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Corona Poetry
An Ode to Mainz from Kolkata

Surendra Munshi
© Surendra Munshi

The Indian sociology professor Surendra Munshi wrote a poem about the BioNTech scientists

By Michael Jacobs

MAINZ. The golden city of Mainz is often extolled, especially during Carnival, which is, however, now overshadowed by the pandemic. But it’s not every day that one of the most prominent intellectuals in India writes an ode to the city of Gutenberg. Now, the light of hope is shining from Mainz to the subcontinent, which has suffered acutely from the coronavirus.

The author of the work, Surendra Munshi, is a professor emeritus of sociology at the Indian Institute of Management in Kolkata, one of the most renowned in his field in South Asia. He did his doctorate in Bielefeld, visited many German cities and is a friend of the city of Mainz, says Berthold Franke, Mainz native and regional director of the Goethe-Institut in New Delhi, who sent this newspaper the remarkable poem by his professor friend. The verses peppered with references to world literature were prompted by the news that spanned the globe about the Mainz company BioNTech, founded by the researcher couple Ugur Sahin and Özlem Türeci, which was the first to develop a vaccine against the virus. An anthem written in West Bengal to a serum for humanity created on the Rhine – even millennium man Gutenberg never received such lyrical praise. Accordingly, Surendra Munshi’s “Ode to Mainz,” which he had friends translate from the English original into German, is written in highly poetic language which overlays Rhine-Hessian cheeriness with Indian pathos. The lyrical journey begins on the banks of the Rhine to then flow straight into the light:

From your ancient sand dunes
And your old river banks
You send again a message
That you live in merriment but not in vain
You have much to give
Light, the light of life

It’s clear that the poet is quite familiar with Mainz and German literature, as demonstrated by his allusion to St. Stephan’s and its biblical blue Chagall windows and by the phrase “Let what matters most be said,” which, as Munshi in explains in his footnotes, he borrowed from a statement by Goethe (“What matters most cannot be said”) during the siege of Mainz in 1793:

Glowing like the blue light of your church
You show the end is near
Of our dark days of lonely dread
Let what matters most be said
We may win yet and live

Then the inventive genius Johannes Gutenberg comes into play. Due to a conflict between patricians and guilds, Gutenberg was forced to leave Mainz for several years – the Indian scholar knows that, as well, and now puts the Turkish-born BioNTech couple Sahin-Türeci on a pedestal as guiding lights in the corona era:

Gutenberg, you should be living at this hour
You would not find a city better than this
Living here, not to go away but to stay
To see Sahin at work following a dream
With Türeci and their talented tea