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A walk in a post-war dream

I have realised that the designer model variety of India’s ubiquitous tricycle has a fancier appellation in Berlin, writes N Madhavan.

india Updated: Jun 30, 2007 00:31 IST
Narayanan Madhavan

There is a new disease sweeping the planet, and I call it CCG. Climate Change Guilt — is what the charming saree-clad diplomat feels as she leans across the railings of the biergarten that overlooks the river.

It is late evening and the gentle whirr of the motorboat carrying a few dozen tourists matches the summer breeze and Berlin’s architectural mix of the post-Renaissance and the post-modern. I am taking it all in the twilight that lingers on at 9 pm over the grassy, terraced place where beer and conversations make for an enchanted time

But CCG has to intervene and shatter my idyllic view.

“They are polluting the river,” she exclaims, factually right, but otherwise a spoilsport. I try not to talk to her about the Yamuna and the plastic bags that are systematically offered unto the holy river by enterprising motorists who throw their bilge through a carefully crafted hole in the iron barricade.

I do not want the murmurs of the charmed circle turn into a debate.

On a walk

At the Friedrichstraße station, I am on my morning walk and I see workers spewed by the metro rush to their work. I think of the Victoria Terminus that turned into the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus in the Bombay that became Mumbai. Change is a constant, but they all still name modern commuter junctions after departed royalty.

A little walk beyond and there lies the Humboldt University, with ponderous statues of Wilhelm and Alexander Humboldt, the brothers who built the institution with imposing iron gates and graduates to match, besides an avenue where open double-deckers take in tourists. Down by the corner, I find a plaque in honour of quantum physicist Max Planck, right on the roadside. By the riverside lies an empty café waiting for the student crowd to arrive. I see posters that speak of avant-garde movies and seminars that re-live the scars of the Cold War. Kunst (art) and politik (politics) mix well here. “Dictatorship and everyday life in GDR,” must be an engaging topic.

Diplomat-statesmen like Humboldt and Bismarck made the city, blessed by Prussian kings, but I am still trying to figure out where Hitler figures in all this. I am just a mile from the Reichstag, and a chill runs down my spine. Inside my head, I can hear some shrill German in a dark trance that defies the summer day, for a fleeting second.

Window shopping for a Ferrari

A woman hugs a woman by the waist as they walk on, and I window shop for Ferraris. At 5,00,000 euros, I have to choose between the canary yellow one and the much-spoken-for red but I am not buying because the shop has not opened and I am still in my chappals.

I stop by to read a menu that promises me a soup-to-go. I smell Sanskrit in German. “Ayurvedische curry” is what is promised for cold and slow souls.

On the bus ride in the afternoon, I see the Brandenburg Gate, inspired by the Greek Acropolis. Before long, I am wondering how eclectic can things get, architecturally, at least. The Gate, in this double-decker view, is a disappointment, like a sudden end to a story. The more pleasant surprise lies in the Rajasthani sandstone that blesses the façade of the Indian embassy building in Berlin’s spanking new diplomatic quarters, built in the born-again capital after the Wall fell in 1989.

I do see remnants of the Wall, and some distance beyond, Checkpoint Charlie, where prisoners were exchanged during the Cold War. Sandbagged bunkers and a GI portrait photo make it all look real still. I want to jump and play a bit part in a David Lean sort of a movie, but the double-decker has moved on and I have no intention of playing James Bond.

City forests, where rabbits are said to cross your paths, straddle avenues and that lead up to the autobahn (highway), beyond which lies the river bridge where KGB agents and their CIA counterparts played cat-and-mouse and occasionally did dirty deals.

Clean, simple, single-storied houses line the road to Potsdam, where East Germany’s matchbox relics are being demolished for New German Vision. At Potsdam, where Einstein once had a summer home, Western money is buying up villas in French and Italian styles, while British gardens touch the town where, in a small palace, President Harry Truman, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill discussed the end of the Second World War in 1945.

Face value

This is an afternoon of deceptions. Truman, in his bow tie and farmer face, does not look like the man who received news of the atomic test that led to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I quite like Stalin, looking like an affable, moustachioed thug smiling in large black-and-white photos that line the rooms where the leaders stayed and plotted the planet’s course. Studies lined with books spill memories, and an Indian friend in a Kilroy-was-here mood even spots a Corbett tome on Sir Winston’s rack.

This palace is worth the entry fee of five euros, which is slightly more affordable than the aforesaid Ferraris.

View from above

Back in Berlin, I want to get to the top of the Bundestag and view the city for free, but the queue is too long. “Rickshaw,” a voice calls out and I see a man with folded trousers offering, for five euros again, a ride back to the hotel. Multiplied by 55 rupees, that is not value for money, but it feels like home again when the rickshaw-wallah, who tries to find a shortcut, runs into trouble with the paranoid policeman guarding the telltale barricades of the American Embassy.

I have by now realised that the designer model variety of India’s ubiquitous tricycle has a fancier appellation in Berlin. Bike taxi, it is called — sort of cures CCG.

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