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Culture

Connecting the Cultural Dots

DW-WORLD talked to acclaimed novelist Anita Desai at Berlin's International Literature Festival about her book "Baumgartner’s Bombay,” her German-Indian roots and how the collision of cultures has shaped her writing.

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"You can write about the British easily, but how do you write about a German in India?"

Born in 1937 in North India to a Bengali father and a German mother, Anita Desai’s unique background reads like a character in one of her many novels.

As one of the first Indian authors to write and publish in English, Desai’s works are immersed in Indian life, her characters mainly drawn from middle-class English-speaking India. The theme of inter-cultural connections and alienation is one that runs throughout her many novels and short story collections. Since publishing her first story at the age of nine, the popular author has won several literary awards and been nominated three times for the prestigious Booker prize.

The 1988 novel, Baumgartner’s Bombay focuses on Desai’s own German-Indian connection. It marks a departure from her earlier works and is in the author’s own words "an attempt to capture the outsider’s view of India." It is the story of Hugo Baumgartner, a Jewish teenager in Berlin, who is sent to India to escape the Nazis after his family suffers the collapse of their fine-furniture business.

Imprisoned in India as a hostile alien during the war years, Baumgartner eventually moves to Bombay at war’s end and spends his time as a lonely old man in a rundown apartment, caring for stray cats and yearning for the German language. A perpetual outsider, Baumgartner remains unaccepted in Indian society where he’s just a firanghi or fair-skinned foreigner.

Anita Desai: Baumgartner's Bombay

Baumgartner's Bombay by Anita Desai

DW-WORLD spoke to Anita Desai about the making of Baumgartner’s Bombay, her German heritage and memories of an Indian childhood peppered with German lullabies, and the reconciling of two quite different cultures.

Is Baumgartner’s Bombay a personal family story?

Not exactly. I wanted to write about the German part of my background and my German heritage, yet I didn’t know how to fit it in an Indian context. You can write about the British easily enough, but how do you write about a German in India? It took me a long time, casting around for a subject – there were some people like him in my mother’s circle. It’s a strange thing, but the name "Baumgartner’s Bombay" seemed to just fall out of the sky, once I had the title, I was able to uncover the rest and invent the story.

Baumgartner lives half a century in India and yet never comes to terms with it. Is that a typical experience of one in exile or is that typical of India?

I thought of it as a certain period of history, a certain time when the world was shaken up and seemed to go through these upheavals every so often. And Baumgartner just happened to land in India -- a country which holds nothing for him, means nothing to him. So he remains the outsider, just happy to survive. I think this happens to a lot of people in the course of history. It was my vision of human life being taken up by history which tramples on them, which rolls them flat out of its way. Much the same thing is happening today all over the world.

Your German mother came to India under different circumstances. How did she adapt?

My mother’s situation was different. She met and married my father here in Berlin and came to India as a bride, much adored by my father’s family. She did adapt quickly but I think it must have been through a great deal of self-sacrifice and a great deal of wisdom. She used to tell me that her mother told her before she left for India, ‘don’t bring up your children to think that they are German, they’ll only be unhappy living in India.’ And my mother did exactly that, we were surprised if anyone mentioned she was German. We’d forgotten it ourselves.

Anita Desai

Anita Desai

Was there ever a conflict between your German and Indian roots, growing up during the war years?

I just realized that our home was somewhat different from other Indian homes and mine just happened to be somewhat European. My mother seemed to adapt to Indian life very comfortably and very well, but certainly a part of me was aware that she was not an Indian woman, she was s a European woman and very often the ideas she would express were obviously Western ones. I was aware that she thought of India differently -- her reactions to it were analytical, rational, intellectual. My father’s and mine were much more emotional and instinctive.

We did speak German at home, but never outside the home. Of course there were also a lot of British and American troops in India at the time and my older brother and sister were much more conscious of the political situation than I was. I remember they told my mother ‘don’t wear dresses out on the streets, please wear saris, and don’t speak to us in German.’ That was for her own safety.

Baumgartner spent six years in an internment camp as a German in India because the Anglo-Indian authorities didn’t differentiate between Germans and Jews. What kind of camps were they?

It’s actually a forgotten part of World War II. There were such camps in India, and all those the British considered alien were interned there during the war years. Some of my mother’s circle did spend the war years there and came out with a lot of stories, which I incorporated in a chapter. The internment camp was not a horror camp or a concentration camp. The inmates weren’t mistreated, but it was so much time taken out of their real lives that everything was in suspension. My mother avoided that because she was an Indian citizen, she had given up her German citizenship.

Baumgartner has an intense yearning for the German language in the book, a yearning for the mother tongue, is that something your mother had too?

My mother was a wonderful storyteller and we would go to bed listening to German lullabies and wonderful stories of Christmas or Easter in Germany. To us they were like fairytales, we never thought of as being real. I didn’t realize that when I was young, but as I grew up I realized what an immense well of nostalgia and homesickness my mother must have felt for Germany. So I wanted to pay a tribute to the language in the book considering the fact that language contains the culture of a country. Even Baumgartner who has left Germany with nothing at all has his language and he holds on to it.

When did you become aware of the real Germany and how did that translate into your writing?

I remember when Germany’s defeat in the war was declared and we heard it on the radio. I’ll never forget the expression on my mother’s face -- perhaps that was when Germany became real to me.

History was revealed at a later stage, one didn’t know of it till the war was over. After that the news started coming in and understandably, it was not something my mother wanted to discuss. So when I started writing Baumgartner’s Bombay, that’s when I really started seriously researching Germany and World War II and learned a lot that I’d never heard from my mother. Of course, she only wanted to remember the happy times in her own childhood, she never wanted to confront what happened during the war. In fact she never returned to Germany.

What does it feel like to be in a Berlin so far removed from your mother’s memories?

I don’t think my mother would be able to recognize this city which she left in the 1920s. As I go around the city, everything seems so new, so real, that I’m confident she wouldn’t recognize anything. In that sense, it’s a new city to me too, it’s not in the least bit like the Berlin she grew up in ... Berlin is a modern city, it doesn’t belong to my mother’s era at all. The only thing that connects me with it is that I enjoy hearing the language again because I’m so cut off from it.

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