Two events, one Freedom


Nirav remembers events around these two dates: June 6, 1944 and 1989.

Normandy landing 1944

June 6, 1944.

This Day in History, the United States and allied troops invaded Normandy and landed on my nearby beaches. It was the largest air, land, and sea invasion in history. The goal was to surprise Germany, but Germany was ready to fight, and it was the beginning of the end of World War II.

The weather conditions were perfect; it was misty, and the tide was low. Thirteen thousand bombs were dropped that morning, and 10’000 soldiers died.

One British bomb mistakenly fell on my grandfather and blew him apart in front of my dad, who was three then. Collateral damage it is called.

My dad has remained in shock ever since, and this is one of the many ways this event has affected my life.

I have always loved those wild and spacious beaches, especially at low tide when the sea is so far that you can’t see it – but you can smell and hear and feel it.

In my childhood, I loved to collect debris of bombs and unexploded grenades.

Today, I collect shells.

Tiananmen square

“Berlin Zoologischer Garten! Endstation!”

Yes! June 6 is also the day my train arrived in Berlin.

We are 1989, and it has been a long, long overland journey from India.

Now, sorry for the stretch, but let me bring you back a few weeks.

After four days and nights on a train from Urumqi, I arrived in Beijing. I had left Calcutta 3 months before. I had spent days on the roof of local buses up along the Indus River in Pakistan under the scorching April heat, had hung out in the most extraordinary Hunza region of Kashmir, crossed the Khunjerab pass by foot at almost 5000 meters, then entered China and the oasis town of Kashgar where I recovered from snow blindness in a welcoming Uyghur family.

The sun was rising as I walked out of the station.

During this last month in Western China the only news we had was from the English edition of the People’s Voice, a daily newspaper that we often got a week after it was published, and as I remember all was good and happy in this great country.

Stepping out of the train already something felt odd. I soon found out that there were no buses or subway, basically no traffic, demonstrating students everywhere, and that the huge six-lane streets were jammed with … bicycles! I can’t remember how it happened, and it does sound surreal today, but I got a bicycle here and then, sat on it with my pack on my back and off I was through the streets of Beijing looking for the cheapest guest house!

The cheapest Guest House I found was a 5-star hotel. On the top floor and overlooking Beijing with breath-taking views, was a restaurant under renovation, and there we could sleep on the red sofas and keep our luggage on the thick carpet between the tables. “We” included a few dodgy Polish businessmen and a bunch of hippies on the same trail as I was. We were all ultimately going to be on one of the Trans-Siberian trains that were running twice a week between Beijing and Moscow.

The tension in Beijing during that time, the energy on the streets, and the creativity people were showing was just something so outrageous, and that I have never experienced again. After about a week, I moved out of the restaurant and joined a group of students in one of their buses stationed in a corner of the great Tiananmen Square, where I was anyway spending most of my time.

We all hung out together, ate noodle soups, drank tea, and at night we all were working under a kerosene lamp at the back of the bus.

After so many weeks travelling on my own, I had found a family. We were smoking lots of Pollen, and everything and every breath were out of this world. I had little idea what this student revolution was all about, but I loved hanging out with those guys my age, I loved driving my bicycle for hours without holding the handlebar and get lost in this mind-blowing city, I loved the buzz, I loved the madness, and I loved being high.

I had no idea at the time that those very days in this particular square were going to be carved in history forever. Even more unthinkable that it would be carved with so much blood, the blood of those I had shared such precious moments with.

As far as I was concerned, and as far I understood, there was no sign that something terrible was going to happen any time soon; it sounded that the movement was picking up, that more and more were getting involved, that the government was going to fall and that victory was coming soon. Thousands of Chinese students had started a hunger strike on the pavement. The energy was rocketing, and it was just unbelievable!

I could easily have stayed an extra week, but on Sunday, May 28, 1989, I found for 30 dollars a trans-Siberian ticket on the black market and left that very evening. The trip to Berlin via Moscow would take nine days.

Only upon reaching Russia a week later did a newspaper find its way to the train. I remember staring at the picture on the front page. Tiananmen Square filled with tanks and corpses. In shock and denial, I was mumbling, “Where are all the people, where are my friends?”

Some survived, some were jailed, some were killed.

Those weeks of Freedom on the pavement of Tiananmen Square were an extraordinary time in history. A time that may never happen again. A time that impacted me in more ways than I understand, that changed the course of my life, and for which I am forever grateful.

Today I have a thought for those who lost their lives standing up for Freedom. In Normandy, in Tiananmen…


Nirav is a painter and writer.

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