Sunday, November 30, 2003

Crossing boundaries
Encounter with Bittu in Brandenburg

Anees Jung

An eerie quiet hangs over the dull green waters of Havel the river that flows through the city of Brandenburg. A group of black ducks, a couple of white swans move silently. At the end of the deserted promenade, seated on a bench is a lone young man gazing blankly at the river. He is from India he says nodding in recognition. A picture of isolation, what is he doing in Brandenburg I wonder. He is an illegal immigrant in Germany he confides. It took him six months to reach here —from his village in Punjab —by train to Bombay, then a cargo boat to a seaport on the Baltic, by foot to Moscow, then Kiev, a mail train to Brattislaw and walking again through Prague into what was East Germany. He travelled with a group of young Sikhs on the top of trains. "It is a good way to hide yourself," he says smiling. We cut off our joodas, our hair, as there was little space to sleep on rooftops." It was a hazardous journey. But to a bunch of young men like Bittu running away from home it seemed like an adventure.

Once a young man turns 18 in some villages of Punjab there is pressure of the family to go out into the world and make a life. Bittu's father, a trader, gave him his blessings. As did his two elder brothers. With their willing connivance he ventured out. The fact that he had no visa neither bothered him or them. Like the rest of his comrades he was given a warm send-off. There were no garlands to greet them on arrival. Just the stern presence of police whom they avoided. Now deemed refugees, they live in a brick house sharing a dormitory life. Bittu has found a job in the kitchen of an Indian restaurant and is earning 750 Euros, enough to save but not live a luxurious life, one that does not attract girls. The hope of finding a white girl to get married and gain status is difficult says Bittu.

"They are only after money," he mutters to himself. "And they avoid us for we smell bad they say. It is the smell of the Indian spices that clings. Even if I bathe three times a day it does not go," he admits looking reconciled. He smiles easily, chats without constraints. "I like to come here and sit by the river," he hums. "It gives me peace."

Not long ago Brandenburg in my mind was Bach's piano concertos, the music that wove magic in my mind, which Bittu has neither heard nor hopes to one day. He has seen the Brandenburg gate but knows not that not long ago it was the invincible symbol of a divided city and a divided Germany. He has yet to visit the palaces and gardens where once lived the legendary emperor Frederick the Great. Lives of great men no longer inspire young men like Bittu. Frederick’s grave is no Taj Mahal where even a wayward young man could find inspiration. Under a slab of dark grey stone Frederick lies buried with his beloved dogs. He had no beloved to share his grave, just his dogs. Passersby stop and wonder before they place over the grey stone a few long-stemmed roses and a cluster of potatoes, the staple food of his people.

Walking through the now empty gardens of Sans Souci, his former palace, stopping to listen to a CD being played in a baroque colonnade, now a souvenir gift shop, and being told that it is a flute concerto composed by the emperor himself one wonders how the scythe of time works - striking away the inessentials, reserving the essence of what perhaps was the truth. Even the grandest of places, the Brandenburg of Frederick seems less durable than a piece of music.

Not only Bach I realise has survived but also Frederick—not because he was king of Prussia but because he played the flute! Caught in a time warp Brandenburg seems to have withdrawn. A strange desolation hangs over the city—the streets, the houses. many of them ravaged, their walls peeling, their discoloured doors still bearing sturdy locks. Those who lived in them have left, shutting their shops, their businesses. Once a bustling town of 100,000, Brandenburg now has 70,000 people. The town's famous toy factory is shut, as is the Bibliotecque across the street from my hotel. The lone fountain in the cobbled square, once a lively venue for markets, splashes water but there is no one

around to see its play. Bicycles wade by soundlessly. Stern-looking men and women on their way to work. No morning joggers, no walkers seeking fresh air. the wooded park is green but feels abandoned. Exercise is a privilege of the leisured class I muse. People here have lived without that luxury, lived lives enclosed in spaces without freedom. Memories of closed fists and closed faces are not too distant. The wall is gone. But the uneasiness associated with it persists.

I see no face smile or nod. In the window of one house between lace curtains sits a cat that gazes at me without fear. It seems the only living thing. But it does not stir as if caught in the same state of entranced desolation. On my last walk down the abandoned street, I do not see the cat. The walk feels lonely. But at the end of the promenade sits Bittu alone gazing at the still river. Even if one young man's destiny is tied to a place it cannot die, I tell myself grateful to Bittu for the new epiphany!