On Myanmar/Burma

A year and a half ago, I met a man from Myanmar, or Burma, as it was called then. V. was one of several students who had fled the country after the uprising of 1988, when a demonstration against military rule was brutally quashed. He told me stories of being watched every time he went back, of having to be on his guard even as he walked through his town. He would like to return for good at some point, he said. However, the way things were, he didn’t even go for a visit very often. V. was buried under the weight of his memories, speaking wistfully of afternoons by the river, spicy food shared with Indian neighbours, and the gaiety of the Water Festival. He was also deeply affected by the months he spent in prison after the revolt, fearful and uncertain of his fate. When he finally had the chance, he moved to a new country and rebuilt his life.

V. now celebrates Buddhist festivals in a foreign setting. He misses the summer breeze of his hometown and the gentle rustle of leaves in the courtyard. He takes solace in the close-knit expatriate Burmese community; festivals at the local monastery are an important part of his life, as are visits from family. He struggles to understand his daughter’s career choices and her desire to move to a different town for university. He lives two lives: one in his adopted country, the other in his head.

Buddha's Gold. Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon

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Around the time that V. told me his story, I chanced upon two books set in Burma: Guy Delisle’s Burma Chronicles (a graphic novel) and Emma Larkin’s Finding George Orwell in Burma. Both of them gave me Western perspectives of the country, one from that of the spouse of an aid worker, the other from a journalist’s. Larkin wanted to trace Orwell’s five years in Burma, and to see if his days there actually sowed the seeds for 1984 in his head. She met people who read the book and discussed it furtively, believing that he had indeed been prophetic.

However, neither Delisle nor Larkin managed to get too far in understanding the problems that plagued the country. While Delisle was evidently not trying to go beyond superficial observations, Larkin’s attempts were limited by the difficulty of eliciting information from her interviewees, an effect of the constant supervision she was under. G. was in Myanmar for a couple of weeks this year, and told me that the few people he had a chance to speak to were courteous, but a little inflexible, unwilling to make small changes to set patterns. This closed-off attitude could be a result of years of conditioning and fear: for people weary of seeing their families disintegrate and disperse, is silence one of the natural choices?

Downtown Yangon where you can see the confluence of Buddhist and the colonial architecture

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Myanmar’s political troubles are far from over, as the Rohingya refugee crisis shows. V. suggests that the current government isn’t exactly independent, and that the military still exerts an enormous amount of influence. However, despite the criticism and the sanctions, Yangon is vibrant and thriving. As G. puts it, the city is a “testimony to the fact that the foundations of progress are civilizational rather than religious or political”. Does the history of Burma, viewed in terms of civilizational progress, contain solutions to the challenges it has to contend with?

This brings me to the book on my nightstand: The River of Lost Footsteps by Thant Myint-U, grandson of former UN Secretary-General U Thant. The book describes Burma’s history from 1885, seeking to understand the present situation through past events, including British occupation, Chinese invasion, and the onset of military rule. I tried reading it when I first bought it a few years ago, but I just wasn’t ready for it. I put it aside for a more propitious time, which has now hopefully arrived. (As some of you might know, I strongly believe that some books wait patiently to be read – they know when you are ready for them and quietly sneak into your life – and I try to use this theory to justify my hoarding tendencies.)

I have started the book again, this time with the hope of finishing it. I am counting on V.’s account and G.’s visit to enrich my experience. Accounts from friends and family from two generations ago, when Burma was home to a large Tamil population, add to the mix. These include stories about people fleeing the country during the Second World War and walking for days on end to reach India, some dying on the way. I am learning to appreciate the scars that people carry, but do not display. I am reminding myself that studying history – anyone’s history – can go a long way in bringing some much-needed understanding into our lives.


A Bus Journey in the Himalayas

I wrote a portion of this on one of the bumpiest bus rides there ever was. My memory supplies the other bits. I’ve written a fair bit about bus journeys at night but I never tire of doing so. There is something to discover in every new tea stall, hamlet, or railway crossing on these trips.


A yellow half-moon hangs over the valley with a generous sprinkling of stars to keep it company. Lights speckle the mountainsides and beam at passersby through their Himalayan tree cover. Sleep evades me as the bus hugs the tight bends of the narrow road and seems to brush against the oncoming trucks, their creaking bodies matching the rattletrapness (why isn’t this a word?) of our own groaning monster. The driver honks with gusto whenever an opportunity presents itself – and also when one doesn’t. He hawks and spits with great relish at frequent intervals, keeping his window open for the purpose and bestowing upon those of us in the front seats a benevolent portion of wintry mountain air. He keeps himself and us awake with Hindi film music from the 90s. Despite having been an avid consumer of trash during that period, I can barely recognise any of the songs, most of which are sad and obscure and whose lyrics deserve a prize for inanity.

We stop for dinner not at a rickety little eatery with questionable hygiene, but at a roadside restaurant with a large “AC hall” that has two air conditioners which may not be of much use in summer. (Hygiene here is still questionable, but the kitchen is out of sight.) In November weather, we seek shelter from the cold in the hall with its non-functioning ACs. Baskets of hot rotis and dishes of paneer and dal are placed on our tables with great dispatch. They don’t fuss with menu cards or cutlery or napkins. They accept debit cards, which is all we ask for. A Tom and Jerry cartoon is painted incongruously on one of the walls; elsewhere, a sign in Hindi warns people that they are responsible for their own luggage, in case they had any misgivings about the services on offer. We finish our meal and return to our bus – there is nothing here to linger over, no promise of stories or laughter, just efficient business. There is none of the warmth that Ruskin Bond encountered at a teashop on the Tehri road (Rain in the Mountains):

I find a couple of mules tethered to a  pine tree. The mule drivers, handsome men in tattered clothes, sit on a bench in the shade of the tree, drinking tea from brass tumblers. The shopkeeper, a man of indeterminate age – the cold dry winds from the mountain passes having crinkled his face like a walnut – greets me enthusiastically, as he always does. He even produces a chair, which looks like a survivor from the Savoy’s 1890 ballroom. Fortunately the Mussoorie antique-dealers haven’t seen it, or it would have been carried away long ago. In any case, the stuffing has come out of the seat. The shopkeeper apologizes for its condition: ‘The rats were nesting in it.’ And then, to reassure me: ‘But they have gone now.’

After sunset, there are no mules or good-natured elderly storytellers where we are. We have left the glorious monastery, the busy shops, and the lone gardener behind.


Considering the number of trucks and buses that jostle pell-mell on this road, that any of them completes its journey unscathed is a miracle. The roadside shrines to Durga (draped in finery of red-and-gold) and austere Shiva are clearly there for a purpose. If you’ve read H Rider Haggard’s She and remember the protagonists walking across the chasm to get to the caves, you know what I’m talking about.

I clung to the saddle of rock, and looked round, while, like a living thing, the great spur vibrated with a humming sound beneath us. The sight was a truly awesome one. There we were poised in the gloom between earth and heaven. Beneath us were hundreds upon hundreds of feet of emptiness that gradually grew darker, till at last it was absolutely black, and at what depth it ended is more than I can guess. Above was space upon space of giddy air, and far, far away a line of blue sky. And down this vast gulf upon which we were pinnacled the great draught dashed and roared, driving clouds and misty wreaths of vapour before it, till we were nearly blinded, and utterly confused.

It iintense. There is no draught, but the pitching and rolling bus is a good substitute.

We round a bend and the lights disappear. The rugged mountain wall appears to my right, its lower flanks overgrown with scrub. A few houses nestle in hollows in the rock, shrouded in darkness, showing their green and yellow walls when they catch the headlights. Piles of loose rock lie on the edge of the road, and it is in this accumulation that these mountains appear more sinister than the Western Ghats. They are capable of immense beauty, but also of wrath. Once again, I have to pinch myself to believe that I am in the Himalayas, far from the disappointingly flat coastline of Chennai. These mountains have been a part of me since long before I ever set eyes on them.

I miss the Beas. I will wake up tomorrow not to the rush of the grey river, but to the thick smog and dust of the city. There will be no birdsong, but the harsh sounds of humanity reluctantly facing another day of hardship. I already miss the bonfire and the voices warm with  companionship that carry far in the clear night air. I feel a little bit like Bisnu in Dust on the Mountain. I’m glad that I’ve been in what could be Ruskin Bond territory, only it was in Himachal Pradesh. However, the Himalayas are grand wherever they are, and I’m supplied with an imagination active enough to turn my modest city bedroom into a precariously-perched study overlooking snow-clad peaks and rushing grey-green rivers. Thank you, Mr Bond.


At Salzburg

We met friends in every country we visited in Europe, but one particular companion stayed with us throughout our journey – the rain. As I look back at our two-week vacation, I’m not sure why we were surprised when the sun disappeared and the skies burst open on our train ride from Munich to Salzburg, blotting out the gentle Bavarian landscape. We couldn’t let that affect our spirits, though. When you’re travelling to places you may never see again, you don’t complain or rue what could have been. So we picked up a map at the station and decided to walk around Salzburg in the rain, for what fun is it to get on a bus when the streets have pavements that you can walk on without fear of being hit by two-wheelers?

Our first stop was at the Mirabellgarten, where we ran into a wall of tourists presumably on a Sound of Music tour. A group of baby-boomers sang Do-Re-Mi as they picked their way down the wet paths, while others crouched under umbrellas to have their pictures taken. We wandered into the Mirabell Palace and stumbled upon the Marble Hall, where Mozart once played to gorgeously-gowned ladies and staid gentlemen who swept up the wide staircases past classical statues that are now shrouded in netting. Unfortunately, the hall was cordoned off and we had to content ourselves with a peep at the decorations from the doorway. We returned to the parterre (I never thought I’d have a chance to use this Jane Austen-ish word!), admiring the neatly laid out flowers, and passed the obstacle course of tourists to get to the river.

Salzburg, cut by the Salzach and ringed by low hills, was almost exactly as I had pictured it. My extremely limited knowledge of the town came from one of Elinor Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School books, where she described it with admirable accuracy and created an image that now revealed itself to me in all its living glory. My first glimpse of the river was magnificent: grey-green, it flowed towards distant hills veiled by light rain clouds, reminding me of the landscape of my childhood home in Vizag. On the other side from where we stood was the Old City (Aldstadt) with its domes and spires, and above it sat the Hohensalzburg Castle on the Festungsberg. We walked across the bridge, prepared to lose ourselves in a fairytale.

The Salzach

We had about an hour and a half before we met our guide, P., and took the time to wander through the narrow cobbled streets of the Old Town. We passed Mozart’s birthplace, a yellow structure in a row of tightly-packed buildings, and went on to the Baroque-style Salzburg Cathedral (Salzburger Dom), dedicated to St. Rupert, patron saint of Salzburg. The hymns of an English choir echoed through the church, undisturbed by the shuffling of a steady stream of visitors seeking shelter from the rain. After the riveting drama of the Gothic churches in Münster, the interiors and the churchyards of Salzburg appeared more gently melancholy, their pale-coloured vaults and vivid flowers far removed from the acrimony of the religious wars.

As we wandered into the richly decorated St. Peter’s Abbey, a Benedictine monastery just a short walk away, we were transported to a different world altogether. With the few tourists who had been sitting in the pews drifting out, we had the lavishly appointed hall all to ourselves. The marble altar, the frescoes and paintings, the Rococo work, and the dark pews and floor were immediately evocative of the grandeur that must once have been the way of life of European royalty. It was very different from my vision of a monastery, where monks wore simple robes and lived a life of penury. However, having been a part of the Holy Roman Empire, Salzburg probably had access to the coffers of the Catholic church, and used them to keep the faith alive in the face of increasing resistance elsewhere in Europe.

St. Peter’s Abbey (Photo by G.)

We met P. at the Café Tomaselli. Hungry and in search of a vegetarian lunch, we found some delicious, buttery Spinatknödel at a cosy restaurant, P. serving as guide and translator. The rains putting paid to the picnic on the Alm that P. had in mind, we headed off for the catacombs in the cemetery of St. Peter’s after the meal. The walls of the Mönchsberg into which the catacombs are cut provided some splendid views of the churchyard and the skyline. The grey sky with its floating clouds set off the dark green of the hills and the domes to perfection, etching a picture of Salzburg permanently in my memory. Within, the catacombs house the remains of some of the city’s prominent people and bring the past to life, juxtaposing a not-too-distant epoch of music and literature against sober monastic pursuits. We tried to decipher the inscriptions and the faded murals to understand this world better, but with little success.

An inscription in the catacombs

To end the afternoon, we returned to the Café Tomaselli, where we indulged in the traditional Austrian pastime of coffee and conversation. The waitress brought us a tray with a variety of cakes to choose from, and I cannot begin to describe my bewilderment at the variety here. This was something I had read of in Brent-Dyer (I know I should be reading better things), and if you’re a kindred spirit, you know what it is to read about distant lands and the ways of their people, and to see them come to life in flesh and blood. As we feasted, we spoke of a number of things, including the American Presidential elections. This was in October and there was still some hope that we would escape a rampant display of misogyny and xenophobia.

As the clock struck six, P. had to return home, while G. and I walked back through the rain to the train station. G. and I were delighted to have had an opportunity to do as the Austrians did – what a blessing it is to be accompanied by a local on your travels, even if said local would rather be hiking in the mountains than ambling on cobbled streets. Salzburg isn’t one of your regular cities, though. It is a tantalising mix of the medieval and the modern: two different worlds on either side of a river. It has done enough to stoke my curiosity, and I hope to take my travels forward to Vienna some day, to linger in Viennese coffee houses and worship at Zweig’s altar. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll learn German and read Mann in his language. Salzburg, if you can manage to do all of this, you can share credit with Munich for a modern miracle.


November Reading

This month has delivered some outstanding reading – and that is saying a lot, given the amount I have discovered this year. I started the month with Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts, followed it up with Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, and finished Stefan Zweig’s Confusion this morning. Having gravitated towards German writing since my visit to Munich and Salzburg last month, I also have Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower, Irmgard Keun’s After Midnight, and Arthur Schnitzler’s The Dead Are Silent lined up for the next couple of weeks (thanks to book bloggers from the Guardian for these recommendations).

I’ll begin with Confusion, the book that is freshest in my mind. I couldn’t sleep this morning and decided to use the quiet early hours to finish the 40 pages or so I had left. I have been quite slow with this novella, reading and re-reading, charmed by Zweig’s power to put into words the unsaid. He lays bare deep and dark thoughts, brings in an intensity that I last remember being really moved by in The Outsider by Albert Camus. In today’s times, the story of the relationship between a teacher and his student may not be pathbreaking; but it is in the execution that Zweig amazes with his skill. He speaks unabashedly of the follies of youth, the inconsistencies of the heart and the mind, and the layers of embarrassment that are unhappily folded away, even though the damming up of these feelings may cause untold anguish and pain. He doesn’t offer any easy solutions. But this is the world we live in, these are the strictures we place on ourselves in deference to propriety, and so we continue to fight our battles or capitulate. (Thanks, H., for the recommendation.)

An excerpt from Confusion:

Changeable as he was, he kept confusing my feelings, and I do not exaggerate when I say that in my overexcited state I often came close to committing some thoughtless act just because his indifferent hand pushed away a book to which I had drawn his attention, or because suddenly, when we were deep in conversation in the evening and I was absorbing his ideas, breathing them all in, he would suddenly rise – having only just laid an affectionate hand on my shoulder – and say brusquely: “Off you go, now! It’s late. Good night.” Such trivialities were enough to upset me for hours, indeed for days. Perhaps my exacerbated feelings, constantly overstretched, saw insults where none were intended – although what use are explanations thought up to soothe oneself when the mind is so disturbed?’


We now move on to Anderson’s masterpiece. Anderson was a key American writer of the 20s, an influential figure of the Lost Generation. Why he isn’t more widely known, I am at a loss to understand. His writing isn’t glamorous: it is straightforward and raw, and he doesn’t flinch from stating the truth. Winesburg, Ohio talks of the lives of ordinary men and women in a village whose life revolves around a Main Street and the farms yonder. I went in expecting something similar to Willa Cather or Sinclair Lewis, but if I remember them correctly, Anderson is less inclined towards building stories and more keen on portraying the struggles we go through in our efforts to please ourselves and others. Like Zweig, he is a realist and does not shun the ugly or the mundane. His characters from midwestern America grapple with the same fears and insecurities that people anywhere, at any point in time, do. Sample this:

‘There is something memorable in the experience to be had by going into a fair ground that stands at the edge of a Middle Western town on a night after the annual fair has been held. The sensation is one never to be forgotten. On all sides are ghosts, not of the dead, but of living people. Here, during the day just passed, have come the people pouring in from the town and the country around. Farmers with their wives and children and all the people from the hundreds of little frame houses have gathered within these board walls. Young girls have laughed and men with beards have talked of the affairs of their lives. The place has been filled to overflowing with life. It has itched and squirmed with life and now it is night and the life has all gone away. The silence is almost terrifying. One conceals oneself standing silently beside the trunk of a tree and what there is of a reflective tendency in his nature is intensified. One shudders at the thought of the meaninglessness of life while at the same instant, and if the people of the town are his people, one loves life so intensely that tears come into the eyes.’

I stumbled upon Winesburg at a Virginia library, picked it up a few times, read the blurb, read the opening lines, and put it back because I felt that it might exacerbate the despair of the dark winter months. On the contrary, I now think it might have been bracing for its acknowledgement of the messiness of life and its inconstancy, making me come to terms with the long, endless nights.


Miss Lonelyhearts is my second West. I read The Day of the Locust last year with some admiration. Lonelyhearts took my appreciation of West a level higher. Both these books are solemn – his brilliance comes to the fore in his ability to see through life. He delivers his wisdom in frank, pithy sentences; no drama or exaggeration. In describing the life of a newspaper agony aunt, he mirrors our own concerns and confusion. He had so much to give to those of us incapable of setting our thoughts down coherently. Unfortunately, West was killed in a car crash the day after F Scott Fitzgerald died. Life can be really perverse at times.

An excerpt from Miss Lonelyhearts:

‘Man has a tropism for order. Keys in one pocket, change in another. Mandolins are tuned G D A E. The physical world has a tropism for disorder, entropy. Man against Nature…the battle of the centuries. Keys yearn to mix with change. Mandolins strive to get out of tune. Every order has within it the germ of destruction. All order is doomed, yet the battle is worthwhile.’

I don’t write about my reading every month, but November has been exceptionally good to me. I have rediscovered the kind of writing I used to revel in, and hopefully moved away from the phase when most things had to be sunshine and dancing snowflakes. I maintain that you read a certain book only when the time for it is right, when you will be able to fully appreciate its ability to influence. I hope that I’ll make my peace with The Magic Mountain and Middlemarch soon.


A Sunday Gathering

Friends’ reunions in India are getting increasingly rare. With most of our circle living elsewhere, such meetings happen about once a year, each time with a different set of characters. Let me first define the circle for you: it consists of seven friends (G. and his partners-in-crime from childhood) and their wives (us). Let me also tell you how these gatherings usually go: we eat, we go to the beach, and we eat again. One of these meals is always taken at Saravana Bhavan (Vadapazhani, if possible).

Today’s gathering was slightly different: there was no visit to Saravana Bhavan, an event which deserves to go down in the annals of this group’s history. We went to Bombay Brasserie for lunch, and I don’t think I’m far off the mark when I say that the tamarind candy and sugar-coated cumin were enjoyed more than the actual meal. Don’t blame it on the food – it was lovely – but our tastes are still bound to be gratified by the simplest things. We grab the chance to go back to a time when playgrounds existed and the biggest crime we could commit at college was to skip classes to go to a movie.

We went to Elliots Beach after lunch; we had to, on an afternoon tailor-made for the purpose. The sea was blue-grey and the weather pleasant, for Chennai’s monsoon is arriving and a cyclone hovers not far away. A rickety blue wooden boat bobbed towards the shore on high waves. A brown horse cantered on the sand and a man loaded with colourful plastic toys called out his wares. Snack stalls did brisk business and voices rose in merriment above the rush of the waves. Our own group bought a plastic gun and a bottle of soapy water to blow bubbles from on the pretext of entertaining the child. Visiting the beach after over a year, I enjoyed soaking in the colours and the sounds that I had missed during my stay in the US. Life in Chennai can be messy, but simple joys are more easily attained. Never underestimate the comfort of not having to wrap up every time you decide to step out in December.

We waded into the surprisingly cool water. The foamy brown waves rolled in, throwing salt-spray on our faces. We dug our heels in as the receding waves deposited sand on our feet. Srini screamed in delight, filling his fists with sand, and I wished I could, too. But I’m unfortunately more obsessed with propriety and hygiene than my three-year-old self. I insist on bottled water and I’m wary of iced golas. However, I’m also pretty hypocritical about such things, which is evident from my enjoyment of steamed peanuts fresh off a pushcart on the pavement. The others ate, as Sai put it, chilli powder with a bit of sliced mango around the edges.

We rounded off the day with a little balloon-shooting tournament, where the owner of the stall displayed a tremendous amount of good-humoured patience as she loaded our guns. I marvelled at how quickly she blew up the balloons; one short whiff of air, one twist of the mouth, and the shiny multicoloured balloons were ready to be torn into a million pieces, victims of our unerring aim. We wound up  with a visit to Murugan Idli Shop, for what is an afternoon out in Madras without idli, vadai, and filter coffee? (I simply cannot wait for the December Season to begin.) Plans for an all-boys’ vacation were laid as we stuffed ourselves – Thailand, Dubai, Goa, Pondicherry – and postponed as reality kicked in, all in the span of half-an-hour: another exhibit of the perils of growing up.

So ended, we thought, our day of feasting. But one unscheduled stop at our friends’ as we dropped them off meant being plied with murukku, barfi, and laddoo – Diwali and an upcoming wedding ensure that they are well-stocked and equipped to cater to ravenous beings who haven’t been home in a while. Celebrating my first Madras Diwali, I realised that it didn’t really matter that I didn’t have “childhood” friends I grew up with nearby. If you’re lucky, you find people who accept you the way you are and there is no pressure to dress a certain way or to speak a particular language. You also learn important things to store in a corner of your head until required: for example, did you know that animals have passports and that Ferrari model cars start at Rs 3 lakh? I didn’t.

During our conversations at the beach, we briefly touched on the fact that the last of the group turned thirty yesterday. The grey hair and crow’s feet are starting to appear; there are marked transformations and masked troubles as our parents and grandparents grow old, and balancing home with work gets demanding. However, none of this matters on a day like this, all laughter and no expectations. Some good company and a beach are all you need.

At Dachau


The sky is heavy with rain-clouds as we step off the train at Dachau, just outside of Munich, one Sunday afternoon. At first glance, Dachau is a quiet little town with neat houses and manicured lawns, much like a typical European suburb. However, as the bus drops us off right in front of the former concentration camp of Dachau, we become aware of a sense of foreboding in the air, the result of years of intense suffering and the decimation of those who dared to go against the skewed ideals of the Nazi regime.

Autumn has just begun, but in this oppressive atmosphere, we are not thinking of tawny leaves or leisurely walks. Grey sky meets colourless buildings and flat earth on the horizon. The paths are slick with rain as a stream of visitors straggles to the entrance of the concentration camp, pushing open a gate that bears the cold words that struck fear in the hearts of millions over decades and still have the power to petrify: “Arbeit Macht Frei”. Work sets you free, the Nazis said. (Unfortunately, this sign is a replica of the original that was stolen in 2014 and hasn’t been recovered yet.)

Entering the camp (picture taken by G.)

We walk into a large courtyard lined by buildings that once housed prisons and barracks. As we stand in the drizzle, warm in our coats, we remember that this courtyard once teemed with prisoners and SS guards; we think of the hostility and the hatred that led to the execution of so many men where we stand. Memorials here commemorate the mindless genocide that defined the last century. “Never again,” says a sign in five different languages, the first being Hebrew.

At school in India, we studied the Holocaust like we did other chapters in History. We were horrified and curious, but lessons on Indian independence always took precedence over the World Wars; we didn’t even care much about the Indian troops who fought in Europe. My first proper introduction to the Holocaust came through The Diary of a Young Girl when I was around thirteen and borrowed a copy which a friend had received as a present. It was duly circulated among all of us and we discussed Anne’s life for days afterwards. I was inspired enough to begin a diary of my own, calling it Anne, seeing her smiling face framed by her short, dark hair every time I started a new entry. I wanted to tell Anne everything and I did, talking to my diary about my adolescent dreams and problems, subconsciously making a friend who was as much a girl as any of us through her trials.

Earlier this year, when I was fending off the long nights of the North American winter with graphic novels, I picked up Maus at the Arlington library. It wasn’t the most responsible choice to make when trying to fight the blues, but there are books that ask to be read at a particular time in your life, and this was one. I didn’t know then that six months later, I’d find myself visiting the site of the first Nazi concentration camp. I didn’t know it when I visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum at DC in July, and was reduced to tears by some of the exhibits: letters requesting money to pay for a family’s passage to America, a yellowing armband with the Star of David on it, a little girl’s frock, scraps of Anne Frank’s writing. I like bright meadows and rippling brooks and possess Siddhartha’s horror of sorrow – and this almost kept me from visiting the Holocaust Museum and Dachau, but I am glad that I changed my mind.

We have only an hour for our visit and begin our exploration of the Dachau camp with the long, low building that houses the tiny prison cells. (Bear in mind that this was the first Nazi concentration camp and started off as a place in which to hold political prisoners, eventually serving as a model for camps like Auschwitz which played a key role in the implementation of the Final Solution – the extermination of European Jews.) Dank and musty, the cells in the bunker were veritable torture chambers where prisoners were incarcerated and  subjected to inhuman treatment. Across the courtyard are reconstructed barracks displaying replicas of the narrow, uncomfortable beds where prisoners must have lain on interminable nights, awakening at first light to crowd around the washstands. It is clean and presentable now, but pictures on the walls give us an indication of the crowded conditions in which several prisoners once spent endless days, emerging perhaps only to toil at hard jobs they were forced to do. From the barracks, we trudge down the path that had once been used by people walking to their daily roll call, empty fields spreading out on both sides where long lines of barracks stood. At the other end of the path are memorials dedicated to different faiths and built over the last few decades in memory of Jews and prisoners-of-war of different Christian denominations.

The reconstructed barracks flanking the path leading to the religious memorials

Umbrellas mushroom as the rain falls faster; with about a quarter of an hour for the camp to close, we hurry past the Russian Orthodox chapel, across a little bridge spanning a narrow creek, to the crematorium. A chill runs down my spine even now as I think of the ovens that charred the corpses of so many hapless prisoners, at one point insufficient for the number of bodies that were pouring in. Two other rooms precede the ovens – a kind of “waiting room”, where prisoners stripped in preparation for what they were told was a round of disinfection, followed by the gas chambers where the actual activity took place.  A notice states that these gas chambers  were never used to poison inmates, but were equipped with vents through which Zyklon-B could be dispensed if required. (A little probing on why the gas chambers were never used brings up links that mention that the chambers were in fact used to delouse clothes and not to poison people, as at Auschwitz; this conclusion comes from a study of the design of the chambers and the amounts of Zyklon-B they dispensed, photographs, and various documents. However, as I haven’t been able to find a reliable source, I will not share any links here and request you to let me know in the Comments section if you have any recommendations for further reading.)

Ovens at the crematorium

As we exit the crematorium, I stop briefly at the door of the Russian Orthodox chapel for a moment of calm. My mind has been in a whirl throughout this visit. I have seen the stark black and white cat-and-mouse chase from Maus leap into life in these forlorn surroundings. The Jews gave away all that was precious to them in exchange for a chance to escape the Nazis’ tyranny; they killed themselves and their children so that they wouldn’t end up on loaded trains to concentration camps. They hid in tiny alcoves and waited on street corners to trade their possessions for food. They suffered through bitter winters and fell to illness stemming from cramped surroundings and malnutrition. They encountered neighbours who gave them shelter and others who turned them out of their own homes. The Holocaust survivors’ resilience in the face of such humiliation and their return to normal life are miracles that I struggle to understand. Mental strength always astounds me more than physical ability, and there are few better examples than the recovery of the Jews.

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One of the watch towers on the perimeter

Over the years, I have spoken to German friends about Nazism, and they have all acknowledged the unfortunate history of their country without hesitation and stressed on how important it is to learn from it. In Munich, symbols of German identity are conspicuous from their absence: very few black-red-gold flags are visible, in stark contrast to the effusive patriotism that is hard to avoid in the US or the unctuous loyalty demanded in India of even those with the most tenuous links to the country. The reasons for Germany’s penitence are obvious, but it is rather rare for countries to acknowledge their past sincerely and work towards correcting it. This should be the purpose of studying History as a subject: to learn from the past and to know enough not to repeat the mistakes that ruined millions of lives. At present, this sounds a good deal like wishful thinking.

Paris: In Search of the Writers

I wrote earlier this year about my fascination with Paris of the 1920s, and if you’re still sticking with me despite my obsession, I hope you’re just a little bit smitten as well and that we’ll some day have long discussions on the paradox that was Ezra Pound. However, I first have much to learn about him and his friends who fled to Paris to find inspiration away from Prohibition Era America, Ireland, or elsewhere, in the process creating works and movements that profoundly influence our lives to this day. Paris seems to have provided them with the freedom they craved. On the other hand, more than ninety years on, we are still fighting some of the battles that existed back then, such as those for the acceptance of women, religious equality, and homosexuality.

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George Whitman’s Shakespeare and Company by the Seine

While I had heard of Paris’s propensity for grey, cold days, I never took the warning to heart, what with London having shown itself as one of the most perverse places in the world in terms of weather. I was rewarded for my blind faith in Paris’s good nature by a shower on my first morning in the city. G., K., and I hastily rearranged our rather flexible plans: we feasted on pastries at Blé Sucré by Square Trousseau while we waited for the rain to turn into a drizzle, did a quick spot of fruit shopping at the market nearby, and hauled ourselves off to Shakespeare and Company. With the Notre Dame and the Seine within shouting distance, the bookshop is in one of the dreamiest areas of Paris. This wasn’t the site of Sylvia Beach’s original shop and actually started out as Le Mistral, but its proprietor George Whitman eventually received her blessings and named it after her store that failed to reopen after the Second World War.

To me, Shakespeare and Company was as much a pilgrimage site as a bookshop. I wanted to be close to the place that had published Ulysses at a time when it was considered risqué. I hoped to eavesdrop on HD’s love-whispers to Pound and Stein’s  harangues against the Lost Generation. These Jazz Age artistes celebrated life and plunged themselves into despair all at once. They drank themselves to bliss and penury. How did these contradictions exist simultaneously? What made Hemingway, who was seemingly devoted to Hadley, abandon her for her friend? Why were the Fitzgeralds unhappy? Why was Pound, known for his kindness to young, aspiring writers, an ardent supporter of Fascism?

I don’t have answers to these questions – one visit to Shakespeare and Company, which has come a long way from its roots, cannot provide them. Perhaps a lifetime of research will. I wanted a physical reminder of the stacked bookshelves, Sylvia’s library with its musty old curiosities, and visitors’ fond notes – for we live in a time when material possessions serve better than fleeting memories that are constantly being trampled by the weight of new information. I purchased a used book from the shelf outside and had it stamped.

From here we walked to the rue de l’Odéon to see the place where Sylvia’s store flourished after she moved from rue Dupuytren, choosing to settle across the road from her lover Adrienne Monnier’s bookshop. The road that once must have swarmed with men and women conversing about Imagism or the Charleston lay drugged in a Sunday stupor. The sun had just managed to win its battle with the clouds, so we took advantage of the improving weather and moved on to the Luxembourg Gardens to rest our legs.



Around four, we walked to the Montparnasse Cemetery, a sea of grey criss-crossed by tree-lined avenues. The tombs, some simple, others elaborate, jostle against one another on tightly packed plots. The first graves we saw were those of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. I read Sartre’s Nausea years ago and didn’t understand much of it. Thus, the purpose of these literary visits in Paris, especially to the graves of people I’ve never read, was to imbibe some of their ethereal energy in the hope that it would nestle in a corner of my being and aid my understanding of their work when I got around to it. It was with this aspiration that I visited Marcel Proust and Honoré de Balzac at Père Lachaise, and Samuel Beckett at Montparnasse. I also tried to find Guy de Maupassant at the latter – for who among us hasn’t been left heartbroken by The Necklace – and in a twist of fate, failed to do so. (If you haven’t read the story, here it is.)

Père Lachaise wasn’t originally on the itinerary, but when we returned to Paris after our travels to take the plane home, we decided to make a quick stop there to pay our respects to Oscar Wilde. The Picture of Dorian Gray is one of the most haunting books I’ve read, and even though I could look at the elaborately designed tomb only through a glass wall, I was stirred by the inscription on the headstone. It is an excerpt from The Ballad of Reading Gaol, which he wrote after his release from the prison where he served time for homosexuality.

And alien tears will fill for him
Pity’s long broken urn.
For his mourners will be outcast men
And outcasts always mourn.

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Oscar Wilde’s tomb (Picture taken by G.)

I’m glad Wilde was buried in Paris because it gave me a chance to spend a few moments by his side. However, as my Irish friend Patrick says, “Paris may have his grave but the Irish have his soul!”



We picked up dinner at L’As du Falafel in the Jewish quarter of Le Marais, ate it by a public park, and crossed the Seine back into the Latin Quarter. The sun set rapidly as we walked on to our next destination, 74 rue du Cardinal Lemoine, once home to Hemingway and his first wife Hadley. (Lonely Planet informs me that the dancing club that existed below it inspired the one in The Sun Also Rises where Jake meets Brett, and this has me doubly delighted.)

I clutched at G. in delight as we spotted the plaque on the building in the dimly lit street. I’ll take a brief moment here to acknowledge how big a blessing it is to have travelling companions who placate every unreasonable wish of yours (not that wanting to visit a house that Hemingway and Hadley spent more than a year in is unreasonable, of course). I blinked in disbelief, for it was only in March that I read A Moveable Feast, falling utterly in love with the idea of this literary city. Six months on, there I was, standing by the house where its writer had lived, breathed, and loved – and falling for the city itself. And now I am back home in India, still reeling under its spell.

Below it, rather unimaginatively, was a travel agency named Under Hemingway’s: such are the ways of this prosaic world. Further ahead, at Place de la Contrescarpe, bistros were filling up with happy diners making the most of their ending weekend. Music wafted over the laughing voices and the clinking glasses, creating an atmosphere of vitality I tend to associate with Europe, setting the stage for our next stop – the steps of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont.

Digressing slightly before moving on to the pop culture significance of these steps, I must tell you that we peeped in through the open doors from the street and were quite enamoured with the gorgeous sweeping interiors of this church that celebrates the patron saint of Paris, St. Geneviève. It also houses the tomb of Blaise Pascal whose genius I respect, but who gave me no little grief in Physics.

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Waiting by the church steps (Picture taken by G.)

The steps of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont are famous for being the place where Owen Wilson moped over his future in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, before a car arrived to drive him away from his mundane life. I’d like to commend Allen and company on their choice of location, a sheltered road bathed in mellow light, lurking in the shadows of the Panthéon which houses the tombs of some of France’s greatest (Braille, Hugo, Voltaire, and Zola among others). An aura of mystery shrouded the cobbled street even as early as eight o’clock. The church bells rang and we lounged on the steps, half-wishing for some kind of miracle or a dream carriage. Only a few cars passed by and very evidently none of them was even twenty years old. K. told us later that we had unwittingly picked one of Paris’s car-free Sundays for our “adventure” – though I don’t know if Hemingway would have cared about playing by the rules.

And that rounded off our literary trail in Paris. I know that we barely scratched the surface, but it was a splendid way to begin what turned out to be a very memorable trip. I’ve managed to lengthen my to-read list as a result; this surely is a sign of immense success?