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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