Ten years

Ten



[This has turned out a strangely self-indulgent post, one suited more to a private diary than an online journal. I set out to write, on our tenth anniversary of arriving in Germany, an account of these last ten years here, but what got written, almost unconsciously, was a different score, cryptic and inward-looking.]



When we arrived there was no life plan. The move to Germany seemed like an interesting opportunity, although I do not remember trying to express – or even think about – why this was so. It may have been the allure of a new place, something exotic and unfamiliar. The little I had seen of Germany on a couple of previous trips had appealed. At a deeper level there must have been, although I wasn’t aware of it, the realization that I was doing what my father had done almost thirty years previously: take up a “foreign assignment”. But the similarities end there; I had it much easier. I was simply riding on a wave of Indian emigration westward; his move, in the early Seventies, was an exception. My destination was an advanced Western nation that provided a host of benefits; his was to a town in a small West African nation. I travelled with my wife; he had mother next to him and me, a six month old baby, in his arms.
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The Shelf

shelf



In the last decade there’s been a lot of discussion on e-readers and what they mean to the future of the book. Back in 2000 John Updike, in an essay reflecting on what he would miss about books if they go extinct, wrote about The book as furniture, The book as sensual pleasure, The book as souvenir, and Books as ballast. The debate has continued over the years, its intensity reaching a crescendo with every new advance in technology. More recently I’ve seen, through some blogs of book lovers, early signs of acceptance of the e-reader as an alternative. The practical advantages of the electronic version seem to be, if only slightly, edging out the charms of the much-loved paper-bound form. And if you were to believe the statistics, people with e-readers are reading more books than they did before – a healthy sign for the future of words and sentences.
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Edward Hopper and the eternal moment

TheQueue



1. The exhibition

On a rainy Saturday afternoon in September, during a weekend in Lausanne, I spot a notice for an Edward Hopper exhibition running at a local museum. I have never seen a Hopper original, and I soon start towards Fondation de l’Hermitage – a 19th century residence that houses temporary exhibitions, – looking forward to a quiet afternoon in the company of paintings I love.
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Serendipity

It happened the other day, on an evening that was turning into one of those you forget as soon as they are over, unremarkable and ordinary in every way. Until it happened, that is.

* * *

I am following Eric Newby’s thoughts in The Big Red Train Ride, as he describes the history of the monastery of St.Sergius, a site that the Rossiya – the Trans-Siberian train, Moscow to Vladivostok, 5810 miles, 7 days – crosses on its journey through the countryside beyond Moscow.  The sight of the “mass of spheres and domes” reminds Newby of their visit to the monastery only a few days ago. In particular, he describes the “austerely beautiful” Cathedral of Troitska.
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Notes from a recent India trip


1. Arrival

At the Bengaluru International Airport everything seems new and shining. The modern interiors, polished and spacious; the immigration officials, courteous and efficient; the H1N1 desk, sophisticated (with high-tech equipment measuring, from a distance, the average temperature of passengers in a queue) and orderly; the exit gate, sparse (no swarm of taxi-wallahs waiting to assault you) and organized (a handful of drivers carrying placards, Volvo buses to the city). Is all this only a facade? Or has change renewed other dimensions of life in Bangalore? I’m eager to find out.
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Seven Things

A fellow blogger – or better, a writer and photographer – has invited (tagged, as they say) me to write about “seven things I love.”  I spent a good part of the previous weekend thinking what to leave out from this list. It helps, of course, that the tag is not about “seven things I love most”; that would have been an impossible task. It also helps that a “thing” is vague enough, left to one’s interpretation.  I’ve chosen a thing each from seven categories: a composition, a book, a place, a movie, a process, a medium and a person. Continue reading “Seven Things”

Medium matters

A few weeks ago the owner of the apartment I am staying in visited my home with his wife, on a matter related to the apartment. The Quasts are retired; they live in a quiet neighbourhood a few streets away. Their English, like many of their generation, is rudimentary, and in the early years of our stay conversation was limited to a few sentences on house-related matters and some pleasantries about the weather. Now-a-days I am able to sustain a simple conversation in German, so the range of topics has expanded.

On this occasion, the subject of vacations came up, and they asked if we had travelled anywhere recently. I told them about our Spanish holiday, and, on an impulse, reached out for my MacBook with the intention of showing them some pictures of the trip. They were seated on the sofa; I handed them the laptop – which they held onto in a gingerly fashion, balancing it on their laps so that they could both look at the screen together – and started the slideshow. Standing next to them, I explained the background behind a few shots. Spain is a beautiful country, they said, and added that the pictures brought this out nicely.

A week later I visited them to get a signature on a form I had to send to my parents for their German visa application. Herr Quast welcomed me in his usual warm manner, led me inside and seated me at their dining table. His wife joined us, and after enquiring what I’d like to drink – an offer I gently declined, stating I had to leave soon – she sat down and began to chat. Soon the topic of my parent’s planned visit this summer came up. I mentioned that they wanted to see more of Germany this time as the itinerary on their previous visit was filled with visits to other European countries – France, Switzerland, Belgium, Holland. Frau Quast’s eyes lit up when I said this, and she came up with a flurry of questions: which places in Germany do they want to visit? Did they like cities, or the countryside? Had they seen Hamburg? Dresden? The Mosselle valley? We could offer some suggestions, she said, and left the room.

She came back with a thick file and placed it on the table. Inside, I could already guess, was a treasure of memories: the pages recorded many trips they had made in Germany over the recent years. She turned to a cycling expedition with another couple some years ago, along the banks of the River Elbe, from Dresden to Hamburg. The section began with a map of the route, which was followed by pictures that were clipped to the sheets with a paragraph or two of cursive script describing the moment. Then there were bills from restaurants they had eaten at, receipts from shops they had visited, tickets of concerts or movies, brochures of the region and other little scraps of memory that brought back minute details of the whole trip. In between explanations of this or that picture, Frau Quast would turn to her husband and recollect a day on the trip, or some event that came back to memory.

I had intended to stay not longer than five minutes, and wanted nothing more than a signature on a form; when I left, I had spent more than an hour, and was carrying with me itinerary suggestions that could fill six months of travel around the country. On my walk home I reflected over the two mediums, paper and digital. When it came to sharing something with people around us in the real world, the immediacy and personal touch conveyed by paper was superior to the impersonal, disconnected nature of the digital medium. My choice of the latter medium in the last years also indicated how my relationships had increasingly moved online – I shared more with people elsewhere than in my own neighbourhood, and for such global interactions the digital medium had to be preferred for the convenience it offered. But I was less sure that sharing through digital media – no matter how sophisticated the technology or how beautiful the website – could ever acquire the quality of sitting with a person on a table with a physical album full of pictures, maps, tickets, and recounting stories that made the trip memorable.

The opposite of Life

On one of the early days of my recently concluded India visit I showed my parents some old photographs I had recently scanned. They were pictures of relatives from the previous generations – my parents and their parents – and these were the first from a set of old photos I wanted to digitize. As always, the pictures brought back memories and father, who never misses a chance to tell a tale, had a story behind many pictures. After a while we came to a group photo – a picture with uncles, aunts, cousins and grandparents. When an initial round of identification was complete, father did something that astonished me: he began to count the dead. It took some moments, during which the count seemed to go on and on; the final number came to seven. “Seven of them already dead,” father said, as if it were the most natural comment that could result from a photograph.

Death has been on father’s mind since his younger brother was killed in an accident earlier this year. Although he has dealt with it in a practical manner – focusing mainly on the bureaucratic hurdles one has to cross in completing the paperwork following a death by accident – there have been moments when his psychological defenses have broken down. And this incident with the photograph showed that something in him had changed – it was as if he had crossed a border beyond which topic of death slowly expands its influence on the consciousness and invades the mind from within.

For most of us younger people thoughts on death occur mainly upon external stimuli – when we hear, see or read about it. It does not gnaw us from within – we are, for the most part, pre-occupied with dealing with the complexities of day-to-day life. So death, for many of us, is an alien concept. I couldn’t help thinking this while reading Joan Didion’s The year of magical thinking – a book that has moved millions with its account of the author coming to terms with the sudden demise of her husband and the terminal illness of her daughter. The book failed to strike a chord within me – never having gone through such an experience, I found it difficult to relate to her emotions following the death of a loved one. As I read on, I wondered what the hype about the book was all about – after all, there are millions who lose their families in more miserable circumstances, and here was someone living comfortably in the U.S. talking about the pains following the death of her husband due to cardiac arrest.

This morning I got the news – via SMS, which isn’t always a medium for frivolous communication – that another of father’s brothers had passed away, after a recent surgery. “Two wickets down,” was how my father later put it. I was at this uncle’s home last week in Hyderabad, and we had chatted as always, he commenting on my weight and I remarking that nothing about it would ever change. Today, in this distant country, I cannot comprehend the meaning behind this piece of news. My remarks expressing condolences and offering consolations to my cousins seem hollow – I am unable to glimpse their misery, unable to partake in their grief. Death continues to be an alien concept.

I realize that I had missed the point about Didion’s book. Grief following death is intensely personal. It does not matter if you are living in the suburbs of New York or the slums of Mumbai – the vacuum created by the death of a loved one is no different. Didion’s attempts to cope with her emotions represent a universal struggle, and her descriptions give us something to hold onto during such phases, something that aids our search for meaning in moments where the world around us seems to lack it.

Week and Weekend

The days are warm. He walks each day to work, is back by seven – which is early, going by his normal schedule – and spends most of the evening reading Sacred Games. He is taking it slowly – a book seven years in writing deserves seven weeks of reading – and is enjoying each scene, every encounter, the texture of each memory, the sting of every gaali.

He cooks his usual rice meal – vegetable pulao – which he eats with pickle and yoghurt, taking in the exploits of Gaitonde between spoons of rice and pickle, unable to decide where the feeling of spice originates from: the food or the book.

He likes this life, this solitude. He likes the empty house in a silent neighbourhood where he can spend his evenings reading, contemplating, dreaming. When he speaks with his wife on the phone, he mentions how much he loves being alone. Then don’t come this weekend, she says, pretending to be upset. He laughs, and says weekends are for her – he needs only the week for himself. Then you do not want me back? she asks; you do not want to spend the weeks with me?. He laughs again.

Moleskine
Late in the night, before sleeping, he jots into his journal some events of the day. He has been doing this regularly since he acquired a Moleskine notebook recently. He likes the growing collection of pages full of memories, and he often goes back to the previous entries. What is this journal, and what is that other one online? Why does one person need two? Both are needed, he tells himself, because there are really two selves. One that wishes to be alone, and one that wants to reach out to the world and participate in it. One for the week, the other for the weekend.