By Anant Kumar, Kassel, Germany – Motihari, India
(Presented between 22nd March and 1st April 2005 at
York University, U of T, McMaster University, University
of Waterloo, Queen’s University, Ontario, Canada;
“Multiculturalism and Cultural Production in Contemporary Germany”)
Mother Tongue, Foreign Tongue and Literary Production
A few years ago, at a reading in a poetry center, I introduced myself as a “German – Indian” author. I immediately noticed an irritation among the audience.
Dear Madams and Sirs! Believe it or not, in the present phase of literary production, no other apt expression comes to this author’s mind to describe himself than the two adjectives German and Indian.
Naturally, German is a foreign language to me. If I have it my way, it would like for it to remain like that, that is, I really do not want to speak German like the natives without any accent, nor write it without making any mistakes. Whether natives speak without any accent or write without making any grammatical errors is another subject. Certainly, in no case do I use German for idiotic and senseless small talk with a native speaker in front of the Kassel city hall. The foreign tongue is for me an instrument, with whose help I grasp and process happenings and phenomena of my surroundings: It is a tool of literary processing.
Dear reader! In case this assertion appears somewhat vague or perhaps even unbelievable for you at this point, I can provide you, as a comparison, a formula that teachers of German try to use while teaching foreigners good German. This magical method is, “Think in German, then you can speak German!” Many go so far to suggest, “If you dream in German one night, you will start to speak German fluently from the next morning!” But in my peculiar case this process was a bit different. My dreams and my writing in German are more fluent and beautiful than my daily yapping. God bless me for that!
To sum up, I do communicate, think, and dream in a foreign language, which is German.
For those of you, who still believe that poems are just sentiments and feelings, can go ahead and form a specific reader or consumer group for all I care. However, these people can not be real lovers of literature. I was once asked by a colleague during a reading, “How can you do this? Poetry for me is an expression of my innermost feelings, which I can only imagine in my mother tongue.” Such a group of people certainly have feelings. But they are not creative word acrobats, who, during literary creation, can sometimes mercilessly cannibalize their feelings or at times beautify them exaggeratedly, so that they can come a bit closer to the character and the appearance. Literature or poesie has its own language. It has its own rules and laws that can not be simply compared to a formula such as a² + b² = c². The function of poetic art lies in overcoming such formulas constantly. Each text and each work of art knows its own laws that can be discussed partly with reference to the originated work and partly by considering the artist.
You already know how difficult and easy it is in a language, even in your mother tongue, to find an accurate term, during the correction of your German essay in high school or the revision of your seminar paper at the university. I would like to present my opinion regarding this problem to such advocates of the exact term, and by doing so, I would like to render homage to one of my teachers Alfred Döblin, “Language can only try to come close to reality and to reach a certain precision. But it has its limits.” So, away from the obsession with the exact expression! The search for a language, which can represent things and events exactly, is futile. It is just an illusion!
My mother tongue Hindi is the second part of my thinking, writing and speaking apparatus. This is applicable even to the present day, as I am writing this essay. In this regard, the second part of the adjective “Indian” is to be equated with my Indianness and with my mother tongue. I do not know for sure, in what proportion these two languages – out of several other languages – operate in my brain. In my case, I can only ascertain that the one helps the other, and the two languages, namely German and Hindi, are both equally important to me.
There are always some people who demand proof for all phenomena. At this point, they might scream at the top of their voice: “Show us, how it functions! Weird! Peculiar! I do not understand it!”
Dear Readers! I am willing to make myself available as an experimental object to psychologists, psychiatrists, linguists to satisfy the cursory satisfaction of these people. My only condition is that I am allowed to continue with my writing in German.
Even some of my German Studies colleagues from Kassel who repeatedly ask me, “Why do you write in German?”, will most probably make a long face at this point and then comment, “What is this? Why is he trying to teach us? We know all of this from the psycholinguistics seminar.” Such kind of questions and comments remind me particularly of the majority of my New-Delhi fellow students, who would start memorizing just a few days before every exam to get a good grade. As soon as the exam was over, the memorized theories and ideologies were passé. Hegel, Hesse, Habermas, Chomsky, etc. would be banned until the next exam from their pragmatically functioning world. One is saddened to see tons of paper blackened over and over again with the words of such thinkers and poets in the hope of a good grade. In place of those words of thinkers and poets, prevalent prejudices and clichés resurfaced by the bourgeoisie from New Delhi: Someone from New Delhi or Bombay looked down upon the other villagers; die hypocritical Brahmin intelligentsia from the more “progressive” state of Maharashtra allied itself secretly against the lower castes and against the underdeveloped regions. Naturally, in the public forum these power-hungry upper classes praise emancipation, equal rights, abolishment of the caste system, foundation of a socialist democracy, etc. However, I constantly raise doubts that many of these educated intellectuals, even those from the West European pluralistic democracy, do really want a change - especially when it concerns the interest of their own priorities and the dominance of the world familiar to them.
Ladies and gentlemen! For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and the opinions of a struggling artist will seldom satisfy everyone’s expectations. And I do not consider myself as an exception to the rule. So, if some of my words and my uncommon literature do irritate a few people, and should these people worry about a change in quality of German literature, then this German speaking author of Indian origin hereby requests heartily for the right to continue writing in German and present his literature in German at a Turkish club. Strange! Even there I come across a few listeners, like many of my German readers, who respond to such texts.
Respected audience members, I would like to extend my thanks to you all for your kind attention; and end with a quote by Roland Barthes:
“In the last analysis, words no longer have any referential value, only an exchange value: their function is to communicate, as in the dullest of transactions, not to suggest. In a word, language offers only one certainty: that of banality: therefore one always chooses banality.”
Sukanya Kulkarni, Ph.D., Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow
in German Cultural Studies, Department of Germanic
Languages & Literatures, University of Toronto
Dancing in Diaspora
In his 1998 study of the Germans in Shanghai, Werner Noll describes the cultural crisis they experienced, noting that 'minorities placed in a culturally very different setting mostly feel more nationalist than a majority population in its own country'. He's quite right. But this 'nationalist feeling' can mean all sorts of different things. Someone can feel 'nationalist' in taking pride in the values and cultural achievements of their homeland. But foreigners in foreign lands tend to think all too highly of their homeland and in their alien-ness they may wish to present their inherited culture as superior to that of the others around them. It can indeed happen that a minority retreats into a defensive shelter behind their pride and their sense of superiority. Stories and memoirs provide interesting witnesses of the ways in which colonizing minorities lived among the native populations.
Shanghai was not actually a German colony, but this pressure to express one's culture was strongly felt there. Noll reports: 'When my father came to Shanghai in 1925, there was already a German community with its own infrastructure: the German gardening club, the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Schule, a German kindergarten, and standing outside the German church, a memorial to the German gun-boat 'Iltis', which had been sunk near Qingdao before the turn of the century, where wreaths were laid in a solemn ceremony on Heroes Day. ‘(...) we lived well, as did most of the other Germans and foreigners. (...) It went without saying that anyone who lived in a house, as distinct from an apartment, had a flagpole with their national flag flying from it.' But things are quite different when, as now, people have to flee to the economically stable countries, coming from regions where their cultural achievements and their cultural diversity are threatened by the terrors of totalitarian regimes or civil war. Forced to leave their homeland behind, seeking a refuge in a strange society, they are bound to endure a cultural crisis: What will become of our language? Must I forget it? What will become of our songs, our music? Can we still dance here in a foreign land? How? The following report addresses questions such as these.
December 2000, at the Engineering School in Kassel: 'Mihrican Govenda Kurdistan', the 14th annual Kurdish festival of music and dance. Noisy children are running around on the grass outside the entrance near the car park, which is full of family cars and minibuses. The weather is perfect, warm autumnal sunshine: 'the smiling coronet of heaven', as a Kurdish saying puts it. Sunbeams greet the visitors as they enter the hall. Rainbow colors dance about the room, filtered through a prism. On the stage, a dance group from Bielefeld is performing, while other colorfully costumed groups of young girls and boys are practicing their steps one last time in the seminar rooms, their faces serious and happy. Over 300 young people are here to present their country's dances: from a country which is not on the map: a region divided between Near Eastern countries. Those who have no homeland must grow ever more aware, as they mourn their lack, of the maxim of all repressive regimes: to destroy a people or a nation, begin with their culture and art.
This festival has incalculable meaning both for the older Kurds and for the youngsters who have grown up in exile here. 'Halay is the name of the dance performed in happy times as well as sad times, when we dance together arm in arm. Words that cannot be voiced are expressed in zilgit, the cry of the Kurdish women. Zilgit is the voice's exclamation, a shout trilled on the tongue.' Then the zurna, a high-pitched wind instrument, gentle, mystic and romantic, accompanied by the regular beat of the deg, a great drum. Well-trained feet move gracefully to these sounds and rhythms. It strikes me that this is folklore professionally done. The costumes all seem similar, yet on closer examination they differ, as each dance belongs to a region with its own beautiful style.
'Mihrican means peace, it means brotherliness and sisterliness, Mihrican means different peoples sharing values of beauty,' says a sixteen-year-old Kurdish boy living in Germany, Kenan Arslan. He teaches Kurdish dancing on Sundays, here in his homeland in exile. His group, which includes two German girls, is number 13 on today's program. His dark eyes shine as he explains some of the finer points of the dance. His pupils greet me with friendly smiles, as do many of the youngsters here. I'm a stranger, ignorant of their language and culture, but a stranger keen to participate in their joy, and that's what the children seem to recognize. A stranger's heart and intent, regardless of words. They talk happily among themselves about the few strangers here. Not many have come. Eylm from Neuss speaks German without a trace of an accent: 'It's a sad so few Germans have come today. We sent out so many invitations to Germans.' She thanks me, handing me a press pack with articles about last year's event: a very slim file.
The wish for friendly and peaceful co-existence in a German-speaking society is clear as the presenter, a student at Kassel University, translates everything important into German for the sake of the handful of non-Kurds. I overhear a small girl who has just finished dancing asking her sister if she made too many mistakes. I want to kiss her head and tell her: No, you were great! All of you! Really!
Mingling enthusiasm and regret, Doris says: 'The world is so rich and colorful. We stubborn Germans, we could learn so much from other cultures. But no, we see Kurds and Turks as nothing but crooks and gangsters.' Her feet move to the rhythms of the zurna and the deg.
Dr Tom Cheesman (Lecturer in German and Media Studies /
Dozent für Germanistik und Medienwissenschaft)
Keir Hardie Building University of Wales Swansea
Swansea SA2 8PP Wales, UK
About the Author:
Anant Kumar, a writer in the German language, was born in the North Eastern Indian State of Bihar. He learnt German as a Foreign Language in New Delhi, before he came to Germany in 1991. Between 1991 and 1998, he studied German Literature and Linguistics. He wrote his Masters Thesis on the epic MANAS of Alfred Döblin at the University of Kassel, Germany. Besides regular contributions to literary magazines and periodicals, he is the author of six books of poetry and prose: FREMDE FRAU -- FREMDER MANN (Schweinfurt 1997/ 2000), KASSELER TEXTE (Schweinfurt 1998/ 2000), DIE INDERIN (Schweinfurt 1999/ 2000), ...UND EIN STÜCK FÜR DICH (Ahlhorn 2000), DIE GALOPPIERENDE KUHHERDE (Schweinfurt 2001/2002) and DIE UFERLOSEN GESCHICHTEN (Schweinfurt 2003/2004). He has received several awards in contemporary German literature and is a member of German Writers Association.
On going poetry readings and lectures by Anant Kumar are being organized in various cities in the European Union, in the North America (Department of Germanic Studies) and in India.