The Statesman: 8th Day Günter Grass and Kolkata Martin Kämpchen | 19 April, 2015

  • Sunday, 19 April, 2015

8th Day

Günter Grass and Kolkata

Martin Kämpchen |

19 April, 2015


Günter Grass in Kolkata

GÜNTER Grass expired on 13 April in his home aged 87 years. He was well and active until the end. Only a few days before he died, he was in Hamburg accepting the ovations of a large crowd in the Thalia Theatre, which had premiered a dramatised version of his best-known work, The Tin Drum.

Grass had a special relationship with India, especially with Kolkata since 1975 when he first visited the city. What does his death mean to us in this country? Since Indian Independence, there has been no fiction writer of world renown who has taken an active interest in the Indian subcontinent and chosen to stay here for any length of time except Grass. This German writer’s interest is in itself remarkable, whatever the literary results may have been. Only Mexican poet, essayist and Nobel Prize winner Octavio Paz, is, like Grass, comparable. Consequently, when Grass received the Nobel Prize in 1999, India and Bangladesh took special pride in that fact, almost as if one of their own writers had received the honour. He singled out Kolkata as the Indian city that fascinated him the most, this fascination a mixture of attraction and repulsion, of pain to see so much misery and joy at feeling the positive energy of its crowds.

Grass visited India four times. In 1975, he was invited by the government and visited New Delhi, Kolkata and Kerala as a state guest. In 1978, he and his wife Ute were on a world trip and stopped over at Mumbai for about 10 days. In August 1986, Grass and his wife returned with the express intention of spending a whole year in Kolkata. He needed to explore what exactly had fascinated him when he had visited the city for just a few days 11 years earlier. He made a serious effort to understand Kolkata and its people historically, politically, culturally and emotionally. Though he cut short his stay and left the city after barely five months, travelled for about another month in other parts of India and then returned to Europe, Grass declared that Kolkata had changed him and that his experience here had become a measuring stick by which he began to judge subsequent experiences.

Nothing in Günter Grass’s family background and early life suggests that he would one day nourish a sustained interest in the afflictions of Third World countries and particularly India. There was no grandfather who was a missionary in India (as in the case of Hermann Hesse); he did not study a subject that might have led to an interest in India, nor did he strike friendships with Asians in his early life. Grass hailed from a small suburb of Danzig, named Langfuhr, where his parents owned a grocery shop.

Born in 1927, he spent his youth in the provincial lower-middle class atmosphere which he would later describe in his epic novel, The Tin Drum. He was encouraged to attend high school (the Gymnasium), but before completing it, when he was in Class IX, he was drawn into the whirlpool of World War II and became an enthusiastic member of the Hitlerjugend, a paramilitary organisation of young boys who were trained in the principles of national socialism and prepared to become soldiers. Grass even joined the notorious and murderous SS. Although he did not have to be active, he guiltily kept it a secret until a few years ago. This secrecy was much criticised and debated in Germany at the time.

Later, it was incomprehensible to Grass how he, as an adolescent, could fall into the trap of the Nazis. He characterised himself as “stupid” and “confused” and “ignorant”, as were many others of his generation. In the last 10 months of the war and just 17 years old, Grass was recruited into the army, hurriedly trained and sent to the East European war front. He survived an attack by the Soviet army that razed half of his company.

This early aberration congealed into a trauma and became one of the strong motors for his social commitment and his activism for peace and social justice. He was in the forefront of his generation to urge the German people squarely to face their dark past, to repent and make amends.

Grass was wounded and spent some time recuperating in a hospital. Made a prisoner of war by the American allies, after discharge in 1946 Grass found odd jobs to sustain himself in the post-war chaos. Rather than completing his schooling, he finally chose the career of a stonemason and sculptor. After his apprenticeship, he was able to begin formal studies in 1949 at the Art Academy in Düsseldorf . In 1953, he continued at the University of Fine Arts in Berlin.

His literary efforts bore fruit with the publication of a volume of poetry and a play. When he moved to Paris with his first wife, Anna, in 1956, he was already deeply absorbed in the manuscript of The Tin Drum. When it appeared in 1959, Grass was universally hailed as the new voice of post-war German literature. The Tin Drum tells the story of a young boy, Oskar Matzerath, who decides not to grow up in protest against the petit bourgeois environment in which he lives. The setting is autobiographical: we have Langfuhr near Danzig, the shop, the family, the milieu, the war with its devastation and traumas. The novel comes across as a strong denunciation of war crimes and an expression of empathy for the suffering of its victims.

The Tin Drum is Grass’s novel with which Indian readers are most familiar and which was mentioned and discussed on numerous occasions while he lived in India. Wherever he went to give lectures and readings, he also showed Volker Schlöndorff’s film masterpiece on the novel.

Günter Grass emerged as the Voice of Conscience of the German people in the post-war era na was driven by strong political instincts, constantly struggling to combine and fuse political activism with his calling as a writer. Many of his literary colleagues thought politics and literature were ultimately irreconcilable and arrived at their own decisions. Grass obviously thought otherwise and proved his point by tirelessly producing new books while raising his voice at a multitude of political fora in Germany and outside. During the Student Revolt that erupted in 1968, he emerged as one of its mentors.

Grass campaigned for the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), a left-of-centre set-up, especially when Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt were its leaders. Later he even became a member of the party. When the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) dissolved in 1989 and the reunification of Germany was imminent, he was the one person of prominence who did not rejoice. He objected to East Germany being virtually gobbled up by the capitalist system of West Germany. He had hoped, in vain, for a humanised form of democratic Communism or Leftist social order in the East.

In the midst of this varied and turbulent life, Grass found time to pursue his artistic inclination and produced etchings, drawings and watercolours that he published in several large-format volumes. Many of them play on the themes of his novels, often quite deliberately provoking a sense of disgust. Others are meticulously and graciously drawn from nature and accompanied by poems or epigrams.

Grass lent his weight to innumerable social, cultural, literary and human rights organisations, often also by accepting official posts. He participated in an endless number of protest meetings, sit-ins, panel discussions and hearings.

He lectured, gave interviews and campaigned in favour of all the good causes that an honest and righteous man can plausibly lend his voice to. My generation, which is the one following that of Grass, has literally grown up with Grass as its conscience-keeper. He was known to be straightforward, always speaking out exactly what he thought. This often caused irritation, and people accused him of having an inflexible one-track mind, an arrogant faith in his own opinions and actions, a lack of circumspection and reflective doubt. In this way, he had made himself as many enemies as friends. Yet nobody called into question his courage and unequivocal commitment to the causes he spoke up for.

Günter Grass was constantly on the move. In the age of planes and fast highways this is, indeed, nothing unusual. Public life involves travel. On the whole, however, his range of travel had been confined to Europe and the USA. His trips to Poland, the country where he was born, began soon after the war, and the USA was a favoured destination, as was Portugal and Denmark where he owned houses for many years.

Grass’s biographers have documented five trips to Asia, the first being to India in 1975 (Delhi, Kolkata, Kerala). The second in 1978 took him to Japan, Indonesia, Thailand, Hongkong, India (Mumbai) and Kenya; the third, in 1979, was a lecture tour organised by the Goethe Institute that took him to China, Singapore, Jakarta, Manila and Cairo. The fourth trip was to India in 1986-87 with a long sojourn in Kolkata and the fifth and final one took place in January and February 2005 when he spent 10 days in Kolkata. India is the one country outside the Western hemisphere that he has visited most often, and certainly for the longest periods of time.

Grass’s first visit to India in the beginning of 1975 was by invitation of the government and he arrived in Delhi where he delivered a lecture, “According to Rough Estimates” at the India International Centre. It revealed his deep concern for human deprivation in Third World countries and poured scorn over the non-committal, even cynical response to this situation by the Western media and Western society as a whole. Grass offered no advice in the face of this global condition but only expressed his own “helplessness”. This lecture is also mentioned in The Flounder, a novel that fictionalises his Indian experiences by projecting them on to the historical figure of Vasco da Gama. Grass imagined Vasco’s reactions while returning to India in the modern age.

Flying to Kolkata, he stayed at Raj Bhavan and was annoyed at its ornate, ceremonial hospitality that was reminiscent of the colonial era; but since he was a state guest, he had no choice. In Kolkata, the slums and a mandatory visit to Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying at Kalighat and the Kali Temple next door were on the agenda. From among the intellectual élite, he visited filmmaker Mrinal Sen, whom he was to meet again 11 years later, and poet, translator and editor P Lal.

Reading the India chapter “Vasco returns” of The Flounder, I am struck by two contradictory elements. On the one hand, Grass revels in the descriptions of the ugliness of poverty. His social conscience pricks and pains him until he has found adequate words to evoke all the blackness and agony of a life in the gutters. On the other hand, he is dumbfounded by the incomprehensible “cheerfulness”, “unconquerable charm” and “beauty” of the poor: “Poverty indulges in beauty”; “(Kolkata) wants its misery… to be terrifyingly beautiful.” Four times he refers to it, almost accusingly, certainly with indignation, but without attempting to probe deeper into this paradox.

Grass’s second visit to India took place in April 1978. He and Ute were on a long Asian tour and arrived in Mumbai from Bangkok. At Max Mueller Bhavan, a panel discussion was held on the “Aspects of Social Awareness in Contemporary Literature”.

Grass’s visits to the large seaside slum, Cheetah Camp, and to projects of the international social service organisation Terre des Hommes figure in a travel report he wrote for the weekly Die Zeit after his Asian trip. In almost the same words, he incorporated this experience in his novel, Headbirths or The Germans Are Dying Out, the literary fruit of this Asian tour. It was Adi D  Patel, a Parsi, who invited the Grasses to see the Bombay slum projects of Terre des Hommes (for which Patel worked).

In his novel, Grass briefly described the vacation Joachim Bühler, then director of Max Mueller Bhavan, his wife and the Grasses spent together on the ocean island of Manori at some distance of the city. Bühler has described this vacation in an essay, but mark the difference between his description of these few days and the literary treatment in Headbirths! Bühler described a restful vacation in an idyllic place, while Grass dwelled on the impoverished condition of the village people.

The third, prolonged, visit to India in 1986-87 was anticipated for several years. Grass discussed and announced two years earlier that, after completing his new novel, The Rat, he would settle down in Kolkata for a year. He and Ute landed in Mumbai in August 1986 and proceeded by train to Kolkata. There they first stayed at a garden bungalow at Baruipur. In mid-October, they shifted to Lake Town, from where commuting to and from Kolkata was easier. During the day, the couple wandered around Kolkata alone or in the company of friends, aimlessly or with a pre-planned programme. The Grasses liked to make the cafeteria of Max Mueller Bhavan their base. This is where they met friends and set off for their forays into the city. Journalists, intellectuals and their new acquaintances knew that they could find Günter and Ute sitting in the outdoor cafeteria.

Grass did meet quite a few of the leading personalities in Kolkata’s cultural life — writers, artists, theatre personalities, filmmakers and scholars. But he did not go out of the way to do so. He never went to see Kolkata’s cultural icon of the time, filmmaker Satyajit Ray, or Mother Teresa. After all, he had come to Kolkata to mingle with the simple and unknown people of the city. Besides, much in contrast to the general population that welcomed the Grasses cordially, there is a feeling among some of their Kolkata friends that the cultural élite kept aloof.

Günter and Ute arrived in Kolkata for a private stay and made this amply clear by the simplicity of their lifestyle and their attempt to do as much as possible on their own. Nonetheless, after a month Grass was drawn into the mill of public engagements and media interviews. There were poetry readings, readings from his novels, the screening of the film The Tin Drum, panel discussions, the opening of an exhibition of his etchings and, finally and most importantly, the staging of his play The Plebeians Rehearse the Uprising. He had rehearsed it together with a Bengali director in a Bengali translation and witnessed the first two stage performances.

Grass dedicated his Kolkata diary Show Your Tongue to “Mr and Mrs Karlekar and the Calcutta Social Project”. His book portrays their work among the poor and eulogises it. The CSP organisation works in several slums of Kolkata and with street children by giving education and training in various crafts and providing health care. Soon after returning to Germany, Günter Grass began to support the CSP with substantial donations.

His sympathies for the poor were borne by strong convictions; he was hardly capable of viewing Indian society beyond the poor-rich dichotomy and this limited his enjoyment of life in India and the appreciation of its cultural and religious wealth. He saw no positive link between the material and the cultural condition of poor Indians, nor was he apparently able to comprehend poverty in its totality. Poverty is not merely a material deprivation but a mental and emotional state which the poor are unable and often too apathetic to overcome. Every social worker knows how enormously difficult it is to motivate the poor into working for their own improvement with discipline and stringency.

Grass often invoked Mahatma Gandhi’s ideals as those India should have followed; he cited Gandhian land reforms as a missed opportunity. Apart from Gandhi, it was Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose who interested him the most among India’s historical figures. Bose is given much space in Show your Tongue. When asked, as many journalists did, whether he was about to write on his Kolkata experiences, he firmly rejected the idea of writing a work of fiction. Only a Bengali, he felt, could write a novel on Kolkata. He recommended Kolkata as the ideal raw material for a powerful Joycean novelist.

Grass’s Kolkata diary, Zunge zeigen (Show Your Tongue), approached Indian reality in three ways: the diary in prose, a long poem on Kolkata and a series of black-and-white sketches. He must have been aware of the intrinsic risks of cross-cultural writing when he gave his Kolkata diary its final shape. Cross-cultural writing never satisfies all its readers. With his no-nonsense style and his strong and adamant views, Grass was bound to bruise people’s pride. What right and qualification had he to judge our city, Kolkatans  may ask. What does he know about India, the specialist (Indologist, economist, the professional India-traveller) may demand. Does he tell me anything that is important to my life in Germany, the general German reader may enquire. His experiment to live in Kolkata in conditions that were as simple (as “poor”) as possible was open to ridicule and scorn. Grass’s judgments (and he did judge quickly and often) can be contested from different angles. Yet, with a missionary zeal and a desire to be intellectually and emotionally completely honest, he roamed the narrow lanes of Kolkata trying “to see it all and tell it all”. His perspectives may have been limited, but his desire to be honest was not.

In India, the reaction was shock when the English translation of Show Your Tongue appeared in 1989. The average educated Kolkatan realised his city, which already had a bad name, was once again being maligned. Later Grass admitted to his Indian friends that he quite intentionally wrote such a dark book on Kolkata in order to shake his readers, also his Indian readers, out of their complacency and mobilise them into social and political action. In other words, he tacitly admitted that his book was one-sided and did not represent the entire range of his experiences in India.

Kolkata became alive to Grass again when the Nobel Prize for Literature was announced on 1 October 1999. The Statesman’s headline of 11 October seemed to sum up the general feeling of Kolkata’s educated class: Nobel For A Part Kolkatan. Grass’s “uncharitable”, “controversial”, “unkind” (The Statesman, 2 October)  remarks about Kolkata were not altogether forgotten. But joy and pride and a “we” feeling prevailed. How many times had Grass been asked in Kolkata and Dhaka when he would at last receive the Nobel Prize! Or worse, he was mistakenly hailed in public as a Nobel Prize awardee! Grass’s reaction had been gruff. But according to Sekhar Basu (in Bartaman, 16 October), he once became more genial, saying, “I think after Tagore I shall be the second Bengali to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.”

Invited by active director of Max Mueller Bhavan Martin Wälde, Grass visited Kolkata for the third time in January and February 2005. The 78-year old writer did not visit any other place but Kolkata and it was like a triumphal homecoming after the Nobel Prize. It was a walk down memory lane. Staying at the Oberoi Grand Hotel, he followed a busy round of poetry reading, debates, public lectures and evening parties. But he visited his old favourite places, showing them to one of his daughters who accompanied him. He took a whole day off to visit the street schools of the Calcutta Social Project and met Indian writer Amitav Ghosh for the first time at the traditional Coffee House. He attended the Kolkata Book Fair and again met old friends. This visit did not produce any literary fruits as all his previous visits had. It was known, however, that Grass met his Indian friends in Germany and followed the political and social development closely.

Quotes from Grass

When I visited India for the first time (in 1975), I came as an official guest of the Indian government. Of all that I observed and experienced during that visit, Kolkata simultaneously fascinated and agitated me the most.

My feeling was that the terrible problems of Kolkata were not merely regional in character. I spontaneously felt even in the first encounter that the “Kolkata problem” was more a “world problem”.


While we were looking for a taxi, a young man approached me and said, “Aren’t you a German writer?” 

I replied, “Yes.”

“Ah! The author of the Tin Drum?” 


“Then you must be Graham Greene.”

Well, the initials are common, and frankly, I did not mind exchanging roles with Graham Greene.


A journalist asked if I planned to write a novel on Kolkata. No, I never entertained such an idea. Kolkata is a city that demands its own Bengali James Joyce. Someone who is born and brought up here, through whose veins the blood of this city flows, and not an outsider, should write such a novel.

Culled from My Broken Love. Günter Grass in India, edited by Martin Kämpchen (Penguin India 2001)


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