Book House The Lead

Manjula Padmanabhan’s travel memoir “Getting There” looks back on her late 1970s Europe trip

  • The book “Getting There” by novelist, cartoonist and award-winning playwright Manjula Padmanabhan, is about her quest for love, truth and weight loss.

  • In 1970s Bombay, when she was in her twenties and was struggling to earn a living as an author- illustrator, a deceptively routine visit to a diet clinic and an encounter with two tall Dutch men turn her life inside out.

  • Without much ado she speeds off on a Westward-bound spiritual quest, which involves cheating on her boyfriend, lying to everyone she loves and cutting off all ties with her safe, respectable, bourgeois Indian upbringing. This picaresque travel memoir looks back on her youthful misadventures in Europe.

  • Read an excerpt from the book below.

I had four families of close relatives in London. They were all dear to me, uncles and aunts whom I had known since early childhood. Everyone wanted to know where I was going and what I was doing and to all I said, ‘I’m going to Germany to see a friend who has just had a baby.’

When I was by myself, which was often, either on my way to a tube station or from it, I felt a melancholy satisfaction. The satisfaction was from knowing that I had succeeded in at least one part of my objective. I was on my way to Germany. In those years, Indians didn’t need a visa for Germany, so there was nothing to worry about until I was ready to go to Holland. The melancholy was because I was discovering once again and in a more robust form that the difficulty with secrets is not that they are hard to keep, but too easy.

It is only when a person has something to hide that she realizes how much of an adult’s life is already invisible, requiring no special effort to maintain it that way. There is no audience trained on the heroine’s movements, keeping track of exits and entries on the stage of known events. I did not want a secret life– I wanted to be able to live as I wished, but without having to make explanations and justifications to anyone.

I was reduced to living with secrets because I didn’t have any other option. I found my reality dwindling to the dot on the lower-case ‘i’ of my own private consciousness, as I walked around, alone with my thoughts. A moment’s inattention could wipe me out forever.

The cheapest way to get to Münich from London was to take the ferry from Dover to Oostende in Belgium and then the Trans Europ Nacht Express overnight to Münich.

I packed as if I were going to another solar system, taking everything I could possibly need as well as all manner of items for purely sentimental reasons. I took all my art equipment and nearly all my clothes. I took a dysfunctional alarm clock because I thought it was better than none at all. I took my new camera and all the books that I wanted to discuss with Piet. My suitcase and sling bag felt as if they were filled with lead.

Micki had told me how to get to her place from the station in Münich, because she couldn’t leave the baby alone in the house in order to meet me. The suburb of Neu Gilching in which she lived wasn’t really an urb at all. It was a couple of two-storey flats strung out along the side of a minor roadway with only a slender street lamp to keep them company on the road. It was the first week of April and the air still smelt of snow.

Micki was waiting for me, looking welcoming but tired. It was just a week since she had returned to the house since the birth. We had spoken on the telephone only once, from London, when she had given me the directions. She had forgotten that I was nervous in the presence of babies, so when she showed her daughter Leila to me, I didn’t need to worry that she would be offended by anything I said or did. Like anyone who has recently produced a living being, Micki could not imagine that I was anything but as enthralled as she was.

The apartment she was living in had a floor plan similar to those diagrams for plotting the golden mean using only a setsquare and a compass: one large rectangle with a square along its short end. The kitchen, pantry, dining room and living room were accommodated in the rectangle. The bedroom and nursery were in the square. The bathroom was out on the landing and was split into two separate spaces, one for a toilet, the other for a bath, shower and washing machine.

Despite its austere functionality the flat had a gladness that made it a happy place to be. The bedroom had a furry rug on the floor. When Kurtz came home, he and Micki would spread a silk scarf on the rug and set out a ceremonial tea, brewed in a brown clay teapot, with a fitted cosy under its arching bamboo handle. It was served with poppy-seed cakes from the local bakery. Kurtz would have changed into an embroidered cotton kurta and would play plaintive Western tunes on his sitar. Leila would lie on the furry rug, listening with a rapt, wondering expression. Kurtz was studying to be a homeopath. He was away from 9 in the morning till 4.30 in the afternoon. Until she could go back to work, the strain of running a household while caring for a newborn showed in Micki’s pale skin. Since she had to take the child in a pram wherever she went, her option was to wait until Kurtz was home to do any shopping. Any daytime trips which were too arduous to undertake with the baby in tow were out of the question. She was looking forward to having me around, she said, because it meant that she could go into the city and get some of her essential paperwork done.

I had thought that my presence would be a nuisance and had therefore not planned to be with her any longer than it would take me to get a visa for Holland, perhaps a couple of days. But I was very grateful that she had agreed to have me at all and it was nice to feel wanted. I found myself asking, instead, if a month would be too difficult, given that there wasn’t enough space for me in her flat. She said that we’d have to see how to manage.

Immediately after I arrived we went out with the baby in a pram, to get ourselves the makings of a fresh salad and sandwiches for lunch. We came back, ate, fed the baby, saw her safely off to sleep in her cot and only then did we allow ourselves the luxury of a chat.

‘Okay! Let’s hear it,’ said Micki. ‘What’s the story?’

The silence around us was unnerving. I had thought that the place where Radzie lived was quiet, but perhaps in the US the atmosphere is so saturated with radio waves that even in complete audio-silence our brains pick up subliminal hummings from the ether. In Neu Gilching it felt as if a sonic-blotter had been turned on, so that even when we spoke, our voices did not linger in the air but seemed to be siphoned away, like everything else of consequence, by the big city over the horizon.

It was a tremendous relief, finally, to be able to discuss my secret plans. I made it as brief as I could.

Excerpted with permission from Getting There, Manjula Padmanabhan, Hachette India. Read more about the book here and buy it here.


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