How Indian writers perceive Germany
From a distant land
Seventy years and four Indian writers: What they have in common is a visit to Germany. An alien country with different ways of life. Yet also an occasion to review the perception of oneself.
By Almuth Degener, Namita Khare
How does an Indian visitor see Germany? We interviewed four writers who have processed their thoughts in literary form as travelogues or novels. Most of them are no longer with us today and their responses have been extracted from their works.
Ajneya (Sachchidananda Hirananda Vatsyayan, 1911–1987) travelled around several European countries in the late 1950s. Nirmal Verma (1929–2005) went to Berlin twice in the summer of 1961, just before and just after the building of the Wall. Manohar Shyam Joshi (1933–2006) travelled to West Germany in the early 1980s, at the invitation of the Goethe-Institut Inter Nationes. Rahman Abbas (born in 1972) visited Germany in 2019, thanks to the Crossing Borders programme carried out by the Robert Bosch Stiftung in collaboration with the Literarisches Colloquium Berlin.
Nirmal Verma: I travelled by train from Prague to Berlin, past chimney stacks, ruins, rubble, houses with bullet holes and empty windows that stared back at me. A “heavy smell holding the past of an entire previous generation,” hung in the air, I felt a vague anxiety. “One should not dig up the dead, it is said, but… For me, as somebody who comes to Europe from a land far away, the period that is the past for all, or at least for the locals, is still alive.”
What were your impressions of the capital city - Berlin?
Rahman Abbas: “Looking at the buildings here, evidence of a powerful and skilfully executed architecture, it was hard to imagine that this place had once been destroyed.”
Nirmal Verma: “When strolling down Kurfürstendamm or through the Hansaviertel, one sees examples of weightless, modern architecture, towering buildings that conceal the ugly remnants of the war beneath. It is no coincidence that hundreds travel from East Berlin to the western part of the city every day to stroll around or to go shopping… No wonder that West Berlin today, Western Europe’s glittering show window, stands in contrast to Eastern Europe, a unique symbol for the ideals of a free Europe.”
Ajneya: I was on Kurfürstendamm. “A grand place in the city. A modern place in a modern city: not enough that it is big; one must constantly draw attention to its splendour. Encircled by gigantic glass windows on the outside, the glow of lights within. On the street, light percolates through: the light of streetlamps, the light of moving cars – a network of different lights, flowing in thin, uniform lines. In the centre, a ring of darkness, one has a sense of split arches and domes somewhere; suddenly, from a dense dark well emerges the damaged spire of a church. This church, destroyed during the war, takes pride in its place on Kurfürstendamm, Berlin’s grand boulevard; it has remained a ruin, although all the surrounding buildings have been rebuilt and occupied…. But what I saw was this: This ruined church was, so to speak, the face of Europe today – beautiful, broken, torn in the conflict between life and annihilation and thus fully introverted; blinded and unsettled by the conflicting influences of an aversion to unshakeable faith on the one hand and a fascination brought on by one’s own zeal on the other… And I also felt that just as Berlin was and is the centre of conflict in Europe, the real face of Europe is ultimately the face of Berlin. And the broken and illuminated dome of this church stands there as a symbol for this face, torn by conflicts.”
Berlin bears testimony to the Nazi past and to the days of the Cold War. What are your thoughts on Berlin as a historic city?
Rahman Abbas: At the Berlin Wall Memorial, I thought: “Is the Line of Control in Kashmir tearing families apart in the same way?”
Nirmal Verma: “Now, while writing these lines, so much has changed. Free movement between East and West Berlin is no longer possible…. There is probably no other city in Europe that offers such a blunt and naked depiction of the Cold War.”
Did you have any special experiences?
Nirmal Verma: A visit to a performance of Brecht at the Berliner Ensemble was a longstanding wish come true. “Since the play had already started, we were no longer able to take our seats. But thanks to the fact that we were foreigners, we didn’t have to wait outside. A gentleman led us to the box. The door was cautiously opened, we tiptoed in and sat down on two free seats. It took a while before we noticed that there was somebody else there as well. She was sitting quietly, wrapped up in herself, with such concentration that she was probably unaware that we had come in. Middle-aged, the face lined, but a fire in the eyes, a strange and restless warmth – it was Helene Weigel! A short while later, she got up and left the box. That was the end of our ‘historic’ encounter with the director of the Berliner Ensemble.”
Do you think there are differences in mentality between Germany and India?
Manohar Shyam Joshi: The relationship with the old and the new. “In one part of the city, traffic had been stopped and people were putting all sorts of household goods out on the street. Not just cans, bottles, waste paper, but also TV sets, refrigerators, stereo systems, washing machines, furniture, simply everything! I was told that the waste was collected free of charge every month at fixed times.” Among the people roaming the streets in search of something useful were antique dealers, “because in this consumer culture, in which something new quickly becomes old, things that are not very old sometimes become antiques. ... I’ve seen for myself that a coal-heated iron, as still used by dhobis (launderers) in India, is offered for sale as an expensive antique.”
Rahman Abbas: And there are differences in relation to the dead. I happened to enter a cemetery, it was a different world. “The graves had been laid out with great care and arranged systematically, surrounded by gardens with flowers of every hue. In some places, there were grave lanterns with candles burning inside. Several gravestones had a picture of the dead person, along with the date of birth and death… The cemetery resembled an art gallery. How much love people had lavished on the graves of their family members! “had to think of my mother. ... I didn’t even know where her grave was.”
Thank you for the conversation!
- Ajneya: Berlin - Nervenzentrum Europas. Übers. L. Lutze. In: Ajneya (Sachchidananda Vatsyayan): Unterwegs zum Fluss. Herausgegeben von L. Lutze und R. Kimmig. Freiburg 1986, 109-112.
- Nirmal Verma: Cheero Par Chandni. Delhi 1964.
- Manohar Shyam Joshi: Pashchimi Jarmany Par Udti Nazar. Delhi 2006, Reprint 2010.
- Sachchidananda Vatsyayan: Ek Boond Sahsa Uchli. Varanasi 1960.
- Rahman Abbas: Zindeeq. Delhi 2021.