To be a Foreigner-I
09 August, 2015
The Sunday Statesman
Almost all my life I have been a foreigner. When I was sixteen, I left my native Germany to study for a year in the United States. Back again, I spent another year to complete my Abitur (Bachelor Degree) and again went abroad, this time to Vienna to attend University. I stayed on until completing my Ph.D. in German Literature, studied a year in Paris in between, and after leaving Vienna, I spent a mere three months with my parents before I took a flight to India to become a German teacher in Kolkata. That was in 1973. Ever since my base has been in India.
I share the experience of living in a foreign country with millions of expatriates, migrants and refugees. There are more people seeking entry into other countries by legal or illegal means than ever before. War and hunger, political despotism and social discrimination urge innumerable unfortunate people to leave their homes. Many others enter Western countries in search of economic improvement. Watching the global situation evolve, the present crises are the forebodings of larger population-shifts engulfing us in the future.
Yet, there is a distinct difference between them and myself. I have left Germany neither urged by economic nor political and social stress. I left my comfortable middle-class environment for the sake of experience, because of my curiosity to understand the world. In that I was a pioneer for the present German student generation which as a matter of course spends some months or some years of their studies or early working life abroad. They all leave in order to return and settle with a profession in Europe. That was my intention as well. However, I got “stuck” in the red earth of Santiniketan. I am still here, by choice.
Recently, I have once again renewed my Indian visa which I need to obtain even after forty years. It is a research visa, and research I do. Twice I have been invited to enter an academic career. In Vienna, my professor selected me to become his academic assistant even before I had completed my thesis. All papers had been signed. Some weeks later he called me to his office and revealed that the Austrian Ph.D. students of my department had revolted demanding that one of them should become the assistant, not me, a foreigner.
A few years into my Ph.D. work at Visva-Bharati, a similar scenario unfolded. The teacher of German language had retired and his post fell vacant. On my doctoral guide’s request I applied for the post, took the interview and was selected. With a doctorate in German literature, I was the only candidate eligible. A few weeks later I was I informed that the Delhi government insisted on an Indian taking the job. Again I withdrew.
I admit that in both cases I felt hurt, but also rather relieved. I am not cut out for an academic career. Although I loved doing research, this was not the only level on which I wanted to work. I translate, write as a journalist, write essays and fiction, while engaging myself in the pursuit of understanding life, i.e. understanding India and make India understood to my German readers.
Employment was not for me; neither was family life. In the first six years I stayed in monastic ashrams – with the Ramakrishna Mission in Narendrapur and with the Jesuits in Madras. Thereafter, at Santiniketan, I lived alone, but befriended many, all of them family people. Soon I became aware of the deep roots family life has in this country. This was a welcome departure from many less caring, more selfishly engaged people in my country. Yet, it left me shut out. My parents and brother, my nephews were all in Germany. In India, I was not part of a family and I was not inclined to start one. I began working with Santhals in villages, and the measure of dedication and time I invested would have been incompatible with a conventional family life.
I became aware that no matter how much I worked towards the progress of promising young men – our so-called “village youth leaders” – their own families came always first in their thoughts and actions.
As the decades rolled by I felt increasingly lonely. The reverse movement which I had unconsciously expected, namely, that I was going to be integrated in two or three families in a gesture of natural gratitude and enjoying a felicitous interdependence with them, did not take place. It was too idealistic an expectation.
However, I became aware of the reverse side of this disillusionment as well: The extraordinary freedom I enjoyed within Indian society as a European unattached to family life and employment. My ears are deaf from the groaning around me of people my age and younger who feel overburdened by bringing up children and satisfying the multiple needs of two families, one’s own and the wife’s or husband’s family.
The more education they received, the more these responsibilities increased. I was, on the contrary, free to support anyone who showed some promise and an eagerness to improve himself. I was free to take on multiple roles at various levels of society. Especially Santhali village people were trusting and simple, accepting me without the suspicions common in middle-class urban society: They took me as I appeared to them. This freedom of a foreigner to choose creatively one’s own place and space in Indian society was precious to me and has shaped my life.
In middle-class Bengali society such a free-floating identity is positively exceptional. As a man of education and scholarly merit, I obviously was not considered part of rural society. Yet, as a man who shunned employment and had decided to perilously live from the royalties of his books and from his journalism, I also had no part in the security-status-and prestige-conscious mentality prevalent in Bengali society.
Above all, as a foreigner I had no pedigree. Who was my father, my uncle, my aunt? What achievements had they, what positions, what contacts, what wealth, which ancestors? Notice, how Bengali gentlemen or gentlewomen, when introducing themselves to strangers, mention their parents, relatives and colleagues right from the second sentence! I, on the other hand, was just being myself. My achievements – my various publications and translations – are hidden away in another language, in another country.
Only after two decades when a number of academic and non-academic books began to appear in English, the unease about me disappeared to some extent. I began to have a perceptible identity.
It is not easy to accept that as a foreigner I have few civic rights even after forty years. I cannot possess immovable property. I am not part of any official committee, any public decision-making. In the registered societies in our Santhal villages, I never had any official function or legal rights. Especially, there is no security that I can continue. The mental pressure which this puts on me can only be imagined by others.
I could have left, couldn’t I, long ago and begin a normal middle-class life in Germany, start a family, take a job, buy a car and a flat… That option was always open to me. Yet, after a few years into my stay in India I began to get too deeply involved in pursuits which can only be followed in India: translating Ramakrishna and Rabindranath, working in Santhal villages, keeping up a dialogue between the cultures of India and Europe. Returning to Europe would have meant to start life anew with all the obvious difficulties of re-integration. Again, it was my own choice not to return. I have never regretted it.
(To be concluded)
To be a Foreigner-II
10 August, 2015
Being a foreigner has – for me as a German – ramifications beyond those I have described in the First Part. Looking at European history of the last one hundred years, we realize that Germany has caused two major wars, the First and Second World War, which has brought unimaginable misery over Europe and some parts of Asia. Six million Jews have been sent to their death in concentration camps. Although I was born after the Second World War, my generation was the first to grow up burdened by the collective guilt that Germans as a people had to accept. We grew up with the knowledge that our country has grievously sinned and that we all have to strive to create a society in which such barbarism and injustice would never again occur.
My generation was bound to question our parents and teachers how they had conducted themselves during the Third Reich. Had they been members of the Nazi Party, even of the SS? Had they actively supported the rulers, had they killed during the war, were they in any way connected with the infamous concentration camps? Why did they not resist and revolt, as some others did? Even if our own parents and uncles came out clean from our investigative queries, we knew of class-mates and friends whose parents had cheered the party leaders.
It put a moral weight on our minds which has shaped our life, at least the more serious among my generation. It made me develop into a pacifist and Conscientious Objector when I was to be drafted into the army.
I felt this stigma especially when I was abroad. As a boy of 14, I for the first time visited England. I lived with a family in Norwich that was never unfair to me. But in newspaper articles I read and through questions and innuendos while interacting with people around me, I could sense the mistrust and even hostility brought against me as a German youth. At the age of 16, I earned a scholarship to spend a year in the USA to attend the last year of High School. The most remarkable friendship I made was with a Polish professor, Litka de Barcza, who as a refugee from Nazi Germany had experienced great suffering. She was a great woman. She had style, she knew the world, and she possessed deep compassion. I shall never forget Litka. We kept in touch until her premature death in 1973. She never made me feel guilty or uncomfortable due to my nationality.
But once Litka asked me to reduce my age by a few years in order to make it even more obvious that I was born after the war. She introduced me to a Polish woman friend in Chicago, an artist and art historian and like Litka of aristocratic descent. A number was tattooed on her forearm – an indication that she had been an inmate of the Auschwitz concentration camp. As it turned out she was charming and sensitive; I became her guest several times.
The horrors of the concentration camps in Germany and in East Europe were still largely unknown when we were children. There were few court cases, few memoirs. But in the following decades more and more surviving victims spoke up, more research was done, more prominent concentration camp chiefs, the active murderers of the Jews, were identified. A drama of national shame unfolded before our appalled eyes.
As a result national identity was weak, patriotism almost non-existent except for a so-called “economic patriotism” which celebrated a strong German economy, the Wirtschaftswunder (post-war economic miracle), emerging from the ruins. Only with the Football World Championship of 2006 in Germany, to the surprise of many, the semblance of national pride was being widely displayed.
Obviously, German re-unification made an impact. But it was associated with a host of problematic issues. A state, the GDR, was being disassembled in order to fit it into the West German system. Joy was not unalloyed, instead re-unification created, for many, yet another trauma.
To my surprise, while I lived in India, none of this was part of our intellectual discourse. German history, German guilt, German search for a new acceptance in the community of nations was no talking point even among my academic colleagues. Here another historical paradigm was being acted out: partition; post-colonialism; the search for acceptance first among the non-aligned nations and then by the Soviet Union and finally by the United Nations at large, the search to be accepted as a successful economy, as a country with age-old traditions and a rightful pride in her culture. This search was pursued in the face of the strife and conflict, corruption and inefficiency which characterized daily life.
This mindset allowed little reflection on the German dilemma I just described. Yet, again to my surprise, Hitler was being idolized in India. The young and the little-educated can be excused for their superficiality in making Hitler a hero just because he boosted the economy after the First World War. But even many knowledgeable people viewed Hitler from their own perspective merely as an adversary of the British. According to the Arthashastra, a foe’s foe is one’s friend. But such simplifications should not hold sway anymore. So in India I found myself explaining time and again the degradation of the German people through Fascism. Collective guilt, a charge which the post-war generations have remorsefully accepted, is a concept difficult to make emotionally intelligible in India. It needs the experience of the traumas Germans as a people have gone through.
So here I was as a German residing in India explaining the guilt complex of my people, rather than, as would seem more natural, trying to argue in favour of the guilt of a few criminals, the guilt of former generations. That is, I was not trying to defend myself. This is what in German language has been termed Vergangenheitsbewältigung (coming to terms with and repenting the past). This yearning for repentance and Wiedergutmachung (atonement for an evil committed) has been considered exemplary by many Western nations and is the reason why slowly Jewish life has begun to flower again in German cities.
Each country works out its socio-cultural life against the background of its own past. The modern age with its radically new, dynamic and globalised mindsets shaped by technology, the internet and the mobile phone culture, appears to be culturally uprooted and cut off from its past. From this angle it seems to be a paradox that this age, in India as well as in Europe, so desperately clings to the past. This is surely welcome because the past can offer stability and dignity as long as it is not misused as an instrument to serve the purposes of ideologues and political parties.