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1959: My 'lonely' Christmas in war-ravaged Germany
In June 1959, three of us fresh engineers from India arrived in Germany, to join a technical behemoth. Germany and its firms were still in the process of rebuilding a shattered nation. One saw well known historical landmarks lying shattered in rubbles.

Running water was in short supply. If a hotel indeed had running water in the pipes, then it was boldly mentioned at its entrance. 'Mit fliessendem Wasser'' (With running water), the poster proudly proclaimed, otherwise, one had to make do with water in enamel tubs and mugs. Having been a NCC cadet back home, I was sort of used to it.

After arrival, we plunged into learning German language for eight weeks at the Goethe Institute, which nestled in a picturesque Bavarian alpine setting. Our class teacher, Frau Stier told us, that to quickly be able to socialise with German youngsters, it was helpful to know swimming and to acquire a German dictionary with long hair! Unfortunately, I neither swam nor did I have a blonde German girlfriend. Nevertheless, eight weeks later I ended up winning the coveted Goethe Award. An American priest and I used to be neck to neck in the weekly tests. There was suspense, when both of us ended having the same total. There was speculation among students and teachers alike about who would carry the award.

When Dr Glaubitz, the institute director announced that Shyam Saksena was the winner, he explained that I had edged out because of my extra-curricular activities. For I had in my broken German given two slide shows of my colour shots of 'India the Incredible'. Other foreign students and the German teachers were suitably awe struck, for no one else had bothered to do anything except chatting and other time passes. This has been my life's mantra: In whatever you do, go beyond the routine and walk that extra mile! Add value to life and work, even when it is not expected of you!

Also before breakfast and in the evenings, my yoga contortions on the green lawns of the institute intrigued everyone.  Way back in 1959, yoga was not so common and regarded as a curiosity. It was banned in USSR! Half of the students thought that I was sort of a mystic eastern fakir. The other half took me for what I really was - a prankster! In Pilani too, our principal continuously used to warn me of my campus-wide pranks.

Bye the bye, word went around that I was also a fortune teller and read palms.  So one by one, including my class teacher, all came with outstretched palms, to know what destiny held for them.  In ambiguously worded pronouncements, I assured them that a glorious future awaited them! Doling out this sort of mystic bunkum, they held me in higher esteem. Oh, human frailty! How gullible art thou!!!

By the time we were settling down to the German way of life, work and language, we were also struggling to survive with the blandness of their food. My mother regularly airlifted parcels of masalas and snacks, to add some life and flavour to our pitiable culinary condition. Otherwise, we were very comfortably housed in centrally heated company hostel in Nuremberg.

Before we realised, Christmas was fast approaching. Suddenly all shops and establishments and streets were being decorated for Xmas. Santas, their snow-sledges, jingles-bells and carol singers were ushering in the Christmas spirit. With long dark days of winter advancing, the Xmas bright decorations, stood out even more to highlight the festive spirit.

Unlike other festivals, Xmas in Germany is a very private family affair. The foreigner or any outsider may pass time strolling the brightly lit up shops and roads, or hear the carol singers pass by. But there are very few Germans to give you company, for they all rush to their parental homes, to celebrate Christmas Eve and attend the midnight mass. (Things may have changed, since my days.)

It was during this lonely Xmas period, that two of us Indians and a Finnish lady trainee found ourselves having dinner at the 'Bijou' restaurant. We went there, for it was known for its excellent live music. We took our place chatting among ourselves, each one of us privately mulling our lonesomeness, when there was festivity all around us.

Now my story starts:

The people in the restaurant were wining, dining and dancing to strains of soulful numbers. We were just having animated talk about humdrum things. Suddenly, the bandmaster announced the 'Damenwahl' - This is when a lady approaches a gentleman and asks for the next dance.

Across the floor a young couple and their child were dining. On announcement of 'Damenwahl', the lady got up and surprised me by walking over and asking for the next dance. I graciously got up, bowed towards her husband and started dancing the foxtrot with her. I enjoy dancing of all sorts and two successive years, I won the best dancer's award at my company's annual Fasching carnival dance.

To cut the matter short, this is what the lady told me. In Germany on TV and radio and in the papers, it was being pointed out that every Xmas season thousands of foreigners are lonely, as most Germans were heading home for Xmas Eve. The advertisements requested that each German family invite a foreigner overnight, so that they too could savour the Xmas Eve, in the warmth of  a German home: The Christmas tree, children's excitement at opening the gifts, the glow of the fireplace, the singing of hymns and carols, the dinner and the Christmas cake, and carol singing and the rest! Well, its jingle bells all the way!

It turned out, that this couple was no ordinary one. The husband was a football hero, who played for FC Bayern, the famous football club. They took me and my friends home and after a couple of hours of hospitality, they dropped us back at our hostel.

Few days later, they called and invited me to come with them to their village, to celebrate Xmas Eve with the grandparents. I readily agreed to celebrate with them, at their peasant parents' farm house. Inside the house, the glow and warmth of the fireplace of a farm family appeared to be straight out of a Christmas greeting card! Particularly, the look of expectancy on the face of the children waiting to open their gifts!

While my German benefactors led a good lifestyle in their Nuremberg home, their parent's farm house stood in contrast. This was Germany of 1959, and their farm had no running water. Water had to be hand-drawn from the well and for toilet, men went to the fields. Today, the same Germany has an unmatched living standard and when it comes to any financial crisis in Europe; it always rises as the saviour!

Every Xmas time, I remember my German friends who invited me, a total stranger to their home and became my lifelong friends. Whenever the Indian community celebrated Independence Day or any of our festivals, they keenly came to get a glimpse of what for them was an exotic, mystic land! They have even seen me dancing and singing.

 'Mere Joota Hai Japani. Patloon Inglistani. Sar pal lal topi Rusi, Phir bhi dil hai Hindustani'!

'Think global. Act local', they say!

(Inset photo shows author at the age of 28, participating as Red Indian (sorry, as Native American!), at my company's annual Fasching carnival dance.)

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