My awesome image caption
  • 14

    I am writing tonight from a couch at the reception of the hostel where I am staying in Berlin– an area that doubles up as a nice bar/ hangout space. Behind me, some people are watching a football match projected onto the wall with more enthusaism than I have ever fully understood (I think it’s cool, though). Across from me a man is on an intense looking video call, and the room is full of people drinking, talking, writing, watching, being– each in their own language, each with their own drink (mine is a giant glass of terrible red wine!), and there’s something I love about that, that way of being together without necessarily interacting with each other.

    But that’s not what I wanted to write about.

    I spent today walking around central Berlin, including parts of the historical city, and I’ve been trying to tie together the experience in my head. in 2014, I was a teaching assistant for a class on Memory and Reconciliation at CONTACT South Asia (a wonderful peacebuilding program I have been involved with since 2013). We were working with a group where many of the participants had lived through civil wars, and we were trying to understand together how the act of memorialising, how the way we frame our past conflicts, can influence peace or conflict processes in the future. We looked at many memorials in that class, some celebrated ones and some that are acknowledged as deeply problematic and sowing the seeds of further conflict (a case in point would bee the Sri Lankan memorial which is, for one, known as the “Victory Memorial” rather than something like the “Peace Memorial”, so it’s debatable whether it was even conceived of as a peace-building measure or simply as chest-thumping). At any rate, we had talked extensively about the way Germany has chosen to memorialise its own dark history, very publicly, and in so many different ways. I was curious to see how these spaces make me feel in the flesh after all those abstract conversations about intention and execution, so I wanted to start my Berlin trip there.

    I had already made plans to visit the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe with a dear friend later in the week, so I decided to start my day today with the Berlin Wall memorial. I thought this would be a small stop, but I ended up spending over an hour there, trying to take it in. You can find thousands of images of it online, but here’s one of a small section that might help you understand this post better.

    Okay, so in this one, just notice a few things: in the foreground you see a wall with lots of little “windows”– each of those has a photograph of one person who was killed while attempting to cross the Berlin wall. A few windows have ben left blank to allow the possibility that there were others whom we do not know about, and to allow the possibility of their inclusion if we find out about them. Behind that, in the white with lots of graffiti is part of the remains of the original Berlin wall as seen from former East-Germany. And in the right corner, the rusting steel beams are how they have chosen to mark the parts of the wall no longer exist– an interesting choice because they actually feel like the most menacing part of this stretch, and yet they allow a glimpse from each side into the other, which is also part of the metaphor of this memorial, I think. This photo is one tiny part of a long stretch with lots of photos, audio-video stopping points, sculptures, and more. A truly impressive amount of time, energy, and resources have gone into reminding the city of this past, into making sure that it is commemorated and acknowledged right in the heart of modern Berlin.

    I kept wanting to be moved by it. But somehow, I just wasn’t.

    Don’t get me wrong. I learned a lot today about that period of Berlin’s history and realised that our high school history books kind of forgot about Germany once Hitler was gone — the Berlin wall showed up in our history books more as a metaphor and less as an actual wall. It was interesting (in a morbid kind of way) to watch some of those video interviews and try to imagine this place in another time, and I gained a lot of information, but I struggled to relate to it in a way that meant something.

    Then, I overheard a conversation between a British man and his 8 or 9 year old son that somehow put this in perspective. Struggling to explain the political historical connotations of that spot to his child, but very much wanting him to understand, the man finally told him “If we were standing here 30 years ago, at this very spot, we would have been killed. They would have shot us just for standing here.” The boy’s eyes widened a little, and he asked “And we are sure they won’t any more?”.

    In the boy’s wonder, in the hint of fear, and in the father’s reassurance, I saw a bit of what was impossible for me to feel otherwise in the middle of this beautifully sunny and grassy spot full of art, this very very sterilised memorial where some people were walking dogs or going for a run, and where tourist groups hung out chatting– the possibility of violence. That imagining made the site more meaningful, made history more current, just for a moment.

    Later as I continued to hobble around Berlin (I’m still walking with a cane because of all the foot drama I’ve mentioned before), I found the other piece of this puzzle. My foot was starting to hurt, and I was just looking for a nice cafe where i could rest for a bit over a cup of coffee and a journal entry, and my cane stumbled upon this.

    We had talked about these too in that memorialisation class– the “Stumbling stones” memorial. Across Germany (and other parts of former Nazi territory too, 22 countries in all by now), these little 10 cm by 10 cm brass cubes commemorate the homes or workplaces from which victims of the Holocaust (mostly Jewish, but also other groups persecuted by the Nazis) were captured, committed suicide, or forced to emigrate– basically, it seeks to commemorate the last place that these individuals chose to live in. Each plate tells you the names of the people, dates of birth, the date of the deportation, and the date (if known) of death. In the stones above, there was one eight year old and one twelve year old, two people in their thirties (presumably the parents?), and someone in their 60s. At the bottom, for each of them, it says “murdered” and in some cases gives one the date of death. That’s it. That’s all we know about them now, along with the sites where they lived, loved, fought, worked, dreamt, feared.

    Some people find this memorial offensive, this idea of literally walking over those names and dates, as if it were an ordinary thing. For me, that was precisely what prompted a sharp intake of breath, the ordinariness of it. That was what made me forget my hurting foot and my search for a cafe, look back up at this building, try to imagine it in a different time, try to imagine this street in a different time, ask a hundred questions in a second about what happened here, how we allowed it, whether it could happen again here, or back home, and so much else. It brought the history into this living breathing moment, wrote those difficult questions into the sidewalk, made you mourn for these individuals and the lives they could have had– the life this city could have had.

    I thought back to the Windows of Remembrance at the Berlin Wall memorial, which also does remember individuals, including with photos. I realised that for me the difference was that there, they were memorialised at the site of their death; here at the site where they lived their lives. There, if you didn’t want to think about that part of your history, you just didn’t go into that ground; here, you will literally stumble upon it everywhere this tragedy took place (the project is still ongoing). Above all, there, the only thing that connects those people, and therefore their only identity, is that they were killed for trying to cross the wall, but here they are connected as families, as neighborhoods, as familiar categories of people– as something I can imagine, and it is the imagining that breaks one’s heart, forces the difficult questions, and hopefully strengthens one’s resolve “Never Again”.

  • 13

    I know, I know. I haven’t quite kept up the once-a-week promise, but hey, at least I’m still around!

    I’m writing this post on the train from Stuttgart to Berlin, where I am heading for my first holiday-adventure-trip thingy since getting to Germany. I realised this morning how long it has been since I travelled alone to an unfamiliar city… it was something I used to do regularly, all over the place in college, and then within India, but ever since I began setting up home in Shimla, all of my “getaway time” seems to have gotten concentrated there. That has its definite charm– the way the city welcomes me back each time, the familiarity of a conversation with the vegetable seller, or noticing a tree having lost a branch or gained new leaves — but I am thinking now how much I do want to make sure to do some solo-traveling into unfamiliar places, even if just for a few days a year. Something about it keeps one alert and alive to little things that one otherwise comes to take for granted. But more on Berlin later. For now, my news from Solitude.

    In my last post, I talked about finishing up a new draft of my second book of poems A Kind of Freedom Song, and I have just emailed my publisher a final-er final version of the same. We may still do some edits, or drop a couple of poems, once she has read it, but for now, that project feels mostly behind me, in the loveliest way. This manuscript has been a hard one to write, and perhaps to read,  as it is many ways a violent book, but finally tying it up feels a little like having exorcised some important ghosts. There’s something deeply restful and satisfying about it.

    In the past ten days, my residency at Solitude has… opened. There’s no other way to describe this feeling of immense possibility, like I have now scratched that surface of what i thought I was going to come here to do, and under that scratching lay the magical password to a whole other what-I-will-actually-do-here. Some of this I owe directly to the wonderfulness of the founding director here, Mr. Joly, whose comments on the manuscript (and whose excitement about my work in general) have been so deeply affirming it’s hard not to believe more in it myself now!

    The rest has been the way this space opens up to accommodate what we need rather than asking us to close up to what it demands. The most obvious example being me showing up here as a writer and longing for a pottery wheel… a few weeks of runabouttery later, this 18 century hunting castle has a little basement room with a wheel and clay and tools and so much that is now possible for me here! Similarly, I came here as a poet, but having finished this manuscript, decided it was time to begin work on a non-fiction/ oral history project I have been turning about in my head for years, so I requested to be allowed to spend some of my project budget on a research assistant and transcriber, which was also instantly approved. One Facebook post later, I have several leads for whom I could interview for this project, and in a quick week, it has begun shaping up more rapidly and beautifully than I could have fathomed– I just need to figure out how to keep pace with it now!

    The keeping pace part has been made somewhat harder by a sudden inflammation of one of my chronic illnesses that demanded a course of debilitating antibiotics and slowed me down considerably in the last few days. I have taken lots of naps in the last 72 hours, and  done some pottery, and I feel myself gently returning to myself now. I brought my laptop along on this holiday so I could spend an hour or so everyday catching up on work I would otherwise have done over the weekend, but let’s see if the city allows me that!

    My train has almost reached Berlin, so I will sign off here for now. Some of the specifics of this roundup might change — some of the projects themselves might change. But that’s sort of the point: here, at Solitude, in a context completely different from my own, I feel able to change, feel nurtured and believed in enough to jump off a couple of ledges, take a few risks, and let myself grow.

    I leave you with this image of my favourite mug from these last few days, embodying my 2018 vision of making space for whimsy!


  • 30

    It is strange to think I have already been here at Stuttgart for three weeks. On one hand, Delhi seems so ridiculously far away that it must have been years. On the other hand, where did the three weeks go, and why do i not feel fully in the groove yet? This was the entire length of some of my other residencies — Sangam House, for instance — and here it feels like it has barely begun.

    I did finish a whole new draft of the book, one that is structurally very different from the last 6 or 7 drafts, in ways that definitely feel so much more honest, organic, even fun. And I did some 12 doodles towards this. And I began research and reaching out to people for my next project. And I have done a fair bit of logistical runnabouttery trying to figure out ceramics space. Plus it turns out that settling into a new country, especially one that loves its bureaucratic paperwork, takes a long time… I finally have a bank account (but still no debit card to use it with) and in a day or two I should have a bus pass as well, after which I should be totally settled in logistically. This is not too little for three weeks, and yet, it is hard to understand where the time went, what I am making of it.

    A couple of us were talking with the program director, Mr Joly, this evening, and one of the fellows said something about how wonderful it was to be in a space conducive to artistic work without any particular deadlines or expectations. Mr. Joly responded that that is one of their criteria when selecting fellows — making sure they look for people who are grown enough in their artistic practice that they will be more internally driven to use this time well than the drive any external deadlines could exert. It makes sense to me, this idea of letting people meander and find their ways to the work they are here to do, and it makes me wonder what using the time “well” entails.

    Every other day or so, I make elaborate schedules of my workday, but I have not yet once stuck to my schedule. In an imaginary universe my workday is structured from 10:30 AM to 6 PM, but in reality, I often only get down to working properly after lunch, and then I often work much later into the night than I am accustomed to. I struggle to wake up before the sun rises (which can be as late as 8:30 AM here), but then I am amazed at how much of an evening I have left after the sun has set. I am sometimes too tired to be social, and at other times, I am too deep in wonderful conversations with new friends to be tired. Above all, I am amazed at how much time my brain likes to keep for staring out of windows… I like to tell myself that I am unconsciously processing important manuscript questions as I do so, and in some cases I am, but in others, I know I am just savouring slowness, the incredible luxury of doing less, of stepping out of a hyper-productive lifestyle and noticing the way the snow melts on the rooftops my window looks out at. Surely this is valuable in its own right, regardless of whether it shows up in the manuscript.

    Even as I say that, I am planning out the next week, the next month, promising myself a more productive February. But even as I do so, I know that the greatest gift of these 6 months might simply lie in the learning to follow my body and mind where they take me rather than controlling the process too tightly from the outset. Let us see where this goes.

  • 25

    I’ve had a crazy ongoing drama with what was initially just a little corn on my left foot since September, including 4 removals by the surgeon, 2 weeks of antibiotics, and all kinds of other things. We thought it was getting over by the time I left Delhi, but then over the last few days, my foot got so swollen that i couldn’t fit into my shoe any longer this morning. So, since today also happened to be a freakishly lovely day for January, I put on open sandals and trundled into town to see a doctor. She scraped my foot again, then gave me a prescription for meds for a month, and she did not charge me for the visit as we aren’t sure if insurance will treat this as “pre-existing” and hassle me about it– said we’d figure out payment if I wasn’t better in 4 weeks and needed to see her again.

    (I think my favourite thing about this visit was that she wrote down the homeopathic medicines I am taking with the same seriousness as the allopathic treatments undergone so far, even quickly looking up one of the homeopathic ones in a reference book on her desk. My second favourite thing was that there was a stress-ball and a big box of colour pencils in the waiting room).

    Then I limped over to a pharmacy, and after filling out my prescription, the pharmacist gave me a free bar of chocolate. Just because.

    So I don’t yet have a favourite cafe or bookshop in Stuttgart, but I totally have a favourite pharmacy and doctor. I think that’s as good a start as any as far as making a new city home goes, no?

  • 22

    Over the last couple of days I have had some wonderful conversations about the structure of my next book of poems with a new friend from Macedonia here at Solitude. He is an architect, and he helped me resolve some of my dilemmas about the structure by getting me to think about the book as if it were a house.

    This morning a few of us went to a lovely art store where I bought drawing ink thinking of the “dot that went for a walk” drawing project I did in 2016 as part of the Clay Time program organised by Atelier Lālmitti.

    On the bus ride back I had a great conversation with a Colombian visual artist about her work (and I got to speak in Spanish after ages!).

    This evening, I received the news that I will be able to use the Ceramics workshop at an art school in town and started thinking about the poems I want to sketch for that project.

    Somewhere in the midst of all this, Akhil was on Whatsapp, reminding me not to lose the sense of whimsy and buoyancy in my manuscript, even when I write about tough things.

    Suddenly, all of that coalesced into a bunch of little doodles of lines from the manuscript that are becoming an interesting organising principle for the book now — there might only be 8 or 9 of them peppering the book, but they pull together something important I have been grappling with now that I am thinking of the book as a house. I will explain that process in a longer blog post sometime!

    So THIS is why we do artist residencies. I get it now! ​:)

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