Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani


I arrived in the US ten days ago. After a trip to LA and San Diego (visiting theme parks with my ten-year-old nephew R.), I’m back in New Jersey, with my in-laws. Yesterday we visited a local cinema for a Hindi movie.

This is not new, and it must be common experience for New Jerseyians, but it never fails to amaze me. The queue behind the ticket counter is packed with only Indians. About thirty of them. Lined up for Hindi and Telugu movies. Yeh Jawaani hai Deewani, Ghanchakkar, Raanjhanna, Balupu. Some are in Indian clothes, salwaar-kameez or kurtas. They speak in the vernacular, one or two with an American accent.

The movie we watch, Yeh Jawaani Hai Dewaani, is a modern love story. Boy meets girl on a trek; they like each other, but the boy has ambitions — plans to see the world, to seek adventure; they move on, but eight years later they meet again; old love surfaces, so does the old conflict; the boy has to choose between his desire for adventure and the rootedness of family-life; he chooses the girl.

What made this story different from a Hindi movie from the eighties or nineties is the absence of family in the narrative. Parents appear at the beginning, before boy and girl leave home, and the boy briefly remembers his father near the film’s end — for the rest boy and girl are independent, making choices and living by them. Compare this to QSQT or DDLJ or Lamhe. Family used to played a large role in love stories — is the new trend a reflection of urban India today?

The other difference is the film’s attitude toward the West. Going abroad still has its charm, and the boy does spend time in Europe (even kissing, in the space of a song, a striking blonde, something I haven’t managed in twelve years there), but in the end he returns. New York and LA and Paris are good, but the future is back home. This is the confidence of a new India.

The Echo


Every once in a while, recalling a distant memory, what you remember is shot through with such brilliance that you can relive the experience, invoking each time the scene in its original intensity. There was such a scene during our Easter vacation that April, a moment of sublime beauty mid-way on a boat ride in Königsee.

Königsee: long, narrow, winding, and hemmed in by steep, rocky mountains, the lake feels like a fjord. They say the lake was formed by a glacier in the last ice age. There is a remoteness to it, a timeless atmosphere. On a quiet day, looking up at the uninhabited slopes around, one can imagine a time no humans walked the earth.

Water touches rocks on all sides, steep edges keep the perimeter inaccessible by road: only a boat can ferry you from one point to another. We were on such a boat, oblong, wood-paneled, driven by electric motors that leave the turquoise blue water unpolluted. The boat was full. Adults clicking photos, children running about, mothers behind them: solitude was unattainable. The tour guide, a grey-haired man with a moustache, spoke through a microphone, his voice betraying a boredom that accrues from repeating jokes a dozen times each day. In the middle of his routine, when we expected another of his quips, he announced that he would now play the flugelhorn, a trumpet-like instrument. The lake was known for its echo, he said, but few were privy to the real source of the echo: his twin, up on the mountain, parroting the notes that rose from the bowels of Königsee. We laughed. He lifted the instrument out of a black leather case, well-worn but elegant. Windows on both sides of the boat were opened, and a hush descended in anticipation. I heard gentle waves lap the sides. A seagull shrieked somewhere. Cold air clipped my ears. The blue-green lake merged with shoreline grey. For a few seconds the silence was total. Then he began to blow. Four notes, barely musical: tra la ra laaa. When he ended, and before the notes trailed off, we heard a distant yet startlingly clear echo, a mirror image of the notes he had played. He blew again, carrying on the tune, and the echo followed, like an obedient pupil following the master. The echo reached us as he finished each sequence, the repetition took off just as the original faded.

And I imagined a figure up in the mountains, in a conical cap and a clown’s cape, running around pines blowing a flugelhorn to match his twin below, laughing at the trick they played on the tourists.

Mont Saint-Michel


In the end, a small stretch of water between the mainland and the island of Mont Saint-Michel turned for us into a gulf too large to cross.

The first time we visited Mont Saint-Michel the sky was grey, the tourists buses were returning, the hotel signs looked lifeless, and the sheep were out grazing. We had chosen, on a whim, to touch Mont Saint-Michel en route to Saint-Malo, our weekend destination. We stopped on the way for photographs, reproducing frames seen a hundred times on postcards and websites and travel magazines:

An enormous outcrop jutting out of the flat landscape, a towering abbey at its summit, a wafer of water on all sides.

A medieval village on a rocky island.

Gentle sheep in the foreground, stark silhouette in the background.

At the end of the road to Mont Saint-Michel was a large parking lot. A young man in a blue uniform said a shuttle would drive us to the island and back; the trip could take an hour or two — it hinged on what we wished to see. We chose instead to drive on to Saint-Malo and return later.

The second time we visited Mont Saint-Michel the sky was black, the roads were empty, the hotel neon signs blinked for no one, and we saw no sheep. We had driven there, again on a whim, with another couple after a dinner in Saint-Malo. This time we parked, picked umbrellas from the boot, and walked under fluorescent lamps against a wayward wind. A bicycle or two passed by, a couple and then a family walked to their cars. After they left the place seemed abandoned. Our voices and our laughter, caught by the wind, disappeared into the night. The walk to the island would take forty minutes: a sign by the path said. Rain was beginning to fall. We turned. On the walk back to the car we saw a hare dash across the parking lot into the dark fields. Someone said it looked like a rat. We spoke of rats in New York, the fear of rats, the fear of cockroaches, and we laughed. The island, an excuse for something else we wanted, was forgotten.

Conversations and Translations


How do you begin a conversation with a stranger in a museum? At the Neue Pinakothek in Munich, in a gallery of sketches and etchings by Johann Christian Reinhart, I had photographed a detailed pencil sketch of a clump of trees and rocks when a woman came up.

“Will you take these photos back to India?”

We had seen each other a minute ago, smiling briefly as we crossed, she on her regular round, I on my way to Reinhart’s years in Italy.

“No,” I said. “I live in Germany.”

“Ah, you live in Germany. Where do you come from?”


“India yes. But where in India?”

A short woman in a blue suit, she had Maggie Smith’s eyes and Charlotte Rampling’s lips. About sixty, very attractive. Perhaps it was the way she held herself, a manner that suggested she wasn’t a museum guard but an actor in that role.


She hadn’t heard of the city. “Is it near Delhi? Calcutta?”

“It’s in the south.”

“A girlfriend of mine goes to India each year and spends few months there, traveling. She has seen cities in the north — Delhi, Agra, Calcutta. She is in India now, and she’s back tomorrow!” Her eyes glowed.

“Have you visited India?”

“No, I haven’t.” She pointed to her knees, shaking her head. “My feet cannot bear a long flight.” Then, after a moment’s hesitation: “But I would love to. It is a very interesting place, and Indians are very nice people.” She smiled.

“Yes, a very interesting place. Your English is good.” Few elderly Germans speak good English, and I was curious.

“Ah, I was in London many years ago, to learn English, among other things. I met many Indians there, and Pakistanis, and Africans. It was fascinating.”

I chuckled hearing her place Africans with Indians and Pakistanis. A friend of mine from Nigeria may have said to her, Africa is not a country.

I said: “London is a multicultural city.”

“Cosmopolitan, yes. Where do you live in Germany?”

“Near Heidelberg.”

“Have you been here long?”

“About twelve years now.”

“That’s a long time. Do you intend to stay or will you return?”

They always ask that. It is an innocent question to ask, a heavy question to receive.

“I’ll return.”

“Really?” She raised her eyebrows.

“Yes. Definitely.”

She smiled. “I wish you a good time here.”

“Thank you. It was nice talking to you.”

* * *

On the EC 216 back from Munich I sat next to a young woman, about twenty years old, immersed in sheets of typed paper like a girl busy with homework. Conversation seemed a possibility, but her concentration, intense and unvarying, was untouchable. Then, half an hour from Stuttgart, the train stopped. A breakdown in the line ahead, the announcement in German said, and there was no saying when services would resume. People stepped off the train. I followed, camera in hand. It was chilly outside. The sun was sinking behind rolling meadows. We were next to a small hill with a unpaved path circling it. One or two were walking up this path, others were hanging around the train, smoking, chatting, speaking on the phone, typing on the phone. I took some pictures and returned to my seat.


The woman was on the phone. A round face, rosy cheeks, blond hair parted in the middle. Her German was accented, and she had the chirpiness of a teenager. When she finished with the phone, I turned to her.

“Traveling to Stuttgart?”

“Yes. I’m visiting a friend for the weekend.”

“You’ll be late now.”

“I know!” she smiled. “I asked my friend not to come to the station.”

“Is that Polish you are reading?”

“Yes. Actually I’m translating Polish into German. I work as a translator.”

“What a coincidence! The book I’m reading is about translation.” I showed her the cover of Is That a Fish in Your Ear, by David Bellos.

She looked at the book. Then she nodded.

“I picked it up at Munich, and so far it’s very good. Right now I’m reading a chapter on why the English word ‘translation’ is inadequate, or perhaps even inappropriate, for the meaning it tries to convey.”

My mind was on the thrilling paragraph I had read on the richness of Japanese language:

If the translation we are discussing is complete, we might call it a 全訳 zen’yaku or a 完訳 kan’yaku. A first translation is a 初訳 shoyaku. A retranslation is a 改訳 kaiyaku, and the new translation is a 新訳 shin’yaku that replaces the old translation, or 旧訳 kyū yaku. A translation of a translation is a 重訳 jū yaku. A standard translation that seems unlikely to be replaced is a 定訳 teiyaku; equally unlikely to be replaced is a 名訳 meiyaku, or ‘celebrated translation’. When a celebrated translator speaks of her own work, she may disparage it as 拙訳 setsuyaku, ‘clumsy translation’, i.e. ‘my own translation’, which is not to be confused with a genuinely bad translation, disparaged as a 駄訳 dayaku or an 悪訳 akuyaku. A co-translation is a 共訳 kyō yaku or 合訳 gō yaku; a draft translation, or 下訳 shitayaku, may be polished through a process of ‘supervising translation’, or 監訳 kan’yaku, without it becoming a kyō yaku or gō yaku. Translations are given different names depending on the approach they take to the original: they can be 直訳 chokuyaku (literally ‘direct translation’), 逐語訳 chikugoyaku (‘word for word translation’), 意訳 iyaku (‘sense translation’), 対訳 taiyaku (‘translation presented with the original text on facing pages’), or in the case of translations of works by Sidney Sheldon, Danielle Steel, John Grisham and other popular American writers, 超訳 chōyaku (‘translations that are even better than the originals’, an invention and registered trademark of the Academy Press).

I would have liked to read it aloud to her, to hear the sounds of those Japanese words, but she did not show interest in the book. For someone who worked with language, I found this surprising. Perhaps more disappointing than surprising.

“What kind of translation do you do?”

“Oh, boring technical manuals, contracts, and things like that. If the original is well written, the translation is easier. Otherwise it can be hard.” She frowned, looking down at her papers.

An announcement came on air. The train was to start soon, and arrive in Stuttgart half an hour behind schedule.

“I need to check when my next connection leaves.” She pulled out the smartphone from her handbag.

There is an app for every situation.

“Do you have to wait long?”

“I can take the eight fifty-two, so that’s fine” she said.

Night was setting in. The train began to glide, and soon the windows reflected a brightly lit compartment. She had returned to her papers. I opened my book.

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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The happiness of an Easter Sunday

“White Easter” is not an expression you hear often, but we had one this year and the papers were full of it. Snow during Christmas is magical, but by Easter, at the end of March, you’d rather see stalks of freesias or lilacs and hear skylarks and robins. We were at a holiday cottage near the Austrian border, not far from Salzburg, with two other families, and the weather had kept us mostly indoors. On Easter Sunday my wife snapped a picture from the bedroom window, a frame with cottages and cars and pylons and pine-forested slopes all hooded by snow, and posted it on Facebook with the caption “Merry Christmas!” Later that morning, after the terrace and the garden thawed out, the kids set out on the traditional Easter egg hunt. Despite all the snow our Easter Hare had been generous, and soon bawling children turned into smiling ones, each one clutching his or her basket brimming with colourful eggs and shiny chocolates. By afternoon they had exhausted all options of playing with their new collections, and the adults were under pressure again to supply new forms of entertainment. N, who had turned six the previous month, wished to go on a walk in the woods. His father was feeling unwell, I was looking forward to a hike, so N and I decided to go together.

When we left, N’s mother photographed us standing in the driveway, covered head to toe in winter wear. N stood smiling beneath his red woolen cap, blue hooded ski-jacket, black snow pants, and Jack Wolfskin boots. I stood beside him in a black woolen coat, blue jeans, a grey cap and a striped scarf. Light snow was falling, and in my left hand was an umbrella, blue and white and unopened.

The cottage stood at the foot of a mountain, and not far from it was a path that led into the wooded slope. The path seemed accessible from the garden, so we agreed to take this shortcut. But we slipped on our first attempt: the slope from the garden to this path was covered with fresh snow.

“Shortcuts don’t always work,” I said, trying to squeeze a moral out of the false start. “Let’s take the normal way up.”

“Okay,” said N.

Soon we were trudging along a narrow slushy path that cut through the incline. Above and below us were trees, bare beeches and the occasional pine or spruce. Patches of fresh snow clung to the slopes.

“Will we see animals in the woods?” N asked.

“Not sure. If we go deep inside, we may. But this path seems to be going only along the edge of the mountain.”

“Deep inside – is that where the hunters go?”

“Well… yes.”

Continue reading “The happiness of an Easter Sunday”

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”

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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