Tuesday, December 31, 2013


It is the season of parties.
A lovely time, a lonely time.

There are parties with loved ones,
With one, or the other, gladly, or not.

There are parties with friends,
Perfect for the moment, expendables, or not.

There are parties to choose,
Excuses easy to say, and hear, or not.

There are parties for one,
A lifelong solitude, bitter, or not.

There are parties uninvited,
Names to note, and cross, or not.

It is the season of parties.
A lonely time, a lovely time.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013


On a Friday in early spring, I held Swapna’s hand for the first time. We were on the S-Bahn from Potsdam to Berlin. The train was crowded, mostly with our colleagues from the Institute, all eager to get to their families or to start the weekend partying or, like us, with plans to have a quiet dinner together. I spotted a vacant seat when the train stopped at Wannsee; I took her hand; I did not let go even after we were seated. I did open my fingers, giving her the option to remove her hand but she kept her palm on mine. I closed my fingers and gently squeezed her hand. There was a pause before she returned the same. I noted the hesitation and decided not to overdo it. We sat, like kids, happy holding hands. Around us, couples stood in close embrace, caressing and whispering, laughing and kissing. At Westkreuz, I got off to catch another train to Hohenzollerndam where I lived, and she proceeded to her apartment at Charlottenburg.
Meet you at eight, in front of your apartment, I told her when I let go her hand. She nodded with a smile, I remember.
That first touch took six months, and that too, after being aided by a whole set of favorable circumstances.
We joined the Institute, as post-docs, roughly around the same time. The Institute was new, situated in a small village on the outskirts of Potsdam, an initiative to develop and integrate areas of the erstwhile East Germany with the affluent west. There were no buses to that village, when we joined; just an hourly train to and from Potsdam Bahnof. Even that main terminus was a bare structure then, under renovation for the next year or so, with only a few small shops selling newspaper, coffee and bread. We were put up in the Institute guest house on campus for the first two months. Colleagues and travel advisories warned us of neo-Nazi activity in and around Potsdam and the village. We heard of attacks on foreigners in Dresden, Heidelberg and elsewhere. In the decade after the Wall came down, those acts of violence were not surprising; with unemployment rate inching to very uncomfortable levels, by German or any standard; huge divide between east and west; rapidly increasing number of blue- and white-collar workers from Eastern Europe and Asia; and, a large Turkish population that refused to ‘Germanize’. It was fertile ground for opportunistic racism to take root, a parasite feeding on minds confused by economic turmoil, and spreading in the guise of nationalism or religion or some similar supremacist stupidity. We joked about it, of course only to each other, that it felt like home, and compared the crazies in our hometowns back in India, the neo-Nazi clones who restricted our freedom there, buffoons in red, green, white or khaki comic outfits.
We were not unduly worried about the situation in the village because we rarely went out after dark. We depended on the lone supermarket in the village for our supplies. We played safe and went together, a twenty-minute walk from the Institute through desolate fields and village lanes. The gum-chewing ladies at the counter and the few middle-aged customers eyed us curiously while they chatted, and reciprocated amiably to our timid, soft guten-tag and danke-schön with the proper gruff guttural greeting. There must have been better local establishments in some hidden corner of that village; but then, villages, anywhere, find no need to advertise their best.
I warned Swapna that I would scoot real fast at the first sight of skin-heads and heavy boots. That is fine with me, she said. She could outrun me, I guess.
Those trips to the supermarket and chance encounters at the guest house, which conveniently extended to sharing each other’s cooking, brought us together. But, where did we meet for the first time? Since we worked in different departments, our paths in the Institute did not have to cross. Maybe, someone facilitated a casual introduction, at the canteen or the library. That detail has somehow slipped my memory. I do remember that we were not too keen about each other’s company initially.
Personal friction provided one reason for that. Loose talk or teasing that crossed limits probably started it; maybe, just crude jokes or offensive generalizations, poking at women or her ideals, which seemed clever and funny, at least to me. Or, did she go all highfalutin and irritate me with lessons on morality or decency? Unlikely, since she was not that sort; but, in those days, I was quite capable of inciting such fervor. When I left India for those foreign shores, for some reason not worth pondering about, I had decided not to get into any romantic involvement, transitory or not. Indirectly, that left me a little low on patience, charm and chivalry. I was not exactly churlish or boorish, but I was definitely avoidable and did not have to try hard to be so. We still met, off and on, even though we were not deeply interested. The fact that she was charming, intellectually and physically, must have penetrated my thick skull. I guess she was less exacting.
There was another reason for us to seek other company. The Institute had a lively mix of nationalities from all over Europe, the US, China and India. In some departments, like mine, the Germans were even outnumbered. Some feeling of international amity or heady expectations of fitting in with an eclectic crowd kept us away from each other in those first few weeks. As fellow-Indians, we must have seemed too familiar to each other even though we had little in common by way of language or customs or food. But, it did not take too long for us to realize that people of the same race tend to club together, intentionally or not, as in Hollywood movies.
Those supermarket visits on weekdays extended to weekend trips to Berlin, hunting for apartments to rent. She, unlike me, was trying to learn German and I let her do the talking, quite happy to be a dumb mute companion. We started to have lunch together in the Institute canteen. We talked about work, cribbed about bosses who gave us little leeway to be independent, and we used each other to let out steam.
Later, when we shifted to Berlin, we traveled together every morning, and most evenings. We met on weekends too. We did our shopping together, in malls and Asian stores, and frequently replenished our stock of books and videos at the American Library. We snacked at Turkish or Greek street-side stalls, or had the usual curry and bread at Indian restaurants. Our favorite was a cheap friendly Vietnamese place on the route from Zoo Bahnof to Charlottenburg.  And, we walked aimlessly, exploring parks, museums and streets of that lovely city. We never visited each other’s apartment, till that Friday.
I am quite sure my affection for Swapna would not have developed if we had been in a place that did not allow those long walks. We were comfortable with each other’s company, and with each passing month abroad, I valued it increasingly and I think she felt the same. She was fun and easy to be with.
Walking together, she would comment on some strange beautiful girl ahead of us, ‘Isn’t she really sexy? I wish I had her blond hair and blue eyes…’ and she would turn to me, ‘Right?’
I would agree, ‘Yupp, sexy ass.’
‘Arjun, for once, can you start at the top?’
‘I am not sure if she has a head-bath frequently…’
‘Are you sure she washes her ass?’
‘Don’t be gross, Swapna!’
‘I see… I am being gross…’
I would try to deflect her attention to some passing guy, ‘Hey, isn’t that your type? He looks Mediterranean. A bit too thin, though…’
‘Hmmm… lovely brown eyes, full lips, kissable indeed…’
‘And…?’ I would prod.
‘Don’t tell me you are checking out his ass too…’
We never flirted with each other. Till that Friday, we never touched even once. But then (was it on that Friday morning or the day before or many days earlier?) came the trigger that left me off-balance and desperate for human touch; very aware of the fact that I had been deprived of touch for eighteen months or more.
We were traveling to work on the 6:30 am S-Bahn to Potsdam as usual. The train compartment was quite empty. There were six or seven elderly ladies behind us at the tail-end, probably a club out to enjoy an early walk at Wannsee that lovely spring morning; some colleagues, and their cycles, in front at the other end; us near the middle; and, right in front of us, on the side-seat near the door, there were two ladies. One was a blue-collar worker, in denim overalls. The other looked delicate and demure, probably an office-secretary or a teacher or a housewife; her open coat revealed a dress with floral pattern, couple of buttons open at the top and the skirt barely reached the knee. The worker kissed the lady passionately, one hand caressing the lover’s neck at the nape while the other hand strayed all over, fingers trailing over neck and breasts, slipping into the blouse or beneath the skirt caressing the thigh. The lady clung on to the worker’s overall, her knuckles white as she bunched the denim material tightly in her fists, returning the kiss with equal fervor. We averted our gaze but the windows and doors of the train presented a kaleidoscope of that couple.
When they got off at Griebnitzsee, I let out, ‘Phew…’
I turned to Swapna. She had her face turned away, towards the window, but I could see her reflection and she was smiling. We did not talk about that, then or later.
On that Friday evening, I got to my apartment around seven, showered, brushed my teeth, and put on a freshly ironed formal shirt that was supposed to deflect attention from my wrinkled casual khakis and drab jacket. I was in front of her apartment block fifteen minutes before eight. She was ready and waiting. We went to a Chinese restaurant in that locality.
That night, she wore a beige blouse and a dark skirt. I tried to concentrate on her face, but I noted the way she tucked her hair behind the right ear; her thin gold chain set against her tanned neck and shoulder, and fairer chest; and the half-visible lucky pendant winking at me, nestled comfortably in a neckline that did not plunge deep enough. She must have noticed my effort to look straight. There was a slow, teasing smile in her eyes; she chewed her lower lip, probably to hold back a laugh; and, her dimple on the right cheek deepened. We had a nice dinner, without the usual teasing, without loud jokes, without discussion about work or the state of affairs anyplace anytime. We didn’t talk about ourselves, or us. But we talked, I just can’t remember what, we talked well, that’s all I can remember. It was nearly ten when we left. I walked with her to her apartment.
‘Will you come up…?’ she asked.
I nodded and followed her up two flights of stairs. Inside, we went to her kitchen.
She asked, ‘Tea…?’
I nodded again. We sat at the dining table, drank tea and talked. I think she told me something about her family. What did I say? Later, she washed the cups and I wiped.
‘Let me show you something…’ she took my hand and took me to a reading room. She had rented a furnished apartment and it came along with the owner’s collection of books that filled floor-to-ceiling shelves on two sides. We stood side by side, still holding hands, exploring that library of mostly German tomes but interspersed, there was a selective international collection, too – Mishima, serious American authors like Steinbeck and Hemingway, nearly the entire collection of Wodehouse, popular erotica from the continent, and morbid Russian stuff too, with only Chekhov having a slight grin in the midst of Tolstoy and Doestoevsky. We talked about that too. We moved to a sofa, sat side by side, half-turned towards the other. Her arm stretched towards me on the back of the sofa, her legs tucked beneath her, the skirt inadvertently hiked up revealing the back of her thighs. I too had an arm on the back of the sofa, next to hers. There was a lull in between; we smiled.
I leaned towards her and kissed her lips. I moved my hand from the sofa to the back of her head, and allowed it to stray on her neck and shoulder. I moved closer. I kissed her lips, and then her neck, before moving lower. I held her hand, shifted to her waist, moved up to her breast and then down to her thigh. I felt her stiffening. She had her arms against my chest. I leaned closer, crushing against her, letting her feel my whole body against her. She pushed at me. My grip tightened. I heard her say that I am hurting her but I kept kissing and fondling her. Then, I felt her twisting away from me. She slipped off the sofa, onto the carpeted floor and moved away backwards, looking scared, angry. There was something else in her eyes which I could not understand just then.
I moved towards her, whispering, ‘Come on, Swapna… don’t be like this.’
She said, hoarsely, ‘Go… please go…’
‘Hush, Swapna, come here…’
‘Go… please…’
I moved closer towards her.
‘I will scream…’
‘No, you won’t… come here, it is ok… you know me…’
I caught an ankle and pulled her towards me. She kicked at me with the other leg. I laughed. I pulled her legs towards me, her skirt moved up her thighs. I parted her legs. She pulled her skirt down with one hand, and leaning on the other she tried to sit up and gain some balance. She pushed against me and kicked at me. I lay on top, pinning her to the floor, holding her wrists tightly.
‘You bastard…’ she said. I could feel that it came from deep within, that low growl or harsh snarl.
I sat up and moved away from her.
‘Get out…’ she said.
I stood up, picked up my jacket, and without looking at her, walked out of the apartment, closing the front door behind me. I heard her race to the door, the sound of the key turning in the lock and the fumbling with the latch and bolt from within followed me out of that building.
After that Friday, we must have been on the same trains and at the canteen at the same time, but it is easy not to see people you do not want to see. Did I feel like saying sorry to her? Did I feel like talking to her? I remember thinking that she should make the first move. Did I worry about her telling others? I did not care. Did I miss her?
I felt strange and lonely in parks, claustrophobic in museums and preferred take-away meals to eating on my own at a restaurant. I stayed in Berlin for one more year before taking up a postdoc position in the US. She left the Institute a few months before me, to take up a faculty position in India. I got to know about that through an internet search.
I returned to India after four years. We were in the same city but worked in different institutes. Our paths crossed at various seminars, we walked past each other without a word, without a nod. There were no parks or museums or comfortable coffee-shops for any prolonged chance encounter, unless one was truly interested. My life revolved around my work and acquaintances. I married, divorced and continued to live like a monk, though not stupid enough to think like one. The research community is a small world, and I heard rumors about her dalliances or misalliances. Some sounded true, not that it mattered. There seemed to be a pattern common to both our lives, a vacant space, an emptiness not really a hole, just threads missing and, carefully or carelessly, avoided, unattended. Maybe, that was the stupid monk within me thinking like that.
About eight years after that Friday in Berlin, we were in Trieste for a month-long multidisciplinary summer school. We had rooms in the same guest house but hardly saw each other there. In the first week, during lunch, we sat at the same table once or twice, discussing classes and research topics with colleagues. She must have decided that it was more trouble maintaining distance. We had to talk to each other but the talk remained well within our scientific interests. Even when we talked, I did not look at her for too long, keeping my face averted, with a faraway gaze, as if I was thinking deeply about the research topics. She still tucked her hair behind the right ear, and I spotted my old rival, that lucky pendant.
The highlight of such summer schools is the weekends. The first weekend, I was supposed to go to Florence with a group that included her. But, on Friday night, after snacking on sandwich I had prepared with tinned meat, a bad case of fat-intolerance laid me flat, or should I say well-seated on a commode. Saturday morning started early, bright and blue. I was feeling weak, and my sphincter had little respite, but I decided against staying cooped up in my room on such a lovely day. I decided to go on a day-trip to Venice.
At seven, I was at the railway station. I found Swapna at the ticket counter.
I blurted out, ‘Why didn’t you go to Florence?’
She did not offer any explanation.
I did not have to ask her why.
It was awkward – the two of us standing there with tickets to Venice, with at least one wanting to tear the ticket or hoping the other would cancel the trip and return to whichever hole it belonged.
She asked me, ‘Why didn’t you go to Florence?’
‘Stomach bug,’ I admitted, and gave unnecessary details. That brought a smile to her face.
I decided to be an adult, ‘Do you mind if we travel together to Venice? Italian trains are notorious for pickpockets and bag-snatchers, and it’s good to have company.’
She was blunt, ‘You want me to guard your bag when you are in the toilet, right?’
I shrugged.
On the train to Venice, we talked about our favorite punching bag – nincompoops as bosses who tried to use us as slaves or automatons in some factory line-up. It was like old times. She told me that she wanted to resign and move elsewhere. I asked her if she knew of a place where the situation is any different. We cursed ourselves for not being geniuses, assuming that the system allowed such to be free of slime. We talked, or blankly stared outside at the neat fields and postcard-type villages; of course, that was when I was not in the toilet. At Venice, I felt much better, and the frequency of visits dwindled to a rather respectable rate.
‘It’s been my life-long dream to see all the public toilets in Venice,’ Swapna remarked after my second or third toilet-stop, she seemed quite fed up of guarding my backpack and waiting outside public utilities. ‘Wonder what people are thinking… maybe, that you are cottaging and I am your pimp.’
We were standing on a bridge, watching a gondola glide past carrying a bored boatman and a couple who tried to look ecstatic.
‘I see a front-page headline in the newspapers back home – Indian scientist killed in Venice, hit-and-run by gondola,’ I threatened.
‘Always wanted to die a romantic death… anyway, that sounds better than the one in the science pages – Indian scientist searching for dark matter in Italian toilets,’ she retorted.
Despite my disability, I amazed myself when I matched her spirit and energy. My Rough guide for Venice starts with a nice line, ‘Nobody arriving in Venice for the first time is seeing the city for the first time.’ Most visitors are usually familiar, well before their visit, with Canal Grande or the Piazza San Marco or Palazzo Ducale or the other Venetian sights through works of art or other studies. It was not our first visit to Venice but it was our first visit together and, for me, it was a Venice I had never seen. As in Berlin, we stayed away from tourist hotspots, did not feed pigeons and stayed away from the legions of visitors taking photos, like dogs peeing, marking another conquered territory. We chose narrow streets randomly, crossed bridges without reason, stood silent within cathedrals, watched Murano’s glass-blowers shape dreams and made full use of the day-ticket to hop onto boats, aimlessly going around.
‘There is some kind of weird romance in every crooked street,’ I remarked.
She did not respond, but I think she agreed that it was meant for couples holding hands, squeezing past other couples. Couples like us seemed incongruous there.
We had lunch at a small bar. I sipped lime-tea, still mindful of my delicate posterior, and she wolfed down couple of sandwiches. She made sure I enviously watched her every bite.
‘May you suffer soon what I suffer now,’ I cursed.
‘But surely, I can’t beat you at that,’ she spoke purposely with a full mouth.
She looked at the man at the counter, and they exchanged a conspiratorial wink. The man asked me if I would like another cup of lime tea. I nearly growled at him. Swapna laughed and the man smiled broadly.
We got back to Trieste before dark. We took the bus from the station. Instead of returning directly to the guest house, we got off mid-way, near the beach, and mingled with the sun-bathing crowd. We climbed up a small path to the top of a hill, overlooking the beach on one side and the port with sail-boats on the other. She stood next to me. I noticed that her hands lay freely by her side, not crossed over her chest in front, nor tucked into the pockets of her jeans. I wondered if her body language indicated that she was not closed to me. I thought about her palm on mine, like long back, her fingers returning my squeeze. It pained not to have that touch, particularly when she was there. We stood there for a long while, silent, till it was dark and time to return to our rooms. We went back to our old routine of avoiding each other.
During the first week at Trieste, I had got in touch with an old colleague who worked in the University of Naples. He invited me to his department and also requested me to give a talk to his group. I accepted the offer. That is a common custom in academic circles, of mutual back-scratching. It is tacitly understood that I would extend a similar invitation if I were to host or organize a conference in India, or even if he passes through India. His formal invitation stated that he would take care of my travel and stay, and also that I would be rewarded an honorarium for presenting a seminar. He seemed to be flush with funds just then; well, this was before the economy went bust everywhere. He asked me if there was anyone I could, or would like to, bring along. I told him about Swapna’s research and he expressed his interest in her work. I talked to her about his offer. She thought for a while before accepting. That trip was arranged for the third weekend.
We flew from Trieste to Naples, with a transit stop at Rome. We commented to each other about the differences, in appearance and behavior, between the north and the south of Italy. Unlike the near-Germanic Trieste, Naples had a volatile and dark edge. The traffic was less-orderly, the place was not as clean and the people seemed livelier. We were simply awed by the sprawling city, its architecture and town-planning.
‘Any idea why we never came here when we were in Berlin?’ Swapna asked.
‘I didn’t go anywhere,’ I replied.
‘Hmm… and I traveled only in the north.’
We were put up in a small but comfortable two-star hotel near the University. We got there late on Friday night, and we went to our respective rooms immediately. Next morning, we had breakfast in the room and, met at the foyer around half past eight. The professor came a few minutes later and took us to his department. We were there till one, with back-to-back talks and fruitful discussions with the professor, his colleagues and students.
At one, in the safe confines of his office, the old man grinned at us and said, ‘Now, you two are free.’ He gave us envelopes with our payment, in cash, and also handed over a city map. ‘Since you have only an afternoon in this city, why don’t you try the Museo Archeologico Nazionale?’
‘Is that where you send all your visitors?’ I joked.
‘It suits most of them,’ he said with a laugh, before adding, ‘if only they were like the exhibits and wouldn’t talk about their work.’
I was familiar with his frankness. Swapna had a piqued look which the old professor noticed. ‘Not you, my dear, your talk was very interesting.’ Then, he gave a very Italian expressive shrug along with a forlorn look towards me, ‘As for him, I am not sure if he said anything non-trivial.’
‘I shall wait for your talk, my friend, to extend the same courtesy,’ I said.
‘Let us hope that the tax-payer’s money is always there for us to waste,’ he said. We laughed and wished each other well. He took us to the tube station where we parted. He gave me a strong, affectionate handshake, and hugged Swapna.
We took the Line 2 train to the museum. We were quite impressed with the ancient Roman finds, especially the Farnese collection. We shared observations, and selected or skipped sections together rather than separate to follow our individual interests. We maintained a straight face in the Gabinetto Segreto. I asked Swapna if she remembered our visit to Beate Uhse’s museum in Berlin and whether that would one day have the same status; she nodded sagely. We acted snooty about the disarray and neglect; and, noted that it did not match ‘our Berlin ones’. It was nearly like old times. What was missing? I am not sure.
After racing through the museum, we had a late lunch at a pizzeria. It was a choice between that or a proper meal later. I tried for the latter but she was not keen. Even in Berlin, we rarely tried Italian restaurants, without our European colleagues, terribly unsure about getting the right antipasto, primo, secondo or even dessert. I assumed then that that was the reason for her reluctance. Anyway, pizzeria it was for us plebeians.
‘How could we have anything other than a pizza in its place of origin?’ Swapna said, trying to justify her decision, after we placed our order.
‘Pizza is definitely not a pizza unless served by an Italian woman,’ I said, eyeing the lady who took our order.
‘And, it has to be a woman like her, I guess,’ Swapna consented, acknowledging that forty-something Monica Bellucci look-alike wearing a short white dress that barely concealed the details of her black bra, pants and ample curves. Swapna warned gamely, ‘Don’t overdo it… unless you want to share your pizza with the Mafiosi… or end up on the pizza as garnishing…’
I noticed that Swapna was getting her fair share of attention from the Italian guys around and, instead of treating them with a glacial stare she seemed to enjoy it immensely.
‘You too better watch out for possessive Italian women,’ I said.
Later, when we paid the bill, we told the lady truthfully that a pizza had never tasted more delicious.
We decided to return early to our hotel, not too comfortable about roaming in the dark in that bewitching city. We did not say much in the train. It was a short walk from the station to our hotel. The shops were closed for the weekend. Youngsters monopolized the pavement; zipping past on roller blades; lovers leaning against the wall, merging with the graffiti, kissing and fondling.
At the hotel, I tried again, ‘Would you like to have dinner somewhere outside later?’
‘I am a bit tired,’ she said, ‘I think I will just have juice and biscuits and try to sleep early.’
‘Ok then, see you tomorrow morning. We will have to leave at seven. The flight is at nine, right?’
She nodded, and said, ‘Good night.’
‘Good night. Sleep well.’
We separated and went to our rooms. I watched reality TV, the only channel universally understood. I downed a few pegs of Glenfiddich, smoked double my daily quota, finished off a sandwich and coupe of packets of crisps. I felt awful. I showered and tried to sleep. At nine, or was it much later, I got up, dressed and stepped outside the hotel. The lovers had left and the dark, deserted street did not look appealing. I went back within. The concierge looked up, pursed his lips, not too pleased with my movements, but he did not say anything. I guess he misunderstood my intentions or purpose. I climbed up the stairs to our floor.
Instead of going to my room, I stood in front of hers. I knocked. There was no response. I thought I made out a darkening of the peep-hole or maybe, I have read too many spy novels. I knocked again. I was about to return to my room when she opened the door.
‘Were you sleeping?’ I asked.
‘Hmmm… yes…’ she said. Her hair seemed too tidy for that to be true. She made no move to remove the door-chain. I could see only part of her face. She stared at me, unblinking, looking scared, or nervous.
‘I couldn’t sleep,’ I said. She did not say anything. I continued, ‘Swapna, can we talk?’
I thought she would ask, ‘Talk what?’ but she remained silent.
I had to go on, feeling very odd standing outside her door, talking through four or six inches of space, ‘I loved you.’
I am not sure why I used the past tense. Including the present must not have gelled well with my position outside her door.
‘I loved you too,’ she surprised me with a reply.
‘Then, can’t you understand…?’ I asked. If there ever was a plaintive cry, it must have sounded like that.
‘I can understand,’ she said, too calmly, and then the knife stabbed deep, ‘but, I couldn’t love you after…’
‘Fair enough…’ I blurted out, too soon.
I felt like kicking myself for saying that. I should have defended myself and the passion of that moment. Or, that I have understood that she wanted something different, romantic or whatever. But I felt there was no point in doing so. I turned and moved towards my room.
I heard her say, ‘Can’t we be friends?’
I looked at that face peering from behind that door-chain. I shook my head.
I love her too much to be just her bloody friend.