Among Top 5 in India
Cartoonist,poet,social activist,development banker, documentary filmmaker,reader of books and realities,
ponderer of questions milling around.
Early on a clear and bright Sunday while leaving Karlsruhe on a good bus I felt a pang of separation. I will probably never see Karlsruhe and its trams again. The Black Forest trip had been arranged by the European Organization for Sustainable Development (EOSD) for the delegates of the conference who were filling the bus with cheerfully cynical camaraderie; I was an invited spouse. The Black Forest is now showcased as a successful forestry regeneration effort by Germany. The first stop was a place called Iffezheim on the east bank of Rhine, where there is a lock in a bypass arm of the river which is operated 24 x 7 by locking in or out of the river waters so as to enable the boats and barges (with different tonnages/drafts) to go up or down the Rhine. This has been done so that a hydro electricity plant on the western, French, side of the river does not impede the normal navigation on the river. We saw a midsized boat carrying a French flag with a freight of about 12 new cars first sit at the bottom of the lock’s channel, then saw the channel rapidly fill up with water after some lock-gate’s closure – the boat rising up on the rising water – and then watched it finally chug away smartly from the lock, its flag fluttering cheerfully in the morning breeze. It was an impressive thing to see; smartness of the whole operation spoke of sober rationality, sustainable river ecology, and practicality. Two robust, modern nations going about their business sensibly; nations with a sense of future – a contrast with messy nations like India-Pakistan where only a thin top layer of the elites sees some real future. The past is routinely blamed for India-Pak mutual death grip. Actually it is the lack of future! Germany and France have a much more tangled and gory mutual past than India-Pak and yet they are going ahead, sober and sensible. The wizened Asian and African delegates, understanding all this, nodded and smiled admiringly and also sadly. The determinedly cheerful lady from EOSD also smiled, understanding this understanding. The bus resumed punctually after the allotted 30 minutes at Iffezheim.
Soon the road opened up huge vistas before our eyes as the bus entered the rising foothills of the Alps to the south sheltering strenuously worked farmlands and vineyards. These bare hills were once covered by the dense Black Forests. We were entering the more medieval part of Germany, the Baden Baden district of spas of healing spring waters and muds. My google map said we were in Buhl area. As the hill road twisted and turned rising higher along the shoulders of the hills, more hills and valleys opened up to the east and the west, showing more villages dotting the hills and the valleys. Most villages didn’t have more than 100 houses and these were huddled together at the bottom of the valleys, single storeyed with sloping slate roofs, surrounded by farmlands. Small clusters of 4 or 5 houses were on the hill slopes covered with neat rows of vineyard plants. The vineyard grapes would have been harvested before the winter, while the farmlands were yellow with crops ripening under the summer sun. Very much like Shivalik foothills of India, the vacant looking fields were actually very old hills claimed and worked by centuries of exacting and hard human labour. Most fields had a silvery blond yellow colour, much like Germans’ hair. I saw an odd one too. Its harvest was clearly over and huge cylindrical bales (6 fit in diameter) of tightly bound straw were dotting the field and gleaming with a rich and deep golden yellow colour – some images of Ukraine seen in pictures and films came to my mind – waiting to be carted away. This harvested rich coloured farm stood out sharply against the paler farm landscape; maybe it is for a special crop, empty except for these giant golden bales – strange and surreal, waiting for an eternity, something like a Dali landscape or perhaps a van Gogh.
The roads had holiday traffic of a Sunday. Mostly cars with families for a picnic, some motorbikes in twos or threes, and even some cyclists pedaling away on battery-aided bicycles. The motorbikers caught my attention; my bus must have passed a few of their bunches of 2s or 3s earlier too. Young and clearly not so young men – no women, as far as I could see – in black, tight dresses and boots and helmets, driving solemnly in steady, non-racing speeds, going somewhere for a rendezvous as if summoned by some unseen piper. There was something about them… but our bus had entered a larger valley higher up in the hills. It was the famous township of Baden Baden, the seat of the medieval duchy.
I had expected something grand and awesome. There was no halt allotted but the bus helpfully slowed down and passed lingeringly along the narrow and winding road (originally made for carts and carriages) which passed the facades and walls of the famous spas. These looked dowdy, small scale, dull and colourless. Single storyed, slope-roofed, country cottages with white-painted walls and grey or brown roofs had no signboards or nameplates. The whole township was a small affair, determinedly self-effacing and anonymous. We were told it is doing steady, thriving business, pulling in millions of hard currency. That familiar, German, moderation and restraint? The Americans would have turned it into a Las Vegas; and Indian businessmen with their New Age rapacity called entrepreneurship would have turned it into something like nothing on the earth. The old aristocracy and nobility had been pretty crass and vulgar in their own times; one has only to see the ruins of ornate cathedrals, forts and schlosses of Europe. But the arriviste bourgeoise, rising since the French revolution, were they more crass and vulgar? Or it is just that new money makes old money look graceful and classical. I looked for and failed to see any springs or reclining bodies in mudpacks. I remembered reading and liking Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain set in such a spa. Had he come here, in Baden Baden, to write the novel? The bus was soon through Baden Baden and out of it. The roads were again rising along the hills but now the hillsides were not as bare as before. Cars and motorbikes were glinting, passing in the dark shadows of the trees.
We could see in nearly every small valley between the hills the standard pattern of small clusters of villages, a church and a fort on the militarily best hill. This was the region of the forested hills coming down from the Swiss Alps into the Rhine valley, with France across the river to the west. The talk in the bus turned to the question: why “black” forest? The answer was the obvious one: the primeval (mixed, multispecies) forests in the past were forming so thick a canopy that walking underneath the trees was like walking in black shadows. We were now driving through the regenerated portion of that bygone forest. I was disappointed to see that exactly like in Indian reforestation projects the trees though closely packed were a monoculture — trees of spruce. These looked neat and photogenic and cast dark shadows as the bus climbed along the road twisting with the hill bends but there seemed to be something vacant, something missing. I couldn’t see any birds or insects. When I asked if these were true forests or mere parks I got wry smiles and shakes of heads.
The number of bikers along the road was increasing. Clad in black boots, black dress, and black helmets – blacker then the black forests – they rode their motorbikes in grim, undemonstrative clusters and seemed to be reaching some culmination point. Not speaking, laughing or waving their hands – not horsing around like generic youth the world over – they formed a silent, inwardly stilled and emblematic tableaux: their presence alone was their message. What was their message?
We reached high up on the hills to the place we were heading for, the lake of Mummelsee. It is a small lake (“see”means lake) in a high hollow of peaks. I read the small descriptive notice and immediately felt happily connected with something old and German. About 20 meters deep, its waters fed by many hill streams had a chemical composition that did not allow for any fishes or aquatic life; and ancient lore has it that at its bottom these lives an evil and mysterious thing – Mummel – which will catch you if you are not careful and take you down to your sure death! There is a drawing too. Mummel is shown as a creature with a human face with a royalish crown on his head and a thick Germanic beard, and with the torso of a scaly fish. Mummel also holds a three-pointed trident in his hand.
Not surprisingly it is a place where people congregated, even the black bikers. I walked around a bit of the lake` shore. A large hotel with a huge restaurant at the ground floor occupied one side of the lake. There were helpful jetties projecting into the blue-green waters, and some jetties had colourful canopies at the end under which I saw elderly women resting sprawled on easy chairs. Some people were in small paddle boats moving around the lake. High up on top of one peak was an elaborate-looking, well-antennaed transmitting station. Could be telecom, or even military. Medieval Mummel has been defanged, his menace tamed. The place was full of picnickers, shoppers of tourist mementos (there were kitchen napkins with Mummel’s picture), wines, and hundreds of processed meats, handicrafts and hats, breads and beer mats. For the Sunday the brightly coloured open-air marquees were full, people sitting under colourful sun umbrellas having beer. A band of middle-aged players had been set up; they were solemnly playing amateur tunes. The sun was shining and mild. Women were speaking on cell phones; children were scampering about. To demonstrate for the heedless modern tourists one traditional oven, using forest firewood as fuel, had been set up and one tall, old man with muscled arms was using a long handled pan to take out from the dark oven huge bun-shaped traditional breads of the black forests. I bought one and ate a piece. It tasted nice, mildly salty and smelt of wood smoke. These were baked to last; the bun stayed in my luggage for days.
A lake, a legend, hills, and a tamed forest. A natural place for sunday, secular celebrations and rest and recuperation. Despite the touristy smaltz the place had an air of modest and subdued provinciality. The hillsides around the resort had been modestly landscaped with smoothened rock and green grass kept neatly trimmed. Near the main entrance there was a painted plaster sculpture of a bountiful cow. Families posed against the cow for photos. We wandered around, waiting for the bus departure time. It was past midday; the sunshade umbrellas cast pleasant shadows on the people sitting underneath on plastic furniture. Middle aged, huge bodied men and women sat silently over huge tankards of beer, local farmers having a Sunday break. A common sight in this whole trip, and not just in picnic spots. Huge men and women sitting for hours, unmoving and silent, nursing their drinks. Why didn’t they chat, or frolic, or have fun? I had been wondering. Here, in Mummelsee, in the afternoon sunlit resort of Black Forest I got the answer. Asking that question, I was being a white collar city slicker with my kind of ideas of fun. These farmers or factory workers I had been seeing all these days in my trip were manual workers; their hard labour all day in farms, vineyards and factories pushed them to the edge of physical and mental endurance, depleted their simple souls. Resting from labour in companionship and silence over a restorative drink was enough fun and deep rejuvenation. A few grunts or two, some mutterings, can cover all that is there to talk about anyway. For the first time in my life I understood the silence of working peoples’ bars all over the world – and the endless muted TV`s sports channels in the smarter ones.
We sat on an ornamented rock and watched the traffic on the road outside – Freudenstadt one way and Baden Baden the other way. A bunch of black bikers had halted outside the facilities of the resort on a siding in the highway; mostly for toilet and a drink of water, besides some rest. Some had taken off their black helmets. Tall young men with impressive muscles and vulnerable faces with blue eyes, their mobikes were latest specimens of top-end technologies. They had driven half a day for a hundred kilometers for this utility halt and they would go back from here. For what? There was no sign of joy, hilarity or high spirits in their faces and persons, no back slapping, high-fiving, or even the V signs – and no anger, or resentment or ill will. What was I seeing? Mummelsee was just one “see”. On this Sunday, at many such sees (lakes) in the Black Forest, hundreds of young biker Germans in black were congregating after grueling hours and hours of silent, brooding driving on hill roads. A far cry from the familiar, criminal American bikers gangs, this was the flower of German youth, gentle, bewildered and bewildering. A parade without a salute, a march without a rally, a festival without a creed, an army without a war? I looked at the clear blue sky, green trees, yellow gentle sunlight on the Black Forests, and shook my head. I did not understand this. I remembered a snatch of a recent conversation I had had. “Youth today don’t care for anything,” a middle aged German had told me, “and they don’t believe in anything either.” Did this answer what I was seeing? I am not sure. Our bus had arrived and it was honking for us discreetly.
On the way back to Karlsruhe we stopped for lunch at a ski resort, not a grand slalom thing but functional and practical – for college students’ winter sports. It’s locally caught trout lunch was famous. I found the fish fresh enough but its cooking was primitively basic for my exotic Bengali palate. The bus dropped us back at the Karlsruhe train station which was now very familiar and easy. We bought our tickets with aplomb, like veterans, and caught our evening train to Frankfurt as the sun was lowering on the western horizon. Looking at the passing familiar landscape I caught myself wondering with surprise that I was not feeling like a foreigner anymore!
Getting out of the train at Frankfurt Hauptbahnof in late evening and exiting from its classically made main entrance you get to see and understand Frankfurt immediately. One of the larger train stations in Europe and handling trans-european traffic 24 x 7, it still has a charming and human scale of things, quite unlike Frankfurt airport. About airports I have this suspicion that the current architectural hubristic fad is making all modern airports in the world irrational – irrational in many senses. Outside Frankfurt Hauptbahnof is a huge paved (and gracefully potted with plants) semicircular plaza and this is ringed by inner (for buses) and outer (for cars) circular roads. Beyond these ring roads and along the radiating radial roads is today`s downtown Frankfurt.
It looks like any modern city today. To me it looked very much like the Barakhambha Road area of Connaught place in Delhi. Like most major German cities Frankfurt too had been almost completely bombed down during WW II. Quickly rebuilt afterwards it has become like any other place: London, Delhi, Adelaide, etc. But in this huge task of reconstruction Frankfurt has, again like most major German cities, consciously and lovingly rebuilt many of its ancient and medieval structures and landmarks. Why? Germany might well have been defeated but it was not vanquished, not “degraded” as post-Bush Americanese has it. We lingered in the panoramic plaza in the pale yellow light of the evening and looked at the city. The usual steel-n-glass Citibank, Deutsch bank, Merrill Lynch, Starbucks, Nike, Marriot, Radisson, haute jewellery, haute clothing, haute everything. Any other city. But staunchly rebuilt, unlike other cities. Germany has been thwarted but it has not ceded its claims, not submitted. Unlike Karlsruhe the road traffic was indifferent to the pedestrians’ vulnerabilities.
It felt good to be back to a familiar bad, big, brash city but it did not have the murderous frenzy of a Delhi or Mumbai, it had the German gentleness. Gentleness, that word cropping up again. It was past office hours and the main commuter rush had left this downtown area. The streets and markets were busy with the sunset people – of shopping, entertainments, leisure. After Karlsruhe the striking difference was the human composition. Karlsruhe was a visibly German town although with some global sprinkling. Frankfurt was far more global although still a German city. Turks, Greeks, Iranians – Iraqis, Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Chinese, Koreans, Japanese (Bank of Japan has one of the tallest skyscraper), Arabs, North Africans and many other people I could not place, were going about the streets with a settled demeanor of residents. A tall, white, slim German young man in a business suit and tie was rushing past with his slim briefcase, late for an appointment. Frankfurt’s only business is financial. It is one of the main nodes of global movements of capital 24x7x365, in the league of New York, London, Tokyo, Hongkong. After Brexit most of the European financial affairs of London are expected to shift to Frankfurt, not to Paris or Amsterdam. Germany’s economy has flourished while its towns and cities are filling up with global immigrants. Other European countries with anti-immigrant policies have been declining. Curious. Is there a moral in this? According to pulpits like the New York Times and the Economist, etc it should have been the other way round. Germany did not join the ideological debates after WW 2 – having seen the extremes of capitalism and socialism more than most nations – and went about its business sensibly. Sensible. Another recurrent word in this trip.
Our hotel was at strolling distance from Hauptbahnof. Its windows too had, like Karlsruhe, two hinges so that opening them a few inches from the top aired the rooms and saved the expense of air-conditioning. Sensible. The hotel was close to the well landscaped parkland of the riverfront of the Main river, full of walkways, benches, eatery kiosks, and trees. Nicely done. The daylight was still abundant and we walked across the gentle, blue watered, small river – although full of lit up cruise boats – to go to the southern, “sud”, side. How do Germans and, for that matter, all Europeans manage to have such well-mannered and tamed rivers? Indian rivers’ wild unruliness is blamed at the mighty snows of the Himalayas which the ill-fated Europeans are supposed to sadly lack. I am not sure. They manage their rivers sensibly, we don’t. The Main river had given Frankfurt its name. It is so small and easily fordable that armies of Frankish kings and warlords since the days of Charlemagne could easily ford the river on their horses and take the town. The “furt” has come from “ford”. As we walked across the bridge the horizons opened up to be seen. Modern Frankfurt is full of tall skyscrapers all around, following the lineage started by Manhattan of New York, already lit up like apocalyptic torches in the blue sky how turning deep turquoise for the oncoming sunset.
My main purpose to go “sud” was to visit, if not see, the museum of Goethe who was born in Frankfurt. It was small and forlorn although still open. But then writers’ museums can’t be big in size, they produce only manuscripts. There was a life-sized statue outside; Goethe’s head was bent down in pensive thought. How little I knew of Goethe – Germany’s Shakespeare, among other things! Goethe’ was a man of many parts – writer, botanist, philosopher, diplomat, civil servant, lawyer, polymath – a Renaissance man. The world does not make men like that anymore, who open up 360 degrees of human endeavor. Renaissance means rebirth. And whom do we have today? Chaps like Steve Job, Pavarotti, Soros, Spielberg, Putin… at best; even Einstein was not quite a renaissance man.
Returning to the hotel – in the main hotel area of the city – we saw the usual big city evening sights; pushers, prostitutes, derelicts and hustlers in the streets. But you were left alone; this was Germany, a nation with one of the lowest crime rates. After the idyllic Karlsruhe, it was reassuring to see the usual flaws. There were well demarcated garbage bags’ dumping sites, but the bags happily spilled over on to the streets. Some side streets had grit and grime; some traffic lights did not work well. In one side street we saw a neon sign of Saravana Bhavan, one of the best Tamilian restaurants in India. Like homing pigeons we went in, salivating at the thoughts of eating idli sambhar in Germany. It was hugely disappointing. The sambhar was so bad that even the Punjabi idli-dosa shops in Paharganj, Delhi would have been ashamed of it. The waiters and waitresses were Tamilian alright but they looked trim and muscular, vaguely German. On the way back to the hotel we saw a narrow shop advertising Turkish, Pakistani, Persian and Arab foods. Seeing a tray of freshly made samosas I made a dive for it. We ate one each, walking and admiring the well lit night. The taste was excellent. In the near and distant skies the tall skyscrapers were glittering with incandescent pinpoints of light, looking like parked extraterrestrial spaceships of advanced aliens.
Our room at the hotel had a balcony with a good view of the Hauptbahnof and the city beyond. We sat there with coffee and scanned the bunch of tourist brochures the reception had handed us while checking in. Frankfurt was a stopover for us; seeing the city and its environs was not on the itinerary, with only a day and a half before catching our flight back to Mumbai. Each brochure was of a different colour and detailed a different sightseeing trip – half day, one day, two days, one week trips. One brochure slammed all breath out of me and left me gasping. It was for a one-day trip to Dachau, with details of transport, halts, eats, and a guided tour of one of the most horrifying concentration camps run by Nazi government of Germany during WW II for the holocaust of Jewish people. Dachau! The great horror and shame of the German people, one of the hearts of darkness of modern civilizations, an abiding mystery of a civilized Germany doing such a gross bestiality – all that – and today it is a tourist destination! What is this? I was dumbfounded. I had to open a beer bottle from the mini fridge.
The enormously well documented and filmed monstrosities done during their Nazi era by Germans, who also read Goethe and Heine, was of systematically burning up live Jewish men and women and children in specially designed ovens in concentration camps like Dachau and this phenomenon remains, deep down, a puzzle even today. I saw sensible and gentle Germans on this trip. They or their fathers did this? But the mystery goes further. To me it is a greater puzzle that today Germany runs conducted tours for global tourists to visit the sites of these camps! This is astonishing, almost uncanny – the other side of the same coin. Only Germany can do this. Guilt and expiation? Maybe. Or maybe it is something deeper; something to do with Germany`s history of insulation from the ancient Mediterranean multicultural milieu. Multicultural exposure does induce a tolerant moral relativism after all, and also a mental suppleness for creatively managing contradictions: insulated for long centuries Germany cannot handle humour and ambivalence well and tends towards absolutism. Or am I being a bit too profound by half? Post Mandela South Africa had a cathartic Truth & Reconciliation Commission to expose and digest the horrors of its apartheid era. But it cannot think of running daily tourist buses to its horror sites. No nation in the world has done this. The horrors perpetrated by the British in Asia, America and Australia, by the Spanish in Latin America, by the French in North Africa, by the Dutch in East Indies were by no means smaller than the Nazi concentration camps. But morally they have never had it in them even to have some Truth & Reconciliation Commission, let alone a Nuremburg War Crime Tribunal. And tourist buses to their horror sites? Unimaginable. Even Gandhi – the Indian Mandela – never thought of a truth and reconciliation commission against the British or, for that matter, between India and Pakistan. The cheery brochure for Dachau trip had me completely undone, as I gazed numbly at the mysterious night sky of the German city of Frankfurt today. I did not have the courage to face Dachau. One nice brochure spoke of a river cruise along the Rhine valley. We chose that trip.
Next day, for the Rhine river cruise it felt nice to be smoothly fleeced by the German tourism industry, like tourism industry everywhere – it is an industry, after all. Soon it will be taken over by the likes of Microsoft or Boeing or Kellogs and ruined forever. The cruise was 90 euros per person. Our nice hotel receptionist said she will book tickets for us and arrange for a hotel pick up. We said yes and were asked to pay 10 euros each for the tickets. Pickup was a cheerful fat man who turned up in the hotel’s lobby to walk us 100 meters to the tour company’s office where many punters like us were waiting. The ticket said we will get 10% discount. When I asked the tour company’s manager about it, he shrugged dismissively and said that for the discount we had to buy the ticket at his office not at our hotel. He was pink, plump and polite, wore suspenders for his trousers and looked like a sociology professor. He liked to keep his customers on the defensive while fleecing them on everything including the memorabilia on sale in his office. This gentle con game continued during the day. The tour advertisement had said that it included a sumptuous lunch and a wine tasting session. So at lunch everybody overate food and overdrank wines thinking 90 euros covered it. But when the contemptuous hostess handed all of us bills for our lunch, everyone looked at one another – the minimum bill was 20 euros. So it went. Good old tourism industry. The sky was a clear, crisp blue and the sunshine was Kodak quality.
In the morning I had to google the Dachau tourism thing. Well out of Karlsruhe now, I was back to googling. It was not only with Dachau. Most infamous ex-concentration camps in Germany were now cheerfully open to efficient tourism. Astonishing, this. I remembered the rampant smoking, the non-rallying black mobikers, the lamenting comment about today’s German youth not believing anything and not caring about anything, and the prosperity of the non-ideological German economy: and I thought I had got a clue. After seeing the failure of grand visions like Aryan Master Race, or The Thousand Year Reich, or for that matter the New Socialist Man, today’s Germany has given up on all ideologies and taken to money making – gently, sensibly, methodically; with a deep Lutheran independence. It had waited sensibly till it was sure that the Soviet Union was truly dying, and it broke down the Berlin wall and unified a divided Germany in 1989. What we have now is an unphilosophical Germany which has seen through all philosophies.
The Rhine river was far off – Frankfurt is on the Main river, easily fjordable by medieval warlords – and a nice bus took us to it, through the now familiar German landscape and the city of Wiesebaden. The tour guide was the plump young man who had picked us up at the hotel. Well educated and witty, he kept up his endless patter about how it was better in Germany to be a wife than being a husband, or how you were an outcaste here if you did not like football, and so on. Wiesebaden looked very much like an industrial city; but its name said it had once been a health spa town. The vineyard laden hills showed that we were already in the outer valleys of the Rhine. The highway was smooth and crowded with smart cars arching off along neat curving exit roads.
The bus climbed uphill for quite some time and came to a stop at the hill top of Niederwald; “wald” means a forest, now long gone from here of course. The hill has a plain white washed castle – Niederwald Monument – where in 1871 Germany had unified for the first time into an idea of nationhood under the military power of a general. His name was Bismarck and his small statue could be seen in a non-functioning fountain with carvings of seraphs, nymphs, and mermaids. The castle looked forlorn and neglected – vaguely like old Hollywood films’ “casas” used by Mexican druglords – and we were hustled through to the back to the starting point of the cable car, 5 euros each person, which would take us spectacularly down the other side of the hill onto the Rhine river bank. The cable car was probably from Bismarckian era and worked on a clever mechanical pulley arrangement. No electricity; probably the castle didn’t have electricity either. The cable car operators looked like off-duty peasants moonlighting. The cable car was a non-stop thing and it required clever and a bit risky coordination to get on and to get off its seat. We managed to get on – two to a car – despite our trepidation by carefully watching the punters ahead of us in the queue.
All this was worth the trouble. Once we had gone past the initial shrubbery of the hilltop a huge and spectacular valley opened out before us. What seemed like a mile down the slope (actually it was much less of course) covered with vineyards and huddled sloping roofed villages was a narrow ribbon of a grey-green river – Rhine, Germany’s Ganga. Across the river were rising the answering hills of the valley. Going steadily down the cable was like floating in a vast blue sky in clear yellow sunshine, watching the passing yellow and green rows of vineyards’ plants and red and brown tiled roofs of white washed houses from a very close distance. We were never more that 8 meters above the ground as our tour guide had told us reassuringly. Our breathtaking gasps were at this bewitching mode of conveyance and the sights it opened up. So this is how birds glide and see the world! This sight was a high point of our trip, well worth the 90 euros. We were so mesmerized that we forgot our cellphones and thoughts about taking a picture.
It was soon over down at Assmannshausen. We were at the bank of a wide, powerful, grey-green river, rushing northward, busy with huge cargo barges and many-tiered large cruise boats which somehow managed to look sleek. It was well past mid noon and we were briskly walked to an over decoratedly “German” restaurant where we had our misadvertised “included” lunch of roast chicken, potato and wines – and later I paid 25 euros each for two. My wife with wifely intuition had left her white wine alone saying it was too sweet (she doesn’t ever find gulabjamun too sweet) and I drank that too after finding that my red wine reminded me of organic chemistry lab of schooldays. For the hundredth time I decided I am not a wine man; give me whiskey any day, or even a good beer. An Australian husband with an American wife actually asked good humouredly if there was any beer, and earned a lip-curling look of contempt from the hostess/manager who said this was “wine country”. The good Australian grinned and said “okay, but also give me a beer too”. The small, cramped, over-decorated, tour operator linked restaurant’s walls and ceilings were completely covered with “German” pictures, statues, masks, cards, pins, geegaws, buttons, and such – even inside the loo! It was somehow comforting to see that even Germany could be awfully kitschy and vulgar when it came to tourism.
After this “included” lunch we were walked to an adjascent building designed as an overdecorated dark cave. Each sitting place had four tiny plastic glasses filled with white wines – the local brands. The hostess must have been busy gloating over the money she had collected at lunch, so our tour guide was deputed as the wine lecturer – which he did with gusto and humour. It all boiled down to timing of the harvest of the ripening grapes, usually in October, November, December, and January – each harvest gave a different taste to the wine and we tasted them in sequence. The December harvest is the most famous Riesling, the classic German wine. The January grapes, harvested when iced over, yielded a sweet wine – hence “Ice wine”. So much fuss, but instructive. Wine is a deeply medieval European conceit I think – not much else was happening then. Eventually we were freed of all impedimenta and, my head nicely floating with all the wines, walked across to the riverbank with many landing jetties to wait for our cruise boat which took its time since it was picking up other bunches of passengers like us on the way. It did arrive, we marched aboard to a large, white, sparkling two-tiered boat, and after much ado about nothing by the crew the boat finally cast off its moorings and joined the muscular current of the Rhine.
This was it. Despite the hottish sun in clear blue sky with white cloudlets scudding in a good breeze, we had chosen the upper, exposed deck filled with holidaying multinational crowd nursing big beers and small wines. In the middle of a wide, powerful, clean Rhine sat our crisp white boat facing north – going with the current. On both banks were green and yellow hills and a stiff, cool breeze pushed past us coming up from the plains of Germany which lay ahead of us, downstream. We did not have any more beer or wine; just sat feeling the breeze ruffle our hair and gazed at the bright, wide, beauty around us, floating down the river – the motor down to idling. This was the Rhine. The stuff of much lore and legend of Germany, much more than the Elbe, Germany’s other main river – and the Danube is, well, Austrian really.
Every few miles the river’s course curved left or right and after every turn a new vista opened up before our eyes. The river valley here was fairly narrow. Just the river itself, then a small strip of barely flat land for villages and churches; and behind these the hills rose up abruptly. In the pre-deforested and pre-developed ancient times, I imagined, these sights would have been much darker, maybe even scary. We were beginning to see every few miles downstream smallish pointy-headed medieval looking castles, both on the left bank and on the right and, as if paired off, smallish, narrow-steepled churches below the castles. So many of them? As if reading our thoughts the cheerful, irreverent voice of our tour guide came over the PA system. This was the revenue system of old Germany, he chuckled: each fortress had a warlord with an army and collected custom tax for allowing each boat to pass down or up the river; the churches were to say grace and keep the peasants in their place. The whole river is full of these, now mostly owned by Spanish and French retired film stars. He was cheerfully disrespectful and gave us a subaltern historical perspective on Rhine’s place in Germany’s economic history. Floating downriver, valley to valley, on this beautiful afternoon for over two hours, watching such medieval “seats” of German dukedoms passing by, it was cinema again. It would have been claustrophobic, isolated, and unfree under a dogmatic church, to have been a hardworking peasant in these villages in the medieval times. All politics is, at the base, a protection racket really – and always was. Many castles or their ruins had the modern German tricolor flag flapping in the breeze.
It was picturesque all the same. There were small, wooded islands mid river, with tide marks high up on the tree trunks, or small, rocky islands with barely a tree or two, being used by local fishermen or sportsmen riding their paddled dinghies. A famous place was Lorelei-Felsen (Sirens’ Rock) where a whole exposed granite hill jutted out to mid river so that the river had to take a sharp turn off its course. Our guide explained that in the old times – of sailboats – many careless boats crashed onto the Lorelei rocks and perished. And sure enough, once we were passed the Rock we saw on a low finger of rock jutting out towards the river bank a tacky sculpture of a mermaidish like figure, surely commissioned by the local municipality, to make things clear to the stupid tourist. The cruise boat also played the tape of the famous Lorelei song, meant to be a memoriam and a lament. A little way past this Lorelei business and the cruise was abruptly over. The boat docked in a place whose sign said St. Goarshausen, and we walked ashore down a plank unceremoniously. The boat pulled quickly away with its motors roaring, now going back upstream. The sunlight spoke of the coming evening.
Our bus was waiting faithfully. Fatigued by Rhine’s splendor and its brooding air, we piled on into the bus which started its journey back along the narrow road skirting the Rhine. Most of us dozed after so much lunch, sunshine, and wine. It was a long journey back and I could glimpse off and on the river from the bus window, glinting in the now slanting sun. We were woken up when the bus stopped decisively at Rudesheim and when our tour guide sternly told us not to be away for more than 30 minutes he must have known it would more like 90 minutes. Rudesheim was on the western side of our Neiderwald hill, adjacent to Assmannshausen, a town rigorously devoted to tourist trade – shop after brightly coloured shop. With great effort we won the battle of not buying any of the unbuyable things although we toured all the shops dutifully. We sat at a patisserie. I had a pie. My wife had a wedge of a chocolate cake which overcame her skepticism and apathy enough to be pronounced “really good”. People trickled back with their rash purchases and the bus started for Frankfurt, finally turning away from the banks of Rhine, whose rippling waters were now shimmering like a million liquid mirrors, as must have been happening for thousands of years.
The long highway back to Frankfurt never seemed to end. Despite everyone’s fatigue the tour guide kept up his cheerful chatter. I caught only some snatches of his pleasant nonsense. I remember one, when he was asking us to spend all our euros in Germany because he promised to spend all his money in our national currency when he visited our countries. He later moved down the bus aisle with a cardboard tray for any “gratuities” we might like to give for him and the driver. Everyone did.
It was night when the bus dropped us outside the Frankfurt Hauptbahnof. We were to catch our flight back to Mumbai next morning. The TV in our hotel room said that the coup in Turkey had been crushed and widespread reprisals had started.
The next morning our huge east-European looking taxi driver asked us politely, “Indian?” Yes, and you? “Serbian,” he said and shrugged. “Was Yugoslavian”, he added. “See what they have done to it!” he gestured with his free hand disgustedly and sadly. Nations, still being made and unmade. At the airport terminal, taking our leave, I shook hands with him saying that Indians had admired Yugoslavia and Tito. He smiled sadly, his palm on his heart, and bowed, saying thank you. Across the terminal door Lufthansa took over. As the plane was taking off my first question returned to my mind. Why are Germans smoking so much? What is burning them up?
This became my pattern for the next two days too – based on trams, sights, whims and random ruminations. I was aware that I was missing out a lot by seeing Karlsruhe this way; the palaces, the zoo, the museums, of the standard template of tourism. I regretted missing out on museums and still do today, but the time available was short and above all I was mesmerized by the tram experience of seeing ordinary people in ordinary settings.
The next morning, after my wife left for her conference, I moved smartly to the Kalstor tram stop opposite my hotel, put a Euro 10 note in the ticket machine and confidently punched the right touch screen tabs – and out came the Euro 6.20 all day ticket with the balance change clinking in the tray for it. Got into the first tram that came along, punched it for date and time, and I was off. Brennschluss! It is a term used in rocket science, for the moment when a rocket’s engines fall off and it becomes ballistic. Or so I think.
The tram curved off at the now familiar Europaplatz and its shopping arcades, and leaving it behind went past office buildings, schools, a church or two, to the quiet and somnolent residential areas. Then came some parks and car-filled road-crossing, and then I saw, obviously in an outskirt area, huge and multi storied non-industrial buildings with discrete signs saying Siemens, and the tram came to its last stop called Siemensallee. Many buildings and huge car parking around them full of parked cars, but nicely interspersed with beautiful trees – not huge and bare and brash in the Yankee style. These looked like white collar office buildings humming with inward oriented activity. Siemens has many products, many divisions and many subsidiaries. It had become the industrial giant it is like most other German industrial giants, during the Nazi war mobilizations for WW II. After the driver’s 5 minutes rest, the tram wheeled round to go back to Europaplatz, again passing homes, schools and churches.
The churches were dull and unremarkable looking, quite unlike the brightly painted, stain-glassed, and even gilded and silvered looking ones we get to see in India, with colourful statuary of Christ, Mary or some saints prominent from the passing roads. May be it is the imperial minded Catholic vs. utilitarian Protestant thing. The tram I was on was taking a rounded suburban route to Europaplatz, stopping at small, quiet tram stops with only one or two people getting on or off. The tram will stop at a tram stop, half for a second or two, and after the automatic doors opened a wide metal plate will slide out from beneath the door frame, and it will cover the small 6 inches gap between the tram and the edge of the concrete platform of the tram stop: so that people getting on or off will not be troubled by the dangerous gap. I soon got to see what a deeply thoughtful measure this was.
In one stop there was only one old lady on a wheel chair with a big dog. As the tram halted, doors opened and the metal platform slid out almost to the tram stop, the lady moved buttons on the electronically operated wheelchair and preceded by the dog moved into the tram, and she maneuvered the wheelchair sideways so as to clear the passage inside the tram door for the convenience of other passengers. The tram driver halted for a bit longer for her convenience, maybe she was a regular and other passengers helpfully moved to provide her space to monitor her wheelchair, and the tram moved off. It took me a few seconds to understand that the lady was blind besides being wheelchair dependent and that the dog was one of those “seeing” dogs for the blind. I watched it all astounded and fascinated. This was civilization indeed. A blind and handicapped old lady, alone with her helpful dog, could move her wheelchair about on the road, get into a tram with it, whose construction and mechanisms were designed to provide seamless convenience for her. A far cry indeed from public transport in India. The dog looked around, protectively but comfortably.
A short distance later the tram stopped, the doors opened, the metal plate slid out to cover the intervening gap and following her dog the blind lady moved out her wheelchair on to the platform. The tram moved off again. I wanted to stand up and clap. But inside the tram the people were cool – it was an ordinary thing here, in this small town in Germany. This was a staggering experience for me, for a dark skinned Indian of the 21st century. Many weeks later, writing this today, I would still rank this as the single most important insight of my whole trip to Germany. Civilization, for the ordinary citizen. And these same people, thoughtful and gentle and caring, did stuff like Dachau and Auschwitz and all that? The question, ever present at the back of my mind, popped up, as it did many times in the whole trip. There was a church across the next tram stop. I abruptly got off to see it, a thing I, a lifelong atheist, had never done before.
It was a brown brick unpainted structure, with its doorways and windows framed within narrow, tall, severely-pointed arches also made of bricks. Although the doors’ and windows’ panels were of plain glass, their outer frames had brown coloured and minimal ornamental carvings. The narrow, tall steeple had a plain, weather-resistant cross. A plaque told me it was a protestant church rebuilt after its destruction during the WW II bombings. Most Germany is so rebuilt. Restored is the correct word. And not only for churches, but all buildings, walls, forts and ramparts in Germany. It speaks something. I am not quite sure exactly what. The church was unused; wrong time and day of the week of course. I peeked inside. Saw plain and functional arrangements of insides of churches – none of the resplendent gold, and glass and glitter, and statuary and paintings we see interestingly more in Goan churches built by the Portuguese for example. One or two people inside smiled at me. I wandered around inside for quite some time and came out from a side door, and sat on a bench. Trams were passing behind me, beyond the boundary wall covered in tastefully flowering creepers. A sort of priest came out, unparked his bicycle and rode off towards the main entrance nodding his white skinned pink face with blue eyes at me.
I sat on that bench for a long time, beside neatly trimmed green lawns and colorful flower beds shining in the sun and watched the church. The whole Christianity business, started more than two thousand years back and many thousand miles away in Asia mainly by a dark skinned, hook nosed Palestinian Jew called Jesus, had led up to this today? This linear and unornamented church, Castesian and severe, a deeply foreign thing for Asia, was speaking of deep and careful organizational effort behind it, and of a clearly practical and corporate spirit manifest in everything about it: a far cry indeed from the simple faith and compassion of Jesus of Nazareth. Surely an alien, European animal this, I felt. Jesus would have found it puzzling and pagan, although who the hell was I to speak of such matters? With this disturbed feeling eating my mind I spent most of that day getting off my cosy trams to see whatever churches hove into view. Somehow this made me watch the people more closely, hoping to see I don’t know what; perhaps some awareness of huge transmutations history and politics can bring about. In one residential neighbourhood I was surprised to see, as I wandered about its marketplace, a middle aged negro man on a bicycle, with salt and pepper curly hair and a lined wizened forehead. He too watched me watching him, both acknowledging to each other the easy oddity of both of us being there at this time and also the many things that bring about such huge realities in this world.
In my next tram, thinking of the knowing looks that had passed between that negro cyclist and me, I sat covertly watching two middle aged white, German haus fraus back from the day’s shopping , sitting in the opposite seat, and calmly chatting and licking ice cream cones. I was deeply aware of my Asiatic, dark skinned alienness. What would they be thinking of me? What would I, come to it, be thinking of some Asiatic, dark skinned Indian man sharing my tram nonchalantly had I been a white-skinned, blue eyed German? Surely an alien person, at best benignly tolerable? And I suddenly understood the whole rightwing narrative of racism in Germany; more, of the whole white “West`s”. The West truly belonged to the white races very deeply indeed and the West is truly far more civilized and prosperous. It is another matter that they would not have got their present prosperity and wealth without their exploited colonial empires. But to a western surely even this understanding would today only produce wrath and indignation – former animal like slaves getting uppity, wanting equality and post-colonial re-accounting and even a re-audit of history!
This disturbance revealed another thing as I sat in a Burger King to have my forgotten lunch. I have read in quite some detail what many scholars, writers, and sociologists of the white races have called The Jewish Question or Anti-Semitism, etc. Even Shakespeare, that sensor par excellence, was grappling with it in his many plays. It is and always has been, after sifting away the chaff, plain and simple racism of the whites really. Even the current cant of clash of civilizations or the West versus Islam etc. since the days of George Bush Sr. led NATO invasion of Afghanistan are more virulent forms of the same modern racism.
That night my wife and I had dinner in a restaurant called Taj Palace near our hotel and chose Indian food which was surprisingly excellent. I had a fine German beer or two as well. Walking back to the hotel I saw that the half-moon was shining in the clear blue skies, and moonlight was glistening on the steel tram rails. I tried and failed to keep at bay old documentary images of kristallnacht celebrations by the not so gentle Germans of the Nazi epoch, maybe even here in Karlsruhe, maybe even on the streets I was walking on. I had in any case noticed that towards midnight when the roads were nearly empty sounds of noisy and fast cars and motorbikes went up noticeably, but maybe this was only because such driving pleasures could be available in those time slots. Life is not all darkness, I told myself. But why was I telling myself this, many times in this trip? Before falling asleep, reading as usual a few pages of Milosz’s book of agonized search for his nativity I read about his long struggle with the contradictions between catholic childhood’s faith and the rising rationality and secular openness of teenage years. It had happened in Poland when Germany had been recently unified by Bismarck and the World War I was yet to arrive.
From the next day I vainly tried to retrieve some structure out of my instinctive and random mode of travel that seemed so rewarding and rich. I must at least see the Rhine – spelt as Rhein in German — while I was in Karlsruhe. From Europaplatz I took trams with destination panels having Rhein written on them. I got off at stops saying Rheinhafenstrasse, Rheinhafen, Rheinbergstrasse, but got no sight of the river. I remembered that old Durlach was in the eastern side of the city and the river was on the western side, and by now from Europaplatz I could make out east bound and west bound trams. Rappenwort seemed to be the westernmost last stop, and it had a pleasant Harry Potter sound to it. I took a tram to it. It took me to the most rural side of Karlsruhe, with small, single storey houses with sloping slate roofs, huddled close together. The tram passed close to the walls and windows, and the track was winding along a land sloping down perhaps to the river. Small, narrow churches with thin steeples. Very few people around, no market places, no two-lane roads, no two storeyed houses. I got off at Daxlanden and wandered around. In earlier times the narrow winding road would have been ox-carts for the villages huddling along the banks of the Rhine. In winters those villages would have been snowed in beside a freezing river. The only diversion would have been drink and the sunday mass in the church. It was claustrophobic. A sight of the river would have lifted my spirits but I did not see it. Rappenwort was the wooded area, definitely close to the river – I could feel the moisture – but it had no schules for wizards or muggles or anyone else.
Another try on a tram took me to a stop called Rehinbergstrasse. Berg meant a fort, I thought. Fort on the Rhine. This was on a highish table land, and its busy road crossings and many cars spoke of urban activity, maybe of the river port. I remembered from my earlier reading mention of a river port, even an oil refinery! But I did not see anything. May be I should not have been tram-bound. Defeated I returned to Europaplatz and sat on a bench – nice benches every 10 yards in the top market place of the city. I was not to see Rhine at all in Karlsruhe despite many other attempts. I saw it later while in Frankfurt which is ironically on the river Main, not Rhine. Disappointed, I took trams to untried destinations. Each route was a journey into a distinct character of buildings, people and atmosphere of neighbourhoods – each seemed to be telling a story. Time was too short to ponder and piece together the story of each suburb, but I was absorbed, zonked by the details of each area, opening itself outside my passing tram window.
The end stops of each of these branch lines had names like Waldstadt, Heide, Neureut, Knielingen, Messe, Oberreut, Wolfartseier. I went to each dreamily, got off and wandered around for some time, may be ate or drank something, and returned to Europaplatz. In the process I got to see the market centre of Europaplatz better. Strategically situated in shop fronts of the main streets were fat, white, male beggars stationed for the day with plastic pouches of eats for the day and 2 litre bottles of water to drink. They begged with bold, assured, corporate demeanours, not abject or at the end of the tether types we see in India. The long market street was lush, colourful, steel-glass-and concrete, rich, aromatic with restaurants and bars, fragrant with perfumes of the genteel citizenry, and music. Many supermarkets had baby pianos and guitars in play pens placed outside their entrances. I saw children sitting at them and banging out some tunes well amplified for the passers by — somebody also kept an eye on them as their parents shopped inside. It was nice and decent, done in good spirit. Gentle. This word came up again, as it did during this whole trip.
Nice benches every few steps along both sides of road, to sit, gawk, ponder, google, eat and chat – while trams plied gently to and fro. I too did the same, bench to bench. In one place as I sat on a bench I was entranced by beautiful music wafting out of nice and well-bred amplifiers. Looking for its source I saw two men, no longer young, on the street playing it live outside a huge, glittering mall. One man was on a proper grand piano (I think) and the other was playing the medieval European flute ensemble – I don’t know its correct name: it is about 8 to 10 flutes attached together side by side, shortest one at one end and graduating to the longest at the other end, like a big harmonica, if harmonica is the word I am looking for. They were playing something detailed, deep and exquisite – the deep notes of the flutes weaving around the rippling chords of the piano. It sounded classical and yet light – something like Mozart or Chopin, to my gross and untutored ears. They were doing it, of course, to attract customers for the mall but they were also playing with feeling and enjoyment. I walked up to see them better. Both wore cheerful and ironic expressions on their faces, well aware of all the meanings of the situation happening there. I caught the eye of the flute man and clapped silently. He nodded, his eyes merry, and tossed his long hair. Crass marketing for a daily wage, yes, but Germanic – gentle, classical, beautiful. That nagging question came up nagging again: gentle, cultured Germans and their recent past of Nazi, corporate barbarism.
So moved, troubled, I would catch the next tram which will take me away to some last stop, Waldstadt. Many schules (schools), and a rat house (town hall), and a calm, settled, well-off neighbored – all Karlsruhe is well off – and I would wander around like a Martian. Some schools, obviously meant for younger children, had brightly painted outer walls. Some even had huge cartoon characters painted in kid colours – “kindergarten” is a German word of course, children’s garden. These cartoons had cute and “funny” looks, which are supposed to appeal to small children. To my eyes and senses weaned on the sole diet of American funny cartoons these looked, amateurish, stilted, unfunny and vaguely what is derogatorily called “east-european”. The famous German lack of humour? Does this have something to do with Germany`s historical insulation from the many-coloured cultures of the Mediterranean? Perhaps. But I also understood something else. In the post-Walt Disney explosive mega-world of multinational corporation-bred cartoons, and particularly its animation avatars, the standard of humour is in comparison, infinitely more rich, detailed and artistically extremely exquisite. Yes. Standing in the gentle streets and retreats of Waldstadt, the word that stuck in my mind was: extremely. The American fun-industry bred cartoons carry fun to syrupy, over-evolved, over-digested extremes – it is fun porn really.
Troubled but rapt I would then take the return tram to Europaplatz and sit on another bench, and see a multinational mix of people, families, ambling around, shopping – Germans, Turks, East Europeans, even burka-clad Arabs, atheletic Africans, Shia Iranians. Germany’s immigration policy, the most liberal in E.U. was visible on the streets. One night I had heard from my hotel window some people speaking a Bangladeshi dialect of Bengali at the Kalstor tram stop!
Something would strike me again, say, an Iranian-looking large family earnestly discussing the purchases they had just made – the children looking unhappy and skeptical, the elders giving voluble, unsuccessful justifications, the women with placatory, resigned faces – and I would be moved to catch the next tram which will take me away to another suburb ending at, say, Knielingen; and I would again take up my entranced Martian odessey. I would return to Europaplatz, see a cluster of uniformed young women with chiseled, made up faces and sculpted bodies — shop assistants on tea break — huddling together in a smoking area, and smoking cigarettes with a vengeance, wonder again why so many educated Germans are smoking so much, and I would take the refuge in another tram which will take me to Neureut this time. And in the tram rides I would see another enigma: many white Germans reading serious looking books, not trapped in their mobile phones like in India. This was as common as smoking, this reading of serious books.
So it went, my waking dream days in Karlsruhe.
On our last day in Karlsruhe google news in the morning was full of an ongoing army coup attempt in Turkey, of tank battles in Istanbul, of Erdogan on TV denouncing it. All this was not a distant thing it would have been in Bombay or Delhi; here it had a shocking and immediate feel. My wife’s conference was to be over by midday and impressed by my ravings on Karlsruhe she had agreed to wander around in the city on its wonderland trams. The next day, a Sunday, we were to be taken to a day trip to the famous Black Forests of Germany where it had painstakingly regenerated a large patch to restore its “original” glory after centuries of deforestation. I spent the morning scanning the few news channels on the hotel’s TV hoping to understand what was happening in Turkey. In my understanding of things Turkey, after its brilliant promise of Kemal Attaturk days, was once again going feral in the 21st century, divided since the 20th century between its Asiatic past and Kemalist European aspirations. Germany had found in Turkey an ally in 1914 and had fought a world war in partnership with it. Both had lost. Germany had after the war regenerated itself on the coat tails of Hitler, while Turkey had seemingly shed its medieval caliphateism and morphed into a “modern” nation with Ataturk. Was Turkey’s modernity, always precarious, unraveling now? Watching the TV commentators, sitting in a hotel in a small town in Germany, it felt like a huge accident happening just next door. Another small news report mentioned that an Afghan immigrant to Germany driven by Islamist ideas went on a stabbing spree in a railway train near Stuttgart, less than 100 kilometers from Karlsruhe. What a trip this was turning out to be!
But the glittering Europaplatz was undisturbed, or it didn’t show anything but its usual decked up, ready-for-the-day’s-business face. This was the final and decisive frontier of business after all, where the current enormous global production and transportation systems of business management finally placed a gleaming, alluring product before the eyes and hands of the customer, so as to entice her to part with her cash while believing that she was exercising her free choice – this was the cutting edge of today’s civilization really. The place was waking up; the live musicians had not arrived at this early, lean hours of business. The piano was playing itself, a ghost in the machine punching its keys and playing a tune of tranquil, limpid waters. Away from wars and coups and bloodshed the market of Karlsruhe was serenely starting another day under clear blue skies where the gentle sunshine was trying to scatter away a thin gauze of high overnight white clouds. Markets are fantastic things, like galaxies.
My wife joined me at midday after her conference and I showed off my expertise in buying two tram tickets of Euro 6.20 each and we got into the first tram that came along; markets can wait. We had opted for Durlach as the first destination for the day; I was chattering away as an experienced tour guide. Having reached Durlach I pointed out the schloss of Turmberg on top of the hill and told its story, and with a non-arthritic nonchalance she wanted to walk up to it. We went up a little way. She too was entranced by the vistas that opened up, especially after days of indoor conferencing. We sat on a rock bench, now both of us seeing the open landscape of Germany.
We returned to Europaplatz by another roundabout route, took another tram which took us south (in German, sud) via our familiar Hauptbahnof and through settled, calm neighborhoods, basking in the sun on a Saturday, the tram twisting and turning with old streets made new, and ended at Badeniaplatz. “Bad” in German means health spa. The whole south-west Germany is full of spas, the health-and-retreat-resorts built around hot or cold natural springs since medieval, pre-antibiotic times. In the 19th century many of the novels – catering to the wealthy class, before the paperback revolution – were set in and around such spas. The nobility, the gentry, the wealthy, came to spas to restore or repair their health and spirits by spring waters, baths, and steams. They also holidayed, settled family and business matters here. South of Karlsruhe was the district of Baden-Baden the district of spas amidst the old Black Forests. Karlsruhe itself was at the southern edge of Baden-Wurtemburg district. We walked around to see what a spa looked like, at least from the outside. We saw one, in an oldish looking squat building with a brass plate saying in German what probably meant a spa. It was next to a florist and a car-hire company. It bespoke of stream baths and mud packs in cramped spaces. Across the street was a Doner Kebab shop. We took to the tram again. My wife was now beginning to grasp and enjoy the mesmerism of tram journeying I had been talking about, its complete magic of living cinema.
In our next return to base at Europaplatz we found it unusually crowded at the tram stops and found that much fewer trams were plying as we waited for the Daxlanden tram. There was a thwarted, unsettled air. We waited for quite some time along with many other people waiting too. Some were wandering off. The electronic panels at the tram stop were saying something repeatedly, something urgent. We were not the only bewildered people there. One man came up to us speaking loudly in english that today Route 2 and Route 3 were regrettably closed for repair work on the tracks for two days. This was a big blow. We took another tram plying on some open Route, but it was crowded, filled and emptied at each stop, and we could not see much of the outside scenes because of the press of passengers. We gave up on the trams, disappointed.
Our happy plans dashed we were nonplussed and at a loss — precisely when markets nab you — and we looked at the nearest alternative, of seeing what shopping was on offer. From dreamtime to malls. One mall entirely devoted to jewelry and it passed muster in my wife’s gimlet eyes. Converted to rupee terms the prices were too high. Another mall devoted to beautiful household objects. Here were truly excellently made handicrafts made by machines. I too had to admit the refined design and workmanship. Made in China, made in Bangladesh, made in India. Look, all this is made back home. I said. So what, my wife answered, we don’t get to see these there, do we? She had a point. She would not let go of an exquisitely sculpted papier mache Buddha head in his Avalokiteshwara mode. Look at its size, I said, it would get crushed in our luggage handling. True, she had to concede. This battle continued, mall to mall, but we landed up buying gifts for people back home, till we stopped to think, look what are we doing here, thousands of miles from home, shopping? Good sense from Buddha made us come out of the magic spell of markets and we resumed normal meandering of tourists. And this took us, naturally, to the centre of Karlsruhe – the main schloss made by Karl William when he founded the city. My tramline dream-world had receded and I was back to the Wikipedia world.
All roads were geometrically arterial and led to the huge, green, beautiful garden at the centre of which sat the white, small, schloss, no more than 2 storey high and looking vaguely familiar. No wonder it is said that Americans built their capital Washington DC schlosses on the lines of Karlsruhe’s. The main buildings indeed looked like smaller-scale versions of Washington’s White House, and had more of a charming beauty than the off-putting American pomposity. The diminutive schloss complex was surrounded by huge, green, manicured parks divided into sectors radiating outwards. The effect was wonderful, cultured and – again that word – gentle. Many clusters of people, families, lovers, solitaries, sitting in the parks’ grasses or on benches were dotted about in the vast, vacant schloss garten; no crowding at all. There was a museum inside the schloss. We strolled towards it, half decided about going in, but the mild sunshine, blue sky, and mainly unpopulated green of the garden dissuaded us and we too found a peaceful bench, and silently gazed again at the gentle, beautiful Germany with admiration. The king had meant this schloss to be an oasis, and it still is. People were taking photos, eating picnic lunch, strolling hand in hand or with ice-cream cones, reading books, or just gazing at their middle distance navels in the balmy weather – even those with shorts-n-tshirts or burqas.
Our peaceful bench was on the outer side of one sector of the park, near the larger circle of dull, ungrand buildings which surrounded the central schloss in an arc – very much like the buildings of the original Connaught Circus in Delhi. These were originally the inns for the Gentlemen-in-Waiting for the king’s audience and beyond this circle of inns was a middle circle road for these inns’ entrances. This middle circle, largely unoccupied except for pedestrians like us, suddenly started emitting fun sounds. We turned to see that a bunch of open-topped, expensive cars were going round and round the circular road, and the occupants were formally well dressed young people whooping and strewing colored balloons. We saw a white veil fluttering behind a bride’s head. The wedding party, obviously post-wedding, was having nice, gentle, and mildly inebriated fun. The expensive cars were not tearing the tarmac and the shouts and yodels were not brash or aggressively loud. Pleasing to the party, pleasing to the watchers. After four or five rounds they went away, and the garten resumed its calm.
Not quite. In the new calm after the wedding party we heard what would have been going on all the time, someone giving a loud running commentary and also having huge laughing, cackling fun while doing it. We must have earlier assumed unthinkingly that it was some sort of public address stuff, meant for the schloss visitors; the voice was loud enough for an amplifier. It was a fat, middle aged German woman with short hair. Sitting alone on a bench she was listening to something on her earphones and was speaking into a small microphone she held, which was connected to a small amplifier box sitting beside her. Her voice was echoing in the narrow space between shops and cafés leading to the main road on Kaiserstrasse. It could have been a football match she was listening to, or a political rally, or even a rock concert. Everyone was turning to look at her and edge away nervously. With her shouts, cackling laughter, and derisive comments (which we could not understand) which made her audience a bit afraid, her red face was shining with glee and her laughing teeth were gleaning white. She was enjoying the effect she was making. To me her exhortations sounded vaguely political, or at least messianic. My wife told me I was imagining this; the fat lady was just nicely mad.
Keeping my fantasy unuttered – that she was in truth the unbanished spirit of original Karlsruhe of 1715 commenting and gleefully deriding the globalized Karlsruhe of 2016 – we moved away from this feudal environment and sat in one open air café in the Marketplatz on the Kaiserstrasse – which was a huge open square surrounded by tasteful old buildings. It was the original plaza of markets which would have catered to the original schloss and its visitors` inns. It had a small and dowdy-looking pyramid at its centre – no higher than 6 feet – under which the old king was buried. Every tourist brochure speaks of this pyramid as a must visit thing. In its original time it must have been an exotic and even magical oriental thing, fit for a king’s tomb. Today it looked pitiful and dwarfed, a bit like cardboard advertisement stalls in Lajpat Nagar market in Delhi touting sarees and marriage brass bands.
We sat in the cafe’ for a long time as one should in such café’s, watching the shoppers and walkers go by, the sun move down the sky in the west, the urban life unfold in the platz. The afternoon tabloid newspaper someone had left on our cloth covered table showed its front page: the Turkish flag with the crescent moon and a star, and a single word: Coup. I checked in the google news. The coup had failed already.
We had an early dinner for making an early start for the Black Forests next morning. Eating Indian food again while here in Germany would have been cowardly, and the overwhelming meat of German food was by now becoming unwelcome even for a meat eater Bengali. We compromised on Chinese. The main dish of potatoes and brinjals was tasty alright, but probably the cook was from Bihar. The beer was top class, German. Sloping off to sleep I read Milosz as usual. He was exploring questions of his youth, like: was Copernicus (1473-1543) a Polish, a Prussian, or a Lithuanian? Before the 19th century idea of a nation, how did people see themselves? More: how do we see people (like Copernicus) today who lived before nations were born? Nations are not everlasting things, nothing is. So how should we revise our simplistic and politically unreflective ideas about who we are? (… to be contd)