Rediscovering India


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.

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Year-end musings

In the last ten years or so the Christmas and New Year week has, for us, acquired a particular significance, shaped by a culture-driven consciousness that this is a period of renewal, a time to take stock of the year gone past and to prepare for the new one ahead. Renewal, old giving way to new, is conveyed through a total shut down of commerce (workplaces are empty; business slows to almost a halt; stores are closed from the afternoon of 24th until the 27th morning, and if you do not stock up earlier only the kindness of neighbours or friends can save you), and all the year-end lists in magazines and newspapers send home, unequivocally, the message that this is a changeover period. In all, a sense of ending, an intimation of a beginning.

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Being and foreignness

For the first time in history, across much of the world, to be foreign is a perfectly normal condition.” — The Economist, December 17th 2009


The Weihnachtsmarkt in this town was a small affair. It began at the western end of Hauptstrasse, with a stall selling dry fruits and nuts, and continued up the street, extending partly into the neighbouring Marktstrasse or Blumenstrasse, and ended at the eastern perimeter less than a kilometer from the start. The stalls, small log cabins with pine sprigs and yellowish light bulbs strung across their roof angles, displayed the usual wares: chocolates and gummy bears, gluh wine, crepes, potato pancakes, bratwurst & schnitzel, christmas-tree knickknacks, and ceramic crockery. At the intersection of Marktstrasse and Höllgasse there was a small carousel, manually operated, with eight horse-shaped mounts each painted a different colour. Not far from it stood a märchenzelt, a fairy-tale tent, white and round with a conical top, glowing like a dimly lit bulb. This tent was where I was headed, with Wife and some friends, on a cold and overcast November evening not long ago.

The evening’s plan was simple but unusual: from 7 to 8 P.M. children visiting the tent would be read Indian stories in German by a few Indian ladies. Wife, one of the storytellers, had made me a target of her daily practice sessions the previous week. The story she had chosen (“Sukeshini and the lake demon”) was about an Indian girl who tricks a demon and brings water to a drought-stricken village; she had translated it into German with the help of a friend. Others had chosen similar stories, Indian folk tales translated into German.

Inside the märchenzelt six or seven boys and girls sat facing a middle-aged woman reading a German fairy tale. At 7 P.M. the Indian ladies, dressed in colourful sarees or salwar kameez, started the session with a Namaste. “This is how you greet people in India,” one of them explained. The children mimicked the gesture and giggled. Then the stories were read out loud, one after another, each storyteller pausing in places to ask a question or to explain the context. Some of this context was presented as illustrations: colour printouts of scenes from the story — taken from the original storybook — or of an Indian situation or custom, like a festival or a feast served on banana leaves. The kids looked at the copied illustration before passing it on, and occasionally a curious parent leaned over their tiny shoulders for a quick glance. In the middle of the hour, after a couple of stories, the ladies sang a nursery rhyme in Hindi. The boys and girls were asked to repeat, line after line:

Haathi Raja bahut bade
Sund utha kar kahan chale
Mere ghar mein aaon na
Halwa puri khaon na
Aaon baitho kursi par
Kursi boli chatar-pattar!

The parents joined the children in this recitation. It was a charming reversal, with the Germans attempting what the Indians had been doing so far: speak in a foreign tongue.

At the hour’s end the children sang the rhyme once more, said Namaste, and left. Outside a slight drizzle had begun; we picked up some gluh-wine and crepes and stood chatting under the awning of an electronic store, next to its brightly lit windows. The store appeared closed, but soon a man approached us, with the obvious intention of entering it. Middle-aged, huge and bald and white like a WWF wrestler, he stopped in front of me and asked, with a half-smile: “Darf ich?” May I?

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An Indian in Germany

[Part 2 of the Interpretations series, which began here.]

In the winter of 2000, a few weeks before we left India for Germany, Wife and I were invited by a relative for a farewell lunch. This uncle and aunt were encouraging and optimistic about our plans to migrate (“At least you aren’t going to the U.S. like the rest of them,” they said), but the aunt’s father, an elderly man with hawk eyes, took a different view. “Why are you going to Germany?” he asked. “It is the most racist country in the world, don’t you know? Haven’t you read about Hitler and the Jews? The Germans hate foreigners — I would think ten times before going there.”

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This year Wife decided to follow the pookalam ritual during Onam, creating flower-carpets for ten straight days. Every day there was a new layer, appended not to the previous day’s carpet but to a new one laid out with fresh flowers, and on the final day she ended with a ten-ringed pattern. I was assigned the role of petal-plucker: each morning I removed petals from different flowers (whose names I still do not know) and this practice acquired a meditative quality as I went around a flower, detaching the petals, observing for the first time their intricate curls and perfect symmetries, and it led me to believe that one could spend a lifetime observing the beauty of these forms. The petals, collected in bowls, were then picked up by Wife and arranged in circles at our doorstep to welcome, as tradition had it, the king Mahabali.

This simple ritual, repeated for ten days, left Wife feeling bright and chirpy in the mornings. Unlike me she is religious, and when time and circumstance permit she follows customs she learned from her parents. Such rituals, then, are connections to one’s past, one’s childhood; they are also connections to our communities, family and friends, and these days communities have moved online. So the ritual was extended: a photo of the pookalam was taken each day and posted on Facebook; some left generous comments, others were inspired to begin a similar routine.

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A rubbery excursion

On the drive back from the hills of Vayannad, where we’d spent four restful days at a homestay, our vehicle – a Toyota Qualis – broke down. Someone passing by noticed smoke below our car; we stopped immediately. After a cursory look behind the wheels followed by a lengthy consultation on his mobile phone, our driver announced it was a “bearing problem in the brake system”. A replacement was on its way from Calicut, the nearest city. It would take an hour to reach the spot we were stranded in. Continue reading “A rubbery excursion”

Indians at work

The Indian Drifter: A common feature of the urban Indian landscape, the Drifter is someone who is simply hanging around, doing nothing apart from wandering idly from one place to the next. Predominantly male, the Indian Drifter is easy to spot: standing listlessly on the street-side, squatting in front of a shop, installed next to a street peddler, snoozing in a park – you get the idea. The Indian Drifter is not to be confused with the homeless: he does not carry with him all his belongings, and gives the impression of someone ready to move on, quite unlike the homeless we see lodged permanently on the footpaths and subways in the West. Continue reading “Indians at work”

Back from India

Last week, when I returned to Frankfurt airport after a five week trip to India, it seemed as though I had never left this place. Terminal 2, where I had boarded from, looked just as it had that day in early December: the same billboard ads hanging from the ceiling, the same cars on display, the same blonde behind the information desk. Where had all those weeks in India gone? If life simply moved on from this point, how should I make sense of this period that seems – at this moment – almost non-existent but for a bundle of memories? They are only in my mind now, so was it all an illusion? What if I’d spent these weeks inhabiting worlds described in books? Would that have left a lesser impression within? Would those memories – those arrangement of electrons in the brain – be in some way inferior to my memories now? Continue reading “Back from India”

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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