on a spur, to watch a movie on a weekend evening. We get thirty-five channels via the cable, and only CNN is in English: it isn’t our preferred medium to absorb world affairs. The old-fashioned radio does admirably well each morning (we do not mind at all that the news is in Hochdeutsch), and as for the rest there’s Economist and The New Yorker. The last time I watched CNN on TV was in the spring of 2011. (Growing up in India in the Eighties, those early days of Doordarshan, the daily 9 pm news was a regular fixture at home, and some newscasters — Salma Sultan, Geetanjali Aiyer — were household names. ‘The world this week’, Prannoy Roy’s news capsule that rounded up international events, aired at 10:30 pm each Thursday. It brought us, among other news, the fall of the Berlin wall and the arrival of CD as a technology to replace LPs. A quaint, black&white memory.)

Tennis is another exception, and the tennis court perhaps the most featured image on our TV screen. I do not watch the regular ATP circuit — those matches are mere dress rehearsals, — but the Grand Slams have me glued to the sofa.


All this changes once every four years, when the FIFA World Cup begins. I try hard to keep status quo. I resolve, at the beginning, not to watch anything until the semis, but succumb before the referee blows a whistle in the opener. Little else gets done at home the next four weeks. The television overtakes the microwave and the iMac in usage rankings, stopping just below the perennially active refrigerator. I watch every match my time-zone permits, then complain to my wife that football is playing havoc with my routine. I tell her I’m not watching the dull pre-quarters stage (when games usually drag on for 120 minutes before the drama of penalties plays out), then join her at the sofa when the anthems begin. I consume, in these four weeks, more news and opinions on the web than I normally do in a year. It’s unreasonable, this attention I willingly consent to this silly game, and inexplicable. I do not watch the European football leagues — why this surge of passion during the World Cup?
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