Thursday, July 29, 2010

WHOSE COUNTRY IS IT ANYWAY?

Belgium’s got to be one of the quirkiest countries around - so quirky, that by the look of things, it’s unlikely to remain a country for long. It reminds me of those couples that bring home a dog and a maid, fight over the two till the neighbours come home and then get divorced, leaving the house to the dog, the dog to the maid and the maid to the neighbours.

In my very first hour in Brussels, the capital of Belgium and the European Union, I was warned at the airport to be “careful” about my luggage… “Moroccans..!! They just snatch and run”. All the way from the airport to the city, I could see women in braids or head scarves and young Arabs and Africans in clothes two sizes too big. Dirt and construction material lined the roads and the whole place looked rather depressing. If I’d slept through my journey from Delhi to Brussels and woken up in the bus transporting me from the airport, never ever would I have guessed that this was the first city of the first world…

Just for the record, I have had the good fortune of knowing some excellent North African professors who teach in Switzeralnd and Paris and I know that just like there are all kinds of Indians on the railway platforms of London, there would be all kinds of Moroccans and Congolese on the streets of Brussels. Yesterday, the Third World became the Third World because it lost its riches to colonizers who put those riches to good use and emerged as the first world. Today, some from the Third World pack their bags and leave for the First World in a bid to reclaim a fraction of those riches for themselves. Most do so through legitimate means, while others, marginalised and alienated and without the utility badges of their better educated Third World brothers give in to their frustrations and angst and take to crime in the host nation.

And the host nations react with varying degrees of tolerance. You see, they all have a lot of guilt to deal with. Their colonial past doesn’t sit easy with their present day image as the standardbearers of democracy. And a country like Belgium has more than its fair share of skeletons in its colonial cupboard. In the late 19th century, King Leopold II of Belgium, in the garb of a humanitarian, colonised the Central African region that we today know as the Democratic Republic of Congo. He sent in his private army called the FP (Force Publique), equipped with modern weapons and a directive of exploiting the region and looting its mineral wealth and collecting ivory and rubber. The latter especially was a precious commodity at this time because J. Dunlop had just come up with his pneumatic tyres.

The native Congolese men were indentured as bonded labourers, and were responsible for procuring a fixed amount of rubber. Their women and children were held hostage until the men returned with their quota of rubber and were oft en raped or killed or both anyway. Oft en their hands were chopped off as punishment or trophies. The FP was supposed to use bullets only for executing humans, not for hunting. And yet the FP would shoot animals for the pot or fun and then chop the hands off a living person to prove that the bullets had been used to kill a man. Millions… millions died either at the hands of or because of the actions of the FP. A single word of protest could lead to whole villages being burnt. The imperial boot squashed native toes, fingers and heads with unbridled and unrivalled savagery in the Belgian Congo, and the wounds haven’t healed yet. Known today as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Leopold’s legacy hangs heavy here…DRC lies devastated, assaulted every day because of its riches – for aren’t the most beautiful and bounteous often the ones most ravished.

Now see if you can fathom this…last week I spoke to you of the Holocaust memorial at Breendonk– Belgium still weeps for the thousands who died there during WW II. And yet Belgium is na├»ve enough to have a memorial statue for King Leopold depicting him as a ruler ‘bringing civilisation’ to an African child. And then some conscientious Belgians cut off the statue’s arms to remind their countrymen of the butchery carried out in Congo in the king’s name.

Later, Antwerp was a big relief after Brussels. In fact it’s a beautiful city with wide roads, leafy boulevards, exquisite mansions and parks. But no one seems to live here. You just don’t see people. Interestingly, some of the biggest houses here are owned by Gujarati diamond merchants. On the streets here too, people remind you about being careful with your bags and wallets. In one of Antwerp’s prime shopping areas I chanced upon a brawl…two Moroccan lads were screaming and rolling on the pavement like nine-pins while a tall Congolese man was laying into them with his bowling-ball like fists. Regular shoppers, Indian tourists, Belgians, and other African immigrants, watched open-mouthed until the big guy walked away with words of advice for the Arab boys, and the Moroccans got up, licked their wounds and disappeared into a store. No one intervened, no cops no security officers, no one.

The immigrant problem is one of the Belgium’s gravest… many second or third generation immigrants make more money on the dole than they would have at low paying jobs and so they live off public money and while away their time looking for trouble. They are full of anger and hate because they feel that discrimination would keep them away from real jobs anyway so why bother and the religious divide doesn’t help. Besides the spiraling debt, Belgium’s immigrant problem is another powder-keg on a short wick, threatening a country teetering on the edge of political collapse because of fractious fault-lines that divide the Dutch-speaking Flemish in the north and French-speaking Walloons in the south…

So is Belgium worth the trip? Sure is… as an Indian in Belgium, you begin to realise that India’s relative unity in diversity has indeed been no mean feat. Secondly, it is the land where chocolates and beer I’m told have acquired a unique seductive flavour, thirdly, once you get talking, the people are always polite and ready to help and lastly you should go there for the fairytale lands of Bruges, a town trapped in time and the great green valleys and forests of Ardennes, where roam the once extinct Aurochs, the wild ancestor of European domestic cattle… the sublime beauty of these mountain forests and the quaint charms of the land that time forgot more than makes up for all the quirky bits… so keep walking….

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Thursday, July 22, 2010

BACK TO BREENDONK

The skies are always grey when I come here. Through the barbed wire, the world inside looked just the way I’d seen it a few years ago, serene and lonely, like a widow whose heart still hurts but whose eyes have run dry. Fort Breendonk hadn’t changed.

Sixty years ago, these walls were wet, with blood and sweat. Their foundations creaked under heavy boots; painful screams, the sickening thud of wood beating against flesh, and the deafening sound of gunfire echoed through these walls. This was a Nazi concentration camp where prisoners, Jews, communists, were greeted with the words “Welcome to Breendonk. This is hell, and I’m the devil!”, and the man who’d welcome them thus, Fernand Wyss, a sadistic 21-year-old boxer turned SS (Schutzstaffel – Protection Squadron) guard had built up a reputation as a man who took pleasure in beating… not shooting or stabbing, but beating those in his charge to a messy death.

Breendonk, now a memorial to those who suffered and died here, is a short drive from Antwerp, Belgium. During World War II, it was a transit camp where Jews and other opponents of the Reich were brought in rail-road cattle-cars – men, women and children packed in, 150 to a car which shouldn’t have taken 50. They travelled for days, with no food and little water. Without access to toilets, the inmates were forced to soil the car. Many died of exhaustion and suffocation. But the journey, however bad, couldn’t compare with the horrors of Breendonk.

The stories I’d heard last came rushing back. Stories I narrated to friends back home in India. So this summer when we all packed our bags and headed out towards Europe for the summer, we made it a point to punctuate the happy itinerary with a trip to Breendonk.

But somehow, the place didn’t have the same effect on my friends. The prison-walls, cold and clammy on the warmest of days; the forbidding barbed wire fencing which bit into hands and flesh as desperate prisoners attempted to escape; the guard tower which rained down bullets on hapless victims; the dark waters of the moat in which guards would watch prisoners drown and die for fun… they all, unwitting instruments and witnesses to one of mankind’s greatest crimes, were strangely silent that day. They did not speak to my friends that day of the dark tales they hide in their folds. We wandered into the torture chamber where hung hooks and winches and skewers and rods…who knows what depths of pain they dug into and yet, they revealed little to most. The bunk-beds where the prisoners slept, their only corner where they knew a little peace, where their thoughts went back to their life before camp, a life that had love and loved ones, and the forgotten comforts of life as a human being, and yet the beds spoke little of those dreams that died here...

To my friends, the life of an inmate who had the ‘liberty’ of going to a toilet, and a crumb of bread and a cup of coffee everyday, and a roof over his head and a straw mattress to call his own had a life no worse than that endured by the poorest of poor in India. And true, indeed in pure material terms, the prisoners perhaps had more. But why did the walls not tell them that it isn’t the food that made Breendonk hell but the sight of loved ones lined up and shot, and the fear of pain that makes a child blind to the suffering of a father being beaten to death and hate that father for screaming out his name in agony, and the agony of having to live with the shame of that betrayal. It is the ignominy of that realisation that in the cattle car where you lie, squashed between limbs of the living and the dead, covered in dried crusts of your own feces and urine, you matter less than the excrement you wallow in, that you’ll never again see love nor life, that you now are doomed to a life without the one thing that makes life worth living – hope.

Breendonk was the world of the depraved matched only by Auschwitz and its burning pits fed by the bodies of the living. But more than physical pain, Breendonk tore open wounds with the way it ravaged the psyche. Right after Belgium fell to Hitler’s forces, fuelled by fear, seeking approval and protection, ordinary Belgians allied with the German occupation forces and joined the Flemish SS. These Flemish guards turned on their own countrymen and became feared Nazi operatives, famous for their ruthless savagery.

Inside concentration camps like Breendonk this climate of fear created the ‘kapo’. Basically, the kapo was a prisoner who was picked from amongst his fellow inmates to act as a prison guard. And surprisingly, most kapo, instead of lending a hand to a fallen brother would more oft en bring it down with greater force than the SS. Kapos acquired a reputation for brutality, mercilessly torturing the very people they had travelled to camp in those cattle cars with, to the people with whom in happier days they might have shared faith, bread and prayers, their loyalties bought with as little as another piece of bread or as much as the promise of freedom.

And what makes a camp like Breendonk such a deep scar in the heart of man is the realisation that there have been times in the past, and God forbid they ever happen again, that people who I today smile at and shake hands with at work, people I break bread and go to movies and dinners with, people I come back home to…they are all people who in Breendonk I might have turned away from when they called out my name, are people I might have raised my hand or worse against if I knew that doing so could save my life or buy me my freedom. And this shame is a shame that poverty, though no less a curse, is yet to taint our lives with. Like my friends, I too hope that poverty is reduced to a memorial one day, and I hope that the Holocaust never returns, but if it does, may our compassion give us the courage to remain human in the face of pain and fear...

P.S. And why do my friends, some of the most conscientious and giving people I know, not hear all your stories? Breendonk, like the widow, you perhaps hold your grief too close. You should tell us your stories more often.


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Thursday, July 15, 2010

A BALLAD FOR THE BARD

Aah… you’re still here! I know, the serene Avon holds you, shimmering silver and gold in the evening sun, like a river of molten mercury flowing past the graves and gardens at Trinity Chapel and the quaint little town of Stratford. You wonder how things might’ve been, 400 years ago, when the town’s favourite son, William Shakespeare was still a boy. He must’ve skipped along cobbled streets and grassy trails, swung along branches that reach across the river, chased sheep that dot the pastures, and then tired and weary, he must’ve sat by the river, dipped his feet in the Avon’s cool waters, looked up at the darkening sky and heard a nightingale pour her heart into the coming night. And that place and time steeped in magic and romance, you would imagine, must’ve stirred in the little poet’s warm beating heart the first lines of a sonnet…

Hardly, I’d say, for Stratford-upon-Avon in the time of Shakespeare was nothing like this sweet little town that it has grown up to be.

In fact Shakespeare lived in a time of a great deep and enduring stench! Streets were overflowing with garbage. Dead animals flung outside the immediate town precincts, would putrefy and melt, gory bit by gory bit, keeping the town gates protected, as much by moats and walls as it was by the encircling and overwhelming odour emanating from the cadavers. However, chances are, the people of Stratford-upon-Avon, including old Will, might scarcely have noticed that “the air smelt funny”. Nor would you if you endured a bath, not once a day or month but only about once a year… if you happened to be squeaky-clean sorts that is, and ended up dipping more than just the customary ankles and hands in the annual-bath tub.

During the reign of the Terrible Tudors (late 1400s till the early 1600s), England had developed a curious apathy for water. While in Canterbury, I’d heard of Thomas Becket, considered a saint not only for embracing death for the church but by some quirk of English logic, deemed saintly also because his unwashed clothes, which at the time of his death, were found to be teeming with lice.

Guides in Stratford tell you that most families ‘bathed’ once a year – a hurried dip in a tub, first by the master of the house, then the wife and children. Finally the servants, who were more likely to emerge dirtier than when they’d entered the by now thick reeking sludge, after wallowing in a year’s grit, grime, pus and fleas. Indeed, Henry VIII was known to have married more oft en than washed.

Imagine having to talk, kiss and make love to someone caked in a layer of dirt, sweat and squashed bugs… oh and did I happen to mention the usual score of sores and boils per head? Well it couldn’t have been too bad, since you or I wouldn’t have been any different in those times either. Who knows, maybe they even had a nice ‘morning-after’ ritual of scraping a dead dried bug off one’s back and placing it lovingly in the other’s hand… ‘a little something to remember me by… darling!’

Anyway, the real star of those times, it turns out, wasn’t Old Will but the plague. The plague nearly claimed young William and many times later in his life, the plague would swoop down like a giant black bird of death, leaving behind all who came under its shadow, dying or dead. The theatres would be closed on such occasions, perhaps giving William time to think, reflect and stoke his creative fires.

So it wasn’t romance and beauty but disease and squalor that dominated the world of the man Paul Johnson calls ‘the most creative man’ in the history of the world. So what inspired such greatness in him? Was it a spark of love then, as John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love would suggest, that set the bard’s creative embers afire? Well, whatever little we know of Shakespeare would suggest not, for his marriage to Anne Hathaway, (yes, it’s nearly the same name, but had the one of yore been anything like the one from our times, shouldn’t she have inspired Will to twin sonnets just as easily as she inspired him to twin children?) is strangely devoid of any record of passion or strife. The only words of love and devotion that Shakespeare’s known to have dedicated to a real person were addressed not to a lady of delicate charms but to a young lad, Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton. Whether William dedicated his soft and beautiful words and erotic poems to the Earl because he sought his patronage or more is open to conjecture, but what was it if not love that made him great?

It wasn’t his education surely, for besides spending time in grammar school, Will had precious little by way of formal education, especially compared to rivals like Christopher Marlowe who’d been to university. What then spurred his quill to such glory?

Shakespeare experts say that muse and magic aside, Will can still rise above his life and times and touch us even today with his words – words that no one knew or spoke before he did – because of his faith in that torrent of emotions and words that raged inside him, like a pair of amorous serpents, bound and meshed in love, and the freedom with which he set them free, without fear of censure or ridicule, coupled with his ability to reach out to the common folk, making them feel and see what he saw and felt. So there you have it – a life etched into the heart of time, and of generations, burnt in with unbridled passion, tempered with an empathetic word…

To be or not to be the genius he was born to be was never the question for Will,

And yet I surrender my gift s to needs, ‘tis I, weak of will….

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Thursday, July 8, 2010

A BALLAD BY THE BANKS

I had lost all track of time. Like awestruck Alice, I wandered through the maze in a wondrous bookland called Foyles and stood in front of an intense pair of eyes. I had trudged from Wellington Arch, past the Queen’s window under which bear-skin capped red coats marched to an imperial beat, through a forest of handycam toting tourists and past Green Park and on to Trafalgar Square, straight into a tidal wave of pigeons taking wing… left behind in their wake lay droppings, feathers, One-eyed Nelson and a rather stunned I. The lights of Soho soothed and said, “Come hither, tramp…’ and tramp I did till I knew I was lost”.

“Excuse me sir. Which way is Foyles – the book store…?” asked I of a green-eyed man who looked a fair bit like Hugh Jackman right after he’d been wrung dry – you know the type, handsome in a twisted sort of way. “Straight down and a long right”, said he with a wink. As I began to walk that way, the man called me back, put an arm around my shoulder and said, “Nah… I’m kidding… the Irishman in me shows up without warning. It’s there…” and he pointed straight up, across the road. I’d walked right past it and somehow missed it. I thanked Twisted Jack, crossed the road and that’s how I got to be here, staring into those mesmeric eyes.

They were staring at me from the cover of a book. The face wasn’t extraordinarily handsome. He wore an earring in one ear and was balding, but those eyes, like smouldering embers glowing through the ashes of time and space, told well told tales of tempests and shrews, twins and jews and kings and clowns… it was the face that the world has come to believe to be the face of English literature at its glorious best – the face of William Shakespeare.

The funny bit is that no one really can vouch and say for sure that the balding bearded man actually is William Shakespeare. The truth is that there are three rather different likenesses, one on canvas, another one a copper-plate engraving and the third, a statue erected in Trinity Church in Stratfordupon- Avon, where rest his stage-weary bones. Curiously, they all look like different people (the last one actually looked more like Vladimir Lenin than old Will, if you will). And every other picture of the man is drawn from one of, or good heavens, perhaps a combination, of these three distinct faces that go by the same name.

I was heading for Stratford the next day and picked up a couple of books to keep me company including Bill Bryson’s eminent rendition of Will’s ‘murky’ life of which he says, “There is nothing – not a scrap… that gives insight into Shakespeare’s feelings as a private person. We can only know what came out of his work, not what went into it.”

For one whose works are as well known as Shakespeare’s, surprisingly little is known about the man. His life in history is limited to three lines: a record of his birth, his marriage and his death, and three signatures on his will. The rest, including the way he actually looked, is all mere conjecture. Even some of his plays, according to some theorists, were written by Christopher Marlowe, or Queen Elizabeth herself, amongst other contenders, and attributed to William.

My trip to the town of Stratford-upon-Avon (which is why the name) where Shakespeare was born, where his family lived, and where he, it is said, returned from the London stage and died,I hoped would reveal more to me about the man who has left us a language and lore enriched beyond belief in the half a century and a bit that William spent on the planet.

But more about the man later. Stratford, even if William were never to have cried in a cradle here, is still a town you won’t regret driving through. The surrounding countryside and even the town itself, without the cars and tourists, is like a John Constable painting come to life. Gently undulating and a soothing hue of verdant green, its little streets meander from the farms where roam horses and sheep and long-horned cattle and converge into the centre of town. The skies that day were a rumbling grey, threatening but never committing to a downpour.

References to the town’s favourite son abound, on the names of inns and taverns, at the foot of stone figures immortalized in his plays that stare at us from every corner and on signs that point towards his birthplace, his wife’s cottage, his mother’s farm, his horse’s hay counter, his great grand son’s bed pans and so on… and yet, the red brick houses, and the church steeples that pierce the clouds, the smoky street-side cafes that promise warm and delicious delights, the mulberry trees that line the parks and streets and through it all glides the beautiful Avon, quietly and gently…

I will tell you about everything William in Stratford-upon-Avon next week but what you must know is that if your soul seeks peace, there are few places that compare to the aforementioned Trinity Church that rests by the river. The tour bus had dropped me off at the gates and I was told that this was the bard’s final resting place. Unlike the rest of Stratford, there were no tourists here. The gates, sufficiently weather beaten, to give them a sense of history opened to lime tree boulevard. On either side rose grave stones from centuries ago; moss and ivy clung to the edges, signs of life, on signs of death… don’t go inside the church just yet, but turn left and walk towards the river bank. There, on a bench, just sit down and sigh… look upon the green waters and the greener fields… let the sonnets of the song-birds waft into your heart on the whispers of the wind that carries them to you, just as much as they carry those silken notes to a pair of swans that nuzzle each other in the warm glow of an afternoon sun as it makes an unannounced appearance. Aaah…afternoons, as they were meant to be…

I know I’ll find you sitting right here next week, but do pick up one of William’s plays meanwhile… might help you see him better when we go looking for the real Will. Until then sigh on….

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