By Girija Madhavan
In diplomatic life, bonds of friendship overcome cultural barriers. For diplomats, getting to know the people of the country in which they are posted is a satisfying objective.
In the Indian Embassy in Bonn, in the late 1980s, we met and made friends with Germans, appreciated their values and punctiliousness. Gisela Bonn [1909- 1996], writer and Indologist, was a well-known personality in both German and Indian circles. She was decorated with a Padma Shri in 1990 for her contribution to Indo-German relations. A slim, elderly woman with upswept hair, luminous pearl earrings and necklace, she favoured an old fashioned but still elegant style of dress. She was a friend of Indira Gandhi and was close to the family. We met her for the first time when Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi visited Germany in June, 1988.
We invited her to dinner when she visited Bonn from Stuttgart where she lived. She arrived punctually and, though formal at first, soon relaxed. Choosing beer to drink, with a smile she asked to retain the foam on top of the beer [I love that best]…that foam broke the ice. She knew Bhutan well, with connections to the royal family as well as the Abbots of temples. She offered to show us special treasures, not on view to the general public, if we could visit Bhutan with her. But that was not to be. We kept in touch with her for the few years left and were saddened by her death in 1996.
Gunther Schoedel [1922-2015] with Erika his wife, was the German Ambassador to India; a popular couple in New Delhi. After retirement, he settled in his home of Berchtesgaden in the German Bavarian Alps. While on a holiday in Bavaria, we were invited to lunch at their home. Gunther and his small grandson, Dominic, were waiting for us at their gate. Dominic was perfectly behaved except when Gunther seated Madhavan at table. His face puckered, “But that is Opa’s [grandfather] chair”, he sobbed. He was mollified when the seating was rearranged and raised his feeding bottle to a toast to friendship which we adults drank in Bavarian wine.
Gunther took us sightseeing, omitting with tacit consent, the places overlaid with Nazi memories. The Bavarian Alps are majestic in their lofty beauty. Adolf Hitler’s favourite home, the Berghof, was in Obersalzberg, a mountain retreat above Berchtesgaden where he spent many of the war years. It was destroyed in 1953. From Berchtesgaden, Gunther drove us to Salzburg in Austria, just 34.4 kms away, to see the home of Mozart. The trip concluded with our inviting him to a farewell drink in Salzburg. We kept in touch with the Schoedels till 2015 when Gunther passed away at 93, lover of India, a well-read, polished diplomat and a delightful personality.
The Altmans, Paula and her husband, invited us to their home in Essen and I met Max, Paula’s pet Mynah who could talk. When the phone rang, he perfectly imitated Paula saying “Altman.” He could speak sentences in German, “Aber das ist zu laut” [But that is too loud] and or “Danke”. He loved small chocolates wrapped in colourful, glittery paper. So I took him a bag of these whenever we visited. The story of Max the Mynah, ended sadly. Paula herself was diagnosed with cancer and could not care for Max like before. One winter evening, he escaped from his cage, fluttered out of the window, perching on a tall tree outside. Braving the cold, Paula climbed the tree to catch Max who was making alarm calls of “Achtung! Achtung!” [Watch out]. As she closed in on him, he would flutter to a higher branch, finally flying away from the tree… to be lost. Paula herself did not survive for long, succumbing to her cancer.
Indians from different parts of India, of varying education or financial standing have settled in Germany over the years, bringing credit to themselves and to India.
Soni Chopra joined Deutsches Welles because of her fluency in German and organised programmes for Indian audiences on the radio. She persuaded me to sing a song in one of her broadcasts to India and talk about music.
The Tagore Institute, offering lessons in Indian instrumental and vocal music, was started and run by Mrs. Pandit, a middle-aged Bengali lady. Several young Afghans were also students there, learning the tabla. Sadly, Mrs. Pandit’s twenty-eight-year-old son was mentally challenged and wheel-chair bound. The unfailingly tender care she gave him was moving. Her husband had distanced himself from them early on and remarried. Disconcertingly, she would bow to touch his feet whenever she met him.
Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao was visiting Germany. A list of the vegetarian dishes he could eat had been telexed to us; snake-gourd, plantains, drumsticks and bhindi being the vegetables favoured. The PM’s daughter, on tour with him, was an artiste herself. I was to accompany her that morning on museum visits; a pleasant task for me. Afterwards, the PM, his daughter and some officials would lunch with us. But who would cook? Then I thought of “Titus.” Despite the Shakespearean allusion, Titus was an elderly man from Kerala who also spoke Tamil. He had been trained by a multi-talented Foreign Service wife, the beautiful Usha Venkateshwaran. After retirement, he had found his way to Germany and settled there. He chose the menu, typical Southern fare, but to my unease, insisted on soup as a starter. A big pot simmered away with tomatoes, onions… and a magic ingredient, also vegetarian, that was secret. The fragrant, smooth soup that Titus served was a big success. Named “Titus Soup”, I make it even now, but without the secret spice.
Those days carry memories of tension eased by success, of bonding with different folk across the seas in an affirmation of friendship and goodwill.