Initial contrasts

I’ve been in Germany a few hours now, and it occurs to me that the silence will take a while to get used to.

At Hyderabad I woke up to the calls of street vendors announcing their wares: kaaela wallah, Paaeper, and other constructions I stopped trying to decipher after a while. Then, as the day wore on, noise from the neighbourhood filtered in through the walls: boys playing cricket, traffic moving by with honks and screeches, tempos with loudspeakers announcing something, housewives gossipping across balconies. At night, the watchman in the neighbouring building would switch on the radio to keep himself (and, consequently, the neighbourhood) awake, and the Gurkha patrolling the area would come by every hour and blow his whistle, indicating to us he was working so we had better keep that baksheesh ready. Then there was the gift of Diwali: crackers that assaulted all senses without respite.

Now, back in this small German town, alone in my apartment in a quiet neighbourhood, the silence is unnerving. Do people live here at all? I’ve switched on the stereo to generate some noise and energy (it is presently playing Dard-e-Disco from Om Shanti Om) but the pause of a few seconds in-between tracks creates a void so intense I feel I’m suspended in space – there is nothing around me.

It was in the train that the contrasts began to strike me. Three weeks previously, before I left for India, the leaves were just changing colour; now they had all fallen. The wintry landscape through my window was dominated by bare trees, grey skies, and people in long coats.

Then there were the cars speeding on autobahns, fast but disciplined. A relief to eyes that ached in the chaos of Indian cities.

The announcements in German brought to ears the sound of blunt syllables I’ve grown fond of over the years.

Back home, I found copies of Financial Times stacked neatly (probably by a kind neighbour) next to the post-box. Flipping through its pages, I found myself relishing the balance and maturity conveyed there, and yet, another side of me was missing the emotion and masala I’d experienced in the Times of India, with Bollywood and Cricket news extending their reach into the front pages.

Two different universes, really. It will take a while to make sense of all that I experienced and encountered in the last three weeks. Until then, here is a quote from Paul Theroux’s The Elephanta Suite, a collection of three novellas set in India:

…India was a land of repetition, a land of nothing new. You couldn’t say anything in India that had not been said before, and if you succumbed to India’s vivid temptation to generalize, all you could do was utter a platitude so obvious it looked like a lie – ‘The poverty’s a problem’ or ‘All these cows on the street’ or ‘It’s real dirty.

Like a living, billion-strong festival of futility, India was the proof that you could not do anything here that was not done before.

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