in the light of Asia
16th September, 2006
Tell us about your expectations from your stay here in Hamburg they say. Tell us about your first impressions of Germany they ask. Is it a cultural shock, they want to know. What are you suposed to do here, asks a journalist from the leading daily of Hamburg. What are your plans for the day, someone else enquires. Someone suggests I go to the museum for the Kunst/Arts. Someone else warns against my going to a certain strasse beyond the Lange Reihe. Not very nice, a bad area someone says.
This is my first day in Hamburg.
Reminds me of the party at the Max Mueller bhawan, New delhi, on the eve of our departure from India. One well known Indian author present there also had something similar to declare. Some such warning, about Hamburg being a bad city. 'bad in a bad sense'? But he had disappeared with that brief introduction to the city I was looking forward to. I recalled a filmmaker also mentioning a lane in Hamburg where women were not allowed. However another writer present in the party bid adieu saying, 'do remember to visit the lane, the gentelman mentioned'. I promised I would.
With the word 'bad', everything has begun to return to me in Hamburg now.
I did have an idea of it all the while-- the various insinuations people tried to make to the 'bad city'. Wasn't too difficult to guage, anybody's guess. What can 'bad' be in a bad sense, after all- A port town, many nationalities, sharp divides of the upmarket and the downtown, drunken men prostrate on pavements, beggars at street corners, prostitutes in show windows, night life?
The one sound i keep hearing many times in different parts of the town is the horn of the police van, blowing its fiddle every now and then.
As it turned out, I had already crossed the lane, everyone seemed to be wanting to keep me away from. Had 'blundered' in and out of it unaware. Had noticed the women standing at street corners, a familiar scene; as real or unreal in any other place on earth boasting of human habitation. Its not possible not to know it--the red light area - as if they wanted to to 'warn' you of a danger. Really.
Makes me wonder. What is so common to all civilizations yet so disturbing that makes people mention it yet wanting to escape it ?
Am reminded of the Iranian poet Forough when she talks of her home town Tehran saying ''I love Tehran just as it. I love it very much. It is only here that my life finds an aim and a will to live. I love the scorching heat, the heavy, drab and dreary sunsets, the dusty lanes and the unfortunate, accursed, dishonest and corrupt people."
May be its just better to own the city as a whole. That's one way to be at peace with it. It makes you comfortable with the peculiar nature of the city, come to terms with it.
Thanks to the Literatur haus, am glad to have the kind help of Arno Dohmen, a student from the Dept of Asian-Afrikan studies at the university here, who has the talent to appreciate the city with its flip side and thus makes it possible for an outsider like miiself to have an unbiased perspective on whatever meets the eye.
As if in line with the peculiar multiculturalism of the city--a much awaited artist's work from Mexico comes my way too. Could I have imagined I would be fortunate enough to see the exhibition of Frida Kahlo here in Hamburg? What better luck! Such a pleasure to see such a well designed, planned and curated exhibition as the one i watched today. And what an enormous number of people queuing up for entry! Some atmosphere. Great show. May be i would go there again one of these days.
Today was also the good timing to experience the peculiar international cultural carnival of Hamburg. It was great fun. Just like carnivals back home, where the streets transform in a matter of hours. With the thoughtful support from the Literatur haus, Hamburg I could avail of a small video camera--which I used to shoot the carnival and the parade today. It was a very good way to enter the sea of the locals. The carnival was a place where there seemed to be all kinds of people, from everywhere and you could just slip in and be one of them. It felt good to suddenly, without much ado, become one of them, on the very second day in the now, no-longer-unfamiliar city. It would be an interesting exercise to find out the nationalities that do not live here. Ian Baruma, the renowned Anglo-Dutch author says, 'National identity is not entirely a matter of choice. It is not the same as citizenship which can be acquired. National identity is in any case a matter of not only how we see ourselves, but also of how others' choose to see us'. It is a very crucial experience in the context of Hamburg, as it slowly begins to open for me.
Today I have an appointment with the top TV channel for the Arts- Arte's journalist Zilka from Berlin. They are doing a film on this project, and plan an interview in that context. She realises that its only my third day here today and I might not have the relevant 'impressions' about Germany so soon. But then may be the first impressions, she says, they are sometimes very interesting too. May be I could talk about that. What is it that you come to Germany with--the ideas?
Well, sure...philosophy, music, ideology from Karl Marx to Adolf Hitler, writers like Herman Hesse and Thomas Mann, Poets like Rilke, filmmakers like Fassbinder, Herzog, Wenders. Then of course the fascination of Germany with India, intrigues me too. What interests them so that a complete subject like Indology is created. India is a very strange country--at times confusing and puzzling even to us who by comparison can be called the insiders. Otherwise we too stand at the threshold of things now, the likes of my generation, we do not have the natural access of an insider and yet neither do we have the distance of the outsider. Earlier it used to bother me a lot--to be in this position. I have over the years come to enjoy this status that affords such a rare vantage point of looking at things--just the right proportion of the subjective and the objective that can ensure at the most a rich and in many ways a crucial experience.
Hamburg gives the impression of being a very interesting city at the first glance. People from so many different cultures seem to be a part of the milieu here. And it is also that i happen to meet it at a very crucial time of the year, now when the festival of the international cultures is going on. In the carnival I met a Russian who actually lives in Bonn, but was now in Hamburg campaigning for the Chinese Falun Dafa artists. This group was part of the cultural carnival presenting their traditional dance and drums as part of the parade. '' Its a bit also like your yoga'', the lady said '' bringing better health and inner peace to many. It has no political agenda or affiliation but the Chinese government has perceived Falun Dafa as a threat, just as any other groups that are popular or that involve principles not directly related to their communistic ideology. Starting July 1999, the Chinese government banned the practice and started persecuting its estimated 100 million practitioners inside China. Till now at least 2940 practitioners have died in police custody or labour camps..meanwhile even concentration camps have been discovered where thousands have systematically lost their organs and lives...please help spread the word she said and handed me a flyer. They had made a big demonstration of the organ harvesting with a hospital scene...in the carnival parade.
Behind them came the group from Peru, where women sang and danced and there was lot of greenery on their vehicle...i suppose given a choice they would have wanted to carry a whole forest on their little trucks!
Hamburg is cosmopolitan in spirit, or so it seems. I would like to meet with more people from whom I may be able to gather how this actually shapes the life in the city and their own. In today's seemingly shrinking world where ironically the distances between living beings actually appears to be growing everyday, it seems nice to be in a place that accommodates people from all over.
Though as much as I have observed till now, the Germans and the other nationalities do not seem to be really mixing. I share my thoughts with my German friends. There apparently have been trouble in the past with regard to the conflict of different cultures, the honour killing in the Turkish community that created a furore in Germany recently and gave way to a lot of discussion on the dynamics of minority vis a vis majority etc. The different communities here are allowed to be as they like, live life as they feel fit without much interference from the locals, but mostly the communities live also within themselves. Germans also live within their own for the most. Zilka points out plainly --''With the background of the heavy history we have, a German is extremely cautious against being labelled a racist. With that charge, s/he would be far worse gone than any other nationality.'' So they take care. They would rather let the other be, but of course that is not reason enough to not keep the distance. '' We are for democratic values and openness and regard for the other person's culture'' she says, '' but the other community has to know the laws of this society too.'' She makes a point referring to the honour killing incident, the trial of which happened this year--The brother shot his sister point blank for divorcing her husband and for going out with a German man. It may be blasphemous by the rule of law in the country of their origin, but doesn't it also mean something that they now live in Germany that just does not have a different cultural context but also a different law code, which is common for everyone living here?'', she said. '' We are not for intolerance and clashes but now may be we realize that its not okay to be too subdued either. For us its a human rights issue and we cannot allow or give sanction to such killings."
I have been to Germany (Munich) before and Hamburg seems very different from that city, though both are the richer and expensive cities of Germany, as people tell me. We went around the city looking for interesting areas to have our conversations and went to the other side, a neighbourhood which the entire Arte team agreed was not rich and hence more interesting. It must be so in your country too, she said, everywhere i suppose the rich parts are boring! Of course.
As a filmmaker who mostly 'directs', I found it tough to be directed by a director, and followed by a cameraman and sound recordist walking along the harbour, the streets, sitting in cafes drinking tea or stopping to peep at the bookshop show windows. It was difficult to walk, talk or even smile when asked to! I hope the footage they have is not unusable and they will be able to make something out of it!
Time appears to have stretched. Is it the same day when we set out in the morning for Altona and I shot all the way in the u-bahn, the bus and the ship? All kinds of movements one by one taking you across the city and almost out of it. The harbour is a very different place...A lot of water and people and yet kind of quiet. It will be tough to imagine such a situation back home. All of a sudden the tiny waves lapping at the stones two feet away, begin to lash heavily sprinkling water all over you. You look up and see nothing. You get up with a start, move back and look askance at the water splashing all those stones where you sat a while back. Strange the sun is strong for me though everybody else seems to enjoy it thoroughly. We sit down again and there it is, on the horizon--a giant ship from Rotterdam slowly cruising in with the huge load of cargo. So that was the message the waves brought!? Stay away! Hamburg is growing very fast and is likely to overtake Rotterdam soon, becoming the biggest port of Europe in the next five years, they say. You can feel it already. Another bigger cargo enters frame, this one is from Singapore.
This is what has brought the so many myriad nationalities to Hamburg--this port, this trade route. I look at the people relaxing on the beach. (They also have built some artificial beaches here near the water!) A disc is thrown up in the air into the river and a dog rushes into the water to catch it, a kid takes off all its clothes and rolls in the sand, as another one passes by in the pram sleeping, unaware of all the fun. A man strums his guitar with his guitar box open in front for collecting the cents passers by might drop.
The house keeping man wipes the glass walls of Wedina Hotel as I go down the steps, a woman asks me the way to some strasse (street) in German! I realize, the challenge of capturing it all in the tiny black box of a DV camera. There's far too much than can possibly be wrapped up in the ribbons of the mini DV tape running inside it. Images. sounds. light. shade. wind. water. people. sky. And yet I persist. Something gets left out each time. I must find out, what?
Almost all through the day people seem to be out on the streets, beaches (on the riverside), restaurants, eating, drinking, making merry. They all say to each other, the weather is really great. It really is! Real blue sky and lots of sunshine! This is Autumn at the end of September, and where are those dreaded dark, damp and wet days...they seem to wonder and yet not so loud that the sun hears and disappears! It will not stay too long, Mr Moritz at the Literatur Haus had kindly spelled a warning, though he wished it would. Well, it has and I take it as their good wishes. What a blessing! A warm welcome from the people of Hamburg. And you can see, how they are lapping it all up greedily--every drop of the golden sun! It is glorious weather and the entire city seems to be basking in it--they all seem to have come out into the streets in gratitude!
Mr Ram Prasad, the Hindi lecturer at the Asian Africa studies dept said, Friday and Monday are not good days, so the Germans say. Friday afternoon, the week end already begins and Monday they are still recovering from it! He gives out a little laugh but the next minute he's solemn again. But they work very very hard in these three days, he is shaking his head in great earnest.
We are sitting in a Cafe after the screening of my film in the department auditorium. There could have been a bigger audience, only its vacation time now you see. Ms Tatiana speaks impeccable Hindi--a Russian by origin, a passionate student (she is in fact the professor here) and lover of Hindi, lives in Germany for years now. She visits India as much as her homeland--once every year.
"How do you like in Hamburg?" I pop up a question before they can, this time--"ghar ki yaad aati hai. (One misses home..)" The professor shakes her head thoughtfully. She was in Bhopal early this year. What a coincidence. She shows me the paintings she purchased from the Gond painters in Bhopal, early this year--i can recognise most of them Rajendra, Bhajju, Prasad, Durga, Nankusiya...?
What brought you to Bhopal?
"Bundelkhand. I love that region, I will come again and again for it."
Arno shows me the CD of a Hindi play they had put up in the department last year-- dheere baho Ganga-- very interesting to watch...one guy from Afganistan, one Indian born, brought up in Germany, one local German and another from some other country--all speaking their dialogues in Hindi for which they rehearsed months. The guy from Afganistan was particulary good. He is apparently learning many languages, and in the drama, playing the father, wasn't he superb?! There is a very big applause at the end of the show that goes on right through the curtain call with a distinct enthusiasm and appreciation.
What impressive libraries the university has. Even the Public Library was so enormously huge, well organised and friendly. I cannot but admit that at this point I could feel myself turning a wee bit green with envy. Not that I grudged them what they had but I was a little jealous of the facility. If only we could have this 'luxury'. It is true that supposing if today I have to do some research based scholarly work in Sanskrit, where I am likely to need many references, books, material etc, I would be much better off here in Europe or America than in India, doing it. It would be complex to go into the reasons thereof, but it is true. But then as Zilka from Arte rightly pointed out--We are a capitalist society. You have to pay for each and everything here. Whether you watch television everyday or once a month or not at all, you have to pay up. There is no alternative. Arte is a channel focusing on art and it is funded by the public totally. It is a public TV they say. You pay, you watch. So obviously there is a limited budget to work from and no unlimited resources, but the fact that there is the possibility of a channel like that, isn't it worth it? And not just that, whoever I happened to mention it to, praised it to the hilt. It seemed to have such a terrific standing with the public. There were people who were sitting in the not so upmarket cafes of the town and they clearly reflected a respect for the name 'Arte' when told. Much as I would like to have a reference to look back homewards, just as Kristoff Magnusson (fellow writer in the residency exchange Akshar project of Goethe Institute) would say, I cannot. Not just that we do not have it, it is unlikely we will ever have it. Somehow it seems, some conditions across the two cultures, countries, histories, people are not compar-able.
The young and sharp journalist Maike Schiller from the leading daily Hamburger Abendblatt wants me to compare the two cities. This Project Akshar seeks to provoke a dialogue between the two cities, not so the countries. It is aninteresting idea. I will try.
What about Hamburg and Bhopal, she wants to know.
Yes, we have a lake, rather lakes in Bhopal too, and a river nearby in Bhojpur, but Altona or Elbe just do not remind me of the Badaa taal and Betwa, what to do?
Everyone seems to know of the gas tragedy in Bhopal. How does it affect your everyday life now?
It is a lot of misery for hundreds of thousands of people. The worst is that they sometimes might not know that their present suffering can be a result of the aftermath.
Something snaps as I talk of the tragedy. Thinking of the misery back home, disrupts every image and sound I try to decode here. I come from somewhere where too many are born everyday, and too many die. And they die casual deaths, even unnecessary; they die sometimes of too little rain, sometimes of too much; sometimes of a heat stroke, or a cold wave, they die of just anything.
I don't say all this to her. Nevertheless. I realise I have taken a different track. Its somehow...I find it impossible to manage a comparative between two very different things. If I catch up with one, another gets left behind; if I reduce my pace to fall behind with the other, the former goes ahead.
What do I do? How to be able to talk without the references back and forth? I will try.
I look forward to meeting Kryztoff Magnusson at the reading tonight, at Literatur Haus, who is not only an author from Hamburg, but has also just gotten back from Pune. I have followed his online diaries and others' too but I wonder if there will not be more than has found place in the 'online diaries' for all of us to share 'in retrospect'.
What would I have not given to have some time with the audience at Literatur Haus the other day!
Methinks I have mentioned earlier that I had been looking forward to the evening, so I was. It was an exciting proposition to have so many under one roof---a well known author from Mumbai, Kiran Nagarkar who incidently I had never met, Kryztoff Magnusson who was just back from his stay in Pune, Caroline, the literary critic and the excellent moderator for the evening's programme, the actor Alexander Simon who was great with his readings of our translations in German and his charming friend and actress Laila Abdullah (who has promised to show me the Theatre around), the interpreter Matje Postmaa, Mr Moritz, & Antje Flemming (who was just back from Israel and had many things to share...) of the Literatur Haus, Maike from the Hamburger Abendblatt, and of course what to speak of all the worthy audience gathered in that handsome hall that day! But alas as always, we ran out of--not text, not questions, not answers, not even food and wine, but something to rhyme-- we ran out of time. As always I say, because I have seen it happen too often now. It is almost a cliche. As a rule there is 'no time', otherwise we would have done this and that and so much more...and so on we say. There was no time at the literary evening organized by Sahitya Akademi back home the departing evening and there was no time here at Literatur Haus, Hamburg. There never is, there never will be. The real exchanges will always be imagined, possibilities, dreams and so perhaps there will be hope, always. Until then of course, the crucial things are condemned to find space as 'post-script' ! Amen.
I am surprised, it surprises everyone that so much poetry still gets published in magazines and as poetry collections in India. Here, in the country of Goethe and Rilke, they say, poetry has few takers. It is tough to find space for poetry.
There is a statue of the famous dramatist Gotthold Ephraim Lessing in the city square and his 'Nathan the wise' is running in one of the Theatres too. And elsewhere I saw one statue of Bismarck. One or more statues I came across, who unfortunately I do not regocnise. And one very interesting one in the Altona, which used to be once a separate town from Hamburg but not anymore. Here were two figures, very evocatively poised across what looked like a gate of some sort. With the help of my young German friend, Arno tried to ask about it from the shopkeepers and people around but I could see everyone shrugging their shoulders and shaking their heads in ignorance. They did not even try to make a guess. Anyway, they had other important things to do, so we left it at that--a mystery in the Altona square poised very ubiquitously between this side and the other.
Rilke as an author can be seen displayed prominently in the book shops. The American author, Philip Roth seems to be particularly popular here, and so is Zadie Smith. They were discussing the probables for the Nobel this year at the dinner in Literatur Haus the other day. No one mentioned Mario Vargas Llosa. Though his books are also all over the place, people do not seem to have read him much here, at least not the ones I met. Its good to see the writers from all over the world make an appearance in the book shops across the world in translations now. The world sure has changed so much in the recent past. It seems to have become smaller to a certain extent. You can talk of Orhan Pamuk the writer from Turkey to a scientist in Oklahama and hear about the New York based post modern dancer-choreographer Ralph Lemon from a student doing Theater studies in Berlin. Its more about being contemporary & relevant than belonging to country. English seems to have made inroads in Germany in the recent years at a much faster rate than before.
Inspite of Indology I am able to find my way around here only through English and with the broken German I remember from a course in the language I took long ago. There is this idea making the rounds here among the journalists and those interested in intellectual India (I suppose based on meeting the Indian writers and artists who make it to Europe or America in the first place) that English is actually 'the language' to talk of and to the so called 'intellectual' or 'thinking India'. I came across that concept or belief with a number of people who were sure it was so, till I questioned it with regard to a myriad minds active in the regional languages who the english speaking ones are nor familiar with. I concede that we have been too lax and colonially hung over as a nation to care more for our many languages and English has assumed a more-important-than required position in the recent past, but even then its quite a miniscule section compared to what Hindi as well as the other regional languages hold a sway on. A cursory glance at the gap between the circulation of the leading Hindi and English newspapers, and the most watched news channels would give it away. There is no comparison whatsoever. And then, lets come to the readership of the various language literatures. Any literary enthusiast in Malayalam will tell you about the huge success their writers are in their part of the country, not to mention the mechanism that brings out the Malayalam edition of Marquez simultaneously with his original in Spanish! Similar 'reality bites' from Bangla, Marathi, Gujrati or Kannada readership are just there for anyone to discover for her\himself. What to talk of Hindi--you can ask one of the publishing magnates like the Vani Prakashan where they sell the highest number of books? And you will hear the name--Bihar, that once was the golden seat of learning with historic sites like Nalanda, but today of course on all counts finds itself among the most impoverished and troubled state of the country. Even so.
Its a pity though, that some of the really bright and original minds that need to interact with the outside or vice versa, might never be able to do so for their ignorance of the queen's language and the world is not the richer for it.
The frequent queries about the status of Hindi & the other Indian languages and English made me in particular wonder about what we might mean by 'intellectual' or the 'thinking' Indians in the larger sense of the word, of course. What is the thinking population of the country? Who are the people who elect their governments and who make one of the biggest democracies of the world stay alive? Who are the people who read the newspapers, watch the news channels, have an opinion on the state of affairs and also have a distinct view to voice on relevant matters? Aren't they the people who followed Gandhi to become the only nation in the world to win its independence non-violently as Mr Nagarkar said, but they are also the people who have made Amitabh Bachhan and Bollywood so big that Hollywood feels rejected here as nowhere else. (we prefer to watch our own kitsch, as if they say!) They also exactly know the genius of a cricketing brain like Sachin Tendulkar as any expert on the game will agree, Well, they do continue to throw in surprises every election, bewildering most exit poll expert intellectuals across the country, to say the least. Who are these people? To borrow a popular Shahrukh Khan number, who seems very popular with people here-
Apni chhatri tumko de den,kabhi jo barse pani
kabhi naye packet mein bechen hum tumko cheez purani
...hame pyaar chahiye, aur kuchh paise bhi
hum aise bhi hain, aur hain waise bhi
Hum logon ko samajh sako to samjhon dilbarjani,
(at times we would give u our umbrella when its raining and at others'
we might, for all you know, be selling old things to you in a new packing!
We want love... and also a little money
we are like this, and also like that,
try and comprehend if you can my dear--sometimes straight, at others' upside down,
there are just too many things about us that would seem crazy!)
Its difficult to understand India, I tell Helene Gall who has come to meet me and is going to be in Bhopal (India) to do her thesis on the women in Indian Political Parties. Even we, who are for that matter Indians, are confounded at times! What to say of the others. It is complex. We have too many languages, communities, cultures and subcultures to define ourselves. But we relish it. How else do you think we have managed to retain so many within one when the world has increasingly become more monochromatic? We love being many. We believe in multiplicities! In spite of what the politicians as well as the hard hearted intelligentsia--the nightmare of Gandhi, might want to put across in the politically polarised India of today.
Helena says, that is the problem with India--what you say, the contrary of that seems to be true too! At this, I breathe a sigh of relief --after all she knows India enough to begin with! She will be fine doing research for her thesis there.
Arno Dohmen, the student who has been the kind guide for me in Hamburg, courtesy the Literatur haus, tells me of his flip side of the Indian experience after much goading. How someone on the train apparently tried to help him with biscuits and water etc. when the dinner he ordered in the train would just not arrive, and how he actually found himself totally dizzy and lost the next morning thrown on the Agra Platform robbed of all the money and belongings. It took him a long time to come back to his senses and even fathom the situation he was in. I cannot imagine a worst nightmare for a foreigner traveling in India. He told me of this a while back and all this while I have been wondering how to come to terms with it. I cannot imagine how one can possibly cope with something like this. I cannot be more shocked and ashamed as an Indian. But after some comprehensible silence, he says it was good it happened on the fourth time around and not the first or second, otherwise it might have discouraged his further trips. His parents of course expected that this mishap would finally cure him of his love of a strange country like India! He however thought he met as many or perhaps more good people who helped him out of the crisis, than those who put him through it. And so he thought was reason enough to take it in one's stride! He seems to me to be a 'true student' of Indology because that's how erratic it can get. Illogical, mind boggling, depressing and discouraging, even incomprehensible. And yet, as Helene says the opposite will remain capable of shocking you with the equally credible flip side. Isn't that a crucial exchange between two cultures, I wonder.
I cannot but end by mentioning my meeting with ('little' ) Dorit (only reminds me of Charles Dickens!) that Literatur Haus evening. She was one of the two people I met in the audience afterwards. She was after all, not as 'little' as she appeared, and a medical doctor at that! Wasn't it a double joy to have someone from the Sciences to participate so enthusiastically in a literature programme? We only met briefly (as I already told you of the short time!) and I don't know how and why, but she seemed so familiar as if I had known her all these years! I mentioned that evening that I wished to see Hamburg 'not as a tourist', and there she was with her innate wisdom and ingenuity offering to drive me with her to her school friends' reunion (after fifteen long years) to a village near by. She was sure I would enjoy that! Could I tell her, my innermost wish that I had secretly carried within me all this while in spite of many who had thwarted it saying there was no rural side of Europe whatsoever! And here she was wanting me to see the flowering of the Heath!
'Dear Dorit, I would love to see the flowering Heath after having read so much on it from my dear painter Vincent already', I say. What could I tell her, except that she was a 'godsend'!
Promptly she writes back saying that's exactly what her name actually means--'a gift from God' !
May I continue any further, I ask myself?
Its very silent, as i sit in this elegant studio apartment of Wedina. The texture of the floor, the color of the wall, the soothing white of the curtains, the big unbarred glass window and door that surreptitiously let the outside in, the wild flowers in the vase on the dark brown table, the slim lamp, the efficient hot plate, the polite janitor, the cheerful girls at the buffet breakfast each morning with their 'guten tag' and the aroma of the special wedina tea...its almost perfect.
I will however shortly set out for perfecting the 'almost'. There is the arts museum that I am yet to see. I wanted to see it the second day, and as it happens I have not been able to make it, not quite. The list is long, of all that I wanted to do here in Hamburg, once the city laid bare its promises. But as always one has to choose.
I chose to go to Berlin for the weekend. In my last sojourn in Munich, I had carried this wish back without making it there. The timing was not quite right though, with my German friend Mr Magnusson, coming to Hamburg for the same weekend. So of course the idea of exchanging notes had no chance for the moment. May be, it would have to wait till we all meet in the finale at the Book fair.
I was singularly lucky in being shown around the historic city by my cousin Saskya who specially took time off work for the same. What could have been better to just walk the lanes with her and somehow not talk much. It felt very good to sometimes just walk quietly almost invisible by her side, both of us lost in our respective worlds. The mood was just right to slip quietly into the big Rembrandt exhibition that had been organised by the Museum on the occasion of the 400the anniversary of his death. Once again a sumptuous experience to go through a well designed, curated and mounted exhibition that also had a very huge section of his drawings and etchings. But of course they did not seem to have the reprint of just the painting I wanted!
Saskya points out the curious little figure that lights up red as we stop at the pedestrian crossing. The distinct funny figure has been retained in the traffic lights just as it used to be in East Berlin because everyone likes it. It is really interesting. We cross the road as it turns green to enter the core of the Potsdamer Platz.
Cannot quite express the impressions of looking at the zigzag line running across the square on that cobbled ground as the undoing of what once was the Berlin wall, cutting up the city and country into the east and the west. There are some remnants from the broken wall with a lot of graffiti on it, some photographs and some historical details. There are many people looking at it.
Across is the new memorial of the holocaust--a kind of modern installation done by an American artist that has opened recently. There are hundreds of pillars of varying sizes standing in very closely placed rows, and the ground itself goes up and down in steep climbs and descents. Its like walking between walls, where suddenly you are up looking down at the row of pillars in front and you turn a narrow alley and there they shoot up so tall beyond reach. I suddenly get suffocated, almost scared, when the laughter of two children brings me back to the moment. I turn around to look at them playing between the pillars. Well, the idea is to remember and yet perhaps, also to forget. We talk about the relevance of a memorial like that in the bustling center of the city.
We have booked tickets for the play Orestes by a celebrated German Theatre director Michael Thalheimar for the Sunday. I know the greek tragedy and am familiar with a couple of works around it, so I do not worry so much about not knowing the language. And so it turns out in the end--a very good idea to have made it. Is it impressive? It makes use of the most powerful ways of Theatre apart from the actual language and dialogues, to the point of almost overdoing everything. Even my German friends are a wee bit annoyed with the shouting part being, as they feel, slightly overdone than required. I however see it as being consistent with the actual form that he chooses for the tragedy, where it actually begins as you enter the hall, much before the play starts. The depth of the stage is eliminated by the wooden boards that just seal it right up to the ceiling, and there is 'blood' splattered on it as you make your way across to your seats at the other end. It hits you with its starkness and lack of depth at one level and already in a way 'unprepares' you for what is to come, much as everyone is only too familiar with the tragedy. You come to appreciate the intensity as much as the 'overdoing' when you experience the epic scale of the trilogy being squeezed to an hour and forty minutes. That is it. And there lies all the expanse of the epic, you could possibly have hoped for.
This week of the exploration of the 'performance' is going to continue in Hamburg.
And as luck would have it, there is Mozart and his Don Giovanni waiting for me. Helene has been very kind to offer to take me to the Opera. It is my first time in the actual Opera, but of course its hard to believe it is so--even for myself. The modern way of being, the hyper 'connectivity', the explosion of information and the flood of images, perhaps rob you of the 'first time experience', of anything. Everything seems like a deja vu. I enjoy everything from the architecture of the hall to the responses of the audience, to the conductor with his orchestra in front, to the singers/actors on stage, to the sophisticated and grandiose stage settings. Its an Italian opera, done by the German group with subtitles running on a screen above us. I must admit having doubts about the adventure, when I was told that it would be over three hours, as we entered the hall. I wondered if people ever walked out of performances in Germany! But of course I was silenced by Helene's reminder 'just as long as a Hindi film!' I thanked the Barjatyas, Chopras and the Johars for keeping the reputation so high up there!
But people here seem ahead of me in Bollywood matters. I have already met a couple of admirers of Munnabhai here in Hamburg too. It seems to have made quite some reputation over the years, if only for being 'true to itself'. There is a theater here that shows only Bollywood films.
But of course Antje from the Literatur haus had other plans. She offers to take me to a film in a cosy little theatre that has recently re-opened in the city with a reputation for showing off beat films which many would not want to watch--here as elsewhere, I thought. Of course Hollywood rules in Germany too, as in most other countries. So there we were having a bite in their favourite Turkish restaurant before the film 'Between the lines'. Another of Antje's friend joined us there for the film. And there were two others who were going to see 'Water' by Deepa Mehta. It was decided that we would meet for a drink after the respective films and compare notes.
Ours was a non-fiction film on Hijras in India with the Indian Photographer Anita Khemka playing herself as also the protagonist who I must say was quite remarkable for the energy and conviction she brought to the narrative. It was a German Production with a German Director and crew and I thought was very well done. It did seem to stand out from all the other films that I have come across in and around the subject. It was very forthright, honest and done sensitively without sensationalizing any one aspect. The impact of it lay in its un-designed look, in its lack of artifice as also of the lack of the usual cautiousness of 'political correctness'.
We all had our little discussion in their favourite bar as it rained outside. 'Welcome to Hamburg', said Antje good humouredly and I looked at my first rain in Hamburg with some happiness after all. It does come at a time when I can now enjoy it, in the second week. The viewers from 'Water' looked visibly disappointed, almost dead bored and exhausted after the film. Jutta almost feels the entire day wasted because of the film. We almost feel guilty praising our film in such an atmosphere of total disappointment, but I must admit I am relieved the film had few takers even here, far removed from the context of the controversy surrounding it and the hype, so much so that the actual worth of the film almost always fails to become the fulcrum of a discussion.
Once again I wonder about the films that are able to make it to the world outside India, and get shown as the cinema from India. Would it ever be a possibility to one day have a real representation from a country like India, which apart from being plagued with a myriad individual and institutional ills, carries the bewildering burden of the sheer variety in diversity that is difficult to comprehend and challenging to discern from.
28-29th October 2006
Yesterday, in the reading with the Nordpuls Club, there were two men and ten women. At the Literatur Haus Mr Moritz has an all women team with the most lively and wonderful young ladies like Johanna, Antje and Jutta (they were discussing the joining of a man as one of the interns had her last day on Friday, perhaps the first man in the history of Literatur Haus, somebody said!) In the Hotel Wedina Staff, I have till date seen three men in two dozen women, in the camera team from the TV channel Arte, Hilka, the director was a woman, and so was the moderator Cornelia invited from Munich for the reading at the Literatur Haus. Priya who wanted to take my interview for the Hindi sewa of the German Radio is a woman and so is the journalist Maike who interviewed me for the Hamburger Abendblatt. How can I forget Verena Nolte, who is the first reader of my daily diaries and also publishes them online! And before that hadn't I exchanged countless emails with Martina from the Goethe Institute, New Delhi, regarding the website of the project Akshar? Not to mention the many other wonderful women who met me outside of any official work here in Hamburg. This strikes me as something peculiar. Not that we don't have women who are actively or relevantly involved in such diverse fields, but that perhaps its not usual to meet such a cross section of them outside of homes.
It must I suppose, also vary from one part of India to the next. I remember my friend Ketna from Gujrat was once in Bhopal for a painting workshop asking me point blank, "Are there no women in Bhopal?" I said "Of course there are" And she was quick to jibe in, " then why doesn't one see them on the roads?" Being from that city, it did not seem so apparent to me, as it was to her with her reference from Gujrat. In India there are places where its unsafe for women to venture out after seven in the evening and some few where it can stretch to midnight, depending of course on which part of the society you move in. It of course depends on many things and varies much from Bihar to Gujrat but over all there are few places that let you feel safe, so basically few experiences of 'just being' when you are not being watched. A simple thing like, sitting by yourself near the lake early morning or evening is often not possible. The reasons are as many as there are people who deem themselves free, and hence licensed to encroach on the others'. But the experience is stifling. And it is everyday.
It is good to walk around the Alster, the Elbe or the harbour here with a certain freedom, which does not quite seem mine to claim in most Indian cities, including my own. Its not easy to describe how much it may actually mean to 'just be' in an alien city, taken care of and yet to be 'left undisturbed'. It means a lot and I am not ready to part with it by turning it into words.
May be I have begun to get into this game of comparisons, after all.
But that's also perhaps because I am constantly asked about it. People want to know how different it is being here than in Bhopal and if you claim not to have a cultural shock, why not? And I do not feel good repeating the same answer about everything seeming like a deja vu. It is true that the experience of being here is in many ways a contrast to that which I may have back home. Apart from the reasons I have already given, it is also perhaps of sticking to this 'given' that makes me miss the 'experience' of it. But may be I am experiencing it too and just don't talk about it.
Somebody in the audience yesterday asked after the reading, how it was that I came across as a cheerful, lively and positive person when I talked while my writing was more restrained, reflective, obsessive, even sad? It was interesting to pause at the question and ponder the gap.
"What is the opposite of yourself?" asks Yaksha to Yudhishthir in the Mahabharata and he says, "Myself".
I am reading the sorrows of Werther in my studio at night. Werther says "I am in good spirits, and happy, and therefore not the best of storytellers." That too. If only I could have read this quote from Goethe to the gentleman who wanted to know, why. But the evening was over long back. And as usual I have my train of after thoughts, of all those sentences i might have spoken, but well, didn't.
There is no dust here, not even on the pavement. No sweat, so the clothes don't show signs of having been worn for a week. I notice that I don't feel tired even after making the walk all around the lake. And I don't really feel hungry either.
I saw a spider yesterday and followed it to see where it was going. It is after a fortnight that I had seen a crawling creature, and that too inside the room. Was I surprised? I realized, I might even have missed it. They are our 'distant neighbours' back home who preside over our everyday. Where are all the ants, flies, spiders, bumble bees and butterflies? (Not to of course mention the mosquitoes, the rats and the cockroaches, the stray dogs and cats and the cows sitting in the middle of a busy road chewing the cud..) I cannot forget that day in Almora (a hill town in the northern India) when I ate a litchi and its peel fell down near a tree. I thought I would pick it up after I had the last three litchis and in a split second there seemed to suddenly appear from somewhere an ant, a bee and a butterfly and there was enough for them to stick around for full fifteen minutes, where I could hardly see anything with my naked eye, in the empty shell!
The other day I suddenly pointed to a bird while Mr.Nagarkar talked about something very important. It was such a relief. I thought he was happy to see it too. I recall being shocked at the total absence of any bird sounds whatsoever, on my first evening in Munich, years ago. I just could not imagine a sound experience empty of their twitter. Especially in our Film Institute experience, it was just impossible to remember a moment when they were quiet. I miss them all here one by one sometimes, the good as much as the not so good. I look for signs of life, as I seem to know them from my references.
Arno has to work for the weekend at the hospital. He says, he wants to work in the development sector may be in a country like India. The poverty, the misery and the wretchedness seem very real and worth engaging with. I want to know why it appears 'more' real to him. He says because it cannot be the truth that everyone is happy.
Everyone 'seems' happy here. 'Seems' because as Saskia, the guide of my friend Mr Swanomoy Chakrobarti in Berlin said to him, their problems lie deeper than what appears to an outsider's eye on the surface. It may be as she says. But even so, there is little that meets the eye. Whether, its poverty, hunger or decrepitude, there are no visible references of such misery and wretchedness of being human. In an indirect way there is less violence because as Gandhi would say--poverty is violence. It robs you of the dignity of being human. One thing you cannot but notice is this human dignity that everyone seems to have a natural claim to here. The absence of the routine indignity as well as the humiliation of being poor in a country like India spares them the experience of life as daily drudgery. It is not possible to miss that, wherever you go in India. It might even be the first image you catch or the very first impression you share with your 'self' back there.
So the story of Siddhartha before he became the enlightened or the Buddha--- he had to be spared even a hint of what might indicate to the thing called misery. It was so ordained that the image of the poor, the sick or the old may never cross his way, so as to prevent or rather prolong his otherwise 'fated' renouncement of the world...the same world which he was soon to recognise as nothing but misery. But for how long could anyone, even a king for that matter, have the means to spare him that which was scattered all around. It was after all fated to be thus, they conceded. Could it have been otherwise? Come to think of it, what disaster had the king succeeded in his mission of sparing him the pain. The world would not have been the world as the prince saw it the first time from his passing horse carriage that day, and Siddhartha would not have been the Buddha, as we know him now.
May be after all, there really are no images that shock me in and out of the 'world', here. There are things and ways and systems and people, everything appears to be in place, and the images as well the impressions are all inter-referential following one another in a maze, like that of the criss cross of the rail lines that continuously go up and down the city from the center to the periphery and back. There is apparently no going out of it. And if there is, then perhaps It falls outside the given. Perhaps if you would rather go that way, it may lead to the Goethe, Hesse, Mann or Rilke, you already seem to know so well.
Wasn’t it just yesterday when I came and sat in the beautiful studio of Wedina looking forward to the time that was ahead of me in this new city? People asked about the first impressions and I wondered why they were in such a hurry. It was too early to say anything, I said. I have just arrived, I argued. And now it was already time to leave…as always, just as I had made myself comfortable, just when I had begun to feel at home, like one of the myriad nationalities living here, the time is up, the bell has rung, bye bye Hamburg!
The train is going to halt for only four minutes at the station. I am terribly worried about the luggage. The train arrives in another seven minutes. Arno and Dorit think there is enough time for a coffee. Good heavens, really? But of course, I pretend to take it easy. They drink coffee and talk as if we do not have to catch any train at all. I cannot help looking at the watch now and then. All the three watches show different times. They perhaps sense my nervousness, gulp down the remaining coffee and we rush to the platform. Surprisingly there is still enough time for them to hand me the two envelopes that I am supposed to read on board the train. Everything happens to clockwork perfection. The train actually stops only four minutes but miraculously I manage to board it, thanks to my friends, who are now waving their hands on the other side of the glass as the train pulls away. I wave my hand and feel the crunch of time. How time flies! Am I endorsing another cliché? Does it mean that I enjoyed my stay in Hamburg and that I was going to miss it from the very next moment? It seems like there was still so much to do. Perhaps only a few repetitions, which nevertheless hold the promise of something new each time—another morning walk around the lake, an adventure on the bike path, the trip to the near by village, Blankennsee, the missed music concert at Reeperbahn, the rehearsal of a German play at Thalia, the Sunday fish market, use of Arno’s library card…etc.
The train runs at such a break neck speed that it is difficult to catch any of the passing scenes. Every image is unfamiliar, and hence interesting. I wish the speed was slower. But this is the inter-city express that crosses a new city every half hour. By three it is scheduled to arrive in Frankfurt and again the same halt for five minutes, either you get off before the door closes or find yourself trapped till the next stop which is Mannheim! I hope not.
I begin to look around. The girl sitting on the window on the left is reading a Vikram Seth. Can she be going to the book fair too? The gentleman next to me is lost in a book too, cannot see the cover. The one opposite looks out of the window. There is a kid who walks up and down the carriage, with his father trailing behind him with a smile every time he sets out on this adventure and stands before the glass door, as if saying, ‘open sesame’! He does it at least a dozen times in half an hour. The expression on his father’s face retains its good humour. It makes me smile, as also my neighbour across the table. We share a moment across the language gulf. He says something in German about the kid’s excitement with the automatic door and I understand it.
The tall man sitting next to him wears a perpetual smile on his face. He is reading a magazine.
I look at all my neighbours one by one, thinking who I can possibly ask for help. Till the train arrived, the tension was of boarding it in Hamburg, now it had shifted to getting off at Frankfurt! The two bags were lying high up overhead and I found it hard to imagine how I would take them down and out of the train that was only going to stop for four or lets say, five minutes…the corner gentleman continued to smile as he read his magazine. May be I would ask him. The next station seems to have come, the girl with Vikram Seth is getting off. She asked for help with his bags very casually and has managed to get it as easily too. How can people do such tough things with such ease? And why cant I? My friends had assured me several times that I could ask anybody for help, and it would be ‘very fine.’ If only they knew how ‘not very fine’ I was now, worrying my head off over the damn bags! May be I should have looked closely at how the Vikram Seth girl did it. The couple who have replaced the girl across are now settling down. The boy is adjusting the two big bags in a space behind their seats. Why did my friends not see this gap there? What a miss! If only, my baggage was stationed there on the floor level there would be no issue. Alas. For me now, the only way out was to beg for help, and I was finding it so impossible to do. I wonder if anybody would believe it could be so hard. The boy looking like Boris Becker began to eat something out of a paper bag. I felt hungry too. But of course, no one was going to come into the train selling small munchies as in the Indian train. And anyway, Frankfurt was running towards me at a great pace. Any minute I would be there now.
I don’t really know how I managed to ask the man with the perpetual smile for help. He obliged, and smiled kindly at my profuse thanksgiving with a look of surprise on his face, as if saying, ‘that’s alright, there is nothing to be so obliged about, is there?’ I drag my bags out into the corridor and feel a sudden relief! Is this then what I worried my head off for? I looked back towards my seat. Everyone was lost in their respective worlds as before. No one seemed to think about the girl who just got up and who seemed to have more luggage than she could carry. What were they thinking? I would have liked to talk to a few of those people sitting quietly in the train there. I would have liked to write about my encounters thus, just as Cornelia Zetsche would perhaps like us, the writers of Akshar to make these adventures in their alien cities and write about them. I agree with her. I would have loved to do that too. Only I could not. I could never find the balance between the curious and the inquisitive. I could never cross the threshold of what might be read as intrusive. It was so difficult to propose a conversation with anyone sitting next to you.
I remembered the young woman in the local train in Mumbai, who once shared her entire life story with me between Churchgate (station) and Borivali and walked off into the crowd just as she had walked into the compartment an hour before. I wondered what stories lay locked in the quietly sitting passengers beyond the glass door. Boris Becker was now sleeping after his little lunch. The kid, exhausted after his march up and down was now sleeping in the pram next to me in the corridor. I looked at the information written on the wall. It was a space marked for the prams of children, or bicycles. Once again I wondered at the incredible amount of thought that seems to be given to little things of the everyday life in this system. If you acknowledge the presence of men and women and children, you got to imagine the innumerable benches around the lake; the bike paths; the chair for the kid to sit behind on the bike; the kindergarten at the museum where the parents can leave their child while they see the exhibition of a Rembrandt or a Frida Kahlo; the ticket of the opera that includes your fare to and from your home to the theatre by any vehicle; the electronic signs that show you the number of parking spaces available across the road; and the machine that gives you a few cents every time you deposit an empty plastic bottle back. So much thought given to the routine details. The system is impeccable.
In a week I will be back to another system, a much more familiar one, where getting a demand draft made in the bank, filing the telephone bill and getting a few pages of xerox done, would take away all the energy and hours of your life besides. And in spite of it, if you got the work done, your day would most certainly have been made! You would in fact be thankful that you wouldn’t have to go again another day for the drudgery.
Would I get a culture shock when I return home now, I ask myself?