Archive

Dispatches

Erik Raschke

Introduction

 

From 2001-2003, over three hundred refugees from all over the world moved to the small Arctic island of Berneria. In the spring of 2010, every human inhabitant vanished without a trace. In the fall of 2010, a U.N. freighter arrived in Hoboken, New Jersey, with five cargo containers loaded with the Bernerians’ computers, diaries, and personal belongings. Since I had previously written about the colony, I was hired by the United Nations International High Commission for Refugees to sort through these containers and compile a cohesive narrative of their disappearance. An interactive app, to be launched in December, is designed to help friends and family of the Bernerians understand what might have happened to those they lost. Included below is an initial summary of my report.

Figure 1. October 17, 2010. U.N. containers from the island of Berneria.

History

1980

Beginning in 1980, the northern Arctic island of Berneria underwent what climatologists refer to as the Lippler Effect. The Lippler Effect, named after the New Zealand meteorologist Richard Lippler, occurs when certain greenhouse gases, upon colliding with the exosphere, create a kilometer-wide portal in which solar rays can be channeled, almost unimpeded, into our atmosphere. While the debate amongst scientists and politicians over the dangers of the Lippler Effect continues, the data shows that many of the islands in the far north of Russia have indeed become warmer.

In 1984, in the dead of night, an iceberg crashed through the hull of a Stanford research boat. The massive, multi-million dollar research vessel sunk in under an hour, in one of the most remote regions in the world – the Arctic Ocean

A week later, a small lifeboat from the Stanford research vessel washed up on a sandy beach. The sky was clear, the water pristine, the land dry, and the temperature as gentle as Southern California in spring. On this deserted island, two young graduate students, Richard Lippler and his sole surviving colleague, Lisa Knowles, built a home, gathered food, and lived comfortably. Almost two years later, a U.S. Navy submarine patrolling the area happened to see smoke coming from their chimney.

In the spring of 1987, Richard and Lisa Lippler, now married, returned to the remote island they called home. Arriving on a new research vessel paid for by the inventor of the Internet, Tim Berners-Lee, the couple began investigating why this single island, in the middle of the coldest part of the earth, was experiencing year-round temperatures comparable to those found on the equator. Their research led them to publish “The Lippler Effect,” one of the most explosive papers in the last century.

Figure 2. Berneria North-West Coast circa 1978, courtesy of ASWARC.

Figure 3. Berneria North-West Coast circa 1998, courtesy of Berneria Historical Society.

Figure 4. Richard Lippler and Lisa Knowles, courtesy of Stanford University Archives.

Figure 5. Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the Internet, after whom Berneria is named.

1990

Financed by Tim Berners-Lee and Berneria Real Estate Corporation, in the spring of 1989, Richard and Lisa Lippler, Les Vanderpool, and a team of seventy surveyors, biologists, ecologists, climatologists, and botanists began mapping the small Arctic island of Berneria. During this process, they discovered that crops such as wheat, sugar beets, rye, barley, and potatoes,   -crops once attributable to more northern latitudes such as Canada and Finland- could now be grown on Berneria. After rigorous research and measurements, they concluded that the crops in Berneria grew 5 to 9 times faster than their counterparts in more southerly climes.

In the southwest portion of the island, Druidic markers were discovered. The Berneria Historical Society quickly procured funding from the Royal Academy of Archeology for further study (see cover photo).

Very early on, Tim Berners-Lee and the Lipplers began drafting an egalitarian charter for what they hoped would be a new colony, inhabited by individuals from all around the world. In an International Herald Tribune interview with Tim Berners-Lee, he said that his goal with Berneria was similar to what he did with the World Wide Web, which was to take disparate, existing concepts and “generalize” them, i.e., using the brains and ingenuity already present in humankind to create the “greatest” colony in the world.

Figure 6. Earliest survey of Berneria Harbor, courtesy of Berneria Historical Society.   

2000

In June of 2003, Les Vanderpool of Berneria Realty Corporation contacted me to write a series of articles about the new colony of Berneria. After three heavy days of travel, I spent June 2003 to October 2003 walking the island and visiting with Bernerians. To say the least, it was a revelatory experience. I was among hundreds of people, from every part of the world, beginning a new life. We were over a thousand miles away from any major metropolis, hundreds from any commercial outlets, and yet, among these Bernerians, there was nothing but hope, confidence, an unstoppable drive to redefine humanity’s potential.

However, in May of 2010, after repeated and unsuccessful attempts to get in touch with Les Vanderpool and arrange another visit, I went to Berneria on my own accord. Without the help of the various drivers and pilots working for Berneria Real Estate, it took me almost 10 days to get to the island. When I arrived early on the morning of June 5, 2010, I found the colony deserted. I discovered doors unlocked, meals half-eaten, dishes unwashed. However there seemed no sign of struggle, and no significant damage other than erosion. The Bernerians were simply gone.

I combed the island and during my ten weeks there could find no single answer to what happened except the name “Melville” scratched upon a tree in the town’s square. Melville Island is about a 10-hour trip northeast by boat from Berneria and since I was funding this trip out of my own pocket, I could not afford to make the exploration.

Figure 7. Les Vanderpool, Director of Berneria Real Estate.

Figure 8. Computer generated collage of the 300 inhabitants of Berneria which hangs on the wall of the now abandoned Berneria Real Estate offices.

2010 – Present

With the cargo containers safely stored near my home, I have begun to slowly unravel the mystery of the disappearance of the Bernerians. Every few weeks I will be updating the Berneria app with my findings. In the meantime, I have concluded that the per capita number of suicides reached levels unseen in any previously documented colony. I am convinced that this was not due to the remoteness of the island like some U.N. representatives have publicly claimed, but because of the objects and possessions which regularly washed upon shore. These “items,” many stored at the Berneria Historical Society, were physical manifestations of some deeper collective anxiety. Toward the end of the last year, these Bernerians, many of them highly-educated, secular individuals, started a church in which much of the ceremony involved “self-renunciation.” Much of the liturgical text refers to Kant and Kierkegaard as well as the writings of the highly-acclaimed poet Ho Jing, who fled China in 2005 and became a Bernerian citizen in 2006. I have sent copies of Ho Jing’s prophecies to several Religious Studies academics in Europe and America for further analyses.

Sample Journal Entries:

Nienke, June 30, 2001

I am sure it will take us most of the summer to recover from the loss of Francine Fromme. Everyone has been concealing their impatience or irritation under thin, painfully somber smiles. We nod and say hello, but conversation never seems to go much farther. Francine’s suicide has turned everyone into turtles, retreating without hesitation into themselves.

I refuse to walk along the beaches for fear of what I’ll find. Two weeks ago, on the upper north beach, Armen Mankarian, from Charents-Sevan, Armenia, found the hand coffee grinder that his father used to beat him and his mother with. Yesterday, I saw Sarah Bishop at Dr. Imjay’s office begging for Valium. She had just found the beaded steering wheel from her junked Toyota Camry lodged between two rocks along the southeastern cliffs. She said that the wheel still had blood on it, blood from the man she hit six years ago on The Cleveland Memorial Shoreway.

The only people who seem to enjoy the clutter lining our beach are the children who find endless new sources of entertainment. This morning I went to Enka’s restaurant and saw Oladele Nwokolo, a Nigerian boy of about seven playing with a rubber shark. He and his mother, Gimbya, had just been for a walk along the harbor. I am pretty sure the shark is the same as my son’s. When Sander took baths, in his little plastic tub, his skin slick from scented oil, he played only with that shark, circling it between his little legs, submerging it into the bottomless depths to hunt for imaginary prey.

Figure 9. Nienke

Sarah, July 3, 2001

O.K. So here’s  the third law I’m proposing. It’s called the “Get Over Yourself” law. If someone gets way too hung up over something lame, then they get imprisoned until they can prove that they’ve chilled out. It doesn’t matter what it is. It could be shoes or abortion. Think about how rational conversations would be. Everyone would be worried about going to jail so they’d totally start listening to each other. How do you define “lame…” you might ask? Well, “lame” would be like “the right to bear arms” in the American Constitution, and Berneria would have judges like me interpreting the definition. “Lame” could mean “teachers who don’t let students text in school,” and then in ten years it could be like “old people driving rockets really slowly.”

When I finished drafting my law, Altunai came over and we made a bunch of hot cocoa and cider, put it in cups with lids, and went down to the harbor. In less than ten minutes, our tray was empty and we had to go back home and get more. We made fifty Berners between us for like an hour’s work. I told Altunai that we probably could have sold even more, but then those Muslim guys came and everyone got distracted. That evening, I showed the cash to my mom and told her I planned on using it to hire some movers to bring the glass table back from the beach. She told me I had manipulated a tense, unpleasant situation at the harbor for my own self-profit.

So? Isn’t it a free market?

Anyhow, Altunai and I gave three cups free to the Guantanamo prisoners as they passed by my house. It was so gross because they got whip cream and cocoa foam all caught up in their weird beards. Yuck. I think it was only because Altunai said “assalamu alaikum” that they drank it at all.

Welcome to Berneria fellas!

Not.

Figure 10. Sarah

Erik, June 30, 2003

Land

At three in the a.m., peering over his gas lantern, his rheumy eyes like freshly shucked oysters at midnight, the deckhand shook me awake. I dressed, and made my way to the stern, where I gazed into the freezing darkness. It was not until I made out the shadowy outline of land and we were a few hundred meters from shore that I saw the dim light of the harbormaster’s office. How disappointing after so many miles of travel to discover only a sleepy hamlet with little more than a desk lamp serving as a light tower.

The harbor was littered with ice, no doubt the remnants of the many ghostly icebergs that we passed on our way here. The captain cut the motor and our vessel pressed through the frozen debris as we glided toward land. Two African boys, accompanied by an older woman whom I judged to be their mother, fastened our ropes to the dock and laid a plank for us to cross. Oddly enough, once the boat was steady, I found myself crossing alone. The captain who had delivered me here so safely had no intention of going ashore.

The air here was surprisingly warm yet dry, like an August alpine afternoon. From what I could tell in the moonlight, the beach was composed of what seemed like large, rounded multi-colored pebbles, most likely smoothed by the hundreds of feet of ice which once covered this land. There were groves of saplings on the eroded cliffs, but most of the landscape appeared to comprise grass and shrubbery; but, like I said, it was hard to be certain in the dark.

Once I was safely on land, the deckhand grunted to the African boy and then the boat was unfastened. With a loud grumbling, the ships engines groaned into reverse. The deckhand, still busy coiling the rope, faded into the night without a wave goodbye. The captain switched off the light in the steering house, and the ocean became an uneven pattern of darker and darker movement.

Inside the tiny harbormaster’s office, which was not much more than a log hut, I was offered coffee and introduced to Mbali Van Gertz and her two sons, Manelesi and Ulwazi. I told her my name and where I was arriving from. Her two sons stared at me; the youngest of the boys, I realized after a few quick glances, had a glass eye. The other had a scar that traveled the length of his cheek and neck.

Mbali labored over each letter of my name. I occasionally smiled at the boys and asked them how they liked it here. Their replies were no different than the casual declarations of American youth: half-shrugs and sucked teeth. Ulwazi nodded toward Manelesi’s skateboard in the corner and boasted that they were building a half-pipe near the end of the harbor. Stupidly, I asked what the half-pipe would be used for and was once again directed back toward the skateboard. Seeing that I obviously had little street cred, the two boys left, explaining that Les Vanderpool had requested to be notified immediately of my arrival.

When the boys were gone, I asked Mbali if she was from KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. She nodded and said that her father had been an Afrikaner from Johannesburg, although she only saw him two or three times. He had several children spread out over the province.

“Have you been to South Africa?” she asked.

“Yes. For a week.”

“Did you like it?”

“It was like nothing I’ve ever seen.”

She nodded as if this were an acceptable answer and said finally, “You are the first American I have met who has been to my country.”

I was tempted to ask Mbali how she had come to Berneria, or better, how someone barely literate, and from such a disconsolate province, could have afforded the long journey. I asked Mbali if I could interview her in the weeks to come. She said, cheeks high, more wincing than smiling, that she would have to consider it.

I filled in a few forms and studied the temporary Bernerian Charter hanging from the wall. Within fifteen minutes of the boys’ departure, Les Vanderpool arrived at the office. He was a cheerful little man who excitedly shook my hand, although I suspect he would have preferred a hug. He still had the same mullet hair cut (which I had seen from pictures when I Googled his name) and a loose-fitting button down flannel shirt. He was neat in every way with his jeans rolled to the top of his sensible hiking boots, his face cleanly shaved except for a tightly trimmed mustache, and his hands and nails delicate, almost feminine. Overall he appeared as a divorcee and who suddenly, for whatever reason, had been thrust into the general instability of single-life and thus had turned to the predictable regiments of ironing, cuffing, creasing, and coiffing.

“Did  ya get seasick?” he asked in a slightly mocking tone. “Some of the stories we’ve heard, right Mbali? One little girl threw up sixteen times. The mother was sick seven or eight times. The father too! That old deckhand had his work cut out for him, eh? But they’re happy now. That family. Put the whole experience behind them in just a few days.”

He then glanced over the forms that Mbali had just completed.

“We can get anything we missed tomorrow. I bet Erik’s tired. Need to be rested for our hike tomorrow.”

Les spoke a few words of isiZulu to Mbali who only nodded back. Then, quite condescendingly, he patted Ulwazi and Manelesi on the head, and we bid our goodbyes. Mbali appeared neither excited nor disappointed by our departure, and was in fact as emotionless as a bureaucrat late on a Friday afternoon. I, however, was glad to be moving, glad to be heading toward a comfortable bed.

Les took my suitcase, rolling the wheels along the bumpy gravel road. He chatted about the weather over the last few days and how the Lippler Effect had given Berneria a gentle climate, but how it had also robbed them of long afternoons, as when he had lived in Seattle and Maine, locked in the house reading a book while the rain battered the windows. When there was inclement weather in Berneria, he moaned, it occurred only in the evening, after one fell asleep.

While we walked in the dim, pre-dawn light, I could make out a land that was rather barren, with Alpine grasses and bald patches of granite. I noticed pine seedlings stretching over a hillside, budding in rows, planted by the Bernerians for use as future timber. Some patches of trees had even grown to a reasonable height.

Somewhere along our walk, Les began to tell me about a program he heard on National Public Radio, via the Internet, about Republicans taking money directly from insurance companies and then looking the other way when hospitals tossed the poorest of the sick out onto the streets. The hyperbolic wrangling and hostile concern over federal policymaking, whether authentic or not, still had the ability to make his blood boil. For Les, the NPR story had relit the dark frustration of injustice with such force that the tremendous silence of Berneria at dawn was unable to ease his agitation.

“Here’s something,” he said, “that happened here and perhaps you shouldn’t repeat it because, well, as a journalist it is hearsay really, but a few months ago a family from Sudan arrived on our beaches. They were ill-equipped for the weather, had not a cent to their name. They went from house to house and each and every Bernerian gave them something. Coats, socks, food, you name it. All except one man. His name was Bertrand Beachman from Devon, England. Said that he moved here to ‘get away from the lazy.’ He was very vocal about his unwillingness to help anyone in need. He quickly adopted the nickname, Bertrand the Nazi.” Les paused here and chewed on the edge of his moustache and then continued:

“Two months ago his house caught on fire. He came running into the empty street for help. Begged. Pleaded.” Les cut the air with his index finger. “No one came.”

“Jesus.”

“The next day the family from Sudan brought Bertrand Beachman a thermos of coffee and hot oatmeal. We all felt ashamed. Our pettiness burned. They talked. Bertrand explained himself. The Sudanese father understood. Said that he didn’t like ‘lazy’ people either. Unfortunately, Bertrand took to wandering the streets and the hills. Something about that fire had snapped the life in his soul. A week after his house burned down we found his body washed up on the shore. He had jumped from the cliffs.”

Les looked me in the eyes. Then he looked away and kicked a stone. “The history of colonies and communes has been more negative than positive. One collapse after another. I’ve done my reading. I know it’ll take a lot to make Berneria work, but this island is much more than an experiment. Too many people can’t ever go back. It’s either prosper or perish for them.”

We walked the rest of the way in silence. There were no birds, no crickets, no sounds whatsoever. I could hear, however, the sound of Les’s labored breathing as he insisted on rolling my heavy suitcase.

Figure 11. Erik

Additional information

For the Google map of Berneria, click here, for Berneria Real Estate, click here, for Berneria Historical Society, click here. The app will be available in December 2012.

_________________________________________________________________

Erik Raschke grew up in Denver, Colorado and received a Masters in Creative Writing from The City College of New York.  He taught in Washington Heights, Manhattan, for many years.  His first novel, The Book of Samuel, was published by St. Martin’s Press in the fall of 2009. He lives with his family in Amsterdam where he is currently finishing up his second novel, Action at a Distance.

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Adam Goldwyn

January 21, 2011

Word was spreading through the city: there was to be a protest. In Tirana, the capital of Albania, the news didn’t come over Twitter or Facebook or even via mobile phones or text message. Somehow, everyone just knew, as though the country had wordlessly agreed upon it; as though the events leading up to it were so brazen that it would be redundant to plan and prepare. When something like this happens, everyone just knows. Ostensibly, the source of the protest was the outrage against Ilir Meta, the Deputy Prime Minister, who had been caught on video conspiring to take hundreds of thousands of euros in bribes for himself and Prime Minister Sali Berisha in exchange for lucrative government contracts. Not that this was a surprising development – everyone in Albania knew their government was corrupt – but it was the indisputable evidence of the video tape, coupled with Meta’s surreally implausible denial, that made the protest inevitable. So yes, it was about Ilir Meta, but it was also about government corruption in general. And it was also about the lingering rage of the opposition, led by Tirana mayor Edi Rama, who still disputed the fairness of the most recent national elections. And about the stalled negotiations for Albania’s entry into the EU. And about economic stagnation. And about a lack of jobs. And about a decaying infrastructure. A riot was about to happen and most of the people didn’t need a reason, but for those who did, there were reasons enough for everybody. At its core, though, this was to be a protest without any aim or goal. It was a protest against life itself by old people who had seen too many promises gone sour, by young people who had not seen enough to know that this is how it always would be.

Burning cars (Photo credit: Ryan Vidos)

Walking through the residential neighborhoods to the location of the protest, I was surprised by the utter normalcy of life in the city. Shops were open. People sat in cafés or idled on park benches, smoked on the sidewalk, waited for the bus. As I got closer to downtown, though, a first subtle sign that something unusual was happening: there were more security guards standing outside the shops and office buildings. Not that they were doing anything, not that they looked nervous or anxious, there were just more of them. And then, a few hundred meters closer to the protest, another change: the disappearance of women. There were no women. Anywhere. Only men. Lots and lots of men. Standing around in their jeans and leather jackets, walking, chatting, doing nothing, smoking cigarettes. Walking through Student City, the university district, I caught my first sight of the protest: huge billows of dark grey smoke, four distinct plumes issuing into the blue sky above the rooftops. Soon, the entire sky would be a diffuse grey, but at this early hour, with the cars only just burned, the smoke rose straight and steady as a marble column.

Nearing the main boulevard, I heard the protest for the first time: a reverberating collective shout, something like the sound that comes from a soccer stadium when the home team, facing elimination in some important tournament, wins in sudden death or shootouts. It was like this in volume and pitch, but nothing like it in power: this was a primordial shout in blood. And then the sound of another car exploding and a new column of smoke. More cheers. I felt my heart pound a bit faster, felt the slightest surge of adrenaline. I walked faster.

Crowd on National Martyrs Boulevard (Photo credit: Ryan Vidos)

In the middle of the nineteenth century, Baron Haussmann redesigned the winding alleyways of medieval Paris along the new plan of wide boulevards for which it is known today. Critics of the Baron’s plans argued that the impetus was not solely aesthetic: the restored French monarchy, fearing the fate of their predecessors in the French Revolution, noted the two-fold difficulty facing the deployment of Royalist troops throughout the city. First, the revolutionaries were able to create barricades the full width of the narrow streets – a tactic immortalized in Victor Hugo’s depiction of the 1832 Paris Uprising in Les Misérables. Moreover, the narrow streets made it difficult for large regiments of soldiers to stay in formation as they moved through the streets. In 1930, when the new King of Albania, Zog I, asked Benito Mussolini to redesign Tirana as his royal capital, Il Duce sent over Florestano de Fausto and Armando Brasini. The Italian architects leveled huge swathes of the city to make way for King Zog Boulevard (which then became Stalin Boulevard under the Communists and is currently the Bulevardi Deshmoret e Kombit, the National Martyrs’ Boulevard), bounded on each end by plazas named after the two great heroes of Albania: the late Mother Theresa, famous for her network of orphanages in India, and the medieval warlord Skanderbeg, famous for preserving Christendom against the Ottomans with a series of military victories. The great saint and the great warrior stand at the ends of the great paradox that is Albanian national identity.

What Haussmann, de Fausto and Brasini didn’t realize, however, was that in solving one problem, they unintentionally created another: now protesters had large empty spaces in which to gather. The boulevards and plazas where the soldiers were meant to gather also became the staging grounds of the protests. The Italians made yet another mistake in not paving the boulevard but in cobbling it with small bricks. By the end of the day, the protesters, having exhausted the supply of stones they had brought with them to use as projectiles against the police eventually began prying the bricks out of the street itself.

Columns of police in riot gear lined the boulevard, stone-faced behind their shaded visors, surrounding the swelling crowd which overflowed the boulevard and both of the plazas. Camera crews and journalists were photographing the burning cars which had been tipped over in the open square in front of the Pyramid building (intended as the Communist dictator Enver Hoxha’s mausoleum, it had fallen into disrepair and disuse and, despite being Albania’s most unique piece of architecture, is now slated for destruction).

Pyramid Building (Photo credit: Ryan Vidos)

Peering over the crowd, I could make out the scene up ahead: at the heavily guarded gates of the government offices, a surge of protesters pushing and fighting their way forward against the riot police, forcing them back with a constant stream of rocks and bottles and sticks and clubs. One man even brandished an umbrella. The newspapers the next day would say there were 20,000 protesters, but this was not true. There were, in fact, maybe one hundred at first. There were 19,900 people standing around watching, hoping for violence, hoping for some memorable spectacle, or, really, just because, in a country with high unemployment, especially among young and middle-aged men, they had nowhere else to go and this was the place to be. Rumors circulated that public employees working in municipalities governed by opposition politicians had been compelled, under threat of losing their jobs, to board the buses which brought them to the protest from all ends of the country. We watched for some time. The protesters would surge forward; the police would charge back. The non-protesting part of the crowd seemed almost bored, their sloganeering devoid of passion. People turned to talk of other things, mostly when the cold spell would break and they could go swim in the Adriatic, 20 miles west of the capital. Then somewhere behind us, that sound again, that deafening sound of thousands of people screaming in unison.

Until that point, I had not been scared at all; the scene had all the excitement of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade down Broadway in New York. I was not scared of the police: the others didn’t seem to be, so why would I? They were only defending themselves against the more active protesters up front. But I quickly became scared of the crowd. There was a ripple effect down the boulevard. People were pushing, but there was nowhere to go. The pushing became more insistent, the noise louder; I began to panic. Something was happening but I didn’t know what. No one knew.  From one face to another, the panic spread, but no one knew why and we pushed and shoved and tried to run but we didn’t know where we were running to or from or why. And, in that sea of pressed flesh, there was nowhere to run anyway.

The sound of an engine. Lurching through the crowd was a big black box of a van, and from each side hoses protruded like the cannons on some seventeenth-century Spanish Galleon. I had only seen hoses like this in the grainy videos of the Civil Rights protests I had watched at school growing up. Their impact is swift, powerful and deeply disturbing. The people closest were lifted off their feet and thrown into the packed masses; people further back were merely knocked to the ground, then trampled by the undulating crowd. Something beyond panic had gripped us now. My chest tightened as the tight line of water came closer to me. It was as though it had already hit me, I was having such trouble breathing. But I was far enough back. Dispersed against the chests and faces and arms of others more unlucky than I, I felt only a light splash of cold water, like the mist of a garden hose, on my face. My muscles relaxed and I felt the oxygen begin to flow once again into my lungs. My diaphragm hurt. In its wake, the truck left only the silence of scattered bodies and the sound of whimpers. But there was no time to recover.

It sounded like a hiss at first, the sound a shaken soda bottle makes when its owner opens it slowly, only a bit at first, to let the pressure out. This sound, first once, then a second time, a third, then a million times in quick succession. Before I knew what it was, the stinging had reached my eyes. I fell to the ground, wheezing, covering my eyes with my hands. I could feel the crowd again seething and surging; someone stepped on my hand, a leg crashed into my side. I had to stand back up. Blinking my eyes open, I could see huge plumes of tear gas wafting in every direction and everywhere people staggering about, trampling anyone in their desperation to get out, clawing their eyes and shrieking.

The sound of gunfire, pop pop pop, then the sound of bullets whizzing like dragonflies winging past my ear. I had never heard gunfire like this before, constant, swirling. It felt as though it was coming from directly in front of me… no… behind me… from everywhere at once, but I couldn’t tell where.

Bullets are indifferent killers, and death is a strange thing. It terrorizes a man because a living mind, like a dead one, cannot imagine its opposite. It is a cognitive black hole that can only be imagined around and, in imagining around it, the thing itself grows only larger and more terrible. And in that moment of desperate, paralyzing fear, instinct kicks in, and the instinct is to flee from death at all costs. Intelligence, reason, social convention: the things that bind society together are the first things to be eviscerated by gunshots. I thought nothing of stepping over a man who was screaming, clawing vainly at his eyes as if he could pull the tear gas off with his fingernails; I thought nothing of pushing a man to the ground and then stepping on him if he was running too slowly, and on my shoulders and back and the edges of my clothes I felt grasping hands trying to push me aside, to pull me down, to trample me.

Woman with police helmet (Photo credit: Ryan Vidos)

And then the crowd, that surging crowd, beaten back by tear gas and bullets and clubs, turned. What terror there may have been in the sound of bullets was nothing compared to a panicked swarming mass of a few thousand people in full flight. In waves, they turned and ran, each line turning and spooking the line behind. But at some point – everything is at once amorphous and organic in crowds – the fear of being trampled is greater than the fear of getting hit by the bullets, and the crowd, hemmed in on all sides, turned again. I have seen cattle stampede on the plain, but from horseback, in an open field, this causes more amusement than fear. But on foot, alone, when thousands of your fellow men turn and run like animals: this is a terror I had never known, deeper and more chilling than I had thought possible. Nor is it a momentary thing. The idea that we are different than animals is deeply rooted in the human psyche; to have that conviction so definitively proven false is to be shaken to one’s core. The fear of death reveals the truth about a man, about his character. A man learns the value of the principles that guide his life relative to his very life itself.

Riot hoses and bullets and tear gas and clubs are effective means of dispersing a crowd. Raw force of that kind makes a man fear for his life, and this powerful fear, through instinct or one’s own volition, often override the more abstract principles of liberty and transparency for which protesters take to the streets.

Much had been made that day and those previous of the protests in Tunisia and Egypt. What the dictators there had not realized, I think, is that a man puts a price even on his own life, and when the fear of continuing to live under insufferable conditions like those becomes higher than the pain, the humiliation and the fear of death itself, a man will no longer run. The cost of life has become higher than the cost of death.

But in that first moment of gunfire and tear gas, the crowd ran as one. And the almost festive conviviality that had characterized the protest – the back ranks of the protest, anyway – until then was gone. Jumping over cars, trampling those who had fallen, terrified beyond reason, everyone thought only of themselves and their own lives. “29,” I kept thinking, “I am 29 and strong; I can run and I am strong. I will not get trampled to death. I will not get trampled to death. I am 29 and strong and I will not get trampled to death.” This was my only thought.

And then the panic was over, and everyone stood still again. The gunfire and the screaming were over. The only sounds now were the whimpers of the wounded. A man next to me looked in stunned surprise at the huge welt developing on his left arm where he had been struck by a rubber bullet. And, trembling all over, dizzy and tingling, my head spinning, my fingers numb, my heart racing, I turned with the crowd and we charged straight at the riot police, letting out a blood-curdling shriek the likes of which I had only heard before in movies, when one line of soldiers charges at the other. We had been merely spectators before, but now the police themselves had made us participants. We charged not because of the fear, not even because of rage and a desire to hurt those who had hurt us. No, we charged because of the exhilaration.

It is impossible to describe the sublime mingling of terror and elation, the unique and irreproducible feeling that one is so truly and really living that can only be experienced when one approaches death, and which increases in direct proportion to one’s proximity to it.

To feel alive! To be so close to death! And so I followed the shrieking mob back, over the smashed and overturned cars, past the men covered in blood, sobbing and crying, and the little group of friends and strangers surrounding them, parting the crowd and dragging them away. Blood everywhere, spattered on the streets, blood dripping down faces and covering collars and shirts: bloody head wounds from batons, bleeding hands from falling, crawling and standing again. And everyone rubbing their eyes, blinded by tear gas and rage and excitement and an impossibly powerful rush of adrenaline in the head.

Man with bloody face (Photo credit: Ryan Vidos)

When we returned to the Pyramid and had again scaled its side, we saw that the trees in front of the government buildings had been set on fire. A huge roar from the crowd went up, as if anything other than them burning their own institutions had just transpired. The very trees in whose shade they had only yesterday lounged and relaxed, against whose trunks they sat as they spent time with their family and friends, had now become hostile: they – we – celebrated their destruction. Tomorrow, we would miss them, but today, we longed to watch them – and everything else in this city – burn.

Sirens from somewhere. In front of me? Behind me? Two fire trucks, like little Matchbox cars in a sea of spectators, driving through to extinguish the fires. But these people, these people in the back, though they had come for spectacle found themselves protesting now. But to drive two defenseless fire trucks, bright red with sirens wailing: they may as well have painted targets on the side and put Ilir Meta’s face on them. With the anonymity that comes from mob violence, these back row people felt empowered and, as though from nowhere, stones started appearing. The front windshield of the lead fire truck was shattered and over the scream of the mob could be heard the thud thud thud of rocks against their armored sides. The fireman, poor fireman, given terrible orders by an incompetent commander still hiding in the safety of some room somewhere far away, raised his arm to block the barrage of bricks and rocks flying through the shattered glass. I tore a cobbled stone from the boulevard and hurled it at the truck too. It struck, indistinguishable from the others, against the side of the truck.   I had no stake in the outcome of the protests, the rise and fall of Albanian governments, but watching that rock strike that truck was a powerful victory.  They had, after all, fired tear gas and rubber bullets and water cannons at me.  They had made me a protester, as they had thousands of others there.

As quickly as the fireman arrived, he fled, but he could not turn the big truck around in that small space packed with people, so he just threw it in reverse. The moment he came to a standstill, that still split-second between “drive” and “reverse,” he was pounced upon. The protesters started reaching in through the broken windows to pull him out; he fought them off with his free hand, trying to continue steering with the other. The protesters on either side began to rock the fire truck back and forth, to tip it over and burn it. The fireman, panicking, hit the gas as hard as he could, reversing the truck at high acceleration right through the crowd. Those that got out of the way did, those who couldn’t didn’t. Loud shrieks of pain, bodies flying, pushing and shoving and then the fire engine slammed backwards into a car with the bad luck to be parked on that street. But that didn’t stop the fire truck. The driver kept it in reverse, pushing that car into the next into the next, until it was pushing a whole line – five or more cars – backwards. The last car went over the edge of the road and rolled down the grassy banks into the Lana River, scattering a crowd of people. With a screech of tires and a complete indifference to the lives of the bystanders, the fire truck swiveled and turned, speeding off the way it came. The crowd cheered. Looking ahead again, a small opening where the fire truck had been: people had been struck by it, and were rolling around on the ground in pain, others lay still. Still others clutched their arm or leg or head and howled.

The police up front must have heard about the fire trucks, because a brigade of navy-clad riot police, wielding their batons and clear plastic shields, came streaking through the crowd, beating down anyone who stood in front of them. There was a panic on top of the Pyramid and people started sprinting down. Steep and slippery as it was, many of the people fell and came skidding down, crashing into other people like a bowling ball into pins, knocking them down in turn. Everyone ran; I ran. The sound of bullets again, terrifying in their closeness and even more terrifying in their arbitrary anonymity.  Where were they coming from? Lots of bullets. Constant sounds of guns firing and tear gas canisters being launched. From somewhere, maybe, the sound of another car exploding and a triumphant cheer from the crowd. A teenage boy is being trampled; I jump over him without causing any harm – but only out of luck and the random break of my stride. Another foot one way or the other, and I would have stepped on him too. This was animal flight, the animal flight of the zebra at the sight of the lion, the sheep at sight of the wolf: safety in numbers, staying in the middle, hoping. And running. A middle-aged man has blood dripping from his ear but cannot stop its flow because he is rubbing his eyes.

My vision blurs.  From the tear gas? From the panic? From the soot in the air or from the burning cars? The scent of burning rubber in my nostrils. Riot police everywhere. Run. Run. Run. And then, I am in the Blokku neighborhood, sweating and panting and heaving, the sound of gunfire a distant memory hard to recall… from somewhere… else… far away… people here carry shopping bags and wear the latest fashions, sit outdoors in the mid-winter warmth sipping macchiatos and smoking.

I had seen enough violence for one day. I had seen more violence in a day than in a lifetime. A man shot in the back of the head. Running, running, then, as if he had hit a wall, he straightened up, keeled over and lay motionless.  I saw him fall, swerved around his sprawled out corpse. I would see it again and again, endlessly replayed on the evening news as politicians of all stripes – none of whom were there – sought political advantage. His friends dragged him to a safe spot – too late. A woman was holding a riot police helmet, waving it jauntily in the air. And I had just kept running.

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Adam Goldwyn received his Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the City University of New York.  He was assistant professor of English at The University of New York in Tirana (Tirana, Albania), where he was also the arts critic for the local English weekly newsaper, The Tirana Times.  He is currently a lecturer in English at The American University in Kosovo (Pristina, Kosovo).  His most recent article on Albanian literature, “Exile and Nostalgia in Albanian Lyric Poetry since 1750,” is forthcoming from The Mediterranean Journal of the Humanities.

Bhaswati Ghosh


“…She would always remember Paris as the most beautiful city in the world, not because of what it was or was not in reality, but because it was linked to the memory of her happiest years.”

Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera.

Cities are where history and contemporaneity, spaciousness and congestion, overwhelming wealth and astonishing poverty collide with each other more recklessly than anywhere else. One can live in City A for a long time and despise it and yet get entranced by City B in just a few months. That probably explains why I always remained a passive resident of Delhi, the city of my birth and my home for more than three decades, yet fell in love with Hyderabad, where I lived for less than four months. And the charm was almost instantaneous.

This was also the city where I found love.

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Hyderabad welcomed me as a nervous, just-married bride, whose groom happened to work there. The extent of my idea of this southern city until then was summed up in tourist book images—Golconda Fort and Charminar, a rich Muslim ethos and possibly an equally rich cuisine. I knew too that the city was the latest hot-spot on India’s map. But as I would soon realize, this was but a fraction of the fortune that Hyderabad encompassed within its precincts.

The more-than-four-hundred-year-old city didn’t waste any time in bewitching me, in making sure that our bond, even if short-lived, wouldn’t, at least in my memory, be short-term. The charm began with an expanse of calm, placid water that soothed my psyche, left near-parched by Delhi’s unforgivingly dry landscape. The first sight-seeing trip I took with my husband, even as I was still opening up to him, was a launch cruise on Hussain Sagar Lake. The 16th-century blue-green lake’s historic trajectory took it from once being a source of irrigation for the city to the venue that now held the largest monolithic statue in India—Buddha, sculpted out of a single piece of white granite stone. Even though his back was to us, I suspect the Wise One smiled as we stepped onto the launch boat and proceeded toward him. Could he “see” how the mists of scepticism in my heart dissolved—with each unruffled wave we crossed—and were then replaced with the clarity that love brings?

Another stop on this trip was  Birla Mandir, a Hindu temple in the vicinity. As we crossed the road, the temple announced to us its presence from atop Naubath Pahad, a hillock. Boasting an architectural blend of Rajasthani, South Indian and Orissa styles, the temple’s large premises are divided into territories dedicated to different gods of the Hindu pantheon. As we peregrinated from one deity’s court to another, I saw quotations from several holy texts, including those of Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and Sikhs—though Islamic verses and symbols were conspicuously absent. More captivating views were in store. As we landed on the marble-laid main courtyard of the temple, the twin cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad smiled back at us.

For B, my husband, the best part of this trip was yet to come. No sooner had we stepped out of Birla Mandir than a small bust, situated by the side of the temple, drew him. It was the sculpted bust of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, India’s champion for the rights of Dalits—people whom the caste-dominated Hindu society has shunned, humiliated and oppressed for centuries. Ambedkar also played a pivotal role in drafting India’s constitution and instituting in it equal rights for all citizens—irrespective of their caste or religion. B has been greatly influenced by Dr. Ambedkar’s scholarship and upholds his rejection of the Hindu caste system.

The temple, with all its stunning architecture and deities born of human imagination, soon receded from our consciousness. It was ironical yet appropriate for Ambedkar’s image to be placed close to a canon of the Hindu religion—a temple housing many of its popular figures. While Dr. Ambedkar’s egalitarian vision is yet to become a reality for the Dalits of India, it was heartening to know that Hyderabad’s Birla Temple is open to people of all religious faiths and social strata, including Dalits. Just as B found meaning in this visit, I was taken by the numerous street-side stalls selling vermilion, coconut, bangles, sacred red threads and an assortment of curios promising to please the temple gods. I am not too religious, but a profusion of colours and smells never fails to draw me in.

Birla Mandir was the last of our divine excursions. After this trip, I focused on setting myself up in a new house and exploring my new surroundings.

* * * * *

When I first stepped into my husband’s “flat” at “At Home Apartments” in the Kondapur neighbourhood of Hyderabad, it appeared to me to be a spruced-up version of a bachelor pad. There were just two rooms: a large bedroom and a smaller room that doubled as the sitting room and kitchen. Two single-seater sofas and a table completed the furniture in this room. For cooking, we had been provided with a microwave oven and a few utensils.

The spacious bedroom more than made up for any inadequacy of the sitting room-kitchen. The best part of this room was a large window right behind our bed. The view beyond this window—tracts of cultivated fields stretching into a limitless horizon, a few buffaloes grazing the land, the tent of a farmer who worked on his field, a small Hindu temple—magnetically allured me. Our flat was on the fifth floor, the top-most in the building, and because of its strategic proximity to the green expanse, it offered a rare panoramic view of open space—increasingly a rarity in Indian cities. Living on the top floor came with another reward—we were closest to the terrace above, where we would spend hours—lured, awed by and photographing winged wonders.

I would soon learn that one didn’t have to run to the terrace to enjoy bird-watching in Hyderabad. They were everywhere and in amazing diversity. Every morning, upon waking, we just had to look out of our window, and there they were—bee-eaters, parakeets, sparrows, doves, kingfishers, the ubiquitous crows and other unknown tribes. Seeing them hopping from one tree branch to another, collecting meals, chirping or just flying around for the sake of it, ensured that we never had anything other than good mornings.

During my years growing up in Delhi, the visibility of smaller birds like sparrows had gradually dwindled. In Delhi’s frightfully shrinking avian habitat, the survival of small members became increasingly threatened. So when I saw birds of different breeds and sizes happily grazing the Hyderabad skies together, my heart was aflutter.

What added to the joy was the existence of a small swamp a few meters away from our apartment. I strongly suspect this marshy patch brought me closer to B, as it revealed the wide-eyed-wondering bird-lover in him. We would routinely stop at this spot to watch egrets and herons, red-wattled lapwings and little cormorants making good use of the prized cool patch in the midst of newly-constructed skyscrapers that surrounded the marsh. Excited by our daily finds of new birds, we soon headed to a place that would make our wonder graduate to speechless amazement—the Hyderabad Zoo, definitely among the best in India and rivalling the likes of Australia’s Taronga Zoo.

The thrill of these discoveries notwithstanding, at home we still didn’t have a proper kitchen. And food still remained a primary necessity. Since the microwave wasn’t useful for much beyond making instant noodles, we had to scout for food sources outside. For our very first dinner as newlyweds, B took me to Hot Rottis, a small eatery perched on top of a shop in the nearby marketplace. The place offered a mix of south Indian and north Indian (mostly the latter) homemade food and no bells and whistles. For 45 rupees (less than a US dollar), you could have rice, lentils, two types of vegetables, yogurt, pickles, salad, a dessert, and, of course, the name of the shop—hot rottis—freshly made Indian whole-wheat flat breads. This joint catered well to serve the dietary needs of young people from North India, mostly IT professionals who were a long way away from home—geographically as well as in terms of food culture.

Hyderabad turned out to be a food heaven, not unlike the eastern Indian city of Kolkata. Like the latter, what makes Hyderabad a food lover’s delight is not just the mind-boggling heterogeneity of foods available, but the high affordability quotient—one could enjoy well-cooked, hearty meals with no substantial loss to one’s pocket. So while Hot Rottis and its rival Drumsticks sustained our daily dinner needs, a veritable culinary carousel would see the two of us hopping from one restaurant to another throughout the city.

For us, the best flavours were the ones that were exclusive to Hyderabad, no less associative than imposing structures such as Golconda Fort or Charminar. Two of these were desserts: the first double ka meethha—a pudding of bread, milk nuts and saffron. We found it on the menu of most restaurants, some that weren’t even serving food from any part of India. The other very Hyderabadi dessert, khubaani ka meethha, made B its life-patron with the very first tasting. Dried apricots concentrated into thick, syrupy sweetness, give the dessert the ambrosia of halwa and the lightness of fruit. A perfect dessert to share after all those meal mountains we had internalized, rather literally.

However, the greatest edible reward from Hyderabad was haleem—the signature dish that sweeps over the city’s collective tongue during the fasting month of the Muslim festival of Ramadan. Haleem is one of the many items served during iftaar—the breaking of the daily fast during Ramadan. The dish, however, tastes every bit as good even if one doesn’t fast before digging into it.

We discovered haleem on our way back from Golconda—the fort of many forts that makes one marvel at its grandeur: the stories of devotion, literally carved on its walls. Ram Das, a certain Hindu official at the court of the Muslim king Tana Shah, was imprisoned in Golconda Fort for misusing funds to build a Rama temple. Even in his despair, Ram Das’ devotion didn’t diminish. His carvings of Hindu deities Rama, Lakshman and Hanuman still remain on the walls of his prison.

Having traversed the fort’s enormous breadth and after climbing up and down its steep terrain on an appreciably warm day, it was relaxing to sit inside a taxi for the ride back home. Mid-way through our journey, B asked the driver if he knew where good haleem was served. “Sure, saab, I will take you there,” said the driver. Soon, we were in front of Pista House, arguably, the best haleem makers in the city. The two boxes of pounded wheat and mutton, stewed into a smooth paste, smothered with ghee and topped with fine ginger juliennes easily rank among the best things I’ve ever eaten. Haleem was also just what the doctor would have ordered after a long day of trekking through a fascinating yet inexorable fort.

In spite of the breathtaking sights, natural bounty and the scrumptious food, Hyderabad had its own contradictions. It seemed a place where the new nudged in to make its way beside the old.

The city appeared safe enough for young, single women to move around. At the same time, most women dressed conservatively. And while there was a steady inflow of IT-employed youth from other, more cosmopolitan cities, Hyderabad’s own youth remained reticent to profess love in the open. What else could explain the recurring clandestine rendezvous across the city? Cupid seemed to be on overdrive here, what with young couples snuggling up to each other the moment they found a moment. Or a suitable crevice.

We first spotted them in the lush, verdant botanical gardens, rich in flora of a flourishing variety, inviting birds of various stripes and songs. As well as hearts floating on air, above bodies swaying on the grass. The ingenuity and dedication of these wild young hearts was commendable. Inside bushes, behind a big tree, tucked away in alcoves, they bloomed as resplendently as the dahlias and daisies in the garden.

We also saw them at Durgam Cheruvu or the Secret Lake, a lake-forest spread over sixty-three acres. The lake remains deceptively true to its name. None of it is visible from the outside, and one has to walk a fair distance to enter the lake area. Inside, it’s a magical world, complete with pristine waters, hills and rocky formations, and recently installed art in the form of sculptures and rock art.

Just a few minutes before, B and I had been on a very urban road, and then, suddenly, we shared this space with the most enchanting butterflies; humming birds donning stunning yellow, electric blue hues, bulbuls; red-breasted lemon hibiscus; a blushing purple-pink gulmohar variety and other spell-inducing flowers; and even fruits like the pomegranate and the custard apple. As we wound our way through the rocks, we spotted many a dark, damp spots, sheltering insects, moss, the odd creeper. And the snuggled duos.

Climbing up, all the way to the top, we discovered the most stunning view of the green-gray lake. We also found hiking trails that scared me and thrilled B. Just when he had finally convinced me to climb down one, we saw a couple sitting right next to its base, behind the curtain of tree branches. We quietly retreated.

In Hyderabad, love abounded. As the Buddha’s compassion, as the co-existence of a structure of Brahminical Hinduism and its greatest critic, as the pigeons coo-cooing inside the magnificent ramparts of Charminar and the burqa-clad women buying flowers and bangles outside it, as the haleem slathered with ghee, as the apricots transformed into sugary sin, and as love birds, peeking, sometimes glaring, from crevices, hills, open markets. How could I have remained love-less here? In less than four months, I had been smitten. By B. And by Hyderabad.

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Bhaswati Ghosh is a writer and translator of fiction and non-fiction. Her stories have appeared in the non-fiction anthologies Letters to My Mother and My Teacher is My Hero. Her first work of translation from Bengali into English – In Conversation with Ramkinkar – will be published by Delhi-based Niyogi Books in 2011. This work also won her the Charles Wallace (India) Trust Fellowship for translation in 2009. Bhaswati has contributed to several websites (including ParabaasAsia WritesNotun Desh, and Chowk) and print magazines (Teenage Buzz, ByLine, and Cause and Effect). She blogs at: http://bhaswatighosh.com/.