A Nordic summer

Life's many journeys

A Nordic summer

From laying roads in Norway to teaching mentally-challenged children,
M BHAKTAVATSALA travels down memory lane to write about being a part of summer work camps during his student days in the UK...

When I set out in the mid-50s as a student in the UK, I had little knowledge of Geography and less money, thanks to severe Foreign Exchange restrictions. Both these impediments were mitigated largely by getting out of the country on every holiday, with the twin purposes of seeing the world and making money. The obvious course open then was the National Union of Students-organised work camps across Europe and reaching from one place to the other by hitchhiking! I did just that, year after year, come Christmas, summer, Easter and any other time I could get away.

For my untutored eyes, every prospect was daisy fresh and I had chosen the furthest point habitable towards the Arctic! I had not known what fjords were when I reached Bergen in Norway, and took a slow boat dropping people and packets from fjord to fjord heading straight north till we reached the longest inhabited fjord. The two others still north were always covered with ice. Well, a fjord is quite simply the sea making deep inroad into the land, and this one, Sognefjorden, was 125-miles-long with the maximum depth of 4,291 feet. The average width was 2.8 miles.

Cultural shock

I had chosen to work at the furthest end in a landlocked village called Feios. Communication with the outside world being difficult in the 1950s, no wonder no one in that village had ever sighted a foreigner — leave alone a ‘coloured’ one. The others were all girls and boys barely out of teens, like me, but mostly orphaned and abandoned in post-World War Europe and generally dying for closer human contact. That kind of created a magnetic circle around me though many could hardly speak English. Our work was tough — building a road connecting Feios with Fresvik some 15 km away. Days were strenuous but nights were fun.

Feios was charged with excitement at our arrival and the two weeks passed with us being fed and fawned over by every family of blonde, blue-eyed beauties. The days began early when we set out with our tools digging up a road in rocky mountain country with a short break for sandwiches, continued till almost dusk, but then dusk never came! So far up north we were, the daylight lingered on till almost midnight, and hence our rest time was just fun and frolic and little sleep. On off days, we would take a cruise out on the fjord visiting equally remote landlocked villages to their wondrous delight of seeing strangers — a ‘coloured’ one to boot. A real find was a museum of old Norsks in Hermansverk. They ‘slept’ sitting up in war gear, in a huge wooden chair — ready to repulse attacks!

It’s amazing how true and fast our relationships became that not only did we keep in touch long after that summer, but planned to meet at other work camps too. However, when I returned to Europe a decade later, I found they were all scattered in search of a better life, mostly in the US.

Incidentally, the road we started got completed only in 1971, almost 15 years later, a distance of 15 km from Feios to Fresvik!

Teaching & preaching

The next work camp was a far cry from physical labour. It was much more. Some 50 km away from Stockholm by the Baltic Sea is Jarna, home of a Rudolf Steiner Institute for mentally challenged children. I hadn’t heard of Steiner before, so I boned up as much as I could and joined the institute. Steiner was a German philosopher who had founded the Anthroposophical Society in 1913. The tenet of the society was that behind the material world revealed by our senses, there lies a super sensible world which is accessible by simple training, leading to an inner world of alternative reality. He had walked out of the Theosophical Society which he had headed when a 14-year-old Indian boy called Jiddu Krishnamurthy was anointed as his successor in 1909. He had sought to distance himself from the ‘oriental’ thought though he ultimately spouted his own ‘Karmic Theory’.

The class consisted of three groups of children. Two groups were headed by two Americans who were doing their doctoral thesis on abnormal psychology. I was assigned a group as I had studied psychology in college, but more importantly, I suspect, because I was an ‘oriental’.

The day began early from waking up my group, cleaning and dressing them up. Thereafter, I took care of them from dawn till dusk, monitoring them and guiding them through ‘classes’. The classroom had one side covered with a huge painting of a sunrise flooding green and watery expanse. The other side was of bold and brazen colours. The group was directed to gaze at the paintings alternately to the accompaniment of music, alternately soothing and disturbing. This was part of the exercise to awaken their hidden powers to reach their souls beyond the senses.

On off days, I would take them to the fields and walk them around flowered trees. Even while I worked to clear the area around the trees by cutting off wild growth, the children followed me watching, and sometimes trying to help me.

The leader of the centre was Nina Bergstrom. At the end of the two weeks, she declared that of the three groups, mine had progressed more satisfactorily. Probably because of the ‘oriental touch’!

Today, Jarna is an internationally famous centre of Anthroposophy with the Erik Asmussen Culture Centre voted the second best liked modern building in Sweden in 2001.

From manual labour near the Arctic to minding children near the Baltic, I had my fill of Scandinavia. So, I stood waiting for a lift on the highway to the South. A car stopped. A young man and his wife were intrigued by my colour. “Where are you from?” “India.” “Wow! Where are you going?” “Seville. To work as a guide in Alhambra”. “Hop in.” And away we went.

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