Günter Grass Now my smoking pays off
I grew up in a conservative Catholic family in the picturesque Rhineland right in the centre of West Germany. My father was a college principal, the highest government official after the mayor, hence his two sons had a strict upbringing. My father had studied and later taught German and French literature and there were many books by classical and contemporary writers in the house to which we were introduced at an early age.
Günter Grass was a rising star in the 1950s and 1960s whose first important novels – The Tin Drum, Cat and Mouse, Dog Years — were seen as a vigorous beginning to create a new literature after the devastating and deeply humiliating World War II. It incorporated the experience of the Hitler dictatorship and of the war, but made an artistic attempt to move on and redefine national morality anew. As young students in high school and college, we all read Grass. But in our home he was shunned. My father judged his writing as smutty and irreligious. There are indeed some passages in these early books that are sexually explicit and daring. There are passages ridiculing piety and Church mentality. So I was kept away from Grass and advised to read more “healthy” literature like the novels of Heinrich Böll and Siegfried Lenz.
When I was a student of German literature in Vienna, the years of the student revolution had just started. This was 1968 and the following years German and French university students went on to demonstrate vociferously against the Vietnam War. Grass became one of their mentors, speaking up against American imperialism, against capitalism and in favour of liberal values. He wrote articles in the important German weekly Die Zeit and occupied space on television and radio. He was the protester and activist par excellence. Compared to German universities, especially those in Frankfurt and Berlin, Vienna was quiet, less politically motivated, less youthfully enraged against the political establishment and the social mainstream. Vienna had its own history-conscious, staid, somewhat sombre culture that was concerned with classical music and coffee houses. Few radical political impulses filtered through, and the student revolution passed me by.
In 1971, I visited India for the first time, took yoga classes and read Mahatma Gandhi, attended literature classes and was absorbed attending the opera or a theatre play or a concert in the evenings. Grass and his books were like an alien continent to me. His hyperactive style, seeing all issues from an aggressively political angle, did not suit my inclinations. Grass drifted away from my consciousness while I decided to return to India and teach German language at the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture at Gol Park. I stayed in a small room at the RKM Ashram in Narendrapur reading Ramakrishna and Vivekananda, meditating and getting acquainted with the Hindu way of life.
One day, Swami Mumukshananda, secretary of the ashram, called me to his office and told me that he had news from Raj Bhavan that a German writer called Günter Grass was to visit the ashram. Did I know such a gentleman? I got a bit shocked. Grass visiting a RKM Ashram, Grass talking to the monks? Did the two go together? I mentioned that the writer had strong liberal views and did not mind creating a ruckus when opinion went against him. I told Swamiji, a pious and contemplative monk, that I hoped Grass would not embarrass them. But Swami Mumukshananda was not worried. The writer would be treated as a respected guest, and he would accept that role.
Before my inner eye, I still see the two cars from Raj Bhavan, where Grass stayed, entering the main gate of the Narendrapur campus. A few busy officials in suits and ties tumbled out, then the writer, casually dressed, stepped down, and I went to greet him. He appeared thoughtful, reflective, polite. By no means aggressive or arrogant. He asked questions of me as well as others as he was led by car to the Gram Sevak section of the ashram, then to the College hostels and other areas. He looked at an exhibition of religious paintings, reserving comment. Then he was asked to address the college students who had gathered in the courtyard, neatly dressed in their white shirts and blue trousers.
Grass got up and said just one sentence: You are privileged to be able to study at such an excellent institution. In other words: Use your opportunity, do something with your education! I am sure he considered the college elitist, and his sentence was another way of saying: I hope you are doing something for the poor and underprivileged students as well.
Grass left, and I stayed on and on, doing among others things my bit for underprivileged boys and girls around Santiniketan. I had close links with the Max Mueller Bhavan at Ballygunge Circular Road and participated in many programmes or reported on some from 1995 when I began writing for the renowned German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine. One day in 1986, I was told that Grass was to visit Kolkata again, this time with his wife Ute and for a longer period. I stayed in Santiniketan and the occasional news I got was incomplete. Grass looked for a house in the outskirts of the city. With the help of the staff of MMB, a house was readied for him at Baruipur. He arrived in August, and the rest is written in Grass’ diary Show Your Tongue and in my book, My Broken Love. Günter Grass in India and Bangladesh (Penguin India 2001).
I met Günter and Ute Grass whenever I visited Kolkata from Santiniketan, which is about twice a month. The MMB is my base, where I ask people to meet me, from where I go off to meet friends. The same was the case with Grass. During the months from August 1986 to January 1987, he sat in the cafeteria of MMB and met whoever was willing to speak to him. He was approachable and communicative. Often he went off for a few hours to wander in the streets with Daud Haider, a Bangladeshi political refugee who had offered himself as his guide, and then returned to the cafeteria. I regret now that, at that time, I had no purposeful interactions with him. Just greetings and nodding to each other. Naturally, Grass was little interested in compatriots in India. He explored Kolkata, not Germans in Kolkata. I have never thrown myself into the arms of famous people because I am too shy. Perhaps the original reservations towards Grass, which my father planted in my mind, were also still active.
Another decade passed. I read Show Your Tongue and wrote a long, critical essay on it. I felt, like others in Kolkata, that Grass did neither justice to Kolkata nor to his experience in Kolkata. He was too sure of his judgments, too direct, too simplistic, unbalanced and general in his criticism. He knew too little of Kolkata: not the language, not the history, not the temperament of the people. Even though he wanted to experience all the hardship of a middle-class existence, he being Günter Grass was shielded from many hardships without knowing it.
The ball began rolling again when Grass was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999, the last person of the century to get it. He, Günter Grass, himself a Century Man! Grass, the Conscience Keeper of the German Nation, the liberal force who was identified with a repentant, yet dynamic and economically successful post-war Germany to get, at long last, that honour which was meant for the entire country!
The Goethe Institut headquarters in Munich at that moment planned a “German Year” in India under the guidance of Dr Georg Lechner, former director of the MMB Kolkata. I suggested a book on “Günter Grass in India” to be funded and published by the “German Year”, and he immediately agreed as he was himself a friend of Grass. During all of 2000 I researched on the subject in India and in Germany, speaking and writing to dozens of people around the world. One person replied from Seoul, another from Israel. I received information from Pune and Delhi, from Bangalore and Madras.
Dr Lechner approached the office of Günter Grass in Lübeck asking for an interview with the writer that would be incorporated in the book. He declined. Clearly, he was overburdened by the publicity the Nobel Prize had created. Yet, I felt hurt. Was I just any journalist writing an article on him? I spent a year bringing together a full book. SV Raman, programme officer of the MMB, was a great help as he had been at the centre of making the Grasses comfortable in 1986-87.
In one of the numerous interviews Grass had given in India and some of which were reproduced in my book, I found that lovely quote – “my broken love” for Kolkata. His was a love full of agony, full of anger against the middle class that did so little for the poor. I used this as the title of my book, which was published in 2001 by Penguin India and released by Khushwant Singh at the MMB in Delhi. Singh as usual revelled in provocative statements. He opened his speech saying that he was sure Günter Grass did not like India and was disgusted by its people; and he, Singh, liked the book only because he had an article in it (reproduced from Sunday magazine).
When in Kolkata in 1986-87, Grass had promised that he would return. Several Indian friends had come to greet him in Germany. We got the feeling that Grass kept himself informed about the politics and social life of India from his north German home in Behlendorf. So when he did arrive, invited and prodded by Dr Martin Wälde, the new, energetic director of the Max Mueller Bhavan, Kolkata, it was like a triumphant homecoming. This time, Grass did not arrive as a private person but he was a guest of the Max Mueller Bhavan and of the West Bengal government. Now he was a Nobel Prize awardee. He stayed in the Oberoi Grand Hotel for 10 days and whenever he drove around a pilot car advanced him with a siren. Being the author of My Broken Love, I was allowed to be among the people escorting the writer. I shall always be grateful to Martin Wälde for that privilege. It was during these days that I really got to know and appreciate Günter Grass.
I remember the long boat trip on the Ganges to Serampore. We had a long conversation during those leisurely hours. In Serampore, we visited the old Theological College and I remember how Grass stood before that imposing building struck by awe. I remember his agitation when he went around with the Calcutta Social Project to their various street schools and saw their good work as well as the plight of the children. I remember when we got together every morning in the lobby of the Oberoi and how Grass approached me to shake hands. He noticed my shyness and came forward himself. I experienced Grass as a warm-hearted and unpretentious human being, as a man who could listen and who was able to ask personal questions. He was genuinely interested.
It was on the last evening when we — Günter Grass, Jörg Kogel and myself — sat together in semi-darkness at the poolside of the Oberoi, that I had my “Günter Grass moment”. He suddenly offered that I address him by the informal and familiar, more intimate “Du”. It is similar to tumi in Bengali, though the usage and the implications are somewhat different. This was an offer of friendship and of trust. I was speechless and, almost in tears, deeply grateful.
Those days were noteworthy for another reason. Here I met for the first time Jörg Kogel who accompanied Grass as a friend and media consultant. He is the programme director of Radio Bremen and has recorded innumerable interviews, speeches and book readings for radio and television. Kogel has helped to build up a media library on Grass in Bremen. Like me from the Rhineland and of similar temperament and convictions, Jörg and I became instant friends. Since then I have visited him in Bremen every year, sometimes more than once; he advised me, travelled with me and worked with me. Thank you, Günter, for giving Jörg to me!
By the end of 2005, I brought out a German version of My Broken Love adding several new essays and the facts on Grass’s third visit to Kalkutta. (Ich will in das Herz Kalkuttas eindringen. Günter Grass in Indien und Bangaldesh. Edition Isele, Eggingen.) Now that we had become personally known to each other, Grass granted me an interview for the German book. With the publisher I travelled to his remote North German farmhouse in Behlendorf, which stands solitarily amidst a large garden. He showed me his studio where he had just fashioned a series of small clay figures. He played Vivaldi from a CD. There was the lectern at which he stood every day to write by hand. He never used a computer or typewriter. There were other lecterns around the house, he mentioned, which he used.
Thereafter we met in Bremen where he had a book reading and once again in the Günter Grass House in Bremen on his 85th birthday (2012). He came up to me and immediately began to speak about Subhash Chandra Bose. It was not Tagore, not Vivekananda or Ramakrishna who fascinated Grass in Bengal, but Netaji. There was more of an enigma and a more powerful political drive in him than in the others. Grass had planned to write a play on Netaji for many years, but he never got around to doing it.
This was less than two years ago. Grass was already quite ill. The lifelong habit of smoking finally caught up with him. He needed a steady supply of oxygyn, which he received through a pipe inserted in his nose. When alone, he carried a small bottle with him. For an hour or two he could do without, but then he had to retire to get oxygyn. No more long travels. No more long stays away from home. The lively and active man had to restrict himself. On that birthday, he made the caustic remark to me, “Now my smoking pays off.”