By Vishnu Varatharajan
I vividly remember the late winter day last year when I took a train from Bornholmer Strasse, an avenue in the north-eastern end of the former East Berlin, to Zahlendorf, a neighbourhood in the south-western end of the former West Berlin. It was a 40-minute journey cutting across the city by a diagonal, to meet Jutta Bönisch, an old German woman with whom I got acquainted through a common friend in India. Her home had a semi-maintained garden and a wonderfully decorated living room with a big private library containing a huge painting of Buddha. When I offered to help her prepare lunch, she quipped, “No! Indian men are forbidden to enter the kitchen!”, and we became friends very quickly. Having made lunch in what she thought as the ‘Indian style’, with Turmeric flavoured soup and beetroot salad, she experimented a twist by having them cooked in red wine. After we finished our lunch, Jutta got up and walked to the other end of the room towards the attic. “Come here”, she called. She picked some irregular rocks from a basket, and placed a heavy one on my hand.
“What do you see? Can you tell?”
“Yes. What stone?”
“I don’t know”
“You know”, she winked.
I was holding an irregular concrete piece, wondering what it was. It was a hasty mix of irregular granules, and I found a black stud in it.
“Meteorite?”, I blurted sheepishly.
And suddenly it struck from nowhere. I felt a lightning jolt at the revelation of what I was holding, and my hand shivered slightly. Everything was clear.
“Berlin wall? Really?”
“Yes”, she grinned. “I’m taking this basket out after 29 years. The wall ran just a kilometer away from here. When it fell, we went there and took some for memory. You can keep one. Walls are terrible. Let it be a reminder.”
I remembered this incident a few months later when I was at the Wall museum inside what used to be the “death strip”. I used to pass by it everyday as I rode to the University and saw a series of vertical poles for a hundred meters, indicating where the wall ran. I was able to see the wall museum through those poles, but I always wondered what the purpose of those vertical poles were. Why poles? it could have been a line drawn to the ground, it could have been a glass wall, it could have been a half demolished wall; it could have been many other things instead of a series of poles. The profound reason for that struck me only after several weeks – I was seeing them from the wrong side all along.
Viewed through these poles from inside the museum, it was a surreal revelation. Through those poles, I caught a glimpse of cars on the street passing by; I got a glimpse of people walking; I got a glimpse of my past self riding a bike wondering what those poles are for. The gap between the poles was showing me what Berliners were denied when there was a wall; what I could have missed if there was a wall – people, movement, life. The poles appeared to bend space and show me what a wall could hide and deny.
I, along with many who didn’t grow up in poverty and denial of dignity, grew up thinking to be the protagonist of this universe, destined for glory. I totally fit in the space that my society allocated for me. But, everything changed when the bus in which I was travelling toppled sideways at full speed, trapping me underneath. Those three seconds were enough to destroy all my notions about destiny and purpose that I had imbibed for years. The realisation that the forces around me can easily crush and tear me to shreds totally changed what I had thought about myself. Following the accident, I started to look up at the night sky and tell myself that my strength was nothing before the mass of those stars.
It has been nine years since then, and there have been changes. To quote Robert Pogue Harrison, “If identity means self-sameness through time, age is the latent element that introduces a differential into identity’s equation, hence into the appearance of things”. To be puzzled in aporia without being sure appears now to be a sign of maturity rather than weakness. To be astonished at the questions is a remnant of our curiosity. To many of us, the society would have already allotted roles for gender, religion, nationality, and expects us to play along. When I was a student journalist, I happened to come across many people. I once came across a man who was convinced that it was his duty to protect the honour of his caste, convinced that it was his masculine role to protect his loving daughter until the role was transferred to a groom of his choice. He was so sure. I also came across people who were on the other side of the boat worn out by injustice, a woman who cared less about her own health but ensured educating her daughter despite systemic oppression and poverty. To her, education was the only door to escape the vicious cycle, to escape mere survival and start a dignified life. To seek meaning about self outside these societal forces by itself is a privilege, and a long selfish journey; to float in empty space without a horizon, with no roots to hold, where language doesn’t work.
There is a cemetery near Yorkstrasse, Berlin which I used to visit once a month, where the Grimm brothers are buried. It is one of the cemeteries in Germany with a large section for children – those who died at birth, in a week, in a quarter of a year, and so on. As with many other cemeteries, the section was decorated in a fairyland theme, but the sheer extent of this section made it take the entire field of vision, giving an otherworldly experience. With bells tingling, paper fans swirling, it betrayed a desperate prayer to somehow ascribe meaning and movement to their short existence, and the colours were spilling tragedy. Hundreds of graves. And then, there were empty grave slots, patiently waiting to be filled with more dead children, and an extension to that section was under construction nearby.
I passed by a mourning couple, and for a split second, our eyes met. The father gave me the slightest nod with a subtle smile, greeting me. It felt like that smile hid something. I stopped walking and looked around. In a surreal way, a realisation dawned upon me that thought and existence are filled with the hidden and the shown. The cemetery that was showing me the gravesites was simultaneously by realisation showing me the children who weren’t buried there, like Alan Kurdi who was abandoned by the so-called civilisation and washed ashore. A nightingale bird sang beautifully, hiding from my senses and robbing me off the thoughts of screams and explosions 3,000 km away. The objects before us show things to us at a specific point of time, while many hide in their shadows. We are in the centre of our sensory sphere, and what is in front of us inside the sphere, hides at that specific moment what is outside the sphere. Multi-storeyed malls in my city hide behind them the slums and its people. Questions about meaning and existence are of a similar kind; they hide other questions, they demand our seconds. When I undertook my urban pilgrimage – a fancy word for my day-long walks in various cities – in New Delhi last year for 16 km, starting from Chandni Chowk – one of the most densely populated part – to the opulent Lutyens, New Delhi gradually widened before my eyes, making me realise the gross inequality of space and habitat. The gardens of India Gate were no more beautiful. The mindfulness of what is being shown and what is being hidden offers a deeper picture.
Seven years ago, one day, a 16-year old girl was lit aflame with gasoline in a horrific domestic crime, and I went to gather details. Fatherless, mother, two younger brothers, and poor. Based on what I gathered, her neighbour became the guardian and brought her up. Slowly, he started to cross boundaries, beat her up with his waist belt, and one day while drunk lit her aflame, killing her. When I tried to enter the narrow entrance to her home, the two small boys blocked my way. One was six and the other was eight; malnourished and weak. “Who are you?”, they frowned. They had already somehow realised that they were the only “men” left in the family. The person whom they believed as “the man” had just a few hours ago lit their sister aflame. Somehow they had learnt that they had to henceforth assume a sense of responsibility and security over the family. They had just watched their sister’s burnt corpse. They were standing in a defiant stance, as if the person in front had all the ability to push them aside and venture inside, yet that they must nevertheless stand. Their eyes were unable to stay fixed. They were in trauma, unable to make sense of the world. I would be able to go inside, only after kneeling down to their height, introducing myself, and explaining why I was not uninvited.
They slowly gave the way. But, even when I was talking to the wailing mother, they were keeping a watch over me, stressing that my continued presence was still under their discretion. In between the painful talk about her daughter, the mother said, “these boys are not alright, whoever comes near the house they are getting alarmed”. This affected me deeply.
Seven years have passed since then. I don’t know how and where those two boys are now, but whenever the questions about life and meaning knock my door since the accident, I feel like I’m blocking the way like those boys. Those questions can effortlessly push me aside and occupy my thoughts, yet I must nevertheless stand. Easier said than done. Only after kneeling down to my height and receiving my consent that they can enter into my mind. Even then, I would keep reminding them that their continued presence would always be under my discretion.
When I was in Berlin last year, I looked up at the night sky again. I realised that my experiences had added a new sentence in my Thought. “Our strength is nothing before the mass of those stars. But our existence is far more meaningful before them.” The sentences would keep adding as we age. They aren’t answers, but alternatives to them. They are unique, and are exclusive.
Conclusion? Uncertain times! Plebiscite in Chile, elections in Egypt, Myanmar, Tajikistan, Uganda, United States of America, and many more. So much is happening. Let’s make sense of this new era together.
Vishnu Varatharajan is a first year PhD Student in IR/PS at the Graduate Institute. He wrote this article from Chennai, India on the Independence day of India and Pakistan 2020.
Digital Art by Vishnu Varatharajan