The work of a liberal humanist Krishnan Srinivasan | The Statesman [8th Day] 08 February, 2015

The work of a liberal humanist


Krishnan Srinivasan |

The Statesman [8th Day]  08 February, 2015

Martin Kämpchen is a longstanding and respected columnist in The Statesman and this book comprises 30 of his articles on a variety of subjects. The author is a German who arrived in India in 1973 when he was in his 20s and has lived here for some 40 years. Some visitors fall in love with India at first sight; others detest it. Kämpchen came and stayed, but he is by no means a naïve and sentimental India-loving foreigner, but rather an astute and critical observer.

The author is very well-travelled, and would have made his mark as a travel writer or as a biographer, as some of his best passages deal with countries and cities he has visited, such as Scotland, Rome, Vilnius, Vienna or Berlin; or people whose lives he examines, such as the philanthropist Albert Schweitzer, the Indologist and Tagore-admirer Count Keyserling, and the writer Herman Hesse — “No German writer of repute has ever exposed himself so thoroughly to Indian thought”. Hesse in 1919 had written “since many years I am convinced, that the European mind is in the decline and is need of a return to its Asian sources”.

With the author’s multi-cultural background, it comes as no surprise that Kämpchen is at his best in describing the striking contrasts between European and Indian culture and values. He found that in India, the family matters most — and he had no family. In India, he says, “being alone is considered a curse”. The presence of a human being here continues to be of paramount importance, whereas in the West, children are raised with a view to independence, a life alone and on one’s own terms. With feudalism, caste and class barriers, he states that Indians came to the concept of equality late and with hesitation, and he associates the habit of Indian unpunctuality with privilege and disrespect for equality. He speaks of the Indian immediacy of connecting with others, despite the negative side — the invasion of privacy, the pervasive presence of others and noise. He notes Indian gregariousness, and claims that those insensitive to noise are likely to be insensitive to people also. And yet, he concludes, solitude is needed to pursue the goal of a “revelatory glimpse of a transcendent reality”. He has had to reconcile himself in India to the lack of expressing thanks, and the apparent lack of gratitude from the donees of charity.

Kämpchen reflects on matters of corruption and religious belief and concludes that in India what is right and wrong is enveloped in a “cloud of uncertainty”, subjective and situational. ‘No’ is not a word which comes easily to Indians, while assuming things and an inclination to interpret the words of others is an Indian habit. To get things done it is best to first establish an emotional bond, and “don’t hesitate to respond to personal questions”. In India, it is your connections that matter; in the West, civil society demands a different mind-set and reaction; self-reliance, vigilance, and professionalism, rather than privilege-seeking informality.

Kämpchen first taught at Gol Park in Kolkata and lived for three years at the Ramakrishna Mission ashram at Narendrapur before studying for an MA at Madras University. From 1980 he has lived at Santiniketan, where surprisingly, since Visva-Bharati is not unduly gifted with foreign language teachers, he has been unable, due to some obscure and typically ridiculous petty-fogging regulations, to find employment as a German-language (or English) teacher. Like most others, he discovered that being in India as a traveller and a resident were two totally different experiences. Without a position, a designation, one receives scant respect; and he was not even a full citizen. Indians accept multiple identities that they inherit from birth — family, caste, class, neighbourhood, religion — but “I had no marked identity expect simply being an individual”. He notes wryly; the day when western individuals lived in India to perform enduring work for Indian society was long past.

On Rabindranath Tagore, of whom he is a considerable expert, though he would deny it, he states that the poet, as a consummate performer, would today have not hesitated to use modern technology, such as sound effects and computer art, to overcome the insularity of Bengali culture and as an alternative to popular culture represented by Bollywood. One of his most interesting chapters is one on Rabindranath and Count Hermann Keyserling. The latter met Rabindranath in India in the second decade of the last century and hosted him at Darmstadt in 1921, but the two men never met again. Keyserling continued to lavish praise on Tagore and both men aimed to achieve a synthesis of East and West. Both established non-formal schools of learning and their correspondence continued till 1938. Keyserling, whose projects were aborted by the Nazis, died in Austria soon after the Second World War. He had believed himself to be the mouthpiece of the West in the same way as Tagore considered himself the voice of the East, but one cannot avoid the impression from Kämpchen’s account that the affection and admiration were one-sided and Tagore, for whatever reason, did not reciprocate Keyserling’s warmth of feeling.

Kämpchen might describe himself as a freelance writer, translator and culturejournalist in a life-enriching search within Hinduism and Buddhism. He writes that Indian “reality resonated within me… I became a complete human being after I encountered India.” At same time, he rightly saw no reason to reject his European culture and Christian upbringing, and that is what makes his writing so intriguing. His articles published here have a candid introspection, tender and spiritual quality, not usual for a German expatriate writing in English. He asserts he has found the non-sensational view of India, between the extremes of the heights of spirituality and the depths of extreme poverty, more richly human than either. And this book is indeed the work of a liberal humanist.

The reviewer is India’s former Foreign Secretary


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