Time, Salutations to you!
Last week, I had to travel to France on an invitation from the Indo-French Cultural Society based in Paris. The two and half hour morning journey from Frankfurt airport to Strasbourg on a bus owned by the Lufthansa Aircraft felt a lot more pleasant than the long hop in the dark from Bangalore to Frankfurt on a Lufthansa flight. The road we took was an impeccable one with no ups and downs and no one crossing the roads and obstructing our momentum. At a speed of 70-80 miles per hour, the drinking water in the glass tumbler wasn’t even shaking! It was feeling like I was sliding over the snow. It was kind of a flat land with not many hills and peaks. A harvest ready crop of corn was visible alongside. Rolls and rolls of hay to meet the feeding needs of the cattle for the winter days were stacked in plenty. The breathtaking view of the fresh green natural beauty along the way was a welcome relief after a tiring flight. Another hour of journey with Mr. Jean Paul, who was waiting for us in his car, took us from Strasbourg to ‘Bitche’ (pronounced as Beach), a small town near to the German border.
The next day was the start of a weeklong conference, with other speakers participating everyday in addition to my 2 hour seminar. The inauguration was from Gerhard Humbert, the mayor of the town of Beach. He did not have any staff leading or pursuing him as he arrived, nor were there any garlands, loud speakers, or the school children dragged in to sing the prayers. There was no lighting the lamp protocol. On the stage, there were only four people including me. A three minute welcome speech by Mrs. Monica Tardy, the President of the Indo-French Society, was followed by a ten minute inaugural speech by the mayor. I spoke for 15 minutes following which was only a two minute vote of thanks. The whole meeting lasted only a half hour! Aren’t you surprised by this? It is hard to believe for those of us familiar with the way our functions go where a welcome speech alone goes on for more than 30 minutes. But it is true! The gist of the Mayors speech: Their Government had recalled a contingent of 5000 soldiers who were safeguarding their borders for more than six decades. Locally, this had created numerous economic problems with schools not filled to capacity with children, housing extensions emptying out due to soldiers moving out, declining rental income, and the economic downtrend due to reduced business. The government had failed to rectify those deficiencies. Listening to the Mayor made us more curious to learn a little more about the, “Citadelle de Bitche”, a soldier community establishment seen at a little higher plane from where we were at the base of the mountain.
The small town of ‘Beach’ may not ring a bell in any world history perusals, but in the history of Germany and of France, it has a pivotal place and may have been responsible in a way for the First World War. Right in the center of the town stands the big hill with its head held high up. Surrounding the base of the hill are thousands of houses, shops and restaurants. The view of the vast fort, being at the very top, is prominent from anywhere in the town. The first original fort was torn down in 1697 and a new one was rebuilt in 1740 by Louis XIV. The town folk used to find shelter within the fort at times of war. While the fort on top of the hill represents war, the garden at the base of the hill portrays peace. The German border line is only ten to twenty miles from the town. The mighty fort built at a strategic location has been a silent witness for the killings and tortures of many battles between France and Germany. The deadly war of 1870 between the two countries was fought continuously for 230 days. While more than 100,000 German soldiers lost their life, the casualties on the French side was nearly double that number. The French who were still undefeated after all this, inevitably, had to surrender as the people who were sheltered within this fort ran out of food supplies. The Germans claimed victory and occupied the fort and the region. The French got them back after the Second World War.
There were no Tourist Guides to explain the history of the fort. But in place of that, modern technology has been adapted very efficiently. The head sets to wear over the ears are given at the entrance of the fort to listen in English, German or French as per your wish. As you wear it and enter the fort, you are instantly transported to the ancient past. Similar to the GPS (Global Positioning System) sets in the modern cars, the tourists wearing the head sets are tracked along their routes and the description and history are broadcast appropriate to your location. It also gives instructions to proceed to the next room. In some rooms, the video projections get activated just as you step inside and appear on the walls. Often times, the tourists get scared at the drastically realistic projections of the battle scenes. The bullets blasting out of cannons, flames raging like forest fires, soldiers brutally piercing the bodies of the enemies with spears, the fellow soldiers carrying friends wounded by bullets to a safe place, the horses shaking with pain emanating from the broken legs, hungry people feeding on raw flesh of the dead horses, ravaged buildings, half-naked women running with fear to protect their dignity and life, crying children – scenes such as these made the hearts of the tourists beat erratically with compassion. You cannot help but ask, ‘For what accomplishment is this war for?’ But the consolation is that it is past and done – a violent history! Man should learn from this deadly past, but does he? Hardly! This is the reason for the popular saying, “History repeats itself.”
There is still quite a bit of daylight left even at 9 PM in Europe. Next day, when we went on a walk towards the fort around 9PM, lot of people, both young and old, were seen assembled on the slopes of the lawn by the fort entrance. There were people lining up on either side of the road as well. Everyone’s attention was focused upwards to the sky. The reason we found out was the ensuing fireworks! To the melodious folk music playing in the background, the fireworks were creating various breathtaking designer artworks through the green, red, yellow and blue stars as they streaked downwards. People were enchanted by the sounds and scenes above them and adding their own sounds of loud laughter and merriment to the event. But I must say that they were not successful in erasing the memories of the video scenes carried with me from previous day, instead it intensified my vision of the violent battles that had taken place around that fort. The wheels of time have circled around. France and Germany are friendly neighbours now and are with European Federation. Some parts of German borders are guarded by the French soldiers and the German contingents are guarding some of the French borders. As per the agreement signed by both nations, the French army is retreating 65 years after the Second World War allowing the German army units to station and to keep guard of the borders to France at ‘Bitche’. Time, Salutations to you!
During the return Journey from Bitche to Frankfurt I recalled an article, written by a tourist in ‘Der Spiegel’, a German magazine that I had read as a student at Vienna University in the 70s. He had written,”India is a land of snake charmers, People here do not have food. Do you know why? People in this country worship rats as Gods. They feed their share of food to the rats and give them milk as well.” To lend credence to his story, he had also included a photo where some devotees in Rajasthan were feeding the rat, the legendary vehicle of Ganesha, inside a Ganesha temple. The tourists standing on the banks of the lakes and feeding bread to the fish and the ducks is a routine scene in European countries. Taking advantage of this fact, no Indian writer has ridiculed this practice by citing that Europeans do not have bread, because they feed it to fish. It is saddening that the reports exaggerating the poverty and hunger among Indians are still being propagated through their news media. The common folk in those countries who read those reports are naturally misled about facts on India and Indians. Not all of them have visited India. Unfortunately, those who have seen India do not transmit the right scenario to those who have not seen it. What can we say about the ignorance of these people who feel that anything that is contrary to their belief is ignorance? Two common questions that are invariably asked by the people of Germany, Switzerland, and Austria, the traditionally German speaking countries, when you are touring those regions are: 1. Warum ist die Kuh heiling? (Why do you worship the cow?), and, 2. Glauben Sie in der Wiedergeburt? (Why do you believe in re-incarnation?)
It was during the afternoon time period that my return flight from Frankfurt to Bangalore took place. The earth appeared clear like the big map you see through a magnifying lens except that neither the country names nor the demarcating border lines were visible. The view from the top seemed to confirm the statement, “Vasudaiva Kutumbakam”. The clouds seemed to be casting their shadows as time passed. The plane seemed to be stationary for a while and shaking due to turbulence in the weather at times. The monitor screen in front indicated that we are flying at an altitude of 35,000 feet. I was reminded of a Kannada poem, ‘Can you climb to the height that I can climb’ by our Nation’s Poet Laureate, Kuvempu. The flight through the clouds lifted my emotions and provided the right inspiration to pen in the poem below:
Can you climb the heights that I can climb?
Can you fly the distance that I can fly?
Can you reach the speed that I can reach?
The swank metallic bird teased the free living bird
“So what if you could?” sounded the king swan:
“Eyes, that can enjoy the beauty of the mother earth, you do not have!
The fortune, to see the dawn that can put a blush
Even on the fiery sun to shame, you do not have!
The Zest, to go zooming up after dipping in and out,
Of the clear waters of the pond
Flapping the feather, in the titillating cool breeze - you do not have!
The heavenly feel, of the warm embrace of the clouds, you do not have!
The ears, to listen to the lilting music
Of the gentle breeze, you do not have!
Hair raising experience of the streak lightning, you do not have!”
Air hostess with a motherly heart cautions:
“Passing through turbulent weather
Please fasten your seat belts!”
“Scared and concerned are the travelers who trusted you
For your shakes and shrieks, that severe and that loud!
Give up and stop your egotist flaunts!
Your senseless grandeur
Beware! You could become a stringless kite!
Ravaged by the twisters into shred of a kite!”