Gunter Grass and Calcutta

This is why I love the internet. After hearing the BBC report the death of Gunter Grass, I remembered he had spent some time in Calcutta (now Kolkata). So I googled and came across what appeared not in Indian newspapers, but in the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. Both reviewed his book about Calcutta, Show Your Tongue, in 1989.

I haven’t read the book but remember Grass had some pretty harsh things to say. And, sure enough, it’s all there in the Chicago Tribune headline: Gunter Grass’ love-hate relationship with Calcutta.

The book reviewer writes:

Calcutta is one of those names to conjure with. Kalikatta is the name in Bengali, the fearsome goddess Kali`s city. It is the largest city in India, one of the most populous in the world and also one of the poorest.
Founded in the late 1600s by the East India Company, it served for nearly a century and a half as the British capital in the days of the Raj. A more inhospitable site could hardly have been found. In the hot season the temperatures reach 120 degrees; then when the monsoons arrive there is flooding. Much of the year it is noisome and malarial.
Two and a half years ago, Gunter Grass spent six months in Calcutta. What resulted was a journal and a collection of drawings; approximately half the book is art work. Grass probably will not win any prizes for drawing, but the combination of text and images is powerful.
In her conventional representations, Kali is laughing, holding a sword and carrying a severed head. A garland of skulls hangs at her breast, and her tongue is out and drips with blood. Grass finds her everywhere he turns.
He is appalled by Calcutta and in love with it. But the strongest emotion he feels is shame. That is what the title means. Showing your tongue, among Bengalis, is a gesture signifying shame. What prompts Grass` pangs of self-reproach is the sheer volume of deprivation and the complacent apathy of both the middle class and the ruling Communist Party. As for the West, in Grass` view, we are almost culpably ignorant of Calcutta. Yet our destinies surely are intertwined.
Grass` book is not so much a connected narrative as a series of discrete, recurring images. Blocks of sagging buildings, often with neither water nor electricity. Children rooting through mountains of garbage. Entire families sleeping in streets, cooking meals, raising children, regarding all this as normal. A population increasing exponentially. Everywhere cows and crows and rats. Smoke from funeral pyres. The omnipresent stench.
Some of the scenes are pure Kafka. Six thousand workers are employed at the Writers` Building. Their jobs are protected by the government. They sip tea and read and chat. A few sleep. Bundles of papers the height of a man are untouched but for the stirring of the fans. Trash piles up in the corridors, in the stairwells, the courtyard. Garbage and rubbish, knee-deep, collects in the corners. Outside the offices, patient as cows, petitioners kneel, waiting, waiting. Not far is the stock exchange, where brokers dressed in white cotton, talking on several phones at once, gesticulate with their finger signals. There all is flux and motion.

The book review takes you back to the mid-1980s, recalling what Gunter Grass saw in Calcutta.

Now if I went to a Singapore public library, I could read about Calcutta in the 1980s in a book. But I would have to go to the library. This I could read on the internet for free as soon as I heard about the death of Gunter Grass.

And that’s not all. If you search for Gunter Grass on Twitter, you will find a lot of material — articles about him, interviews he gave — tweeted by the Tweeple. There will be more written about him, but no more interviews by him. So now’s the time to bone up on him if you like. And it’s possible only because of the internet.

I wonder how long the internet will be such a gold mine of information open to everyone. Metered paywalls are going up everywhere. The Times tweeted a link to its article on Grass, but you can’t read it unless you are a paid subscriber.

The internet is becoming like a rainforest. Entire species have disappeared from view. See how many poems you can find by Ted Hughes. They used to be online once.

It’s such a pity that so much of history, arts and culture is no longer freely available online. As it is, our and older generations did not have all that much digital content to begin with. Elvis Presley and the Beatles did not snap Instagram photos like Justin Bieber, Kim Kardashian or whoever’s the flavour of the month. And what little was converted to digital media is not freely available.

So while it’s there, let’s read about Gunter Grass. (Confession time: The Tin Drum is the only book I have read by him.) Read his Paris Review interview, where he spoke about Calcutta and how he became a writer.

Interviewer: What made you turn to reading and writing in this situation, rather than, say, to sports or some other distraction?
Grass: As a child I was a great liar. Fortunately my mother liked my lies. I promised her marvelous things. When I was ten years old she called me Peer Gynt. Peer Gynt, she said, here you are telling me marvelous stories about journeys we will make to Naples and so on . . . I started to write down my lies very early. And I continue to do so! I started a novel when I was twelve years old. It was about the Kashubians, who turned up many years later in The Tin Drum, where Oskar’s grandmother, Anna, (like my own) is Kashubian. But I made a mistake in writing my first novel: all the characters I had introduced were dead at the end of the first chapter. I couldn’t go on! This was my first lesson in writing: be careful with your characters.

And here Grass is talking about Calcutta:

Calcutta. I have been there twice. The first time was eleven years before I began Show Your Tongue. It was my first time in India. I spent only a few days in Calcutta. I was shocked. There was, from the beginning, the wish to come back, to stay longer, to see more, to write things down. I went on other voyages—in Asia, Africa—but whenever I saw the slums of Hong Kong or Manila or Jakarta, I was reminded of the situation in Calcutta. There is no other place I know where the problems of the first world are so openly mixed up with those of the third, out in the in daylight.
So I went to Calcutta again, and I lost my ability to use language. I couldn’t write a word. At this point the drawing became important. It was another way of trying to capture the reality of Calcutta. With the help of the drawings I was finally able to write prose again—that is the first section of the book, a kind of essay. After that I began work on the third section, a long poem of twelve parts. It is a city poem, about Calcutta.

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