The International Writers
We arrive in Barcelona after a 2-hour flight from Luton Airport.
Made an early start had to be at the airport by 5:00. There
was the usual last-minute panic about finding the car park. Without
the traffic and neon signs, Luton is completely disorienting.
Finally, we were given some very good directions by a Gujarati
newsagent, who is stacking bundles of newspapers. At least we
dont have to be up at this hour seven days a week. Tapas
sleeps on the flight, so Subha gets some much-needed rest. As
we plunge through the cottony clouds, we get a breathtaking view
of the snow-capped Pyrennees.
At the airport, I fumble with numerous cards before the ATM machine
accepts one of them. We havent brought any foreign exchange. Apparently
it is cheaper to use the local ATM machines.
We get in line for the Airport bus. The passengers behind us fidget as
I struggle with the suitcase and Tapas, who has taken a sudden fancy to
the hand-rail. He keeps lunging at it, causing me to drop a handful of
coins. Subha smiles apologetically at the driver.
Neatly planted date palms and glass-fronted offices soon give way to dusty
apartment-blocks, their balconies festooned with clothes-lines. Except
for the sun and the date-palms, we could still be in London.
We get off at Placa Espanya, which is a 10-minute walk from our apartment,
or one stop on the Metro. We consider for a moment the suitcase, the pram
and an increasingly jubilant Tapas and decide to leg it. As we walk past
gaily painted apartments and their trellised balconies, the suitcase takes
a life of its own, riding roughshod over the uneven flagstones.
Our greeter is Martin, originally from Aberdeen. He wears a stud on one
ear and bright red shoes, in keeping with the spirit of the place. We
dont need much explanation as to why he has left the Granite City
to settle here.
The lift can just about take me and the suitcase, so Subha and Tapas go
up the marble staircase with Martin. When the doors open, I realise I
am on the wrong floor. Tapass cries echo through the spiral staircase
and I cannot tell where they are coming from. To the lady waiting outside,
who looks as if she might exceed the maximum capacity of the lift by a
few kilos, I point upward.
I get the wrong floor again. This time the lady rolls her eyes and I point
downward. Fortunately, Martin shouts something from downstairs, perhaps
Spanish for that man has never used a lift before and the
lady nods. The signs on the lift are misleading the real second
floor is labelled P, for Principal and 2 is the
The apartment has a long corridor, flanked by the kitchen and the bathroom,
with the bedroom and the living room at the far end. Martin opens the
slatted French window, letting a warm strip of sunlight spill on the tiled
floor. It brings back the ache of some long-forgotten memory.
Martin says there are four vegetarian restaurants in the city. He settles
down at the table to draw up what I presume is the contract. I grow a
bit impatient. When at length he has finished, I realise that he has taken
the trouble to draw an excellent map, with the best vegetarian restaurants
off La Ramblas marked.
We order a buffet at Govindas, the Hare Krishna restaurant. The
menu is in Spanish, but the owner speaks perfect Hindi. By the time we
have done justice to the salads, soups, samosas and pulav, we are struggling
and I have to refuse the dessert. I ask about the Hare Krishna community
here and the owner kindly gives me a souvenir commemorating the Janmashtami
celebration in Spain. It has a picture of the rath yatra in Barcelona.
One half of the souvenir is devoted to the advertisements from the sponsors.
Mostly the Indian business community - from garment importers in Gibraltar
to Indian restaurants in Malacca.
Walking back past the street performers and cartoonists at La Ramblas,
we stumble upon the fruit market. Amidst the numerous varieties of citrus
fruits are exotic fruits from Latin America, whose names I get the seller
to repeat, but dont quite catch. A purple one that looks like a
pomegranate makes me grimace. It is expensive and tastes of sap.
are in a cable car, ascending rapidly towards Montserrat. The cars
on the ribbon of road below soon shrink into tiny specks and disappear
behind the orange haze. The cable car operator says something to
amuse Tapas, but it only makes him jump and cling to Subha. My ears
pop as we rapidly gain altitude. The folds of the mountain face
resemble the stalks of some exotic plant. At the top, Subha is so
distracted by the sheer variety of shops that by the time we reach
Montserrat basilica, the last notes of the childrens choir
are already fading away.
This is one of the holiest shrines in Spain and yet most of the
visitors are tourists like us. After the recital, there is hardly anyone
at the pews, except for a pious Mexican family kneeling at the front row.
It occurs to me that this would not happen in India. No one goes to Guruvayoor
as a tourist. True, they might spend a while in the shops outside the
temple, but that is not their primary purpose.
It prompts me to think how, in the modern world, money is most common
measure of value. I do not think this malaise is restricted to the West.
How much is the forgotten painting in your cellar worth? How much do you
have to pay for putting your mother in a care home? What is the cost of
not cutting down CO2 emissions now?
How much was Martins hand-drawn map of La Ramblas worth? Priceless!
Back in Barcelona, we saunter into a petrol station. Subha picks up a
packet of biscuits and changing her mind, rather carelessly drops it on
the wrong shelf. The pony-tailed proprietor swoops down on us. He rasps
something in Spanish, mimicking Subhas action. We apologise and
walk away. As we step out, I realise he is still shouting and gesturing
at us from the till. Perhaps he is objecting to the pram. Perhaps he is
saying we should go to the Pakistani shop next door.
As we step outside, I consider whether I should go back in and pick up
a fight. Subha wants to come too. Then I decide it is not worth it. After
all, this person is hardly typical of the well-mannered and considerate
people we have come across in the streets, buses and metro. Nevertheless,
I know the incident will rankle for a while.
We are outside Sagrada Familia, both awed and repulsed by its architecture.
What dark imagination must have conceived such a monstrosity! Antoni
Gaudi (1857-1926) started the project in 1882 and devoted nearly
40 years to this work, the last fifteen of which he virtually lived
at the construction site, cutting himself off from the world. In
the later years, he struggled for funds. He was run over by a tram
and died in a paupers hospital, from which he refused to be
moved, saying his place was with the poor.
One of his teachers at the school of architecture in Barcelona is said
to have commented I have either found a genius or a lunatic.
Gaudis architecture has elements of both. I cant help thinking,
though, that the temple towers in South India are equally rich in religious
symbolism and detail, and yet aesthetically far more pleasing.
We debate whether we should step in. But the queues are long, it is nearly
two o clock and we havent seen much today.
Managing a one-year old is a full-time job in itself. Tapass breakfast,
lunch, dinner, snacks and nappy changes, although struggle at times, we
could plan ahead. It is the sleep routine that defeats us. At various
times on this trip, he has been put to sleep on a park bench, the back
seat of an open-rooftop tourist bus and in the pram on a busy street.
I must admit he has taken to these vagrant sleeping habits very well.
It is 9:30 pm and we realise we have run out of bottled water. Martin
has warned us that the tap water was not very nice. By this, did he mean
it was dangerous, or simply that it tastes of sea salt? I dont mind
trying it, but I dont want to experiment on Tapas. So I reluctantly
go foraging into the night. Some of the small groceries are closed, so
I decide to walk to the petrol station off Placa Espanya.
A short-cut through the back-streets brings me to the Palau Nacional,
which houses the Art Museum. I decide to go up the few steep staircases
and at the top and I am rewarded with a panoramic view of Barcelona. Almost
straight across is the beautifully lit dome of a building, which I guess
must be in Parc Guell, which houses some of Gaudis more secular
works. Below, the dancing fountains leading to the Palau Nacional have
been switched off. I look for the Sagrada, but I cannot make it out amidst
the glittering lights of the city. I am still haunted by that lifelong
obsession of Gaudi.
As I walk back to the apartment, I can see Subha pacing anxiously up and
down the balcony. A few more minutes and she would have called Martin
to raise a search party. Just as well I havent forgotten the bottled
We are at the Palau Nacional, admiring Catalan murals from the 12th-13th
centuries. We have only an hour, so I decide to spend it studying these
in detail. Many of the murals have been reconstructed from crumbling basilicas
in the valleys of the South Pyrennes, their apses painstakingly restored.
The theme is generally based on the apocalypse, with a Moorish Christ
with a severe countenance, sitting in judgement.
The basilica was originally a Roman public building. The apse
would be where the magistrate sat. When the Roman Empire converted to
Christianity, they borrowed the architecture of the basilica, the most
imposing building available, with Christ enthroned at the apse. Hence
a social motif became a religious one.
History is replete with such instances of one culture borrowing from another.
Hence the Celtic goddess, Aquae Sulis in Bath became associated with the
Roman goddess of healing, Minerva. The Greek god, Dionysus became associated
with the Roman god Bacchus. Sadly, in the increasingly dogmatic Christianity
of medieval times, there was there was little room for syncretism.
We reluctantly walk back to the apartment, amidst sunny avenues lined
with orange trees. We quickly wash up and put the rubbish out. I struggle
to fold back the most comfortable sofa-bed I have ever slept on. As I
put the keys on the table, I take one longing look at the sun streaming
in through the slatted windows. I get the feeling that I am leaving a
home I have known for a long time.
© Rama Varma Ferb 2007
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