Gunter Grass

Curious about Kolkata

Print edition : May 15, 2015

Goutam Ghose with Grass at his country home in Lubeck in 2012. Photo: From Goutam Ghose's personal collection

Gunter Grass remained a fighter until his last breath. He was a voice of humanity who always opposed any kind of oppression. This stemmed from his own experiences during the Nazi time and his knowledge of the oppression during Stalin’s regime. He was a multifaceted genius—novelist, poet, sculptor, painter and illustrator. During my meeting with him, he told me he had studied at the Dusseldorf Art School. He continued to do sculptures and illustrations until the end of his life.

The first time I met Gunter Grass was at the Venice Film Festival where my film Paar (1984) won two awards. Grass was in the jury. He congratulated me after watching the film. Later, we sat and talked about the film and discussed the characters at the Lion’s Bar. He had a deep interest in India. By then he had already visited Calcutta (as Kolkata was known then). He was very curious and asked me about different things such as the caste war in Bihar. He felt it was a strange country, not at all homogeneous, and that was what fascinated him.

Subsequently, he returned to Kolkata in 1987 and stayed for one whole year. I met him on a couple occasions when he came to Shuvaprasanna Bhattacharjee’s [Kolkata-based artist] studio. He used to travel around in local trains and was quite fascinated with the city. He felt the city had a hidden strength. I met him again when he came to Kolkata in 2005, and after all those years he had not forgotten Paar. “I still remember the breathtaking scene at the end of the film. It’s a feat of human endurance,” he told me.

I felt that in the 21st century, Grass started writing a different kind of articles. From my discussions with him I found out that he had come to the realisation that the kind of globalisation the world was going through was not a just globalisation. You see, internationalism is reciprocal, but globalisation has certain headquarters. The last time I met him in Germany, he was vocal about the prevailing situation of 1 per cent versus the 99 per cent. He was concerned about the new generation and its suffering, even in Germany. One time he jokingly noted, “Once I wrote a novel called Diary of a Snail, but I think now the snail is faster and wiser than the human being.”

In 2012, I was making a film with him and Shuvaprasanna, an interactive film between painted images and photographic images. Grass himself gave the name for the film, Shuva and Me. In September 2012, he was very ill, but he still allowed us to visit him in his house at Lubeck and shoot. When we went to his house, we found him sitting in his study using a nebulizer. The moment Shuvaprasanna, my son Ishan and I entered, he just took off the nebulizer and greeted us most effusively and warmly. He asked about Kolkata, and seemed quite updated. “I believe the Communist government has gone after so many years,” he said. When I told him that the new government was headed by a woman, he said, “Oh yes. Calcutta women are very smart,” (laughed). We had a wonderful time. He talked about his last poetry book, which had created a lot of controversy. “Look, people are very angry with me, because I criticised the atomic war and Israel’s aggression and I have condemned the entire Western policy. But I expressed my view in a very soft manner. I have written a long poem. Not an article; not a story. Perhaps that is why people are most angry,” he told us. He was very disturbed about the socio-economic situation in the Western world. He and Shuvaprasanna then drew on a canvas, and at the end of it he wrote Shuva and Me, from which I named my film.

He showed us some incredible illustrations he had made recently. These illustrations were based on the novel Dog Years he wrote in 1963. The novel was being re-published on the occasion of its 50th anniversary. He said: “Fifty years ago I wrote the book in words, now I am making the illustrations for it from a very different perception.” It was a very interesting juxtaposition of the words he had written and the images he had drawn half a century later. He was an extremely skilled artist. I will cherish that experience all my life. He also spoke of his admiration for Subhas Chandra Bose, but his only reservation was that he had met Hitler. It was a very candid talk. He even remembered his experiences of water-logging in the streets of Kolkata.

He said if he recovered he would like to visit Kolkata again and see what changes had taken place. He had a love-hate relationship with the city. This comes out in his book Show Your Tongue, which created a controversy and angered a lot of people here. But he wanted to show the contradictions of the city—the stark inequality, and the political and religious fanaticism prevalent here. He took up the myth of Goddess Kali who stuck out her tongue in shame after stepping on her husband Siva. He had a deep love for Kolkata, but he was also a strong critic of the city. He tried to understand its pulse and that is why he stayed back for one whole year and lived and moved among the common people. We feel proud that a great man like Gunter Grass had a relationship with Kolkata. The city may not be the most beautiful one in the country, but I believe that it has a magic which attracted a man like Grass.

As told to Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay