Thursday, July 29, 2010


Note: An edited version was shortlisted for the DNA-Out of Print Short Fiction contest, 2014.
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Steffi Graf married Andre Agassi a few days after I landed in Berlin.

I had two reasons to be in Berlin. I have discussed the first and main reason elsewhere when I wrote about love and here, that reason is not important. The second and more pertinent reason is that I wanted a speechless life.

Why? For thirty years or more, I had been a linguistic chameleon.

Till my teens I spoke mainly Malay since my friends were Malay or Iban. I also achieved distinction in writing Jawi. Then, to pass exams here, I had to learn English, my mother tongue and the national language. In the years that followed, out of necessity or love, I picked up Tamil, Kannada and shuddh-gaali (pacha-theri, pure unadulterated vernacular useful for survival) from the north and the south.

Language is a weapon for power, to form clubs and to exclude. Sometimes, it is used to communicate, I know. I was usually not offended during business meetings when the language would switch over to that of the majority. I tried my best to gel with them. When the level is intentionally notched up above my level of comprehension, I take the hint and switch-off. It is not a difficult game to play and everyone, including me, has participated as the predator or as the prey at one time or the other.

While being that chameleon, I realized that I had another gift, too. I could forget a language just as easily as I could pick up a language. A part of my brain seems to be reserved for this, a slate or a memory drive for writing, erasing and writing again repeatedly without damage. When I realized that, I had to acknowledge the fact that language, and therefore speech, could be irrelevant.

That is one of the reasons why I decided to live in Berlin and refused to learn German. Berlin was ideal for this experiment. It is also a beautiful and dynamic city; and, it offered enough escape routes, if necessary.

I was not there as a tourist with a return ticket but there to live for years. Some decide to go into the wild. I need contact with people to feel exhilaratingly claustrophobic, boxed-in and smothered. Without city air, I would suffocate. But, I did not want to talk and I did not want to understand what others talked all around me.

At work, I had to talk at times but it was not essential for my work. I could not speak in the train; in the supermarket and the street-side cafĂ© or beer-garden; in the museum, the cinema, the opera-house or the library; and, not even in the police station or the foreign office where I had to renew my stay permit every year. I managed – there were irritants, of course, but there were enough nice people who were ready to understand what I wanted to communicate, without talking.

Fortunately, my barber was one of those people.

There, the barber is not called a barber but a friseur. It was in my third month in Berlin that I found that shop, located a few blocks from my apartment, and I mustered enough courage to go inside for the much-delayed haircut.

The chief-friseur and proprietor of the business was a German, mid-thirties, with a friendly but strict smile that reminded me of my class teacher in grade three, buxom and rather unapproachable. The chief took measure of my hirsute mess with a long careful look and then assigned the junior, the only other friseur, to attend to my case.

Fortune was still knock-knock-knocking on my door. The junior-friseur was not a German and seemed flexible enough to try sign-lingo with me. After a few failed attempts, I managed to register for the combo of hair-wash and haircut. I did not really need the wash since I had shampooed and cleaned my hair thoroughly at home that morning.

The friseur handled my head gently from behind during the washing, shampooing, final washing and drying. I felt her long fingers massaging my scalp and her long nails which never scratched. I kept my eyes closed. Once that was done, she adjusted the chair for the haircut. She stood close and in front of me. She held my hair in the front between her forefinger and thumb and with her eyes and a slight pout in her lovely full lips, she enquired about the required length. I indicated with my right forefinger a length sufficient to postpone the next visit for just three weeks from then.

She must have been around my age if I had been a few years younger; east European, probably from one of those countries which had recently gained independence; two or three inches shorter than me if I kept my head high; slim and athletic; and, on that first day, she wore a black t-shirt and low-slung jeans. The t-shirt went well with her fair skin, black eyes with a tinge of blue and specks of brown, and the Celtic butterfly tattoo on the lower back.

The haircut went as well as the hair-wash, in spirit if not in deed. She took her time, using just one hairdressing scissor and one comb. She used her fingers to measure and trim, to smooth and set. She moved effortlessly from front to back, left to right. We looked at each other once in a while, face to face or in the many mirrors, smiling only when the chief-friseur was favourably engaged nowhere near.

The hair-wash and haircut lasted 20 minutes, every three weeks, on Saturday mornings. On one of those days, we exchanged names like a talisman, or at least a memento. Hers is Delia.

I do not know when we became lovers. Well, if this was fiction, I would have made that sentence sound true. We never became lovers. In fact, we met outside that shop only twice.

The first time, I met her at the Spar supermarket adjacent to my apartment block. It was close to 1 pm on that Saturday winter afternoon and I was desperate to get home for lunch. I was trying to count the exact change for the figure displayed at the counter. The nice lady at the counter was familiar with my dumb ways and waited patiently with a comfortable grandmotherly smile. I gave her my usual apologetic look and my best smile and, also directed the same at the person behind me in the queue. It took me a moment or two for me to realize that I was looking at Delia. I paid my bill, collected the bags and left quickly.

I waited outside. When she came out and saw me waiting, she smiled. I did not know what to do. It was either due to the confusion in my mind or a rumble in my tummy that I gestured to her about eating at the Koreanische restaurant next to the supermarket. She nodded in agreement. We shared soup, kimchi, noodles and bulgogi.

I have wondered since then about what we would have talked if we could have talked.

I would have described the green hills, the plains with the carpet of coconut trees, backwaters, beaches, education and healthcare, God’s own country, Onam and the wonderful cuisine, secular mixture of cultures, maybe even about my family back home.

She would have educated me, I suppose, about the Orthodox Church and the influence of Moslem culture, the great years of communism, caviar, science and the great academies, ballet, all those great masters, authors, painters, composers, sharing food at Christmas and Easter, the land rich with natural resources, the entrepreneurs, the calm plains and the beautiful lakes, holidays at the Black Sea or the Mediterranean.

I guess we would not have talked about why we chose to be away from those places we called home.

We had a long lunch without a word or a touch. When we looked at each other, we just searched in each other’s face and eyes. The other senses tend to work better when you are speechless. We shared the bill and when we parted outside, she held my hand for a while.

Winter turned to spring and the other seasons followed. Months went by and I kept my appointments with my friseur. It was on a hot summer Saturday that I found that the shop had closed. Or rather, the shop was being refurbished for some other business. I walked back home and did not leave the apartment that weekend. I felt lost without my barber. Or maybe, I was just disappointed that I had to find a new one.

During the early days of the winter that followed, I was on leave on a Thursday. I wanted to visit a photography exhibition that afternoon and attend a concert that night. The exhibition was not exceptional and I was free by 4 pm. It was getting dark and I had a couple of hours to kill before the concert.

I walked to a cemetery. Though not in the same league as the Pere Lachaise or the Highgate, there are two or three in Berlin which are great places to walk or sit and think. I used to go there around noon and I usually had company to clear leaves and check the stories etched on gravestones. On that day, it was deserted. I searched for a famous man’s grave. It was behind one of those handsome gravestones that I saw my friseur outside the shop for the second time.

Delia looked weak and scared of someone. Her eyes kept looking around. When I got close, even in the fading light, I could see that her lovely lips had a nasty cut and that her left cheek was slightly bruised and her clothes seemed dirty. She leaned towards me and I held her. I would have liked to see her smile but she looked as if she had not smiled for quite some time. She did not cry, though. She had a small backpack with her. She said with a weak voice, “Hilfe, bitte.

I knew those important words which were unnecessary at that time. I knew that she needed help but of what kind I was not sure other than to know that I was not the one she really needed.

I could only think of two avenues for help. My boss could help but he is like me, earnest, indifferent and insensitive, a rather self-centered person. He is the type who asks at the end of a seminar, “Have you said anything which is not trivial?”

The next and only choice was Susannah, a colleague I liked a lot. I had been to her place for dinner couple of times. She is an armchair liberal and quite useless with practical matters. But, her partner Gudrun seemed to be the right person for Delia since she is involved with various organizations concerned with human rights violation and all that.

Susannah and Gudrun lived about 2 kms from Wannsee station and we could get there by the S-Bahn train. From a phone-booth, I tried to contact them but nobody picked up the phone, and I assumed that they were still at work. We waited in the cemetery till it was dark before going to the nearest station. We tried to be inconspicuous but a dark-skinned guy walking around with a disheveled beautiful fair lady is not a common sight anywhere. In the train, we took the bogey right behind the driver. I usually do that when I return late from work. My Lonely Planet advises me to do that. It’s got nothing to do with racism. There is no dearth of hoodlums in any part of the world and every place has a local version of skinheads and neo-Nazis.

When we reached Wannsee, it was about quarter to six. We walked fast, eager to reach the apparent safety of my colleague’s house. Sick with tension, I had thought of approaching the police but Delia seemed reluctant. The road was deserted and we hardly came across any cars on that route.

We were a kilometer from the house when a car went past us, stopped a few meters in front and two men got out. They approached us with one holding something that looked like a gun. I would have suggested running if I thought it would be of any use. Anyway, Delia looked spent, defeated and she just crumpled on that sidewalk.

I knew that I had to face the two men and fight. Altruism usually has a simple explanation. I had a greater chance of living if I did not fight but if I lived after the fight, I could live without guilt.

The two men casually walked towards me. I had seen a lot of movies in which the good guy puts up a good street-fight. I was tougher and fitter in those days. I lasted about a minute on my feet. One of those men moved quickly and I tried to follow him. The other then came behind me and immobilized me with a choke-hold. The first hit on the solar plexus left me breathless. By reflex, I raised my hands which were guarding my groin. Predictably, the next kick was to the groin. I nearly lost consciousness but I was still standing. After a few more well-aimed punches to my sides, I slipped to the ground. They kicked me a few times as an afterthought.

I realized that these guys were not mere street-fighters. They did not leave any visible injury. From that foetal position, I watched one of them drag Delia to the car. The other leaned towards me, roughly grabbed my hair and whispered in my ear, “Talk…kill.” I knew those words, too.

I did talk to Gudrun and Susannah. Through them, I talked to the police. But, the talking did not do any good.

Maybe, those men were Delia’s husband and some relative, the police suggested weakly. None of us wanted to admit the bitter truth. There’s too much traffic of that kind, invisible and if not, we prefer to turn a blind eye. I have looked for Delia on the street, amongst cheer-leaders, in resorts, at air-terminals, ports and railway stations. But there are no traffic lights on those avenues used to transport that kind of cheap but profitable cargo.

I remained speechless.

Author’s note: This is fiction. Isn’t it?

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