German Memoirs – Part 2

So, on the 3rd April 1951, I set sail on board S S Jaljawahar to reach Liverpool on the 24th and then by train to London. There, believe it or not, I cleared the first term with distinction! In the ensuing summer vacation, I went to Denmark with a group of fellow Indians for a period of two weeks thanks to the machinations of our hostel warden, Dr. Malaiperuman. While there, I received instruction from my father to break with the group on our return journey and meet his friends in Germany. That was my first introduction to the land of my dreams, which later would become my home for many years. I met my father’s friend in Erlangen, a small town about 17km from Nuremberg, where the Siemens headquarters were. They quickly convinced me to come and study in Germany and took care to convince my father, too. A new chapter in my life was about to begin; something that would make me a man from being an irresponsible teenager.

I completed my second term in England and then set out for Germany on the 28th January 1952. Before this, I had taken a few lessons in German from the Berlitz school of languages, just to get acquainted with the language. on the train from Calais to Nuremberg, an usual incident took place. Sitting across me was elderly German gentleman who kept looking curiously at my steel trunk tucked under the seat. When he could not contain himself, he just pointed his finger at me and asked me whether I was a Nazi? When I shook my head, he pointed to my steel trunk, which had a swastika sticker on it. So that was it! The swastika, although in an inverted form, is a Hindu religious symbol, and was also the logo of the Scindia Steam Navigation Company, to which the ship that brought me from India to U K belonged to. I don’t know whether I could explain all this to his satisfaction because I did not know German then and nor did he understand English.

Well, I reached my destination and was received by someone who spoke broken English and taken to a hotel. The next thing I knew that I was to stay with a German family in Nuremberg as a paying guest. Things in my life started changing rapidly. The previous year in London was pretty uneventful, barring that trip to Denmark. I believe this was so because I stayed in a hotel for Indian students and there was not much interaction with the locals. Moreover, my mind was also somewhat prejudiced. The family I stayed with in Nuremberg, consisted of three persons – Mr. & Mrs. Luber and their teenaged son Kurt, who was about five or six years younger to me. Both the father and son, were very difficult to get along with, what with their nasty temper, but the landlady Mrs. Luber was a gem of a woman with a heart of gold. Initially, because of the language barrier, I could not interact with her much, but within a few months she was like a mother to me and I, almost like her son.

Before joining college in Germany, it was mandatory to undergo an apprenticeship with a reputed company for a specific period. So, on the 4th of February 1952, a boy of my age and fluent in English, named Ernst Schell, arrived to take me to the workshop of Siemens. He was also a fellow apprentice there. Thus began my training, starting with filing and hammering and drilling and whatever, graduating to working on lathes, planing and grinding machines et al. After completing the basics, all apprentices were supposed to work in various departments of the three Siemens factories there, which manufactured motors, transformers, electric meters, etc.

One must give full marks to the immaculate planning of the Germans, for in all the departments that I worked in, this guy Ernst was always with me lest I have any language problems. Ernst, by the way, is now family to me after nearly 65 years of friendship. Of course, I made many other friends in the workshop and later on in college and am happy to say that all these have endured the test of time.

I picked up German pretty quickly and within four to six months was quite comfortable conversing in it, but unfortunately, it was of the wrong kind and not civil at all! Thanks to the boys – my fellow apprentices – who taught me dirty words and naughty expressions which one does not use in civil society. Innocent that I was (now don’t raise eyebrows) I thought them to be funny phrases, so when I was invited by one of my father’s friends for lunch, I used them to impress him with my German, only to find him shocked, thought he did not tell me anything. The next day, a Mrs. Muller who was in charge of the foreign apprentices, trainees came over to give me some advice. She had received a phone call from that gentleman who told her that this young man needed to be taught some manners. She quickly gauged what had happened and ironed it out immediately. In due course, Mrs. Muller and her husband also became friends and treated me like a family member.

Months were just flying away and soon, it was Christmas time. Siemens used to arrange for a ball for all its employees at its own expense. Now, I did not know a thing about dancing and could not tell a fox trot from a tango, but egged on by my friends joined them just for fun while all of them were guzzling beer. I a teetotaler then and was happily sipping my Coca Cola. The music was loud, with smoke everywhere. Since the carnival was round the corner, carnival songs rent the air. I really liked this part – German carnival songs are great – and this was my introduction to them. Suddenly there was an announcement: “Damenwahl,” meaning “ladies choice”. It meant that the ladies could choose their dance partner for the next round. A lady in her late thirties or so came over and pulled me out. I at least knew that a refusal would amount to an insult but tried explaining that I didn’t know how to dance. “Nothing doing, just hold me and hop along!” she said. So I literally started hopping! I was looking down, trying not to trample on her feet, when she said “Hey, look at my face and not my feet!” So I was supposed to look at her sweet face and not admire her fat legs! Point taken, I started hopping and trampled many a feet, adding to the amusement of everyone around. Night over, my balance sheet showed only positive gains in terms of fun and friends made, but I cannot say for sure whether apart from trampling feet I broke any hearts!

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