Archive for March 29th, 2012

Letter from Austria

March 29, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

 


From: Shankar Nath
To: chrestomather@yahoo.in
Sent: Wednesday, 11 January 2012 2:57 AM
Subject: khatirdari

 

Dear Amitavji
Being aware that this is one of a million bothersome Fan letters, attacking you daily like mosquitos in a tropical evening, i still could not restrain myself from writing it.  It has been obstinately haunting me, forming and deforming in my mind ever since i finished river of smoke. I had to vent my deep appreciation for your work.
Herman Hesse hated all the correspondence he would receive from his admirers, since responding to them would take up more than 3 hours of his daily routine. He pledged in his letters that they refrain from writing to him, that they stop dumping their philosophies and trivialities on his ailing self, yet he would never stop reading them, he felt it was his moral obligation not only to except honoraries like the nobel prize, but also writhe through redundant missives. I do hope you have no such persuasions and i surely don’t mind never receiving an Answer.
I have been an avid reader of all your books and am deeply impressed by your skill. Many of your writings have inspired me and accompanied me on the journeys of my life.  Having read the Glass Palace I started dreaming of Myanmar, i could see Mandalay and when i finally travelled to Burma it was as if i was tracing Rajkumars family. I reread the Glasspalace two more times during my sojourn through Burma
.
The Sea Of Popies was another Time capsule, once i started reading it I forgot everything around me, even myself. There were only your characters whom i could watch like from a storms eye . My wife feels jealous of your books, since i am rendered useless for the time that i am reading them, becoming oblivious to everything else. I had been to Gazipur during my school days in benares, but never realized the importance the opiumfactory had played for world history. Somehow now i understand why ghazopur had that weird feeling which i could’nt pinpoint.
Most of your characters are so deeply rooted in life that i feel i know them, that they exist. Many times, looking at the vagaries of my life, i feel myself to be in an Amitav Ghosh novel, not knowing if this is good or bad thing, cause your novels are neither abundant nor bereft of Happy endings.
It is river of Smoke that has finally made me write this letter. The way you have subtly shown the moral conventions behind the opium wars, the hypocritical approach to the concept of civilization, the tragedy of Bahram losing his sole to Ahriman and yet showing that there is something infallible left in humanbeings, something greater than profit, if we  strive for it.
The fact that modern day economics are based on the same ruthless axioms used by those merchants crippling a nation with drugs and yet believing it to be virtuous, was awe inspiring .
In case you are still reading my words, i would like to express a humble invitation. I see from your schedule that you will be in Prague coming October. This being not far away from Vienna, my present home, i would love to invite you to this charming city. I am sure Vienna would not fail to impress you.
I am an Austro-Indian (maybe the second in the tradition of Amrita Shergill, born to an Austrian Mother and an Indian Nath Baba somewhere in Himachal) thirty something, development and history scholar for passion and tour guide for a living. I spend my time between India, Sri lanka and Austria, it would be an Honour agar aap hamein bhi Mehman Nawazi ka moka dein, and a miniscule reciprocation for all the wonderfull stories you have gifted this worldYour work is truly appreciated.
With best Regards
Shankar Nath
On Jan 12, 2012, at 5:00 PM, A.k. Munshi wrote:

 

Dear Shankar
Thank you very much for this wonderful letter. For me it is always a pleasure and a privilege to hear from readers who appreciate my books. In this case it is particularly so because I am fascinated by stories of the diaspora. In that regard however I have to tell you that you are by no means only the second Austrian-Indian. Subhas Chandra Bose married an Austrian and I think his daughter still lives there.
And you may be surprised to learn that I myself have an Austrian connection. One of my cousins won a scholarship to study engineering in Graz, in the 1960s. While there he met and married Katalin von Mikes, a refugee from Romania. It so happened that she was from an Austro-Hungarian family with extensive estates in Transylvania. After the fall of the Communist regime my cousin went to Romania and fought hard for the restoration of the land.

Katalin, at the Guest House, Kastey Mikes, Zabola

It was eventually given back to them and my cousin’s sons, Gregor and Alexander (my ‘nephews’ as we would say in India) now live in the Kastely Mikes and run the estate. Gregor and Alexander grew up in Graz and are also Austrian-Indian. In fact they are now restoring some buildings in our ancestral village in Bangladesh. You can read the whole story if you go to their website: www.zabola.com.

Gregor, Komandau, Romania

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I have been to Vienna many times and I love the city. You will be interested to know that the great Indian historian, Ranajit Guha, who is married to an Austrian also lives there. I would love to visit again but I don’t know if it will be possible in October. If you could send more specific proposals I could certainly think about it.

Would you mind if I posted your letter on my blog? I am sure many readers would be interested.

With my best wishes

Amitav Ghosh

 

 

 

 

 

Jan 16, 2012

Dear Amitavji

iT was wonderfull to recieve a letter from You and that too so quick.  I am humbled by the fact that i am by far not the only sprout of the strange union between this now tiny country and our  huge subcontinent, strange because there is so little the two seem to have in common. I had completely forgotten that Subhas chander bose was married to an Austrian, who lived in Vienna . Many times i wondered if some elderly lady walking next to me could have been Netaji’s wife.
 This reminds me of the arrogance i once had with 17, arriving in the city of vienna and believing that i might be the only person with the exotic name Shankar  (having always shared my name with atleast 10 others at every school in india), claiming it to be thus unique in the whole country. Little did i know that a Mathematician from calcutta with the name of shankar had arrived and settled in Vienna, walking barefoot from west bengal to austria decades ago. He had been a leftist and had started a commune in Austria.
Two years ago, another interesting connection came to light for me, I moved into the viennese country side to spend a summer and help refurbish the old withering house of my Mentor. It had been decaying for decades and if it wouldnt have been for my Mentor, and his romantic memories of having met his wife in that hut in the 70’s, the house would have been confiscated by the forest deparment, being in that deplorable state (yes austria has laws against the withering away of houses) . He faught a law suit and managed to secure the place for his future generations, being himself unable to dedicate much time in this venture.
When i reached Gaaden the little hamlet , some village elders told me that i am not the first indian to come there,  an elderly englishwoman who  dressed in the indian way had lived in that house with her Indian servant, way back in the 60’s . She must have been a very reclusive person and thus generated suspicion in the backward countryside. This person was no- one other than Mira behn (urf madeline slade), Gandhiji’s devotee and follower for over three decades. It seems that after Gandhiji’s Death she left India and settled in Austria for over 20 years, why she chose such a sleepy hamlet near the viennese woods is a mystery for me. I could not believe that someone who had lived and seen India’s freedom struggle in such minute detail had spent her last years in the same garden fighting the same tenacious weeds as my insignificant self.
Since you are fascinated by stories of the Diaspora i would like to share my favorite one. Your charachter kalua reminds me a lot of an haryanvi Dalit named jedi, had a dark complexion and two meters tall, whom i met some years ago. He was one of the few indian immigrants to Austria who seemed to keep a healthy distance from the resident punjabi community, though he shared their laguage.  Most Indians in Austria are from one district in Punjab, jallandhar, they work in the newspaper trade and delivering pizzas. They are mostly from landowning thekedar families and their parents sell large shares of their land so as to pay the Agents who organize the illegal migration. Coming to austria they realize that now their is a new caste system overshadowing the former one, you are either paper wallah or without paper wallah, the latter being the overwhelming majority. SO being illegal they have only other minor jobs, mostly for established indians who keep them as a cheap workforce. Yet remaining in the tight knit male soceity there is little cultural emancipation taking place and even after years of living in europe many still have the same set of narrowminded ideas, specially in regards to language, women and untauchables, which dominated their rural life in punjab.
Kalia (as jedi was called in Haryana) went another way, having no land to sell but a deep desire to leave his village, fedup being the underdog (in his own words).   He arrived in Austria because he had heard that some agencies provided free Tranfer to Europe if one agrees to take a concealed Bag to Europa and delivers it in some City. If you are caught with the bag its your problem. Having grown up near a small town notoriously known for smuggling Opium/Heroin between Rajasthan Punjab and Delhi he guessed the content of the Bag. He knew that in case he is caught it would most probably be Jail but he took his chance, jo hoga dekhaj ayega. He was flown through asian cities into Sweden, there he could deliver his bag and recieved an onward journey ticket to Germany. Arriving on his own he managed to steer away from other Indians and looked for work here and there. It so happened that he made some Europian friends who liked him and gave him shelter in their House. Having been taunted all his life for being black, he realized that now his exotic looks have the contrary effect, earning him very favorable conditions with the Ladies .
 Once they took him to a Trance festival where he saw his unique chance of making money. There were many stalls serving mediocre indian snaks and he was asked to help out. Learning the Trade very quickly he bought an old volkswagen bus with his mobile kitchen and started touring all major festivals cooking Vegatarian Food. Within Three years of meeting him he had already established a popular Vegetarian Indian Restaurent in Vienna, was fluent in German and had married an Austrian girl. I met him at his restaurent and was wondering about the steady climb he had managed, he just laughed and said that was nothing. His biggest satisfaction was that he was cooking and gore were loving his food, where as in India those fair skinned wannabes  didnt even allow me near a kitchen. His kids are also Austro indian thus adding to our  little tribe.
I wonder what happens to kalua in your story and eagerly await the sequel.
Anyway i have digressed too much.
 I will think of some specific proposal to make the Invitation to Vienna more attractive.
I dont mind if you publish the Letter, it is  an honour for me.
with best regards and wishes
Shankar

 




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