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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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

The medals that Indian women never won

Mainly because the disciplines are not to be found in the Olympics, though they do exist in real life. Is that fair? It is fair & lovely, as the Indian women themselves will tell you, although they are fully aware of the difference between reality & Bollywood – or between a woman’s chores in real life & the most eyesome Olympic gyrations.

Millions of Indian women have never played badminton, for example – have never seen badminton being played, except now, on TV, and that’s because of PV Sindhu. And I won’t even talk of all the other disciplines in which you have to wear – arey Ram’ Ram’! – and spring around like – Hai Bhagwan!

Take 1976, the Malda Passenger, Third Class unreserved. The Women’s Rice Smuggling race is in progress. The panels on either side of the carriage have been torn open, leaving large and gaping holes for the rice smugglers to stash away their bags of rice. Every now and then the train stops at some minor station and the police stomp in, looking for smugglers & contraband. The chalwallis or the Rice Women have around five to fifteen seconds to collect their rice bags, get down on the station platform & run to a raided buggy – because the unraided buggies will be next in line – while people cheer! Everybody’s having their share of fun – exactly as in the Olympics – especially the police constables & the young rowdies who seem to be more interested in teasing the rice smuggling ladies – call them athletes – than catching them or watching them get caught. I could hear one such ‘athlete’ trying to ward off the advances of an over-ardent ‘fan/sports official’ by squeaking: “Leave me in peace! I’m a mother of five.” Poor girl couldn’t have been more than sixteen or seventeen. And pretty too, though we are not supposed to notice such things about athletes – only that you couldn’t help noticing, in her case. As for the mother of five, apparently she meant it as a joke. The rowdies laughed and the police constable let her go. Gold for our “mother of five”! I nearly sang the national anthem.

Then I remember the champion in the Women’s Brick Carrying category whom I saw at a construction site in the early days of Noida. She was going up a ramp with sixteen bricks piled on the turban on top of her head – I counted! That’s eight layers of two each, laid crosswise. Naturally she needed help to put on the last two or three layers – that’s the last four to six bricks – but she managed the rest alone, in squatting. Then she got up with the teetering pile on top of her head and walked three floors up a wooden, unsecured ramp, her bare feet finding the slats with somnabulistic ease. And all this in a sari worn short & the aanchal tugged in at the waist… But we’re talking sports. That’s gold again for the queen among India’s brick carrying women.

Some find Chucking Cowdung Cakes to be a rather quaint discipline and much misunderstood in the West. It’s not as if our athletes chuck dried cowdung cakes instead of discuses, oh no, this is a discipline requiring as much aim & precision as archery or skeet shooting. The athlete is forming the wet cowdung cakes with both hands before chucking them at a wall. In this gold-winning event, our champion was chucking them at a dilapidated tower from the nawabi times opposite the Whispering Mosque in Lucknow. (Again towards the end of the ’70s, if I remember correctly, the golden age of Indian sports). She had finished the lower rows and was now chucking the wet ghuñtiyas towards a spot at roughly twice her own height. And she was placing the projectiles in a perfectly spaced row on the wall – which won the applause of the juror(s), there being only one viz. me. And she was doing it on a convex surface, remember, like a bent dart board! It was a round tower – is there any other kind? Just as cowdung cake chucking seems to be a sport specially reserved for women, at least in India.

And then we come to a discipline which requires strength as well as endurance. I was visiting my elder sister in Kolkata and this cook of theirs had come in at around nine in the morning and was cooking our lunch for the day – why so early? I wanted to know. Turned out that the young lady would be cooking for three more households in the course of the morning before going back home and cooking for her own family – before her children came back from school, the montessory & so on. Cooking for five families involved the kind of logistics & coordination which compelled her to keep three cell phones – I counted! – one of them a dud. And even then she wouldn’t let me get myself a glass of water on my own – that’s your Indian Cooking Marathon, for women. The men are allowed to take a cook or their wives along, I believe.

Finally we have the Delhi Olympics of 2036, especially the sensational “Run for Your Life!” race for young girls. This is a sprint discipline in which the contestants have to avoid being caught by possible molesters – now on the sports curriculum of a number of girls schools across the subcontinent. Thirteen year old (unnamed) winner from (place name blackened) revealed at her felicitation that a family friend – colleague of her father’s – inspired her to join the sport. Both the press & the police are looking for the family friend.

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