Home and AbroadWhat a resident non-Indian in Santiniketan would like to tell his non-resident Indian friends in America
Typical Santal village, near Santiniketan
The 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.
Author, with Sona Murmu, by a canal in Ghosaldanga
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.
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.
Sunrise on Kopai, near Santiniketan
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.
Students of RSV (Rolf Schoembs Vidyashram) doing paintings
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.
Open-air class, Santiniketan
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.
Santal flute-player, in Paus mela, Santiniketan
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.
Students, in their open-air classroom, Ghosaldanga.
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, Ghosaldanga.
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.
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 Ghosaldanga
A speech delivered at the Rabindra Mela at Ewing, NJ on 13th July 2003.
Photographs by Samiran Nandy
Published in Parabaas December 25, 2003.