What was the famous reputation of Netaji

Günter Grass
In Kolkata

Grass in Kolkata | Photo: © Martin Wilder

Since India's independence, apart from this German Nobel Prize winner, there has not been a world-famous writer who has shown an active interest in the Indian subcontinent and has lived here for a long time.

Günter Grass died on April 13th in Lübeck. He was 87 years old. He was active until the end. Just a few days before his death, he received the ovation in the Thalia Theater in Hamburg for the performance of the tin drum, his most famous work.
 
Since Grass ‘first visit to Kolkata in 1975, he had a special relationship with India, but above all with this city. What does his death mean for us who live in this country? Since India's independence, there has been no world-famous writer apart from Grass who has shown an active interest in the Indian subcontinent and has lived here for a long time. The interest of this German author is remarkable, regardless of his literary processing of this experience. Only Octavio Paz, the Mexican poet, essayist, and Nobel Prize winner was similarly interested in India. Therefore, when Grass received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1999, India and Bangladesh felt proud, as if one of their own authors had been honored. Grass was fascinated by Kolkata, he was attracted and repelled by the city at the same time, it pained him to see so much misery and suffering, but he was also enthusiastic about the positive energy of its residents.
 
Grass came to India a total of four times. In 1975 he visited New Delhi, Kolkata and Kerala as a state guest at the invitation of the government. In 1978 he and his wife Ute made a ten-day stopover in Mumbai on their world tour. In August 1986 the couple returned to India with the intention of spending a year in Kolkata. Grass wanted to find out what fascinated him the first time he was in town eleven years ago. He made a serious effort to understand Kolkata and its people, historically, politically, culturally, and emotionally. Although he broke off his stay prematurely and left the city after just five months, then traveled through other parts of India for a month before returning to Europe, Grass explained that Kolkata had changed him and that his experiences in this metropolis set the standard against which he will measure future experiences.
 
Nothing about Grass ‘family background and his early years suggests that one day he would be interested in the misery in third world countries, and especially in India. There was no grandfather who was a missionary in India (as in the case of Hermann Hesse); he had not studied anything like it and had never had contact with Asians. Grass came from Langfuhr, a small suburb of Danzig, where his parents owned a grocery store.
 
He was born in 1927 and spent his youth in the provincial milieu of the German petty bourgeoisie, which he would later describe in his epic The Tin Drum. He attended grammar school, but dropped out of school in the 9th grade and joined the Hitler Youth, a paramilitary organization in which boys were trained according to the principles of National Socialism and prepared for military service. Grass even belonged to the notorious SS. It was only a few years ago that he revealed this well-kept secret. His confession sparked heated debates in Germany at the time.
 
Later it was incomprehensible to Grass himself why he had become so enthusiastic about the Nazis as a teenager. He said he was stupid, confused, and ignorant like so many of his generation. At the age of just 17, Grass was drafted ten months before the end of the war and sent to the Eastern Front without much training. He survived an attack by the Soviet army that killed half of his company.
 
These early missteps became a trauma for him, but at the same time they were the impetus for his social commitment and his tireless work for peace and social justice. As one of the pioneers of his generation, he called on the German people to face their dark past, to regret what happened and to make amends.
 
After his wounding, Grass was captured and spent time in the hospital. After his release from American captivity in 1946, Grass initially earned his living doing odd jobs. Instead of finishing school, he did an internship with a stonemason. He then studied graphics and sculpture at the Düsseldorf Art Academy from 1948-53. In 1953 he continued his studies at the University of Fine Arts in Berlin.
 
His literary efforts bore fruit with the publication of a volume of poetry and a play. When he moved to Paris with his first wife Anna in 1956, he was already working on the tin drum manuscript. When the novel appeared in 1959, Grass was hailed as the new voice in post-war German literature. The Tin Drum tells the story of Oscar Matzerath, a little boy who, in protest against the petty-bourgeois environment in which he lives, decides not to grow anymore. The setting of the novel has autobiographical traits: Langfuhr near Danzig, the shop, the family, the milieu, the war with its destruction and trauma. Audiences and critics interpreted the epic as a massive condemnation of war crimes and an expression of sympathy for the sufferings of the victims.
 
The Tin Drum is the author's best-known novel in India and was mentioned and discussed on innumerable occasions during Grass ‘stay in Kolkata. Whenever Grass gave a lecture or a reading, he always showed Volker Schlöndorff's masterful film adaptation of the novel.
 
Günter Grass became the voice of the conscience of the German people in the post-war period. Driven by a strong political instinct, Grass strove to combine his political commitment with his calling as a writer. Many of his literary colleagues believed that politics and literature were incompatible. Grass, who published one book after the other and at the same time raised his voice in various political forums at home and abroad, proved them wrong. When the student movement started in 1968, he became its mentor.
 
Grass was committed to the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), which was mainly assigned to the center-left spectrum under Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt. He later even became a party member. When the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) dissolved in 1989 and German reunification was imminent, Grass was the only celebrity who did not share the enthusiasm for a united Germany. He did not want East Germany to be taken over by the capitalist system of West Germany. He had hoped, unfortunately in vain, for some form of human, democratic communism ‘or a left-wing socialist system in the East.
 
Despite his varied and turbulent life, Grass still found time to pursue his artistic inclinations and to make etchings, drawings and watercolors, which he published in large-format volumes. Many of these artistic representations relate to the subjects of his books and deliberately evoke a certain disgust. Others are meticulous nature drawings that illustrate poems or epigrams.
 
Grass campaigned for countless social, cultural, literary and human rights organizations, and occasionally took on official posts. He has participated in an endless number of protests, sit-ins, panel discussions, and hearings.
 
He lectured, gave interviews, and sponsored any good cause that an honest and righteous man can in good conscience speak out. My generation, the successor generation to Grass ‘, practically grew up with Grass as a warning conscience. He was known to be frank about what he thought. Due to his direct manner, he often offended people who accused him of bigotry and arrogance, a lack of empathy and stubbornness. In this way he made as many enemies as he made friends. But nobody questioned his courage and genuine social commitment.
 
Günter Grass was always on the move. In the age of the airplane and the highways, this is not unusual. Public figures often have no other choice. Grass ‘travels were mostly limited to Europe and the USA. After the war he regularly visited Poland, where he was born. The United States was also popular, as was Portugal and Denmark, where Grass owned houses.
 
Grass ‘biographers have documented his five trips to Asia. The first in 1975 to India (Delhi, Kolkata, Kerala). The second in 1987, which took him to Japan, Indonesia, Thailand, Hong Kong, India (Mumbai) and Kenya, and the third in 1979 was a lecture tour organized by the Goethe-Institut to China, Singapore, Jakarta, Manila and Cairo. The fourth went back to India in 1986-87, with an extended stay in Kolkata, and the fifth and final was in January and February 2005 when Grass spent ten days in Kolkata. India is the country outside of the Western Hemisphere that he visited most often and where he undoubtedly stayed the longest.
 
Grass ‘first visit to India in early 1975 was at the invitation of the Indian government. Grass gave a talk entitled "According to Rough Estimates" at the Indian International Center in Delhi. He was deeply affected by the inhuman conditions in the countries of the third world and was outraged by the non-binding, even cynical reaction of the western media and western society in general. Grass had no advice on how to remedy this global situation, just expressed his own helplessness. This lecture is also mentioned in the novel The Flounder, a fictional processing of his experiences in India, which he projects onto the historical figure of Vasco da Gama. Grass imagines Vasco's reactions if he returned to India today.
 
Grass then flew to Kolkata, where he lived in the Raj Bhavan. He was disturbed by the formal, exaggerated hospitality that brought back memories of the colonial era. But as a state guest he had no other choice. In Kolkata, the slums and the obligatory visit to Mother Theresa's “Home for the Dying” in Kalighat and the Kali Temple were on the program. Among the representatives of the intellectual elite, he visited the filmmaker Mrinal Sen, whom he was to meet again eleven years later, and the poet, translator and publisher P Lal.
 
When reading the chapter on Vasco's return to India, I notice two things. On the one hand, Grass indulges in descriptions of Kolkata's ugliness and poverty. His social conscience plagues him and so he wrestles with me until he finds the right word to bring to life the horror and agony of life in the gutter. On the other hand, he is amazed by the "serenity", the "invincible charm" and the "beauty" of the poor: "Poverty treats itself to beauty"; "(the city) wants ... its misery to be terribly beautiful." He mentions four times this aspect, almost reproachfully, clearly indignant, without attempting to get to the bottom of this paradox.
 
Grass ‘second visit to India was in April 1978. He and Ute toured Asia and flew from Bangkok to Mumbai. The Max Mueller Bhavan organized a panel discussion on “Aspects of Social Consciousness in Contemporary Literature”.
 
Grass recorded his visit to Cheetah Camp, this huge slum by the sea, as well as projects of the Terre des Hommes children's charity in a travel report for the weekly newspaper Die Zeit. In almost the same wording, he reproduces his experiences in his novel Kopfgeburten or The Germans Die Out, the literary result of his tour of Asia. It was Adi D Patel, a Parse, who invited the Grass couple to see the Terre des Hommes slum projects in Mumbai (Patel worked for this organization).
 
In his novel, Grass mentions the vacation together with Joachim Bühler, the head of Max Mueller Bhavan at the time, on the island of Manori, not far from the city. For his part, Bühler recorded this short vacation in an essay. The differences between its representation and the literary processing in head births are striking. Bühler describes a relaxing stay in an idyllic place while Grass talks about the poverty of the villagers.
     
The third stay in India in 1986-87 had been planned for some time. Grass had already announced two years earlier that he would spend a whole year in Kolkata after completing his new novel The She-rat. He and Ute landed in Mumbai in August 1986 and took the train to Kolkata from there. There they lived initially in a garden bungalow in Baruipur; Then in mid-October they moved to Lake Town, from where they could better reach Kolkata. During the day, the couple explored the city alone or with friends. The two looked at sights or wandered aimlessly through the area. The Max Mueller Bhavan's cafeteria was their base. Here they met friends, and from here they set off on their forays into the city. Journalists, intellectuals and their new acquaintances knew that they would usually find Günter and Ute Grass here.
 
Grass met many important figures in the Kolkata cultural scene: writers, artists, theater people, filmmakers and scholars. But he didn't break a leg to get to know her. He never met Kolkata's cultural icon at the time, the film director Satyajit Ray, not even Mother Theresa. After all, he had come to Kolkata to learn more about the simple and unknown people of the city. In addition, some of their friends had the impression that, in contrast to the general population, who welcomed the Grasses warmly, the cultural elite kept their distance.
 
Günter and Ute Grass had planned their time in Kolkata as a private stay; they had consciously chosen a simple lifestyle and valued their privacy. But Grass was not a stranger and within a month cultural workers had noticed him. Public appearances and interviews with the media followed. Evenings of poetry took place, readings from his novels, the screening of the film The Tin Drum, panel discussions, the opening of an exhibition of his etchings and finally the performance of his play The Plebeians Rehearse the Insurrection. He had staged it together with a Bengali theater director in a Bengali translation and was present during the first two performances.
 
Grass dedicated his Kolkata diary showing the tongue “Mr. And Mrs. Karlekar and the Calcutta Social Project ”. In his book he introduces her work among the poor and is full of praise. This organization looks after various slums in Kolkata and looks after street children, enables them to get a school and vocational training and offers them medical care. Shortly after his return to Germany, Günter Grass made the first major donation to the CSP.
 
His sympathies for the poor were based on firm convictions. In Grass ‘perception of Indian society, the extreme differences between rich and poor dominated, which diminished his enjoyment of his stay and the cultural and religious wealth of the country. He neither recognized the connection between the material living conditions of poor Indians and their educational opportunities, nor was he apparently able to understand their poverty in its entirety. Poverty is more than material lack, it is a mental and emotional state that has a crippling effect on those affected. Every social worker knows how difficult it is to motivate the poor, to get them to improve their own situation through discipline and willpower.
 
Grass accused the Indians of not following Mahatma Gandhi's ideals; he viewed Gandhi's land reforms as a missed opportunity. Of the historical personalities of India, apart from Gandhi, he was particularly interested in Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. In Show Tongue, he dedicates a long poem to Bose. When journalists asked him if he would write about his experiences in Kolkata, he firmly rejected the idea of ​​literary processing. He believed that only a Bengali James Joyce (see quotes) could write a novel about Kolkata.
 
Grass ‘Diary of Kolkata Show Tongue approaches Indian reality in three ways: through the prose diary, a long poem and black and white drawings. Grass must have realized that he was taking a risk with this project. Intercultural literature always provokes ambivalent reactions. With his factual style and his rock-solid convictions, Grass inevitably had to offend. "With what right does he criticize our city?", Kolkata residents may have asked themselves.“What does he even know about India?” Experts (Indologists, economists, professional India travelers) may have asked. “Do I find out anything that is important for my life in Germany?” His German readers may have asked themselves. His experiment to live in Kolkata under conditions that were as simple ("poor") as possible was ridiculed and ridiculed. Certainly Grass often judged prematurely. Nevertheless, inspired by the claim to be intellectually and emotionally completely honest, he roamed the narrow streets of Kolkata and tried to “see everything and report on everything”. You can judge his narrow view, but his absolute honesty demands respect.
 
When the English edition of Show Tongue was published in 1989, people in India were shocked. Kolkata's educated bourgeoisie had to realize that his city, which already had a bad reputation, was being vilified once more. Grass later admitted to Indian friends that he had deliberately drawn such a gloomy picture in order to shake his readers, including the Indian ones, out of their lethargy and to mobilize them to take social and political action. In other words, he tacitly admitted that his book was one-sided and did not reflect the full range of his experiences in India.
 
When the Nobel Prize Committee announced on October 1, 1999 that Grass would receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, people in Kolkata noticed him again. The Statesman's headline spoke to educated Indians from the soul: Noble for a Part-Calcutter. Grass “hardhearted”, “controversial”, “unfriendly” (The Statesman, Oct. 2) remarks about Kolkata were by no means forgotten. But joy and pride and a feeling of togetherness predominated. How often had Grass been asked in Kolkata and Dhaka when he would finally get the Nobel Prize! Or worse: he was accidentally welcomed publicly as a Nobel Prize winner! Grass often reacted harshly and indignantly in such situations. But Sekhar Basu recalled (Bartaman, October 16) an occasion on which Grass had gallantly replied, "I think that after Tagore I will be the second Bengali to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature."
 
In January 2005, Grass came to Kolkata a third time at the invitation of Martin W Bäumen, the active director of the Max Mueller Bhavan. When the 78-year-old writer arrived in Kolkata, his only destination in India, it was like a triumphant homecoming for the Nobel Prize winner. At the same time it was a journey into my own past. He stayed at the Oberoi Grand Hotel; its official program included numerous poetry readings, discussions, public lectures and evening invitations. But he also went to his former favorite places with one of his daughters who accompanied him on this trip. He took a full day to study the street schools of the Calcutta Social Project and met the Indian author Amitav Ghosh for the first time in the traditional coffee house. He went to the book fair and met old friends there again. Unlike his previous stays in India, this one did not bear any literary fruit. But Grass ‘met with Indian friends in Germany and kept up to date with the political and social developments in India.

Quotes from Grass:

When I first came to India (1975) it was at the invitation of the Indian government. Of all that I saw and experienced on this visit, it was Kolkata that fascinated me most, but also stirred me up.
My feeling is that Kolkata's terrible problems are not regional in nature. Even during my first stay I had the spontaneous feeling that the "Kolkata problem" was more of a "world problem".
 
While we were looking for a taxi, a young man came up to us and asked me, "Aren't you a German author?"
I said yes.
"Aha! The author of the tin drum? "
"Yes."
"Then you must be Graham Greene."
Well the initials are the same and, frankly, I didn't mind switching roles with Graham Greene.
 
A journalist asked me if I was going to write a novel about Kolkata. No, I had never toyed with that thought. Kolkata is a city that demands its own Bengali James Joyce. Someone who was born and raised here, through whose veins the blood of this city flows. No outsider should write such a novel.
 
Selected from “I want to penetrate the heart of Calcutta”: Günter Grass in India and Bangladesh, ed. By Martin Kämchen (Ed. Isele 2005) [possibly. one would have to insert the original quotations]