In the winter of 2000, a few weeks before we left India for Germany, Wife and I were invited by a relative for a farewell lunch. This uncle and aunt were encouraging and optimistic about our plans to migrate (“At least you aren’t going to the U.S. like the rest of them,” they said), but the aunt’s father, an elderly man with hawk eyes, took a different view. “Why are you going to Germany?” he asked. “It is the most racist country in the world, don’t you know? Haven’t you read about Hitler and the Jews? The Germans hate foreigners — I would think ten times before going there.”
An awkward pause followed, before someone changed the subject; no one referred again to the incident, but the old man’s words remained with me.
The first few months in Germany flew by, as we adjusted to our surroundings and evolved a routine. We found an apartment to rent, opened bank accounts, registered with the local authorities, took driving lessons, joined the local library, bought brands we hadn’t heard of. The language, though foreign, was never an obstacle; we coped well, helped by strangers who translated into English when we claimed ignorance of German, or by a curious mix of words — both English and German — and signs that bridged the gap between the locals and us. Sometimes, stuck under a heap of bureaucratic complications typical of interactions with the German state, my colleagues offered assistance, apologizing for the state’s inflexibility and annoyed at its obsession with rules. Our neighbours, curious about this Indian couple who had added colour to their locality, often stopped for a chat; most of them spoke only German, but they seemed satisfied with our “Ja”s and nods, and went on about the unusually long winter that year (a remark as regular as the weather was fickle), or the new supermarket nearby that was too expensive, or the roadworks in the village that made driving difficult. One of them, a retired journalist who lived on the top floor, invited us to identify our hometowns in his atlas, a large, thickly bound artifact that showed familiar geographies annotated with unfamiliar names, all in German, and when I pointed to the Indian peninsula he grew excited and produced a flurry of questions about the region and its history.
Our first experiences, then, were unlike anything the old man had predicted; Hitler and his National Socialists appeared now and then in the papers, but world associated with those words had nothing in common with the society around us.
“The politics of a country” writes V.S. Naipaul, “can only be an extension of its idea of human relationships.” In our case, the politics of Germany was at variance with what we encountered in our relationships. We arrived at a time when Germany was opening its doors to well-educated immigrants, computer professionals who could fill the gap in its growing IT sector; the German “Green Card”, a five-year visa issued with few expectations and in less than a week, was aimed at foreign “computer specialists” from non-EU countries, especially India. It drew mixed reactions from the conservatives: a member of the opposition built his election campaign around the slogan “Kinder statt Inder” (Our children, instead of the Indian), and this brought the immigration topic, ever present beneath the surface, to the front page. The politicians and the public were divided (a poll in March 2000 reported that 56% of Germans opposed the green-card programme, while 37% were in favour), and the media concluded that the debate highlighted the “latent German fear of all things alien.” (In the end, the fear of Indians overrunning the country — there was even a cartoon depicting a steam engine train, bursting with Indians lodged on the roof and hanging on all sides, arriving at a German station — proved overblown: few Indians arrived here with the green-card; the programme was adopted mostly by specialists from Eastern Europe, citizens of Ukraine, Romania, Croatia, Poland, and even Russia, while the Indians stopped at Frankfurt in transit across the Atlantic.)
Life in our village continued, oblivious of and indifferent to these public debates. This was possible in part because we lived in the west, far from the east or the north, two areas in Germany with a reputation of intolerance towards foreigners. The west had a high standard of living, very low unemployment, and a low immigrant population. (I hadn’t realized how successful Germany had been in limiting its immigrant population until we visited Paris in the spring of 2001: the African crowd there presented a sharp contrast to the homogeneity I had seen in Germany; it was like emerging from an all-white clinical lab into a middle-eastern bazaar); the east and north, with their share of economic and employment difficulties, were (reputedly) less open to foreigners. So there was no single story of Germany’s attitude towards foreigners: that was a stereotype created — and circulated — by the media or by those seeking simplistic answers.
On my trips home I was sometimes asked about life in Germany, in particular if I had been a victim of racist behaviour. It wasn’t, in some cases, even a question: the person had made up his mind, and was looking only for supporting evidence. My answer, always in the negative, surprised some, disappointed others. I made no attempts to explain that this isn’t a black or white question, that there are shades of grey, left, in the end, to our interpretations.
(To be continued)