Near the end of November 2013, on an idle weekend morning, my wife spotted an advertisement for an apartment in Heidelberg. It was located in the altstadt, on one of the narrow lanes we walked through often during our visits to the city, and the prospect of living there, amid 19th and early 20th century buildings and monuments, left us breathless with excitement. The apartment itself did not look bad: we liked what the pictures revealed. On Monday I called the builders for an appointment, and some days later, on a cold morning when Heidelberg lay quiet under a layer of mist, we made our first visit. Despite the weather outside the rooms were airy and bright, and this answered one concern we had noted from the pictures. The apartment was good, the location great. A week and two visits later my wife and I decided to formally express our interest. Thus began our project that has kept us busy for most of the last five months.
1. Karlstorkino, Heidelberg
At the Karlstorkino in Heidelberg, behind the counter in the tiny foyer that divides the entrance from the small movie hall, the woman with dark hair and dark eyes says she does not have a Coke. She names another drink whose name I don’t catch. It’s like Coke, she says, almost apologetically. The beginning of the film is a quarter of an hour away. I pick my drink and flip through pamphlets and cards advertising upcoming titles. Posters on the walls hold frames from movies I have never heard of, but this is unsurprising: they customarily screen not mainstream movies but obscure titles ignored by the rest. Three young men, all blond haired, enter the foyer. One of them is barefoot. The kino is close to some altstadt apartments where university students live – this man may have just crossed the street to get here. Still, it is refreshing to note this streak in a German. The hall, accomodating not more than thirty seats, is half empty when the movie begins. I sip my Coke-like drink and sink into the cushioned folds as the title flashes across the screen: Guilty of Romance.
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1. The Artist
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.
At the library, S is surprised to see me. Long time, she says. Yes, it’s been a few months. And the books are long overdue – time for the next installment of my library donation.
7 Euros 50 cents. Only, she says, with a mischievous smile. I smile back, in relief.
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