Thursday, April 23, 2015

Gunter, Conscience and Guilt

“Gunter, Gunter…” Oskar would be crying..His creator has died. Gunter Grass, the author of ‘The Tin Drum’ died recently..He was the man who created Oskar Matzerath..And what a creation!

A three year old Oskar decides not to grow up, drums most of his life, can shatter glasses through his scream, falls continuously into love  and travels through Germany during the second world war. A figure of innocence, a man in the body of a child who through his experience enlightens us of the conditions of those times through the medium of literature. Both the powers of symbolism and the finer depths to which literature can take us have been exploited by Grass in the novel.

One has read  the facts of how many deaths, what weapons and what grave injuries were committed which bespeak of the horrors of the war. Every generation after the war rues its occurrence sans those who speak of the brilliant scientific discoveries which it led to. Yet to know the situation through a fictional story, through a unique character who has his own whims and fancies and wades through the characters and events of those times, look into the world through his experiences is completely different. One is invited into his world, gets to see it and then evaluates it on what they perceive. There are no numbers, no big data and most of times we have both sides of the story to choose from. To add that this is true of other stories as well, just that Grass has done it in one of the better ways possible.

Two phrases stick after reading articles and commentaries on Gunter Grass: “Conscience of the nation” and “National guilt.” I am not a German so not suited to comment on how apt they fit. But one does think of what they mean and which author in India can hold those titles?

A nation just like a person has a journey, its an entity. Right and wrong are pretty subjective for it. A murder committed by a woman is wrong until you know that it was done in self defence to prevent rape. An act of charity is good until the selfish quid pro quo arrangement comes to light. Look any day on your Facebook wall and one can find people trying to establish the rules for evaluating the good and bad for a nation, arguing with each other over it. Numerous studies and discussion have done so, will continue to do so. There is little agreement on most of the things. A conscience of a nation like India in this era, hence will be a pretty troubled one that's for sure. Any sane and practical person will have to take sides and bask in the comfort of a faction. And any person in a faction will be a bad candidate for the conscience. The stories told by the writer have to be above all the factionalism but embedded in them. And most importantly a conscience has to speak the truth. One can still write a true story even after being in a faction but it seems a difficult proposition. If one is not in a faction and tries to portray the truth it could be difficult for him/her. The people of the nation should be willing to accept that truth in their hearts however indifferent or conflicting it may sound to them. Finally and the core of it all, because its a story, it has to be gripping, it has to hold the reader. If any author comes to your mind do write a comment.

Guilt again is subjective. National guilt is too sensitive to talk about in India. The only entity to benefit from this is Facebook, it witnesses a spurt of activities. Politicians too benefit in the short term but borrowing from fight club “On a long enough time line the benefits of guilt in politics drops to zero.’ To feel shame, a wrong has to be committed. A nations shame is when it commits a wrong as a collective. India has not committed a Nazi like atrocity outside so that goes out of picture. But it has been a dynamic country on its own in terms of conflict and violence. Can one think of one single act of violence which can put all Indian’s to shame?

One can argue that for Gunter it was easy, Nazi atrocities have a ubiquitous wrong tag. So he didn't have to search hard for one. It was given to him on a plate, he just made a good delicacy out of it. But I don't think so. The role of an author is not to tell people directly about the crime they have committed and then make them accept it. It is much more difficult. It is not easy for a person to accept his actions as a crime, logic more often than not can be argued from both sides. More than that, the cover of ideology has reached far and wide, one can argue his crime with reference to an ideology. I am talking here about personal beliefs because that is where guilt  has to be placed or mined. For a person to feel guilt, the shackles of ideology have to be broken not only by counter arguing with another ideology but by showing the futility and pretentiousness of his own ideology as it has led to the crime in the first place. A child cannot be made to study and let go of his/her rebellion by forcing him/her to sit with books and giving examples of his/her more illustrious friends. The best way would be to generate interest by making him/her aware of the charm of books and joy of gaining knowledge and let these drive the will. .

That is how guilt has to be brought in. The ones who committed the crime have to feel the guilt and not forced to accept it. And anybody who knows how difficult it is to do it for a child can guess how difficult it is to do it to a person for guilt and how magnanimous it will be for an author to do it for a nation. This is where lies the genius of Gunter Grass.


Foram Mehta said...

I have not read the book - but I feel like reading it after reading your post. I really the way you have described Gunter's expression of guilt.

Siddhartha said...

Thanks Foram. Yes, do get hold of the book if you have time. Thoroughly enjoyable.