How I Stopped Being an Indian

… and couldn’t turn into anything else. Wonder if it’s my private tragedy or whether I have compatriots in this very special circle of hell. In the Divina Comedia, Dante Alighieri’s Inferno begins with the Limbo and proceeds over Lust & Greed & Violence et cetera to Treachery. We expats remain in our limbo, which is exile.

Limbo is the First Circle of Hell where unbaptised but virtuous pagans live, as Wikipedia will tell you (I just checked ‘God’ on Wiki and was blown away!). These virtuous pagans are not sinful, even if they did not accept Christ (convert to Christianity i.e.). Trust an Italian poet of the late 13th/early 14th century to describe the state of mind (if not existence) of an Indian expat in Germany in the late 20th/early 21st c. And I’m in good company: the ancient Roman poet Virgil, who is Dante’s guide on his journey through Hell, personally resides in the Limbo, so quite a classy neighbourhood, I should think. Virgil lived before Christ, so he couldn’t possibly have been anything other than a virtuous pagan. But let us not split hairs.

Germany, where I landed more by chance than by choice, also proved to be a classy neighbourhood. It is one of the richest and best organised countries on earth. After their excesses in the earlier part of the last century, the Germans have created one of the most efficient economies together with one of the smoothest running democracies and one of the most liberal & tolerant societies anywhere on earth. It is not Frau Merkel who is drawing all those hapless people to Germany, it is the country itself, the country that I privately call Jesus Wept. Jesus would weep for joy if He saw what this country does for an unmarried teen mother who is a school dropout with a punk hairstyle and five instances of broken off vocational training. It is a country where shelterless persons picked up from the Bahnhof toilet with alcohol poisoning – and like-as-not without a health insurance – are treated by the head physician of the hospital on a priority basis, since the state pays for it. There are saunas, table tennis rooms and private rooms for couples in prisons in this country. Lastly, it is a country where I have lived for three odd decades without ever having to ‘ring up somebody’ to get something done. It is a country where you walk into a government office as if they owe you money.

So do I have the right to be unhappy in such a country? Should it not at least be the Earthly Paradise for me – which sits atop the Purgatorio – leaving out Paradiso for the moment?

But I am not a Christian and I come from Kolkata. Any Calcuttan turning up at Heaven’s gate is simply waved through, since he is coming from hell – that is an old joke and certainly not one of mine. Dante should have visited Kolkata at the height of summer or during the rains – unfortunately Kolkata was founded 362 years after he finished the Comedia, so it’s neither his nor Kolkata’s fault. Had he been ‘born and brought up’ in Kolkata like me, his Latin would have been like my English and Dante Alighieri would have been another unknown blogger whom (how long haven’t I had the chance to write ‘whom’? Even Saint Obama says ‘who’) – to repeat, Dante would have been an unknown blogger whom Facebook suspects of writing spam from time to time. He should thank his stars he was born in Florence, though I’m not too sure about dying in Ravenna.

To hell with Dante – eh? – what about me? In my grander moments I rail in front of my German friends: ‘Who will integrate me? I have two continental plates rubbing against each other inside my head. I am the Invisible Man, I am the Man Who Does not Cast a Shadow. What do you know about me, huh? What do I know of myself? Am I German, am I Indian, I mean am I a German, am I an Indian, after all these years?’ ‘Half and half?’ one German onlooker – onlistener? – dares to comment, which is the German phrase for minced meat, half beef and half pork – I nearly eat him up! ‘D’you realise that I come from a country where the Hindus do not eat beef and the Muslims do not eat pork?’ ‘What do they eat?’ ‘Chicken, and the rest are too poor or vegetarians.’ ‘Do you miss India?’ ‘Miss India 2016? Priyadarshini Chatterjee? Isn’t she an eyeful? And a Bengali, like me!’ I declare proudly. ‘Bengali? We thought you were an Indian…’

It took me thirty odd years to make up my mind – and then I applied for the German passport. They tested my knowledge of German and Germany – whereas I am yet to meet the German who can pronounce my family name correctly: mostly it is Shouduri or Showduri, I’ve even heard Shovduri and Hovduri, and for the particularly adventurous, Khovduri! The ch at the beginning, the w in the middle (which is actually a v in German), followed directly by the unpronounceable dh, which is d with an aspirant laid on it; finally the inexplicable y. They had no choice except to give up and declare somebody to be a German & a countryman whose name they cannot pronouce and never will, even if I and my progeny were to populate the country with Chowdhurys.

Which is why I took to calling myself Der Inder, which means The Indian. At the dry cleaner’s, at the hairdresser’s, at the baker’s, at the local supermarket, I am known as der Inder or Herr Inder – Mister Indian. They write it on the bills & the vouchers, and in their appointment books. One point two billion of us, and the redoubtable task of representing India in Plittersdorf had to fall on my arthritic shoulders. When I have been a German for the past five years.

Try telling that to the Germans.

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What is European?

I often ask myself. After having spent 37 years at a stretch on this continent – which means the major part of my adult life – I suddenly find myself caught up in the midst of an unholy debate regarding Europeanness and – let’s just call it otherness.

If Europeans are that afraid of otherness, those ‘others’ should have been just as afraid of Europeanness, right? But apparently they aren’t. Hordes of human beings from other parts of the world are heading towards Europe looking for – what? Everything, I’d say, security, above all; security of life & limb, of food & shelter, employment and/or social benefits. Children’s education. Health care. Citizenship in due course. Voting rights. Pension. And all this irrespective of one’s religion – irrespective being the key word.

That seems to be the secret of how this continent of bloody-minded ex-slave traders & colonialists fighting their world wars every twenty years still managed to remain so attractive a place to live in. Irrespective of religion. In its long and chequered history, Europe has managed to preserve, even cherish, its religion, which is undoubtedly Christianity – and still ‘pull the teeth of religion’, as they’d put it in German, and the claws as well, one is tempted to add. We remember the end of the Inquisition & subsequently of all debauched, battling popes. The separation of church & state. As England is a constitutional monarchy, Europe seems to have converted to a kind of constitutional religion. Isn’t the Vatican somehow like the Buckingham Palace? People go and watch the changing of the guard in both places, I’m told, whether the Queen’s Guard in their bearskin caps or the Swiss Guard with their gorget, cuirass, morion and what-have-you.

On a more serious note, what fascinates me about Europe & European history is the fact that they turn entire epochs of that turbulent history into what I call their Great Unifiers. The Greeks and the Romans might have been what they were in their day, but they and their culture were later turned into a part of the humanistic education & upbringing of the European elite – together with Greek and Latin, two dead languages which will never die. Back in the ’eighties, I had a Czech doctor – in Communist Czechoslovakia – writing out his diagnosis in Latin so that I’d be able to present it to my house physician in (West) Germany. Poor fellow didn’t know German but assumed that any self-respecting doctor in Germany would have enough Latin. Charged me one crown, one single and solitary Czechoslovak crown, for the visit, prescription included.

But the Greeks and the Romans pale into insignificance when we come to Christianity, the master stroke of the Roman Catholic Church being to authorise the Latin version of the Bible, for the use of the vulgar or common people, hence called the Vulgate. And then the saints came marchin’ in!

It is necessary to understand how Christian myths & legends managed to penetrate every home & every mind in Europe – provide that substratum of a common consciousness upon which all could draw – the artists for inspiration & allusion, the commoner for understanding & comprehension. Philosophy is for the philosopers, theology for theologists; what the common man – or woman – needs are personal gods to pray to. In the case of Christianity, they gave the common folk the saints. After that there was no looking back. Because saints are human to begin with, their lives are open to human representation – in the arts and literature, for example. In churches as much as in palaces – or hovels.

The second trick was to adopt the concept as well as the terminology – not to speak of the insignia! – of earthly power to depict everything from the King of Heaven to His representative on earth viz. the Pope. Forget the Holy Roman Empire, which was neither holy nor Roman nor an empire, as the saying goes. But power, even at the Holy See, has always sought & expressed itself in pomp, and pomp proved to be a bounty & a bonanza for artists of the ilk of Michelangelo & Raffaello Sanzio. Especially the ‘divine Michelangelo’ did what he liked with the stories of the Bible – he liked naked men, for example! And he created a bit of Europe as we know it, in the process.

What the Europeans have been doing right from Michelangelo’s day is to decontrol & declassify religious/Christian myths & legends so that the secular world – of both artists and commoners or where the two touched – could make use of them for the furtherance of art & culture.

This is exactly what should have happened with our religious myths and epics – the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, for example. Religious myths & legends are not meant to be locked up in a treasure room & guarded with drawn swords & raised halberds – they are meant to be used, both ceremonially and otherwise.

The Indian, Hindu version of the Vulgate is of course Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas. The poet-saint of the sixteenth century retold the tales of the Sanskrit Ramayana in his native awadhi, the Hindi dialect of Awadh, and Hinduism of & for the masses was born.

Twentieth century Bengali novelist Satinath Bhaduri based his two volume saga of the Tatmas, a backward, low caste community in eastern Bihar, on Ramcharitmanas and titled his work Dhonrai Charit Manas. Dhonrai is the simpleton hero of this grassroots, realistic Ramayana set in sub-rural India with WWII as well as the Indian Independence Movement rambling on in the background. The way India & Indians have neglected this major piece of work which goes far beyond the purview of literature – and which I rank on the same level as the best of Premchand or Renu or Tarashankar or Bibhutibhusan – is as if the Taj Mahal were to be a forgotten monument among the goats & the scrub somewhere on the banks of the Yamuna.

I don’t know whether Shashi Tharoor got his inspiration from Satinath Bhaduri – I doubt it – but Tharoor based his 1989 The Great Indian Novel on the Mahabharata, recasting the epic to tell the story of India’s independence struggle & thereafter.

So Tulsi in Hindi, Satinath in Bengali & Tharoor in English – have we made the grade, then, so far as decontrolling & declassifying our myths are concerned? Let’s turn to the arts.

Michelangelo’s saints, sinners, Adam, even God Himself were mostly naked or nearly naked. This was in the sixteenth century. Maqbool Fida Husain, named the “Picasso of India” (if only by Forbes), had to breathe his last in European exile (in 2011, at the age of 95) because he had portrayed Goddess Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of learning, in the nude. The fact that he was a Muslim merely obscured the debate, which is still waiting to be joined.

Three Poems

The Girl-Child

Where will you hide, my love? There’s no such place,
The body is a traitor, a fool the other, the face;
The eyes, the eyelashes, dreams or tattered sleep,
This man a robber and that man a thief.
Take the water-pot to the river –
Is it the summer or do you have fever?
Who stole your heart and left his on a hyacinth leaf?

What was it you hid among the bushes, was it your shame?
A bundle of life not even blessed with a name,
Let it lie there and cry, for the jackal and the vulture, under the burning sky –
A girl-child. Did you whisper in its ear: it is sweeter to die?

Round Things

The sun is round, the moon is round, all round things on earth
Make the bawling man-child dream of the waters of his birth

Blind swimmer on a slender cord, pressed out like a seed
Sprawled legs at deliverance, sprawled legs at the deed

Two round things to feed him, two round things so near
Two round things to tell him there is nothing to fear but fear

Boy-man turns and goes away, there is something wrong
Round things leave him hot, confused, round things make him long

For games that he has never played, nor would if he could
Ask the neighbour’s girl-child? Unsure whether he should

A mystery, a puzzle, a curtain, a shroud blowing in the wind
Father-man with the mother-woman, is it they who have sinned?

An army of apes raids the garden, litters the half-ripe fruit
Rama strides with His axe while Krishna plays the flute

How to keep my share of the loot, coveting another man’s treasure
Girl or child? They grow like grass: how to keep the measure

‘Liberty!’ calls the bird in the bush, ‘Loyalty!’ the bird in the cage –
Tenderly tend and tenderly provide, tenderly slaughter in rage?

What stirs in an old man’s loins? How does a godman die?
The fire that burns and the tears that flow in every newborn’s cry

Greetings

The sky as empty as a bereaved mother’s eyes
Day’s thick tongue laps at the brackish hours
A nine-teated bitch snaps at the flies
Under the municipal truck, where it cowers

Corrugated tin singes the crows’ feet at noon
Dhani Ram’s cat slinks down the alley
Frogs spawn in puddles, the tadpoles will come too soon
But not the flowers in the Sulupi Valley

Villages fester, fields crack like unoiled skin
Putrefying carcass of a creature in the ditch
Where shall I find odes, jade and jasmine
Greetings from the nine-teated bitch

Talking the talk

‘…you’ve a fine bit of talk, stranger, and it’s with yourself I’ll go.’

That’s what Nora Burke, the young wife of Dan Burke, an elderly farmer, tells the tramp in J.M. Synge’s one-acter ‘In the Shadow of the Glen’. The setting is an isolated cottage in County Wicklow in Ireland in the year 1903. Dan is pretending to be dead and Nora is alone in the house with the ‘corpse’ when a tramp comes in. Nora goes out to look for Michael Dara, a youthful shepherd. That’s when Dan reveals to the tramp that his death is a ruse. Dan springs up again when Michael proposes to Nora, and kicks out Nora who leaves with the tramp, for a life of freedom, as even the Wikipedia will tell you, in its synopsis. But that’s missing the point. Nora goes with the tramp because…

‘…you’ve a fine bit of talk, stranger, and it’s with yourself I’ll go.’

It’s neither the first nor the last time that a woman has fallen for ‘a fine bit of talk’. As a man, I can only have secondary knowledge of what goes on in a woman’s mind, as Alexander Pope, the English poet (not the English pope, there’s disambiguation for you!), pointed out back in the eighteenth century. But this particular characteristic of women is perhaps the most endearing to men like me who are anything but ‘strong and silent’ – or rich, or influential, or famous, or successful, or anything of the ilk to appeal to the ur-instincts of the mother woman looking for a father for the superman according to the dictates of the Life Force – that’s the kind of horse apple people like George Bernard Shaw had the time & the leisure to dish out, you guessed it, in 1903! GBS was also an Irishman and a dramatist, like Synge. And he wrote his four-hour four-acter ‘Man and Superman’ the same year as Synge’s Shadow of the Glen. Synge died at 37, Shaw lived to be 94 – need I say anything more?

Yet Synge’s tiny output of five short plays and an unfinished one have accompanied me throughout my life, whereas I put Shaw’s numerous plays – and the prefaces, which were longer at times! – up for jumble sale shortly after graduation. I began life talking – or trying to talk like a Shavian – until I realised that there’s more of a Nora Burke than of an Ann Whitefield (the heroine of Shaw’s M&S) in every woman, especially the kind of women who had caught my eye & whose eye I was trying to catch in return.

As things turned out, I didn’t catch their eye – there was nothing much to catch anyway! – but I must have caught their ear, don’t ask me how. And that was their undoing. I talked and when I couldn’t talk – because they were out of town e.g. – I wrote. I wrote letters. My mother used to call it my epistolary literature – sarcastically, of course – but how did she guess? The beginning of all literature is a pretty girl who’s foolish – call it romantic enough to believe that life will not be as boring with someone who’s got ‘a fine bit of talk’. I call it the Nora Burke syndrome. Could even have called it the Nora Barnacle syndrome, in honour of Joyce’s muse & spouse. That would be the third Irishman in our gallery, and a dramatist too, for that matter!

In my case, I dragged those pretty girls through the dusty streets of Kolkata in the afternoon heat – and talked. God knows what I talked about – I mean that literally, since neither I nor the girls know any longer (I checked!). We walked the walk & I talked the talk. Not walking my baby back home but talking my baby back home. Though a suspicion strikes me even now. Did they listen? I should have quizzed them but I was far too busy following my own train of thought. I did check to see, from time to time, whether they were on board and listening – and they gave me a beautiful, heartwarming, slightly tired, slightly flustered smile. Or maybe they simply looked? I’ve forgotten. But I haven’t forgotten that look.

Since the days of the troubadour poets, women have been a sucker for poetry, because poetry is just another name for the way men are supposed to talk to women – for a certain purpose & with a certain intent, I hasten to add! The knight errant was handy as the action hero but the chatelaine was secretly in love with the minstrel. Not Tom Cruise but Robin Williams, if you know what I mean, ask any Hollywood screenwriter. And the best of all poetry is oral poetry. And the best of all oral poetry is when you are talking to a girl & telling her – no, the best of all oral poetry is when you are – I was about to write kissing her, but the Indian censor board wasn’t all that liberal in those days.

And I still have to tell you about Europe and Kasia and so on – shush! She’s listening! So let me give this choice piece of advice to all young men wondering what makes young women tick.

Try talking to them.

And why do you think it’s mostly women who read, by which I mean books, novels, these days? And they write ’em as well, in case you haven’t noticed. Practically taking over that side of the business too, I’m afraid. It’s their turn to talk now, it seems.

Try listening.

The popkini will make your eyes pop!

I understand that the days when my mother or my aunt used to wear their sarikinis not just when they went for their midday dip in the kitchen pond in Dhaneshkhali, the ancestral hellhole, but everywhere, such as when cooking hilsa fish in mustard in the kitchen or teaching philosophy – Kant & Hegel, no less – in a rather conservative girls college in north Kolkata – long breath! – are finally & irrevocably over. My mother lived to the age of 84 without ever having worn so much as a salwarkini and my aunt – wonder what she thinks of the whole debate over bikinis & burqinis?

That subtle q goes all the way back to Omar Khayaam & Lawrence of Arabia, or to the days of Orientalism and Edward Said – it’s not what he said, Edward said lots of things but his name was Said, Sa-yid, poor man, it’s like being called Thus Spake Zarathustra. So Spake is your middle name? Orientalism was such shit, I think at times, that they had to do away with it. Imagine a whole new romantic vocabulary based on mispronunciations – such as burqini, or bikini, for that matter.

Let’s go to the online etymology dictionary or what’s the Internet for? The bikini is apparently a French coinage, from 1947, named after the American A-bomb test of June 1946 on Bikini, Marshall Islands atoll. Apparently the ruddy place was called pikkini in the local tongue, pik meaning surface and ni meaning a coconut – eh? The analogy is with the explosive force of the bomb & the impact of the bathing suit style on men’s libidos, the dictionary tells me. It doesn’t have to. I know.

So there I was, a nicens little Bengali boy from the land of sarikinis suddenly transported to the land of – wait! I saw all those women in Germany & elsewhere in their dresses and thought, shouldn’t they have something like an aanchal or a dupatta draped over a certain part of their torso? Until Kasia looked at me in this self-knitted dress of hers and said – not Said or Sa-yid – “You want me to?” I thought she said, “You want me too?” And Occidentalism was born, more by accident than intent.

I’ve been to lots of beaches since then & seen what the uninitiated eyes of an LMC Bengali boy were never meant to see – until I got bored & curled up under the parasol behind the wind screen & went to sleep while all those delectable women pranked about in their – khair, however, as we Indians say. It’s as with the house dust allergy, I got immune.

I am, of course, immune to burqas and burqinis, or to burkas and burkinis, for that matter, even if they remind me of medieval knights & their armour in the days of yore. On the other hand, you could place me on a beach in Brittany or a beach on the Baltic coast among women sporting any and every kind of swimwear and I wouldn’t bat an eyelid. I acknowledge that there are still women in this world who would make any man feel like chewing up the bath towel but that is neither their fault nor ours. Let me put it this way. It was in New Delhi. Two DTC buses had managed to rub shoulders with some minor damage to both; the two irate Jat bus drivers were having it out verbally, mainly by calling each other the choicest of names in the one language really suited for that purpose viz. Punjabi! ‘It’s all your fault,’ one of them was saying. ‘No, it’s your fault, you such-and-such,’ the other countered. This went on for some time, both buses, complete with passengers, waiting for the outcome. And then the Jat drivers said – not Said/Sa-yid – ‘Kasoor bus-da!’ Which means, in Punjabi, it’s the buses’ fault. And they parted as buddies. And I hope that’s what mankind & womankind will do at the end of The Great Burbiqini Debate, unless it turns into a battle!

The great thing about the burbiqini debate is the general unease it has created in the minds of most, from the most liberal to the most conservative – on both sides! Am I right or am I wrong? Is a woman in a bikini sinful or not? Is a woman in a burqini an insult to human/modern/rational/western civilisation or not? And it’s not the woman but the effect the infamous piece of apparel has on men, on Man, on me, for that matter. Is there a thermometer for the libido? Does the temperature of my libido go up by several notches when I see a woman in Exhibit A instead of in Exhibit B? And what about Exhibit C or the sarikini? There is not a Hindi film from the sixties & the seventies in which the heroine does not get wet in the sarikini, she falls into a pond or a puddle if it’s not raining. And it has the same unsettling effect as the bikini or even the burqini, with the right kind of figure (sexist, yo!). Indian painting boasts any number of water-pot carrying beauties in clingy, wet saris. As for the west, just go and check up on all the Venuses and Aphrodites and garden nymphs in general who were surprised in their marble drapery – and still managed to look quite sexy! Readings on the libido thermometer for bath- and beachwear from past centuries show the same thing: water boils at 100 C°. So what do we conclude?

It’s the buses’ fault – as the Jat bus drivers deduced. As with the Delhi traffic, the moment you put men and women together, things start happening… Segregation! That’s it! That’s the solution! If the women have their own beaches, their own country and their own world, in short, they can go and wear whatever they like… what? They don’t like it? What d’you mean? They want us to watch? Well, well, well.

We are barking up the wrong tree in the Great Burbiqini Debate, I realised while watching a report on the MTV Video Music Awards of 2016. What Beyoncé, Britney, Rihanna &co. were wearing on stage could only have been the product of centuries of research on the libido, how to bring it to the boil & keep it on the boil! And I won’t even talk about Kim Kardashian or Nicki Minaj, bless ’em. Looking at those ladies shakin’ their booties pack’d in the most suggestive & imaginative popkinis, while the audience went wild, it became clear to me that the question is not what women wear when they go swimming, but what they wear when they go singing! Or to award functions, for that matter.

So while the rest of us are stroking our salt-and-pepper beards or unfurling our good old burn the brakini banners, the younger generation is being raised on sterner stuff. Thirteen and fourteen year olds now inhabit a planet on which sexuality is a game & a plaything – and like all games & apps, available for download – but it is no longer the life-and-death issue, the matter of cardinal importance that it used to be. And who’s to say they aren’t right?

I asked the Creator about it. This is what He said: ‘I created the atom but not the A-bomb. I created sex but not sexuality. So it’s all yours. Don’t come whining to me about it.’

Gotcha.