Thursday, December 3, 2009

A BALANCED PERSPECTIVE

Readers who might have stumbled on to this page in the past might have noticed that I regard canines with a certain degree of affection. While a child, I remember going for walks with my grandfather, with a book in my hand… I’d bought it at my school fete with lunch money… it had paintings of dogs of all kinds. I’d trundle behind my grandfather and watch people as they walked past, some with their dogs, and I would try to identify the breed by comparing the specimen to the picture… if confident of a positive match, I’d walk up and ask the owner… “Excuse me uncle, is that a Doberman?” Once when I got it right, the owner bit his lips, his eyes welled over and he nodded… Cinderella could not have nodded with greater emotion when approached by the prince and the glass slipper… perhaps I’d been the only one to notice...

One winter afternoon, while I stood on a string cot, reaching across the wall trying to squirt the juice from an orange peel into my neighbour’s sleeping eyes, just to see if he woke up with a start or a curse, I heard them bark… strays, good friends of mine, barking insistently and incessantly… I dropped the peel into that long gaping yawn my neighbour had embarked upon that very moment and rushed to the gate where I saw a glorious sight… tall, taller than any dog I had seen, with heads held high, walked two massive canines, both elegant and powerful, dwarfing the blonde-haired woman who held their leashes as they walked past… one of the dogs stopped its regal walk and turned its regal head and looking at me straight in the eye, for a moment seemed to ponder… ‘what is this creature, with eyes so wide and a mouth even wider?’ (it is an expression that I was to see later on that pretty little English teacher’s face when she was walking out of class the first day she taught us in that all boys school; and then on my wife-to-be’s face, everyday, as she’d walk past our gate, swinging her pigtails, on her way back from school. She still gives me that look once in a while when she catches me staring at her at some get-together… anyway, back to the dogs)

I rushed back to pick out that book… I flipped through the pages but couldn’t find one that resembled these magnificent creatures. I rushed out of the gate… I couldn’t see the dogs but I could hear the pack of strays… I followed the sound… Ah, there they were, five scruffy curs with hearts of gold but very little steel, considering that they were consistently maintaining a respectable distance from the two towering figures that loped along ahead of them, ignoring the pack’s raucous rancour. I called out “Do they bite?” The owner turned as did the dogs… smiled and shook her head. I walked up and had to almost stand on my toes to reach out and touch the great head of the dog that had looked at me… “What breed are they?” I asked… “Great Danes!” she replied. “Where are they from… they are so tall… so good looking…?” I gushed. “They are from Denmark! And I guess they are just like the Danish people… very tall and very good looking,” she remarked. “I guess dogs and people from the same land look very similar… you see I’m from England and I look like a Bulldog!” Then she scowled like one, laughed, and walked away with those gigantic Danes. “Izzat so?”, I wondered and looked at the mangy mongrels that had gathered around and were wagging their tails and licking my hand, forgetting all about the Great Danes they’d been chasing.

A decade and a half later, I was finally on a plane to the land of the tall and the beautiful – the Danish capital city of Copenhagen. Looking down at a lonely blue-black pool locked in by barren red rocks from the port window of the plane (the map said we were on the Afghan-Iran border) I wondered how it would be… I knew better than to expect to see Great Danes rummaging through the bins and running astray along the streets of Copenhagen (the dogs actually are of German origin; the name had just stuck with them). But, the people? Would they turn out to be the way that Englishwoman from so long ago, and every travel book I’ve read since, has said?

Well, here’s how it went… The immigration officer at Copenhagen airport was an improved version of Burt Reynolds, the female police officer looked like Nicole Kidman, the taxi driver no worse than Nick Nolte and all around me I could see the cast of a host of soaps from Star World. Heck, even the old-timers looked as good as Helen Mirren and Clint Eastwood. Everybody around me was tall, well groomed, stylish, only occasionally garish and impossibly healthy. Danes could have their neighbours as pin-up stars in these parts.

After settling in at the Ascot, I went out for a walk. It was a glorious day in a glorious city. The houses were large and neat, the lawns clean and green and the waterfront that ran alongside the street side cafes had tall masts and expensive sailboats hanging out in the harbour. Walking around Copenhagen was like walking around in a Richard Curtis rom-com where everything was beautiful, no one died and everybody’s rich. Forgive me for over using ‘filmy’ metaphors but there really are no worldly parallels for the perfection that is Denmark in June other than the make-believe of Hollywood or the mythological bliss of Mount Olympus.

Stroget, or ‘pedestrian street’ is a stretch in the heart of the city where cars aren’t allowed. On either side are stores that range from the ‘exclusively designer to the kitschy golden arches and discount stores. But that is not what makes that street so special. On weekends, as you start walking down Stroget, you’ll hear the lilt of a panpipe and a note from the Andean mountains. Turn to look and you’ll see a long-haired Peruvian Indian playing the pipes. Walk a little further and you’ll see a Chinese musician stringing an oriental ballad on his fiddle, then a dread-locked Jamaican drummer belting out his own rhythms while further ahead a Cameroonian dance troupe performs for a crowd. All these musicians from all over the world had descended on this little more than a kilometer long stretch to serenade success and sell a few cds. Further up, magicians and street performers… this was like a modern day European version of the bazaars from the Arabian Nights. I walked on and suddenly the urban sophistication gave way to sylvan splendour… meadows and lakes and stone and brick farmsteads. Led by the vistas, I followed the trail until I found her… There she sat, friendless and forlorn, on a solitary rock by the bay, Hans Christian Anderson’s ‘Little Mermaid’. This statue is perhaps Copenhagen’s most famous landmark and although a popular tourist haunt, the statue was all by herself this evening, as beautiful and sad as her story.

While returning, I noticed that more than half the city seemed to be commuting on cycles, in lanes meant specifically for cyclists. I had tried cycling to work in Delhi, but climbing flyovers while tailing commercial vehicles belching poison clouds dampened my enthusiasm. But here, it would’ve been such a breeze…

Visibly green by now, I got to know that the Danes only work 37 hours a week. Somebody should tell the Danes to hang a big dirty shoe at the city gates because it is impossible not to envy these ‘shiny happy people’.

It was the month of June and two days into my three-day stay. It was 2100 hours and yet the sun was still glowing in muted glory… I entered a restaurant. Strangers turned, and smiled… I felt welcome. I sat down at a table by the window and gazed at the city as it walked past… Copenhagen was the first stop on a month long tramp through Europe and already, the city had spoilt me. I couldn’t figure out how a once primitive northern corner of Europe that was home to the Vikings could become this living breathing image of picture-postcard perfection. Unable to resist the temptation, I asked this of the Hulk Hogan look-alike who was downing beer by the barrel at the next table. “A balanced perspective!” he said. “Zat perspective made our Viking fathers as good at business and exploration as they were at looting. Ze same perspective ensured that when the Nazis marched in, we surrendered without too much bloodshed and yet managed to save all our Jews, and it is zat which makes Denmark a progressive nation – economically as well as environmentally…” and he went back to his beer.

Thumbing through books about the country, I discovered another interesting balancing act that these great Danes have managed with √©lan - figuring right at the very top on the lists of both ‘the world’s happiest nations’ and the ‘countries with most suicides’. Now, that’s a balanced perspective if ever there was one… Here’s hoping the world too finds a balanced perspective when it meets in Copenhagen for the climate summit this week.

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