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Shyam 's Story > Chapters > My Entire Life

Witness to Cold War in Berlin and how Hindi film music saved us’ 

Date Range: 1960 To 1961   Comments: 0 Views: 441
Attachments: Yes [1 Images]    

We three young Siemens trainees arrived in West Berlin in 1960, at the height of Cold War. The Russian premier Nikita Khrushchev had just broken up a summit conference in Paris, after announcing that the Russians had shot down an American U2 spy plane and captured its pilot. In the conference, at his boorish best, he took off his shoe and banged it on the table. Next day, the infamous photograph showing him thumping his shoe, was splashed all over the papers. From Paris he flew to East Berlin, threatening to sign the Peace Treaty directly with the East Germans. All thought that war was imminent. There was tension in both West and East Berlin. We decided to go to the other side and see how things were in the Orwellian East. We did manage to reach the East Berlin airport and see the feisty Khrushchev alight from plane, flashing his clenched fist. I did manage to also take a fuzzy picture of him. We feared the worst and were worried, as we did not want to be a part for another war-torn Europe. But curiosity got the better of us and after Khrushchev left for Moscow, we decided to venture into East Berlin again. Those days as a cold war irritant, the West German government used to encourage visitors to East Berlin to exchange money at an unofficial rate, which gave us four times the value in East German Marks. These exchange kiosks along the border were set up by the West. With this kind of money we felt rich and could eat out at the best restaurants in the East, a luxury which very few East Berliners could afford. So all visitors entering from West Berlin were suspect of carrying money at the unofficial rate and shadowed, particularly when entering any of the communist version of posh eating places. If caught, then one was thrown out or worse. We gingerly drove up our battered Volkswagen to the notorious and heavily guarded crossing point, Checkpoint Charlie. The grim East German soldiers looked very Gestapo-like and checked our car inside out, and also under the chassis. Equally grimly they waved us on. West Berlin had been resurrected from the war rubbles and was bustling with prosperity and excitement. Jazz in the night clubs was the rage. Apart from locals and American and British occupation soldiers, the clubs were also full of tourists. In contrast, East Berlin was practically lifeless with deserted streets and Stalinist architecture on both sides. All over the city, red banners assured us that we were in a paradise for the proletariat, designed by Marx, Engel and Lenin! However, we could never shrug off the feeling, that we were being followed. In pairs, the state police shadowed everyone. We had nothing to fear, as we were not on some James Bond mission. However, I had a deadly weapon with me, my camera. Photographing public buildings or any uniformed personnel, was enough to land one in jail. Just like Japanese tourists, I hate to leave a place without taking some shots. But there was not the slightest chance. Everyone was watched and every building was a public building. Suddenly on the other side of the road we saw a group of uniformed Russian soldiers, in a boisterous mood. Obviously they had come to holiday in one of their colonies. Their leader shouted at us, “Indianski?” I shouted back, “Ja!” This was enough for them to cross over and surround us. One of them started playing his accordion and all danced, singing in their thick Russian voices, ‘Awara hoon, Awara hoon!’ We also joined and sang lustily in the spirit of ‘Hindi Russi, bhai bhai!’ There was no common language between us. But the Awara song and dance number had established a bonding. Their leader took out his camera and asked all of us to pose together, arm in arm. Encouraged, I also took out my camera and shot the group. As we together roamed for the rest of the day, I took pictures of East Berlin to my heart’s content. With Big Brother by my side I had nothing to fear. Even today, when I look at those fading photos of East Berlin, particularly of my beaming Russian comrades, I thank Raj Kapoor for making my day! Little had we realised that of the two most popular Indians in Russia, viz. Pandit Nehru and Raj Kapoor, Raj Kapoor was by far the most popular and recognised Indian. Russians hummed songs from his movies, without knowing their meaning. At that moment in East Berlin, we basked in this reflected glory! Our fears had vanished. Back in the centrally heated cosiness of my room in West Berlin, I wrote an excited account of this serendipitous encounter, to my parents. My father was clearly furious. He did not approve of my snooping behind the Iron Curtain. On second thought, I should have written the letter to Raj Kapoor, instead! It would have gladdened his heart! Photo Caption: The author with Russian soldiers in East Berlin, at the height of Cold War. Normally, photographing any personnel in uniform behind the Iron Curtain was an offence, which could land one in jail.

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With Russian Soldiers in East Berlin
During period of camaraderie between India and Rus


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