Martin Kampchen was born in Germany in 1948 and has been living in India for the last 40 years. Widely travelled, even as student, his education spread over the continents, from the US to Vienna and Paris, and from Chennai to Santiniketan. He has a PhD each in Literature and Comparative Religion.
An acclaimed journalist, translator and editor he has written and published extensively, in both German and English, on Indian culture and is today considered an important cultural link between India and Germany.
Since 1980, Santiniketan has been his base from where he has translated the Shri Ramakrishna Kathamrita as well as Rabindranath Tagore's poems, from Bengali to German. His book Simply Do It: Do It Simply was published in 2013, by Niyogi Books.
These short essays, first appeared in The Statesman (Kolkata/ Delhi). The astonishingly lively response they received motivated me to compile a selection of them as a book.
I was given a long rope by the editor, Mr Ravindra Kumar, to express my experiences and views. I am deeply grateful to him. There was no interference when I started to write on personal matters-on religion and spiritual life, on my life as a writer and as a friend of Indian village life, on my travels in India and Europe; there was only encouragement. Lectures and seminars on Indian cultural subjects took me to numerous countries in Europe and to the US. This and the continuous support of the Udo Keller Foundation (Hamburg) allowed me to travel widely and unhurriedly.
I found a format for my essays which is both subjective and emotional as well as conversational and philosophical. I chose my own angle of looking at the world which flows from my Indo-German background, from my idealism, also from my Christian upbringing and sadhana and no less from my search within Hinduism and Buddhism, but above all it flows from my love for the Indian people which remains vibrant even after spending forty years in this country.
Since 1980, I have lived in Shantiniketan, therefore it is natural that Rabindranath Tagore, the one great literary inspiration of my life, and the red earth of Shantiniketan are never far from my musings. Also, I never hide my closeness to the Santal villages around Shantiniketan in whose educational and social progress I have been involved for thirty years. Also, the Ramakrishna Mission Ashram at Narendrapur, south of Kolkata, has been mentioned often. I spent three and a half years there side-by-side with the monks during the earliest phase of my stay in India.
Then I travel by train, say, from Bolpur to Howrah, people often ask me, 'How do you like India? How many days are you here already?' I reply in Bengali that I have long stopped counting the days. 'I am in India since 40 years.' The reaction I receive sometimes amazes me. Rather than erupting in delight about a white-skinned foreigner staying on in their country for so long, most fellow-travellers gape at me in disbelief.
'Forty years? That is a very long time!'
'Indeed,' I reply, laconically. 'Do you think I am overstaying?' Only after that rhetorical question do my interlocutors resume their welcoming mode of conversation, common to most Bengalis. But I do not blame them for their reaction. My life's journey has not been the normal kind. It is difficult to understand how somebody from Europe who could have had a comfortable life with a career as an academician or a journalist and writer, would stay on in India beyond a few years. Those who do stay, mostly women, marry and start a family. Others are associated with a company or a university and do business or teach. But somebody, like me, who has never been married nor employed, neither in Europe nor in India, and never has held any academic position, to stay on as a freelancing writer, translator and cultural journalist, is, indeed, strange.
Often, I ask myself: How did it happen? It was certainly not planned that way. And it was not at all easy to tread this path. It needed sacrifices on the personal and professional levels, patience and strength to persevere. Yet, I have never regretted having spent almost my entire adult life in India. I cannot imagine another life but the one I have lived. But let me start from the beginning.
Coming to India has not been a dream come true. As a school-going boy, I desperately wanted to visit Africa. I read books on West and East Africa and befriended students from Nigeria, Ghana and Liberia. When I was just 13, a Goethe- Institute was opened in my German hometown of Boppard, which is situated on the Rhine river overlooking a majestic bend with vineyards and woods spread on its slopes.
The Goethe-Institut-called Max Mueller Bhavan in India- invites students from all over the world to study German. Most of them arrived directly from their country and, in the beginning, felt lost and lonely in Boppard. So I stepped in, showing them the post-office, bank and bookshop, aided them in their studies and helped them to move on to study at a German university which had been their aim. Their mentality suited me, their stories fascinated me and a great longing to visit their country overpowered me.
In the 1960s, it was impossible for a student to fly to Africa without financial assistance. Although my father was the principal of the Secondary School and College (a Gymnasium) in Boppard, he could not have afforded to gift me such a trip. He rather sent me, repeatedly, to England and France to learn English and French. I had to wait until I enrolled at the university to fulfill my aspiration. Every year, a government-subsidised organisation, Arbeitskreis Studien-Aufenthalte (called ASA) sent a group of competent German students, after a rigorous selection process, to a number of Third World countries. For three months, these young men and women studied the society of their respective guest country, made contacts with academic institutions and development agencies and then returned with a deeper understanding of these countries' cultural wealth and economic needs.
I was in my very first semester at the University of Saarbrucken when I applied for a travel grant. to Nigeria. I prepared myself studiously and was selected. Then something unexpected happened. A tribal war broke out in Nigeria, the infamous Biafra War. One evening, I received a phone call from the director of the donor organisation informing me that the group of students destined for Nigeria could not proceed. Its members had to be distributed among the 'remaining groups. The director asked me, 'To which country do you want to go instead?'
I remember standing in a telephone booth (private phones were still rare) and spontaneously saying that one word which changed my life-'India'. I do not know why I said 'India'. At that time I had no Indian friends and had read little about India. I had only studied, intensely, Mahatma Gandhi's theory and the practice of non-violence. There was a reason for this: I had applied for the status of a 'Conscientious Objector'.
Military service was then still compulsory, so German youths were drafted into the army at eighteen. But I objected to serve in the army because this was the same as agreeing to carry a weapon and be ready to kill in the event of a war. The German government provided an alternative service for objectors like me (in hospitals, old-age homes and kindergartens, for example), but before being recognised as a conscientious objector, the applicants had to appear before a tribunal of the Defense Ministry and prove the genuineness of their conviction.
Many young objectors were not accepted. Some just wanted to get around the drudgery of military service. I prepared myself carefully, reading Mahatma Gandhi so as to present valid arguments against war and violence. My parents and my teachers opposed my decision, but I persevered and was given the status of a Conscientious Objector. This was before the beginning of the Vietnam War, during which the opposition to violence became much more widespread in Germany and other western countries. This, then, had been my only connection with India. But once I had said 'India', I began preparing myself for the three-month study tour with gusto.
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