Sofia 2

The driver was an elderly man, probably in his seventies. He opened the boot and I hauled the suitcase into it. Sit wherever you like, he said. I chose the passenger seat in front.

He used to be a travel agent, he said. Now it was a part-time job. Recently he had designed a one-month tour to Greece for retirees. The itinerary was ready, the negotiations with hotels almost complete — the tour would begin in November, when winter-weary Germans traveled south.

I told him about my visit to Greece some years ago. When asked where I’m from, my usual response is: from India, but I live in Germany. On that trip to Athens, I omitted the Germany bit. Except once, in an antique shop, where a middle-aged Greek did not hide his contempt. Why do you work in Germany of all places, he asked. Can’t you find work someplace else?

The German austerity measures were infamous there. In Athens I had spotted graffiti ridiculing the Germans, Merkel in particular.

Hearing all this the driver reacted as though I’d touched a nerve. The rest of the drive was a rant I didn’t follow entirely. What I caught were bits and pieces about the ungrateful Greeks.

He drove faster as he vented. Frankfurt airport arrived sooner.

* * *

Continue reading “Drivers”

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.”

Continue reading “The Frankfurt Book Fair”

The spell of heat


The screen displays a ‘Sunny 40’. Switching to Fahrenheit, it says 104. There is no air-conditioning at home. The scorching heat seeps inside, its force inescapable.

The body senses this before the mind grasps it. Skin turns sticky, breathing is a labour, eyes squint in the white heat, thirst is hard to slake, flies pester the ears. A lethargy sets in. Sleep descends, like a drug promising relief.

The spell of heat turns the neighbourhood foreign, like someplace distant and unfamiliar. Women walk hugging the church wall, following its sliver of shade. Men lick their ice cones like babies. Decent girls tread the streets in swimwear. Buildings wear an unfriendly, shuttered look. Their shadows seem darker, sharper. Shops lure passersby with air-conditioned drafts. Temperature figures in every second conversation. The drowsy librarian blames the soporific heat. The erratic barber cannot deal with the stickiness of hair.

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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.

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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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]


A small room, ten feet by twelve. The floor is wooden, parquet. At the centre is a block-patterned rug of bright colours, green, maroon, indigo, yellow, red. Eight grey-framed chairs with wooden backs and leather seats stand against three walls; on the fourth side two tables, each a single piece of sculpted glass, carry a stack of German magazines. Der Spiegel and Focus are on top. Of the six people in the room two are elderly: the white-haired man is lost in a newspaper (he has more in a cloth bag on the floor); the woman, arms folded and legs crossed, is staring ahead through steel-rimmed glasses. A teenage boy in grey jeans and a Hard Rock Cafe T-shirt is reading a book, “Coach Dich Selbst”. A plump girl, also in her teens, is fiddling with a phone; her hands conceal a pink tissue, into which she blows now and then. Next to her is a coloured woman, reading The Economist. A tall man in a heavy jacket enters. “Guten Morgen.” A murmur of responses follow. Only the teenage girl looks up. The man picks up Der Spiegel, sits beside her.

The walls are white. The only window, which faces the street, is curtained by three off-white sheets with printed human figures, also white. The same figures are in a frame on the adjacent wall. Here on the red background these faceless dancing shapes are more striking. The glass door to this room is on the diagonal. Outside, at the reception, white women in white jeans, white T-shirts, white badges walk up and down silently. One opens the door: Frau Künitz, bitte. The elderly woman follows her into Zimmer 1.

* * *

Continue reading “Wartezimmer”

After the return

The weather statistics reveal that the four weeks we spent away from Germany were the warmest in this country in a long time. On New Year’s eve, when we were near a beach in Chennai enjoying a warm breeze at 25 degrees Celsius, Munich, at 18 degrees, was not far behind. (It was a good time to buy winter jackets, which the German retailers were selling at a 30% discount.) But the weather charts tell a different story after our return. Mercury dipped as our plane touched down in Frankfurt, and since then the cold has been relentless. Shovelling snow next to my car the other day I noticed my neighbour grinning at me. He was standing by his car, watching me struggle with a large mound of snow. “The weather was waiting for you to return from vacation,” he said. I laughed with him, holding back an urge to hurl a handful of snow at his nose.

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