Until his death in 2015, Nobel laureate Günter Grass had a love-hate relationship with the Indian city of Calcutta, now Kolkata. He would have turned 90 on October 16 of this year.
The Indian Coffee House in Calcutta, now Kolkata, is an institution with the students in this city in northeastern India. Outside is College Street, on which vendors sell hundreds of books and writing materials. Inside is a large room with a gallery where guests can sit on a balcony. The ceiling fans provide scant relief from the summer humidity.
A cup of coffee costs about 25 cents, main dishes less than a euro. More than thirty year ago, this was one of the places that linked the German writer Günter Grass with the Indian city that influenced him so strongly. "When we first came in here in 1986, some of the students recognized him," Subhoranjan Dasgupta tells us. The Indian journalist was one Grass's companions during the six months he spent living in the Indian metropolis.
"He immediately had to sign several autographs." Grass spent more time in Kolkata than in any other Indian city. The first time was in 1975 as a state guest and he stayed in the governor's official residence. There he wrote parts of his novel "The Flounder" and developed his ambivalent relationship with Kolkata, which like almost no other city epitomizes the contrast between the pomp of the British colonial past and present-day poverty.
Beauty among slums and palaces
Until 1912 Calcutta was the center of the British Empire in South Asia. The colonial name Calcutta wasn't officially abolished until 2001. The cityscape is shaped not only by magnificent buildings such as the Victoria Memorial but also by slums and twisting alleyways with dilapidated houses. Time and again, Grass spoke about these contrasts in interviews, and criticized the indifference of the elite, and time and again he expressed his admiration for the simple inhabitants of the city, for instance, because of the way they keep their homes clean and orderly even in the most wretched of slums. In "The Flounder" he wrote of Kolkata: "This crumbling, scruffy, teeming city that eats its own excrement is determined to be cheerful. It wants its misery to be terribly beautiful."
He paid his most important visit eleven years later, when he and his wife moved to Kolkata for nearly six months in 1986 and 1987. This time he was housed not in a mansion, but in a country house in a suburb, and later in a family home in the middle of the city.
He roamed the city daily, especially North Kolkata, its oldest area, where majesty and misery are closest together. He commuted to the city in overcrowded local trains. In the traditional potters' quarter, Kumartuli, a hundredfold explanation of the title of Grass's 1988 Kolkata diary, "Show Your Tongue" can be found. Clay figurines depicting various Indian deities stand in countless tiny workshops.
The goddess Kali appears most frequently. Kali statues almost always show her with her tongue protruding. The goddess plays an important role in Hinduism. She represents both destruction and renewal. Grass spent a great deal of time in Kumartuli. In an interview in 1986, the writer said one could only get to know Kolkata by leaving the main streets and visiting the thousands of small alleyways.
The fascinating spectacle of tradition
Nowadays men of all ages still work on figurines in the narrow lanes, making straw skeletons and carving patterns in the clay with fine tools - even though the festival of Diwali in October, when the statues will be ceremonially sunk in the holy Ganges, is still many weeks away. Demand will be high, and already many half-finished statues stand on every corner.
"In 1986, Günter Grass spent Diwali in the house belonging to my parents-in-law," says the painter Shuvaprasanna. He said that Grass moved there on his second and longest visit to Kolkata, after finding the daily commute in the crowded train from the suburbs too burdensome. Grass is said to have been fascinated by the huge spectacle with the statues during the Diwali festivities.
Nowadays Shuvaprasanna runs the large museum "Arts Acre" just outside the city limits of Kolkata. At its entrance is a cornerstone laid by Grass that belonged to the museum's precursor, which opened in 1987. A black-and-white photograph of the inauguration, in which Grass can be seen on a podium, hangs in the entrance hall. In the museum itself is a drawing by Shuvaprasanna: Grass with a drum, and two almost faceless Indian children behind him. The title: "In Search of Oscar in Calcutta."
Stefan Mauer/ms (dpa)