Victor Smetacek set out on a journey to Germany, which would bring him closer to his roots in India with the passage of time.
A global leader in ocean ecology and biogeochemistry, Victor Smetacek pioneered “ocean fertilization” in the Southern Ocean in which iron filings were added in the water to stimulate growth of algae, which absorbs carbon dioxide from the air with the aim of controlling climate change.
Smetacek heads the Pelagic Ecosystems Division of the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in Bremerhaven, Germany.
Given his unmistakably German name and looks, it is hard to conceive that he is an Indian citizen. Smetacek won a Pravasi Bharatiya Samman at the 10th Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, which concluded in Jaipur recently.
“It would have been very easy for me to become a German citizen because of the way I looked and spoke German. But I identify myself as an Indian,” says Smetacek.
He was born to a German father and an Indian mother in Nainital, in the foothills of the Himalayas. His father Frederick Smetacek fled the Nazis and managed to board a ship sailing to India in 1939. He hailed from Sudetenland, a German-speaking enclave now a part of Czech Republic. Owing to his Czech origin and ability to speak German, he found a job with the Czech show company Bata in Calcutta. By the time the British decided to leave India, he had established himself enough to buy a tea estate from them in the hills below Nainital. He married Shaheda Ahad of Orissa and dropped the ‘z’ from his original name Smetaczek to assimilate into the Indian society more easily.
Their son Victor Shahed Smetacek grew up in the Himalayan mountainside, watching birds, collecting butterflies, fishing and hunting. “I used to go hunting with the local farmers who were responsible for shaping my thinking and philosophy in life,” recalls Smetacek.
After his studies at St Joseph’s College and Government Degree College in Nainital, he received a scholarship from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) in 1964 to study at a German University, an opportunity, he readily admits, came about because of his “German origin” rather than his academic record. He says: “There were famines happening in the country at that time and I wanted to do something useful. So I decided to study Marine Biology at Kiel University.” He had come across an article in Reader’s Digest that proposed that oceans were going to be the source of food for humans in the future.
Thus Smetacek set out on a journey to Germany, which would bring him closer to his roots in India with the passage of time. He honed his German and integrated into German society very quickly. But there remained some cultural baggage he found impossible to dispense with. “I couldn’t eat the local food at all. So I got together with the other Indian students in the university and we started cooking. None of us knew how to cook, but we used to ask our relatives to send us recipes,” he recalls.
And there was the issue of national pride. German students on the university campus derided Indian students for speaking “borrowed languages” — English and German. “‘Don’t you have a language of your own that you can take pride in?’ they used to ask,” says Smetacek. The community of Indian students in Kiel University decided to speak in chaste Hindi among themselves, a language that they mastered in a far away land. Language and food became the common strings that held them together.
Smetacek can converse fluently in Hindi today, but considers it to be an ordinary facet of being an Indian. “We haven’t yet recovered from our colonial past. People look at me almost gratefully when they hear me speak in Hindi,” he says.
When he was 19, a German family who he once cooked for entered his name in a cooking competition promoting the consumption of fish over pork organized by a local newspaper in Kiel. “I made a fish curry with onion, potatoes and curry powder, which was served with rice,” says Smetacek. He won first prize.
His affinity for Indian food and concern for climate turned him into an avid supporter of vegetarianism. “If people turn to vegetarianism, the emission of carbon dioxide can be significantly reduced,” he says.
Vegetarianism, he argues, is key to a healthy ecosystem: “A large portion of the land is being used to cultivate food for the livestock so that they can be fattened before the humans feed on them. This land can be used for growing forests if people turn vegetarians.”
“Most Europeans are non-vegetarians because they think vegetarian food is boring. That is because they don’t know how to cook vegetables interestingly. How can boiled vegetables be palatable to anyone? So I teach my students to cook Indian food because the best vegetarian food is Indian.” Some of his favorite recipes, which he passes on to his students, are alu-gobhi, alu ka bharta and baigan ka bharta.
Another aspect of Indian culture directly related to climate change is the doctrine of “ahimsa,” he says. “Where Buddha first taught the Dharma was at a deer park called Sarnath. At that time, when everybody else was eating deer meat, we had a deer park in our country! Sadly, we don’t give much importance to these things,” he laments. He adds that India is one of the few countries that didn’t destroy its megafauna (large animals), such as elephants.
Smetacek pursued his doctoral research on planktons, which provide food for all animal life in the ocean, including fish. He discovered that diatoms, a group of unicellular algae that play an important role in the ocean, tend not to be eaten and thus sink to the depths of the ocean removing carbon from the surface layer. He found that adding iron to the ocean stimulated diatom growth. So he focused the research of his group on carrying out iron fertilization experiments to test if this technique would help remove carbon monoxide accumulating in the atmosphere.
He found his life partner in Karen who he met in Kiel ten years before he married her in 1975. She shares his love of nature and the couple visit national parks when they are in India. The thought of settling down in the hills where Smetacek grew up has crossed their minds.
“We both love being in India, but Karen has problems moving around in the hills on her own. So we just go visiting as of now.” They visit India for a month or two every year, especially after he became an adjunct scientist at the National Institute of Oceanography in Goa.
Karen does her exercises to Bhangra rhythms while Victor enjoys qawwali and ghazals. They both enjoy Bollywood films together. “As I spend more time in Germany, I begin to appreciate Indian culture even more. India is the origin of everything,” Smetacek says. It’s not hard to see why he has clung to his Indian passport, notwithstanding the hassles it involves for him travelling inside Europe, which is far simpler for German passport holders.
“It was like I had to move out of my country to understand what it meant to me. If someone were to say my roots were in Germany, I am sorry to say that I can’t feel the nature of the soil where my roots were. My identity is Indian,” says Smetacek.