The Fall of the Berlin Wall—It happened 25 years ago!

[See an important update near the bottom of this post. 2014.11.12.]

The Berlin Wall got demolished right on this day, 25 years ago.

A young Indian engineer from Pune had liked the event. [Guess who.] …

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With progressing age, they say, even distantly past events begin to look like they happened just yesterday. A lot of sense there is, in it. This event—the Fall of the Berlin Wall—does look like it happened, well, not exactly yesterday, but, say, something like just a few years ago or so. … Certainly not as long as twenty-five years ago!

But, of course, 25 years is a long time, if you sit and think about it.

Chances are, you might be reading this post on your iPad or even a nice and slim smart phone. …

Going back in time to 1989, the telephone hand-sets in India in those days still were those big black behemoths sitting at one place permanently (and, at offices, they were often put inside a transparent perspex box, complete with a lock and a key). The hand-sets would come equipped with those mechanical dials (from which the word “dialing” comes). They were manufactured by the state-owned industrial unit. Was it the TCI? I no longer remember the name, but I do distinctly remember that they had their main factory and head office, of all places, in Bengaluru—which, of course, was Bangalore back then! [You would know about that, wouldn’t you?] And, of course, not just the Planning Commission but also the Bangaloreans themselves would tell you, with a quietly satisfying kind of anticipation, that there was a “natural” limit as to how big their city could grow, because there was only one dam for the water supply to the entire city. Acute water shortage implied that the city would remain small, and not get out of control as had happened to Bombay or Calcutta. [Kanpur, Ahmedabad or Nagpur would not be on their radar, but they would ask with a bit of concern whether Pune, too, had a similar natural limit or not. I am talking about Bangaloreans of those days.]

In 1989, there were no STD/ISD/PCO booths (which came to life only in the early 1990s, spread everywhere before the turn of the millennium, and now already are on their way to extinction.) So, in 1989, to call someone from a different town, you would have to book a Trunk Call with the telephone company P&T department, an hour or two in advance. Sometimes it wouldn’t go through for ten hours or even more. [Once my colleague had booked a Trunk Call to Jamshedpur on a Monday morning, and had gotten it through it only on the Thursday afternoon. In short, he could have taken a train to physically visit the town and even return back, faster than a mere telephone call would go through. And, no, this is not a made-up example; it actually happened.]

… Sure, by the time it was 1989, the Ind-Suzukis and the Yamahas and the Maruti 800s had already arrived on the scene, but the days of the Hamara Bajaj scooters commanding a hefty premium still belonged to a very recent past—the marriages in which a Bajaj Chetak was “gifted” to the groom, had still not had produced school-going kids. There still was only one TV channel, and it belonged to the state. Its opening visual was static, and as far inducing a mental trance is concerned, the only music to surpass it was the opening music of the state-owned All India Radio (which would instantly put you to sleep, any time you heard it). The news never broke, but the atmosphere was such that people were content and not really bothered about what was happening elsewhere in the world—none of their life’s concerns involved anything that happened in the other parts of  the world. Pune was the fifth or sixth most industrialized town, but even then, most of the “normal” kind of young engineers working even in private industries in Pune, in 1989, would find it neither possible nor necessary to keep up with even the major events occurring elsewhere in the world. … But then, the habits of this young engineer—the one who really appreciated the fall of the Berlin Wall—were, back then, a bit different.

Even as a school-going child growing up in the rural parts of India (of even earlier times), he had always had a voracious appetite for reading “in general.” Anything on the non-fiction side other than the prescribed text-books would instantly qualify as being sufficiently gripping. (Sometimes, works of fiction would be attractive, too, especially if no non-fiction was at all available!) He had therefore already gotten to know about the Berlin Wall right while in his early secondary school (say, around the 5th, 6th or, at the most, 7th standard)—even if his reading was entirely limited only to Marathi. … The Berlin Wall, and in Marathi? How come?

Well, it would so happen that for the want of original stories that are sufficiently dramatic, Marathi magazines like “Amrut” and “Navneet” would regularly lift material from the likes of “Reader’s Digest,” translate them, and run them. After all, if catching the potential buyer’s attention is your objective, there are limits as to how many times you can possibly run the same story about Shivaji’s escape from Agra. Stories from the second world war were readily available, and would be run. The stories like those about the daring escapes from East Germany apparently fell in the same category, and fit the bill. And, so long as the existential conditions in the East Germany were not highlighted, so long as the communism was not depicted in a critical light, they would pose no problem. [Indeed, this state would continue even during the Emergency time Censors.] So, the Marathi magazines could, and did, run the daring escape stories involving the Berlin Wall too. And it was thus that this young engineer had gotten to know about the Berlin Wall for quite some time by the time the circumstances were ripe for it to be felled.

Yet, come to think of it, despite the eternally existing Censor and the relatively brief Emergency, India in those days perhaps was less restrictive than what otherwise might be imagined today. I mean to say, consider the case of an extremist for liberty, like Ayn Rand.

Sure enough, the English-reading and -writing intellectuals in India would regularly look down on Ayn Rand those days, but, really speaking, for the most part, they actually did not even openly criticize her. Doing so would have granted her a certain kind of visibility (I mean, a respectable kind of a visibility), a potential result they either directly detested, or, indirectly, they “took it in” from their British and American intellectual counterparts that talking about Ayn Rand was just not a “done thing.” And so, they simply shunned her completely. … When it came to anything Capitalistic and/or American, their favourite sport was to erect a straw-man, attack it, and then quickly submerge the whole thing in “a sticky puddle of stale syrup—of benevolent bromides and apologetic generalities about brother love, global progress,” and, by the time it was 1989, about the extraordinary flexibility and generality of the Soviet Model as evidenced by “Perestroika” and “Glasnost.” That’s what the English-writing intellectuals in India were like, in 1989. [As to the quoted words: go look up their source.]

As to the informal college culture, there were stories still floating in the air, even in 1989, about how Ayn Rand had in her later life been deserted by all her followers fans, and had gone mad, and had to die alone in a mental asylum—and how it was the work of poetic justice, given her “philosophy.” It was a story often circulated even on the campuses of the leading engineering schools—not just COEP but also IITs [you know, those MIT + Harvard Combo-Packs?] However, to be fair, sure, by the time it was 1989, the trend had already gone past its peak at the e-schools. I remember being told in 1989 that some medicine (and management) school folks were repeating the story even in the late 1980s, but in e-schools, I knew, such story-tellers were getting to be rarer birds.

But, of course, I am writing about how India perhaps was not so restrictive a place in those days… So, let me tell, despite the above-mentioned indicators, it also is a fact that Ayn Rand’s books had been freely available, if not on the respectable book-shelves then at least on the foot-paths, at least in the main 8–10 cities in India. On the foot-paths, they would be randomly arranged side-by-side with those by, say, Alistair McLean, Irving Wallace, Harold Robbins, Lee Iacocca, and, of course, Dale Carnegie. …

…Talking about the books on foot-paths of Pune, in 1989, Deepak Chopra, Paulo Coelho and Harry Potter had yet to come to the scene, and Yogonanda, Shri Shri Ravi Shankar, Vastu-Shaastra, etc. were all complete unknowns (though Rajneesh was not). Danielle Steele had just begun making an appearance, and The Zen and the Art of Motorcycle (Something) had already begun receding. The books on how to make a killing on the stock market had yet to come, prosper, and disappear (all of which happened within a decade or so spread over the 1990s and the early naughties)…

…About the only English books to have more or less bucked all the passing trends over all the last 25 years, and have consistently remained visible on the Pune foot-paths (though with a considerably shrunken total space for these sellers), have been those bearing the following words in large thick fonts: Pyramid, Bermuda Triangle, Hypnotism, Dale Carnegie, Cheiro, Ayn Rand, and of course, Einstein. And, now that I recall it a bit better, by the time it was 1989, the sales of Ayn Rand’s books had already migrated from the foot-paths to the railway-station book-sellers (of the main 8–10 cities in India), to a few avant garde English book sellers in Pune those days—notably, the Manneys in the Camp, and the Popular at Deccan Gymkhana. [The first was still in existence; the second had not yet started selling toys and gifts etc.]

Anyway, coming back to this engineer from Pune (remember the one who was young in 1989?), having gone through the Ayn Rand paperbacks in college, and now as a young working engineer sincerely reading through India Today, Business India, Business World, Technocrat, etc., even Outlook (and even Frontline), the Fall of the Berlin Wall was, to him, a more or less an anticipated event.

When the event actually took place in 1989, it decidedly was a piece of drama to many people in his circle of family, friends and colleagues. A large number of mostly white people (/Europeans) seemingly randomly coming together on streets and tearing down an existing concrete structure, was a very odd sight to behold, and therefore, rather dramatic in nature, to them.

To this young engineer, it was dramatic, and more than that: it was a piece of history unfolding right in front of his eyes. If he could believe in God, he would have also seen it as the coming true of a deeply prayed for wish that was so late in being granted from the heavens. But, the way it happened, he didn’t think in these terms. It was simply a very welcome event to him. Actually, it was even more welcome to him than it would otherwise have been, because it had happened on the backdrop of another set of the then recent events: the Tiananmen Square Protests, and the slightly earlier “Handover” of Hong Kong. The Fall of the Berlin Wall was a moment to cherish, to him. It was an event he liked.

Bitter-sweet.

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Update on 2014.11.12 begins:

1. Over the past couple of days after publishing this post, I thought about it a bit, and tried to recall the precise time when I must have read that story about the escape from the East Germany, in some Marathi magazine. The story I had in mind was the one in which they had used a home-made hot air balloon. I was sure that the very first time I read it was in Marathi—in either “Amrut” or “Navneet” or some magazine like that, but certainly not in the government-run Marathi magazine for kids by the title: “Kishor”. I was sure of that.

After doing a Google search after writing the post, I now realize that this escape had occurred only in September 1979, and by that time, I was already in the first year of engineering at COEP. So, a conservative estimate is that I read about it when I was in second or third year of engineering—not in the early secondary school, as I wrote above.

I regret this mistake.

But, of course, as far as reading non-fiction goes, there was something to what I wrote. I had already begun trying to read the Marathi non-fiction magazine for the mature adult, viz. “Kirloskar,” right while I was in my primary school. I remember going through their coverage of  the Apollo 11 story in the same month that the magazine arrived. (Of course, I could do it only with a lot of help from my parents, but the point is, they were initially astonished to find that I was already through a few paragraphs on my own, though stumbling over unknown words). Now, I of course do remember reading the same story again (perhaps a few times over again), later on in secondary school, though I am sure I don’t mix up these subsequent readings from the first. And, I certainly was reading “Kirloskar” completely on my own way before my 7th standard—that too, I remember. So, certainly, I was reading “Amrut,” too (which relatively carried a much more light writing), by that time.

2. Next, another point. Could they have allowed the escape story to run during the Emergency times? (By “they”, I mean: the Censor Board itself, directly, or the plain editorial sense in the presence of a heavy censoring during the Emergency, indirectly.)

On second thoughts, thinking more carefully and deeply on this point, I think not.

Yes, it is true that Marathi magazines would often run the second world war stories. In fact, for a chapter in our government-written text-book in high-school, we had a certain II WW story. The chapter, of the title (Marathi) “swaadheen ki daivaadheen?,” was an excerpt from a book of the same title. This book was about the experience of an Indian soldier on the Italian/Austrian battle-front, I think. [Major R. G. Salvi, a search now lets me recall.] Now, not just this book, but also this chapter (the excerpt) had mentioned “fascists” as enemies. … But doing so would be fine by the communists, I guess. The real issue is: Could they have included a story depicting communists as an enemy? On that count, I think, not. After all, those were the days of Marathi and Hindi magazines like “Soviet Desh/Nari/etc” being made available at throw-away subscription rates, and of rave reviews in the local press of a book of the title “Malayaa Jhemalyaa” or something like that. The quoted word is the title of a Russian book—an autobiography, perhaps Brezhnev’s. I have read these words only in Marathi, and so don’t know their proper English transcription or the Russian spelling. No, not every major newspaper ran reviews of the book; sure, their appearance was a bit rare. But they were there—and without fail, they were either rave or deeply appreciative.

So, it would anyway have to be some time after Emergency so that stories concerning successful escapes from a communist country could get published in Marathi magazines like “Amrut” (I mean to say, even if that hot-air balloon escape were to occur much before the Emergency, which it did not.) Yet, in my writing above, I indicated that they could have run the story during Emergency. On more careful thinking as outlined above, now I think not.

I regret also this mistake.

I will let the original post remain as is, so that I remember this lesson to better check back the facts before writing even an utterly informal post.

It is true that with progressing age, not only does the recall become more hazy but also that there is this tendency whereby the past begins to get seen, at times, with “rosy-tinted glasses.” But then, the way I think about it, the necessary corrections, too, are easily possible. Perhaps progressively more easily, if you are like me.

[And, of course, that young engineer (mentioned in the main text of the post above) was me (or should it be an “I” here)?]

Update on 2014.11.12 over.

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No “A Song I Like” section for this time round, but instead, do go, watch the video they at Google Doodle have put out [^]. It’s a short and simple one. As to the piece of the music that goes with it, while it is too short for me to know what to make of it, at least it sounds easy on the ears, even melodious. … Perhaps, the whole piece could be more interesting, or even actually likeable.

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As usual, a minor editing would be due, though I am not if I am going to come back and do that. The academic terms are over, and so, it’s time to pick up the pieces of thought about research that, as of today, are all scattered in the mind, gather them together and arrange them in some order, and then think if anything could be practically done on the research side with them. … More, later.

[E&OE]

 

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