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 are 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?

Paris Was Mine


I’ve been fighting against the Paris-sized void in my life by reading about the city. It might sound like a silly thing to do, but I assure you it’s entirely involuntary. I began reading Paris was Ours on the plane from Chennai to prepare myself for the wonders of this grand city. As we moved further through Europe, I shelved it to allow the magic of the other countries to seep in; but then we returned to Paris for the flight back home, and its romanticism hit me hard again. I continued reading the book till I finished it a few hours ago, then went to my bookshelf to pick up another to temper the hangover. My fingers hovered over Gogol, Godden, and James, before being pulled against their volition towards that familiar green paperback that I’ve been saving up for a treat – The Sun Also Rises. You see, Paris won’t let go.

My first encounter with Europe took place – through books – when I was around eight. I read Heidi and was immediately smitten by the idea of the mighty Alps. For a long time, I actually nurtured the ambition of being a milkmaid in the Swiss mountains. In my head, it meant wearing billowing skirts and lying in the sunshine on a flower-strewn meadow.  I obviously didn’t account for harsh winters or physical exertion, because what is the imagination for if not to gloss over bitter realities? Years later, when I started watching Formula One and worshipping Michael Schumacher, Germany was the country I wanted to visit. As an added bonus, I would have loved to be employed by an F1 team (Ferrari, to be precise). That I didn’t get an opportunity to set foot on the European mainland until two weeks ago put paid to all my lofty goals. Considering that by mid-2016, I was already deep in the exploits of writers who spent time in Paris in the 1920s, reading Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, Sylvia Beach, and Morley Callaghan, it was only fitting that our trip should start in its mystical boulevards.

And so it was that I arrived in Paris, starry-eyed and determined to channel the spirits of the Lost Generation. Gertrude Stein was undoubtedly harsh towards them, and despite Hemingway and Pound’s dubious reputations with regard to their private lives, I was determined to learn from the streets and the river that had shaped their literature. I wanted to have a conversation with the Seine and drink in the fragrances of the rain-washed nights that added depth and colour to so many dreams. I wanted to see what drew those giants away, in those distant years, from the shores that we so prize today. Failed attempts and wild-goose chases didn’t matter. What was important was that Paris had been a central character in their stories in the years between the two World Wars, keeping the flame of art and literature alive in those troubled times, and continues to be a source of creative inspiration today.

Three heady days in Paris marked the start of our trip to Europe. I espied the twinkling lights of the outskirts from the airport, and took in a deep draught of the air of the Continent. I was soon to learn why so many writers gushed about Paris, why so many film-makers decided that this was the home of undying love and beauty. In the music of the piano being played somewhere near the entrance to the Métro, in the polite “Merci, Madame”, in the utter absence of English, I saw a world I was unaccustomed to, and whose acquaintance I looked forward to making.

With our friend K. for our guide, we did not have to stop to think where we could find the best baguettes or croissants or falafel. She led us expertly down winding streets – even though she had a propensity for getting lost in the streets of her hometown of DC – to her favourite patisseries and restaurants. We ate clumsily on pavements, shrinking under the aristocratic gaze of Parisian passersby who mostly seemed to eschew eating in public spaces (to be fair, one of them did call out “Bon Appetit!” with a kindly, amused glance). We ate at a small pizza place near Moulin Rouge and at a vegetarian restaurant where we feasted on delicious tomatoes stuffed with rice (A., the chef, will disagree with the word “stuffed”, which he said was an inaccurate translation, but I forget the French word). We had the most succulent orange-flavoured tiramisu here, and K. and I drew a picture of it for A., who was also kind enough to bring us samples of some quiche-like pie he had just prepared. We ate quantities of bread, mango jam, cheese, and pain au chocolat. We ate pastries for breakfast: Poire Jasmin (smooth, jasmine-flavoured), Le Carla (succulent dark chocolate), Le Vollon (more dark chocolate with crumbly, crisp caramelly bits). We picnicked at the Luxembourg Gardens and on our last evening in Paris by the Seine, with a glorious sunset painting the sky every conceivable shade of pink and orange. As the colours spread fast, as if an invisible hand were wielding a broad-bristled brush furiously, we packed up the remnants of our picnic and ran to the Pont Alexandre III, joining other onlookers who had flocked to the bridge at the sight of the spectacular show the sky was offering us, accentuated by the electric lights of the Eiffel Tower.

And that sums up about half of what we did in Paris. Most of it was about food, as described, but we also did a few other significant things.  Over the next few weeks, I hope to tell you about our pursuit of literary ghosts and of our travels through three other countries. As we go along, I also mean to continue reading about these places, because resistance is obviously futile. When you read about a city you’ve just been in and identify street names, you feel aware and knowledgeable. You know that the creative impulses it has aroused among countless others have, just for a few hours, touched you as well. For those hours, the city was yours.

I will leave you now with this poem by CK Williams that I’ve been championing aggressively. I hope you like it and feel about it as I do (or otherwise, because what is a world where everyone agrees with everyone else).

Re-reading History

Viswanathan Anand released Sanjeev Sanyal’s new book, The Ocean of Churn, at Odyssey (Chennai) last evening. This post is a mix of conversations from the event and my own experiences of studying history from CBSE textbooks. (This was also my first time at a book launch and I’m tremendously excited about it, which explains my prompt posting.)

Ocean of Churn

Anand prepares to discuss the book with Sanyal


Six years ago, on a sultry summer afternoon, my parents and I travelled along the coast of Odisha, taking in the beautiful lake-dappled countryside as we made our way through Puri, Pipli, Konark, and Dhauli. The last of these was an unscheduled stop, but how could I have resisted the detour when I learnt that this was purportedly where Ashoka fought his large major battle before, in a fit of compunction, renouncing war for Buddhist pacifism?

I wrote this in 2010 after my visit: “Dhauli Giri houses the Shanti Stupa – a dedication to the Buddha, overlooking the vast, picturesque, river-watered plains of Kalinga. Could this fertile, life-giving land really have been the site of bitter battle, where the blood of thousands was shed before Ashoka realized the futility of war? Legend goes that the waters of the river Daya turned red as a result of the merciless killing – now, it is a placid blue stream that flows gently through green fields, a vista of incredible beauty when looked upon from the heights of the Stupa. Four serene statues of the Buddha look out at the countryside, the bearers of the truth of peace which finally convinced a remorseful Emperor to lay down his arms and kill no more.

“By the foot of the hill is a park preserved by the Archaeological Society of India, which protects a piece of rock in a glass case- the rock inscribed with Ashoka’s edicts, the rules by which he wanted his people to live so there would be no more war.”


The battlefields of Kalinga as viewed from the hilltop

When I was told that Akbar and Ashoka were benevolent emperors and that they were great proponents of peace, I accepted it unquestioningly. I never asked why the Satavahanas, the Chozhas, the Pallavas and the Cheras were fit into a short paragraph or two, or why the Northeast was barely mentioned, if at all. Studying history at school was all about knowing dates and the succession lines of the Mughals. Questioning something that was in an NCERT textbook was akin to heresy. (To be fair, in the Indian education system, questioning anything in general is to be heretical.) In the process, we have successfully consumed massive quantities of skewed history, with limited exploration of indigenous sources and enormous dependence on theories proposed by the West. As Sanyal points out, it is our own laziness that makes us consume Eurocentric views of our history in heavy doses, with the result that we take pride in having Chanakya’s strategy called Machiavellian because it equates our own genius with a European one. Studying International Relations in England, I was conscious of how Realist Theory started off with Machiavelli: Sun Tzu and Chanakya didn’t feature anywhere, and surely their lines of thought were similar?

Sanjeev Sanyal aims to provide a departure from this tradition through his writing, and his latest book, The Ocean of Churn, is an effort in that direction. Stripping our perception of world events of its postcolonial trappings is bound to be an arduous task, and Sanyal attempts to do this using a framework usually applied to other disciplines: Complex Adaptive Systems. According to this framework, events are a product of chance and derive from various factors including people, climate change, terrain, etc. (My first thought on reading about this methodology was to equate it to the framework of anarchy in IR; I’ll have to finish the book before I can actually attempt any reasonable comparison.) Sanyal relies not just on secondary research, but visits the sites of his subjects to piece stories together. That said, he is emphatic about the resources provided by the Internet, and expresses surprise at how little we care about unravelling our own history from materials so widely and readily available, instead choosing to rely on versions that depict it in a manner that suits certain interests. And so it is that myths like the Aryan Invasion Theory are propagated. Returning to where I started, Sanyal explains that Ashoka’s edicts could in fact have been a propaganda tool, not very different from the posturing of leaders around the world today.

Taking this idea forward in The Ocean of Churn, Sanyal presents the history of the Indian Ocean region from a perspective that seeks to look beyond stories of spice routes and wealth-laden ships.  His objective is to study history from the coastal viewpoint and to address the distortion stemming from the overt inland focus in our narrative. During his conversation with Anand, Sanyal gave the example of the Battle of Colachel, which was one of the earliest defeats of a European power in Asia, the Dutch losing to Marthanda Varma’s forces. This was at a time when the Dutch East India Company (VOC), considered the world’s first multinational corporation, was a powerful force. According to Sanyal, this could have paved the way for the entry of other colonial powers in the region. While he mentions at the start of his book that he isn’t fond of alternative history and what-ifs, as a lay reader, I’m tempted to wonder about the fate of India had the Dutch got a strong foothold in the country and marched along unvanquished. Of course, other factors such as the Anglo-Dutch War and the rise of competing imperial powers would have influenced the course of events, but it is important to note that this was by no means a small victory.

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A blurry picture of a map depicting Indian Ocean trade routes at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, DC.

Why do incidents of this kind never find a mention in our textbooks? Growing up in Vizag, I never bothered to learn about the various dynasties that ruled over the city or to explore the transition to European colonisation. I never visited the famous Dutch Cemetery in Bheemili, a major coastal 17th century Dutch settlement, even though I went to college there. I might have displayed some curiosity had I been encouraged to think about history as an important subject, rather than one that had to be endured for the sake of studying more “lucrative” ones.

The good thing is that it isn’t too late: half-baked theories continue to abound, and there is plenty of scope for amateur and professional historians to sift through mounds of material. The purpose of evaluating history from a new perspective isn’t to accept blindly what is proposed, but to think critically about what we’ve been taught or fed and understand which of these claims might be dubious. The idea isn’t to claim that everything great emerged in India, but to explore alternatives to the imperialist ideas we’ve continued to hold in thrall. Enjoying Kipling’s Kim and venerating AL Basham’s notions of Aryan invasion aren’t the same, even though they are products of their colonial times. What we need to do is to separate fact from fiction, and discourage the lionisation of certain individuals and periods at the expense of others. It is for this reason that I look forward to reading Sanyal’s interpretation of the history of the Indian Ocean region.


Notes from the Library of Congress

We are in the hallowed Main Reading Room of the Library of Congress, having come through a serpentine tunnel nicknamed the “Yellow Brick Road” after its pleasant yellow walls. The hushed cool of the circular room is punctuated by distant voices, the jangle of coins, and the occasional cough or sniffle. A stream of tourists flows in and out of the Gallery on an upper floor from which I’ve seen the Main Reading Room on previous visits, wondering what it must feel like to work in such an immense, solemn atmosphere. I have been exasperated by selfie-obsessed tourists who press themselves against the glass and attempt to photograph themselves with goodness knows what. I am at peace now.

The spectacular room is the centrepiece of the Jefferson Building, which draws hordes of tourists for glimpses at its opulent interiors, exhibitions, and importantly, the Gutenberg Bible. The Library of Congress itself, while open to the public, permits loans only to government officials. Members of the public can register for researcher cards and gain access to materials and reading rooms. There are several subject-specific reading rooms, but the Main Reading Room is the sanctum sanctorum. It is impressive, strong Greek and Roman influences defining its architecture like that of the rest of the building, portraying the gravitas and old-worldly charm I have automatically come to associate with scholarship. As I look carefully, however, I realise that the room isn’t perfect: vast collections and technological aids notwithstanding, it is a product of its times in some ways.

The tasteful dome, decorated in blue and gold, depicts 1897 America’s idea of who the gatekeepers of western civilisation are; America, Egypt, Judea, Greece, Rome, Islam, the Middle Ages, Italy, Germany, Spain, England, and France make the cut. In the times of Empire, it probably wasn’t the fashion to consider the foundations laid by the Eastern Hemisphere. The statues atop the pedestals are of men who have made significant contributions to learning: Saint Paul, Herodotus, Shakespeare, Beethoven, etc. – however, this Eurocentrism neglects to acknowledge the contributions of, say, Panini or Sun Tzu.

I ask a librarian about this. He is immensely apologetic, and describes how the decoration reflects the age when the building was constructed; of the limited appreciation back then of Eastern cultures and contributions. It was also a time when women didn’t even have voting rights, not to mention representation in the public space (after all, the US is yet to elect its first female President). However, Islam was acknowledged out of respect for various reasons such as Muslims’ role as protectors of Greek knowledge, for their navigation skills, and for the influence of the Moors. He mentions that some people who notice the mention of Islam are sadly astonished. I shouldn’t be surprised, because we live in an age when calculus can be misconstrued as an evil plot written down in a foreign language.  On a more positive note, the librarian assures me that if the structure of the library was being decided today, it would be done differently.

I do not let these omissions take away from my joy in the book-soaked atmosphere. The librarian has been working here for a long time, and admits to a sense of awe each time he steps in. I completely understand that. The ceiling soars gloriously high, with a soft light bringing out the tints on the stained glass windows. Spines of various colours stand out on dark wooden shelves set in alcoves with vivid pink walls. The overall effect is rich without being extravagant.

I’ve often wondered about the neoclassical influences in DC’s architecture and the omnipresence of colonnaded porches and pediments; in the Thomas Jefferson Building, the heavy Greek and Roman inspiration is evident in statues and paintings within, bearing little ostensible resemblance to everyday lives or recent discoveries and inventions. Are these structures a reflection of America’s ambitions, and was it hoped that these would be achieved by wielding knowledge as an instrument of power? Taking the underground path from the Madison Building to Jefferson, the dull metallic roar of overhead pipes and visible bunches of wires giving it an industrial, spy-novel feeling, I felt a tingle run through my spine. I was all too aware that the Capitol building was only a short walk away through another tunnel, but I wasn’t convinced that the people in it were more keen on knowledge than on realist theory to proclaim their power. I draw your attention to recent history to buttress my claims. I’m happy to be corrected and to learn about the role the Library of Congress, next door to the country’s seat of power, plays in its decisions.

I plan to return to the Main Reading Room next week and spend some time actually reading, for I must admit I was too much in awe of the occasion today to actually pay attention to the collections or my book (which, incidentally, happened to have been first published in Sussex, where I went to university for an MA degree that most people in my family assume is a “useful” MBA). The depiction of major influences of learning in the architecture isn’t perfect, but as a thing of beauty and as a repository of knowledge, it is utterly remarkable.



Notes from Manhattan

New York City has a propensity to take a vice-like grip on your head and not let go easily. When you’ve done the touristy things the first time – walked down Brooklyn Bridge, craned your neck up at the grey/brown skyscrapers, marvelled at people’s fascination for the statue of the bull on Wall Street, and lain under a tree in Central Park – you return with a piece of the city lodged inside, so that on your second trip, it is like resuming where you left off.

The roads were stirring awake at six in the morning as our bus emerged from the Lincoln Tunnel into the boxed-in confines of Manhattan’s streets. How did the sun ever reach some of these roads? The people scurrying to work wore preoccupied expressions to match the dreariness of some of the streets; there were no smiles for strangers, no time to stop and stare. In stark contrast were the wondering, relaxed tourists, strolling into Times Square to sit on the red steps and watch life flow by. Shimmering lights danced along Broadway, epitomising all the excesses of our time.

Glittering lights, manicured lawns and slick movie reinforcements of a shining Manhattan notwithstanding, step into Canal Street, into the density of Chinatown, and you clearly see what a meld of cultures and classes New York is. As I stood on the pavement, contemplating the metal fire-escapes on closely packed apartments reminiscent of Calcutta, the ubiquitous red-and-gold of most Chinese quarters abroad, and the odours of unknown food, I felt for a moment that I was back in Singapore, walking from the glass-and-concrete business districts to the more quaint, less postcard-friendly parts of town. Very different from DC’s Chinatown – which, in all honesty, seems like any other upmarket section of the city with an intricate arch and Chinese lettering thrown in – it almost breathed stories of the dreams that had gone into building a community in this foreign land. Some of the aspirants have grown up and moved out; the rest have remained to expand their new home, spilling into the streets of another immigrant community across the road that seems to be on its last legs here.


I must confess that part of my fascination for this other community – that of Little Italy – comes from the Godfather movies. The Internet tells me Little Italy is now just a façade for a much larger community from Italy that once thronged the area, though it was never the largest settlement from that country in New York. Most of these streets are home to Chinese businesses today, with a few streets fighting to carry the Italian legacy forward with eateries and gelato carts, Italian flags, and harmonica music floating out of the odd restaurant. The ‘Little Italy’ signs help keep up appearances and continue to draw tourists in with promises of showing them the Italian quarter the immigrants built so far from home (and, in our case, where Puzo’s mafia thrived). Dismal buildings abound, but on a sunny morning, it was quite hard to pick out the almost Dickensian gloom of the past century; it was much easier to buy into the hype and sail in for a peek at the flag-bearers of Italian glory.

Little Italy

Accordingly lured in, we stopped by a cart for pistachio ice cream and went in search of the Mietz Building on Mott Street, which was where Vito Corleone established his olive oil business in Coppola’s movie. The building as it stands now isn’t dingy, cobwebbed, or soot-blackened; it isn’t even Italian any longer (if it ever was), because we found that most of the street was occupied by Chinese stores and looked very much like neighbourhood markets back home in India. With several Italian settlements in the city, it is likely that the original settlers and their children grew richer and moved to better areas. For, to put it harshly, the streets of Chinatown and Little Italy are far removed from the sanitised pictures of New York we are fed, with soapy water from pavements running onto the streets and pieces of paper conveniently missing dustbins.


Moving on to Nolita, we dropped in at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral on Mulberry Street, inside which Coppola shot the baptism scene in the first Godfather movie. The main entrance was blocked due to construction work and we were momentarily disappointed, when we noticed a stream of people making their exit through a side-door next to the churchyard. We went inside and sat down in one of the pews, watching a family praying at the altar, the priest guiding them. The other members of the congregation had broken off into little groups, laughing and talking in Spanish. A strong fragrance of incense pervaded the air; a sense of geniality filled the hall. Sunday service over, the congregation was probably looking forward to lunch and a well-deserved rest. We admired the interiors and the stained-glass windows, trying to note the differences in the appearance of this Catholic church from that of the Episcopal Trinity Church on Wall Street that we had visited earlier in the morning. I couldn’t really tell, though, except that there was a statue of Mary in the Catholic church, and this plaque in the Episcopal:


China and Italy done, we went to lunch at a Tibetan/Nepali restaurant, feasting on aloo khatsa and bean noodles with a variety of vegetables, accompanied by soft white rice. Instantly, it was like being back in Sikkim, eating hot home-cooked food in the modest hotel at Lachung, where the doors had no locks and even bathroom windows opened on to vistas of the snow-capped Himalayas. I felt at home in these nostalgic indulgences, in that sense of familiarity that springs forth in a strange place, from a memory that itself comes from experiences that were once new and strange.

To end the afternoon, we took the train to Washington Square – I had suddenly recollected a few hours ago that there was a Henry James novel by this name. Being a sucker for all things literary, it was only natural that I should drag poor G. to the park and to the road where James’ grandmother was supposed to have lived. I assume James must have visited often and been inspired to write the book, and even though he didn’t consider it one of his good works, I’ve started reading it and enjoyed it so far. He received a fair bit of criticism for his style, but I will reserve my judgement until I have read The Portrait of a Lady (a Reader’s Digest joke called it “unputdownable”, because it was so easy to lose track of the proceedings every time you put it down). That could have been because the entertainment in his time was different from that in the picture here.

Washington Square Park

And so did our morning come full circle in Manhattan – from Wall Street’s riches to the visible earthiness of recent immigrant settlements, and back to the neighbourhoods of the gentry. If Little Italy doesn’t exist in twenty years’ time, I will be grateful to have had a chance to take a peep at the world that might have inspired Puzo and Coppola.


I’ve always struggled to answer questions about my “hometown”, because many people do not comprehend that a person can speak one language at home and live in a city that speaks another. I carry memories that are composed of different childhood haunts, landscapes and languages. Though I’ve lived in a bunch of different places, I choose to call the one I’ve spent the longest amount of time in my hometown, knowing very well that I have few reasons to go back there now and in the rest of my life, may spend just a handful of days there. It is a painful thought, but I have moved often and know that this is the way of towns.

What is a hometown? I’ve often associated a hometown with a physical space where we spend our childhood, a place that conjures images of innocence and safety and being taken care of for most of us. However, limiting a hometown to childhood might negate the present and put us in a floating space that doesn’t exist. Where I live now is my home if I identify with it enough to elevate it from being merely a house or a camping ground on a long journey, and if I live here for a considerable amount of time and put out mid-life roots, surely this can be my hometown.

Those of us who have not grown up in one city cannot be condemned to eternal rootlessness. I’ve lived in a different city every year since 2008. I have accepted the knowledge that much as you try to ignore a place simply because you know that severing an attachment is agonising, a piece of the city seeps in and nestles in your head, sometimes without your knowledge. Then, when you lie on your bed on a blue night and look out of the window, rendered sleepless with the splendour of it all, you are reminded of the shafts of moonlight that slipped through the branches of the banyan tree next door and soothed you to sleep in a different time, in a different city. So, you see, a hometown is more than just a physical entity: it is also a psychological shelter.

These thoughts were inspired by the first chapter of Exile’s Return by Malcolm Cowley. I have just begun the book, but I am already deeply in love with his warm, accessible writing: it makes you feel like you’ve known him for a while. He writes very touchingly about childhood homes, and if I, despite (or because of) my vague roots, identify with this excerpt, I know there are a lot of you who will appreciate it better than I do. I’ll leave you here with Cowley’s words:

This is your home…but does it exist outside your memory? On reaching the hilltop or the bend in the road, will you find the people gone, the landscape altered, the hemlock trees cut down and only stumps, dried tree-tops, branches and fireweed where the woods had been? Or, if the country remains the same, will you find yourself so changed and uprooted that it refuses to take you back, to reincorporate you into its common life? No matter: the country of our childhood survives, if only in our minds, and retains our loyalty even when casting us into exile; we carry its image from city to city as our most essential baggage:

Wanderers outside the gates, in hollow
landscapes without memory, we carry
each of us an urn of native soil,
of not impalpable dust a double handful
anciently gathered – was it garden mold
or wood soil fresh with hemlock needles, pine
and princess pine, this little earth we bore
in silence, blindly, over the frontier?
– a parcel of the soil not wide enough
or firm enough to build a dwelling on,
or deep enough to dig a grave, but cool
and sweet enough to sink the nostrils in
and find the smell of home, or in the ears,
rumors of home, like oceans in a shell.

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