by Raji Jayaraman

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The English Garden in Fall

Tourists visit Germany for four main reasons: to drink beer, taste sausages, and see Schloss Neuschwanstein. Germans are understandably annoyed by this. They point to the country’s remarkable contributions to the arts and the sciences and bemoan the image of Germans as corpulent, Lederhosen-clad Bavarians, with a beer mug in one hand and a sausage in another. But there is more to tourists’ mental image of Germany than that. If you have been paying attention, you will have noticed that I said that tourists come to Germany for four reasons but proceeded to list only three. The fourth is naked people. Germans are so comfortable with nudity, I sometimes wonder whether they would bother getting dressed at all if it weren’t for the weather.

A professor of mine from university – we’ll call him Adam – spent a week visiting me in my department at the University of Munich shortly after I moved to Germany. I was delighted that he had accepted my invitation. Adam is a reticent Englishman with anxiety issues. He hates travelling, but agreed to come to Germany because he had some notion that Germans are an orderly bunch, so he would not have to deal with any unpleasant surprises.

My office at the time was in a lovely Jugendstil villa belonging to the university, just off the English Garden. On a warm summer’s day during his visit, I suggested to Adam that we take a little walk and lunch in the Garden. We left the office, grabbed some sandwiches at the nearby Italian shop, and found ourselves a shady corner at the edge of the park. We had an unfettered view of a lawn sloping down to the Isar river, which twinkled as it meandered lazily through the trees. It was idyllic. Adam and I had been having a rather serious discussion on our walk, about the meaning of life and what not. We settled down on the bench and unwrapped our sandwiches, took our first bites, and then looked up as one is wont to do when chewing a sandwich.

It was then that I noticed that there were a number of people at various stages of undress, lying on their towels by the river. I don’t know why this hadn’t occurred to me before I suggested our little outing. On a warm, sunny day in Munich, the English Garden is the major tourist attraction. Locals think that people are drawn to its vegetation, or the beer garden by the Chinese Tower, or the paddle boats on the lake. Wrong. That stuff is beautiful, but every major city has some version of it. What you get nowhere else, smack downtown, in a populous city, is a large scale, wanton display of nudity. That is why people flock to the English Garden on warm summer days.

No matter. Adam hadn’t seemed to notice, or if he had then he was too polite to make a point of it. So, I let it slide. On the second bite of our sandwiches two sunbathers, a man and a woman, sprang to their feet. It is one thing to ignore an assembly of naked people when they are lying two dimensionally in front of you. It is quite another to maintain this farce once they have leapt into the third dimension. Adam turned to me in alarm. “Are they naked?” he asked. “Yes,” I nodded solemnly, “Yes, they are.” He turned back. He put the sandwich down slowly onto his lap and contemplated this fact for a moment. “I see,” he said. A few seconds passed. The naked couple surveyed the lawn in their vicinity. Then they headed back to their beach towels.

I was relieved at the thought that they were going to resume their recumbent positions. Evidently, so too was Adam. He reached for a third bite of his sandwich, and then he froze. We were mistaken. The couple had had no intention of settling back down on the lawn. Instead, they had retrieved a couple of badminton racquets and had now embarked on an enthusiastic game.

I have watched more badminton than any gainfully employed person should, for the simple reason that it is one of the few sports in which India is internationally competitive. P.V. Sidhu won silver in the 2017 world badminton championships and when I watched that match, I followed the slow-motion shuttle, the subtle footwork, the swing of the racquet. That experience bore no resemblance to what I witnessed that day. The naked badminton match unfolded before me like a slow-motion horror sequence. There was nothing subtle about it and racquets weren’t what I noticed swinging. I was mortified. And Adam? Adam was British. He neatly wrapped his half-eaten sandwich and dropped it into the bin beside the bench.  I followed suit. We rose, and walked silently back to the office. He hasn’t been back to Germany since.

We were being ridiculous, but casual nudity is completely alien to me. Nudity isn’t a thing in my family. Only once have I seen a parent of mine naked. That incident transpired half a decade after the naked badminton match. We lived in Berlin by then and I went on an excursion with my mother and my two girls – aged six and eight at the time – to a local Hammam. The receptionist said we were to undress and wrap ourselves in a thin cotton towel. My mother, ever the embodiment of modesty, asked if she could leave her swimsuit on. The lady reluctantly agreed. We changed. As instructed, the kids and I were naked under our towels. My mother slipped into the toilet cubicle and donned a swimsuit which, had it existed at the time, she would have gladly swapped for a burkini. She draped a towel over it for good measure.

I had bought four tickets for a full spa treatment. First up, a full body exfoliating scrub. The kids went first. When they were done, I showed them to the steam and bath room. My mother was up next, and since she speaks neither German nor Turkish I rushed back to ensure that the masseuse understood that she wanted to leave her swimsuit on. I needn’t have bothered. There she lay, eyes closed, a relaxed smile playing on her lips, waiting her turn. I had just paid three hundred Euros to see my mother naked for the first time.

Contrast this, if you please, with my experience with my German parents-in-law. A few months after I had met Armin, I visited him in Munich. He was living with his parents at the time. It was summer and the day after my arrival they kindly took us to one of the many beautiful, secluded lakes south of the city. Armin and I went ahead into the water for a swim, and his parents followed shortly thereafter. We all came back out together. As I carefully dried off, they casually removed their wet swimwear. There was no pretense at modesty. No tying of towels and awkward removal of garments from underneath. None of that. One minute they were wearing swimsuits. The next minute they were wearing nothing. What would take me almost forty years to experience with my own mother, I managed to witness within twenty-four hours of meeting my boyfriend’s parents.

My prudish reaction to nudity is deeply ingrained in me. In my generation at least, middle class Indian children who inadvertently revealed their “private parts” were taunted, “Shame, shame puppy shame. All the monkeys know your name.” Even if the five-year-old me had felt no shame when the shoulder strap slipped as I ran, or the elastic in my shorts was worn as I sat cross legged, that rhyme did the trick. It stuck. That doesn’t seem right. I keep thinking to myself, I’ve got to recalibrate. Because when the chips fall, given the alternatives, I think I’d opt for the naked badminton.