Friday, November 28, 2008

'Harmony in Germany':Politically correct racism

In this day and age, when borders seem to be forever shrinking in the face of the new language everyone in the world seems to want to learn – capitalism – it is harder to be overtly racist than it used to be.

It isn’t as if racism was de rigueur in times bygone, but no one would have looked askance a decade ago at, say, a bus driver in a sleepy English town not taking the bus fare from the hands of an Indian girl, or a Frenchwoman doing likewise when aforesaid woman tries to buy a book on Van Gogh at the Louvre (in the year 2000). Just for example.

Now, however, what with ‘political correctness’ taking centre-stage in our scheme of things (and how can it not, when migrants form such a large percentage of any place’s population?), one complaint to the right people and the bus driver and shop assistant would be out of a job.

Does this mean, then, that racism has vanished altogether? That we’ve managed to beat down this ugly monster and relegate it to the realms of nothingness? Far from it. All that we’ve managed to achieve, with this superficial propagation of that which is PC, is to force racism into a new shape; make it necessary for it to assume a new form.

Cut to 2008. Frankfurt airport. I’m flying Lufthansa, and arrive at the counter, ready to check in. The woman at the counter asks me to weigh my cabin baggage too, for some reason. Having stowed my laptop in there, it was a little above the stipulated 8 kilos. I told her as much. She turned her sweetest smile upon me and said, “Well, feel free to throw it away then.” I thought she hadn’t heard me, and repeated that it was overweight because I had my laptop, which I was allowed to carry as a separate piece anyway, in there. She smiled and said, “You heard me – I said ‘feel free to throw it away’. You could do that, for example.”

For example. This is when it dawned on me that I’d stumbled across someone who was very au courant – a la mode, culturally, to the tee, what was being used upon this unsuspecting country cousin was the ‘latest’ form of racism – metamorphosed into this sickly sweet politeness, chilling by virtue of how it uses the smile – that ultimate leveller which speaks to something in us all, regardless of what language we speak or where we’re from – and disconnects it from what we associate it with most; the ability to empathise or ‘connect’ with another human being.

I stepped out of the queue, and attempted to “throw away” whatever I possibly could – the casualties were the posters, newspapers, calendars and other literature I’d picked up at the music festival I’d gone to Germany to cover. It was that, or the laptop. This done, she made me queue up again. I didn’t mind. I watched her fawn over the people ahead of me (with bigger, heavier bags too, mind you), and help them out as best she could. When it came to my turn again, that smile didn’t wither, but the light in her eyes that accompanied it did. I couldn’t wait to get out of there. Paying the (exorbitant) ‘excess baggage’ sum she said I owed the airline, I did.

'Harmony in Germany': Cologne and the Cathedral

I left Berlin reluctantly. In spite of the prospect of meeting/ hearing some mouth-wateringly brilliant bands and musicians in Cologne, at the music festival I had ostensibly gone to Germany for, I kept thinking there was much more to Berlin than I’d been able to get my head around in the week that I was there. The place truly had me in thrall, and I was a minion to its dictates.

Such being my état d’être, I got on board the train to Cologne wishing I didn’t have to leave just yet. The three hours this cross-country journey took, complete with stunning panoramas and rollicking glades on display, made me make some sort of peace with my situation.

Pacified some, I trudged out of Cologne station, and the sight that met my eyes (in a very clichéd fashion) made my jaw, bags, and reservations drop. And how. There in front of me was Cologne’s pride and joy, the most visited heritage site in Germany; Cologne’s central Cathedral.

If Berlin's ‘human-sized’ scale had placated me into a false sense of security apropos my own importance in the universe’s scheme of things, Cologne Cathedral decidedly put me in my place. To call this awe-inspiring, humongous building an architectural marvel wouldn’t even be scratching at its surface. Cologne Cathedral merely ‘is’.

The cathedral was a ‘gift’ to the city from a grateful medieval Pope, helped out in his time of need by the city’s army. During World War II, the city knew the cathedral would come under attack, and cleverly dismantled its gorgeous stained-glass mosaics, storing them in the cellars till such time as it was safe to have them out on display again. Wise thinking, as the events which transpired were to prove.

This ‘Northern-most tip of Italy’, as Cologne likes to think of itself (it was founded by the Romans), is a place where history lives. It breathes in every citizen (proud, and rightfully so) of this beautiful, ever-so-European haven. Divided into two by the Rhine which meanders through the heart of it, Cologne, as any of her people will tell you, has always been a ‘very important’ city – first on the pilgrim trail, and then as a trade capital.

Today, the city is just as important on another pilgrim trail – that of the new-age-electronica-lover – and is home to some of the most cutting-edge electronic musicians in Germany.

And did I mention the traditional rivalry between the Cologners and Berliners? The mere mention of Berlin is enough to make them look at you circumspectly – could you actually, perish the thought, for a second, be suggesting that Cologne is not the centre of all that is finest in art, culture, music and well, living? Berlin, they feel, is jaded. Cologne, feel the Berliners, is so caught up in where it’s from, that it can’t see where it’s going.

Instead of attempting to solve this age-old debate, I’ll take the easy way out. I’ll take both, please.

'Harmony in Germany': Nameless Now in Berlin

One doesn’t ‘adopt’ Berlin; the city adopts you. If you’re lucky. It’s just one of those things.

The city did just that for a group of wandering musician-gypsy-festival organisers from India recently. In Germany as a panel of ‘music experts’ from the region, the group was in Berlin and then Cologne in August as part of an initiative undertaken by the Goethe Institute in conjunction with the well-known electronic music festival/professional music fair, C/O Pop.

As is wont to happen when a group of dynamic individuals all working towards the same end, albeit in different, if complementary fields, comes together, this group wasn’t content to sit back and merely watch proceedings unfold, talking to festival organisers from across Europe and c. to see what could materialise by way of collaborative enterprise between European (German, more pertinently) and South Asian musicians/event organisers/record labels. They wanted to perform. And perform they did.

Archana Prasad, an artist from Bangalore who ‘plays’ with ‘Lounge Piranha’ in the capacity of a visual artist (or ‘VJ’) had something to do with this. An independent local art gallery, ‘PutiKlub’ in the uber-trendy Western area of Kreuzsberg had exhibited Prasad’s work when she was in Germany earlier this year. She contacted them again, saying she was back as part of a group of musicians and artists who wanted to organise an audio-visual installation/presentation while they were in Berlin. Manolo, the owner of the gallery, jumped at the idea.

Thus was born ‘Nameless Now’, which saw electronic musicians Samrat Bharadwaj, Varun Desai and Prashant Pallemoni from India, RnB singer Randhir Witana from Sri Lanka and mandolin player Faisal Gill from Pakistan come together to lay down and create a musical score onto which Prasad, projecting onto a wall of the gallery converted into a gigantic screen, ‘played’ with images “suggested by the music these guys created”.

Jamming with each other – letting the one and then the other take centre-stage – the act’s main protagonists did their thing, wowing the assembled Berliners (and a motley crew they were as well – Turks, Mexicans, Middle-Easterners and Spaniards, among others, rubbed shoulders with the more indigenous members of the audience), as only they knew how.

This example, so typical of the city, serves to highlight the openness of Berlin’s attitude; its assimilative state of mind – everything that constitutes the city’s cultural consciousness, which consists of so many, many parts, each one generously embraced.

Berlin is living proof of the veracity of Calvino’s claim: Here is a city that constantly reinvents, rewrites, and in so doing, reiterates itself. This it does by dint of its unique ability to not simply make room for the ‘other’ to its norm, but by suspending with the very idea of a norm, thus abolishing in the same fell swoop the need for a creation of the ‘other’.

'Harmony in Germany': Another small-scale reflection on a decidedly human-sized city

If this piece sounds like an ode to Berlin, so much the better: that’s exactly what it is meant to be; a paean to a city which celebrates ‘humanity’ in its many facets, most notably in its architecture.

Where the imposing (undeniably beautiful, nevertheless) gothic cathedrals of Cologne, Angers, Paris or Tours are meant to dwarf; leaving one with no delusions of aggrandisement to labour under, the scale of buildings in Berlin is decidedly human – it fits us well, and doesn’t make people feel like immaterial specks of dust to be trodden rough-shod over by a whimsical higher force.

In this, perhaps, lies the city’s singularity. It places the human being at the ‘centre’ of its ontology, and derives an exquisite pleasure from letting its inhabitants know as much. This physical scale isn’t, however, to be confused with a smallness in the scope of Berlin’s undertakings: ‘Charité’, one of the biggest hospitals in Europe is housed here, and has long been recognised as one of the leading lights in the progress of medicine; the awe-inspiring Bode and Hamburger Contemporary Art museums (the latter housing some brilliant Warhols – but that is another story waiting to be told) are food for some of the most spectacular thoughts one can possibly hope to, well, think.

The focal point here is that these institutions don’t confound because of their size; they don’t overwhelm or make one long for the surety that only a 10X10 room provides, to make us feel ‘relevant’ in this world and in our own skins. It feels as though the thought that went behind these constructions was one which sought to reinstate our faith in ourselves, since it used the normal human being as the model in its determining of the scale of the structure at hand.

The religion that Berlin is founded upon, therefore, is clearly that of humanism.

This fact is also borne out in the ‘walkability’ quotient of the city. There are several cities and towns in Germany considerably smaller than Berlin, and yet one can’t help but walk while in Berlin. Or cycle, of course. Taking a cab, the (super-efficient, but then almost all things German [save their national railway] tend to be) tube or a bus just doesn’t allow for the same familiarity as walking the streets of Berlin does.

The Wall might well have come down in ’89, but the psychological barriers which were its attendants persist yet: people are ‘Easterners’ or ‘Westerners’ first, and ‘Berliners’ next. A city poised on this wildly interesting precipice, the surest way to come to terms with the diversity and ‘many-headed monster’, to borrow from Rushdie, that is Berlin, is to walk. And it isn’t difficult when the city’s streets and very architecture call out to you to do just that.

'Harmony in Germany': Small-scale reflections on large-scale windows

If there’s one thing I’ve learnt about Berlin, it is that this city is big on reflections. It likes to see, be seen and be seen seeing. The fabulous windows in my room which run from ceiling to floor, looking out onto the drama that is Oranienburger Strasse by night or day allow, equally, for the Berliners waking past on the aforementioned Strasse to look into my hotel room and see whatever it is I intend them to.

And this doesn’t hold true just for living spaces either. The brilliant jazz clubs lining the market place off Friedrich Strasse also have enormous glass fronts looking out onto the street – a way to draw people in, clearly, but it also means that the fabulous music on display can be enjoyed even by those unwilling or unable to pay the steep (relatively) entry fee that most of these places command.

This idea of individual space not necessarily having to equate with the inability of others to look into that which is ‘ours’ is the interesting thing here. The fact that someone else can look into my hotel room from across the street doesn’t make it any less ‘mine’, because, for the most part, this gaze isn’t an intrusive one.

Whilst still preoccupied with this notion, I found myself at the Holocaust Memorial in the heart of town, next to the Brandenburger Tor, one of the better-known symbols of Berlin. The memorial is unprepossessing in appearance – it comprises a series of concrete slabs of varying height and size, laid out in a symmetry which chills by virtue of its total and complete precision. In every direction, the Memorial gives out onto parks and solid new constructions, visible from any point within its confines.

Underfoot is gravel, and thousands of small, tar squares, which put one in mind of the ruthlessly methodical, clinical fashion in which the events the Memorial marks took place. The concrete slabs get higher, reaching almost twice a person’s height the closer one gets to the centre.

The irony, driven home impeccably by the Memorial, is that the victims of the regime, like the visitors to the monument, could see, clearly, that there was an elsewhere – an outside world – it’s just that they weren’t going to be allowed to be part of it.

The murkiness of Germany’s history, therefore, to my mind, goes a long way towards explaining its people’s newly-found insistence on transparency in every way shape and form: in governance and its procedures, in accountability at the work place, and, as it happens, in windows as well.

Bombing the Bay

I can’t do what I’m meant to today – it’s like living a sham. I can’t sit here and write about some art exhibition, no matter how good, when I feel physically sickened by all that has happened in Bombay. As Jayawant said yesterday, it’s a macabre analogy – the Gateway of India, erstwhile port to royalty and, to our system of meaning what the Statue of Liberty is to New York, has been turned into an entry point of a very different kind. By depositing their ‘cargo’ at the Gateway, these terrorists have made a mockery of us.

Gandhi once said that the English were only here because we let them stay; that if every Indian so much as spit, the (phlegmy) tidal wave generated thus would wash them (well) out of the country. He was right – we’re easily paralysed. Life is all too cheap here – there are so many of us, what’s a few hundred lost? The verity of his words, too often prophetic for my comfort, is also borne out here, by what’s been happening over the last couple of days. Why and how is it possible that a handful of fearless (in that they don’t give a flying f*** whether they live or die) fidayeens can bring a city the size, scope and scale of Bombay dithering to its knees?

And it only gets worse before it gets better. Is it possible that we (the media) have become precisely that we’ve been accusing these ‘militants’ of being? Ruthless, professional and heartless; cold as ice? Take for instance the ramblings of this woman on a news channel late last night. Word had just come in that more hostages had been killed at the Taj, and that another fire had broken out – a bad one – and we didn't know how it started. In the same breath as we speak about the hostages, she has the gall to say, “It’s a sad moment for any Mumbaikar – heart wrenching! To see this building burn! It’s such a huge part of our lives; our mental and emotional makeup – a reflection of our aspirations, a part of our legacy” and so on and so forth. THIS little eulogy, or ode to a partially-burnt building, WHILE there are people being butchered inside it? Help me understand how this is ethical; how this is right. You bleed for a building, metaphorically, while blood is spilt, literally, on the inside?

But this is the tragedy of India. We feel, we hurt, we rant and rage, impotent as we are to actually make a difference, now, as ever. So, I’m told it is in my best interest to show some of that fabled ‘Bombay-style resilience’ which sees the city bounce back to its feet no matter how hard the knock it’s received, and go back to writing about the ‘Joy of an Era’ collection of tribal Rathwa art.

I might be a mere outsider looking in, but from where I stand, this much-touted resilience and ‘will to move on’ looks curiously like nonchalance. Sure people are getting ready to go back to work or school or wherever it is they need to go! But these are not the people who’ve lost loved ones to the mindless carnage. It’s easy to say “we must move on” when you’ve lost nothing and your life can (and bloody well will) continue along the trajectory it always has.

It takes more, not less, to stop. To reflect. To empathise. To share the grief, the gut-wrenching pain and agony of all those left behind – of the father whose son and daughter-in-law still haven’t made it out of the Trident, nearly 48 hours later; of the family whose 19-year-old management trainee son’s body was handed over to them after the siege at the Taj came to an end. Take the day off. Feel sick – you should.

That’s it. I can’t write any more…