The moat of self-sufficiency

“Most of the ‘mine’ families lived only a few miles out from the town, but their self-sufficiency surrounded them like a moat. Their offspring could go from the cradle to the grave without having anything to do with the town other than attending its high school, placing weekly orders with the butcher and the grocer, and paying three visits to church – one for christening, one for marrying, one for burying.” 

That’s from an essay by Nadine Gordimer, ‘A South African Childhood’, where she describes the mining town she grew up in. The mines came first, the towns around these mines followed. “The ‘mine’ people and the townspeople did not by any means constitute a homogenous population; they remained two well-defined groups”.

While this separation may seem odd for a village or a town, it is common in a city, almost a defining trait. You can spend an entire life in a city intermingling with only your ‘group’, barely interfacing with other sections of the city’s populace. The segregation begins early in life, with the day-care centres that cater to a certain class, and it grows as you move from school to university to a career: our institutions and the culture that surrounds them offer few opportunities to mingle with people vastly different from our own. 

This is not a new insight. And the phenomenon itself, perhaps an emergent property of capitalism, isn’t new either. What struck me in the passage above was this: “their self-sufficiency surrounded them like a moat”.

For the privileged, this self-sufficiency is a defining feature of modern life. It came into focus, I felt, during the pandemic, in the way most of us managed to stay isolated and yet live reasonably well through it all. Everything – from groceries to medicines to furniture – could be ordered home, and the lack of friction in these transactions (made with a few clicks on your phone) created an illusion of self-sufficiency. We were still dependent on others, but those others were largely invisible. 

The irony there lies in the fact that the same pandemic that prompted in some of us this feeling of self-sufficiency also underscored – through the virus that we played host to – our connection to the natural world. We are deeply connected to – and dependent on – others, both human and non-human. But surrounded by this illusory moat of self-sufficiency, we choose to forget this.  

Lockdown diary

The house across the street is a two storey building whose roof terrace is in level with our balcony. Every morning I see an elderly man watering the plants along the terrace wall, pruning some branches, and feeding the pigeons. We have waved to each other several times, but we’ve never spoken.  

A joint family lives in the house: the elderly man, his wife, and two young couples. I’ve seen the others at the gate, leaving for office when the city still permitted it, buying vegetables from a street vendor, or selling old newspapers to another trader. 

The elderly man has been absent for a few days now; a young woman (his daughter? daughter-in-law?) cares for the plants. She’s all by herself on the terrace each morning, and yet she wears a surgical mask. And when I spot someone at the gate below, stepping outside in the morning to pick up the newspaper or to trace the rangoli, that person too is wearing a surgical mask. I’ve never seen these neighbours wearing masks before, and this new habit strikes a discordant note. 

* * * 

Our balcony faces a small street that connects two busy thoroughfares, and there’s a near-constant buzz of traffic on all weekdays. Following the lockdown, the street has turned silent. We only hear birds, squirrels, and dogs. And sometimes, in the distance, the siren of an ambulance. 

* * * 

The collective trauma this country is experiencing now is unique to the generations living through it. I haven’t experienced anything like this before, and neither have my parents. One has to go back almost seventy-five years, to the partition of 1947, for a collective experience of comparable magnitude. Suffering cannot be compared, of course — every trauma is unique, and no objective scale can measure suffering.  But the magnitude here is something we haven’t seen in our lifetimes. Which makes me wonder if this period will see a similar historical reckoning as the partition. If not from history textbooks (which these days are edited by the right-wing ruling majority), then through literature, film, and other art forms. 

A friend I spoke to about this was sceptical. The ruling party, he said, would soon wipe out all culpable evidence. He also seemed sure that few would care to write about this experience, or read what’s been written. People will move on, and this period will become a historical footnote. 

I doubt that latter part — artists who bear witness will sooner or later bring this period into their work — but what’s more interesting is to examine why this friend thinks so. 

Will this — the brushing aside and moving on —  be the outcome of the stage of capitalism we are living through, a period where we are consumers interested solely in our conveniences and indifferent to everything else? Is it the pace of life these days that leaves little room for any sort of reckoning or contemplation? Have our shortened attention spans and distraction-filled days robbed us of the ability to consider anything deeply?   

And if this shall be our response to the trauma we have lived through, then what can be expected of us to prevent a trauma we are yet to experience? I’m talking about climate change, yes. 

* * * 

I’m re-reading Camus’s The Plague. The novel is about an Algerian city named Oran that is hit by the plague. On the first reading, some years ago, I’d considered it a fascinating thought experiment. What had happened in Oran was the stuff of fiction, and back then I had not really entered that world — reading The Plague didn’t leave me feeling shaken or moved. I’d read it from a distance, and I was amused by the human behaviour revealed there. It was intellectually stimulating without being emotionally striking. 

This time around the book has a different resonance. I’m struck by the strategies of denial, downplay, and inertia that occurs early on in the plague, something we’ve all lived through in the last year. I find myself underlining different sentences — not, unlike last time, abstract and literary-sounding ones, but sentences that resonate because of this lived experience behind me.

* * *

The dead were brought there after nightfall, but there was not room enough, and the living fought each other with torches for a space where to lay those who had been dear to them.”  

The city under a lockdown is a city that is supposed to sleep, but cannot. There are always ‘essential services’ that need to be delivered. 

The newspaper is delivered. The milk is delivered. The garbage is picked up. Some people deliver groceries and essential consumer goods. Others collect and deliver dead bodies. 

A friend who runs a funeral services company told me that these days she receives over two hundred calls each day. (Under normal circumstances, the volume is between thirty-five and fifty.) She cannot meet this rising demand because there aren’t enough hearse vans and freezer boxes, and the crematoriums are stretched beyond their limit.  

 * * *

There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.

Is this what it is like during a war? There is fear: we are hiding in our homes and hoping the enemy does not strike. There is incomprehension: the enemy is abstract and this struggle pointless. There is propaganda: on rules to follow, on the severity of the situation, on vaccines. There is trauma, there are statistics, there is rage, there are people on the ‘front-line’, there’s the temporary suspension of freedom… 

And amidst all this, there are also those who carry on as though nothing extraordinary was happening.  

A Blot in the Sea

The oil spill off the coast of Mauritius has been in the news recently. MV Wakashio, a Japanese oil tanker, ran aground in late July. A week later the stranded vessel started leaking oil. It all sounded painfully familiar, and I’d seen the bleak images before: coastal ecosystems devastated by the oil spill, aerial views of blue-green waters turning black, workers and volunteers in oil-drenched suits. This time, though, a personal connection turned this into more than just another news item. In 2016 my wife and I had spent a week in Mauritius, staying on the eastern coast not far from where the oil is currently ruining the coral reefs. 

It was the end of May, the beginning of the off-season. Driving around in a small car, we explored parts of the island that spoke to us in the Lonely Planet guide: Markets, temples, colonial houses, unremarkable towns, the remains of a crater, a tea plantation. Beaches were not what we were after. What had drawn us to Mauritius was the fact that about half its population, descended from indentured labourers brought here from early to late nineteenth century, is of Indian origin. 

And what we found was a time capsule, a parallel universe of sorts. This was India, but from the eighties. The people looked Indian but spoke a tongue that made no sense to us. They bore unrecognizable names: Seebaluck, Ramgoolam, Ringadoo, Bissoondoyal. The radio played Bollywood songs from the eighties; their programme hosts spoke Hindi with a French accent. Vegetable markets carried the buzz of markets in India, but they were too clean, and their chatter undecipherable.  In one restaurant – more of a dhaba, full of local workers – all eyes were glued to a wall-mounted TV playing Namak Halal. Temples featured a mix of idols – Hanuman, Shirdi Sai Baba, Buddha – we’d never seen together, and the priests performed rituals foreign to us. Like the Indians in Trinidad Naipaul has written about, the Indians here were a species apart. And observing them I found myself slipping into an anthropologist’s role, trying to unearth the roots of a custom or a quirk, studying what changes a century and half of isolation had led to. 

Some did speak Hindi, haltingly, in the diffident manner of someone learning a new language. They were curious about our origins, and shared stories of their visits to India (not to see relatives – they’d lost the connection long ago – but to shop.) They carried the innocence and unsophistication of Indians we see in Hindi movies from the seventies or eighties; Amol Palekar and Farooq Sheik come to mind. And there were some who, although unmistakably Indian in appearance, revealed no other traits tying them to the land of their ancestors, and showed no curiosity in our Indianness; they had moved on. 

I couldn’t get over the feeling that we were traveling in India, although something in this picture was amiss. Driving through the interiors, with sugarcane fields on either side and green mountains in the distance, we crossed small towns that typically crop up on such a road trip in India. But these towns and villages seemed different. There were far fewer people, the streets were cleaner, and while some people we saw were poor, we didn’t see the kind of poverty common in India. In the cities we saw no one begging on the streets, and there were no slums. 

Modernity wasn’t really absent, of course.  Fast food restaurants, shopping malls, chic hotels and lodges, the occasional Audi or Mercedes: from time to time they broke the “India in the eighties” spell. But we were happiest in parts far removed from such scenes. 

What also broke the spell was the water. I’d seen that magical blue in pictures of tropical island resorts, and here it was, glinting under a mild sun, lapping against the soft sand. It created a spell of its own. Beach time was not in the plan, but we ended up spending half a day exploring one near our hotel. It was a sunny, windless morning. A handful of tourists were snorkelling nearby. Some local teenage boys had come on a picnic. An old man sat on a rock teaching a boy how to fish. We sauntered around, looking at the ugly beachfront houses, endlessly taking pictures of the beach, and staring at the unreal blue expanse. 

The day before we left, we visited Ile Aux Aigrettes, a tiny coral island near the south-eastern corner of Mauritius. As a nature reserve managed by the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation, the island can be reached only via a guided tour. From Pointe Jerome, a ten-minute ride on a speedboat took us across the clearest waters I’d ever seen. On the island, our guide led us through narrow forest paths, talking to us about rare plant and bird species found on the island. We spotted pink pigeons and fruit bats. Behind an enclosure we saw young conservationists labelling tiny tortoises. The foundation’s conservation efforts had managed to recreate the flora and fauna that existed here four-hundred years ago, an accomplishment our guide was visibly proud of. 

The Wakashio now sits splintered not far from Ile Aux Aigrettes. The sea around this island, burnt in my mind as a transparent blue pool, is now clouded black. A thousand tonnes of fuel have leaked out of the tanker, and the spillage presently surrounds Ile Aux Aigrettes on all sides. It has also reached Blue Bay, a pristine lagoon at the south-eastern corner of Mauritius. The coral reefs in that region, already under threat from bleaching caused by the warming and acidification of the ocean, are now facing great damage. 

“Crystal Clear” is how I found myself describing those waters to friends after we returned from Mauritius. A trite simile perhaps, but right now the phrase seems not cliched but simply inappropriate. We need new ways to describe the degradation we are bringing about to our world.  At this moment, as I stare at the unbelievable images reaching us from Mauritius, words fail me. 

The Blackbird

“During the last two hundred years the blackbird has abandoned the woods to become a city bird. First in Great Britain at the end of the eighteenth century, then several decades later in Paris and the Ruhr valley. Throughout the nineteenth century it conquered the cities of Europe one after the other. It settled in Vienna and Prague around 1900, then spread eastward to Budapest, Belgrade, Istanbul.

From the planet’s viewpoint, the blackbird’s invasion of the human world is certainly more important than the Spanish invasion of South America or the return to Palestine of the Jews. A shift in the relationships among various kinds of creation (fish, birds, humans, plants) is a shift of a higher order than the changes in relations among various groups of the same kind. Whether the Celts or Slavs inhabit Bohemia, whether Romanians or Russians conquer Bessarabia, is more or less the same to the earth. But when the blackbird betrayed nature to follow humans into their artificial, unnatural world, something changed in the organic structure of the planet.

And yet no one dares to interpret the last two centuries as the history of the invasion of man’s cities by the blackbird. All of us are prisoners of a rigid conception of what is important and what is not, and so we fasten our anxious gaze on the important, while from a hiding place behind our backs the unimportant wages its guerrilla war, which will end in surreptitiously changing the world and pouncing on us by surprise.”

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera


Cargo ship travels

My wife and I recently completed a thirty-day journey on a cargo ship from Singapore to Montevideo. During this period I wrote occasionally on a separate blog:

I may write a long-form essay or travelogue on this later. Right now we are in Argentina, traveling in the north-east. And we are also in the middle of a bigger transition, from Germany to India — a topic for another day.


Sofia 2

The driver was an elderly man, probably in his seventies. He opened the boot and I hauled the suitcase into it. Sit wherever you like, he said. I chose the passenger seat in front.

He used to be a travel agent, he said. Now it was a part-time job. Recently he had designed a one-month tour to Greece for retirees. The itinerary was ready, the negotiations with hotels almost complete — the tour would begin in November, when winter-weary Germans traveled south.

I told him about my visit to Greece some years ago. When asked where I’m from, my usual response is: from India, but I live in Germany. On that trip to Athens, I omitted the Germany bit. Except once, in an antique shop, where a middle-aged Greek did not hide his contempt. Why do you work in Germany of all places, he asked. Can’t you find work someplace else?

The German austerity measures were infamous there. In Athens I had spotted graffiti ridiculing the Germans, Merkel in particular.

Hearing all this the driver reacted as though I’d touched a nerve. The rest of the drive was a rant I didn’t follow entirely. What I caught were bits and pieces about the ungrateful Greeks.

He drove faster as he vented. Frankfurt airport arrived sooner.

* * *

Continue reading “Drivers”

August in Bangalore



1. The foreigner

My visit to Bangalore is part business-trip part vacation. Traveling with me on business is a German colleague whose eyes reveal a side of the city I usually gloss over. On the first day, he is puzzled by the security measures at the hotel entrance. Our bags are scanned, the contents of our pockets verified, and we pass through a metal detector. The shopping mall attached to the Marriott has another checkpoint. Why so many security checks here, he asks, when everything seems normal outside?

It is his first visit to the country. On the afternoon he arrives, he takes an auto-rickshaw to Bangalore Palace, and later sends me a picture of the rickshaw on WhatsApp. He is curious about Indian food, but soon runs into “stomach issues due to the spice.” At the restaurant, he tries to make sense of the waiters in the scene, some flitting from table to table, others hanging around doing nothing, and a few just giving orders to others. In the evening he goes looking for mineral water — the bottles in his room are exorbitantly priced — but the nearby BigBasket outlet has no stock. In another supermarket at another mall he picks up four water bottles — it is all they have. Why do supermarkets here not stock water? he asks. I am equally puzzled.

But I am not puzzled when the security guards ignore me and wish him Good Morning. And it is no surprise to see the Crossword bookstore attendant approach him with a greeting and ask if he needs help. Why didn’t he ask you, my colleague wants to know. Because I’m not white, I tell him.

Continue reading “August in Bangalore”

Thirteen days in September

thirteendays In 1978, U.S. president Jimmy Carter brokered a Middle East peace treaty between Israel and Egypt at Camp David. The deal still stands — this is why you don’t hear news about Israel and Egypt fighting over Sinai, a piece of land that had seen three major wars in thirty years before this treaty — and is among the rare instances of successful negotiations towards peace. Thirteen Days in September by Lawrence Wright narrates the story of that historic autumn in Camp David, the thirteen days it took three leaders — Jimmy Carter, Israel’s prime minister Menachem Begin, and Egypt’s president Anwar Sadat — and their teams to agree on the deal.

It’s a gripping narrative structured in chapters outlining the events of each day, bookended by a prologue that sets the context and an epilogue that outlines the consequences. Woven through the chapters are summaries of key events of the region — the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and the war that followed, the 1956 Suez crisis, the Six-Day War in 1967, the Yom Kippur War in 1973 — and also the biblical underpinnings of Israel’s outlook and actions: the exodus from Egypt, David and Goliath, Samson, etc.

Historical works of this nature, where the consequences of actions described are still playing out, can leave you with a sense of despair. While the Camp David summit solved one issue — between Israel and Egypt — it left unresolved the matter of Palestine. Here’s Wright:

The War of Independence in 1948 expanded the territory that the new Jewish state claimed, including nearly 60 percent of the area designated for the still-born nation of Palestine, the remainder being taken over by Jordan. Arab refugees flooded into neighbouring countries, and Israel locked the door behind them. Instead of being digested by other Arab societies, the refugees became a destabilising presence and a source of radicalism and terror that plagued the world. Except for Jordan, the Arab states have avoided absorbing the Palestinian refugees in order to keep the conflict alive. The numerous attempts to bring this conflict to an end have failed because of the absence of political courage on both sides to accept the sacrifices that peace would entail.

The sacrifice made by Israel at Camp David was one that entailed giving up the Sinai peninsula — a territory they had captured in 1967 during the Six-Day war — and their settlements there. In return, the Israelis received peace on that front. No such sacrifice seems acceptable to Israel in the matter of Palestine — this becomes clear in the beliefs and attitudes of Begin, defined mostly by Israel’s Biblical past and the horrors Jews have suffered throughout history.

Continue reading “Thirteen days in September”

Africa for beginners

Deneuve was the first Namibian I spoke with. He was also the last. On the first occasion, he came up to me as I exited the Hosea Kutako International airport, asked if I wanted a taxi, and ushered me into his Volkswagen Jetta. He was in his late twenties, a coloured man of medium height and build, with a chin strip goatee beneath a pencil moustache. He was not a chatty driver. When I commented that his English was excellent, he smiled, and returned the compliment. On the forty-minute drive to Windhoek he answered my questions perfunctorily: his father lived in Cape Town, his mother in Windhoek; he could surely earn more with a desk job, but preferred to work outdoors and be on the move; on weekends he shopped at the mall, spent time with his girlfriend, and watched football; he was a Liverpool fan.

On the second instance, as he drove me to the airport for my flight back to Germany, he spoke of the kudu’s habit of charging at cars when caught in the headlights. Once, when he met a herd beside the road, he slowed to a crawling pace, turned off the headlights, and held his breath as he passed the antelopes. These days there were fewer animals along this stretch to the airport. A lone fox trotting across the road was our only sighting.

A fortnight and two days separated these conversations, a time I spent — with my wife P, who joined me after a brief halt in South Africa — driving in the desert and along the coast. I left Namibia with a full notebook, a camera carrying something of the vast nothingness, and sand in my ears, under my fingernails, all over my shoes.

* * *

For most travelers venturing into the interior, Windhoek is only a stopover, an entry-exit port and little more. But we had planned a couple of days here, to slow down and absorb something of the city’s character.

Continue reading “Africa for beginners”