Being and foreignness



For the first time in history, across much of the world, to be foreign is a perfectly normal condition.” — The Economist, December 17th 2009


1.

The Weihnachtsmarkt in this town was a small affair. It began at the western end of Hauptstrasse, with a stall selling dry fruits and nuts, and continued up the street, extending partly into the neighbouring Marktstrasse or Blumenstrasse, and ended at the eastern perimeter less than a kilometer from the start. The stalls, small log cabins with pine sprigs and yellowish light bulbs strung across their roof angles, displayed the usual wares: chocolates and gummy bears, gluh wine, crepes, potato pancakes, bratwurst & schnitzel, christmas-tree knickknacks, and ceramic crockery. At the intersection of Marktstrasse and Höllgasse there was a small carousel, manually operated, with eight horse-shaped mounts each painted a different colour. Not far from it stood a märchenzelt, a fairy-tale tent, white and round with a conical top, glowing like a dimly lit bulb. This tent was where I was headed, with Wife and some friends, on a cold and overcast November evening not long ago.

The evening’s plan was simple but unusual: from 7 to 8 P.M. children visiting the tent would be read Indian stories in German by a few Indian ladies. Wife, one of the storytellers, had made me a target of her daily practice sessions the previous week. The story she had chosen (“Sukeshini and the lake demon”) was about an Indian girl who tricks a demon and brings water to a drought-stricken village; she had translated it into German with the help of a friend. Others had chosen similar stories, Indian folk tales translated into German.

Inside the märchenzelt six or seven boys and girls sat facing a middle-aged woman reading a German fairy tale. At 7 P.M. the Indian ladies, dressed in colourful sarees or salwar kameez, started the session with a Namaste. “This is how you greet people in India,” one of them explained. The children mimicked the gesture and giggled. Then the stories were read out loud, one after another, each storyteller pausing in places to ask a question or to explain the context. Some of this context was presented as illustrations: colour printouts of scenes from the story — taken from the original storybook — or of an Indian situation or custom, like a festival or a feast served on banana leaves. The kids looked at the copied illustration before passing it on, and occasionally a curious parent leaned over their tiny shoulders for a quick glance. In the middle of the hour, after a couple of stories, the ladies sang a nursery rhyme in Hindi. The boys and girls were asked to repeat, line after line:

Haathi Raja bahut bade
Sund utha kar kahan chale
Mere ghar mein aaon na
Halwa puri khaon na
Aaon baitho kursi par
Kursi boli chatar-pattar!

The parents joined the children in this recitation. It was a charming reversal, with the Germans attempting what the Indians had been doing so far: speak in a foreign tongue.



At the hour’s end the children sang the rhyme once more, said Namaste, and left. Outside a slight drizzle had begun; we picked up some gluh-wine and crepes and stood chatting under the awning of an electronic store, next to its brightly lit windows. The store appeared closed, but soon a man approached us, with the obvious intention of entering it. Middle-aged, huge and bald and white like a WWF wrestler, he stopped in front of me and asked, with a half-smile: “Darf ich?” May I?

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