Notes from September

I know, I know what some of you are thinking. Another blogger falls for Facebook. He’s lost the motivation to write, perhaps. Or he’s turned plain lazy. He’s probably grinding his way through a writer’s block. Work must be drowning him. Marital troubles, maybe. They must’ve had a baby! Perhaps he’s even dead, who knows…

Wishful thinking, I’d say. My excuse for the silence here is untypical. I’ve been writing fiction.

At this stage it’s the process that interests me more than the result, and the process of writing longish short stories (about five to ten thousand words) is not what I expected when I set out on this journey early in summer. It takes over everything else you do, this business of writing fiction. All my writing is focussed on the fiction pieces I’m working on, all reading directed towards getting the “right” influence on the story. Here’s Zadie Smith on ‘Middle-of-the-novel Magical Thinking’:

In the middle of the novel, a kind of magical thinking takes over. To clarify, the middle of the novel may not happen in the actual geographical centre of the novel. By middle of the novel I mean whatever page you are on when you stop being part of your household and your family and your partner and children and food shopping and dog feeding and reading the post — I mean when there is nothing in the world except your book, and even as your wife tells you she’s sleeping with your brother her face is a gigantic semi-colon, her arms are parentheses and you are wondering whether rumage is a better verb than rifle. The middle of a novel is a state of mind. Strange things happen in it. Time collapses. You sit down to write at 9 a.m., you blink, the evening news is on and four thousand words are written, more words than you wrote in three long months, a year ago. Something has changed. And it’s not restricted to the house. If you go outside, everything — I mean, everything — flows freely into your novel. Someone on the bus says something — it’s straight out of your novel. You open the paper — every single story in the paper is directly relevant to your novel…

My situation isn’t this extreme. If Zadie Smith’s condition is a malarial fever, mine is an ordinary mosquito bite. But the bite consumes a good portion of my attention each day. I live in my fictional world for long periods, among characters and situations that exist only in my head. (It is a form of madness.) Ideas and leads turn up at unlikely moments, and I know I cannot follow them all, because this is a short story, not a novel. But things can get out of hand. Short stories can turn into novellas, novellas into novels. I cannot control this. Right now I’m following my instincts the way a leashed dog follows his master. I only know where the next few steps go. Beyond that, it’s a mystery.

* * *

The other day we were in Frankfurt for lunch in a South Indian restaurant. It had opened not long ago, and some friends had dined there, Facebooking the culinary experience. Social pressure of this kind is hard to stomach. We drove a hundred kilometers for vada and dosa.

The place was chock-full of Indians. The cooks, visible through a glass partition, were Indian; the waiters and waitresses, dressed in dark jeans and white shirt, were Indian; the diners were all noisily Indian. It was odd, stepping into a place like this. We’ve grown used to appearing different from others around us, and here we were all looking same same. The first few moments were terrifying. Then it struck me that we weren’t really like the other Indians there. The immigrant always considers himself a different breed.

The waitress taking our order, a short young woman with two plaits, was humble, soft-spoken, diffident. Unlike German waitresses in a German restaurant. Or Indian waiters at established Indian restaurants here. She was new to the country, it was clear, and in this setting she was a pleasant reminder of a certain kind of people back home.

This attitude, it seemed, was taken as an invitation by some customers. At two tables nearby the waitresses were spoken to in harsh tones. Common in India, unheard of here. The immigrants had reverted to their original colours.

Dosa was good, vada less so. But this was no time for complaint: South Indian food is hard to come by in Germany (most Indian and Pakistani restaurants serve only North Indian cuisine). We were happy, we ate well.

In the men’s room — dingy, wet-floored — there was a short queue at the wash basin. The man behind me stood rubbing my back. After I finished washing he pointed me to the napkin dispenser next to the basin: there, he said, the napkins are there.

In all, a refreshing experience. How boring the Germans can be in comparison, and how I long at times for unpredictable behaviour from others. To be surprised, occasionally, keeps you alert, active.

The UK and the US have their Little Indias; the Germans now can boast of a Saravana Bhavan in Frankfurt.

* * *

Earlier in September we celebrated Onam. Four families came home for a sadya — a feast, prepared in parts by everyone. The celebration is an yearly affair, but this time the immigrants had a fresh claim to authenticity: the sadya was served on plantain leaves. Wife had returned from Singapore not long before, smuggling on board Lufthansa a dozen or so crisp leaves. Our conclusion was unanimous: the meal tasted better on leaves than plates.

We ate not on the floor but at the dining table, taking turns, the men going first (served by the wives), the women following after. Tradition did not shape this sequence: space on the dining table was limited. The ritual was altered.




Sadya


“The rituals have altered.” Naipaul writes, in an essay titled ‘East Indian,’ describing practices of the immigrant Indian community in Trinidad:

Since open-air cremation is forbidden by the health authorities, Hindus are buried, not cremated. Their ashes are not taken down holy rivers into the ocean to become again part of the Absolute. There is no Ganges at hand, only a muddy stream called the Caroni. And the water that the Hindu priest sprinkles with a mango leaf around the sacrificial fire is not Ganges water but simple tap water. The holy city of Benaras is far away, but the young Hindu at his initiation ceremony in Port of Spain will still take up his staff and beggar’s bowl and say that he is off to Benaras to study. His relatives will plead with him, and in the end he will lay down his staff, and there will be a ritual expression of relief.

It is the play of a people who have been cut off. To be an Indian from Trinidad, then, is to be unlikely and exotic. It is also to be a little fraudulent. But so all immigrants become… Immigrants are people on their own. They cannot be judged by the standards of their older culture. Culture is like language, ever developing. There is no right or wrong, no purity from which there is decline. Usage sanctions everything.

Cap San Diego



On Friday, on board a museum ship docked at Hamburg, I met Ernest Hemingway. He was sitting inside a small cabin with a window that opened to the visitor’s path. The cabin exterior had posters detailing museum tariffs and bulletins, and inside, on his desk, there sat a few devices with earphones, audio guides to go with a museum tour. The man, portly, grey-haired, and bearded, was turning the pages of a girlie magazine, and he wasn’t pleased to see me.

I had come for a reading, and I was early: the Harbour Front Literaturfestival event would not begin for another hour. The ship, Cap San Diego, which I reached by crossing on foot the Überseebrücke, was a permanent fixture on the harbour, and despite the water all around, despite the ominous grey warship docked alongside, despite the wind and the rain and the seagulls cawing, I did not have the sense of being on a ship. There was no one around when I climbed up the gangplank, and on the vacant main deck this solitary man in his cabin was the first person I had seen since I left the shore. He looked at me with a penetrating gaze, his large forehead dominating a seaman’s face weathered by adventure: a striking resemblance to Hemingway I could not put aside.

Continue reading “Cap San Diego”

That winter



That winter, the mildest in a long time, comes back to me now with the clarity of a cloudless sky. Not only was it mild, the winter also began late. In the second half of October, when the temperature finally slid into single digits, Jörg, a colleague at work, observed that the late onset portended a harsh winter. Expect spring to arrive late, he added. A harsh winter, and a late spring. Every following week proved him wrong. Mid-November the sun shone as though we were in the southern hemisphere, T-shirts and short skirts were everywhere on the streets, and people who wore them walked past shopfronts that stubbornly continued to display winter wear, waiting, like Jörg, for that cold wave to cover Europe in an icy blanket. The blanket appeared, grey and cottony, but it brought only rain, a version so mild that in the final of the local football league people sat without umbrellas watching SV Sandhausen beat FC Ingolstadt 2-1. When it snowed, around the 20th of December, there was a collective sigh of relief, on the radio, in the papers, and even from the alte Frau at the bakery who could not suppress an “Endlich!” as she handed me the Mohnbrötchen with one hand and pointed to the snow with the other. It was as though the prayers of an entire nation had been answered. The mood lifted, from despair and talk of a global-warming induced apocalypse, to hope and even a firm belief in a white Christmas that year. The Gods must be punishing us for our arrogance, the neighbour downstairs noted the following day, when it rained so hard that in a few hours the streets were scrubbed clean of all whiteness. Earth’s magnetic poles must be reversing, Jörg said, when I ran into him at the local Penny Markt on the morning of the 24th, before stores closed for the long weekend. He had studied physics in his younger days, even pursued his doctorate in superconductivity before falling prey to a notion — one he still clung to — that the way to explain gravity, the only force still beyond the full grasp of physicists, was through magnetism. The gravity of planets could be measured, he believed, through the interplay between their magnetic fields and the cosmic radiation that filled most of the universe. Following many years of solitary research, spent trying to prove this hypothesis after the scientific community had distanced itself from his ideas, he abandoned the attempt and left physics altogether. I understood little of his theories, and said so, but this did not affect his inclination to speak his mind. The magnetic poles of the earth switch every half a million years, he said, clutching his overloaded grocery bag, and it was almost time for the next reversal. He added that this was scientific fact, not one of his theories, and that no one could predict the effects of the transition, which could last from a few decades to a few centuries. Birds could go crazy finding their way, our compasses would stop working, and the northern lights, aurora borealis, may appear anywhere above the earth. Its effects on weather were the least understood, and what we were witnessing was only the beginning. If we survived this period, he concluded, in a somber tone, we may even find our seasons switched: December would bring with it the height of summer, and it would snow in June and July.

Continue reading “That winter”

Departure


[Part six of the Visiting Home series.]

During my last week in Bangalore I visit a government office to pay property tax for a site we own. (Pa usually does this, but this time he thinks I should “get a taste” of Indian bureaucracy too.) It is a small office above a supermarket, a place you wouldn’t notice unless you were looking for it. Inside, a long hall with rows of desks stacked with papers and ledgers, at the end of which there is a cabin and two counters with tiny windows for accepting cash. Large monitors sit unused on some desks, with a dot-matrix printer on the side. Dust is everywhere: on fans, on monitors, on tables with files, on slotted-iron shelves with more files. A framed portrait of Ganesha hangs in a corner, garlanded with flowers, now dry. Employees are chatting unhurriedly. An atmosphere of stasis.

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Identity

From the window of my room I could see the workers in an adjacent plot. Sometimes I heard the clink of metal on metal, or the piercing roar of a drill seeking water, and late in the evening there were voices, laughter even, with a rough edge. The men – there were eight or nine of them – started the day early. I woke up to the hum of a generator, and found them at work, extending the foundation, perforating a sheet, mixing cement. They worked in pairs or in threes; I never saw a solitary figure. Who were these people? Where were they from? Where were their families?

These migrant workers figured, as abstractions, in a document I was reading. The government had started a project to give people an identity. Every resident Indian would receive a number, a unique identifier, that led to other benefits. Workers like these could, with this number, open a bank account. Or acquire a loan. It promised access where little, they said, existed today. Identity, reduced to a number, was the foundation for prosperity: get your number, the rest would follow.

The media called it an important step in the nation’s march towards greater progress. There were murmurs of dissent – on privacy, security, and cost issues – but these voices were all but lost in the noise from supporters, and the government was not ruffled: five million people had received their number; over a billion would follow.

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Points of view

Objectivist



1. The Objectivist

HOMELESS AND HUNGRY. HAVEN’T EATEN IN TWO DAYS. NEED TO BUY TICKET TO WASHINGTON. PLEASE HELP WITH MONEY.

Deliverance

[After Arrival, Progress, and Curiosity, this is the fourth installment in the ‘Visiting Home’ series. The narrator, an Indian living abroad, is on a visit to Bangalore, discovering and interpreting facets of life in the city and at home.]



The days passed quickly. I woke up late each morning, completed my exercises, and settled down to read English, August after a heavy breakfast under Ma’s watchful eyes, quick to notice my empty plate, and her nimble hands, ready to refill it with another helping of uppitu or akki rotti or idli. Friends I intended to meet were at work all day, so I spent the afternoons indoors, reading, writing, and scanning the irregular Bangalore skyline through the window of my room, avoiding the heat outside.

The only birds I saw were kites, circling above crowded tenements in search of prey, and pigeons, lodged on apartment windows. A pair of pigeons had nested outside my window, and the two eggs I’d seen on the first day had morphed into small yellow creatures that barely moved. I had taken to watching over their growth, returning many times each day to check for progress. The chicks, soft lumps of flesh with yellow hair, tiny grey beaks and dark slits for eyes, could both fit into my palm, but I did not try and pick them up. Three or four pigeons were always perched nearby, like relatives who had come by with compliments for a newly born.

The pigeons piqued my curiosity, so on a hot afternoon I put down my book and looked up the Internet to find out more. The technique beneath a pigeon’s homing instinct, an unsolved riddle when I last read on this subject a decade ago, was (Wikipedia said) still an open matter. One theory pointed to the pigeon’s ability to detect Earth’s magnetic field, another more recent finding suggested an orientation facility based on environmental odors, and yet another fell back on the conventional notion of visual clues in the landscape. The mystery had not affected the pigeon’s role in delivery: until as recently as 2002, when India’s Police Pigeon Service in Orissa had been shut down due to rising costs and competition from the Internet, pigeons had been used to deliver messages; there was even a method, blandly termed ‘IP over Avian Carriers’, to transmit Internet messages using pigeons.

In the middle of this brief exploration my thoughts began to wander. Do pigeons know exile? Are there deserter pigeons – ones that leave home never to return? Can a pigeon have two homes?

The heat soon got to me and I decided to take a nap. When Ma woke me up, she reminded me, gently, that the driver would soon be here. What driver? I asked, still half-asleep, but then I remembered: I had to visit Janaki dodamma that afternoon. I had put off visiting relatives for a while, but Ma had been persistent and I finally relented. I couldn’t drive by himself (Not in this chaos, Ma! I’d said), so a driver had been called for the afternoon.

The driver was half an hour late and offered no explanation for the delay. I did not bother to ask. He was a thin, young man in a crisp navy blue shirt, black pants, polished shoes, and his oily hair was combed flat. With a tie, he could pass for a salesman. He bowed slightly as he collected the keys, a mannerism that indicated years of habit. Traffic was moderate. I spotted a few new brands – Chevrolet, Skoda – but the big names were missing.

What about Audis and BMWs? I don’t see any of those on the road, I asked the driver in Kannada.

Those are rarely seen on weekdays, sir, the driver replied, in a loud and confident voice that belied his quiet manner until then. You’ll see them on weekends when the traffic is less. And many of them will be driven by owners.

Have you driven any? I asked.

Yes sir, he replied, turning towards me. When I was a full-time driver, my owner had a fleet of cars. I drove a Bentley, a Mercedes and a BMW.

Bentley? I was surprised. Why did you leave?

Full-time job has no flexibility, sir, he said. I have to go at times decided by the owner. In this job I can decide when to take up something.

Continue reading “Deliverance”

Curiosity

[Part three of the ‘Visiting Home‘ series. To read this as an independent piece, here’s some context: the narrator, an Indian living abroad, is on a visit to Bangalore.]

A few days into my visit, Mr.Aloknath – Pa’s friend and business associate – came home. I remembered Mr.Aloknath from my school days in Ranchi. He would visit us now and then, saying he was just “passing by” and had “dropped in to say hello”. The circumstance of this visit was not dissimilar: he was in Bangalore for a few days, and Pa had invited him home to tea.

You’ve grown taller, young man! Mr.Aloknath said, as we shook hands. It was a response I had frequently drawn from relatives on yearly visits to Bangalore as a child, and listening to it now, well into the thirties, made me laugh.

Mr.Aloknath, a short, round, dark man, sported an acrobatic greying moustache that almost touched his white sideburns, a style that had the curious effect of making him look like a tribal with a painted face. Over tea he enquired about several matters, mostly trivial, and offered his opinion on each. The monotonous drone of his sentences brought to mind my college English teacher Mr.Pundit who, in a Shakespeare class, displayed a remarkable constancy of tone that made Caesar, Cassius, Brutus and Casca all seem like one character. I kept up appearances, answering politely, with minimum effort. Sooner or later I expected the inevitable question.

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Progress

[Part two of the ‘Visiting Home’ series. Can be read as an independent piece too.]

The next morning, after a breakfast of idlis and mint chutney, I set out for a walk in the neighbourhood. Our six storey apartment building was at the end of a small street, facing a cul-de-sac, and it broke the pattern formed by one or two or three storey houses that dominated the three hundred or so yards of this street. Most of these houses were either new or had a new first or second floor extension, often built in a way that showed, through a different shade of paint or a bolder architecture, the contrast between old and new. They were built on small plots, and except for a rectangular space delineating a small car park, only a couple of feet separated these houses from the brick walls that surrounded them. In a small recess within one such wall was a Ganesha idol, a bronze figure smeared generously with kumkum; the Remover of Obstacles sat behind a grilled door secured by a lock. The houses had wrought iron gates, unwieldy constructions that creaked when opened, with a ‘No Parking In Front Of Gate’ sign often accompanied by an advertisement – Rukmini Jewelers: Diamond is a woman’s best friend; IIT coaching: for your son’s bright future – in small letters, as if inviting someone to park and look at the message. There were no trees on either side of the street, a condition some houses had tried to remedy with a sapling, protectively enclosed behind a transparent wire mesh, planted next to their gate.

Soon I heard shouts of a game in progress: five or six boys, dressed in rags, were playing cricket at an intersection. Nearby, at the edge of an empty plot, a thin woman in a faded purple nightie sat scrubbing an aluminum utensil, and the water she used drained into the roadside gutter, making a sound that echoed the piss of a boy, probably her son, relieving himself into a puddle. Close to this puddle were two dogs, foraging a rubbish dump. On the opposite side was a gleaming white car, a model of Honda I did not recognize. Ahead, where the street narrowed before joining the main road, a cluster of shops and signs on either side – a sweets-and-cakes shop, a hardware store, a small ‘standing’ restaurant with a paan-wallah attached to it, an internet center above a stationery store, a signboard with directions to an ‘International Astrologer’ – formed a busy conclusion to this quiet lane.
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