The marble quarry worker


At the Trichy central bus stand we boarded No.128 towards Thuvakudi. Wife and I were on our way to the Regional Engineering College, where we had studied together in the 1990s. In a foolhardy attempt to revive the collegiate spirit and relive those days, we decided to do without the comforts of a rental car and chose to travel by public transport. The bus was already full when we boarded – all seats were taken – and soon we were rubbing shoulders (and not only shoulders) with fellow passengers, mostly working class men and women. I sensed some of them staring at me, standing incongruously amidst them in my jeans and kurta, a camera slung over my shoulder.

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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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Planning the India trip

On a Sunday morning not long ago, Wife and I sat together facing the computer, peering at the Excel sheet we had created the day before. A four-week trip to India was looming ahead, and our itinerary was still open. At the workplace this activity might be called Collaborative Vacation Planning. But “Collaborative” conveys an egalitarian spirit; it hints at a balanced, amiable, and constructive atmosphere. The situation at home was different. Wife was the project lead, the chief authority, one who took all decisions; I followed orders, compiled notes, drafted the plan. All accountability, though, was mine. If anything were to go wrong, my head would be on the chopping block.

The first column of the Excel sheet enumerated dates from mid-December to mid-January; other columns contained variations of plans (titled Plan-A, Plan-B, and so on, until F) that listed, for each of those dates, the cities we would be in: Bangalore, Chennai, Trivandrum, Kochi, Trichy, Tanjavur, Mumbai. Wife and I considered the alternatives, spoke to my sister in Bangalore, and a couple of hours later we settled on Plan-B. (Plan-B: right from the start there was something inferior to it, like a compromise you’d settle on when Plan-A doesn’t work. A bad omen.) My sister consented to book our flight and train tickets across this network of cities, and we began to look for accommodation.

This, we soon learned, was the easy part. Next came the task of choosing what to do on which date: whom to call on, whom to invite, what event to cover, which place to visit. So we created another sheet and wrote down all of it: people, places, events. A ‘Priority’ column was added, some items were tagged “Must Do”, others “Important”, and yet others “Nice to do (else Mom will feel bad)”. This last set consisted mostly of visits to all my uncles and aunts in Bangalore, an agonizingly long list of siblings my mother had inherited long ago.

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It was past 9 p.m. when we reached Langwies. Sarah, our host at the B&B, had asked us to come in late, so we spent a couple of hours at Chur, a small city not far from Langwies. It was the Monday after Easter Sunday, and the streets in Chur wore an empty look. At the railway station, the lady at the tourist information desk handed me a city map and suggested a walk through the altstadt.

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Stations and trains


Is there anything in the world sadder
than a train standing in the rain?

– Pablo Neruda, The Book of Questions

Last week, on our way to an Alpine village in the Arosa region of Switzerland, we stopped briefly at the Zurich main station. Zurich is a hub for trains to and from Italy, Austria, France, and Germany; mid-afternoon on a weekday seemed like peak hour. A good spot, then, for a few pictures.

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The bus ride to work

Last week, when Wife was away with the car on a visit to Brussels, I took the 707 to work. The bus passes through Wiesloch, and the daily trip from my stop at Schillerpark to the Industriegebiet via the Bahnhof took about twenty minutes. The connection to the physical world these bus rides forced drew a sharp line of contrast to my usual trips to office, boxed inside a car.

At this time of the year, with a handful of warm days left, life appears to be at its limit: grass has broken through gaps in the pavement concrete; creepers have climbed over walls in a doomed bid to escape; insects everywhere lay claim as first-class citizens of the planet. They all will soon retreat. A faint clatter of hoofs is audible: winter’s cavalry is steadily approaching. The street that leads from my home to Schillerpark has begun to show traces of yellow; on my first walk I found yellowing maple leaves fallen uniformly along the footpath edge, matching the orderliness all around. The trees here are German too.

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If only I could write about Oslo

Since a week and a half I’ve been wrestling with the Oslo piece. The word processor tells me I have three thousand words; I think most of it is rubbish. An image from a nameless movie takes shape: a man is slumped over his desk, in front of a typewriter; crumpled pages are littered on the floor. That image carries a certain weight: physical traces of work done, of time spent. I do not have even that.

My first problem is with photographs of our trip. I cannot get them out of my head. The photographs bend the narrative around themselves, like gravity bends light, and soon they take over the narrative, making me write this or that episode about an image. I’ve had enough. I want to float free of gravity. Forget the photographs – there aren’t any in this piece. If you’re looking for an easy impression of Oslo, go elsewhere: Google some pictures, or visit Flickr.

My second difficulty is with tone. I do not know who is telling the story. Is it a tourist? A wanderer? A traveler? A historian? An academic? An observer? An enquirer? A poet? An adventurer? The choice – or choices – here will determine the tone, and influence the voice. Don’t be dismissive, this isn’t a small matter: your impression of Oslo depends on this choice. The tourist, you see, is superficial. The wanderer digs deeper, but is selective. The traveller is more holistic, comprehensive. The historian delves into the past. The academic spells out theories. The observer gives you details without judgement. The enquirer probes, analyses, passes judgement. The poet, purely instinctive, relies on images. The adventurer does, then speaks.
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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”