Notes from September

I know, I know what some of you are thinking. Another blogger falls for Facebook. He’s lost the motivation to write, perhaps. Or he’s turned plain lazy. He’s probably grinding his way through a writer’s block. Work must be drowning him. Marital troubles, maybe. They must’ve had a baby! Perhaps he’s even dead, who knows…

Wishful thinking, I’d say. My excuse for the silence here is untypical. I’ve been writing fiction.

At this stage it’s the process that interests me more than the result, and the process of writing longish short stories (about five to ten thousand words) is not what I expected when I set out on this journey early in summer. It takes over everything else you do, this business of writing fiction. All my writing is focussed on the fiction pieces I’m working on, all reading directed towards getting the “right” influence on the story. Here’s Zadie Smith on ‘Middle-of-the-novel Magical Thinking’:

In the middle of the novel, a kind of magical thinking takes over. To clarify, the middle of the novel may not happen in the actual geographical centre of the novel. By middle of the novel I mean whatever page you are on when you stop being part of your household and your family and your partner and children and food shopping and dog feeding and reading the post — I mean when there is nothing in the world except your book, and even as your wife tells you she’s sleeping with your brother her face is a gigantic semi-colon, her arms are parentheses and you are wondering whether rumage is a better verb than rifle. The middle of a novel is a state of mind. Strange things happen in it. Time collapses. You sit down to write at 9 a.m., you blink, the evening news is on and four thousand words are written, more words than you wrote in three long months, a year ago. Something has changed. And it’s not restricted to the house. If you go outside, everything — I mean, everything — flows freely into your novel. Someone on the bus says something — it’s straight out of your novel. You open the paper — every single story in the paper is directly relevant to your novel…

My situation isn’t this extreme. If Zadie Smith’s condition is a malarial fever, mine is an ordinary mosquito bite. But the bite consumes a good portion of my attention each day. I live in my fictional world for long periods, among characters and situations that exist only in my head. (It is a form of madness.) Ideas and leads turn up at unlikely moments, and I know I cannot follow them all, because this is a short story, not a novel. But things can get out of hand. Short stories can turn into novellas, novellas into novels. I cannot control this. Right now I’m following my instincts the way a leashed dog follows his master. I only know where the next few steps go. Beyond that, it’s a mystery.

* * *

The other day we were in Frankfurt for lunch in a South Indian restaurant. It had opened not long ago, and some friends had dined there, Facebooking the culinary experience. Social pressure of this kind is hard to stomach. We drove a hundred kilometers for vada and dosa.

The place was chock-full of Indians. The cooks, visible through a glass partition, were Indian; the waiters and waitresses, dressed in dark jeans and white shirt, were Indian; the diners were all noisily Indian. It was odd, stepping into a place like this. We’ve grown used to appearing different from others around us, and here we were all looking same same. The first few moments were terrifying. Then it struck me that we weren’t really like the other Indians there. The immigrant always considers himself a different breed.

The waitress taking our order, a short young woman with two plaits, was humble, soft-spoken, diffident. Unlike German waitresses in a German restaurant. Or Indian waiters at established Indian restaurants here. She was new to the country, it was clear, and in this setting she was a pleasant reminder of a certain kind of people back home.

This attitude, it seemed, was taken as an invitation by some customers. At two tables nearby the waitresses were spoken to in harsh tones. Common in India, unheard of here. The immigrants had reverted to their original colours.

Dosa was good, vada less so. But this was no time for complaint: South Indian food is hard to come by in Germany (most Indian and Pakistani restaurants serve only North Indian cuisine). We were happy, we ate well.

In the men’s room — dingy, wet-floored — there was a short queue at the wash basin. The man behind me stood rubbing my back. After I finished washing he pointed me to the napkin dispenser next to the basin: there, he said, the napkins are there.

In all, a refreshing experience. How boring the Germans can be in comparison, and how I long at times for unpredictable behaviour from others. To be surprised, occasionally, keeps you alert, active.

The UK and the US have their Little Indias; the Germans now can boast of a Saravana Bhavan in Frankfurt.

* * *

Earlier in September we celebrated Onam. Four families came home for a sadya — a feast, prepared in parts by everyone. The celebration is an yearly affair, but this time the immigrants had a fresh claim to authenticity: the sadya was served on plantain leaves. Wife had returned from Singapore not long before, smuggling on board Lufthansa a dozen or so crisp leaves. Our conclusion was unanimous: the meal tasted better on leaves than plates.

We ate not on the floor but at the dining table, taking turns, the men going first (served by the wives), the women following after. Tradition did not shape this sequence: space on the dining table was limited. The ritual was altered.


“The rituals have altered.” Naipaul writes, in an essay titled ‘East Indian,’ describing practices of the immigrant Indian community in Trinidad:

Since open-air cremation is forbidden by the health authorities, Hindus are buried, not cremated. Their ashes are not taken down holy rivers into the ocean to become again part of the Absolute. There is no Ganges at hand, only a muddy stream called the Caroni. And the water that the Hindu priest sprinkles with a mango leaf around the sacrificial fire is not Ganges water but simple tap water. The holy city of Benaras is far away, but the young Hindu at his initiation ceremony in Port of Spain will still take up his staff and beggar’s bowl and say that he is off to Benaras to study. His relatives will plead with him, and in the end he will lay down his staff, and there will be a ritual expression of relief.

It is the play of a people who have been cut off. To be an Indian from Trinidad, then, is to be unlikely and exotic. It is also to be a little fraudulent. But so all immigrants become… Immigrants are people on their own. They cannot be judged by the standards of their older culture. Culture is like language, ever developing. There is no right or wrong, no purity from which there is decline. Usage sanctions everything.

The private and the public

As the date approaches, the world comes together. In the last two weeks I’ve often felt that we all are being manoeuvred towards that point of collective recollection of what happened ten years earlier. All the media – the Radio, the Television, the Internet, the Magazines, the Newspapers, the Posters – conspire to remind us that ten years have passed. The world changed that day, they all say, so spare a thought.

My world did not change that day. I drove to work, returned earlier than usual, watched news on the television more than usual, and slept. I went to work the rest of the week, and the week after. I bought groceries on the weekends, visited the library to borrow books. Life continued, the weight of daily routine pulling me forward in a well-defined orbit, a cycle I had been following since I arrived in Germany. Occasionally I heard of people losing their jobs, but I did not lose mine. I also heard of people being harassed at airports, bring profiled along racial lines; I was asked to remove my shoes, which I did — it was a price I was willing to pay for the safety of crossing the Atlantic. But as I continued to tell myself that my world hadn’t really changed after 9/11, something entered my life, unbeknownst to me, like an odourless gas that enters a room through the crack beneath a door. I had begun to pay attention to the world, to follow events regularly, at first the ones related to 9/11 and later, broadening my field of vision, other world affairs. My distaste for politics had not decreased, but I could no longer ignore its consequences. The public space had entered my private life.

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