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Famed Kathak exponent Shovana Narayan releases her new book ‘Wir Sind Osterreicher’

Danseuse extraordinaire Shovana Narayan is releasing her latest book Wir Sind Osterreicher. The book integrates anecdotes and letters from her family and narrates the experiences of her father-in-law Erwin Traxl during the tumultuous era of World War II in Austria. In conversation with BOW, the Kathak exponent revealed more about her book

Shovana Narayan

Shovana Narayan/S Kumar 

Famed Kathak exponent Shovana Narayan has come up with her latest book, Wir Sind Osterreicher, that will be launched on March 20 at Austrian Embassy. The launch will be followed by a panel discussion on Identity and Nationalism: Past and Present with panelists like Pavan K Varma, Saeed Naqvi and Satish Jacob.

A memoir-biography, the book captures the journey of Shovana’s father-in-law Erwin Traxl, during the tumultuous era of World War II, in Austria. Connecting the dots with anecdotes, and letters exchanged by her family, she has successfully built a coherent narrative in Wir Sind Osterreicher (translated as ‘We are Austrians’), with vivid descriptions of their daily struggles after the Nazi occupation of Austria. The book primarily deals with the issues of identity, survival and nationhood.

Shovana Narayan

Cover of Wir Sind Osterreicher

A break from her previous works of literature, themed on Kathak, Narayan tells us in an exclusive interview what drove her to write Wir Sind Osterreicher. Excerpts:

What inspired you to write a book on your father-in-law Erwin Traxl? 
Whenever I went to Austria to meet my in-laws during summer or Christmas, the spirit of story-telling fascinated me. Bits and pieces of their life in Austria during World War II, I loved to know more about this part of history which I was unacquainted with. In the beginning, I heard their experiences as a story, wide-eyed and all attentive. Later on, I was struck with the thought of recording it. I started off by scribbling down the stories and later took to recording. Of whatever was told to me, some were such graphic descriptions about who was standing in which corridor, which door opened and whose shouting was heard. Initially, I was very casual about taking down such incidents but it was my mother-in-law’s death in 1994 that made me realise the value of these stories of the family. By that time I had only bits and scraps of my noting. I took taking down notes seriously and  I made my two sisters-in-law sit down to relate their experiences. The moment I would put a recording device in front of them, they would get conscious and dry up. So I had to actually think of means to take things out of them. I also requested them to find their letters during the time of war. They handed over to me all their letters and trust me, some of them were amazing.

Have you published any of those letters in the book too?
Yes. Some of them, not all.

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You took nearly two years to compile this book. Were there a few things that shocked or moved you while writing it?
Oh! There were a lot of things. Particularly when Austria was occupied during the Second World War, the tumultuous period the family went through and the hardships they suffered were quite astonishing. My father-in-law was a very high ranking official. Called three times to the infamous Gestapo headquarters, the family never knew whether or not he’d ever return. When the Nazi annexation of Austria took place, my sister in law was on a school trip somewhere in the countryside near Salzburg. She vividly described the reaction of the students and teachers, which was stupefying. People during that time did not know what was happening, what could possibly strike them next. If they went outdoors they had no clue if they’ll ever be able to return home alive and the family members didn’t know whether or not they’ll see their loved ones again. My younger sister-in-law’s mother-in-law had a bit of Jewish blood in her through her ancestry. It was dreadful to know the kind of difficulties they had to go through.

How did Herbert, your husband contribute to this book?
While writing the book and even while taking down notes, there were times when I couldn’t understand anything because my sisters-in-law used to speak in colloquial German. That is when my husband came to the rescue. I requested him multiple times to transcribe the portions I didn’t understand. Poor man! (chuckles)

Who is the publisher of this book?
I’d been sitting somewhere and writing this book on my laptop when someone approached and asked me what I was doing. I told that I was writing a book on my in law’s experiences during the World War. He asked if he could publish the book to which I gave an affirmative. Neki aur pooch pooch? (doing something nice but still thinking about it). So it is a young publisher with the name Rising Sun.

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