I was recently fortunate enough to lay my hands on a book by Anita Desai called Baumgartner's Bombay, the book explores the experiences of a German Jew who fled to India to escape the Nazis. Having earlier seen a report on CNN about the small scale migration of Jews to India during the second world war, I found the theme of the book intriguing.
However, upon reading it I found that it contained little factual representation of the narrator Hugo Baumgartner's situation but instead was a tale concocted out of extremely personal experiences chosen at intermittent points through out his life. I found this style of writing extremely refreshing and also very binding from a reader's point of view.
Instead narrating the story from start to end, Desai's technique of story telling tells you of emotional flash points in Baumgartner's life. Another interesting aspect was that she had vividly described the setting in each situation so that the reader is veritably transported through Germany, Venice, Culcutta and finally ending up at Bombay.
Though the story is representative of the suffering of Jews during the Nazi regime and obviously the heartrending situation of Baumgartner who was neither here nor there.
"Too dark for Nazi Germany and too fair for Bombay" aptly describes Baumgartner's predicament.
However, the book delves into something deeper than just Baumgartner's longing to belong and the atrocities of Nazi Germany. Through out the book the scribe describes in great detail Hugo Baumgartner's affection for his Mutti ( mother), she uses this to convey the universality of human feeling; everyone loves their mothers. It also helps to express that whether we live in Germany or India and whether you are of Aryan or Semitic descent that deep down inside all of us are the same.
(pic. Anita Desai)
Desai also takes a jab at the maxim " the enemy of enemy is my friend". She describes how many nationalistic Indians warmed up to Baumgartner because he was German.
"We are fighting the same enemy -the British", lest did they know that though he was German he had lost his mother ,his home and his country because of the Nazis. At one point she elaborates further and says that there were many Indians supporting the Germans and the Japs because there was school of thought that the Axis powers would liberate the Indians from the British. This coupled with Baumgartner's predicament heightens the irony of the storyline.
The book also exposes the dark underbelly of India and the abject poverty of its citizens. Large portions of prose are dedicated to describing the squalor and the unhealthy environs of Indian cities. Thus, exposing the hypocrisy of the Indian upper classes that build luxurious hotels for foreigners but yet let its own brethren suffer silently.
She dwells on this topic (hypocrisy of the Indian upper classes) further by describing the affair between Hugo's friend Lotte and a Bengali businessman. It is touched upon again when Hugo looses ownership of his race horse following the death of his wealthy business partner. This is in stark contrast to genuine Indian citizens such as Farrokh who befriends Baumgartner.
The iron cast perceptions of Indians towards the lower social classes also come under close scrutiny as the drunkard who reported Baumgartner's death becomes the chief suspect, despite the real culprit making away with the "silver". Fairer skin can get you quite far - is what Desai seems to saying in an undertone.
The opportunist nature of humans are also illustrated using the characters Lily from Shanghai and the Aryan Boy.
Though many have termed this book as being a literary creation that explores Baumgartner's wanting to belong to something, I personally believe that at a much deeper level it explores a plethora of psycho-social problems plaguing Indian society.
On a personal note I also felt that as Sri Lankans we can all relate to Baumgartner's situation when taking into account the tens of thousands of Sri Lankans who have fled the country to escape death. Some have left to escape the cruel LTTE regime, some following the bloody '83 riots and others to escape death at the hands of government death squads during the late 80's.
Whatever the case maybe, another parallel that we can draw from the tale of Baumgartner is his unwillingness to leave India even after the war is over. He does so, not because of any special affection for India but because of hopelessness;he cannot come to terms with the disappearance of his beloved mother, loss of his father etc. I wonder how many Sri Lankans feel the same way?