Eventually, the only explanation I could find for the despair the city dredged up in me clicked into place: Berlin, post-partition Berlin, was younger than I was. Four years younger, to be precise, which meant that a vast number of people in the city carried the memory of when and where their city had been divided. They held that demarcation within themselves, a hidden knowledge. Perhaps some raw nerve in me had been tapped by, or tapped into, this.
Every day that I was in Berlin, I woke up and wept and wept and dragged myself out of the attic room my friend Nawaaz had generously let me stay in during his own summer in the city. I had to fill the hours somehow, so that I would not collapse, so I did everything. I consumed beauty and pillage in museum after museum; admired the verdigris that crowned the architecture; pronounced currywurst to be unimpressive – like any tourist. Puzzled by my state, Nawaaz was extraordinarily kind, taking time away from his own plans for me. We went to a gorgeous Afro-Cuban musical performance and drank – oh, I wish I remembered what it was; in those nights I never imagined I would ever stop raising liquor to my lips. We went to the Philharmonic and listened to a youth orchestra. We went to Potsdam with another friend, where we walked improbable distances and I posed with sunflowers twice my height on Friendship Island (bless the act of portrait-taking, the act that stakes a claim to be seen, to scratch one’s presence in a moment into a tangible surface; when I see that photo now, I not only think “I was there”, but also, “I am still here.”). New and old acquaintances took me under their wing: took me boating on a lake, filled the seats at the table where I blew out the candle on my birthday cake that year, told me fantastic stories from their own lives and travels, eased those hours for me. I avoided the Holocaust memorial. I couldn’t risk that fragmentation.
I was in the throes of a mental health crisis, and perhaps it heightened my sensitivity to the place, to its underpinnings. Yet Berlin was followed by a few days all alone in Paris, when I was nothing if not suffused with light. It was that respite that convinced me that the older ruptures in Berlin and the newer ruptures in me had spoken to one another. But empathy is not trauma, as overwhelming as it can be to experience it.
This weekend marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I had visited its remains, now a gallery of murals, and gotten my passport stamped with the motif of a standing bear at Checkpoint Charlie. Seven years since that trip, I turn my theory around in my head. Is there every really a clean selvage between self and situation? I do not blame Berlin for the bewilderment I felt. I am grateful it showed me that I had been unwell. I send love to its invisible borders, place my warm palm on them, somewhere in the ether.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 14th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.