An email came to my inbox – from a sender I didn’t know.
‘Hello! We met after your inaugural talk, which I enjoyed very much! I love India, I spent three months in Tamil Nadu a couple of years ago. Now I’m on a post-doctoral fellowship and my research area, in fact, is labour movements in South India! I would love to go back. Anyway, Christmas is not far away, and such occasions are always a good excuse to get in touch. I thought I would wish you Merry Christmas and Happy New Year in advance! It would be lovely to see you again. I would be happy to show you around when you are free. Birgit.’
Birgit? I studied the email as if it were her. I extrapolated her appearance from the message’s shape. I neither trusted the words nor my idle excitement. I’m wary of Europeans who ‘love’ India – an old neurosis. Christmas was a while from now. Still, I’d never before received an advance Christmas greeting, let alone a Christmas greeting as self-introduction. In my idleness, I thought I’d explore the invitation.
‘Dear Birgit, thanks for writing! I’m glad you came to the seminar, and it’s good of you to think of me as we approach Christmas. I get the sense that Christmas is brighter and colder in Berlin than in other cities in Europe. But thankfully it’s less cold than I thought it would be. It’s generous of you to offer to introduce me to parts of the city I may not have seen. I’m happy to be in your charge.’
‘I’m happy to be in your charge’! After clicking on the irrevocable ‘send’, I felt queasy.
An email arrived in twenty minutes.
‘Should we meet at 20.00 hrs on Friday at Hackescher Markt? You will need to change at Wittenbergplatz and take the U2 to Zoologischer Garten. From there the U9 will bring you straight to Hackescher Markt.’
I didn’t ask her why she wanted me to make this journey. I’d told her I was in her charge.
At the platform, a woman came up to me, a scarf tied round her head. I thought for a second she was a refugee. ‘You look like a Muslim woman. I mean you could be
Arab or Pakistani.’
‘Ah, that happens to me at times. A Turkish man will stop and ask for directions. In his language.’ She shook her head. ‘I wear it for the cold.’
We’d been walking. Introductions weren’t necessary. I’m mesmerised by headscarves. In the arcade in the station, a woman was selling Russian dolls. When she saw me looking, she smiled and pulled apart the large doll to reveal the smaller one. I know these dolls, but I looked at her because I wondered if she was Russian. This gave the doll new meaning. When I related this to an English friend, he said he’d visited Hackescher Markt before the wall fell. There were no vendors. ‘So much life springs up with trade!’ he said. ‘Capitalism, huh?’
We went down a long lane. Birgit was a bit in front of me. She was quite tall – as tall as I am.
Couples went in the opposite direction; trailed off. No one belonged; there was a tentativeness in their movements, like they were trespassing. Or as if they were being given access without reason.
I was beginning to tire. ‘Here it is!’
A building, with an empty area in the front. As we went nearer, we heard swing music. From the doorway, you could see figures: waiters; but also people dancing. ‘It used to be a dance hall,’ said Birgit. ‘It’s a restaurant now, but there is still dancing. Tonight’s swing night, I think.’
I’d said I was in her charge; she was used to navigating. She gesticulated to a waiter, then spoke into his ear. He nodded, as if receiving orders, and took us to a corner table near the stage. It had a candle and a menu card. We sat down like people who’ve been expecting good fortune. The stage was full of musical instruments; there was no band. The music was so lifelike I looked twice to check if there was a band on the stage.
‘The food is a mix,’ Birgit said. ‘Mainly German, but with a touch of American.’ People danced as we considered the menus.
‘Men are such poor dancers,’ Birgit said, covering a smile with a hand. ‘It would be better if women just danced with women.’
With a little straying, they’d press on us. Closest was a woman with her back to my gaze, and a bearded forty-year-old, moving with a soft ungainliness. Birgit was right: the woman was lost to her thoughts. She just happened to be dancing. The man was smiling, content, as if he could see he was doing something silly. I smiled too. Like yawns, smiles carry.
‘Would you like to?’ Birgit asked. ‘Sorry?’
‘No!’ I burrowed into the menu card.
‘I can’t force you, but I think you’d be a good dancer.’ ‘Me?’
‘Yes, there’s a rhythm to the way you walk – and speak.’ I took refuge in the names of courses.
‘These people . . . they’ve been coming here for decades. To dance.’
I wasn’t sure what she meant by ‘these people’. Were the smiling man and the woman whose face I couldn’t see, whose back moved stoically, taking the brunt of his dancing, included? Had they been here then? Was it possible to separate then and now? There was a separation, yes, but I was distracted by the wavering figures.
‘They’ve been coming here for twenty years?’
‘Yes,’ she said, as if saying ‘yes’ was enough. She believed it the moment she said it. She glanced at the crowd. ‘For these dance nights.’
‘And was it always this music?’ Her eyes sparkled.
It wasn’t a ‘retro’ event. The sound in the speakers seemed familiar to people, like a dialect. The numbers moved between country and western, hillbilly and the blues without premeditation. Each was seized as a departure to a different mood. I listened for a hit from the sixties. It didn’t come. But the crowd smiled at each song. I began to think the music came from a unique repository: like a record collection you stumble on in someone’s home at a certain point in your life.
Studying the dancers – not with envy but absorption, even faint astonishment – I couldn’t decide where I was. I wasn’t confused. It’s just that I didn’t feel enough of a divide – between present and past, them and myself. The dance floor had a boundary. The tables were arranged accordingly. But to study the dancers was to be undivided from their world. They just moved; some, like the bearded man, a few steps backward, grinning. The enthusiastic ones twirled. They’d forgotten. This happens with regime change: no vestige of one’s history remains. One enters the present anew. Of course, there must be constants: like this music. But it’s as if the great changes haven’t taken place. Or – this came to me not as a question, but an alternative – had the wall not fallen? Why was I here, in that case?
‘When you finish,’ said Birgit, busy sorting the food, ‘I’ll take you up to see something.’
I had a couple of meat patties to deal with, not quite hamburger, blobs of white sauce on them. On one side were French fries and a perfunctory garnish of salad. ‘Yes,’ she said. I connected her provocative smile with the email she’d sent me, wishing me Merry Christmas about a month in advance, and not the local historian she was pretending to be.
‘You’ll see,’ she said, foraging. She was ravenous.
My patties didn’t taste of very much. I reduced them till only a quarter remained.
‘Should we share an apple strudel and cream?’ I glanced at the traces of white sauce on the plate. I couldn’t imagine not rounding off on dessert.
‘You’re allowed to have a whole one, you know.’ She was thin. I wondered if she was hungry.
We climbed up with the urgency of childhood friends. ‘You see?’ she said, placing herself in the middle of
the room, waving to her left. There were mirrors on both sides, their lustre dimmed by having to absorb the room without interruption. She was an unsteady axis; I couldn’t tell if she was going to try out a dance step. ‘Women came here to learn ballroom dancing.’ She glanced at the brimming chandelier.
The chairs looked back at me. There are spaces in which you sense time, but also inhabit the viewpoint of those who’ve already been there. You see through the eyes of those who’ve gone. These perspectives are intense but momentary.
I turned to find her unsteadily in my proximity. ‘You see?’ she said.
I wondered what might happen – if we would begin to dance. We were almost circling each other; we were eye to eye.
‘It’s beautiful,’ I said. It reminded me – what could it remind me of? This wasn’t my history. But I felt an intimacy, an undecidedness, that had to do with her being nearby.
She moved. She was taller than me – she’d gained a couple of inches, or was floating above the floor. But she also had the angularity of one whose feet are firmly planted.
‘Should we go?’ Suddenly, she didn’t want to linger. The others we’d been were receding. We found we were alone with ourselves.
‘I’d love to stay a bit more,’ I said, mooning. She looked over my shoulder.
‘But it’s getting late,’ I said. We scurried down the stairs.
From Sojourn by Amit Chaudhuri. Used with permission of the publisher, NYRB. Copyright 2022 by Amit Chaudhuri.