Cap San Diego

On Friday, on board a museum ship docked at Hamburg, I met Ernest Hemingway. He was sitting inside a small cabin with a window that opened to the visitor’s path. The cabin exterior had posters detailing museum tariffs and bulletins, and inside, on his desk, there sat a few devices with earphones, audio guides to go with a museum tour. The man, portly, grey-haired, and bearded, was turning the pages of a girlie magazine, and he wasn’t pleased to see me.

I had come for a reading, and I was early: the Harbour Front Literaturfestival event would not begin for another hour. The ship, Cap San Diego, which I reached by crossing on foot the Überseebrücke, was a permanent fixture on the harbour, and despite the water all around, despite the ominous grey warship docked alongside, despite the wind and the rain and the seagulls cawing, I did not have the sense of being on a ship. There was no one around when I climbed up the gangplank, and on the vacant main deck this solitary man in his cabin was the first person I had seen since I left the shore. He looked at me with a penetrating gaze, his large forehead dominating a seaman’s face weathered by adventure: a striking resemblance to Hemingway I could not put aside.

Continue reading “Cap San Diego”


[Part six of the Visiting Home series.]

During my last week in Bangalore I visit a government office to pay property tax for a site we own. (Pa usually does this, but this time he thinks I should “get a taste” of Indian bureaucracy too.) It is a small office above a supermarket, a place you wouldn’t notice unless you were looking for it. Inside, a long hall with rows of desks stacked with papers and ledgers, at the end of which there is a cabin and two counters with tiny windows for accepting cash. Large monitors sit unused on some desks, with a dot-matrix printer on the side. Dust is everywhere: on fans, on monitors, on tables with files, on slotted-iron shelves with more files. A framed portrait of Ganesha hangs in a corner, garlanded with flowers, now dry. Employees are chatting unhurriedly. An atmosphere of stasis.

Continue reading “Departure”


[After Arrival, Progress, and Curiosity, this is the fourth installment in the ‘Visiting Home’ series. The narrator, an Indian living abroad, is on a visit to Bangalore, discovering and interpreting facets of life in the city and at home.]

The days passed quickly. I woke up late each morning, completed my exercises, and settled down to read English, August after a heavy breakfast under Ma’s watchful eyes, quick to notice my empty plate, and her nimble hands, ready to refill it with another helping of uppitu or akki rotti or idli. Friends I intended to meet were at work all day, so I spent the afternoons indoors, reading, writing, and scanning the irregular Bangalore skyline through the window of my room, avoiding the heat outside.

The only birds I saw were kites, circling above crowded tenements in search of prey, and pigeons, lodged on apartment windows. A pair of pigeons had nested outside my window, and the two eggs I’d seen on the first day had morphed into small yellow creatures that barely moved. I had taken to watching over their growth, returning many times each day to check for progress. The chicks, soft lumps of flesh with yellow hair, tiny grey beaks and dark slits for eyes, could both fit into my palm, but I did not try and pick them up. Three or four pigeons were always perched nearby, like relatives who had come by with compliments for a newly born.

The pigeons piqued my curiosity, so on a hot afternoon I put down my book and looked up the Internet to find out more. The technique beneath a pigeon’s homing instinct, an unsolved riddle when I last read on this subject a decade ago, was (Wikipedia said) still an open matter. One theory pointed to the pigeon’s ability to detect Earth’s magnetic field, another more recent finding suggested an orientation facility based on environmental odors, and yet another fell back on the conventional notion of visual clues in the landscape. The mystery had not affected the pigeon’s role in delivery: until as recently as 2002, when India’s Police Pigeon Service in Orissa had been shut down due to rising costs and competition from the Internet, pigeons had been used to deliver messages; there was even a method, blandly termed ‘IP over Avian Carriers’, to transmit Internet messages using pigeons.

In the middle of this brief exploration my thoughts began to wander. Do pigeons know exile? Are there deserter pigeons – ones that leave home never to return? Can a pigeon have two homes?

The heat soon got to me and I decided to take a nap. When Ma woke me up, she reminded me, gently, that the driver would soon be here. What driver? I asked, still half-asleep, but then I remembered: I had to visit Janaki dodamma that afternoon. I had put off visiting relatives for a while, but Ma had been persistent and I finally relented. I couldn’t drive by himself (Not in this chaos, Ma! I’d said), so a driver had been called for the afternoon.

The driver was half an hour late and offered no explanation for the delay. I did not bother to ask. He was a thin, young man in a crisp navy blue shirt, black pants, polished shoes, and his oily hair was combed flat. With a tie, he could pass for a salesman. He bowed slightly as he collected the keys, a mannerism that indicated years of habit. Traffic was moderate. I spotted a few new brands – Chevrolet, Skoda – but the big names were missing.

What about Audis and BMWs? I don’t see any of those on the road, I asked the driver in Kannada.

Those are rarely seen on weekdays, sir, the driver replied, in a loud and confident voice that belied his quiet manner until then. You’ll see them on weekends when the traffic is less. And many of them will be driven by owners.

Have you driven any? I asked.

Yes sir, he replied, turning towards me. When I was a full-time driver, my owner had a fleet of cars. I drove a Bentley, a Mercedes and a BMW.

Bentley? I was surprised. Why did you leave?

Full-time job has no flexibility, sir, he said. I have to go at times decided by the owner. In this job I can decide when to take up something.

Continue reading “Deliverance”


[Part three of the ‘Visiting Home‘ series. To read this as an independent piece, here’s some context: the narrator, an Indian living abroad, is on a visit to Bangalore.]

A few days into my visit, Mr.Aloknath – Pa’s friend and business associate – came home. I remembered Mr.Aloknath from my school days in Ranchi. He would visit us now and then, saying he was just “passing by” and had “dropped in to say hello”. The circumstance of this visit was not dissimilar: he was in Bangalore for a few days, and Pa had invited him home to tea.

You’ve grown taller, young man! Mr.Aloknath said, as we shook hands. It was a response I had frequently drawn from relatives on yearly visits to Bangalore as a child, and listening to it now, well into the thirties, made me laugh.

Mr.Aloknath, a short, round, dark man, sported an acrobatic greying moustache that almost touched his white sideburns, a style that had the curious effect of making him look like a tribal with a painted face. Over tea he enquired about several matters, mostly trivial, and offered his opinion on each. The monotonous drone of his sentences brought to mind my college English teacher Mr.Pundit who, in a Shakespeare class, displayed a remarkable constancy of tone that made Caesar, Cassius, Brutus and Casca all seem like one character. I kept up appearances, answering politely, with minimum effort. Sooner or later I expected the inevitable question.

Continue reading “Curiosity”


[Part two of the ‘Visiting Home’ series. Can be read as an independent piece too.]

The next morning, after a breakfast of idlis and mint chutney, I set out for a walk in the neighbourhood. Our six storey apartment building was at the end of a small street, facing a cul-de-sac, and it broke the pattern formed by one or two or three storey houses that dominated the three hundred or so yards of this street. Most of these houses were either new or had a new first or second floor extension, often built in a way that showed, through a different shade of paint or a bolder architecture, the contrast between old and new. They were built on small plots, and except for a rectangular space delineating a small car park, only a couple of feet separated these houses from the brick walls that surrounded them. In a small recess within one such wall was a Ganesha idol, a bronze figure smeared generously with kumkum; the Remover of Obstacles sat behind a grilled door secured by a lock. The houses had wrought iron gates, unwieldy constructions that creaked when opened, with a ‘No Parking In Front Of Gate’ sign often accompanied by an advertisement – Rukmini Jewelers: Diamond is a woman’s best friend; IIT coaching: for your son’s bright future – in small letters, as if inviting someone to park and look at the message. There were no trees on either side of the street, a condition some houses had tried to remedy with a sapling, protectively enclosed behind a transparent wire mesh, planted next to their gate.

Soon I heard shouts of a game in progress: five or six boys, dressed in rags, were playing cricket at an intersection. Nearby, at the edge of an empty plot, a thin woman in a faded purple nightie sat scrubbing an aluminum utensil, and the water she used drained into the roadside gutter, making a sound that echoed the piss of a boy, probably her son, relieving himself into a puddle. Close to this puddle were two dogs, foraging a rubbish dump. On the opposite side was a gleaming white car, a model of Honda I did not recognize. Ahead, where the street narrowed before joining the main road, a cluster of shops and signs on either side – a sweets-and-cakes shop, a hardware store, a small ‘standing’ restaurant with a paan-wallah attached to it, an internet center above a stationery store, a signboard with directions to an ‘International Astrologer’ – formed a busy conclusion to this quiet lane.
Continue reading “Progress”

Visiting Home

1. Arrival

It was my sixth visit home in ten years, a first in summer. I had avoided visiting India in summer, afraid to confront again the effects of heat which, after these long years in a cold country, was like a distant unpleasant memory. That summer, a gloomy May of an unhappy year, I was in the middle of a difficult phase at work, so when a two week interval came up I decided to visit home, to switch off completely, instead of taking the usual hiking trip to Austria or to Switzerland.

On my way, during a stopover at Dubai airport, which in truth is a gigantic mall with gates and terminals appended as an afterthought, I picked up dates, raisins, and cashews for Ma. Then, as I waited at the gate for boarding to commence, I spotted a bird, a tiny creature with a yellow breast, brilliant blue wings, and a small beak, perched lightly on a flight information screen. I had only begun to wonder where it had come from when the bird took flight and disappeared into an enclosure – in the middle of this giant terminal – with pine-like trees, bushes, and grass, all of them so polished and dust-free that I couldn’t figure if they were real or not.

When boarding was announced I walked up to the gate and, still thinking about the bird, I handed my passport, rather absentmindedly, over to the lady in front. As she flipped through the booklet I turned around, hoping to catch another glimpse of the bird. Would you turn this way so that I can see your face please, the lady said, in a steady no-nonsense voice, and turning back I found myself looking into her eyes, sharp and purposeful, and then, lowering my gaze as she went back to the passport, I saw her badge, which listed a long Arabic name and her title: Security Officer. She was a young woman of dark complexion, an oval face, hair tied into a bun, small mouth, lipstick the color of blood. A character out of a David Lynch movie.
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1. You were at the beach when it happened. What was it like, that day on the beach?

There was no one in the water – it wasn’t warm enough for that, you know – but that apart it was like any other sunny day on the beach. Kids playing in the sand; families picnicking; women sunbathing; seagulls gliding; sailboats in the distance. Nothing unusual at all…except –

Continue reading “Ten”