Saturday, December 6, 2014

Sirens in Belgrade

Last Tuesday afternoon, just as J and I took the first sip from our glasses of steaming mulled wine, a loud siren broke out. Sudden loud noises have an adverse effect on my nerves -- something that I should have looked into before moving here. I'm usually ashamed of my many frailties, and try to mask them, but the siren that afternoon was unbearable. I somehow put my glass down on the cask, my hands shaking, and looked all around to see most people standing in the middle of the roads, with their hands covering their ears. Still shaking, and with one hand on my chest, I turned to look at J, and was struck by her expression. She looked very disturbed, and seemed to struggle to breathe. The noise continued for a few minutes more, and seemed to approach from a bus, which slowly turned away from the square, and rolled down the road, taking the noise of the siren with it.

Once it had faded out completely, and people started moving about again as if nothing had happened, I tried to look normal, while feeling my still-hammering heart, and my violently shaking hands. I tried to give J an apologetic smile, but she didn't noticed. She looked down at her glass, looked up, and said that sirens make her especially nervous because they remind her of bomb raids in her Heimat, Belgrade, in the summer of 1999.

That summer, NATO bombed Belgrade for three months. J would turn ten in a few days, and recalls the initial days as happy for most little children, as school was suspended and they would spend whole days playing in sheltered courtyards. It was when the bombing continued without any sign of ceasing, that grown-ups, scared for the safety of their families, decided to move. Yugoslavia, before the fall, was one big country, where grandmothers were born in (what is now) Croatia, and mothers would spend all the summers of their childhood in the Croatian farms where their mothers had grown-up. However, the situation in the newly-formed states of ex-Yugoslavia was different. It was nearly impossible for a Serbian to be granted a visa to Croatia, even if he had best friends living on the other side of the border. That summer, amidst the bombing, J's mother went from pillar to post, trying to get a visa for Croatia, and telling the officials how absurd it was for her visa to be refused when her mother was born there; and still owned a farm there; and she had spent entire summers for over twenty years there. She--and many others--were finally granted visa on only one ground: She had at least one parent who was born in Croatia. J's father was not so lucky. Two months after the bombing began, J and her mother, both crying uncontrollably, crossed the border to Croatia, while their father stood on the other side, waving goodbye. J realised that she would spend her first birthday without her beloved father, but that wasn't the only reason why she cried as she stood on the other side of the border. Behind her father, she could see the Serbian sky filled with fighter planes, dropping bombs in her city, and flames engulfing whole buildings and reaching up for the sky. She was leaving her father under that sky.

She celebrated her tenth birthday in a quiet farm somewhere in the heart of Croatia, Her mother and grandmother cooked her favourite dishes, and she woke up to the sound of cows mooing. Her father called later in the day, and she cried for him over the telephone. A month later the bombing stopped, and she returned to Belgrade, and to her father.

All this came back to her after all these years with the suddenness of a siren going off in front of the Christmas market in Sheffield on a beautiful but cold day in December. No one knew what had caused it. But I learnt a little about bombing and sirens in Belgrade in the summer of 1999, and about a little girl's enduring love for her father and her city. 

Monday, October 20, 2014

Early Autumn

                                                                                 Autumn by Aleksandr Golovin

Or is it autumn in full swing? I do not know what it is in England. I see pictures of autumn from all over the world in my computer, and then I look out of the window, and see that the trees are still green here. Sometimes I am surprised by a lone tree standing in the middle of the path I take, with its leaves all a fiery red. Maybe it will be properly autumn when all the trees have all the colours that the picture postcards promise.

If this blog were a book, then this would be the first post in this new section. And it would talk about disappointments. But I cannot write about disappointments as eloquently now, as I complain continuously about it in my mind. My computer plays Chopin's Op. 15, Nocturne No. 2 in F Major. It has rarely failed to lift my spirits. I let only the dim light above my study light up this part of my room, while the rest bathes in semi-darkness; and with the curtains drawn back, I can see the green trees, shrubs, myriad lights from the windows of the student halls and the hotel bathing the narrow path outside, by a quick turn of my head. The special arrangement of lights and music is to recreate magic in my room, as it had once accidentally surfaced a few days ago. My attempt today, however, is artificial, because I am trying to recreate that accidental magic with a combination of music and dim lights.

My old friend, depression, sinks in as I realise that all my friends and the people I love are sleeping or getting ready for bed in a different part of the world; it gets a firm hold of me when I look out of the window and see drunken students socialising loudly as they walk down the path in hoards; it clenches its pincers in my mind and body as I pine for fulfilling conversation, and find myself weaving imaginary dialogues with myself.

Darkness descends; cold descends; I make attempts to slowly return to my book.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Rich with Lovers and Tribes

Late one evening, just before my return to Calcutta, I was sitting with my landlady in Altona, and trying to tell her, how Hamburg had surprised me with the sheer number of friendly people I'd been acquainted with. I used the set sentence I had been quoting relentlessly but animatedly to everyone: In Hamburg habe ich viele nette Leute kennengelernt. The adjective 'nett', the use of which I have been teaching batches of young students at the beginning of the session for the second year now, translates to a harmless 'nice'. I was pointed out by someone that just as 'nice' is not so 'nice' after all, 'nett' is also not so 'nett'. But I persisted in using it: what else could I have? Freundlich? Overtly familiar to describe interactions with strangers on a train station; großzügig or kind? Makes me sound subservient, needy, servile, and a multitude of other things I have been warned against from exhibiting. So, nett.

My Gastfamilie was nett. On the day I arrived, my wonderful landlady H had prepared breakfast for me, and we slowly applied marmalade over camembert, and slowly sipped our teas and talked about Heimat. The same table in the kitchen would serve as the centre of discussions on Calcutta of the Fifties, the babysitting policies of Bengali grandmothers, the contents of warm meals prepared every afternoon by a lost generation of German mothers, and the benefits of applying coconut oil to one's hair. The evening before my flight, H, her partner H, and I, sat up until midnight, pouring some dry red wine from Bordeaux, nibbling Lindt, and laughing uncontrollably over the differences of our culture.

A, my Russian-Ukranian (I'm already part of the generation that spots the oxymoron surrounding that hyphen) Physicist classmate has always been dripping with love and energy. We lunched together in the slightly overwhelming cafe of the Zentrale Bibliothek every day, sitting at the eng tables, and talking about Shiva, the Hindu rituals surrounding the dead, and Arkady Gaidar. I would always take some variations of pasta, always supplimented with a generous slice of bread, despite requesting the contrary, and would look curiously at her plateful of salad, sometimes dipped in balsamico, sometimes in joghurt. Some days we would be joined by P, the marketing manager from Stockholm, passionate rider of bicycles, and immensely gifted with languages, who would sit with a Bratwurst, some mustard sauce, and some bread, religiously supplying the needed calories before a cycle trip to (perhaps) Niedersachsen. G, the Latin and ancient-Greek teacher of Cypriot-Greek origin would always take the lift with us from the sixth floor to the Bibliothek in the ground floor, chat with us the entire way, even while queuing, and then promptly disappear with his coffee upstairs. But in the queue, and in the lift, and in the shorter break, and before classes, I spent enough time with him to compare the role of the Chorus in Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripedes; to talk about the enduring appeal of Nikos Kazantzakis and Zorba in Calcutta; the beauty of the newer translations of his former favourite poet Constantine Cavafy; and to attempt to understand the difference in the attitudes to the colonial histories of India and Cyprus.

Then there was J, the Italian from Sicily, who spoke German with a heavily-accented Italian lilt, and whose words sounded like music. V, the intern at the culture department, touched my heart not simply by finding me on Facebook, but on discovering that I'd missed my penultimate class to travel to Berlin, and would potentially not return to the Institut before my journey home, messaged me online, saying that she was sorry for the missed opportunity to say goodbye, but that she hoped I'd have a pleasant stay in Berlin. When I turned up at the Institut straight from the bus station, we hugged each other, and promised that we would say our goodbyes formally after my class that day.

I remember that young man from US, whom we met in Bremen, who guided us to the right tram, hopped into it himself, got down at the final station with us, ran to us, and asked in a single breath if we came from India, what we thought about the election results, if we were happy with it, and if we were Hindus. After returning to Hamburg rather late, and trying in vain to buy a ticket for Schleswig-Holstein the next day at an Automat, we met the friendly, helpful, smiling businessman, taking the night train to Kiel, and finding the Automat so very tedious. Beside him, in a separate Automat stood A, the beautiful German woman from Sweden, speaking with a slightly strained accent, and giving me her copy of the train timetable. We stood talking outside the closed doors of the Reisezentrum for over a quarter of a hour, talking about travelling far away from home, and walking down little, unknown pebbly beaches; finding an accord amongst unlikely strangers, we parted with goodbyes, conscious of the sad realisation that we would never ever meet again. The young man from Lithuania the next day at Lübeck, who guided us to Niederegger, and excitedly complimented our German before correctly guessing that we were from India, made me think of the probabilities of striking up a conversation with so many people from such interesting places in my Heimat.

I do not forget people so easily. The friendly man at Mr. Clou, from whom I'd often buy Biriyani, will occupy the same shaft in my mind with the flower-seller outside Bethune. What marvels me, however, is how quickly other people forget--not every body, but some. I wish I could be a George Emerson and take some Lucia in my arms, give a shake and say, "Something has happened to me . . . and to you . . . though nothing is damaged, every thing is changed."
A friend had once observed that hatred is not sad; the saddest emotion is indifference. I have, however, only now begun to believe that the saddest emotion is forgetfulness. Blessed are the forgetful, for they get the better even of their blunders; and the forgotten are the piteous, for they must forever carry their burden of memories alone.

Yet who am I to complain? For every person who has forgotten the line I had written about the weather, and carefully carried the sheet of paper in my pocket for miles to deliver safely to the recipient, I have two new people--one teaching me to tango under the stars on a warm night by the Spree; the other writing me lively emails halfway across the world, pointing out how no distance or difference in time can disturb the nearness of two souls: so much in a language utterly foreign to both the sender and the recipient.

We die rich with lovers and tribes, tastes we've swallowed, bodies we've entered and swum up like rivers. Fears we have hidden in . . . We are the real countries, not the boundaries drawn on maps, with the names of powerful men

Thursday, May 29, 2014


In the very last story '14e arrondissement', in the movie Paris je T'aime, Carol, the mail carrier from Denver, Colorado, is on her first European holiday. She has taken a few French lessons, and is travelling alone in Paris. Middle-aged, not overtly attractive in the popular sense, she visits the regular touristy places, and eats sandwich while sitting in a park. When I'd watched Paris je T'aime while in college and university, I was always avowedly moved by the earlier stories: tropes of romance, loss, reunion, sprinkled with a bit of literature ('Père Lachaise', enacted in front of Oscar Wilde's grave) appealed more to my taste. However, Carol's story always stuck a precarious chord because of the last lines:

Sitting there, alone in a foreign country, far from my job and everyone I know, a feeling came over me. It was like remembering something I'd never known before or had always been waiting for, but I didn't know what. Maybe it was something I'd forgotten or something I've been missing all my life. All I can say is that I felt, at the same time, joy and sadness. But not too much sadness, because I felt alive. Yes, alive. That was the moment I fell in love with Paris. And I felt Paris fall in love with me.

It was on a random day probably in Hamburg (or it could have been during the lone day I spent walking around in Berlin) over the past three weeks, when I was suddenly reminded of Carol. But I would delude myself, if I said that I fell in love with Hamburg, and Hamburg fell in love with me. After Berlin, Hamburg took some time getting used to. The incessant rain for the first one and a half weeks accelerated the problems with my hair, and my big wet shoes which squeaked on every wooden floor, made people often see through me to my companion from Delhi. Despite commenting that Barock is a sort of wood, and that Bremen is a "great place" because it has a store called Primark where one gets cheap stuff, she managed to procure a proposal of marriage within two days, and formed many alliances of friendship. I walked around the city with my sticky hair coiled in a bun, and with my big squeaky shoes, and in a classic moment of de ja vu, relearnt the meaning of loneliness. Then I started visiting the museums every day.

It began with gathering enough courage and taking a detour from the Hauptbahnhof to the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, and walking along corridors adorned with Art Deco pieces. It strengthened when I took another detour the next day, and went to Kunsthalle to see the double exhibition on Feuerbach's muses and Lagerfeld's models. The return to Kunsthalle the next evening after class was crucial in many respects: after one year and three months je regardai the works of the Alte Meister--from my favourite Caspar David Friedrich, to the French Impressionists; and my rant about the brushstrokes and art movements cemented by friendship with my Physicist classmate from Ukraine. I felt a strong sense of Glück, when acting on impulse after learning about a Picasso exhibition on the train , I walked miles to reach the Kunsthalle in Bremen to experience the said exhibition. After a walking tour through the Altstadt hours later, I felt the twin emotions of joy and fulfillment when I took the stairs to the Paula Modersohn Museum and the Ludwig Roselius Museum. At Lubeck, I read with awe, Thomas Mann's notes at Buddenbrookhaus, and looked around me in wonder at the illustrations of Günter Grass in his museum. Yet, the moment dearest to my heart would be when I decided to walk into the 13th century church St. Jakobi, and despite the high-pitched protests of my unfortunate companion, spent a quarter of an hour, listening to the recitals of the twin organs. 

Back in Hamburg, I found my voice and my idiom a little more with every passing day, and used it to make a presentation on Rabindranath Tagore's Ghare Baire (The Home and the World), and to speak with unceasing wonder about the Bengal Renaissance; as well as to form new friendship. I stood in train stations, self-consciously nibbling at my cheese-ham sandwich, looking at the multitude of people walking across the platforms. How thrilling to simply walk back to the Kunsthalle and be transported to the Paris of Toulouse-Lautrec; how thrilling to guide a Brazilian couple in Berlin about the right bus to take to Ku-Damm, and where to sit to get a perfect view of the city; how soothing to sit by the Spree all by oneself, to wait for lunch, and to watch school children and new lovers enjoy the sun; and it is with beautiful sadness, that you return to the Spree again when night falls, perch yourself on top of a hillock, and watch couples slowly dance the tango on a wooden platform beneath you. We all have our moments of weakness, ranging from the uncontrollable tears on holding old postcards of Berlin at Dussmann, to regularly sending photos, long texts, or making very long calls to an innocuous fifteen year old because you are so obsessed with fulfilling conversations--but what is life without some little bashfulness? In Berlin, when I ran after the tram at midnight, with heavy shoes, hair in reckless abandon, and pollen getting into my eyes and nose, and still managed to miss it, I realised that even though the cities did not really love me, they had accepted me. Every day, as I would wait to get my breath back after the long walks and climbing up and down the numerous stairs, a feeling came over me. It was like remembering something I'd never known before or had always been waiting for, but I didn't know what. Maybe it was something I'd forgotten or something I've been missing all my life. All I can say is that I felt, at the same time, joy and sadness. But not too much sadness, because I felt alive. 

Wir sind voller Begegnungen, Begegnungen ohne Dauer und ohne Abschied, wie die Sterne. Sie nähern sich, stehen Lichtsekunden nebeneinander entfernen sich wieder: ohne Spur, ohne Bindung, ohne Abschied. 
Wolfgang BorchertDraußen vor der Tür

We are full of meetings, meetings without permanence and without farewells, like the stars. They bring themselves closer, and yet remain light years away from each other: without a trace, without bindings, without farewells. [Translation mine.]

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Magic Language

Everyday when my father returned home from the business, he immediately spoke with my mother. Both of them loved this moment the most, and they had their own language to converse with each other--one that I did not understand. They spoke German, the language of their happy school days in Vienna. They spoke best about the Burgtheater: it was there that they had seen the same plays and the same actors before they knew each other, and they had each returned with individual reminiscences which never came to an end. I learnt later that it was through such conversations that they had first fallen in love with each other. While individually they were incapable of realising their dreams related to theatre--both of them wanted to be actors--together, they succeeded in getting married, against the many resistances that unfolded.

Grandfather Arditti, from one of the oldest and wealthiest Spanish families in Bulgaria, resisted the marriage of his youngest and most favourite daughter with the son of an upstart from Adrianople. Grandfather Canetti had himself worked upwards from a deceiving orphan working out of the streets when young, to prosperity; but in the eyes of the other grandfathers, he remained a comedian and a liar. "Es mentiroso" -- "He is a liar", I heard Grandfather Arditti say once himself, when he did not know that I had overheard. Grandfather Canetti however, held himself above the pride of the Ardittis, who looked down upon him. His son could have had any woman for his wife, and it seemed an unnecessary humiliation for him that his son should marry the daughter of the Ardittis. So my parents held their connection first in secret; and only gradually, with utmost tenacity, and with the active help of the elder siblings and well-meaning relatives, did they succeed in getting closer to the fulfillment of their wishes. Finally the elders yielded, but a tension between them always existed. In their secret moments, the young couple kept their love incessantly nourished through conversations in German, and one could imagine how many stage-couples played a role in this.

I had good reasons to feel myself left out when my parents began their conversations. They would be exceedingly lively and funny, and I connected this transformation with the sound of the German language. I listened to them with the greatest strain, and then asked what this or that meant. They laughed and said that it was too early for me, that those were things which I would be able to understand only later. It already meant a lot that they had exposed the word 'Wien' [Vienna] to me--it was also the only one. I imagined, that their conversations must deal with wonderful things, that one could speak of only in this language. When I had begged long in vain, I walked away in wrath to a different room, which was seldom used, and repeated to myself the words that I had heard from them, with the exact same intonation. Like magic formulas, I often practiced them for myself; and as soon as I was alone, I read out all the sentences or even standalone words, which I had learnt, one after the other, so quickly, that I never quite understood myself. I guarded myself however, against letting my parents notice this, and I returned their secret with one of mine.

I found out that my father had a name for my mother, which he used only when they spoke in German. She was called 'Mathilde', and he named her 'Mädi'. Once I stood in the garden, pretended my voice as perfectly as I was capable of, and called loudly towards the house, "Mädi! Mädi!" That was how my father called her from the courtyard of the garden, when he returned home. Then I ran into the house quickly, went around it, and emerged a moment later with an innocent face. My mother stood there clueless and asked me if I had seen my father. It was a triumph for me that she had mistaken my voice for my father's, and that I had the craft and the cause which made it inconceivably identical to his homecoming call.

It did not occur to my parents to suspect me, but among the many violent wishes of this time, understanding their secret language remained the most violent of all for me. I cannot explain why I did not bear any ill will towards my father for this. However, I nurtured a deep resentment against my mother, and it passed away years later when after his death, she began to teach me German herself.

[This is another excerpt from Elias Canetti's autobiography Die Gerettete Zunge, and this translation is by me.]