Istanbul ahead


We returned last Sunday after a week in Istanbul. The visit wasn’t planned much in advance. A business trip to the city appeared in my wife’s calendar at short notice, and I decided to take a few days off to travel with her.

We traveled light – two half-empty suitcases – but in our minds we carried a ton of images, impressions of Turkey accumulated over a decade of living in Germany (where Turks are the largest immigrant community, a working class engaged largely in manual labour), impressions gleaned from Turkey dispatches in The Economist, from the movies and photographs of Nuri Bilge Ceylan, and the books of a Nobel laureate I shall try not to mention in the forthcoming posts about the city. Some of these impressions were challenged soon after we landed at Ataturk International airport. This was not a conservative muslim country full of women in headscarves. (About ten percent of the women we saw through the week wore them.) This was not a city full of chaotic traffic and streets choked with peddlers, vendors, and customers. (Such scenes existed, yes, and they were charming, but alongside them were areas more modern than parts of affluent Germany.) And the people! Why did we not expect the warmth and curiosity we were met with through the week? Living in Germany and traveling through Europe had plastered our minds with a set of behaviours we expected from locals; Istanbulites surprised us, delighted us, from our first day to the last. So did the cats in the city: never before had I seen so many cats in a week.

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The class photograph

Pinned to the desk he’s writing on, in his nephew’s room, is a frame with a fourth-grade class photograph from the boy’s school last year. It isn’t a single photograph, but individual passport-size images of all students, and of their class teacher, set to a common black background. There are sixteen students in all, seven girls, nine boys. The students are handsomely dressed, and each one is smiling at the camera. In their formal shirts and dresses there is also a hint of adulthood, he thinks, a glimpse of how these nine-year-olds will perhaps turn out ten, fifteen years from now: this is what draws him to these images again and again. He looks at the faces as though he’s staring at the future. They are the future, he tells himself. How will they turn out? The confident smile of Luke, the relaxed charm of Robert, Shruti’s gaiety, Sandra’s shyness: what sort of individuals will they grow up to be? What will they do? How different will their lives be? What sort of a world will they inherit and enter? How will they shape it? How much can one glean from their photographs?

He begins to imagine their futures. Gabriel, wearing a tie, looks to him like a future Wall Street banker; Christine, head tilted and on the verge of laughter, will end up as an actress; Khalid, bespectacled and studious looking, is a writer no doubt. His nephew brings him down to earth. Khalid, the boy tells him, is the class bully; Christine hardly speaks to anyone; and Gabriel is interested only in sports.

Concealed beneath his keen interest in these portraits is the desire to become one of them. To be a nine-year-old again. He believes this is a sign of age: in his twenties he never wished he was in school again. And with age comes weariness. What he thinks of most when he sees the photograph is the cyclical nature of things. These new faces are just another iteration in life’s eternal cycle. The same lives will be lived all over again. Some will be labelled high-achievers, others will be called also-rans; some will improve lives of others, some others will make life difficult; some will be mere consumers, others will strive to conserve; some will make money, others will make music; some will read, others will write; some will even end up thinking, like he does, that there isn’t any point at all in life. These smiling faces will go through it all once more: youth, work, achievements, failures, friends, sex, love, marriage, children, unfaithfulness, divorce, re-marriage, old-age, death. And they will do this as if it were all happening the first time: the pervasive illusion necessary to give human life meaning. He places himself beyond all this, as though observing the madness and beauty of existence from a distance, but this understanding offers him no solace: his tiredness does not leave him. It does not make him depressed either. His everyday interactions are easy, normal, and sometimes fun. But when he pauses to reflect over where all this is heading, or the point of it all, he faces a blank. Perhaps the point is simply that: to go through it all over again.

The frame, he thinks, holds his own class photograph, thirty years old.


Someone invented boredom,
Disney got rid of it.
His claim to fame is
your destination.
Long queues.
Short rides.
Shows where people talk
and animals act.
Eating stuff
and drinking stuff.
Visiting restrooms.
Buying stuff.
“Stroller parking.”
Benches made of recycled milk cans.
Animals made of Lego blocks.
Boat rides through rubber jungles.
Tour guides with scripted jokes.
No tobacco.
No alcohol.
People, people, everywhere.
(Only the cleaners are invisible.)
People pleased to serve you:
How’s it going today?
It’s their job,
but never mind.
You are one among thousands,
but never mind.
“The happiest place on earth
just got happier.”

Munich with a map


Moosach to Lehel [U Bahn]

The guidebooks may not say this, but if you are not a city dweller, the metro should be on your list of things to do while visiting a city. To do the metro is to feel the city’s pulse, it is to see in one place denizens of many neighbourhoods, it is to sense the city’s infrastructure, its wealth, its security. The underground is a reliable guide to the city above (even the weather can be gleaned from what people wear and carry), and the metro is a good place to begin a city tour. This is what I did last Friday, on my way from the hotel, in the outskirts of Munich, to the Indian consulate near the city centre.

Munich metro took me by surprise. The stations wore a spotless, classy, modern, colourful look untypical of underground stops. People were dressed formally: men in woollen coats with quilted sleeves, designer scarves, and shoes so shiny you could comb your hair looking at them; women in cable-knit cardigans, branded leather handbags, high heel boots. They were all whites, they were all on their way to work or to school (where else would you go at 8 am on a Friday morning?), but they seemed dressed for a concert, or a dinner party. The carriages were not crowded (everyone had seats), and all the getting off and getting on was done with no fuss at all, as though they were quietly stepping into a dining room for supper. This was no metro: it was a luxury carriage service for rich Münchners.

[Continued on page 2]

Spring cleaning in Chennai, or: How the World turned Brown

We landed in Chennai on the night of 31st December. The city was a big party. Streets were crammed with revelers, men and women and children even, all in their best clothes. Policemen too were everywhere. A gang of spirited young men on motorbikes followed our taxi for a while, before veering off toward Besant Nagar. We drove on to Thirvanmiyur, to the beachside apartment we planned to stay in for a week. The beach, hundred meters or so from our balcony, was swarming with people, mostly men. They were screaming, in joy presumably, and we barely heard the waves. A minute before midnight the fireworks began, turning the starless sky into a canopy of dancing lights. This lasted a few minutes, an interval when we heard neither waves nor screams. The fireworks stopped as abruptly as they had begun, and the beach party did not last long. From the street we heard sounds of bikes roaring and people chattering. The new year was here. I turned off the lights and listened to the waves.

Earlier, at the airport, there was the Ambassador episode. The woman at the head of the prepaid-taxi queue named her destination and paid the fare. The man behind the counter handed back a receipt.

“Go to the airport-taxi queue outside – our man there will take care of the rest,” he said.

“What car is it?” she asked, in Tamil. This was, the way she asked it, an important question. I looked at her. Late forties; flashy green salwar-kameez; large leather handbag, camel shade; flat sandals with a black ankle strap; an expensive-looking suitcase, also green.

“We only have Ambassadors, madam.”

“Ambassador! You should have told me that in the beginning! Why did you waste my time?”

Continue reading “Spring cleaning in Chennai, or: How the World turned Brown”


A small room, ten feet by twelve. The floor is wooden, parquet. At the centre is a block-patterned rug of bright colours, green, maroon, indigo, yellow, red. Eight grey-framed chairs with wooden backs and leather seats stand against three walls; on the fourth side two tables, each a single piece of sculpted glass, carry a stack of German magazines. Der Spiegel and Focus are on top. Of the six people in the room two are elderly: the white-haired man is lost in a newspaper (he has more in a cloth bag on the floor); the woman, arms folded and legs crossed, is staring ahead through steel-rimmed glasses. A teenage boy in grey jeans and a Hard Rock Cafe T-shirt is reading a book, “Coach Dich Selbst”. A plump girl, also in her teens, is fiddling with a phone; her hands conceal a pink tissue, into which she blows now and then. Next to her is a coloured woman, reading The Economist. A tall man in a heavy jacket enters. “Guten Morgen.” A murmur of responses follow. Only the teenage girl looks up. The man picks up Der Spiegel, sits beside her.

The walls are white. The only window, which faces the street, is curtained by three off-white sheets with printed human figures, also white. The same figures are in a frame on the adjacent wall. Here on the red background these faceless dancing shapes are more striking. The glass door to this room is on the diagonal. Outside, at the reception, white women in white jeans, white T-shirts, white badges walk up and down silently. One opens the door: Frau Künitz, bitte. The elderly woman follows her into Zimmer 1.

* * *

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Hotels and Temples

Trichy hotel

[Part 2 of the Trichy diary that began here]

There is something about hotels that is both self-evident and not well understood. Hotels in cities are islands of comfort for the privileged. The city can be harsh, the hotel offers a refuge. Out there it may be hot and dusty and noisy, but inside it is cool and clean and quiet. Out there you are on your own, inside we are at your service. Out there you may be a foreigner, inside you are our guest. Once inside, you are under the illusion of comfort and control, little of which you possessed or expected outside. The traveller sets out into the city, exploring its innards and surveying its underbelly and exposing himself to the elements, but he always returns to the hotel at night. Outside he mixes with sweat-ridden passengers in a crowded bus, inside he expects a clean sheet on his bed and complains about a layer of dust. Outside he visits a slum and mingles with its residents and listens to them with empathy, inside he gets irritated when a hotel worker – who probably lives in that slum – is negligent.

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