A fever like no other

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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.



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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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Memories of India

1.

When I reach Bangalore, at the end of April, the Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket tournament is on. One or two matches each day are broadcast live on TV, and my father follows them all. Early on I’m reluctant to join him. Once an avid follower, I lost touch with cricket after moving to Germany in 2000. I know none of the youngsters playing today. And watching the game’s new T20 format — a truncated form of the one-day match, which itself is a shorter version of the gloriously slow-paced five-day match — is like being served a fast-food leftover in place of a five-course meal.

But my father’s enthusiasm draws me in. I sit with him for a few overs every match, and then, as the teams and players grow familiar, I begin to watch matches from start to finish.

After all these years the game looks different. The pace is quicker, new rules have emerged, TV commentators sound more relaxed, miniskirted cheer girls have entered cricket stadiums (but are separated, wisely, from the spectators). Players from different countries now play together, as in professional soccer leagues, and watching an Indian player spur on his Australian teammate makes you wonder why they didn’t think of this before.

I’ve heard of politics entering cricket, but watching both cricket and politics on TV I find that they borrow from each other, and the metaphors sometimes cross over. A cricket commentator speaks of a “Modi Free Hit”, an election analyst announces the “Man of the Match” from BJP.

2.

Early in the visit there is a pooja at home. A fire ceremony to ritually mark my father’s 70th birthday. Five priests arrive at 9 am, carrying several rangoli colours, apples, oranges, bananas, mangoes, coconuts, rice, mats to sit on, a portrait of Adi Shankaracharya, a metal vessel to contain the fire, and other paraphernalia. They look young, all in their forties, and seem modern. When the pooja is on, mantras and shlokas from the main priest holding us in a trance, two of his colleagues sit texting on their smartphones. One also urges me to click photos during the ceremony, and offers to take a few himself.

After pooja the caterers carry in the dishes for lunch. We’ve given cooking instructions appropriate to the religious occasion (no onions, no garlic, and so on), but watching the caterers unpack, three priests decide to skip the meal. The food, they say, has been touched by someone from a lower caste, perhaps a shudra.

My mother springs into action, quickly prepares new dishes to appease these priests. I am angry, ready to burst, but this is not the moment to create a scene.

The incident leaves behind an unpleasant taste; payasa at the end of lunch is bland. Caste, it seems, is still the fault line of society in urban India today. India changes, yet remains the same.

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Moving to Heidelberg

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Near the end of November 2013, on an idle weekend morning, my wife spotted an advertisement for an apartment in Heidelberg. It was located in the altstadt, on one of the narrow lanes we walked through often during our visits to the city, and the prospect of living there, amid 19th and early 20th century buildings and monuments, left us breathless with excitement. The apartment itself did not look bad: we liked what the pictures revealed. On Monday I called the builders for an appointment, and some days later, on a cold morning when Heidelberg lay quiet under a layer of mist, we made our first visit. Despite the weather outside the rooms were airy and bright, and this answered one concern we had noted from the pictures. The apartment was good, the location great. A week and two visits later my wife and I decided to formally express our interest. Thus began our project that has kept us busy for most of the last five months.

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Dodging tourists in Istanbul

In September last year, on a five-day vacation in Istanbul, my wife and I stumbled upon the Hagia Sofia. The irony here did not escape us, but what mattered more was that we had failed to escape the Hagia Sofia, despite our resolve to stay away from tourists. We were staying away from tourists to avoid the classification: we were travellers. It is a fashionable distinction these days, tourists vs travellers, and on the surface the two appear similar. They aren’t.

Tourists move around in droves, families or groups with a leader, while travellers often are solitary animals. When a tourist is lost, she looks lost, and helpless; to a traveller, being lost marks the beginning of adventure: he relishes it. While the tourist is busy framing postcard snapshots of a monument, the traveller clicks away at a vendor next to its entrance, a bearded old man who palms roasted chestnuts to baffled passersby. The traveller, then, has an eye for the not-so-obvious, an instinct that leads him to interesting corners; the tourist goes where the guidebook takes him, ticking off five more of the 1000-must-see-places-before-you-die. You’ll never spot a traveller on a camel or an elephant (unless this is the lost traveller in the wild); the tourist, especially a mutant common in our networked society, posts a selfie with the camel on Facebook, and every minute of the ride she checks for likes. (Other tourists on her friends-list oblige.) And in Istanbul, the forgotten great city that straddles East and West but belongs to neither, you can find tourists sipping tea on the Bosphorus cruise, haggling for a carpet at the Grand Bazaar, or gazing at murals in the Hagia Sofia, while the traveller finds refuge in the warren of lanes below Galata tower watching the play of commerce that hasn’t changed much in a hundred years, or counting boats crossing the Golden Horn into the Sea or Marmara, or watching a company of middle-aged men taunt a puppy at a shady street corner: pointless things, and the only memories worth returning home with.

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Istanbul’s Hauptstrasse


Living in Germany we’ve grown used to the concept of a pedestrian shopping street at the center of a city or a town. Cities here have an altstadt, with buildings a few centuries old, and the altstadt has a main pedestrian thoroughfare, often the Hauptstrasse, with shops lining both sides. Towns and villages with no distinguishable older sections are also organized (this is Germany) around a Hauptstrasse. The Hauptstrasse in Wiesloch, the provincial town I live in, is a kilometer long traffic-free cobblestoned stretch that features cafes, restaurants, bakeries, beauty salons, pharmacies (one of which claims to be the world’s first fuel station), a bank, a post office, and a variety of large and small shops. This is the town center. Locals come here to socialize, to buy the daily newspaper or brotchens, to chat with shopkeepers. On Thursdays a vegetable market springs up in a nearby square. During summer festivals spread their stalls in and around the Hauptstrasse. Nothing much happens elsewhere in Wiesloch. In Heidelberg, where the Hauptstrasse runs parallel to the Neckar for a couple of kilometers, the scene is metropolitan. Tourists and locals walk in droves all year, shopping, eating, sightseeing. In Mannheim, another city nearby, the pedestrian shopping street is called Planken, and it features a tram line.

This familiarity with the pedestrian shopping street leads us to seek similar avenues in the cities we visit. In Europe this is easy, but in the U.S., where the historical core (the “downtown”) of most cities is now a business district with high-rise buildings, there is no Hauptstrasse. (Moreover, the only pedestrian streets in the U.S. are all in Disneyland.) Indian cities feature commercial districts or famous roads (like the Marine Drive, or the ubiquitous M.G.Road), but I know of no main pedestrian shopping street through a historical center. What about Istanbul?

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Istanbul scenes – 4



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Our hotel was in a run-down neighbourhood in Beyoglu, not far from the touristy Istiklal Caddesi. The four storey building had been renovated, inside and outside, and it stood like a white swan (the hotel’s name) amid colourless starving ducks. Fifty meters away began an area with gutted buildings and crumbling facades. Opposite this partially demolished stretch was a thriving community: kids playing soccer on the streets, clotheslines across balconies facing each other (an image from Venice, with clotheslines across canals), groceries and vegetable shops with half the wares displayed outside, cars and vans winding through narrow lanes. This could have been a scene in old Delhi.

I later learned that this area, Tarlabaşı, was designated for “urban renewal”: eviction of the residents, demolition of old buildings, construction of new area that would, in the words of Beyoglu’s mayor, “rival the Champs-Élysées in Paris.” At stake here was the preservation of a vibrant culture of migrant workers from eastern Turkey (who moved into the area after the original settlers, Greek, Jewish and Armenian craftsmen, were driven out by riots against non-muslims in 1955), and “210 historic Ottoman era buildings.” A familiar conflict between the commercial interests of the elites and the survival of the marginalised, with a mix of history and politics thrown in.

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Istanbul scenes – 2

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On Wednesday morning, our fourth in Istanbul, P. and I found ourselves sitting on the floor in a ballet class with teenage boys and girls. The instructor, a short, wiry woman in her forties, demonstrated each step and spoke a few words in Turkish (of which we understood nothing), switched on the music — a piece of Chopin or Tchaikovsky or another modern classical composition — and said “Hazir”. The students, six boys and eight girls, stood on three sides of the rectangular studio holding with one hand the horizontal bar. While they performed, some with more precision and elan than others, the instructor gave verbal cues for the steps to follow. This pattern recurred several times, each with a different sequence, before a break was announced. But this was no real break: the students began stretching exercises, arching and bending their impossibly flexible young bodies.

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