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Mainstream, VOL LIII, No 17, April 18, 2015

From ‘pile of shit’, discovery of breathtaking contradictions: Gunter Grass, the Voice of a Generation

Friday 17 April 2015


by Subhoranjan Dasgupta

Gunter Grass, the German author and social critic who gave voice to the generation that came of age during the horrors of the Nazi era, died on Monday (April 13) morning. He was 87.

A friend of Gunter Grass, who interviewed the Nobel Prize winner several times, recalls and analyses the German author’ s association with Calcutta.

The question that is haunting me even after his death is basic in nature and, at the same time, essentially simple: did he love this decrepit metropolis from the core of his heart or did he hate it with a vengeance?

One could turn a bit speculative and place the question in a different mould: was his relationship to Calcutta dialectal to his bones with love and hatred forming the opposite sides of the same contradictory coin?

Gunter Grass visited Calcutta for the first time in 1975. It was some sort of a state visit where he was guided by official people and he was put up in the Governor’ s House, which was no place for a rebel like him. This first encounter was short and fervid. He was shocked and stupefied by the squalor, dirt and poverty of the city and he was so moved that he wrote a surreal piece in his novel, The Flounder, where these two emotions once again wove an antithetical tapestry.

On the one hand, he recommended Calcutta to a young couple as a good place to visit on their honeymoon and, on the other, he had no hesitation in describing the city as a pile of shit.

Indeed, his exact words were: “Why not a poem about a pile of shit that god dropped and named Calcutta. How it swarms, stinks, lives and gets bigger and bigger.” In order to remain true to his ardently Leftist weltanschaung (worldview), he mentioned Frankfurt in the same breath. In other words, you experience and witness shit everywhere irrespective of the world the city belongs to, First or Third World.

The fervid description of Calcutta in The Flounder did not end with this short surreal prose. Gunter Grass was agonised by the existential aporia of the city and this emotion found its expression in a sensitive passage which underlines the antinomy of Calcutta. He asked:


where horror should cast us in lead,

can I laugh,

How, where garbage and only garbage grows,

am I to speak of Ilsebill because she is beautiful,

and speak of beauty?

In point of fact, his first encounter with Calcutta left him in a clearly dialectical mood and he swung violently from condemnation to haunting queries.

When I met Gunter Grass for the first time in 1984 in Hamburg, I could feel that the committed social democrat was feeling uncomfortable because how could he, of all persons, castigate a Third World city in such unforgivable terms? I placed the question to him and the reply he gave was revelatory. He said—and he meant every syllable of his comment: “I cannot tear myself away from your country, and Calcutta is a city that has changed me radically. It has opened my eyes.”

His First World eyes were rendered blind by the sorrow and angst of Calcutta and he admitted that his journey through Calcutta could only be compared with Saul’ s journey through Damascus. He confessed to me that he wanted to come back to Calcutta for a longer time and experience first hand the struggle for existence unfolding daily here.

On the one hand, he was caustic and critical about the vulgar pockets of luxury prevailing in the city with middle class and upper-middle class people turning a blind eye to the curse all around, and on the other, he was moved by the relentless ardour and toil of the poor women in particular, who fought it out in this inhospitable terrain.

After living in Baruipur for a few months during his second visit to Calcutta in 1986, Grass moved to Lake Town but remained consistently critical of the class division prevailing in the city. To my question if he could write a novel on Calcutta’ s contradiction, his reply was bold and direct. He said: “I cannot write a novel on Calcutta... Calcutta is a city that demands its own Bengali James Joyce, Alfred Doblin and Dos Passos.”

True, he did not attempt to do the impossible but at the same time he narrated his experience in words and sketches in his masterly record Zunge Zeigen (Show Your Tongue). In this book, we find Grass in a reflective mood. He forgot the reference to shit and concentrated on the beauty of the Calcutta basti and the hills of garbage which dotted Dhapa. Indeed, he was almost in a purgatorial mood which wanted to confront Calcutta with a humanist-socialist vision instead of loading his description with unsavoury epithets.

Nevertheless, he stuck to the essential truth and mentioned the spread of garbage in his long poem on Calcutta. It was in Dhapa that he found little children practising Bengali letters. So, he combined garbage with literacy and wrote a beautiful stanza concentrating on the tragic pathos of Calcutta.

In the present garbage already...

Crouched over slates, practising Bengali letters.

The exercise, written over and over,

In translation: Life is beautiful.

(Show Your Tongue, 1988 )

Therefore, Grass had already confessed and he was seeking to build a bridge with the Third World, an effort which had originated in the political philosophy and practice of his political mentor, Willy Brandt. He did not stop with this expression of homage.

Grass once again launched into a comparison between Calcutta and Frankfurt and stated unequivocally that the well-ordered basti room of Calcutta was more satisfying and true to life and world than the mammoth building of the multinational Deutsche Bank which soared in Europe’ s commercial capital. He found hope, love, ardour, simplicity and other values of life in the basti which spoke of greater ethics than the all-conquering sight of Deutsche Bank in Frankfurt.

Since then Calcutta became a permanent icon in the weltgeist (worldspirit) of Gunter Grass and he told me that the three cities which have governed his outlook and emotion are Danzig where he was born and grew up, Berlin where he lived for a long time, and our decrepit Calcutta.

In fact, the chronicler’s dialectic was so impassioned that in an interview given in 2001 he said almost solemnly: “My Indian experience has left an indelible imprint on my creativity. Even when I am not writing directly about India or Calcutta, that experience continues to hover.”

Now we can come to the conclusion and try to resolve the riddle that I had placed at the beginning of the tribute. He did not want Calcutta to develop like another Frankfurt. He did not want Calcutta to ape the tyranopolis of the West. What he ardently desired from his Calcutta experience was a new dialectic from Calcutta’ s breathtaking contradictions.

While remembering him after his death, we should not forget his short-tempered growl, his later patience and his balanced estimate that put Calcutta on the world map in a totally different manner.

We should also not forget that the author of The Tin Drum (arguably the best post-War novel of Europe) also indulged in lyricism and sketching in order to give Calcutta its rightful due.

When one turns the pages of Show Your Tongue, one is moved beyond words by the poems and the sketches which turn Calcutta into a throbbing chiaroscuro.

(Courtesy: The Telegraph, Calcutta)

The author, a journalist, scholar, intellectual who is steeped in German language and culture, interviewed Gunter Grass several times.

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