There are some days – and this happens much too infrequently – when he feels he is living in a dream. But in this dream he is in a state of heightened awareness that makes him piercingly sensitive to everything around him. This Saturday is one such day.
The weather outside is mild. Standing next to his car for a few moments, he can sense Winter give way to Spring. As he drives to Heidelberg, he spots a heron in the nearby field and instantly breaks into a smile. It is a moment of joy that comes when nature occasionally reveals her hidden treasures. The music – a classical piece on the radio – elevates him further, and he finds he can hear each note seeping into him. He has not felt this alive in a long time.
Heidelberg is wearing its cloudy-misty-day outfit. On such days he loves walking along the crowded Hauptstrasse: it is like being part of a parade going in both directions, with people in costumes – what else can you call winter wear? – walking briskly towards their own destinations. You can join or leave the parade whenever you wish, or even stop in the middle to look at something inviting.
At the end of Hauptstrasse, where the parade disperses into various directions, he runs into a colleague.
“Hello!” she says. She is Chinese, and her eyes narrow as she smiles.
“Hello! How are you doing? How was your vacation?” he asks.
“It was very nice. We had a very good Ski vacation – there was a lot of snow, and we had a lot of fun.” Like many Chinese she stresses her very‘s and lot’s; she also sounds like she is speaking with her nostrils closed.
“That’s wonderful! You actually do look fully refreshed!”
Her hands reach out to her cheeks, her eyes narrow again and she laughs. “Really?!”
He nods. “Are you here shopping?” he asks.
“Yes,” she replies. “And you?”
“I actually am visiting the library here, around the corner.”
“Ah, that one. I used to go there, but I never returned the books on time and so I always paid a fine. So I stopped going there.”
He smiles, and wishes her a nice weekend.
At the library he chances upon a magazine he’s never seen or heard of before: Dissent. Flipping through the contents, he spots – and reads – an essay about British withdrawal from India in 1947, its violent aftermath and the question of the moral imperative of an imperial power withdrawing from its “colony”. It is part of a series titled “Going out”, a theme that is now relevant as time for the U.S withdrawal from Iraq draws near.
Back outside, he walks towards the Neckar. The river is muddy and the current swift. Against a backdrop of a grey sky the hilltop – so pretty during summer days – seems barren and dull. On his walk back to the car-park he stops at a cafe. He hasn’t been here before. The interiors – thick wooden tables, bookshelves with hard-bound volumes bearing titles in Gothic script, dark-chocolate colored seats – give the place an ancient character. The place isn’t crowded. Straight ahead, next to the window, a young boy is sitting with his mother, reading.
His next stop – a short drive away – is the gym. Here again the usually familiar surroundings seem different: at this hour there is light falling through the glass-ceiling (it has been months since he’s seen the gym interiors in daylight), and there are very few people. The feeling of space this conveys relaxes him. A bit like riding all by oneself in an elevator, he thinks. The elevator and the gym – narrow spaces in which you tolerate the company of total strangers. And unlike a public transport system, these do not permit the luxury of getting lost in a book or inviting the other into conversation. You are in another person’s gaze, standing straight in one and performing strange movements in the other.
Back home, he begins to read something but soon dozes off on the living room sofa. Waking up, he finds the room filled with sunlight; cloudy afternoon has turned into sunny evening. He decides to walk to the main street in town. This is also Hauptstrasse, but in a different place at a different time: the street is deserted, and a golden hue has enveloped the adjacent houses.
Inside a nearby cafe – a modern one – he meets some friends: a couple (who are his colleagues) with their two-year old son. They invite him to join. He would normally decline, but today he is hungry for conversation; he accepts. They talk about the current economic conditions, the Indian real-estate market, issues at work, prospects of his wife moving back to this place, and all the while the two-year old tries to attract attention. At one point the father puts him aside saying, “Son, I’m trying to have a conversation with this uncle here. So sit here quietly for a while.” The ‘uncle’ laughs, and says that won’t work. It doesn’t.
The cafe closes at 6 pm, so they have to leave sooner than they would like to. Outside, streaks of orange light up the darkening sky.
As he walks home, his thoughts are occupied by the day’s events. When was the last time he had such a day, full of life and beauty? He cannot remember, but he hopes it won’t be long before the next one.