Günter Grass’ Calcutta
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After Günter Grass won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999, The Statesman newspaper headlined an article thus: “Nobel For A Part Calcuttan”. The headline was indicative of the writer’s interactions with the city on the three occasions he visited it: a short trip in 1975, a stay of more than five months in 1986-87, and a visit in 2005.
It’s not a relationship that’s easy to describe; both parties have alternatively rejoiced and rebelled in each other’s company.
Grass, who died on 13 April in Germany aged 87, was torn in his reactions to Calcutta, or Kolkata as it is now called. In 1975, he told film-maker Mrinal Sen that Calcutta was “God’s excrements”—this is recorded in the Martin Kampchen-edited book, My Broken Love: Günter Grass In India And Bangladesh. In 1984, Grass told former journalist Subhoranjan Dasgupta that Calcutta “changed me radically”.
The celebrated author, who stunned the world with his 1959 debut novel, Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum), referred to the city in a speech in 1989 to the global think tank, Club of Rome. In 1999, he devoted a short chapter to Calcutta in his book Mein Jahrhundert (My Century), Kampchen writes in My Broken Love.
It wasn’t an association that was easily cemented. His 1977 novel, Der Butt (The Flounder), has a chapter with Calcutta as the backdrop, and Zunge Zeigen (Show Your Tongue, published in 1988, translated a year later), whose title is inspired by the image of the goddess Kali, was based on his 1986 visit. Both testify to the city’s overpowering impact on the writer and his incessantly gloomy and virulently acerbic impression of Calcutta.
“Why not a poem about a pile of shit that God dropped and named Calcutta,” Grass wrote through the fictionalized words of the historical character Vasco da Gama in The Flounder. “How it swarms, stinks, lives and gets bigger and bigger. If God had shat a pile of concrete the result would have been Frankfurt,” he wrote, drawing parallels with the German city. Later, at a function in Delhi, he would say that “the problems of Calcutta” are the problems of India and, indeed, of the entire world.
“What I am flying away from: repetition that claims to be news, from Germany and Germany, the way two deadly foes, armed to the teeth, grow ever more alike, from insights achieved from too close up…,” he wrote in Show Your Tongue, explaining why he had left West Germany in 1986, before the unification, and planned to settle down in Calcutta.
Calcutta, warts and all, coaxed the writer out of his Eurocentric life. In many ways, the city could draw out the conflict and contradictions that Grass endured over his first two visits—the first as a state guest of the Indira Gandhi government, surrounded by the imperial grandeur of the city’s Raj Bhavan, and then as a commoner, staying in a garden home in Baruipur and later, at the home of artist Shuvaprasanna’s in-laws at Lake Town.
“In The Flounder, I come to Calcutta as Vasco da Gama. It’s a polemic. I’m explaining my broken love for Calcutta. You only come back if you love something,” Grass told Darryl D’Monte in an interview in The Illustrated Weekly of India, ahead of his visit to Calcutta in 1986.
Though he described it as a city that “eats its own excrement”, he also defended it staunchly. “If Calcutta is dying, then every city is dying,” he told a questioner during a function in Delhi, responding to then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi’s controversial statement on the city. This is recorded in journalist-author Khushwant Singh’s essay on Grass’ India sojourn.
In the interview, Grass provided the context for his Calcutta fixation: “People in Calcutta don’t complain from morning to evening about their misery; they are alive. And if you look at the face of rich people in Germany—and we are still rich there—you don’t find many people laughing in the street. They are very serious and very eager to go about (their business). This I didn’t see in Calcutta.”
He was a man both liked and detested for his outspokenness. Mrinal Sen “painfully” discovered that Vasco had “misquoted” him in The Flounder. “This book reminded me of an essay in bad taste by the Italian film-maker (Pier Paolo) Pasolini called The Scent Of India, written after visiting the country for just a few days,” Sen wrote in a letter to Kampchen.
Grass got into a bigger controversy in 1975 after arriving at an English poetry reading session at the residence of Prof. P. Lal, poet, translator and owner of the Kolkata-based publishing house Writers Workshop. Expecting Bengali poetry on social issues, Grass was put off by “literature which refuses to confront reality”. Prof. Lal later wrote in My Broken Love that Grass came with “a preconceived idea” about Indians who use English; “this was somehow not the proper thing to do”.
The poetry-reading event would be described in The Flounder: “Some forty people in elegant, spacious garments sit spiritually on fibre mats under a draft-propelled fan; outside the windows, the bustees are not far away.
“Vasco admires the fine editions of books, the literary chitchat, the imported pop posters. Like everyone else he nibbles pine nuts and doesn’t know which of the lady poets he would like to fuck if the opportunity presented itself.”
Journalist Sankarlal Bhattacharya later organized a session with Bengali poets and writers at Duke’s restaurant (the owner provided beer and rum for free on a “dry day”). But Grass confessed to Dasgupta in 1984 that he knew little of contemporary Indian literature barring Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, which he liked immensely.
Bengalis would keep asking him about his chances of getting the Nobel, over a decade before he eventually won it. He was likely irritated when he said, “You people make too much of the Nobel because your great poet (Rabindranath) Tagore won it”, and jovial when, on another occasion, he commented, “I think after Tagore I shall be the second Bengali to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.”
In his own inimitable way, Günter Grass too seems to have reflected the shades of a famously multilayered city, caught between its own contradictions and contrarian positions.