Rain in Prague
25 October 2019
A short story
The ticket checker came on board soon after the train pulled out of Břeclav. Utsav gave her the printout of his ticket even before she asked for it. The woman scanned the QR code and screwed up her face.
She looked at the ticket and then at him and then back again. He kept smiling at her while the ticket checker’s face turned more and more sullen. In awkward English, she said,
“Any identification document on you, bitte?”
“Sure,” he said, pulling out his passport and surrendering it to her.
As she examined it, her face took on an even more inscrutable expression.
“Is there a problem officer?” he asked.
“Yes, sir,” she replied. “The name on your passport and the name on your ticket are different.” She held up the ticket to show him the name: Padma Singh.
Realising his mistake, Utsav immediately took out the correct ticket from the flap of the red, leather-bound notebook he had placed on the retractable table in front of him.
“Please excuse me, officer,” he blurted out, a silly, disarming smile parted across his mouth.
It did not have the usual effect. Instead, the officer said, “Can you kindly explain why you are travelling with two tickets, one of which is not even in your name?”
Utsav hesitated a little before answering. “It is a little private, officer,” he said.
“There is nothing private about it, sir,” she replied. “It is a security concern.”
The tone of her voice had gone from mellow bureaucratic indifference to the full-blown growl of a police dog. Utsav realised that he could not get out of this without an adequate explanation.
“The ticket in the name of Padma Singh,” he said, hesitating a little, “belongs to my girlfriend.”
Even as he said it, he knew how inauthentic it sounded. Padma was not his girlfriend. She had made that very clear to him.
“Where is she?” the ticket checker asked.
“She is not on this train.”
“Why not? Did she miss the train?”
He did not answer immediately, so she asked again: “Well?”
“No, she did not miss the train,” he said, deliberately. “She is not coming.”
On hearing this, the ticket checker seemed quickly to arrive at a decision. “In that case, I shall keep her ticket with me,” she said.
Utsav did not know how to respond, so he said the first thing that came to his mind. “Will you give me a receipt?”
She quickly wrote it out, and detaching it from the perforated receipt book, gave it to him, along with his ticket and passport.
When she had moved on to another passenger, Utsav checked the receipt. It was signed: Teresa. He remembered that this was the name of a character in the famous Czech novel he had read as a student. Almost all his friends at the university had absolutely loved it, but he was not so sure of its merits. Utsav had found it sentimental, sensationalist. He had not even managed to finish reading it. Now, seeing the name of the ticket checker, he filled up with an unbearable sadness.
Benches were in short supply in the Old Town. A million tourists had descended on it – no, invaded it, like Soviet tanks fifty years ago. At daybreak, they started spilling out of hotels and hostels, boarding houses and cheap bed-and-breakfasts like ants, leaking into the clockwork of gothic architecture and cobbled streets. A million gas balloons of their laughter were packed into the air of the town, toasted in mid-July heat. Parks and other open spaces were dotted with naked torsos trying to get a tan. Locals were finding it difficult to reach where they wanted to get to because trams and buses and the underground metro were overwhelmed with clueless outsiders trying to determine their destinations with the help of Google Maps. Most of them were purposeless, drifting, even drunk, frustrating those in a hurry, with jobs to do, things to get done. The annual invasion of tourists, which had become a sort of summer ritual in many picturesque European towns, had sparked a debate on the trade-off between the pittance that most visitors spent and the enormous pressures they exerted on resources and infrastructure. In some towns, the tourists had also sparked protests and riots.
Utsav was not inclined to join them. He had taken the early morning train from Vienna and he felt tired and dehydrated. The heat made him light-headed. The sun was too bright, like a high-powered bulb focussed with the help of convex mirrors. It made him squint. He put on his sunglasses, but he was practically blind without his regular ones. The Airbnb room he had booked – or rather, Padma had booked for him – allowed check-in only at 6 p.m. He had no option but to wander the streets meanwhile.
He looked into a few restaurants and pubs, but they were all full. “Table for one?” he would ask, and waiters would screw up their faces. Letting one person occupy a whole table was bad business during the busy lunch hour. He felt awkward, unwanted, and he blamed Padma for it.
Even when they were planning the trip, she had expressed her doubts. She said she would miss a number of days of work, falling behind.
“We will find time for work in Prague,” he tried to reassure her, reminding her that he was also working to a deadline to finish his novel. “We will be in Prague for four days. After we have seen all that we want to, we shall find a cute café and get to work.”
“What cute café, baby?” she had asked, smiling.
They were talking on WhatsApp video, and he could see her expressions change. “I’m sure we’ll find one,” Utsav had asserted.
Padma had been to Prague before and she promised to show him around. It was before she scuttled their plans of travelling together.
On their last day in Berlin, she had asked him, “Is it OK if I don’t go with you to Vienna tomorrow?”
“What do you mean?” Utsav had not registered the full import of what she had said.
They were sitting at a Vietnamese restaurant at Hackescher Markt, sipping iced coffee with condensed milk, having spent the day exploring Museum Island.
She tried to explain to him that since they were not together, it would be ill-advised to go on a holiday with each other.
“Why are you telling me this now?” he asked.
“It’s not as if I have been planning this,” she replied.
Utsav found it difficult to believe this claim. Padma had arrived in Berlin a week back and they had stayed together all this time. Yet, she chose their last evening to make this revelation. If she had told him earlier, Utsav might have made plans with other friends. He knew some people who were travelling east. He would have also done better research: for instance, he had no clue that the euro was not a valid currency in Czech Republic till the night before he took the train to Prague.
Of course, it was all very amateurish, but the thing is, when you are in love, you make yourself unnecessarily vulnerable.
At length, Utsav found a restaurant that was half-empty. Lunch time was over and most of the establishments had emptied out. The waiter brought him a glass of cold water with ice chips in it. Utsav thought no one had ever been so kind to him and his heart swelled with gratitude as he took a sip.
“What can I get for you to drink?” the waiter asked.
“Do you have draft beer?”
“Yes, of course.”
“I shall have a pint.”
“Sure sir,” the waiter smiled, “and I shall leave the food menu here.”
As he drank the beer, Utsav recollected the incident on the train. It rankled with him and he decided to write about it, in his red notebook:
“Have you ever been racially profiled on public transport?” It was John who asked me this as we were walking along the river in Hamburg, looking for a fish and chips place.
“How do you mean?” I asked him.
John told me about how he and his Sri Lankan girlfriend had been harassed by ticket checkers in France. “It was so bad that our fellow passengers had to intervene,” he had said.
I told him that I had not experienced anything like this, though I had also been checked on trains and trams in Berlin.
“How do you know that you were not profiled?” he wanted to know.
“Everyone was being checked. Besides, the ticket checkers were all Turkish.”
The waiter interrupted Utsav’s thoughts: “Would you like something to eat, sir?” The smile on his face was constant as if someone had stuck it there with glue.
Utsav did not know how long he had been sitting there but it must have been a while, because the glass of beer was almost empty. He had given no thought to food as he did not feel hungry. This was strange, since he had not eaten anything all day. Now, prompted by the waiter, he looked at the menu, which listed steaks and pork chops and dumplings and several other things he would have ordered immediately if he had any appetite.
“No, I don’t think I am hungry,” Utsav said.
The smile on the waiter’s face faltered for the first time, blinking like a smart TV experiencing difficulty with the data connection.
“We’ll start serving dinner soon,” he said.
The statement was made very politely, but Utsav knew what it meant. He drained the dregs of his mug, paid for the beer, and stepped out of the restaurant.
The next day, he walked around Malá Strana, having a cappuccino-flavoured ice cream in a cone, taking pictures of Gothic statues and art nouveau buildings on his cell-phone. He trekked up the gradient at Wenceslas Square, trying to imagine where the student activist Jan Palasch might have immolated himself. (The accurate spot was a green patch near the river that Utsav would discover later.) Reaching the highest point, he took a picture and posted it on Facebook with the caption:
You can crush all the flowers,
But you can’t stop the spring
Fifty-four people liked it, including his mother and sister. He took another picture of the Kafka statue near the Spanish synagogue, and put it up on Facebook with the caption:
Life is shit, Kafka says hello
Seventy-two people liked it, thinking he was saying something poetic or sublime. Back in India, Utsav had a fledgling reputation as a writer. He had been invited to Bengaluru Poetry Festival next month, and advertisements of the event were all over social media. This seemed to provide him with some sort of credibility.
Embedded in the cobbled street in front of the cemetery were square brass plaques, bearing the names of Jewish people who had been deported to concentration camps by the Nazis. German artist Gunter Demnig has been travelling all over Europe since 1992 to lay them in the roads of different cities. Utsav had seen them in Berlin and Hamburg and Vienna, and he would see more in Paris – some of them buried in the mud and soil, the names engraved on them almost obliterated, others glimmering in a cluster among cobblestones in the sunlight. When Utsav came upon them, he was reminded of the detention camps being built back home for alleged illegal immigrants, and of senior politicians referring to minorities as vermin.
Crossing one of the many bridges across the Vltava, Utsav found the Franz Kafka museum with the help of Google Maps. The old woman selling tickets smiled at him kindly.
“Español?” she said.
On hearing this, she started saying something, very quickly, in German or Czech, that he could not understand.
“I’m sorry,” he interrupted her, “do you speak English?”
“Yes, of course, of course,” she said. “I was only asking how you are knowing Kafka.”
Utsav did not know how to answer the question, so he made a helpless gesture with his hand. “I’ve read Kafka,” he said.
“But you are not reading German?”
“I’ve read in English, in translation.”
“Of course, of course,” she said, giving him the ticket. “Enjoy!”
In the museum, he sat and watched an artsy documentary on the city and its most famous writer. The director, possibly an amateur, had tried to make some aesthetic point about differing perspectives with uneven cuts that juxtaposed contrasting images, stitching together hand-held camerawork and incongruous background music. The effect was unsatisfactory for Utsav. He started debating in his mind the purpose of documentary film – aesthetics or information. Was he talking too much to himself these days, he wondered. Was this the first sign of madness? “Not the first,” Padma would have said. He tried not to think of her, but she was always there, walking beside him.
Manuscripts in Kafka’s handwriting were also on display, behind glass cases. He peered at them but could not read them because they were obviously in German. Looking at them moved him a little. But what moved him even more were letters written by Kafka to his sister Ottla. A descriptive text below the glass read: “She perished in the horrors of the Auschwitz concentration camp.” Utsav felt pretty sure that she had died at Theresienstadt and he thought he would ask the curator or the woman at the ticket counter. But he changed his mind, almost immediately.
He remembered a film in which an American professor gets into an argument with a tour guide in Paris about the private life of Rodin and is later described as pedantic. Utsav did not want to be that guy.
Around midday, Utsav still found himself wandering in the centre of town when a large group of Japanese – or Korean? – tourists passed him. Their tour guide stopped a few metres ahead and, pointing to a large, Gothic-type building, shouted: “Amadeus!” Taking a closer look, Utsav realised it was an opera house. He leaned in to hear what the tour guide was saying, but he could not understand. Frustrated, he started walking away. The tourists were pointing their selfie sticks at the building in unison, as if giving a gun salute.
A little later, Utsav found himself in front of a shop selling famous Bohemian crystals. He knew he would not buy any – they were very expensive and where would he put them in his Delhi flat? He tried to imagine how Padma would behave in a place like this. Perhaps, she would be careless, allowing one of the artefacts to slip from her fingers and fall to the wooden floor, shattering into a thousand pieces. She would appear to be mortified, but only for a second. Taking out the money immediately, Padma would pay for it; she could afford to. Maybe she would pay the grumpy shopkeeper a hundred crowns extra.
As soon as he thought these things, he knew he was being unfair and berated himself.
He did manage to find a relatively quiet pub, somewhere in Hellichova, on the west of the Vltava. The crowds in the city centre were making him claustrophobic with all their merriness. He felt that if you did not join their celebrations, the Gothic statues hanging from the buildings would climb down and spank you.
The sunlight was blinding him and the heat made the air light. He had already done all that he wanted to do – besides the Kafka museum, he had also been to the Karel Zeman museum and the museum of medieval tortures. He had taken a guided tour of the castle and climbed the clock tower. But how many museums can you visit in a day? How many times can you cross Charles Bridge and stare into the sunset? He had already done it twice. The third time, he walked a little further and found himself in front of two wooden tables on the pavement and a lightless door yawning inward to a flight of stairs. He climbed down.
The place was not too large—about eight to ten tables, most of them unoccupied. This place was a mere five-minute walk from the city centre, but it had somehow managed to escape the radar of the tourists. Their absence kept the beer prices low. He was surprised to find that you could get a mug of Kozel here for thirty crowns, whereas anywhere else you would have to shell out fifty, if not more. All these factors combined to make the place the perfect spot to pour out the avalanche of words surging in him:
“It’ll be too intimate, unhealthy,” Padma had said while cancelling our plans of travelling together. She had emphasised the word: unhealthy. It got stuck in my skin like a hook, a rusted hook, an inverted smile.
Padma was obsessed with being healthy. In Cambridge, where she was studying for a PhD, Padma would find time to go running in the morning and the evening. She took part in marathons and had recently bought a cycle, which she learnt to ride herself. Now, the two-wheeler was her only mode of transport.
Padma often berated me for not exercising or taking up a sport. “Where do I have the time?” I would ask desperately.
“One has to make time,” she would reply, “but you are so good at making excuses.”
It was not only a matter of time but also of money. Healthy eating and exercising required money. Avocados – one of Padma’s favourites – were Rs 1,000 a kilo in India, a yoga class could make you poorer by Rs 2,000, and if you wanted to join a gym you would have to easily shell out about Rs 5,000 a month. You could not go running in Delhi, thanks to the pollution and weather and the traffic.
A square of late afternoon escaped the streets outside through a transom window and lit up the surface of the table at which Utsav was sitting. The tabletop was well scrubbed, smooth. The light that fell on it was muted, uneven, because of the layer of dust on the windowpanes. If you looked up, you could see the shoes of pedestrians, hurrying past, and the trams. But Utsav did not look up – his head was bowed over his red notebook as he scribbled away furiously.
“Would you like something else?”
It was the proprietor of the restaurant. He was a jovial, obese man, wearing overalls. Utsav had not seen him walk up.
“Can I have one more of this?” he asked, pointing to his mug of beer that was almost empty.
“Sure. And something to eat?”
Utsav thought for a moment: no, he had no appetite. “Just this,” he said, pointing to the glass again.
The proprietor smiled and picked up the empty glass. On his way back to the bar, he stopped at every occupied table, saying hello, shaking hands, sharing a joke. It was obvious that the other customers were all regulars.
Utsav realised that he must have cut a strange figure, the only brown man in an establishment of white people. At that moment, he felt very lonely, like a shipwrecked sailor at a port where no one spoke his tongue. He decided to get drunk that night.
He was supposed to check out of the Airbnb in the morning, but Utsav had requested the host to let him stay a little longer as his flight out was only in the afternoon. It was good that he did because when he woke up on his last morning in Prague, he was terribly hungover. He had no clue how he had returned to the flat the previous evening. While brushing his teeth, he had a vague feeling of sadness; he could not determine its actual source. By midday, he had checked out and circled back to the wrought-iron bench on the riverfront where he had sat the first day. The weather had turned and so had his mood. A cool breeze from the river soothed his throbbing brow. He was excited about travelling to Paris – and meeting Padma again. But he felt a slight regret at having to leave Prague. He promised himself that he would return and live here.
A large drop of water landed on the page of his notebook, blotting the ink. Utsav rubbed it away, looked up and saw layers and layers of clouds racing towards him from the other side of the river. It had already started raining in the distance.
Utsav immediately put his notebook in his backpack, put on his jacket, and started to walk in the opposite direction as quickly as he could. He started looking into restaurants but most of them seemed to have filled up with tourists who had detected the change in the weather before he had. By the time he was at the door of the fourth or the fifth restaurant, Utsav was desperate. The sharp arrows of water preceding the downpour were already biting at his heels like a bad-tempered, flea-ridden, mongrel.
The waiter at the door took pity on him and allowed him to enter, showing him to a small table near the window. Utsav had just settled down and ordered a tumbler of Kozel when his eye fell on the occupant of the next table.
He recognised her immediately: it was Teresa, the ticket checker.
If it were in a novel, you would not have believed it. But this is not a novel.
Utsav’s first thought was to move to a different table – or rather, leave immediately. But it was still raining outside. Then a strange thought entered his head: Have you ever been racially profiled on public transport, John had asked. Would he have a better opportunity to find out than by asking Teresa?
He thought about it for a few minutes; he would need a strategy, a cover. Steeling his nerves, Utsav got up from his chair and walked up to Teresa’s table. “Bonjour mademoiselle,” he said in the best accent he could muster.
Teresa looked up at him. There was no glimmer of recognition in her eyes. Utsav saw her knuckles harden against the cutlery.
“Do you speak English?” he asked, keeping it as light as he could.
“Yes?” Her voice was neutral, betraying nothing.
“I’m a journalist,” Utsav said. “I was wondering if I could ask you a few questions about a story I am writing.”
Teresa did not answer but kept looking at him with the same inscrutable expression.
“Do you mind if I sit down with you?” asked Utsav.
“I’m having lunch.”
“My story is about casual racism in post-Soviet countries like the Czech Republic,” he said as slowly as he could. “I promise not to take too much of your time.”
Utsav made a great show of thanking her, sitting down, opening his notebook and writing down the date.
“Thank you very much for agreeing to talk to me,” he said. “Would you please tell me your name?”
“Is that with an s or a z?”
“With an s.”
Utsav wrote it down. “Thank you. What is your surname?”
She seemed to hesitate.
“I mean – how do you say it? – family name,” Utsav explained.
“Thank you again, Ms Černá. So, what do you do?”
“I work for Euro Rail.”
“Really? You are an engine driver?”
“No, no, I am a ticket checker.”
“Excellent.” Utsav noted this down as well and then framed the next few words: “The question I am going to ask you now is a little sensitive. I hope you do not mind.”
She did not say anything but kept looking at him.
“Have you ever racially profiled anyone on a train?”
Her ears turned red. “What?”
“Have you ever racially profiled anyone on a train?”
“Of course not! You think I am a racist?!”
“No, no, I did not mean that,” Utsav said in a placatory voice. He was amazed that he had mustered enough courage even to ask her this question. His heart was beating against his ribs like a wild animal trying to escape a cage. But this was not the time to lose courage and give up.
“Allow me to present you with a situation,” he said, deliberately:
“Suppose you were to come up on a passenger – a brown man – with two tickets. One of the tickets is not in his name. Would you say this man is a security threat? Would you be extra diligent in checking him? What about if the man were white? Would you check him as diligently?”
The expression on Teresa’s face had changed completely. She had sensed danger.
Utsav pulled out the receipt she had given him and placed it on the table between them. “Would you confiscate the ticket of a white man?”
Teresa did not say anything for a few minutes. Then in a hard voice she replied: “I do not wish to talk to you any more sir. If you have a complaint, you must go to Euro Rail.”
“Thank you for talking to me, madam,” said Utsav, and returned to his table.
Within minutes, Teresa had finished her lunch and departed. Utsav kept sipping from his glass and looking out of the window. It had turned sunny again and the hordes of tourists were out on the streets.
“Can I get you a refill sir?” the waiter asked, pointing to his glass.
“Yes, please. Thank you.”
“And something to eat?”
Utsav was about to say “nothing” when he realised he was very, very hungry. He looked at the menu and ordered the first dish on it: vepřo knedlo zelo. “Excellent choice sir,” the waiter said, waxing eloquent about how this restaurant had the best roasted pork knee in town. He had picked up the menus and was about to leave when Utsav called him back.
“There is something else I would like to order,” he said, and asked the waiter to get him baked mincemeat.
The waiter looked unsure, but Utsav assured him: “I am really very hungry.”
A few minutes later, when the first dish was brought out, the corner in which Utsav sat filled up with the delectable odour of burnt pig fat.
~Uttaran Das Gupta is a New Delhi-based journalist and poet. He has published a book of poems (Visceral Metropolis, 2017) and his novel, Ritual, will be published in early 2020.