The Statesman 30 December 2012
Losses & new beginnings
The Cycle Of Life, Death And Renewal
By Martin Kämpchen
EACH end of a year has its mixed moods. They are tinged with melancholy while looking back on a year gone by, and brightened by good intentions and hopes for a new beginning in the next year.
In Europe, the public mood deeply depends on the light. Nothing really can substitute the natural light of the sun. I am reminded of the great hymn, “To the Sun” by the Austrian poetess, Ingeborg Bachmann, whose first line reads Nichts Schönres unter der Sonne, als unter der Sonne zu sein. (Nothing more beautiful there is under the sun than to live under the sun.) In November and December the days become visibly and painfully shorter and shorter. People in Central Europe get up in darkness, have their breakfast in darkness, and leave for work in darkness. When they return home by late afternoon, darkness has already descended. This affects people’s thoughts, their emotional stability, their physical health.
Used from my many years in West Bengal to get up with the crack of dawn, in fact being woken up by the light, it makes me nervous and gloomy having to wait for daylight until eight o’clock or longer. I experienced this when in November I had to make a sudden visit to Hamburg for the burial of my mentor and sponsor, Udo Keller. Thanks to the support of his foundation, I had been able to publish my translations of Tagore’s poems, of Swami Vivekananda’s lectures, and of Sri Ramakrishna’s conversations (the Kathamrita). Udo Keller had himself as a young man experienced his spiritual awakening while reading the works of these three men, or whatever was available of them in German at the time. He believed that what I was doing is important for a general public and supported me generously and without asking questions.
Staying at the foundation’s residence outside the city, situated near a lovely lake and surrounded by a generously laid-out park, I observed the gradual dimming of the day’s light until night fell. In grief, this becomes an existential experience. In joy, it is purely mystical. Around this time, the Christian calendar is full of memories of the evanescence of time and of death. On All Souls’ Day (2 November) and some weeks later on the Totensonntag (“the Sunday of the Dead”) tradition wants that we visit the cemeteries to stand and pray before the graves of our deceased family members and friends. We light up candles and place them on the graves inside small lanterns. The trees and bushes are leafless, the landscape is pervaded by the shades of grey. So, these flames are meant to bring, at least symbolically, colour and energy into a nature bereft of light and life.
Standing before the open grave of Udo Keller in a motionless group of quietly weeping relatives and friends, all in formal black attire, it occurred to me that nature and men around us had bonded in a symphony of mourning, loss and death.
In India, nature is never bleak and dead throughout the year. At any season, there is intense life, especially in the summer when the light is bright and searing. Winter produces the most colourful flowers, spring is marked by palash and sirish trees with their full orange-red blossoms. The variation between dawn and nightfall is at most two hours and diminishes as we proceed southward. So when waking up, we can always let ourselves be touched by the morning light. For many, winter is the most enjoyable season. Although the village people prefer a sun which keeps the body warm because of their lack of adequate clothing, winter is the time when they enjoy the fruits of many months of labour. The paddy has been harvested and thrashed. The time of shortages is over, a time of plenty begins which is celebrated with fairs and harvest festivals. This is the time of the greatest freedom ~ the freedom from need, from the might of the sun which we have been avoiding during the last many months. What a contrast to Central Europe in November and December!
These two different experiences of nature and life move closer and finally unite towards the very end of the year. In Christian countries, the month of December is devoted to “advent” which means the expectation of “arrival”, referring to the arrival of the birth of Christ which is celebrated on Christmas. More and more candles are lit up in people’s homes and in churches as Christmas approaches to overcome the winter desolation. But from 21 December, the day of the winter solstice, the days begin to grow longer again. As in Hinduism, the sun is a symbol of divinity. Pious Hindus recite the gayatri mantra, turning their eyes towards the sun; and for Christians the increasing daylight symbolizes the birth of God in the world.
Surprisingly, Rabindranath Tagore wrote very few songs on winter. The one I translated (Prakrti 183) rather mirrors the image of winter as we experience it in Europe. The season is personified as a miser who hides the rich and colourful garb of the seasons. Rabindranath waxes eloquent in spring and again during the monsoon. Why this turning away from the winter season when dalias and roses are in full bloom?
What then gives us the strength to continue and hope for new beginnings in spite of our losses? A few days ago, a young man named “Martin” wrote to me from Chennai to say that his father, Arulraj, had died of cancer. More than thirty years ago I had given him shelter when he, then a teenager and needy, was turned out of a hostel on negligible charges. This tied us together. We met infrequently, but we never lost sight of each other. Gratefully, he named one of his sons after me. He had a good career, his sons were able to study and get employment in the United States. Now we lost Arulraj. Again, what gives us the strength to continue?
Is it because the cycle of events promises us the renewal of nature’s energy? The grey stillness of a European November and December itself holds the promise of dormant nature springing back to life visibly and youthfully. The dreary dimness of the year-end light is the message that we can hope for a resplendent future. In India, the vibrancy of nature never falters. Equally, we can anticipate that my mentor Udo Keller and my younger friend Arulraj are engulfed by the cyclic happenings of life, death and renewal.
The writer is based in Santiniketan and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org