Inner and Outer Rejections of a refugee: Anita Desai´s "Baumgartner´s Bombay`"

Resaons for hesitation, rejection and failure of Hugo Baumgartner in India

Term Paper, 2010

15 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Survivor Guilt

3 Melancholy

4 Hugo Baumgartner’s Will

5 Baumgartner’s Mode of Incorporation

6 Religion and Integration – The Wandering Jew as an Anaphoric Device

7 Rudiments of Ethnocentrism in Baumgartner’s Bombay

8 Conclusion

9 Bibliography

This paper is written in American English. All quotes, however, remain in their variety of the English language.

1. Introduction

In her novel “Baumgartner’s Bombay’ Anita Desai confronts the reader with a protagonist whose life is a chain of happenings not intended, wished for or fought against by him. It seems Hugo Baumgartner is not even aware of the probability that his own willful intervention into the course of his personal history could change matters for him. When he is murdered eventually the reader asks herself if this sudden and drastic end really differs from a natural death since Baumgartner’s life without social relations, active engagement in anything he is dedicated to or even a plain economic use for society did not appear to be important or of a unique value for many people. The brutal and cold fact is: Hugo Baumgartner will not be missed (except by the cats he took care for but it is in the proud nature of cats to survive by themselves if they have to).

The young Hugo Baumgartner is referred to by his first name. His mother and father call him “Hugo” or give him pet names (“you booby” (25); “Hugo, Liebling” (29)) and even the heterodiegetic narrator joins in this very familiar, caring and friendly form of address. Later on only Lotte will continue calling him “Hugo” (“Ach, du lieber Gott, Hugo” (68)) since she is the only one of his acquaintances in life who is present continuously, except for the time he is interned. Furst even calls her “a grotesque substitute mother” (Furst 171), an interpretation made possible by the end when she is (involuntarily) left by Baumgartner but keeps the letters of his natural mother. The facts that she is also a German and did not succeed in the Indian society create a bond between them although their lifestyles differ drastically.

For the rest of the book Hugo is addressed as “Baumgartner”, a more distant form without the respectful title “Mister” or “Herr”. It is also a typical way to allude to adults who are not under the protection of older people responsible for them anymore. When society starts calling its teenagers by their last names this is a sign that they reached an age which makes them accountable for serious and elaborate decisions. At first sight Hugo Baumgartner is a striking disappointment concerning those demands for a mature conduct. As Lilian R. Furst points out “he tends to passivity […], merely trying to cope with what happens to him through the vicissitude of historical events” (Furst 164). Over and over the reader turns the pages and wants to yell at the character to take his life back into his own hands. Or is it an utopist myth that by changing yourself you can change the world? Is not this what we really look for in the heroes of our preferred literature? But Hugo Baumgartner is not a hero. This paper wants to examine possible reasons why he failed to live a fulfilled life after he had escaped the brutal Nazi regime. Major points of interest will be the psychological dysfunctions related to survivor guilt and melancholia, the impact of religion on integration and disintegration and his general problem to develop and administer his own will.

2. Survivor Guilt

Survivor guilt is described as a traumatic stress. Paul Valent defines Trauma as “[a]n experience in which one’s life has been grossly threatened and out of which a variety of biological, psychological, and social wounds and scars result”(Fink 555).

In the course of the novel itself Baumgartner’s life is not in danger although he suffers the discriminations of the Nazis in pre-war Germany. However, a drastic change is already denoted by the song about the Bi-ba-butzemann (39) even before Baumgartner’s father is deported to Dachau. Additionally the reader and also Herr Pfuehl know about the hovering risk for the Jewish family: They would not survive “the work in those factories the Fuehrer had set up”. (55) Still Baumgartner owes his life to his refuge since his mother, who stayed, cannot remain undiscovered and will die during the war in a concentration camp. After he left her, he still is convinced that she will follow later and he will be able to “make a home for [them, …] have servants for [her] and drive away the snakes and bring [her] gold oranges” (56) but her refusal is like a wall he cannot tear down. The absolute obstinacy Hugo’s “Mü” (56) keeps up is partially of desperation and her own survivor guilt since she shows symptoms after the loss of her friends and husband. The young Hugo is not able to understand this impact but develops his own symptoms while and after his internment when there are no further letters of her and he slowly realizes what must have happened: “What could this continuing silence from his mother mean? Had she been swept up into the horrors of which the others in the barracks whispered and muttered in the dark?”. (118)

The German historian and cultural scientist Jörn Rüsen states we could not live without our own history. It is a part of our existence and mental cognition of the self. (Rüsen 2003, 17) This introduces a severe conclusion for Baumgartner: He has to live with the belief that he killed his mother by not saving her, he thinks. He falls ill a lot. “He [finds] himself physically deteriorating, growing old at a rapid rate.” (126) It seems the whole camp cannot resist against “the recurrent bouts of malaria […] and the almost chronic dysentery.” (126) Although these camp-intern epidemics have rational reasons, such as the hygienic situation and the food’s quality, Valent explains the quantity and persistence of those physical reactions also as stress effects of the Holocaust (Fink 391), and he points out that identification with the murdered may lead to “physical symptoms similar to the ones the dead suffered” (Fink 556). One scene Desai describes very figurative how Baumgartner is overcome by another outburst of dysentery and “the pressing, stabbing anxiety about his mother”. (126) His reaction is to look for solitude to mourn over his mother and physical pain.

Even after being released from the internment camp he wants to adjust his accommodation to what he thinks adequate in order to grieve about her:

“The landlord […] sent him a string cot to sleep on – although he would have preferred to lie on the floor: It would have been more in keeping with his mourning for his mother.” (165)

It is striking how both corporal and psychological distress plague Baumgartner equally. However, this is only one of the symptoms of survivor guilt. In addition Valent lists “ruminations, images, dreams, and flashbacks” (Fink 556) as cognitive signs for it. It is easy to depict those with Baumgartner. While finally receiving his mother’s postcards, for instance, he remembers in every detail her actual writing habits and with the weight of those post cards prohibits himself to “live comfortably and luxuriously in the hotel”. (164) During the bloody excesses in Calcutta, Hugo sees his mother bleeding in his dreams, which are of course fueled by the violence he perceives around him, but the completion of these pictures with his own helpless presence (179) is clearly marking them as further indication of survivor guilt. When he finally allows himself to continue with life and moves on to Bombay, Baumgartner still carries her with him. Although he apprehends himself as a native, his mind flashes back to her in picturesque clarity how he “must tell her” (181) about the snake-charmers and he just does not want to admit that he will never see her again.

Inevitably, there are also social responses which are a logical consequence of the former cognitive ones. After seeing his mother’s blood shed, Baumgartner makes “no attempt to find and return to [his] life before the war” (165) and looses himself in “hopelessness” (166), thinking that “this was how the world ended”. (166) Valent mentions this avoidance of life’s joys and vitality in general as a further manifestation of survivor guilt. Another example has been mentioned above already when Baumgartner’s refuse to rent a hotel room was described. It functions very well to indicate how enjoyment “exacerbate[s] the guilt” (Fink 557).

However, survivor guilt has even more impact on Baumgartner’s social behavior which will serve as his last anchor in life: In order to appease survivor guilt, victims develop a “devotion of saving others”. (Fink 556) He is taken up with helping stray cats which he houses and nurses.

[H]e saw a cruelly maimed cat dragging its broken leg and halved tail along a gutter end, instead of averting his eyes so repugnant, followed it anxiously to make sure no dog was attracted to such easy sport, and no boys stoned it to death [… which] would be preferable to life in the Indian streets, he argued, and yet – when it came to the main road where traffic raced at it murderously – he bent and lifted the beast, holding it to his breast […]. (195)

The urge to save this cat comes over him like an instinct; a deeply felt duty makes him rescue more and more kittens. The proportions his commitment assumes are not within the boundaries of ordinary love of animals. Neither does Baumgartner mind the smell nor the mess countless cats entail. By accepting this “crass contrast” (Furst 166) to his former life in Germany, Baumgartner creates a new home for him, inhabited by a “substitute family” (Furst 166) and eventually feeling comfortable again (196). How much he is estranged from a life with healthy relationships to other people becomes shockingly clear when Baumgartner confesses to himself that he renounces the company of Europeans and that the Indian acquaintances he has are not to be called friends. The cats are the only “friendship he needed – or wanted” (151). This flight as a measure of guilt relief is fatal since this helping syndrome could be a chance to re-integrate in society but by focusing on jointly rejected animals which lessen his social status – he is called the madman of the cats – and alienate every visitor in his stinking flat, any serious acquaintance turns out to be impossible eventually. Ultimately, those psychological and social responses to his mother’s death are a burden for Baumgartner, making it impossible for him to grieve her and move on finally.

Rüsen states that a historical memory is used to interpret the past and understand the present to know about the future. (Rüsen 1998, 22 f.) Moreover he calls this a fundamental exercise of all humans to understand themselves as member of a group with a similar history and live their own life as an identity developed through this exercise. (Rüsen 23) If Hugo Baumgartner’s view on his life and future is darkened by the false interpretation of his past, meaning by feelings of responsibility for his mother’s dead, he will reject integration and feel as a betrayer to live on. With this past he will not grant himself a future. This cultural scientific thesis is proven by Desai’s protagonist: He is not capable of gaining new outlooks on his situation. By assuming that Germany is destroyed and has nothing to offer for him, Baumgartner decides to stay in India but fails to reclaim a meaningful status there as well. How much this passivity Furst calls a mentality of “accepting” (Furst 164 ff.) is also intermixing with a growing melancholy the next paragraphs will examine.


Excerpt out of 15 pages


Inner and Outer Rejections of a refugee: Anita Desai´s "Baumgartner´s Bombay`"
Resaons for hesitation, rejection and failure of Hugo Baumgartner in India
University of Augsburg  (Philologisch Historische Fakultät)
Refugees in Literature and Film
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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inner, outer, rejections, anita, desai´s, baumgartner´s, bombay`, resaons, hugo, baumgartner, india
Quote paper
Ulrike Löbel (Author), 2010, Inner and Outer Rejections of a refugee: Anita Desai´s "Baumgartner´s Bombay`", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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