Stick in hand, almost bent by age, he walks at a brisk pace, with at least two dozen people in tow — faithful readers, autograph hunters, journalists, photographers — and doesn’t talk to anybody at the Leipzig book fair or even give autographs. If he stopped for a moment, the crowd would swell further, somebody could even ask irritating questions — just a few days ago, he had lambasted the German government in sharp and biting language. He did that often, not measuring what he said when he saw something slightly out of joint. And why would he? His name was Günter Grass.
Grass said, “The mouth’s primary task is to eat and speak. Why would I shut it?”
A lot of people say a lot of things about Grass. Some see him as angry, temperamental, unsympathetic and arrogant. It’s absolute nonsense, just rumour. It’s possible, though, that those who were close to him didn’t notice these things. Because I have known his moods and temperament since the August of 1986.
Making Baruipur, near Kolkata, his home for six-odd months, Grass rents a red, upper middle class, one and a half storey house. A house surrounded by a lawn. Lots of plants and shrubs. A small pond, too. The caretaker, Jahanara, tells me one day, “I can’t speak English, so you tell them [His wife, Ute, and Günter] not to bathe in this pond. They’ll get malaria. Can’t you see the mosquitoes in the water!” Saying that, she smiles mischievously. Why are you smiling? Jahanara replies, “Ute-di doesn’t close the bathroom door and bathes without her clothes on. Günter-da does the same. They have no shame.”
How do they communicate with Jahanara? Ute says, “I’m learning Bengali from her, such as, ‘We will eat now. We’ll have daal. We won’t have jaal jhaal, meaning hot and spicy]. How much does this cost? It can’t cost so much. We are sahibs, so you charge us more. Name the correct price.’”
The news is there in several Kolkata papers — Günter Grass is in town. Is it possible to meet him? “Why not? Come tomorrow afternoon at lunchtime, Grass has lunch here on most days, I’ll introduce you,” says Raju Raman, programme director at the Goethe Institute, Max Müller Bhavan. Raju and I have been friends for more than a decade. At the start of the introduction, Grass asks his first question, “Exil [exile] poet? Am interested about you. Tell me.” I say, you don’t have to know all of it right now, I’ll tell you later. I ask, have you seen Kolkata’s real self? What Grass says is laughable. So, you’ve seen nothing of Kolkata. Do you want to?
It started the next day. Our adventure. He would travel from Baruipur to Ballygunge railway station. I’d pick him up there. To Gariahat by tram, and then we’d decide where to go. Sometimes Tripti and Sourav Ghatak would bring their car (Grass wrote about them in Show Your Tongue). We roam the city from one end to the other. Even the redlight district of Harkata Gali. The mastaans (goons) come charging when they see the sahib and mem, “Hey you! You’ve come here with chhaheb and mem chhaheb? Hey Kallu, sharpen the dagger.” But they don’t dare. I had let the state home secretary, Rathin Sengupta, know beforehand. He had spared four policemen to accompany us. Plainclothes officers.
From noon till around nine or ten at night, we roam Kolkata. From cemeteries and burning ghats to temples and mosques, and even the various slums. At a Muslim slum in Khidirpur, we run into trouble. The slum dwellers come to beat us up when Ute tries to take pictures. When we emerge from a movie hall after watching Sholay, a youth asks Grass, “Please give me an autograph.” The boy doesn’t have paper so his ticket will have to do. On seeing the signature, the youth asks, “Oh, you’re not Graham Greene?”
In Kolkata’s intellectual circles, there was a rising clamour, why had Grass chosen a Bangladeshi? The word reached the ears of the police. One morning, they arrived home. I was staying at the poet Annada Shankar Ray’s flat. On seeing Ray, the Ballygunge police were bemused. Very politely, the police inquired, “Sir, what is your relationship with Ghaas babu? Which places have you been taking Ghaas babu to? What is the intention behind these trips?” I replied, “I’m taking Ghaas babu to Writers’ Building today to meet Chief Minister Jyoti Basu.”
While staying in Kolkata, Grass did not criticise the city much. He was a guest there; doing so might have meant trouble. But during informal addas, of course, there was much to talk about, joke about. He wrote about the city in Show Your Tongue. It’s essentially a diary without dates. When the book was being prepared for publication, he dictated it to his secretary, Eva Hoenisch. After the novel, Der Butt (The Flounder, 1977), he did not write or even type anything by his own hand. Everything was spoken, after consulting notes. It was all written out by his secretary.
I stayed in his house on Niedstrasse for a year and a half. Friends joked that I lived on top of Grass’s head. He was on the second floor and I on the third. Birthdays were an important affair for Grass. His own (October 16) was celebrated with children, relations and friends. And he never forgot my birthday — always called and sent presents. On February 21, he said on the phone, “When will you go to Kolkata? When you go, will you bring me a small Kali figurine? An earthen one. If it’s copper or bronze, they’ll stop you at the airport.”
No, I can’t take him the idol now. I can’t fulfil Grass’s wish.
Haider is a Bangladeshi poet who lived in political exile in Kolkata before moving to Berlin. This article has been translated from Bengali by Ipsita Chakravarty and Sudeep Paul.