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.  

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


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.

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The Frankfurt Book Fair


LADY 1: “…So, you know, he’s going to be free, he’s going to go back to his home town, a village in the mountains, close to nature, to sort of rebuild himself and reunite with his childhood friends. And one of his childhood friends is a woman who becomes a lawyer in the Hague, and she works with with women who have been… you know… raped or…”

LADY 2: “Tortured.”

LADY 1: “Tortured, in those wars too. So basically the book is all about, you know, being able to overcome all these feelings, with words, and all that, and also the fact that we are all hostages of things in ourselves. We are not necessarily prisoners…”

LADY 2: “Yeah”

LADY 1: “…but we have to free ourselves…”

LADY 2: “Thematically it is perfect. It depends on how artistic it is — “

LADY 1: “So it is also a novel of ideas.”

LADY 2: “Yes, absolutely. But you know, that when people say why is war a theme that you treat in your press — ”

LADY 1: “It depends on how you treat it.”

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Rediscovering India


Words are the only jewels I possess
Words are the only clothes I wear
Words are the only food that sustains my life
Words are the only wealth I distribute among people

— Sant Tukaram

The South Asia Institute, which belongs to the Heidelberg University, offers courses in Transcultural Studies, Indology, and other themes related to the Indian subcontinent. I had heard of those courses on a few occasions, but the subjects did not interest me, and I knew no one studying or working there. So for a long time the South Asia Institute remained a name related to my country of origin, no more.

My curiosity grew when I saw, not long ago, a pamphlet that advertised a library, an English library at the South Asia Institute. It was open to the public, Monday to Friday, 10 am to 7 pm. I decided to make a visit.

* * *

No. 330, a six-storied building where the South Asia Institute is located, stands next to a group of similar buildings that belong to the local hospital. They share the same parking lot. You see a few gloomy-faced people walking about, but it’s hard to say if they are university faculty or relatives of a terminal patient. A few bicycles are parked outside 330, locked to the aluminium railing, and a small revolving door, bright red and hard to budge, ushers you into the foyer. The concrete walls inside carry a thin coat of white paint, the gravelled floor looks untidy: the hall bears the unfinished look of a parking garage. At the center a narrow stairway leads upstairs. A man with South Indian features is standing to the left, his hand holding the elevator door open, his eyes on me.

“Are you on your way up?” he asks.

“I’m looking for the library, actually.”

“Take the stairs – one floor up.”

Upstairs the reception area is large and airy. A glass partition splits the hall, and behind the glass are two rows of unoccupied computer terminals. On another glass partition, which encloses two sides of the reception desk, hangs an array of amateurish but well-composed photographs from the subcontinent: a buddhist temple, a riverside ghat in Benaras, a street in Nepal, an Indian bazaar, and so on. Returned books are stacked on a trolley, waiting to be replaced; new arrivals are displayed in glass cabinets, like gems in a jewellery store. Rabindranath Tagore, head inclined toward the half-written page, stands alone in a corner, composed, carved in black. Next to him is a notice board announcing events and courses, and on the opposite wall a series of bronze-coloured frames enclose portraits of Hindu mythological figures. I could be inside a university building in India.

The only person I see around is a young lady at the reception desk, absorbed in a collection of catalog cards like a monk with a manuscript. It is half past ten on a Monday morning.

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Police stories

Last week, at 8 a.m. on a rainy morning, Wife and I visited the local police station. Wife had received a summons, and the policeman named on the letterhead – Herr Wittmann, dressed in plainclothes and not fully awake yet – led us to an office on the first floor.

The room looked like an ordinary office, with files, calenders, monitors, stationery, and except for a blue cap on a hatrack nothing about the place suggested that matters of crime were discussed here. Wife’s offence, we discovered to our relief, was minor: in a seventy speed zone she had driven at a hundred. A letter seeking the driver’s confirmation was sent home; we had ignored it – hence the summons.

Herr Wittmann opened a file with Wife’s name on it and pulled out sheets of paper. Among them was proof – a photograph of the offender, caught in the speeding act by a camera – and penalty – a fine of eighty Euros, and three points to her name. Herr Wittman tried to play down the seriousness of those points. They’re nothing, he said, avoiding eye contact; wait for a couple of years without further points and they’ll go away – so don’t worry about it.

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The Russian Hedgehog

The Putzfrau comes home each week, to vacuum the floors, hardwood downstairs and carpet upstairs, to polish the hardwood floor panels, to clean the shower, toilet, and occasionally the windows. She is a Russian woman, in her late forties, with a quiet manner and a child-like smile. In her loose-fitting clothes she looks like a colourful bean bag, and although she moves slowly through the apartment, shifting from one room to next, her movements do not appear lethargic but suggest a steady force at work. At the end of three hours the apartment is transformed: no trace is left of the previous week’s disorder.

She has a key to the apartment. On Thursday afternoons, at around 1 p.m., when both Wife and I are away at work, she enters the apartment and leaves three hours later, carrying with her the money we place at the agreed spot on the kitchen counter, next to the Nespresso machine. On the days we forget to place the money, we return in the evening to find on that spot a sticky-note, or a paper napkin, with a message in clear letters: Geld!! On such days the apartment is as clean as on other Thursdays.

Thursday mornings are a stressful affair. Wife insists on getting the house clean before the cleaning lady arrives — to her there is no contradiction in this, it is just an “employee satisfaction measure” — so we load the dishwasher, gather clothes lying around, throw the garbage out, all this to make our home look “presentable”. The result, then, on Thursday evenings is a cumulative effect, due in part to the lady and in part to our exertions. Sometimes we are unsure who has assumed the larger burden.

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Mongolian dreams

Some years ago, consumed by a mix of nostalgia and curiosity that followed the reading of a book on Genghis Khan, I developed an urge to visit Mongolia. I knew nothing about the country. The websites I scanned threw up images of a sleepy capital, Ulaanbaatar, surrounded by a vast, cold, and dry desert, dotted with settlements of herders living in gers. It seemed like a place untouched by modernity, a country the world had forgotten. This discovery only increased my curiosity, and when I spoke to Wife about a Mongolian holiday she promptly struck it down, wondering aloud if I next planned to visit the moon. Undeterred, I nurtured the idea for a while, creating imaginary itineraries along the steppes Genghis Khan rode eight centuries ago. Then, like other fantasies, this one too faded under the overpowering glare of daily life.

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Ugly witches and a little mouse

Last December my eight-year old nephew visited us from the U.S. It was his first trip to Germany, his first long vacation away from home in many years, and his eagerness to get here was matched by our enthusiasm to prepare for his visit. Wife and I planned and emailed him a ten-day itinerary, full of events and day-trips and guided tours for kids, to which he replied with a request, politely phrased, for more time at home. We guessed why — home was ideal for playing games on his Nintendo DS — but it turned out that there was more to it than video games.

The boy is a reader. In his ten days here he read as many books and finished half my collection of the complete Tintin series. When I told him how happy I was to see him read, he thanked me with a wide smile and added that last year, in his second grade, he had read a hundred and seventy five books, just twenty five short of the mark the school had set for the first prize, an iPod. No one had won it, but he seemed confident to reach the goal this year.

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