Last updated on December 5, 2018
Out in the streets of Europe, there is a underground life where rebels without a cause recreate the swinging sixties
I have been backpacking to Europe, at least once a year, for the last six years. I meet friends and strangers, and lead a bohemian life, constantly on the move. I always feel, compared to India, the greatest crisis in Europe is that there isn’t any. Their life, food, social interactions and cities are fairly sanitised and organised. There’s no real challenge, all the existential needs are met to the extent that there few challenges left. The welfare state will not let anyone die in penury.
There’s no cause that can inspire and galvanise the youth. Though patriotism is a new excuse to hate immigrants who are conspicuous by their looks and mannerism, the only visible is the rise of the Right in the polity. In Germany, there have hardly been any demonstrations held in recent times, that can be described ‘popular’ but for a notable few against the neo-Nazis or by pro-Nazis, and in support of environment, or when Donald Trump visited the country.
While leading the life of a vagabond, I like to hang-out with the fringe. As someone rightly described, they are prone to ‘the dramatic outer display of what was once considered to be inner secrets.’ They’re creative, open to experiences, rebels-without-a-cause, confounded by the reality of their own making, outspoken and provocative, and have undergone a sort of personal revolution. And some of them, I’m sorry to say, are pathologically mean and self-centered. That is, however, reflective of what’s happening inside them in multifarious ways.
Walking down the streets of Prague, I could imagine Soviet tanks rolling down in 1968 to contain student unrest popularly known as the Prague Spring. I’m reminded of the post-war generation I have read so much about. The year when students all over the developed world orchestrated a sort of moral revolt fuelled, famously, by psychedelic drugs, for their own local set of reasons. Amongst their ranks were the rock stars, celebrity writers and poets, existentialists, people who made doping a cult spiritual awareness—plank bearers of the avant-garde and iconoclasts.
“I don’t believe they will calm down,” said William Burroughs, an author of repute, as “millions of young people all over the world are fed up with shallow unworthy authority running on a platform of bullshit.” This generation orchestrated a dramatic break from the past. It was their struggle that ensured a liberal environment in colleges and institutions of higher learning all over West.
Which is why, 50 years hence, when I’m soaking in cities, whether it’s Rome, Berlin, Amsterdam or Paris, I cannot get rid of this feeling: the youth should check their privilege. Though lately there’s heavy presence of armed guards, a certain paranoia has set in after various terror attacks. But, it doesn’t change the basic fact that they are privileged. Technology has permeated into day-to-day existence, revolutionising lifestyles, but it is a dampener as well. People are hooked on to something alien, and suffer from self-alienation. Yet some of them impersonate hippies, revelling in the belief that they are anti-Establishment.
In the absence of a rallying point, I felt, in this particularly crowded dingy gay bar in Berlin last summer, the alternative way of life is, at best, a popular fad. “The madness is tempered by vanity,” said Johannes, a 27- year-old writer waiting to be published. A native of Austria, he has travelled all over the world in the past five years. He claims to be an existentialist, not fascinated by anything in particular. He’s wearing his grandfather’s loose trousers and a tight turtle green coat with different buttons. The randomness in his outfit is precisely calibrated. There was a palpable uneasiness in his body language, he disappeared in the crowd without paying for his beer.
In European cities, there are venues where inhibitions are banned. People deal with each other in a fashion that a stiff-upper-lipped Englishmen would describe as ‘indecent.’ Entering the tall iron jail-like gates after paying an entry fee, which is affordable to even an Indian travelling on a shoestring, a cultural revolution ensues on a daily basis. The very presence of strangers tacitly encourages the taking of liberties. Curious souls come for a few hours, and end up staying the whole night. It’s a temporary commune, where people lead a primitive life, walk around wearing their nudity, they bathe, sauna, steam together in groups. Also, meditate and get intimate in the presence of others.
Sometimes prolonged conversations start at the bar-lounge were people are expected to wrap a towel, if it’s not one of those evenings when towels are prohibited in the drinking area. Some of the conversations I was privy to, were about the divided life of travesties, overwhelming presence of the police and security forces post terror attacks in various parts of Europe, resurgence of the Right.
There were some political folks in the commune. A majority of them were going to join demonstrations against the impending visit of the US president Donald Trump. He inspires so much hate that it’s not funny. I heard woman’s voice say ‘America deserve Trump’. A tall and slender German man with a muscular hairless body and a shiny balding scalp interjected to add, “What have we done to deserve (Angela) Merkel?” All in good humour.
A few beers down, this weary traveller, who’d been awake and on the move for more than 24 hours, is consumed by an unstoppable urge to close my eyes. I sleep while sitting, my head dangling. That day, when I force my eyes open, which could be after few minutes or a few hours, I saw people staring at my imprudence. They can tolerate being hated, but not being ignored. And when you walk out of those iron gates, the sanitised life of Western Europe grips you hard, and there’s no escape, unless you get back inside those iron gates.
Even in Delhi, I sometimes dream the bohemians are still out on the street till early dawn, sipping beer, smoking pot, opening doors of perception, waiting for the next revolution to happen.