I don’t know if his fans from around the world do this as well. But it is not unusual for a Viennese to now and then pack a picnic, board a train or bus, or drive down to Thal, the birthplace of Arnold Schwarzenegger.
That visitors want to travel to Thal is not at all surprising. Thal is a dream valley in the southern part of Styria, one of Austria’s four provinces. A tiny forest village from the 10th century, Thal is breathtakingly beautiful for its picturesque lake, a 13th century castle and an 18th century church that has been recently renovated in psychedelic style.
For Schwarzenegger fans, however, none of this matters. It is enough for them that the former governor of California was born here 65 years ago. They come to Thal to walk on the same earth and in the same steps of their beloved hero who is a former Mr Universe and Mr Olympia bodybuilding champion. According to a recent poll, Schwarzenegger is Austria’s most influential personality. He won 58 per cent votes beating Bruno Kreisky, the charismatic socialist head of state in post war Austria.
When Schwarzenegger’s double-floor home in Thal opened as a museum last year there was a stampede despite the autumnal chill and rainfall. The visitors flock to look at Schwarzenegger’s first bar bell amidst a thousand other memorabilia displayed at the museum. His metal bed from his teen years is there and also a dark wood desk from the time when he was the governor of California. Also very photographed is a bronze statue of the Hollywood actor.
When Schwarzenegger was back in Thal recently to shoot a documentary on his life, he delighted his fans by confessing that he was jailed for escaping his mandatory training in the Austrian army. He was 18 and had run away to Germany to take part in the junior Mr Europe contest. He made his young fans laugh when he said that his mother suspected him of being gay. Unlike other boys, she noticed that her son had pasted posters only of men around the walls of his room.
The documentary film, and Total Recall, an autobiography, will be released in October. On my visit to Thal, I could not help but admire the way Austria uses money, time and energy in maintaining so many museums. Keeping the past alive is to know where you come from -- this is the motto in Europe.
There are so many beautiful monuments and museums in Austria that it seems archeological sites and archives outnumber the population of about eight million people. In comparison, Indians seem disinterested in documenting the past. Whatever archives, libraries, museums and monuments we have today seem more in imitation of the western way of life than a result of our own passion. Only till a few decades ago much of our history was written by non-South Asian scholars. Are our dusty, moth-eaten, neglected collection of files and books a testimony to our indifference towards history?
Perhaps cultures that bury their dead are able to preserve their past better. Museums and monuments are a result of those who value the past and hold the previous precious. There are cultures that believe that this life holds meaning only if it is spent in preparing for another life sometime and somewhere in the future. These cultures preserve the past as a lesson taught by ancestors on how they can best prepare themselves in this life for an even more happy and prosperous life in some next life.
In South Asia, the tradition is to cremate the dead and to scatter the identity of the individual into air, water and earth. The general attitude is that the only moment that matters is here and now. What we were before our birth we do not know and where we will go after death is also unknown. Both history and matters of the future are reduced to little more than a smirk. That is why perhaps there is the Indian Standard Time reputation enjoyed by Indians around the world. There is belief in and praxis of a certain timelessness in South Asia even as many adorn watches and try to live according to the dictates of a clock.
Does that explain our lukewarm attitude towards our past, our history and the utter neglect of our archives, libraries and museums? You tell me.