Home and Abroad
What a resident non-Indian in Santiniketan would like to tell
his non-resident Indian friends in America
grand concept of globalisation has its origin in economic relations. But it
tends to spread its tentacles into other areas of human concern: into social
relations, into culture, into human emotions.
Globalisation wants to suggest that "the world is your home". It seems to believe quite naively that since
economic barriers are breaking down internationally, since the free market
becomes internationalised, human relations too can become broadened infinitely
until they span the globe. There is a
fallacy here. You who emotionally live
in two countries - in India and in the United States - will appreciate this
observation: The human heart cannot expand indefinitely. It needs its roots in the sacred earth of a
home, of a localised, very tangible, very concrete, material home. Being nourished by the earth, the heart then
can spread its wings into all directions joyfully. The concept of a “global Indian” who can be at home and realise
his “Indianness” wherever he may be, is to my mind a fantasy. It is true, Indian culture has a strong
universalising predisposition: Vedantic philosophy tends to universalise
experience, going from the personal to the impersonal, from the local to the
cosmic, from the specific to the general, from the unique experience to the
typical and archetypal. This might
serve as an idealistic foundation for “global living”. Yet, we all know that such universalising
urges can be fostered in philosophy, in ethical imperatives, even in utopian
reveries, but they are unrealistic for a sound basis of balanced living. It is more realistic to say that we need a
particular patch of the earth for our nourishment. And wanting to be fully and equally “at home” in two or three
places evokes enormous inner tensions.
| Typical Santal village, |
On a superficial level you, as
Indians residing in the United States, and I, as a German residing in India,
have the same fate: We live away from our native home, we live in an alien
land. Yet, that is where the similarity
ends. You have arrived in the United
States as students or young professionals and have chosen to stay here to make
a decent living. It was a career move,
or even more existentially, a decision for life. With me, it was different: I arrived in India after the
completion of my University studies in Vienna.
I went to Calcutta to teach, true, but neither did I choose teaching as
a profession, nor had I decided to stay and make India my home. It was a step away from an established life,
not into it. Initially, an Indian visa
was not difficult to obtain, but I had no surety to get it renewed routinely,
it had to be secured anew every year.
Teaching did not pay much, and I taught only part-time at the
Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture.
I knew that this life would be alright for a year or two. After that I planned to return to Europe in
order to start a “proper” career here.
I hoped to establish myself as a journalist. “One or two years” became four years. After that I returned to
the life of a student. My studies in
Indian Philosophy and Comparative Religion in Madras and Santiniketan were
rounded off with a second Ph.D. In the
meantime I had learnt Bengali in Santiniketan, I had begun to read Sri
Ramakrishna and then Rabindranath in the original, and started to translate
both of them. As you can see, one
interest, one academic concern led to another, and thus I added forever one
more year to my already prolonged stay.
I became the only German-speaking writer on Indian culture and Indian
religions who lives in India continuously.
Returning to Europe to start work there increasinly turned into an
impractical option. Gradually I grew
into the working life of a freelance writer and translator and journalist,
earning very little first and slightly more later, but always having just
sufficient for my real needs. It had
never been planned that way, and it could not have been planned that way, the
Indian situation being what it is. This
year it is thirty years ago that I arrived in India. Of these thirty years I have spent the last twenty-three years in
Rabindranath Tagore’s Santiniketan.
| Author, with Sona Murmu, by a canal in Ghoshaldanga|
I chose Santiniketan as my domicile
not because of my admiration for Rabindranath.
After completing my studies at Madras, I wanted to return to West-Bengal
because of the language. I already knew
some Bengali and felt that having spent seven years in India, I should learn
one Indian language well. I was afraid
of returning to Kolkata. This city is
so demanding, it consumes so much energy.
I had grown up in a small German town, I am not a Big City boy. So my choice was Santiniketan, and my good
fortune was that on the very first day at Santiniketan I met Prof. Ashin
Dasgupta, later Visva-Bharati’s Vice-Chancellor, and his wife who took me to
the great philosopher, Prof. Kalidas Bhattacharyya, who then and there accepted
me as his student. So my “nest” was
feathered immediately. While learning
Bengali more proficiently, I tested my ability to comprehend the language by
reading Rabindranath’s poems and songs from
“Gitanjali”. When I compared the
Bengali original with the English version, I felt the colossal gap. None of the melodious flow, the rhythmic
vigour, the bewildering magic of the original did I find in Rabindranath’s own
English versions! Then and there I
decided to attempt a more adequate translation into German. This coincided with an offer by my
publisher. He suggested that I re-translate
the English versions into modern German.
I replied: No, I shall do it from Bengali, not then realising the risk,
the sheer hard work and the near impossibility of that task. It took me several
years before I could produce the first two volumes of my translation of Tagore
poetry. They were a selection of fifty
poems right from Nirjharer swapna-bhanga
to his old age poems (see, for instance, the German translation of Shahjahan from Balaka), and a selection of aphorisms from Sphulinga, Lekhan and Kanikā (Click here for some translations into German). I stayed on in Santiniketan because I knew well that I could not
translate these poems anywhere else but in Santiniketan. Obviously, I received there the expert help
to fully comprehend these poems. But
more so, it was the cultural, the emotional atmosphere and the natural
environment that I depended on for an inspired translation. The same earth that nourished and inspired
Rabindranath inspired his translator.
Thus, I have returned to my
key-word: the nourishing earth. You all
must have felt the energising effect of a home visit, despite its many
complications and hardships. You all
must have felt the nostalgic absence of an energising source outside
Bengal. Yet, at the same time, the
tensions and frictions of a life away from one’s native land produce energy as
well. I have realised this myself
alternating between Bengal’s river Ganga and Germany’s river Rhine. The relaxation of nerves and emotions, the
buoyant flow of ideas and easy mixing with people on the banks of my native
river is complemented by the constant
search for personal and professional fulfillment in my country of residence,
India. In our second home, we are, even
after twenty, thirty, or forty years of residence, constantly testing the
parametres of society, probing what makes people tick, never ever shaking off a
slight feeling of insecurity because our understanding of our country of
adoption is not by instinct, but by a laborious and continuous process of
education. We may regret this
predicament of “never fully belonging”, and weaker minds will succumb to a
sense of alienation. But in our best moments we realise resolutely and deeply
that this situation of participating in two societies and cultures harbours an
enormous potential of creativity.
| Sunrise on Kopai, |
Creativity is a gift which is rarely
obtained without pain. It is
loneliness, alienation, unrequitted love, remorse and disappointment which act
as the springs of creativity, more often than joy and fulfillment. But once creativity does flow in whatever
shape and manner, it infuses us with a sense of freedom and potency which is so
strong and overpowering that we feel like participating in the divine acts of
creation. This creativity does not only
flow into our works of art, into our writing or music, theatre or film. Such creativity can also permeate our daily
activity of living, our style of life.
I see in Santiniketan how with my “Europeanness” I am able to create
around me an entirely new way of living together. Generally it is gratefully
accepted and probably gives all of us a deeper sense of our humanity. For example, I have several persons doing
paid work for me, a cook, an errant boy, an academic assistant. We all meet at
11 a.m. in my small garden house in the Purva Palli residential area of
Santiniketan. First we all sit together
and have tea. The cook prepares and serves tea and then sits with us to have a
cup of tea himself with all of us.
Nobody is made to stand in front of me, nobody is a “servant”. The cook and his helper do the kitchen work,
but I do give them a hand occasioanlly by perhaps clearing the dishes from the
table or bringing out new provisions of fresh tea. This is to show and live the message that nobody is smaller or
greater than the other, although we all have our appointed work.
| Students of RSV (Rolf Schoembs Vidyashram)
Several students arrive, who I guide in
their life and help with moderate stipends. Quite a number of village boys
gather during the day, as I am engaged in two Santal tribal villages at a
distance of ten kilometre from Santiniketan. In their tattered clothes they sit
next to a peon of the Post Office or a lecturer of the University, and
everybody is treated with the same respect natuarlly due to good human
beings. I doubt whether I am popular
among academics, though, because of this European and Christian spirit of equality
unambiguously put into practice.
Academics do rarely meet me, I regret to say. But the people gathered at noon on my veranda are pervaded by a
spirit of joy and fellowship which may not be witnessed in many other places in
Santiniketan. I put this down to
creative living. For Bengalis it would
be nearly impossible to imitate the atmosphere of such a gathering, as they are
bound by certain traditions. Similarly,
it must be possible to carry some of the spirit of Bengal into your life among
receptive, sensitive Americans.
| Open air class|
This is one major lesson that I have
learnt from Rabindranath: Poetry,
songs, theatre plays, essays on social problems are certainly essential for a
culture to be alive and ever renew itself.
But of equal importance is to “do poetry” and to act upon inspirational
songs and make theatre plays happen within society. By this I mean that after our emotions have become enobled by
poetry and enthralled by songs, after we become motivated by theatre plays, we
must go among men to live and act among them in that same spirit. Creativity is a holistic life process which
is not over after we have recited Rabindranath’s poems or sung Rabindra
Sangit. Rabindranath was such a whole
person. He built his Santiniketan
ashram and chose to live with the students and teachers of his school and
university because such community living provided him with the frame-work to
combine art and life into one whole.
| Santal flute-player, in Paus mela, Santiniketan|
And a second lesson that I have
learnt from Rabindranath Tagore is this: In his writing he projected himself as
an internationalist. Such
internationalism was not bland and sapless.
He saw no sense in the dictum of New Age gurus that “everything is the
same”. Tagore differentiated
conscientiously, trying to understand the character of each country and each
people. But as a person inspired by the
Upanishads, he believed that underlying such diversity of character was a unity
which was spiritual and pervasive. This unity does not cancel out the diversity
of countries and people, but it enables them to live together seeing diversity
less as a hindrance in joint living than as a wealth by which such joint living
becomes stimulating, varied and subtle.
| Students, in their open-air classroom.|
This was Rabindranath’s guiding
intuition. The encounter of diversity,
however, invariably transforms a person. When people meet me in Bengal, they
try to compliment me by saying that I have become “fully Bengali”. . I
normally do not object. By saying so
people try to honour my efforts to integrate myself within their society. The same “Bengaliness” is perceived when I
visit Germany. When I returned to
Germany some years ago, the first person I met on the train addressed me
saying: “But you are not from this country, are you?” He saw some foreignness in me, and so do many people in Europe
who think that my long stay in India has rubbed off. On the other hand, I have discovered that life in Santiniketan
has motivated me to bring out European qualities which otherwise would have
been less forcefully expressed or remained unexpressed. My loyalty to the spirit of human equality
is but one example. In see myself
acting differently in each country. To
put it in general terms, in Germany I act with the restraint and relaxed air
that I have absorbed in India, and in India I feel impelled to dynamise people,
put the spirit of action, adventure, force into the young friends surrounding
me, which are the qualities I identify with European life. You must have experienced similar shifts in
your behavioural pattern as you shuttle between India and the United States.
| Author, with a child in Ghoshaldanga|
What then is our identity? Have we
no identity at all who act differently in different countries? Are we like chameleons taking on the colour
of our environment wherever we go? This
is certainly not the aim before us.
Rather, I see ourselves as a Third
Voice. I am neither only German nor
only Bengali, I am nourished by German culture, but I spread myself into
Bengali culture, and in the process I have transformed my inherited
Europeanness and have absorbed some traits of Bengali culture. In that process I have become, I hope, a more
evolved individual who has, to some extent at least, been able to choose the
cultural influences that shape his life.
I don’t feel determined by the culture of either country which would be
limiting and provincialising me. Instead, I desire to be an individual who has,
ideally, taken from both countries what is most supportive of my talents and
character. This is the opportunity we
all have who live out the tensions of a multi-cultural life in a positive manner.
However, as we all know, diasporic Indians are in the danger of
becoming conservative Hindus or Muslims.
The lack of their accustomed supportive cultural and religious environment
induces such people to withdraw into themselves. They perhaps want to contain the entire cultural and religious
wealth of their country wholly within themselves. Such insularity is positively dangerous. Rabindranath has spoken against cultural and
religious insularity with his entire life.
Cultural and religious traditions can be maintained only by continuously
evolving them. Culture and religion are
not static, museal entities. They will
be living cultures and living religions only through constant change, only by
always adding new traditions to old ones. The people of the Third Voice do not
fall back on insularity and conservatism in order to maintain their
identity. They wish to give a positive
shape to their individuality by creatively mediating between the two cultures
of which they are a part through their life example.
I presume that “loss of family” is
the most difficult and painful experience Bengalis must face in the United
States. In Kolkata or Dhaka they were
known by and respected for their families and family connections, by the family
guru and the teachers they or their relatives have had. In a new country all that no longer
counts. All of a sudden they are
stripped bare to their pure individual’s worth and professional merit. This must be a traumatic loss which takes
many years to overcome. Unless they
move entirely within the diasporic community, newly arrived Indians just have
to face American society and prove every centimetre of their worth which at
home was a gift of birth. Conversely,
my greatest hindrance to integrate into Bengali society was the fact that I
have no family. My German family is of
course unknown in Santiniketan, and I have not married into a Bengali family
whose cultural traditions could then have devolved on to me as a signal of my identity. Hence, I have no “family label” and was considered
at Santiniketan as a “foreign student” long after I had gathered two Ph.D.s and
my hair had turned grey.
The people representing the Third
Voice could learn from Rabindranath who, steeped in Bengali culture and
moulding it, has nonetheless been a personality to whom other peoples of the
world could relate. Rabindranath
touches you as Bengalis to whom he belonged culturally, and he is able to touch
me, a European, simply because in him Bengaliness and universal appeal have
been fused into a unique individual.
Rabindranath neither only and simply represented Bengali culture, nor
did he belong only to the world. He
evolved his own personality and generously gifted that personality to Bengal
and to the world.
| Santal women dancing during|
Baha,or Spring Festival in Ghoshaldanga
speech delivered at the Rabindra Mela at Ewing, NJ on 13th July
Photographs by Samiran Nandy
Published in Parabaas December 25, 2003.
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