Published: May 2, 2015 15:42 IST | Updated: May 2, 2015 15:42 IST May 2, 2015
The tin drummer
Gunter Grass, the German writer. He was fascinated with India, especially Kolkata.
The writer remembers Günter Grass whose search for truth did not fail to impress even those who felt repelled by his aggressive stances and opinions.
In his darkest hour, India stood by him. In 2006, Günter Grass told me in Bremen, ‘Die wollen mich fertig machen’. In his autobiography he admitted that, in autumn 1944, as a 17-year-old, he had been a member of the Waffen-S.S., Nazi-Germany’s killer troops. He never engaged in combat, he never had to shoot. But the country was deeply shocked that a man, who after the epochal success of his first novel The Tin Drum (1959) rose to become his nation’s conscience keeper, made such an admission, and so late. How could it happen? While his esteem grew as the one who called his people to repentance and atonement for their war crimes and the extermination of Jews, it became more and more difficult for Grass to make this crucial confession. It was a case of not being able to jump off while riding the tiger.
“They want to finish me,” he told me that evening with an expression of agony. A regular witch-hunt swept across Germany. All those who love to create trouble; who want cheap fame by destroying a reputation but also many who are honest and thoughtful had serious misgivings about Günter Grass hiding his adolescent sin for 60 years. While the witch-hunt was on, the voices that emerged from India were moderate and understanding. ‘A 17-year-old boy! He did not know what he was doing!’ was the tenor. Grass told me that he received numerous letters of support from his Indian friends. Nor did the Indian press condemn him.
This support was the fruit of a relationship with India, which began in 1975 when he visited Delhi, Kolkata and Kerala and dedicated a chapter in his novel The Flounder to this experience. On a world trip in 1978, he spent 10 days in Mumbai. In August 1986, Grass with his wife Ute again arrived in India to explore Kolkata for a year. Ute became exhausted, so they returned to Europe in January 1987, after travelling to Dhaka, Chennai, Hyderabad, Pune and Delhi. The literary product was the controversial Kolkata diary Show Your Tongue. Grass’ final visit to India, in 2005, was more of a triumphant homecoming, rather than another agonising discovery of the city’s “dark side”. Meanwhile he had received the Nobel Prize in 1999. India, especially the emotional Bengali literati, exploded in pride as if one of their sons had received the honour.
Why was Grass fascinated by India, especially Kolkata? Grass — with his strong sense of social justice, his love for the poor and the marginalised — wanted to come to terms with the vexing, paradoxical problem of poverty. In Mumbai, he visited the Cheetah Camp, one of the largest slums of the city; in Dhaka, the Geneva Camp. In Kolkata, he lived very simply, rubbing shoulders with the lower middle-class, and walked the city’s alleys and lanes for months. He needed to comprehend why the slum children were cheerful amid poverty, how “beauty” could coexist with hunger and disease. His drawings showed none of that perplexity, however. They are the most uncompromisingly dark and sombre drawings of poverty that I know.
Connected with this search to enter the psyche of poverty was Grass’ critique of the Kolkata middle class, which he saw as self-seeking, materialistic and stone-hearted towards the poor. These two impulses, his love of the poor and his aversion of the middle-class created the mental frame in which he wrote on India. Therefore he failed to realise that the poor are not always heroes of virtue and the middle class has also its positive sides — a sophisticated culture, a philosophical world view rooted in history, and dignity.
When Kolkata’s educated class read Show Your Tongue, it was embarrassed and horrified. Again Kolkata had gotten a bad name! But when the Nobel Prize went to Grass, his invective was silently pardoned. The country made him a “Part-Calcuttan”.
Why was India lenient towards Günter Grass? In Germany and the whole of Europe, the Nazi period is loaded with a huge psychological baggage, while in India it is not. It mortifies Germans to hear even educated Indians speak of Hitler as a “great man” and praising his leadership prowess. In India, National Socialism was too far away both geographically and historically, so understanding and joining the shocked reaction over Grass’ revelation was difficult. India — forever indulgent towards the young, not allowing them to grow up soon — forgave Grass’ S.S.-membership as a youthful foible.
There may be a deeper reason, too. With the Partition, India has tremendous psychological baggage, which is not yet openly discussed. Could it be from that angle that India admired a person like Günter Grass who makes a public confession, no matter how late, of his personal share of the guilt the nation has heaped upon itself?
The post-war generation I belong to grew up with Günter Grass as its mentor. He was a guide of the Student Revolution that erupted in 1968 mainly as a reaction to the Vietnam War. He preached liberal and social values with an energy and determination unequalled by any crusader in the decades after World War II. We read his articles and interviews in the weekly Die Zeit, heard his speeches, saw his interviews on television — he was omnipresent. His search for truth did not fail to impress even those who felt repelled by his aggressive stances in public, his disregard of religion and his often limited socio-cultural awareness.
With these reservations in mind, I met Günter Grass on all his three visits to Kolkata. In 2005, I was privileged to accompany him during the 10 days he lived here. That was the time we got close. He came across as a sensitive, considerate and warm-hearted man, by no means conceited despite his fame. In spite of his numerous friends and acquaintances, he approached me as an individual, giving me a sense of self-worth. He was a complete human being; he won me over. His death at the age of 87 was without struggle. Although sick as a result of his lifelong habit of smoking, he was able to play his public role until the end. That consoles all of us who loved him.
The writer is the editor of My Broken Love: Günter Grass in India and Bangladesh (Penguin India, 2001).
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