The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Hitler, for most Germans, was beyond language

For a couple of years now, I've been interested to see a book on sale among the pirated editions and originals, among magazines purporting to tell us about careers, astrology, cabinet ministers, sportsmen and film stars, arranged neatly on the pavements in Park Street; Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler. This is a book I've never seen inside a bookshop. Maybe I've never looked for it; but, now that I think about it, I don't recall ever encountering it in the section devoted to autobiography. Now, appositely, I find it on the street, where the careers of most workers of the Nationalist Socialist Party began; although the oddity of discovering it on a street in Calcutta isn't easy to ignore.

Why Mein Kampf, sitting next to Shobhaa D', Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, and The God of Small Things, rather than, say, Capital or some edition of the Gitanjali' I remember noticing, in the early Seventies, Capital on the upper shelves of the bookcase in my uncle's house in South Calcutta (that house, sold to contractors, no longer exists). Although I opened the book and puzzled for a while over 'surplus value', and found its first pages, at a glance, dull and unreadable, I knew what I was holding in my hands was potentially incendiary and transgressive. When my uncle rented out the ground floor to tenants, the book moved to a shelf on the second storey, looking as new and untouched as ever. I think Capital's function, in that house, was talismanic ' at least for my uncle; its presence was a source of consolation and energy. I grew absorbed in some of the other books in that bookcase; William Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, which looked forbiddingly boring but was actually an astonishing page-turner, and is probably the longest book, besides Anna Karenina, I've ever managed to finish; and Erich Von Daniken's Chariots of the Gods ' Von Daniken was, in my opinion at the time, a scholar of humbling originality, and opened my twelve- or thirteen-year-old eyes to the indubitable but, till then, largely neglected extraterrestrial origins of human existence.

My uncle, like many Bengali engineers of his generation who trained in Germany about a decade after the war, was sentimental about the Germans; he claimed to speak the language, and refused to call Munich and Hamburg by their English names, referring to them, instead, as M'nchen and 'Hamboorg'; he was also, despite his socialist allegiances, somewhat forgiving towards Hitler. 'I'll tell you the truth about Hitler when you grow up,' he said to me ' whose vivid proxy life in the Second World War derived from Commando comics and the movies ' but more immediate concerns have kept him from making good his promise. Or could it be that I'm imagining he, in his usual excitement, had said those words' A combination of historical circumstances and semi-articulate emotion had come together to give my uncle, like some other Bengalis, his private, tragic vision of Germany ' his own loathing for the British, for one; and, for another, Subhas Bose's mistaken trajectory, which used to haunt and trouble Bengalis once as the failings of their fathers trouble and haunt them.

Standing opposite Music World on Park Street, I ask the magazine vendor how Mein Kampf is selling. As I said earlier, I've been seeing the book in Park Street at a couple of places (I have a feeling I've seen it well before then without registering the fact); here, near Music World and Flury's, and on the other side of the road, among the magazines on the pavement on the right of Oxford Bookshop. The vendor, handing me the book, as well as Paul Coelho's The Alchemist, tells me it sells steadily and well. His younger assistant has little idea of who Hitler was; but both this vendor and the other one across the road not only know of Hitler, but have interestingly similar notions about him ' he was a world-famous man; he fought in the 'war' (this from the other vendor, who uses the English word); and he made no bones of his likes and dislikes, and was direct and plain-spoken. They have a point; it's difficult to accuse Hitler of prevarication. Frontal brutality is seen as a kind of honesty. 'Others speak sweetly, but stab you in the back,' says the vendor near Music World. I encountered this fatalistic nostalgia for a more moral form of murder before in Ahmedabad, from the unlikeliest of sources; from a Muslim part-time chauffeur for Communalism Combat, and from a more famous, indeed, a national figure, both of whom loathed Narendra Modi, but admired him, in a shocked way, for his lack of compromise and his clear understanding of his goals. It's the sort of partly ironic praise that victims sometimes deploy to transcend their victimhood.

I tried to imagine who might be picking up Mein Kampf from Park Street. Was it someone who wanted to be titillated by the forbidden; was the book purchased as an item of political pornography' Or by some much-bullied person who daydreamed of authoritarianism' Or by someone who was interested in the mythology of the Second World War; or, simply and naively, was curious about a monster' Or was it bought (and this possibility was somehow the most difficult to believe in or get under the skin of) by people who had a clear-cut right-wing interest in the man'

It was in Berlin, after having a Turkish dinner with my German friend and guide, Reini, that I realized that Hitler, as far as most Germans were concerned (and in this matter I think he is fairly representative), was beyond language. I remember how deeply uncomfortable he became when I spoke to him of Bose's flirtation with Hitler, something he already knew about, and the flippant admiration that some Indians had for the Fuehrer. It was as if we'd stumbled on to a taboo subject, and cast aside conventional, socially-recognized ways of speaking of it.

I can think of at least two comparable taboos in our own national imaginations. The first surrounds the figures of Godse and Savarkar; they exist just beyond the edge of our rational everyday consciousness, or at the back of it. In recent years, they haven't so much been exhumed and exorcised as turned into theatre ' the staging of a private neurosis. Sometimes, the element of theatre has become literal fact; a play, and anxieties around a play. The other taboo is Kashmir; or, more specifically, the idea of, and reasons for, an independent Kashmir. Here, too, the Indian mind stops thinking; it has no language for this problem; it's like a pre-verbal childhood trauma, except that, in this case, the threatened childhood, the trauma at inception, is the nation's; the nation's childhood is woven into our own.

On the whole, though, Indian political life over the last three decades has proved to be far more elastic and accommodating than its counterpart in the West. There, generally, when your political career's finished (often for some trivial, non-political disgrace, some liaison with a secretary), it is, usually, finished; you become a backbencher, or a Lord, or a sports commentator; but you are gently, and forever, removed from the political mainstream. In India, there's always a chance for a comeback. So it is that Indira Gandhi returned to rule us after the Emergency (at the time of her defeat, this was unthinkable); that her son Sanjay returned to active politics, and might be enforcing vasectomies today had he not died in that doomed aeroplane; that her admirers and supporters during the Emergency are loveable members of the establishment today.

So it is that a minor right-wing party with marginal prospects became our ruling party, and might again, not because of the popular vote, but because of 'secular' alliances; that Narendra Modi, who might still, one day, be prime minister, was recently welcomed and celebrated at the Calcutta Club. No one is beyond the pale in India: that is, as long as they have something to offer you and me. Long-term enmities aren't possible; they'd erode our contacts; and networks (a less pretty word than alliances) are the principal political reality of our present. After all, who knows who might be of use to us, and when' The only person beyond the pale is the one who lacks the potential to offer us anything material or concrete towards mutual self-advancement; this person, the most obvious, most common, taboo in our national life.

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