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Die Tänze der Santals

India all day

1st Instalment

Anyone who spends forty years living in a country where they were not born no longer knows with any certainty where their homeland is. I was born in Boppard in the Middle Rhine (Germany), and passed my Abitur school leaving certificate there, but had already spent a year living in the USA as an exchange scholar; I then swapped the Rhine for the Danube for my studies, but in Vienna I went to the theatre and concerts more often than the lecture halls. After graduating in German literature, I became a German lecturer in Calcutta, for a year or two, I thought, but then I didn’t return to Europe despite a number of offers and enticements. I’ve been living in India since 1980, in the small and still tranquil university town of Santiniketan (West Bengal), where the Indian national poet Rabindranath Tagore moved to in 1901 to found a school and later the university. I’ve put down roots, taproots even. I write books and articles in German and English, translate Tagore and edit books – and live in close contact with some villages of the Santal tribe. Why do I live here, and in the simplest manner imaginable? Perhaps this will gradually become clear in these diary entries.

Conversation with Boro –An important moment: for the first time, Boro admitted to me in a conversation that he feels fulfilled and content in his work. After twenty years of uncertainty and indecision. A few years ago, he was still talking about looking for employment with the state “for a few years”. The draw of cakri, a lifelong position as a civil servant, is so powerful that even a sensible, thoughtful person like Boro was unable to escape from it for twenty years. Finally, he has realised that he is in a better position as principal of the Santal School and the village council in Bishnubati than those civil servants of the same age who all complain about their mechanical, senseless work immersed in red tape.

Santal-Männlichkeit. An einem mit Mobilöl beschmierten Pfahl versuchen mehrere Teams hinaufzuklettern, um die Trophäe zu holen.Boro Baski, who I got to know as a pupil, and then helped to complete his studies, has got on extraordinarily well. He was able to keep studying and do his doctorate while getting a scholarship from Germany and being released for months from his work with us at the school and in the village. But he didn’t use his academic achievements to get out; rather – as hoped – to work above and beyond his position as a teacher and leader for the needs and the cultural aspirations of his people, the Santals. And in general to draw people’s attention to the lives of the village people. He writes essays, gives lectures at the university and travels to seminars. I hope that he broadens these activities; I hope too that he chooses from among the countless different ways of being effective with care – in other words avoiding ambitiousness and avarice – and becomes a transformative influence among the Santals.

Junior Leaders – For a few years, we have been trying to build up the “Second Line Leadership”, the second generation of young men and women who will assume responsibility in the village. I regard it as my personal task to support the Junior Leaders as I prefer to call them, and to prepare them for village duties. Thanks to arduous persuasion, it was agreed that they could have independent responsibility for clearly defined tasks – without being supervised by Sona and Boro and Snehadri. Persuasion was needed on two fronts: the seniors had to be prepared to relinquish responsibility (and that also means to relinquish power) and to trust the younger ones; and the younger ones had to overcome their fears and uncertainty and accept responsibility with all of its consequences, i.e. showing continuity first and foremost, and also running the risk of making and admitting mistakes.

After a year or more of consistent effort, the seven men, young teachers and students from Bishnubati and Ghosaldanga, have shown that they are serious and capable of doing responsible work. They supervise the five evening schools in the same number of villages, at which the pupils do their homework under the supervision of a teacher. They organise events and festivals themselves. They supervise the younger students who get scholarships so that they use their scholarships sensibly (and don’t buy mobile phones with them).

But sometimes their innate easy-going ways show through. One of the tasks that the Junior Leaders have taken on is to collect our German volunteers, who spend a few months in our Santal School, the Rolf Schoembs Vidyashram (RSV), and work with us in Ghosaldanga or Bishnubati, from the airport in Calcutta and accompany them to Santiniketan. Of the seven, this time it was Ramjit, who already had experience, who wanted to perform the task, and Mona, who hadn’t seen the airport yet and was to be shown the ropes. The two set off at midday. When Mona was already sitting in the train, he called Boro, the principal, at the RSV to say that he couldn’t teach the next day. Boro was astonished:

“But you must tell us before, you knew a few days before that you would be absent.”
“Hm,” was all that Mona could say, equally astonished.
“We have to look for a replacement, we can’t just let the children run around, can we?”
“No, we can’t.”
“And where are you spending the night?”
“We thought that we would stay with Asha in Bandel.” [Asha is Boro’s wife and she lives near Calcutta where she teaches at a school.] “But you didn’t inform me, you didn’t inform Asha. You can’t just turn up. No, look for another place to stay.”
One hour before they reached the town of Bandel, which is an hour from Calcutta by train, the phone rang again. They didn’t know where they could spend the night.

Before long, Boro regretted that he had been so harsh on his juniors: he had called Asha and told her to expect the two village boys. So, Boro gave in and invited the two of them. Asha started cooking, sent Ipil, their oldest daughter, quickly to the shop to buy half a chicken.

Ein Gast wird in einer Santalfamilie begrüßt

When they arrived, Ramjit and Mona felt they had made the right choice. Everything was prepared after all, and they could see no problem. A village family must always be ready for a visit from relatives; it is part of life in Santal that you receive guests spontaneously and show pleasure in doing so. But in Bandel, Boro and Asha don’t live like in the village any more; they have moved up into the middle class. This means that people become more demanding, as social considerations and duties also increase. Simply sharing what happens to be in the house and sleeping on a mat on the floor isn’t good enough any more. So, guests should let them know that they are coming so that food can be cooked and a bed prepared.

Totan. – He’s in Spain with Professor Paz and has signed up for some course or other. He wouldn’t be coming back to Santiniketan until December, he said on the phone. Yes, he was gradually ‘forgetting’ Santiniketan. Here he had lots of girlfriends, no not just one – lots, lots! I had rung Totan up to get some information from Professor Paz regarding our project about Tagore’s global reception. When he realised that I was talking to him from India, there was a little outburst of joy. He asked a dozen times how I was, without waiting for a reply. Keman achchen, keman achchen, Martin-da, keman achchen? He was performing verbal somersaults of enthusiasm, the 23-year-old from a humble family in Santiniketan. His parents run a small eating place, a street restaurant for the students who sit noisily in the evening on benches at the street side and eat alu-chop, feed on fried potato balls and slurp very sweet, milky tea from cardboard cups. That is the family’s income.

He chancedupon the Tagore scholar José Paz Rodriguez, a Galician who has been spending a few months every winter in Santiniketan since he became emeritus. He doesn’t speak either English or Bengali. His knowledge of Tagore is limited to the translations in Spanish and Portuguese. In Totan he found the right young man, who followed his suggestion and learnt Spanish, worked hard and pursued his goal energetically and was now accompanying the professor as a translator. Totan is now in Spain for his third summer helping the professor. Totan’s great advantage is that he has focused all his efforts on one task, learning Spanish. As an enthusiastic, childlike, idealistic young man, Totan is extremely popular, because where else in Europe is there so much youthfulness, where many youngsters are already blasé and spoiled by the time they’re 20? (…)

About the author

Martin Kämpchen is writing his Indian Diary in ECO123: extracts will be published starting from today’s edition. It makes it clear what people’s attitudes on the other side of the globe are towards their social, cultural, ecological and economic problems, and how they try to solve them.

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