The two Hermanns

by Terence MacNamee

This year is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Hermann Gundert. Hermann who? Well, he is best remembered today as Hermann Hesse’s grandfather. The author of Steppenwolf and Siddhartha wrote several times about his grandfather, who made a great impression on him as a boy and stimulated his interest in Asia. In fact, when he went on a sea voyage in 1911 to visit India and Ceylon, he was following in the old man’s footsteps.

Who was Hermann Gundert? He was a missionary who went out to India in the mid-nineteenth century to work in what is now Kerala and spent most of his working life there. German academic linguists were already busy exploring Sanskrit as the key to the Indo-European family of languages. Gundert learned some Sanskrit at university, but when he went out to the South of India he was confronted by something completely alien. The southern Indian languages were all related, but not to Sanksrit; they were not Indo-European. A formidable linguist, Gundert set about mastering them. He first learned Malayalam, then he went on to Telugu, Tamil and the rest. In fact, he produced the first modern grammars and dictionaries of Malayalam and some of the other languages, drew up programs for their teaching in the new Western-type schools being set up by the British, started publishing newspapers and books in them, and of course, as a good missionary, translated the Bible into them. This was all the beginning of what is now called Dravidian studies.

In Kerala and the south of India they have not forgotten about Hermann Gundert. There as well as in Germany they are currently honouring his 200th birthday. As for his grandson, Hermann Hesse was pleased late in life to hear that Siddhartha had been translated into Malayalam. He thought that, in a strange way, his book had come home.

The young boy Hermann Hesse knew his grandfather just as an old man living in retirement in Germany. But even then he remained a powerful and mysterious figure. In fact, the picture of Hermann Gundert that emerges from his grandson’s scattered reminiscences is of an old magician, a trickster-teacher. He was like the statue of dancing Shiva that he had among his library of books in strange languages. It seems clear from all of this that Gundert, though a Christian missionary, had learned a lot in Asia, maybe even more than he had taught. To this extent, he was an early Morgenlandfahrer – voyager to the East – a member of the brotherhood that Hermann Hesse wrote about and called into existence.