My Germany Trip (2)

Karlsruhe

The morning opened as a crisply washed and clear morning to our well rested crisp minds. Clear blue sky, gentle and clean golden sunlight on buildings and trees (trees dotted the buildings throughout the city), an unawakened low intensity shopping strip across the hotel, and mainly pedestrians and cyclists on the vacant rain-washed roads hunched and hooded against the cold 14o morning breeze hurrying to their workplaces early. Ah, so this is ordinary, suburban Germany! Clean, beautiful, gentle, well off, but not garish or in-your-teeth wealthy looking. Actually these words sum up all the patches of Germany I saw during my whole trip. There were one or two worrying points, but about that later. Meanwhile through the half opened window of our hotel room we breathed the clean air in this foreign country, gazed at the sights it presented to our eyes, sensed the ineffable mystery of a new land, felt the enigma of arrival Naipaul has spent his whole life writing about. We stood gazing out of the window, rapt.
To see more I opened the other window. I must have done something wrong, because the whole huge window, 6 feet by 3 feet, bent inward from the top and started falling upon my head. I pushed it back up in panic but it wouldn’t shut – it remained up but jammed, somehow stuck and about to fall any moment. Calamity. Whatever philosophical pretences Indians project for themselves and for foreigners about their deep mystical philosophical stances, in truth the deepest philosophical view of dharma – The Way – we have is close to Murphy’s Law: if things can go wrong, they will, with the added lemma that things always can go wrong. Life, ie, bhavasagara, is fundamentally fucked up. Pessimism is the polite word for it. May be those early 18th century Britishers in India driven by their newly found optimism of nascent capitalism had got this part about us right: religious pessimism; although they later got caught up in their wretched racism against Indian baboons. Of course these reflections of mine are ex-post-facto. Holding the swaying window up somehow with one panicked hand I tried to contact the hotel management, only to discover that the room did not have an intercom to the reception, or to anywhere! I later found that nearly all German hotels have these odd kinks mainly motivated by sly economic calculations. My wife ran out to the lobby to raise alarm, as I held the huge window teetering on disaster.
Eventually a man, white, but vaguely Turkish or east-European, with a middle-management air came to our rescue. I explained the matter. His English was in trial and error stage, so I calibrated.
“Window broken,” I said. “Fix this. Or change our room.”
“All rooms completely full,” he said proudly.
“Then what about this?” I shouted pointing to the swaying window. “We go to another hotel?”
He was puzzled.
“Tziss is for air,” he said.
“For air!?” Was the fellow mad, to top it all?
Totally immune to my worsening panic on the utter fuckedupness of life he moved to the window and held the handle, and I quickly removed my restraining hand holding the window at bay and stepped back cleverly. He turned the handle in some mysterious way and shut the window up nicely with a crisp click. Then he turned the handle another way and the window opened smoothly like normal windows do – around a vertical axis, the way I had wanted to open it in the first place.
“Tziss iz to look outside,” he said now smiling rattily. “To zee the beautiful view outside!”
“Oh”.
Then he shut the window again and turned the handle 180 degree and pulled. The huge window started tilting inward from the top, now moving around horizontal axis – the way it had started falling upon my head triggering the whole catastrophe. To my horror he kept pulling the knob. The window tilted about 6 inches inward from the top and six inches outward from the bottom – and stopped firmly and coolly.
“If you keeps window open, somebody can come inside,” he made running gestures with his arms pumping like a sprinter, smiling dementedly.
“Really?” What have we got into here?
“Of course, nobody comz inside!” he grinned placatingly making soothing gestures with his hands, but still looking very Dostoyevskian. “That iz only I am talking to explain.”
“I see,” getting the point probably. What we had seen of Karlsruhe didn’t quite support the image of rampaging burglars or dacoits.
Then he pointed to the vertically, partially opened window triumphantly.
“And tziss is so to let air come inside,” he said grinning. “When you go out shopping, sightzeeing.”
He saw that my wronged universe was probably beginning to right itself.
“Tzee, yourself,” he pointed to the handle encouragingly, and shut the window again. I tried the handle cautiously and pulled. The window tilted inward six inches and halted sweetly. I breathed with relief.
“Try the other zide,” said the Dostoyevskian gnome. I did. The window opened normally, in the familiar way. “It iz for your comfort,” he said winningly. He was not looking very Dostoyevskian anymore.
“Thanking you,” I said with deep feeling.
“No problem, welcome,” he waved and went away.
So, with one window open to air and intruders and the other open only to air, at peace again, we had our first tea in Germany, from the tea tray of things kept in the room. The tea was good, like home. We were to know later that most hotels without airconditioning and maybe homes too had such windows. It made sense, just. I saw many similar practical things in Germany in this trip that made sense, just.           wp_20160715_20_12_20_pro
Like the breakfast, in the breakfast lounge (no room service of course). It was our first German food of the trip, and was quite a spread. Various kinds of local bakery baked breads, various cold cuts of meats, scrambled eggs, various salads, pickles (gherkins were the best), fruits, coffees – and fried Nuremberg sausages and ham. Why Nuremberg sausages? Hadn’t heard of them, but then I had hardly heard much of things German anyway. Nuremberg, the city of trials of war crimes of the Nazis was all I know of it. The sausages were small, mildly spiced and good. Oh, and many flavoured yogurts (very good). I saw a small tray kept hesitantly next to the sausages and its name card said “sauerkraut.” Sauerkraut, at last! I had read so much about it, the standard food of childhood in Germany like cabbage soup of England since Dickens. It was in my must eat mental list. It is wettish shredded cabbage, fermented and mildly salted. It tastes sour and does the probiotic job and is eaten as a sort of basic salad for sausages. Not very good. I could understand why eating it every day, German school boys hated it, in the novels I had read – as English school boys hated cabbage soup in English novels. Cabbage is good for growing children, it was and is believed; and children want to quickly grow out of it – like most things of childhood. Clean, nutritious, good and sensible, and after the first day, repetitive and boring breakfast. Breads stood out. Every day even the commercially run hotel had women baking different breads with different dough, and breads were of different shapes and taste. Germany freaked out on breads. I liked “bretzel” the best. It is a giant, spoked-wheel-like, pretzel shaped, spiced, tasty bread. I will give it the gold medal. Breads, meats, and wine/beer. This is all that is German food, just. Of all European food Germany`s has the least variation. Why? Because being late starters on the gravy train (heh, heh) of colonization – later even than the Italians who in turn were late in following the British, French, Spanish and the Dutch – they missed out on the bounty of spices? The current historians are coming round to the view that the famed Age of Exploration in Europe was actually driven by the earth shattering experience of taste of Asiatic spices in food, and by the mad lust unleashed by this discovery into the centuries old dull palates of the “pagan” ancient times and the Christian middle ages. The flag, the cross, and even gold etc were later quests really. Again the mediterrandan angle. Forget exploration or conquest for spices, Germany and Switzerland without a Mediterranean shore even missed out on the normal civilizational contacts in that direction. Later I was to see in the marketplaces that Turkish origin Doner Kebab eateries have pretty much displaced the “German food” restaurants who have, shrewdly, adjusted to this trend.
My wife had to catch the punctual bus of the punctual Germans for the conference while I wanted to go back to sleep. Many other delegates were staying in the same hotel – mainly senior bankers from Asia and Africa, a cynical and humourous lot as I found when I met them later. The conference was being organized by something cutely called European Organization for Sustainable Development. “Sustainable Development” is of course World Bank speak for sustaining the comfortable lifestyles of the white G-8 or G-10 people at the cost of sweatshops of Asia, Africa and Latin America where laboring men, women and children on sub survival wages live in unsustainable homes and habitats and hopes. The sad and wise Afro-Asian bankers were, I found, tolerant of the German hypocrisy and cant and merry about it – mildly joking about “Deutsche Mark, oops, Euro” – having really come all the way to Karlsruhe only to pick up one or two technical tricks on waste-management or forestry. Humour was the best way to bear the German naivete and arrogance. The bus came punctually, the delegates went punctually, and I returned to my room now rendered much fresher by the open anti-intruder window. All I wanted to do was to get back into bed and begin rereading Czeslaw Mislosz’s The Native Realm that I had carried with me as my sole companion-book for this trip and, occasionally watching the clear indigo sky outside the sunlit window, to go back to sleep. In this book which I had first read twenty years back Milosz has explored within his own life the tortuous meanings of nativity and nationality and all that.
I read Milosz, and also dozed for a time. But through the open window I could hear, apart from sedate sounds of trams stopping and starting, laughter and shouts of children at play. Probably no sound in our universe is more mysterious and uplifting. I went to the window. There was a school – schule in German – across the road, with a vaguely Greek or Roman looking building. May be the school day was over and the children were waiting for mothers or elder siblings to come in bicycles to escort them home also on bicycles, filling up the waiting time with as much play as they could wrest from the day. Clean, white, healthy children, eyes shining, faces lit with laughter and mischief. I watched, speechless, fascinated, as trams glided to the stop and glided away with soft pings of opening and closing doors in both directions. These were German children, living out their childhood here before my eyes for their destinies in life! Clean, big, modern cars were cruising smartly. I felt I could spend the whole day at the window watching this uncluttered and ordered life go by. And I understood why I wanted to go back to sleep and to the memoirs of Milosz. After having come thousands of miles to Germany, its infinite and foreign suchness looked huge as a mountain and I felt that my going outside will start an enormous and absorbing encounter. Encounter in the best sense of the word. I was afraid that I would be fatigued. I was wrong. Germany energized me instead.
The first thing to do was to go to the tram stop outside my hotel – Kalstor – and try and understand how the system worked. In Karlsruhe the tram lines (two) are in the middle of the roads and the two outer sides are for cars, buses and others – with a border of bicycle-track on each side abutting the pavements for pedestrians. There are many zebra crossings for pedestrians and cyclists to cross the roads (one can take one’s bicycle inside the tram, space permitting!) well controlled by profuse traffic lights which are obeyed by all. This is so all over in Germany it is said. Karlsruhe’s tram system is more advanced, as an expert told me later, in many ways but mainly because the tram tracks are by design integrated with the national and international rail tracks, so that if necessary trams and trains can connect seamlessly with each others track. So far it has not been necessary it seems. Only the highways outside the city have a respectable volume of vehicular traffic although very tame and girlish looking when compared with Delhi-Gurgaon highway or even Bombay-Pune expressway.
The tiny stop Kalstor had a tiny shelter from sun and rain and an automatic ticket vending machine, which accepted cash and coin of Germany but also all major credit and debit cards of the world. There was a helpful menu of instructions to operate the machine and buy tickets – but it was in German. I couldn’t decipher it at all, as I pretended to read it with a casual nonchalance (why was I being so silly?). The man at my hotel’s reception, which also doubled as its bar (jolly hotel!), had told me to buy a Euro 6.20 ticket which will enable me to travel in any tram or any bus – or any train, should they get suddenly integrated with Karlsruhe’s trams today – for the next 24 hours. It sounded like a bargain and later proved to be so. But right now I was stumped by my illiteracy. Three frail old ladies waiting for their tram were watching me with kindly smiles. Maybe that is why I shrugged theatrically and sauntered off lightly as if all along I was studying the vending machine merely for an academic caprice! An Inscrutable Indian here. But well clear of the tram stop, at a road crossing, I stopped and wondered where to go, and how. I was standing at a pedestrian zebra crossing and I was the only one there. The traffic signal opposite to zebra crossing was red. Obediently I stood unmoving for quite a few minutes while no car or bus or even a bicycle went past either way. German’s are sticklers for rules I had been told. When I was beginning to feel silly in the situation a senior lady came from behind me, pushing a wheeled stroller filled with the day’s domestic shopping and happily skipped across to the light shining red. Germans break rules too! Happily I too started to cross the road and I was midway when the light turned green to rob me of the thrill of breaking a rule in Germany. On the other side sobriety dawned on me and I sought the help of google maps on my mobile phone.
I found I was walking along the Karlstrasse (strasse = street) northward which would hit the Kaiserstrasse half a kilometer ahead at Europaplatz, which seemed to be and later proved to be the main crossroad of the downtown part of Karlsruhe, which in turn was a stone’s throw away from the big daddy schloss (castle) built by Karl Wilhelhm or William in 1715 (Germany has had a lot of illustrious Karls in its roll of honour) around which was built the whole town…. But I was saved from this kind of Wiki perspectives when opening and closing doors of a smallish bakery ensnared me with the smells. I had to go inside, to see the brightly lit, cheerfully painted bakery to look at a mini galaxy of breads and meats and salads – looking at all this was itself like a tribute, eating would have been like a violation of the splendor. I was too full of my first German breakfast anyway. I drifted out spellbound and trudged along towards Europaplatz as planned through google maps. But I was snared again. This time by a biggish sort of park dotted with green, sloping roofed, square rain/sun shelters built on four poles at its four corners. Benches were scaltered around all over in the open. A sign said Biergarten – beer garden – and it was a garden where you sat down and had beer. At this early hour with a cool breeze and weak sunlight only one shelter was occupied, by two large, senior women who communed with each other silently over two generous mugs of beer. I had to get inside the park and sat on a body warming bench in the open. I too wanted to have a 1 litre plus tankard of bier sitting in this well-maintained garten, but it was too cold for a black skinned, breakfast full Asiatic. I just sat, gazed around stupidly, enjoying the gentle sunlight lighting up this gentle town even without a bier.
Along one side garten (3 sides were open) was a large four storey classical looking and old looking building. For a post-colonial dark-skinned any building other than the strictly Euclidean and coldly utilitarian construction is classical – the sort of buildings you see in the historical pictures of European cities, the sort old architects had designed till WW II, or the sort today’s architects fake to imitate and insinuate old culture, old money. The building had a worn out look. A small, old sign over a small gate in the middle said – etched in old stone or plaster – Post Galerie. Post? Post office. So huge? This was Karlsruhe’s old, main post office! Post offices have – at least for me they do – about the same romantic charm as railway stations. I had to see it.
But it was not a post office at all. It was a huge multi-storeyed mall swarming with people. An open, glass-walled lift took you up and down from floor to floor. One floor – the lower ground floor – was given over to eateries, bakeries, bars and full restaurants and florists. Other floors had all the merchandise all the malls carry as cargo, in all modern cities in the world. The only things you probably couldn’t buy here were cars and airplanes. I saw bicycles, skate boards, body building equipment, mountaineering gear, Chinese pottery, apart from the usual. I saw… I don’t know what I saw. After the bier garten, this was claustrophobic, smothering my senses with excess. I blundered outside in some panic. It was on one side of the Post Galerie on my Karlstrasse as it joined the Kaiserstrasse. It was full of people, standing on both sides of the Karlstrasse; girls were having ice-cream; boys were weaving in and of the crowd smoothly gliding on roller skates. I walked to the end of Post Galerie and turned the corner, and the full splendor of Europaplatz hit me full force.
I was standing on the adjacent side of the Post Galerie and on the ground floor outside, facing the downtown shopping plaza of Kaiserstresse, were the Burger Kings, Macdonalds, travel agents, Western Union and a bank. Thronged with people there were semi-permanent shops of eateries, eateries, eateries – German, Italian, Turkish foods and such. The road in front – Kaiserstrasse, intersected by Karlstrasse – was busy with trams coming and going on both tracks. There were half a dozen tram stops. Electronic panels on each tram stop showed an ever changing menu of trams’ destinations with ETAs in minutes. The stops were full of people, some sitting on the helpful benches, holding full shopping bags, flower pots, babies, ice-creams and dogs. I walked to the junction, with trams smartly negotiating the bends in three directions, and saw along Kaiserstrasse endless vistas of restaurants, Woolworths, Nikes, bars, more Burger Kings. I felt I had to get away, even if temporarily so.
I went to the nearest tram stop and stood before its undecipherable automatic ticket machine and watched people coolly punching its buttons and the machine’s slot spewing out tickets. Trams were stopping and moving off. Do I dare disturb the universe? I stood bang against the ticket machine, like Oliver Twist in Fagin’s kitchen. A girl bought her ticket and I blurted out in English if she could help me buy a ticket, and held out a fist full of euro coins. She looked worriedly at the panel showing arriving trams and said oh, okay. I want one for Euro 6.20, I said. She picked out the coins, put them in the slot and punched the buttons too fast for me to see. Out came the ticket. She handed it to me and ran to catch a tram that had just arrived, saying get it punched inside the tram. I now held the getaway key to the universe. I got into the next tram that came, stood around to see what others did, and saw them pushing their tickets inside a small box fitted just inside the entry door. I did the same. The punched ticket showed the date and time. I was now moving, inside some tram in Karlsruhe, away from Post Galerie. And I could go on doing so for the next 24 hours! I was moving,I was free!
I did not understand it then, but this simple getaway act eventually turned out to yield a decisive perspective to my whole visit to Karlsruhe – freed me from the inevitable foreclosures of seeing contained in helpful things like Google, Lonely Planet, Wiki, schlosses and museums, the entire template of tourism. Why only Karlsruhe? This freedom made my whole trip to Germany more personal, more, um, subaltern.
As the fug of my glorious escape in the tram cleared I saw myself sitting on a nice window seat of the half-filled tram, with huge clean glass windows, watching the city glide past. Glide is the word – no duk-duk, duk-duk… pulse of railways – only a smooth sway of being conveyed at a gentle pace. I had no idea of where the tram was going, of course, but I thought I saw my hotel go past, followed by less intense shopping streets and offices of small businesses, and soon I was at the terminus of the Karlsruhe’s Hauptbahnof – the main train station I had arrived at yesterday from Frankfurt! This gave a sense of roundedness to my movement and also of the size of the city.
The tram took another curve of the rails and it was passing residential parts of the city. Quiet sleepy houses, cars parked filling both sides of the streets, leaving only a narrow lane clear in the middle. Trees, parks, benches, well maintained outer walls and pavements. Soon habitation became sparser, occasional houses changed to older traditional sloped roofs with gables and chimneys. The tram passed close to the walls. I could see glimpses of interiors of rooms, the washing hung out to dry on balconies and lawns, flower pots on window sills, rusting bicycles outgrown by the children, houses newly painted or barely lived in, cute letter boxes grown old… life. The tram emptied too, as it neared the end of its route, now both sides surrounded by greenery and trees. It reached the last stop and I was the only passenger left sitting. The driver got off, slowly walked to a small toilet, came out after a few minutes and lighted a happy cigarette. The few houses had the vacancy of the noon. No one was about. Two elderly women were chatting in the balcony of a two storeyed house. They finished their chat and one of them came down to her waiting stroller full of the day’s shopping, waved to the woman looking out from the balcony and slowly moved off. The empty balcony of the adjacent house showed a drooping small flag of Germany, not removed after the German football team which was expected to be the champion had shockingly lost to Italy in the semi-finals of Euro 2016 last week. A tall, erect, old man in white beard with a rucksack on his back slowly walked past. The tram driver waved to him. Two old ladies and a small dog came into the tram. The driver finished his cigarette, turned to see us sitting inside, and slowly moved to his driving seat. I was in a trance. Within 24 hours of having come thousands of miles across the planet from the ever-problematic India, here I was, effortlessly given the opportunity of seeing comfortably from a fine tram the ordinary, suburban, life of white people of an advanced society in Europe! I felt I was given a fantastic privilege. This easy and intimate access was precious – far more than what books, TV and internet could give me. I was hooked by Germany seen thus. The tram moved off again, showing me more of it, immersed in rapt exultation.
Slowly my eyes began to focus better on less ethereal aspects and I began to read street names, shop signs, tram stops, etc. I saw a Goethestrasse. It was to be expected, of course – Goethe. The next street said Mozartstrasse. Mozart, next to Goethe! On an impulse I got out of the tram at the next stop, in a park land residential area, and started walking. The next street read Beethovenstrasse. Marvelling, I walked from street to street reading Haydnstrasse, Bachstrasse, Schubertswtrasse. Which people will name their neighbourhood streets after famous music composers? I moved over some major road crossings and into an institutionalish area and was stumped to see Lorenzstrasse, which joined – appropriately – Einsteinstrasse, passing Otto-Hahn strasse (of the atom bomb of USA in 1940s) on to Gutenbergstrasse and Zeppellinstrasse, Then I saw Siemenstrasse, Nobelstrasse, Marie Curie strasse. Streets named after music masters and physicts! Is there any city like this in the world? This wonderland was, I saw, in and around Ettlingen and it had its old and carefully preserved schloss (castle) too, of course! Quietly energized, I got into the next tram that came along in some tram stop I was standing in. The tram moved on. I remembered out of nowhere at all the fascinating name of a packet of cigarettes I used to see advertised in my childhood days, when smoking was not even an distant idea in my mind: Passing Show. The tram looped back along another arc to the Hauptbahnof again, and further towards the town centre now beginning to look somewhat familiar. This rich pageantry, this was cinema in the most generic sense of the term – this smooth passing of meaningful scenes of Karlsruhe in front of my eyes. A city and all that it contained of the past and the future was unfolding before my eyes according to some deep script of history. And lo and behold, I was approaching the thick market area of the Europaplatz from another direction, the very spot from where I had fled to begin with, but this time with more settled eyes and mind.
It was mid day. The platz was full of people, trams coming and going from all directions, in a city that moves on trams. By now my eye was in and a sort of mode of discovery had been lit in my mind no longer bewildered. Karlsruhe’s trams had led me inside gently to glimpse private lives of ordinary people. The viewpoints of Wikipedia, Lonely Planet, and Deutsche tourism, etc had been left behind by now and I felt free and well centered in a strange city so distant, so foreign and yet I could do as I pleased!
I was sitting on a steel bench of one of the Europaplatz tram stops, watching people shopping, eating, travelling, chatting, or just sitting in the mild summer sunlight. Many were standing in bunches smoking cigarettes. It struck me that I was seeing much more public smoking in Germany than what I saw in Mumbai or Delhi. Odd, this. The electronic panel announcing the pending arrival of trams showed place names and minutes of ETA. One name entered my newly focused mind, a name I had read back in India before starting this trip. Durlach. Two names actually, Durlach and Daxlanden, in the east and west of Karlsruhe respectively, the former the original site of pre-1715 Karlsruhe of the local king’s dynasty, and the latter in the opposite direction near the Rhine river and the dockland areas. And I saw a tram arrive and stop before me, its destination said Durlach. Free, I just got into it and found a nice seat among all the nice seats.
The uber market place of Kaiserstrasse persisted for quite some time, thinned out, and gave way to business centres, churches, schools, and then thinned out further to show up green areas, parks, and well-appointed residential houses in wider roads, and eventually the tram came to a stop where everyone got down, including me. The stop said KA-Durlach.
On one side was a school and on the other side were auto-parts shops, bars and bakeries. So this is where it had started. The tram track, I saw ahead, curved away to eventually return to mid-town areas again. But the road ahead reached a major cross-road where there was, for a change, much car traffic. I walked along a fine pavement sloping upward. There was a hill with a smallish fortress (schloss) on top – Turmberg – which had been the seat of political and military power since medieval times. There is a small “funicular” train to take tourists up to the schloss, but it was not working that day. In my non-arthritic days it would have been a 15 minute climb up the hillock. There was a nice road too. I walked up along this for a while. And I saw the surrounding neatly worked rural farming land, the original catchment area for revenues of the ruling kings. To my Indian eyes spoilt by the huge scale and grandeur of Indian medieval forts, the Turnberg schloss was puny and unremarkable. I sat on a nice stone bench in the nice sunlight, and looked around. Most of Germany since its medieval times would have been governed, apart from its river and sea port towns, like this, by such kinglets operating their military power from such fortresses. I could also see on the hill a small church which would have, gracefully and disgracefully, legitimized such local kings. Such was Germany for centuries, till its industrial revolution. Why only Germany? All Europe. I could also glimpse what must be the bypass road for the highway going south towards Switzerland. It was full with Mercedes, Volvos, Toyotas, Renaults, of Germany today. Hm.                                   img_20160716_153706

By 1715 as the medieval times were ebbing the king of Baden-Durlach, much influenced by French ideas from across the Rhine river and also no doubt by the rising revenues from custom taxes from rising river borne trade on Rhine, shifted what is so delightfully called the “seat of power” from Turmberg to its present, modern, schloss near Europaplatz on the Kaiserstrasse. This new schloss, much hyped in tourist literature, with a vaguely pared-down Roman architecture, is in the centre of the “planned” Karlsruhe town from which radiate like spokes of a wheel streets in straight lines to all ends of the city. It was the first “planned” city in Europe it seems, and it is said that after independence from Britain America built its capital town of Washington D.C. based on inspiration from Karlsruhe. It is also said that till this day the old timers of Durlach try to sneer at the parvenu people of Karlsruhe with the impotent rage of those superceded by history. The past has not been vanquished. In Baden-Wurtemburg district of Germany, in which Karlsruhe is situated, and also in the neighbouring district of Baden-Baden, right wing political parties have always carried much clout and public adherence – even till post-Brexit EU today.
Back at the Durlach tram stop, with no hurry at all in my liberated mode, I saw a small stall of Doner Kebab for my well earned lunch. Eating a Doner Kebab bun, which is similar to but much superior than a hamburger, I watched a clutch of school children also eating things from the stall probably at the end of the school day – early teenage white boys and girls. The boys in long shorts and hooded T-shirts were mostly in bunches – pink of skins, blue of eyes, and semi-blonde of hair – in the universal spirit of mischief of boys. The girls were less in bunches, wearing very short shorts (so short that cheeks of their buttocks were clearly visible) and T-shirts and their spirit seemed more advanced, and turgid. Such aggressive display of the body at such an early age was puzzling. Many girls were smoking. May be it was the original genetic code – females of the species trundling around as widely as possible among the available choices for best male mating – expressing itself early due to better and assured nutrition. Or maybe it was just fashion, if fashion is ever just fashion.
The selfish genes, articulating themselves, in ever-renewing expressions. What anxieties have been sprouting in the female human genes in Europe so as to trigger such aggressive mating display and behaviour from the 20th century onward, despite higher levels of nutrition? Industrial labour? World Wars? Decolonisation? With my stomach full of kebab and my mind full of semi-educated thoughts I gave up the idea of catching a train back to the town centre. Instead, I wandered around Durlach, which was an upper class residential area with top end SUVs parked outside top end houses and top end manicured flowers in the lawns and window sills. Rich but understated, mild and gentle – a German, settled suburb. The afternoon ebbed. I saw a wonderful sight of three smiling, young, massively pregnant ladies back from their local super market, sitting and chatting while eating ice-cream at a bench of a bus stop, their stroller trolleys full of shopping waiting beside them like pets. A huge man in workers’ denim overalls with an exaggerated beer belly was hurrying, a burning cigarette in one hand, may be having signed off for the work day at a motor repair workshop, to the bars around the tram stop for his evening tankard of beer. He nodded hello to me. Polite drivers in smoothly humming uber cars braked and allowed me to pass in my random wanderings surely transgressing traffic rules and conventions. I wonder what they saw. A brown skinned Asiatic, surely over-the-hill, lost in the affluent and superior cantons of today’s German civilization? My wife’s whatsapp message said that her day was over and she would be returning to the hotel. My mobile phone clock said 8 p.m.! I had thought from my Indian daylight hours mind that it couldn’t be more that 5 pm. I turned to the tram stop, calling it a day. (… to be contd.)

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My Germany trip

      Going In

Some days before starting the trip I had looked at Germany in Google Maps and I was startled to see that it does not have a shore at the Mediterranean. It came as a late discovery for me. All along I have had the impression that like all advanced nations of Europe it too must have had an intense and civilizing historical experience of Asia through the Mediterranean after Arab expansion under Islam and, indeed, must have pulled itself out of its medieval torpor like the others. It came as a shock and also a revelation. Germany has ports in the northern seas; its southern side is doubly blocked first by Switzerland and then by Italy. It is very significant that of all major European powers Germany alone never had a Mediterranean history – Britain and Russia were never quite fully European, and they aren`t to this day. It only spoke of my ignorance, of course, and while seeing things in Germany during the trip this idea returned to my mind as very significant many times.
T2 the new international airport terminal of Mumbai is designed on a huge and grand scale as if it will someday actually handle volume of business like Heathrow, Kennedy, etc. do and it is stylistically identical and imitative of all new airports of the world, all of which show a sameness and timidity of artistic design like all new cars of the world. We do live in creatively cowardly times. The airlines and the police, like all who do real work, finished their business quickly. Only the immigration staff took a self importantly long time. All bureaucracies have a streak of sadism. Indian immigration and customs cannot be different. Lufthansa took off on time and without fuss.        img_20160720_103535

Sleep was out of question. My wife who has a simpler relationship with sleep tried a movie on the media screen at the back of the seat ahead and promptly fell asleep. The media screen for me was full of options, movies, games, and much else I didn’t understand, but as usual I watched the progress of the plane in its route across the planet over a realistically simulated landscape passing below. So much of the land is mountainous, or barren, or uninhabitable! No wonder ancient Persians were fighting wars not only in India but also as far as in Greece – and Greeks were returning the favour, in India, Egypt and Mesopotamia. Wars were for booty. It was the revenue model for the State, not very different in essence even today. Agricultural lands around fertile river valleys in China, India, Egypt and Iraq have been old targets of military campaigns. Just the right thoughts, it seemed, while flying towards Germany currently plundering West Asia as a NATO partner of USA. When sitting too became impossible I walked the aisles and the back alley of the plane, which helpfully had German magazines like Monopole, Der Spiegel and others relating to racing cars and fashion. The usual magazine repertory, only dubbed in German. I wished I could read the language, a thought which was to occur many times during the trip. I must have won the battle at some point and slept off. I woke up when Lufthansa was serving breakfast, before landing at Frankfurt.
Stepping out of the plane gave us the first whiff of Germany on a crisp morning in their summer at 16oC, coldish for brown tropical Indians. Again the long, long walk from the plane to the business end of the airport. This is a problem the airport designers need to solve: how to handle large number of aircrafts simultaneously as also to minimize exhausting trudges by the passengers. Walkways, electric trolleys for the infirm, show an awareness of the problem but not a solution. Not all travelers are athletic youth; in fact most are not. I remembered Heathrow which had seemed to somehow handle this issue far better. Unlike in India immigration, customs, security etc. were no bother. Immigration is handled by half a dozen federal Police officers, and all they wanted was to see our return air ticket back to India. I had been preparing for long and tough questioning by stern and suspicious racially hardened Gestapo. Nobody was bothered about us. Germany, of many mega wars, has fine-tuned its security mechanisms, or so it seemed.
The vast airport of Frankfurt is bordered by an equally vast maze of “facilitating” systems to help people connect with their onward transport. The profuse signage directing the arrivals tended to confuse rather than clarify. We wandered around like confused aliens. There was nobody to ask, and there were endless manned counters selling beers, banking products, and such. It you asked someone randomly they were polite and pointed to some other counter which was invisible and round some turning. Our arthritic legs had reached their tolerance limits. We remembered India where this job is nicely done by the smiling airline girls who swarm the airports, but in Germany smiling girls are much more expensive. We were outside the airport now but we were not going anywhere. We wanted to go to Karlsruhe in the south. Bullet train, plain train, bus, taxi? Everything seemed to be helpfully surrounding us, but we were lost and couldn’t find a ticket counter – any ticket counter – as we walked crisscrossing the fine roads and pavements full of passing cars and buses a amidst a maze of tall buildings, in the new, foreign-smelling cold morning air. There were many people, of mixed European origins it seemed, patiently waiting for their transport. We saw many people standing in clusters smoking cigarettes deeply and urgently in designated smoking areas, the harsh-smelling tobacco smoke whipping around in swirling breezes. This matter of widespread smoking will recur later. I saw the first derelict of Germany, sifting through trash bins – a reassuring sight, diluting the formidable image of Germany I had carried in my mind.
Rescue came in the form of a thin young lad with a wispy beard and suffering eyes, who was stationed there by some sort of a church organization precisely to help out confused and tired passengers like us. He chose us and approached us offering help. He heard and understood our problem quickly and pointed the way where, 100 yards away, there would be a ticket counter of ICE bullet trains to take us to Karlsruhe. By then that 100 yards was very important to our legs. Church! Germany! In today’s Post-Everything-21st century? With its thousands of years of experience and wisdom the Church still beats all the modern management systems in “micro-managing” souls of the lost and the helpless. Yes, I saw this. In Frankfurt.
Lost and the bewildered souls attract other kind of people too. As we walked the hopefully last 100 yards a thin middle aged bearded Greek god attached himself to me and spoke fine English in mild, educated tones. Quickly I noted with shock the deep imprint of colonization on my mind, despite being weaned on Naipaul, Edward Said, and all, which gives me the first impulse of seeing Greek gods in all white people – mercifully only the first. Yes, the ICE (Inter City Express) counter of DP was indeed ahead. But trains were Euro 40 to Karlsruhe. We could take a bus at Euro 16 too! Seeing that I was wavering he was encouraged. He was keen. He said buses were 100 yards away too. But my mean-spirited Indian mind was immediately suspicious. He understood this too. Deprecatingly he explained that if he helped us we could also perhaps help him with an Euro or two? Despite my Asiatic distrust I liked him and also told myself to withhold this liking at the same time. No, I said, we would take the train. Very well, I will help you to the DP Company’s counter and interpret German maybe? Maybe, I said, and immediately regretted it.
“You are from India?” he asked.
“Yes,” I replied shortly to discourage conversation, while also somehow enjoying the skillful nature of the palaver. I was on a holiday, after all.
“Too many people,” he said with friendly commiseration.
“Yes,” I bristled defensively. “But so many working hands too!”
“Yes, yes,” he quickly agreed, nodded wholeheartedly. “I am from Ireland, too,” he said.
This “too” floored me completely. Ireland! But we had reached the DP Company`s counter. A very helpful man there heard us, explained all options in plain English, typed and printed out the tickets, and also pointed to the escalator which would take us to the correct platform for our ICE train due in 20 minutes, and smiled. I asked the DP man whether I should help the Irishman, who had politely retreated well away from the brightly lit DP counter but was waiting expectantly as a distance. Not necessary, the DP man said, not unkindly. I couldn’t help myself. I had been given my first German coins by DP as change, but there was no time to indulge in my old habit and linger over these fascinating emblems of civilizations. Ireland spoke too many things to me – British colonization, Joyce, Yeats… I walked over and gave him a 1 Euro coin. It might have been 2 Euro for all I knew.
A plump, young teutonic girl doing the counter of hot buns and coffee for the fatigued and non-german-reading travellers on a cold, windy platform good-humouredly gave us the final help saying that second class coaches will have “2” painted large near the doors. On time, we were aboard on the slick bullet train, streaking across the German countryside just waking up under the mild summer morning sun.
Beautiful, seeing the passing landscape this was the word that came to the mind, again and again. Every bit of the passing scene was laid out like European landscape paintings of 19th century French, Dutch and German artists – like a work of art – which has formed even for 3/4th of the (colonized) world’s people like me their artistic templates, standards, and frames of reference. Large farms, but not extra large like in USA, with hedged boundaries surrounding small clusters of white single story picture-book houses with red and brown tiled sloping roofs. Why sloping tiles like in Inda south of Vindhyas, I wondered? Germany did not have heavy rains. Then I remembered: snow. The farms were of ripening wheat, vegetables – yellow, brown, gold and green. Trimmed, subdued trees, occasional neat rowed orchards of plum, apricot and other fruit I couldn’t quite identify. Gently rolling land, low wooded hills in the horizon. We were in the Rhine river’s basin. The sky was a delicate blue with small white wisps of transient clouds evaporating in the sun, like in a Vermeer painting.
Ah! I had been seeing pictures of this landscape for years since I was growing up, reading books, seeing films, forming ideas. This is where those pictures came from! A strange feeling came over me. At the same time reassuring like a long imagined home coming, and also unsettling, because it was so foreign, something seen for the first time. Somehow this type of landscape was the true and correct landscape, artistically beautiful, worthy of being painted, discussed endlessly, kept in museums, carried in the mind like a yardstick to judge all landscapes by! Landscapes of my own land were beautiful too, sure, but in a different, subordinated class, not artistically affirmed, somehow not worthy enough. Born in a free India, writing this in English language, an ex-colonial subject like me: how many cleavings do I carry buried in my innocent soul? How can I travel, and see the world without churning up old, unexamined sediments?
Hamlets. This was the word passing villages invoked – mainly single storey white houses of painted walls and sloping red and brown tiled roofs, some with gabled ornamentation, huddling around small, narrow churches with their steeples rising up clear above the houses. The smallness of the churches and their half hearted architectural ornamentation spoke of small parishes being tended, in the past and also today. Carefully tended lands, farms, orchards, dotted with carefully unfelled trees – in rows and clusters – spoke of decades and even centuries of studied and carefully cultivated fertility and fruitfulness of the soil and climate. Colors in pastel shades, passing before my eyes, speaking of orderliness and beauty, and human ingenuity and science, bathed in photogenic mild sunlight of July in southern Germany.
A thought, may be responding to all this gentle beauty: Germany is situated in the northern latitudes of mild, angled sun rays, with long winters and short summers. What causes all this grain, fruits, flowers, trees and colours and tastes to sprout from the soil after all? The sun, of course. The comparatively weak rays from the sun, due to upper latitudes and inclined axis of Earth`s rotation, can only do so much here and not more. All flora, and for that matter fauna at one remove, are what, exactly? Nothing but what the sun’s rays can extract out of the genetically programmed biotic possibilities inherent in the ensemble of soil, seeds and climate. So this: what I was seeing. The lower energy level of the pale sun in Germany can only realize pale thresholds of colours and tastes: Germany’s soil can manage to reach up only to yield apricots, apples, and cherries for example, not hot stuff like mangoes, bananas, sugarcane, chillies, spices and such like – these need hot, powerful sun rays of equatorial and tropical latitudes. Yet another layer of Germany opened up, as the trans-european bullet train speeded due south, towards Switzerland. Why only of Germany? Whole of Europe’s actually. Europe would not have got its Enlightenment had it not stumbled upon tropical fruits and spices of Asia and Africa and south America. The sun managed to reach European stomachs and spirits only through the 3rd world! Hold it there, I told myself, before you get carried away; look at the passing land instead.
What was passing was not only villages and a rural arcadia. Every 50 kms along the rail track there were small and not so small towns, although our hot shot trans-european train did not stop at these rail stations. Towns visibly being sustained by one or two large industrial units, but no overwhelming industry clusters which were created all over the world by the first, 19th century, mode of industrialization. Industrial buildings dominated the cityscapes, surrounded by large, populated car parks, feeder roads, warehouses, transport hubs, shopping malls, banks and schools. Busy and pulsating, I saw, but not frenetic or desperate; there was a stately calm and wholesomeness that gave a lie to the pictures of out-of-control industry-townscapes that we have got from Dickens, Detroit, or Djakarta. Small cities like Gross-Gerau, Riedstadt, Stockstadt am Rhein, Gernsheim, Lampertheim, Darmstadt… awake and calmly going about their daily business, as effortless and natural entities of a known and wholly owned civilization. These places did not have the crazed atmosphere of an alien eruption that envelops Indian industrial places and towns.
Neatness. Care. These ideas slowly made their way to the front of my mind, as I watched the villages and towns from the train. Every patch of land, every road, pavement, drains, culverts, parks, benches, traffic lights, bus and train stops, every public and civic works were clearly marked out and closely maintained and cared for, like it was posing for a brochure. Even smallest of villages with a dozen houses with a tiny church. This local thing, this municipal or local governance is of course the ultimate level of civilization, like good street paving and tap water is of urbanization. Germany is no doubt civilized, almost obsessively so.
I watched the people going about their business in neat streets amidst neat buildings. Fresh faced teenage children with pink and healthy white skins joyously racing one another on their school bicycles, senior matrons chatting in pairs, pushing strollers filled with daily shopping from the nearby superstore or bakery, big stolid men trundling past on cute looking delivery vans: daily life of white race. Race. This word too started appearing in my uneasy, liberal educated mind, as I watched the civilized German people living out routine lives in German settings. The word also evoked echoes. Race is such a real thing; however abused the idea might have been politically in the last two centuries, and continues to be even today. Seeing a white man or woman in India is different; we see them with native, secure eyes.Here I watched the passing landscape with a divided intent, bifocally.
Even an ICE bullet train has to stop somewhere. Our train was slowing down and the landscape showed the approach of a big industrial city and also glimpses of a broad river quite busy with commercial freight boats, and even huge ocean going container ships! Rhine, surely, I thought with a thrill as the train announced in several languages that we were approaching Mannheim for a stop. Rhine river. So much of Germany’s ancient lore and legends are bound up with this river, which flows down from the Swiss Alps in the southern border of Germany and traverses the whole country northwards to its destination in the North Sea. Again the thought returned: Germany is a North Sea type of land, not a Mediterranean one – by geography, by history, by culture.
The train took a long time to gently roll onto its platform in Mannheim station. This was good. I could see a lot of the big industrial city, a contrast from the idyllic picture book scenery of rural Germany I had been seeing. Container trucks with logos of Siemens, ABB, Daimler, and Temasek etc. explained the huge industrial plants. Siemens and ABB alone account for about half of electricity generation equipment of the planet. The road system was complex and two-storied, but orderly – oh yes, with very Germanic orderliness. In one railway siding I saw huge rakes with gleaming new cars under polythene wraps in 3 storeyed carriages, waiting to be transported for the distant European markets. No pollution visible, no traffic jams, none of that apocalyptic, heedless atmosphere of Indian industrial areas. German industrialists have a calm and trustful understanding of modern industry mainly because they are among the inventors of it. Indian industrialists have got hold of industry by accidental windfall, as a money spinning, mysterious and imported milch-cow which they don’t even attempt to understand; they use it as if there is no tomorrow. Nothing intrinsic to India in this of course. The Satanic Mills of 19th century England were also like this – the feeling of shock and bewilderment that runs through Dickens` novels came from this. Europeans have learnt their lessons and reformed; Indian are still learning the early lessons.
With such somber thoughts I watched the people in and around the Mannheim rail station – my train was at an outer platform and I could see the city outside the station too. Huge men with heavy, large limbs – and stomachs (from beer and meat) – standing silently in clusters and smoking furiously. Ditto for women.The smoking business again. Part of the reason was that these were smoking zones with huge ash trays and the law abiding Germans were clustering around these to smoke. But the dedicated and concentrated smoking looked like something else something deeper– what I don’t know. Men and women not smoking were standing in singles or pairs sunk in glum and brooding silence on the platforms. They looked tired, and somehow silenced. These were the most advanced industrial workers in the world, working with most modern, complex and demanding industrial machinery. Sure to drain the workers of all their vitality which they traded for globally highest wage levels. May be I was looking at exhausted workers at the end of a shift. A curious sight was provocatively dressed middle aged women with faces lined like grandmothers but with sculpted and well-displayed athletic bodies like gymnasts, and painted like ad models. Then I remembered, Mannheim also has many media related companies based on IT expertise. Marveling at these sights I watched the most advanced workers of the world after their night shift.
The train had halted for quite some time. Some people came into my coach. Young families with beautiful, white, children in prams, their older brothers and sisters prancing around and their educated, careful parents, all white. The coach was filled with chatter and childrens` laughter. Clean, well dressed, white children with pink faces and blue eyes looked lovely like we see in TV – and global TV is mostly white. Businessmen in suits with briefcases and streamlined, assessing eyes. Men and women with arms thicker than my thighs. Backpacking youth with new beards and breasts, many reading books. Books. This was another thing I was to see in this trip, like smoking: Germans reading books in buses, trams, trains. I watched, trying not to stare. People nodded to one another, friendly but guarded. Nodded to me too, a non-white. The idea of race came to me again, seeing the train full of red-faced, white-skinned, large sized Germans going about their lives. Race remains such an enormous fact. The idea of a nation, born in the 19th century, was built around race after all. And remains so even today. Contrary to expectations capitalism – also starting in the 19th century – did not dissolve the fact of race because it was not true to its founding doctrine of free market movement of men, materials and money. Denying free movement of men has kept capitalism hobbled by this vestige of feudalism. No wonder capitalism has failed repeatedly – as the basis of a democratic civilization. Ironically, the expected remedy promised by socialism also retained this feudal unfreedom of the people. When the train started again apron-wearing white young men with curly new beards and blue eyes like disciples of Socrates were serving coffee and snacks to us. Again, waiters evoking ancient Greek elite! Despite so much of cultivated anti-colonialism how deeply conditioned is my dark-skinned ex-colonized mind!
Feeling profoundly flawed I couldn’t focus on the passing landscape which was mostly small towns interspersing the now familiar farming lands. Companies like ABB and Siemens in Mannheim would need to be fed by many ancillary industries situated not very far away. Although in the low hills banking the Rhine there could be seen neat rows of carefully tended vineyards, I was now drawn more to watching the white passengers with averted eyes. This is the white race, cool and assured of its place in the scheme of things. Men and women absorbed in their laptops, books, and music through ipods or mobile phones. One or two solitary men curiously sat clutching their briefcases. Not very long ago this was the race which had claimed itself as the Master Race and had done a whole holocaust and fought unthinkable wars for this claim. Although these were in German language many of the title pages of the books being read looked like serious stuff, not just potboiler pulp fiction. What do Germans think now of their recent past as the Master Race? My thoughts tumbled around in this disturbing terrain. What kind of world we would be seeing today if capitalism had been practiced in its canonical form and allowed free movement of men along with material and money around the planet? Would we have created a uniform cross-bred peoples’ world – the varnasankara anathema of Puranic Brahmins of India, ancient and modern? Or would we have made a world of mixed race societies with distinct cultures but shared ethos? Would we still have had nations, nationalisms, and consequent wars? The old ifs and buts of history. Useless no doubt, but are they wholly pointless?
It was almost mid noon and I could see sunlight glinting on the occasional views of the blue-grey waters of the Rhine. The sky was getting overcast with light, grey rain clouds as we started approaching the town of Karlsruhe, our destination. It did not have the industrial, cluttered landscape of heavy industry, so our train’s approach was gentle and suburban. I later learnt that Karlsruhe was mainly a base of IT based industry – even its one complete suburb in the north, Siemensallee, seems to be meant for some office-based, white-collar division of Siemens. Although it had the usual and heavy complement of international shopping arcades inseparable from all cities in the trans-european grid the Karlsruhe station was small and all of it at the ground level. The information counter people promptly supplied us with many maps and seemed earnest and eager to help, unlike in Frankfurt. There were only a dozen taxies – nearly all Mercedes – and they were also eager to take us to our hotel in an expensive ride. Taxis in Germany are even more expensive than in Delhi – in all Europe, I was told. As we drove along the unfamiliar right lane driving system through well paved, well painted, well signaged and well traffic-signaled streets there was a shower of rain in large, clean drops. In the small dash to the hotel’s entrance we got a little wet. The rain was cold but it was pleasant and seemed to be welcoming us.
After a long twilight zone which passes for jetlagged sleep we eagerly ventured out to eat in our first German restaurant. It was 9 pm and the sun had not set. Clean, wide, nearly empty roads, neat pavements, tramlines being plied by charming looking trams, modern 3-storeyed buildings with sloping roofs for the winter snows and small gable-like, cute, and historical looking projections(I don’t quite remember what these are actually called), very little traffic, no pollution of the air, hedged green areas and gardens. What cities dream of becoming when they grow up. In the ornate lights sent by the setting sun Karlsruhe looked breathtakingly beautiful. It looked good, easy, and friendly, it looked like what a good city in today’s world should look like. The rain clouds had lifted but the breeze was too cold for us not dressed for it. Googled weather said 16 degrees, Celsius of course – only the arrogant Americans still cling to the unwieldy, non-metric, Fahrenheit, Mile, Gallon etc. and even feel proud of it. No restaurant nearby beckoned to us with inviting lights and most shops were closed. Most hotels do not have restaurants of their own. Shivering, we chickened out (ha, ha) and abandoned our fantasies of much googled German food, collected whatever we could gather from a neighbourhood supermarket and timidly hastened back to our hotel.
(… to be contd)

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Mahim bay, early morning

 

The long breeze pushes and moves past
me unceasingly at the window
as if it would take away all
my baggage of loss and hurt if it could.
Serene and blue and green
the low tide vastly calm for now
says ceasing can be okay too:
you can drop your lifelong fretting.
Two seagulls slowly glide past, astonishing
with their sparkling white wings flapping,
hinting that there will always be meanings
not understood but only glimpsed.
Clusters of fishing boats stilled and aligned
like an occult mirror image
of the oncoming shoals of fish.
And the morning sunlight,
shy as if returning unannounced,
enormously open, as the final backdrop
of found things – like birth, death,
hunger, voyages, memories –
upon which everything comes to pass.

Imagination? Most probably.

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