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