Asked and Answered, by Amit Chaudhuri

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From Sojourn, which was published last month by New York Review Books.

The flat was new to me. I’d moved into it the day before yesterday in a hurry. It wasn’t the flat I’d arrived to. That was smaller: a kind of studio. The drawing room and bedroom merged with the kitchen. In another mood I would have found it charming. The first evening, though, I was depressed especially by the lack of demarcation between shower and toilet. The bathroom was narrow. On another day, I would have warmed to this. Which space do you own more entirely than the bathroom? But, that evening, I stepped out of the shower and saw the toilet was wet. I called Jonas.

“I hope everything is all right,” he said.

“Yes, it is. Yes, it is, thank you . . . There’s one thing.”

“Please don’t hesitate to tell me.”

“Isn’t it true . . . actually, I have the letter before me. Isn’t it true that the Böll Professor gets a two-bedroom flat?”

I could hear Jonas taking this in. I’d only entered the flat an hour ago. I’d embraced it inwardly. I’d taken to its twentieth-century quality—but then rapidly began to feel doubtful, to reconcile what I’d been asked to expect with where I’d been deposited by Jonas.

“Yes, the Böll Professor gets a two-bedroom flat. That is right.”

“But this is a one-bed, I think . . . or a studio.” A silence.

“Yes, yes. I see. Yes—I think they thought that, since you don’t have your family with you, you wouldn’t need a regular flat.”

“Yes, I understand. The bathroom here is very small, Jonas. It’s not what I expected.” I said, knowing he’d now dislike me, “I can’t be here for four months. I think I should get the flat I was promised. I’d rather go back if you can’t.”

I moved the next morning. The Böll Professor’s apartment was only two houses away.

It was spacious, with wooden floorboards. An expansive drawing room, with a TV near the window. My room had a king-size bed: unlikely to be put to full use. The bathroom was almost miraculous. It was wide but long, with a bath and a shower. Much like on a golf course, you felt there was always more to come.

The toilet was a conundrum. I’d never seen anything like it, except in the studio flat. It was mostly a slab, like a dissection table. I decided to acclimatize myself. But I couldn’t bear to sit on it for very long. It stained easily because of the shape, and I started cleaning it as soon as I began using it. I wondered if it was part of an industrial heritage.

Before long, students began dropping out of my class. Its composition was changing. People alighted, got off. As on a raft, a ragged bunch remained: an Israeli student with an American accent; a stocky woman, the kind that’s always shopping for groceries; two Indian students from Delhi; a German TA who circulated photocopies; some others whom I wasn’t certain of having seen before.

No one volunteered an opinion. The waters surrounding the raft were calm. At a departmental gathering, my colleague Geeta Roy told me that German students liked to defer to authority. Her implication was that the deference was historical, but it made life on the raft difficult, because I held forth but wasn’t authoritative. I wanted to hear their shaky English. German students could subsist like this for years, I heard.

“You poor man!” said Geeta.

She commiserated with me for having to steer the seminar and for living in Dahlem.

I got the department to procure a DVD player for me. “I need to watch TV,” I said. “I’m tiring of news on the BBC.”

In the apartment, I led a life of outward boredom, but never completely disconnected from the edges: Grunewald. Part of me was susceptible to what was outside the pavement and beyond the motorway.

Geeta and her husband drove up to my place with gifts: two DVDs. One was Rope. The other was a wildlife documentary which she insisted would soothe and educate me.

We got into the car. We drove—where else— East. “We’ll show you a bit of the city,” Geeta said from the back, ebullient.

“Tell me”—I was peering into the rearview mirror—“what exactly is Heimat?”

“It’s a kind of soap opera,” said Geeta. “The Germans love it!” I heard tolerant dismissal in her voice. Michael, her husband, dapper but no-nonsense, smiled at the mention of “the Germans.”

“I’ve watched a few episodes,” I said. “I dip in and out.”

“Do you know German?”

“Not a word.” I added: “It doesn’t matter. I only watch bits of episodes, as you might look out of a window.”

“Haven’t seen it in years,” muttered Michael, slowing down at a traffic light.

“It doesn’t seem like a soap opera,” I said, turning to Geeta despite the seat belt’s restraint. “Not like a British or American one. You know, EastEnders. The Bold and the Beautiful.”

No, it was more a national autobiography, if there’s such a thing. Only the Germans would have used such a device—that is, have their nation recount its memories of growing older in a soap opera. Slip in what’s intimate in a way that’s unworthy of attention.

The Brandenburg Gate came up. Lit, resplendent, a sovereign without purpose.

“But what did they do in the East?” I asked.

“Do?”

“I mean every day.”

Michael told me about the queues; the dreadful food in restaurants. The speaking in whispers, behind closed doors. “But they must have been happy some time?” Each fact brought up an image: of streets, women walking with determination. But something was missing. No human can be unhappy without interruption.

“I think they used to tell each other stories,” said Geeta. “That’s what I’ve heard. That they’d get together in a room, and recount family stories to keep their spirits up. They’d also sing to each other in the rooms, and dance.”

Maybe I’d misused the word “happy.” I hadn’t meant high spirits or laughter. I had something basic in mind: the release from the awareness of who or where you are, which comes to us a few times a day. To even be in a state when the thought—“I’m in East Berlin in 1983”—hasn’t formed; when consciousness is undecided. It was in imagining that blankness that I felt I could enter the GDR; in reliving the distraction from what’s at hand, I became one with it for a few moments.

We ate pasta. Once the sightless avenues around Brandenburg Gate shrink, you’re suddenly in a small town. This is the East.

I recounted the anguish of my arrival to Michael.

“The bathroom got wet when you had a shower! Why didn’t they put me up in the flat I was supposed to get if it was available?”

Michael was eating schnitzel.

“They think you live in a hut where you come from,” he said, sectioning. Finished, like a surgeon washing his hands, he became aware of me. “They think: This is good enough for him!” He shrugged, resumed poking at the pieces.

Back in the car, Geeta said to Michael: “He has a question.”

I was confused for a moment. Then I took her cue.

“Ah yes. The toilets with the flat base. I find them intriguing. Are they peculiar to Berlin or the whole of Germany?”

Michael stared at the windshield. He could grow absorbed quickly.

“All of Germany, I think.”

“But that shape? I haven’t seen it elsewhere.”

“Don’t you know,” sang Geeta, triumphant, “that Germans like to inspect their poo?”

“Inspect?” I was startled.

Michael shrugged.

“Yes—to see for themselves what they’ve done.”


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