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.  

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.

The weight of inequality

[ Three months after the India trip, my mind is still on what happened there. ]

The morning after I landed in Bangalore, I went for a haircut. Raja Haircutting Saloon is near a junction in Koramangala, where the quiet lane from my apartment meets a busy thoroughfare, surrounded by a cluster of small stores selling vegetables, hardware, newspapers and magazines, Internet services, stationery, South Indian breakfasts and meals. The saloon had three empty chairs facing a wall-to-wall mirror. An unfamiliar Bollywood song was playing on the radio. On the wall opposite the mirror hung a full-size poster of Priyanka Chopra in a blue chiffon sari, hands on her hips. A dark-skinned and well-built young man in a bright yellow T-shirt appeared from behind a curtain and showed me a chair. His oily hair was combed back, he smelled of Brylcreem, and standing beside Priyanka Chopra he looked like a Hindi movie baddie. I placed my camera on the counter and sat on the reclining swivel chair. The barber spoke in Hindi.

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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?”

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Family matters

At my workplace the role of a team secretary is not insignificant. Setting up meetings and workshops, booking rooms and external venues, approving leave requests, handling business-travel queries: these tasks keep the secretaries busy, and the rest of us away from administrative affairs. Their office is a hub of activity, its traffic a barometer of the team’s progression. In August, when most Germans pack their bags and travel South, the room goes quiet; activity rises in September and peaks in early December when everyone is at work, waiting for the Christmas break. The secretaries, well aware how much we depend on them, usually plan ahead and ensure their vacations do not overlap. It is a steady job, a function that sees little attrition: they remain with the same executive for years, even following the boss to other areas of the company. So when I learned, not long ago, that our new team secretary would soon leave, the news took me by surprise. Less than four months had passed since E joined us. She got along well with everyone; her relaxed mien and her readiness to smile gave the impression she was happy with her job. What had happened?

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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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The zoo in Stuttgart


The zoo is a place of many surprises.

The zoo in Stuttgart is not a typical zoo. It hosts – and I wonder if this is an undeserved euphemism – both animals (mammals, insects, fishes, birds, and the like) and plants (orchids, cactuses, camellias, ferns, spice plants, among others). It is also large. In the four hours spent walking the premises we covered about a fourth of the area and saw less than a tenth of the species on display, which the guidebook put at over a thousand.

The flamingoes come first. You see them standing together, loopy-necked, swan-bodied, with a pair of pink sticks for legs, pecking at themselves or at something on the ground. They are behind a low-fenced enclosure, out in the open, yet they do not fly away. Nearby, a grey heron flies above a tree and disappears from view; although they do not belong to the zoo collection, such birds are permanent guests here.

This is a good beginning. A zoo where birds are not in a cage. A zoo that attracts visitors from the animal kingdom.

A greenhouse with tropical plants is next, but my father, who behaves occasionally like a eight-year old (there’s a running gag in the family on this), wishes to see only the animals. We head toward the great apes. Three baby gorillas, behind a glass-fronted cell, have drawn a large crowd. It is easy to see why. The young ones are like cuddly soft-toys come to life, and they swing from ropes, climb poles, hang from a branch with more élan and style than any adult gorilla can manage.

(Continued on page 2)

New York diary


I do not know what it is like to live there, but as a visitor, no matter how many times I’ve been to the city before, New York does not fail to impress. Like Venice, Paris, or Mumbai, its character assails you the moment you step into the city. Arriving by train into the New York Penn station, the same passengers who were relaxed and laid back when they boarded the train in the suburbs spring into motion, like toys with wound up keys, and march with an infectious purpose through the station into the maze-like streets of Manhattan. The press of humanity that begins here continues unabated, in the subway, the cafes, the museums, and you always know you are in New York because its signature, the dense racial mix, is hard to miss. Mexicans, Indians, Chinese, Africans, Europeans, Americans: all in one subway car, like a grand social experiment designed to observe inter-racial behaviour in a confined setting. The experiment is not a success: nothing much happens, each individual is self-absorbed: immersed in a book, listening to music, or simply lost in thought; communication, when it occurs, is not between members in the car but with someone far away, reached through a mobile phone.

The mobile devices I spotted on the subway were all iPhones. A young woman stood beside me checking her iCalender, switching between a few dates; 14th: Finish Chapter 9, Long NC; 15th: Take your pills!; 18th: Dinner with Mq & Tj. Later, in a cafe, the dozen or so tables were occupied by men and women peering into a screen in front; all those laptops bore the Apple logo, and a bluish tinge in the eyes of many suggested a Facebook page. A master-slave relationship was evident; humans seemed to have surrendered, unconsciously, to machines.

[Continued on page 2]

Being and foreignness

For the first time in history, across much of the world, to be foreign is a perfectly normal condition.” — The Economist, December 17th 2009


The Weihnachtsmarkt in this town was a small affair. It began at the western end of Hauptstrasse, with a stall selling dry fruits and nuts, and continued up the street, extending partly into the neighbouring Marktstrasse or Blumenstrasse, and ended at the eastern perimeter less than a kilometer from the start. The stalls, small log cabins with pine sprigs and yellowish light bulbs strung across their roof angles, displayed the usual wares: chocolates and gummy bears, gluh wine, crepes, potato pancakes, bratwurst & schnitzel, christmas-tree knickknacks, and ceramic crockery. At the intersection of Marktstrasse and Höllgasse there was a small carousel, manually operated, with eight horse-shaped mounts each painted a different colour. Not far from it stood a märchenzelt, a fairy-tale tent, white and round with a conical top, glowing like a dimly lit bulb. This tent was where I was headed, with Wife and some friends, on a cold and overcast November evening not long ago.

The evening’s plan was simple but unusual: from 7 to 8 P.M. children visiting the tent would be read Indian stories in German by a few Indian ladies. Wife, one of the storytellers, had made me a target of her daily practice sessions the previous week. The story she had chosen (“Sukeshini and the lake demon”) was about an Indian girl who tricks a demon and brings water to a drought-stricken village; she had translated it into German with the help of a friend. Others had chosen similar stories, Indian folk tales translated into German.

Inside the märchenzelt six or seven boys and girls sat facing a middle-aged woman reading a German fairy tale. At 7 P.M. the Indian ladies, dressed in colourful sarees or salwar kameez, started the session with a Namaste. “This is how you greet people in India,” one of them explained. The children mimicked the gesture and giggled. Then the stories were read out loud, one after another, each storyteller pausing in places to ask a question or to explain the context. Some of this context was presented as illustrations: colour printouts of scenes from the story — taken from the original storybook — or of an Indian situation or custom, like a festival or a feast served on banana leaves. The kids looked at the copied illustration before passing it on, and occasionally a curious parent leaned over their tiny shoulders for a quick glance. In the middle of the hour, after a couple of stories, the ladies sang a nursery rhyme in Hindi. The boys and girls were asked to repeat, line after line:

Haathi Raja bahut bade
Sund utha kar kahan chale
Mere ghar mein aaon na
Halwa puri khaon na
Aaon baitho kursi par
Kursi boli chatar-pattar!

The parents joined the children in this recitation. It was a charming reversal, with the Germans attempting what the Indians had been doing so far: speak in a foreign tongue.

At the hour’s end the children sang the rhyme once more, said Namaste, and left. Outside a slight drizzle had begun; we picked up some gluh-wine and crepes and stood chatting under the awning of an electronic store, next to its brightly lit windows. The store appeared closed, but soon a man approached us, with the obvious intention of entering it. Middle-aged, huge and bald and white like a WWF wrestler, he stopped in front of me and asked, with a half-smile: “Darf ich?” May I?

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The politics of foreignness

[Part 3 of the Interpretations series.]

This is not a good time to be foreign.” — The Economist, November 19th 2011

Earlier this month, xenophobia again grabbed the headlines in Germany. Investigations following the arrest of a woman, one of three members of the “National Socialist Underground” group, revealed that they had killed nine people between 2000 and 2006, and injured many more with a bomb in 2004; eight of the nine killed and most of those injured were of Turkish origin. Until this recent discovery, none of these hate crimes against foreigners were linked to the neo-Nazi group. (Suspicions were directed instead at the Turkish mafia.) The news caused the Germans embarrassment, shame, and regret, in that order. Media uproar followed, and the issue reached the parliament. Chancellor Angela Merkel called it a “Disgrace”. Politicians renewed their call for a ban on the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD). On the 22nd, two weeks after the sensational discovery, the parliament issued a joint statement that began: ”We are deeply ashamed…”

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