Article Published in THE HINDUSTAN TIMES

Berlin, Berlin!

Navtej Sarna

BERLIN, BERLIN. That was the name of the exhibition that attracted me to the city. It was another thing that the exhibition itself turned out to be a disappointment as damp as the drizzly November. Particularly to one whose knowledge of German was scarcely enough to buy a hamburger. But the exhibition was only an excuse, as it were, engineered by the city to unfold its excitement to the skeptical traveller…

The excitement in fact begins a night before as I step onto the train. I have seen a familiar face and the feeling has hooked me and will simply not go away until I have placed the man. The question mark becomes a compulsion as he steps into the adjoining compartment. Yes, we have met, years ago, in a distant land. And as his aquiline features fall into their slot in my mind, I give myself up to the rolling motion of the train as it hurtles across borders and the darkness.

There is a visa check in the early hours and we are over the river Oder, over which I had once photographed a nearly full moon. Soon the train is rolling into Berlin and in the early morning light the city seems a trifle sad, a bit rundown.

But along with the smog, a sense of history hangs over the city, especially in the year that it is celebrating 750 years of its existence. Since that first mention of a medieval settlement in a document dated 1237, the city has played many roles - the political centre of Prussia and then Germany, the residence of kings, the industrial city, the cultural metropolis. Destroyed and rebuilt, it is a city historically glorious and at the same time, bisected by history.

It is this sense of history that descends from the anniversary placards and dogs my footsteps for the next four days as I tramp across Berlin, and as I cross over to the other side of the wall, to West Berlin…

The morning that I go to see the famed Pergamon museum is dark and drizzly. Bad for photographs and especially disappointing for those who are standing near their luxury tourist buses, their cameras and lenses hanging heavy on their sides. Outside the row of museums, each glorifying its share of the dead past, a drama of life is being enacted. A big fish has been hooked by one of the row of comatose fisherman who were draped across the rampart of the canal and they have been electrified into activity. The line stretches as the fish fights for life. The group of frustrated photographers lean forward and a few cameras click. A blue and green net is lowered into the water but the fish will not give up so easily… I don’t wait to see the end of the drama but step into the safe past ensconsed in the museum.

The imposing building recreates the world of Pergamon, the state in Asia Minor which moved into the limelight of political and cultural history of Hellenism when the empire of Alexander of Macedonia crumbled after his death. One of the achievements of Pergamon was the creation of an Acropolis, rooted in Greek culture, including the Altar with its halls of columns and its giant frieze of gods and goddesses. It is this Altar, excavated and reconstructed which stuns the visitor.

A wide flight of steps leads up to the platform of the Altar and the pillars. The giant frieze surrounds the Altar, depicting over a hundred larger than life figures, catching in eternal stone moments of dramatic action and violent movements as well as torment, pain and cool observation. These varying themes run along the 120 metres of the frieze, giving the visitor an excellent idea of the artistic achievements of two thousand years ago. Besides the magnificent Altar, the museum houses original mosaic floors from ancient Babylon not to mention the treasures contained in the Chinese and Islamic sections where miniature Moghul originals are a prized exhibit.

The museum opened at the present site in 1930 but had to be closed at the outbreak of the Second World War. The reliefs, at first protected by sandbags and casings, were transported from the site. It was only in 1959 that the museum was reopened after extensive reconstruction work.

Outside it is drizzling rather heavily but nobody ever carried an umbrella on the day that they needed it. So all I can do is use the catalogue that I have picked up in the museum to cover my head and walk in the shadow of the buildings. The library and the opera house, impressive buildings all dwarfed by the TV tower. After all, the guidebook informs me, it is the fourth highest TV tower in the world.

From the immense height of the tower, the city is a sea of lights but the boulevards and the runways stand out in straight lines. And the moving rows of lights are the trains, criss-crossing the city or emerging suddenly from the tunnels. There, far away, are the suburbs, a dozen train stations away. The suburbs with the lake and a few ducks and the quiet streets with their shops with the long lunch hours. The TV tower also has a restaurant which revolves around once in an hour. And you are advised, presumably in four languages, to finish your meal in the allotted time - in any case, you have to leave.

A much more sophisticated meal is provided by the house of Bertold Brecht. This is now a very special restaurant, my host informs me, which is still serving dishes along recipes formulated by Brecht’s wife. We drink in the crowded, arty look and the unmistakable atmosphere accentuated by the pictures on the walls and the lights hung low. The conversations are close and intense and occasional bits of laughter break through like the tinkle of glass

And across the wall, sprawls West Berlin, like a huge, endless, confusing departmental store. And as we jostle around in this most cosmopolitan of all cities, we discover the Donner Kebab, the Turkish delight which is the current rage. Soft, fresh bread sandwiching slivers of soft meat with lemon and onions. Enough to keep one going in search of shopping bargains. Or across the city to the Egyptian Museum which is about to close. But there is still enough time to see the famous sight of the original bust of Nefertiti. And there we stop in our tracks, spellbound and wordless before a perfect beauty. She lived and walked thousands of years ago, but the matchless features and the graceful line of the neck seem made for eternity.

But we are too late for the Charlotten burg Palace. They tell us to come the next morning, sharp at nine… But by then, we are far away.