Obscure side of the moon
The Statesman 19 May 2013 (8th Day Supplement)
Martin Kämpchen looks back on 40 years in India
WHEN I travel by train from, say, Bolpur to Howrah, often people accost me asking, “How do you like India? How many days are you here already?” I reply in Bengali that I have long stopped counting the days. “I am in India since 40 years.” The reaction I receive always frustrates me. Rather than erupting in delight about a white-skinned foreigner staying on in their country for so long, most fellow-travellers gape at me in disbelief.
“Forty years? That is a very long time!”
“Indeed,” I reply, laconically. “Do you think I am overstaying?”
Only after that question do my interlocutors resume their welcoming mode of conversation, common to most Bengalis. But I do not blame them for their reaction. My life’s journey has not been the normal kind. It is difficult to understand how somebody from Europe who could have had a comfortable life with a career as an academician or a journalist and writer would stay on in India beyond a few years. Those who do stay, mostly women, marry and start a family. Others are associated with a company or a university and do business or teach. But somebody who, like me, has never been married nor employed, neither in Europe nor in India, and never has held any academic position, to stay on as a freelancing writer, translator and cultural journalist, is, indeed, strange.
Often I do not understand myself. How did it happen? It was certainly not planned that way. And it was not at all easy to tread this path. It needed sacrifices on the personal and professional levels, patience and strength to persevere. Yet, I have never regretted having spent almost my entire adult life in India. I cannot imagine another life but the one I have lived… But let me start from the beginning.
It will surprise readers that coming to India has not been a dream come true. As a school-going boy, I desperately wanted to visit Africa. I read books on West and East Africa and befriended students from Nigeria, Ghana and Liberia. When I was just 13, a Goethe-Institut was opened in my German hometown of Boppard, which is situated on the Rhine river overlooking a majestic bend with vineyards and woods spread on its slopes.
The Goethe-Institut — called Max Mueller Bhavan in India — invites students from all over the world to study German. Most of them arrived directly from their country and, in the beginning, felt lost and lonely in Boppard. So I stepped in, showing them the post-office, bank and bookshop, aided them in their studies and helped them to move on to study at a German university which had been their aim. Their mentality suited me, their stories fascinated me and a great longing to visit their country overpowered me.
Obviously, in the 1960s it was impossible for a student to fly to Africa without financial assistance. Although my father was the principal of the Secondary School and College (a gymnasium) in Boppard, he could not have afforded to gift me such a trip. He rather sent me, repeatedly, to England and France, mostly as an exchange student, to learn English and French. Consequently, I had to wait until I enrolled at the university to fulfill my aspiration.
Every year, a government-subsidised organisation (called Asa) sent a group of competent German students, after a rigorous selection process, to a number of Third World countries. For three months, these young men and women studied the society of their respective guest country, made contacts with academic institutions and development agencies and then returned with a deeper understanding of these countries’ cultural wealth and economic needs.
I was in my very first semester at the University of Saarbrücken when I applied for a travel grant to Nigeria. I prepared myself studiously and was selected. Then something unexpected happened. A tribal war broke out in Nigeria, the infamous Biafra War. One evening, I received a phone call from the director of the donor organization informing me that the group of students destined for Nigeria could not proceed. Its members had to be distributed among the remaining groups. The director asked me, “To which country do you want to go instead?”
I remember standing in a telephone booth (private phones were still rare) and spontaneously saying that one word which changed my life — “India”. I do not know why I said “India”. At that time I had no Indian friends and had read little about India. I had only studied, intensely, Mahatma Gandhi’s theory and the practice of non-violence. There was a reason for this: I had applied for the status of a “Conscientious Objector”.
German youth were drafted into the army at 18 because military service was then still compulsory. But I objected to serve in the army because this was the same as agreeing to carry a weapon and be ready to kill in the event of a war. The German government provided an alternative service for objectors like me (in hospitals, old-age homes and kindergartens, for example), but before being recognised as a conscientious objector, the applicants had to appear before a tribunal of the defence ministry and prove the genuineness of their conviction.
Gandhi’s writing helped me to clarify my position. Many young objectors were not accepted. Some just wanted to get around the drudgery of military service. I prepared myself carefully, reading Mahatma Gandhi so as to present valid arguments against war and violence. My parents and my teachers opposed my decision, but I persevered and was given the status of a Conscientious Objector. This was before the beginning of the Vietnam War, during which the opposition to violence became much more widespread in Germany and other Western countries. This, then, had been my only connection with India. But once I had said “India”, I began preparing myself for the three-month study tour with gusto.
When we, a group of five students, arrived in Bombay in the summer of 1971, we spent the first night in a decrepit hotel to which the taxi-driver had taken us from the airport. After taking a shower in the evening my skin began itching from the sultry weather. It felt as if a horrible disease was creeping across my body. I thought I would not live to see the next day. Well, I did, and a few days later the group shifted to the home of an upper-class gentleman with whom we had established contact before our departure. The soft-footed servant boy impressed me. The dignified splendour prevailing in that majestic flat, which shut off all the noises and smells of the city, dazzled me. Yet, I wanted to take in all the noises and smells! I craved to see and hear and touch it all. It was a delight to take the crowded suburban trains or the buses, to walk with hundreds of others on the roads. People stopped me to ask questions, and I replied, walked into their houses, made quick friendships and was ensnared and thrilled by the utter directness, simplicity and openness of communication.
In Europe, I had experienced the guarded and subdued manner of communication, tied to a number of rules, and was innocently unaware that any other manner was also viable. I realized that such immediacy of connecting with others was really what I had longed for. Much later, when I began to live in India, I also understood the negative side of such spontaneity – the invasion of privacy, the nagging omnipresence of people and noises.
After 10 days in Bombay, I said goodbye to the other members of my group as I needed to travel alone to sense the pulse of Indian life. I travelled in a third class train compartment to Kolkata. This meant living in the same compartment with a few dozen people for two days and two nights. What better education in Indian life can one think of!
I arrived at Howrah station with a fistful of addresses. First, I put up with the family of a high-ranking police officer whose brother I had met in Germany. After a week, I shifted to the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture. Its founder, Swami Nityaswarupananda, was in charge. I had brought with me a letter of introduction by the son of the famous German philosopher (and friend of Rabindranath Tagore), Count Hermann Keyserling. I had met Arnold Keyserling and his wife in Vienna, had told them of my impending visit to India and they dispatched me with introductions and rich blessings. Through him, I also established contact with the family of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose and his circle.
It was the time Kolkata was plagued by the Naxalite onslaught. I was warned and admonished not to move around alone and not to walk on empty and dark roads. But I could not care less, because I saw no danger. Everybody was so friendly and welcoming! In fact, I never faced any trouble.
From Kolkata I travelled south – to Madras, Cochin, Quilon, Trivandrum, Kanyakumari. Then to Hyderabad, Bangalore, Coimbatore, back to Madras and to Kolkata. All by train and bus, staying mostly with families and in ashrams of the Ramakrishna Mission. After spending a few more days in Kolkata, I proceeded to Varanasi and Delhi and from there returned to Europe. While revisiting my new friends in Kolkata, I already promised them that I would be back. They may have put this down as the ramblings of an over enthusiastic youngster, but Swami Nityaswarupananda offered me the post of a German teacher and I was confident that I would keep my promise.
I have often tried to describe the initial impact India had on me, and each time I have to struggle which words to choose. I had grown up in two different places in Germany, had travelled to England and France with my parents and alone; almost each year we spent our vacation in northern Italy, which is my maternal grandmother’s birthplace. Further, I had been a student in Vienna, the USA and Paris before arriving in India. So I arrogantly felt that I had “seen it all”. Yet, the “otherness” of India struck me hard. And instantly its reality resonated within me. I realised that in India another side of my being, which I had not known in Europe and America, which was hidden from myself, now came into the open. In a way, I became a complete human being after I encountered India.
I, therefore, liken the experience of India to the discovery of the obscure, hidden half of the moon. We look at the illuminated shape of the moon and unthinkingly confirm, “This is the moon!” We are not conscious of the fact that the reverse side of the moon exists as well. Likewise, my experiences in Europe and the USA constituted to me “the moon”, until I realised the reverse side while travelling in India.
Rather than just staying back and plunging headlong into Indian life, I was, however, clear in my mind that I had first to return to Europe to complete my studies. Remember, this was the time of the Hippie movement and the Flower Children culture. Many young men and women swept into India to lose themselves in their fantasy India, destroying the bridges to their home country behind them. This option never tempted me. I saw no reason to reject European culture and my Christian upbringing. I always sought of enriching my personality with India, which then should reflect in my work as well. I never saw the need to choose the one to the exclusion of the other.
In Vienna, I completed my doctoral thesis in modern German literature on the “Depiction of Cruelty and Inhuman Acts in the Literature of the First and Second World War”. The topic was clearly influenced by my choice of being a pacifist. In January 1973, I was ceremoniously handed over my doctorate. In April, I was on my way back to India. I assumed a teaching post at Gol Park and, accepting Swami Lokeswarananda’s kind invitation, I lived at the Ramakrishna Mission Ashrama at Narendrapur.
Now I began to realise that visiting India as a guest and living in India were two different modes of existence. As a guest, I was always treated as the atithi narayan, the “guest who is to be treated like God”, extolled by Hindu scripture. I was fussed over, I felt loved, felt important. In no other country have I come across such sincere and vibrant hospitality. Yet, living and working in India meant that I had to integrate myself with the society around me and that the society allowed me to get integrated. I was eager to accomplish my part.
The deciding factor
The Statesman 26 May 2013 (8th Day Supplement)
In a wrap-up to 40 years spent in India, Martin Kämpchen is hopeful that his sojourn will make a genuine intellectual contribution to the country
I HAD arrived in Kolkata with the intention of spending a year or two before returning to Germany and starting a “proper” profession. I wanted to be a journalist and had already received an offer. Instead, I stayed on in the city for three-and-a-half years and then decided to become, again, a student. While at Narendrapur, I had all day to read and reflect and meditate because my classes at Gol Park were in the evening. I studied the Hindu and Christian scriptures, ancient and modern, ploughed through works of world literature. Then I yearned to understand all that I had read on India in a more systematic and complete way, hence my wish to return to university.
I enrolled at Madras University for an MA in Indian Philosophy. Indian Jesuit fathers invited me to live in their institute. For three years I studied in there, travelled extensively in the south and began working as a writer, translator and journalist for German publications.
One should have thought that after my MA it was high time to return home. I had worked and studied in India and travelled extensively. About seven years had elapsed, and I had crossed 30. Yet I still felt I had not fully uncovered the hidden face of India. I was unable to leave, although my father generously offered to sponsor me for advanced studies in Europe. I might have stayed in south India because I was quite enamoured especially by Kerala. But one consideration prompted me to return to West Bengal. I urgently wanted to learn an Indian language. Foreign languages do not come easily to me. With English, French and Latin, I thought my capacity for learning languages had been exhausted. Therefore, while I was unsure whether I would stay on in India much longer, I had hesitated to shoulder the burden of learning an Indian language.
During my last few months at Narendrapur, a college student had given me a taste of Bengali. Conversing with acquaintances in Tamil Nadu, in Karnataka and Kerala who had, playfully, taught me a smattering of their mother tongues, I clearly realised they were excruciatingly difficult to pronounce. Bengali came to me more readily, perhaps because of its stronger influence from Indo-Germanic languages. This was the deciding factor for me to return to West Bengal. Yet, I hesitated to again make Kolkata my base because I became afraid of this rapacious moloch of a city. I never have been a city person, having grown up in a small town. So I explored Santiniketan as a possibility and my endeavour was immediately crowned by success. Thus, from December 1979 I started to make Santiniketan my residence — and I still live there after 33 years.
Life at Santiniketan
Now the actual work of integration began. No longer was I under the care of monks, Hindu or Christian, shielding me from society at large. Entirely on my own, I had to face the rough and tumble of staying in Bengali society without the privileges a guest can claim.
My entry into Santiniketan had been effortless. Within two weeks I had a suitable accommodation at Purva Palli in the outhouse of Dr Moni Moulik, who became my mentor. With a recommendation in hand, I had, on my first day, approached Professors Ashin Das Gupta and Uma Das Gupta, a brilliant historian couple and two exceptional persons. They decided it would be best for me to meet Professor Kalidas Bhattacharya, renowned philosopher and former Visva-Bharati vice-chancellor, with the request to be my doctoral guide.
Without much ado, they packed me into their old black car and took me to Kalidasda, who received us with kindness and, then and there, decided to accept me as his PhD student. Due to his influence, the process of registration was uncomplicated and swift.
Without delay, I began my research. I wanted to compare the life of two saints, one Hindu and one Christian, and chose Sri Ramakrishna and Francis of Assisi, the iconic 13th century Italian saint. I began my study of the Bengali language immediately and finally read all five volumes of the Sri Ramakrishna Kathamrita in the original, which I considered a requirement for my research.
Even though I began another course of study, I was not a typical student. Already I had a PhD. I was not a stipend-holder. Instead, in Madras I had begun to earn my livelihood from my writing and my translations. While in the south, I had already translated a book on India from French to German and brought out two anthologies. A German weekly made me its India correspondent. I tried to be sincere and professional about my work, and toiled strenuously to build up a base from which I would, on various levels, report and comment to the German public on Indian cultural and religious matters. I was less interested in strictly academic studies meant for a limited academic readership; rather, I pursued the kind of essay writing which has an academic base, yet appeals to a broader spectrum of educated people.
In Germany, there is an established culture of freelance writing. Privatgelehrte (private scholars) are respected because they give themselves up entirely to their research and writing, living, often quite inadequately, entirely on their publications and lectures. This they prefer to becoming a university professor with all the enormous prestige and pecuniary advantage as well as the encumbrances and unwanted diversions this job entails. Further, Germany has the institution of freie Schriftsteller, “free” writers. “Free” means they have shunned any kind of employment to be free to pursue their art.
In India, we have no such tradition. A gifted and intelligent man or woman with good marks from the university will invariably go for chakri. Those who fall short of getting employment will be considered failures. Business is a second option. So when I slowly grew older and still remained at Santiniketan, people probably assumed I had failed to get adequate work in Germany and was just hanging on in India.
The truth is that during my annual home visits I have not once applied for a job; rather, I rejected several offers. More than most other values, freedom has been a motivating force. But wanting freedom also meant remaining unsupported, unprotected, without prestige. For decades, my writing had been only in German, so hardly anybody in India was able to read my essays, my fiction and my translations. I could expect neither criticism nor appreciation.
Being seen as a “failed” person at Santiniketan had its regrettable consequences. I realised that a person without a position, without a designation to his/her name receives scant respect. People in the academic community did not know where to place me. Many probably viewed me as a “life-long student”. In the first two years, I diligently met professors and other residents of Santiniketan in their homes and we had rewarding discussions. But even after visiting them three or four times, they would never return my visit, or send me a note, or contact me by other means. At best, they deigned to come when they needed something – an address, a piece of advice on Germany, a translation, a recommendation. It became one-way-traffic. I realised to my dismay that most people tried to make me their sishya, putting themselves up as my guru. But this was not the kind of integration I was looking for. I went out in search of friendship, of stimulating discourse, of collaborative work for the enrichment of cultural and social life in Santiniketan and West Bengal.
I became painfully conscious of the fact that family matters most in this country. To have a father or uncle or mother or elder brother who, in some way, did something important or was the friend of somebody important, mattered. My dear father, who died in 1987, had been a respected college principal with several books to his credit – but that, of course, meant little to people in Santiniketan. I was just being myself.
No matter how close I became to my friends, no matter how much I supported them, their own families would always rank first. Having no family in India, I was often left out.
There were and still are notable exceptions, people who had the modesty to see me as an equal and engaged me in intellectual discussion. But on the whole, alas! I failed to make the academic community my own. I admit that I felt hurt. By now, the wound has healed, I am engrossed in my intellectual and creative pursuits in my room, in writing and reading. My social contacts are on the whole confined to the cordial interaction with the Santhal community in the villages around Santiniketan. (In this essay I do not touch on my work among them.) During winter and spring, numerous guests come to Santiniketan to interact with me; many also visit my village friends. Besides, in the last two or three years there has been a marked reversal with several academicians taking note of my contribution to Tagore studies.
Is my life an anachronism?
The time when individuals from Europe and America made India their home to achieve a great work for the benefit of Indian society is over. And it is good that this is so. After Charles F Andrews, William W Pearson and Leonard K Elmhirst, no other Western personality has given shape to the destiny of Santiniketan as resolutely as they have. Perhaps no other guest has been given the opportunity to do so. We have seen Verrier Elwin (whom I admire), Nicholas Roerich, Mira Behn, Marjorie Sykes (whom I still met at Santiniketan), Mother Teresa and several highly respected foreign Jesuit fathers in India. This generation of pioneers has passed away. The leaders of society now emerge from the Indian people themselves.
Whoever comes to India from abroad at this age is not meant to lead, or to establish something new — at least not on a large scale and a highly visible platform. Indians should and can accomplish this themselves. Also, the time is gone when by leading an exemplary life of simplicity and honesty a Westerner can inspire a large segment of the Indian populace. Anybody who may try this in our time will probably face irritation or plain disregard. The karma of Westerners today is to be members in a team with Indian colleagues, to serve rather than seek power, and to hand over their responsibilities to able Indian hands as quickly as possible. Rabindranath’s ideal has been that men of different nationalities work together as equals for a common goal. This ideal has been before me throughout. I have never betrayed it.
Only once was I tempted to return to Europe for good. That was in 1990/1991 when, unexpectedly, East Europe erupted into freedom. Its Soviet regimes fell like pins, the fragrance of freedom and creative enterprise was in the air. I felt the itch to travel through East Europe, witness this important moment of history and “do something”. However, I did not receive that irrevocable call that would have allowed me to leave everything and depart.
I admit, it was a sacrifice not to live like a full citizen. As a foreigner, I could not participate as a member of any organisation, hold office in any institution, give shape to my ideas or share my experience in any committee.
The climate has been harsh. The heat and especially the humidity in summer and during the monsoon make we weak and edgy. To escape the worst time, I normally spend May and June in Germany for my lectures, my research and my visits to friends. The unforeseeable and sometimes interminable power cuts have often succeeded in distracting me and making me distraught, and I continue to get nervous from the noise. The garbage and litter thrown in the streets and public spaces offend my eyes every time I pass by.
But, and this is a mighty but, my 40 years in India, and of these my 33 years at Santiniketan, although they were by no means easy, have been exceptionally fruitful. There have been rich rewards of living in Santiniketan. Work went well. I feel inspired and stimulated. My relative isolation has helped me to keep my focus on my writing and translations. Book after book has appeared; translations of Tagore’s poems, the Kathamrita and Vivekananda’s lectures in German translation, stories, a novel, essays… each book is on India, its culture, its religions, its social life.
In my cultural journalism I have attempted to create a sympathetic and balanced, a sober and factual picture of India. My aim was to avoid these two extremes: the romantic picture projected by so-called “spiritual seekers” who paint an India peopled with babas and yogis; and the picture of India as a country of grinding poverty and injustice. The totally non-sensational reality of India is situated between these extremes and is much more varied, more painful as well as cheerful, more richly human than the extremes suggest. In the last two decades, I have regularly written for the cultural section of Germany’s best-known national daily newspaper, the Frankfurter Allgemeine. These articles have helped to shape the image of India among educated people in Germany. On the other hand, my frequent essays for The Statesman have been a sharing of my experiences and ideas with my Indian readers. Uniquely positioned at the intersection of Bengali or Indian life and European consciousness, participating in both worlds, my perception of life perhaps appears unusual. Never have I received more feedback as a writer than from readers of The Statesman. I see this as a vindication; my 40 years in India may, after all, make a genuine intellectual contribution to India.
The writer, presently on a fellowship in Germany, can be reached at email@example.com .