All my life, I have been at the forefront of the battle for cultural superiority between various city zones. Over the last decade, I have spread the word through forceful sneers of how East Delhi scores over the snobbish South. Holding the flag aloft for East Delhi has really been a continuation of waving the ‘North’ flag in the infamous North Calcutta vs South Calcutta clash of civilisations. So imagine my sense of complete understanding when I find this imagined topographical Cold War been replicated in the wind-beaten city of Berlin.
One would have thought that 17 years after Berlin was reunified (read: scabby East Germany gobbled up by the ‘Europeanised’ West), there would be no discernible difference between East and West Berlin. Sitting in the wee hours at the Yorck Schlösschen, I am corrected by barman and resident historian Robert Schmidt. “Ah, but this area is not in the East.” On the map, the Kreuzberg area certainly looks to be in the east side of Berlin.
But ‘East’ and ‘West’ here means what the old Wall ( 13.8.1961-9.11.1989), whose phantom runs across the city like a drunk marathon runner, deems ‘Ost’ and ‘West’ to be. Born in 1969, Robert grew up in West Berlin. Funnily enough, I was a bit disappointed to hear that, as I was enjoying his company and had mentally marked him as an ‘interesting’ Easterner. It didn’t help that during my last visit to Berlin five years ago, my days were spent primarily meeting German Ministry officials in the western part of the city, and going into delightfully dark, low-ceilinged dives in the evenings in the East. This time, my Berlin trip — sigh — was significantly a more sober affair.
At the DDR Museum right on the river Spree not too far from the concrete ‘n’ asphalt Soviet aesthetics of Alexanderplatz, I realised the other charm that Berlin’s East holds for me. The museum offers an interactive experience of everyday life in East Germany. Apart from the Trabi car and cultural and social knick-knacks (school texts, an LP by the rock band Pudhys, branded products), what caught my attention were East German copies of the old Soviet magazine, Sputnik. I, growing up in East (‘North’) Calcutta, would borrow English copies of Sputnik, which he subscribed to. For me, the DDR Museum was not only about getting a glimpse of how East Germans lived two decades ago, but it was also about viewing artefacts from my life in East Calcutta in the 1980s. Even a typical East German room on display, with the living room across a basin (with a hand towel hanging from a rack) was tasteful 1980s East Calcutta interior decoration for the middle classes. So naturally, my vote was going to ‘East’ Berlin with its dives (I recommend the Caffee Burger on Rosa Luxemberg Platz to all East Delhiites and North Calcuttans), its unintentional kitsch and scabby looks.
But Michael Swann, a fantasy fiction writer who lives in the ‘East’, gave me a sardonic look that went well with the beer I was drinking at a restaurant on the radical chic-ish Oderberger Street. He told me that certain parts of the ‘East’, despite ‘West-ification’, play up their ‘East-ness’ for fashion. Nothing wrong with that, I tell him, adding that it’s a great deal better than the ‘West’ with its tourists in department stores. It’s only later when Michael asks me to confirm whether Calcutta is the intellectual and cultural capital of India that I choke on my beer. The next day when Robert at the Yorck Schlösschen asks me whether I live in Old Delhi, a place he has loved during his two visits to Delhi, I choke again. I only hope that I haven’t made too many Berliners choke on their beers with my love for exotic Berlin.