What are we celebrating at the Indo-German Urban Mela?

Germany wants to get a share of the Indian workforce. “The be frank: We are interested in the bright young minds you have here”, Germany’s embassador to India, Michael Steiner, said at a press conference ahead of the “Indo-German Urban Mela”.

The Mela is a huge festival, with what Germany wants to promote itself as a country of innovation and excellence. So far many young Indians from the middle class only have football in mind, when they think about Germany. Or Michael Schumacher. Or Steffi Graf.  “We don’t have an image problem, we have a knowledge problem”, says embassador Steiner. That’s why Germany apparently puts a whole lot of money into the Mela (Hindi word for party) to travel through the metropolians in the subcontinent.

Embassador Michael Steiner at a press conference

The citys for the celebrations are well chosen: Mumbai, the economic capital; Bangalore, the IT-center of the country; Chennai, the “Detroit of India” with all the car manufacturers and a huge port; Delhi, where most people live; and Pune, the student city. Looks like the perfect target group to me.

Germany had tried moves like that before. At the beginning of the milennium the powerhouse of Europe started to realise that it didn’t have enough IT-specialists and asked highly educated foreigners to float into the country. Germany tried to issue greencard-visas, just as the USA do. But the quota of Germany’s cards was never exhausted, because the country wasn’t attractive enough.

Now they give it another try. A year ago some high-ranked Germans, including chancellor Angela Merkel, proclaimed the Year of Germany in India. The Mela is “the highlight” (Steiner) of it.

The German Minister for Economic Affairs, Philipp Rösler, also visited the Mela. Then he and his entourage marched through the slum Rangpuri Paharati.

In Delhi the highlight of the German Year looks like this: 16 modern, especially for this festival built (and surely expensive) pavillons are set up in the Milennium Park at the outskirts of the city – where not many people pass by. The park is neat and clean, the light is pleasant, the music gentle and everybody has comfortable space to walk and sit and stand around. Strolling through the complex doesn’t in any way feel like being in Delhi.

I wonder if this is a good idea. The pavillons look like they are spaceships from another world that landed on this neatly cut grass inside the park walls. The head of the public relations department posted a picture of the mela on his facebook page and someone commented: “a (european) friend of mine said: this is the first time in India, I dont feel like being in India!… yes, my dear, it is GERMANY in INDIA.. great display!”

But why do we come to India if we don’t want to feel like being in India? And, what is the even bigger question for me: Why do we need to show Indians how different we are? Why do we give the huge german-based companies the space to promote themselves in the park? In most of the pavillons one couldn’t find information and gadgets of German universities or ministries, but of global players like Allianz, BASF, Bosch, Deutsche Bank, Siemens, Airbus, DHL, Metro, SAP, Voith and Volkswagen.

Humayun’s Tomb, shining in the colours of Germany and India

Next to the park is Humayun’s tomb, a national heritage site. For the eight days of the Mela the German embassy was allowed to illuminate the antique building in the colours of the flags of Germany and India. The public relations manager put it as a “birthday present for 60 years of Indo-German diplomatic relations”. But the german black-red-yellow on a shrine? I don’t feel good seeing this. The building is a national symbol, not to be occupied by others.

At the same day as the Mela a new House for Research and Innovation was opened in New Delhi. For the celebration a state secretary was flown in who was also biding for the “young, bright minds” to come to Germany. According to the Deutsche Akademische Austausch Dienst (DAAD, German Academic Exchange Service) the number of Indian students in Germany in the last four years has grown by 70 per cent to nearly 6000. This is mainly due to new visa regualtions that allow non-EU-citicens to stay after they finish university – when they can find a job and add their workforce to the country, that is.

I asked the state secretary, if there is a maximum, or if Germany wants more and more students and skilled workers to come. “No, no cap”, she replied. But that makes me think: Is this not a new form of colonialism? Not – as in former times – getting the mineral resources out of the country and exploiting the people in the colonies. But getting the best people, the human resources, out of the country?

Rickshaw with a bed

30 Percent of the homeless in Delhi are cycle-rickshaw-pullers – so why not making the rickshaw their home? Actually many of the men that pedal during the day try to find sleep on the bikes at night. They cradle into weird and surely harmful postures because they don’t have another possibility to find shelter and no other roof over their head. And what is more: They don’t want anyone to steel their often most valuable possession.

The daily backache however could be prevented. Dr. Amod Kumar and his team from Mother NGO,  that care for the homeless, designed an improved rickshaw, in which the back-rest for the passenger-seat can fall over and form a bed to fully stretch out oneself. Other well-thought-out improvements are a mosquito net (dengue! malaria!) and a solar panel that allows the rickshaw puller to listen to music, switch on a light and even recharche his cellphone. On top of it there’s a small fan in the prototype of this lovely rickshaw.

Another good thing is, Mr. Kumar explained to me the other day, that his NGO is working together with Mi-India, who offer a financial plan based on mikrocredits. With a loan from Mi-India the rickshaw puller can refund as less as 50 rupees (70 cent) a day. And that is just the amount of money most rickshaw pullers pay at the moment to a contractor that owns hundreds or even thousends of rickshaws and lent them to the poor for a twelve-hour-shift.

I managed to pedal around for some meters – without passengers. And a rickshaw like this seats four!

The upgraded rickshaw weighs 15 kg  more than a normal one – but I can assure you it is still possible to pedal. And for the effort one gets a folding sun shade, a sleeping bag, a locker for storage, a naturally cooling bottle holder and some lights. Being seen is of utmost importance in Delhi’s traffic, but so far lights unfortunately a rarity on rickshaws.

So I wonder why at the highly acclaimed “Indo-German Urban Mela”, that just started in Delhi and that focuses on urban development, I heard no one talking about a thing likes this enhanced rickshaw, that could make such a huge difference for so many people. Instead the bright young minds of the middle class were celebrating themselves. But that’s another story (see next blogpost).

This story about the brave rickshaw-upgraders should definitely find it’s way into the german newspapers. It could already be there – if I hadn’t lost my note pad. Waaaah! I either forgot it in the bathroom just after I admired the rickshaw prototype at St. Stephen’s College or I left it in the taxi that brought me to my lunch appointment. I so hope that Mr. Kumar speaks to me again and I can finally file the story. (Update: He did! And the story got printed :-))

The Metro

The Metro is by far the best way to travel larger distances in Delhi: on time, reliable, efficient, tidy, cheap. But the trains and station not only offer conveniences many other metros around the globe have – but some extra taste.

First thing is security screening, guarded by many guys with weapons, so that leaving valuables alone on the conveyor belt for screening is no big deal. (Even though the security is questionable: Sandra recently brought home six very sharp sushi knifes – which the security officer found, but after a piercing look into her eyes he only commented: “You are not a terrorist, are you?”)

During rush ours there often are long lines for the men at the security search, but waiting in the women’s line to get screened normally doesn’t take long – which is a symptom of the comparable low rate of female work participation.

Then you rush through the gate with the cash-free Travel Card, from which the scanner would later subtract something between 8 and 30 rupees (70 rupees are 1 euro at the moment).

I always head to the end of the plattform. There a lot of pink sign read “ladies only”, because the first compartment is reserved for women. So a hassle-free and easy ride is guaranteed – otherwise I often have men sitting down close to me and starting an investigative conversation. Also popular: Touching women in the packed trains whenever possible. That even has an expression in India: Eve teasing.

More space and less body odour in the women’s compartment

In the head of the train the looks are not so penetrant. Often they are amused, when I get out my book for first-graders and try to memorise the Hindi words and letters. A whole lot of male and female guards are required to keep the first compartment free of men. They either watch the train in the stations or travel within – and use a lot of shouting as well as pulling and pushing to get the men out. There’s also a fine of 250 rupees for men that don’t obey the rule.

Because the system works so good, Delhi recently introduced busses that are reserved for women. I had a lot of fun with the ladies, when I interview them for an article (in German) on the first day of the service.

Celebrating Dussehra

The effigies of Ravana, Kumbhakarna and Meghanad went up in flames, one after another. The cracker that were placed inside, made hell lot of a noise. The spectacle was accompanied by fireworks, that lasted for hours. Hordes of people filled the streets, all trying to catch a glimpse of how the good defies the bad, how God Rama killes the great deman Ravana symbolically.

(from right to left) My Hindi teacher Lakshita, her mother, a friend and her sister Dakshita.

I stood on a terrace in Rani Bagh that belongs to friends of my hindi teacher Lakshita. From high above we were able to see one of the many burnings that took place all over the town, even in very densly populated areas. The street seemed to be packed, the traffic came to a halt – but once the cracker stopped and the show was over, the masses went apart quite fast.

giving out food

Everybody wished each other a “Happy Dusshera!” on that day, me included. And as food is an important part of the festival – some people of hindu faith offered food in huge pots in the street – I was also invited for dinner at Lakshita’s place. Mmmh! Like on the other occasions when I ate Indian food with Indians, I got asked by her mother and siste rif it is not too spicy for my tast. Well… no. I love it!

On that public holiday I was wearing my new Punjabi Suit / Salwaar Kameez, that Lakshita and I had bought earlier. She told me that one has to wear new clothes on Dusshera – but as I haven’t had anything to go with it, we had also bought a necklace, earrings, a bracelet and shoes – from which the sole came off after some hours of standing on the terrace. But no worries, with superglue from my corner shop they’ll last forever, Sandra says.

Becoming hip and fashionable

“You can’t go through Delhi by bike” was arguably the sentence most heard during the last weeks. In India only people that can’t afford a rickshaw, an auto-rickshaw, a scooter, a motorbike, a car or a taxi actually hop onto a bicycle. And the one’s that need to, all seem to have exactly the same model: a very sturdy, old, rusty, huge, heavy bike with an enormous kickstand.

But I wouldn’t give in. Years ago I rode a bike in the traffic of Santiago de Chile and by looking at the traffic here, I thought defiantly: I can handle that. Obviously you’re nearly at the bottom of the food chain, but then you also don’t need to care about road traffic regulations (if something like this actually exists). You just need to be quick and alert – and know how to jump.

Actually I wanted one of the 3000-rupees-bikes they offer in the lane full of bike shops close to the mosque Jama Masjid. But then I happend to walk around with Rachit, an Indian journalist who just came back from London, and we ended up being in the really fashionable TI Cycles of India in Lajpat Nagar. Bikes there were either full-suspension mountainbikes (not the perfect choice for a commuter in a pancake-flat city, I would say) or thrice as expensive as the ones I discovered in Old Delhi. But then I saw something shining in pink, white and green in the shop window…

In less than one minute I had fallen in love with the fixie (fixed-gear bicycle). Naturally I almost landed flat on my face twice when I tried to get onto it, but after some careful meters I entered heaven. I dreamt of slicing through the city, becoming hip and fashionable.

But wait! Wasn’t that years ago? “Trend Officially Over: Walmart Now Selling Fixed Gear Bikes”, wrote the treehugger already two and a half years ago. Obviously riding a fixie is not a subculture anymore. It’s supposed to be dated, it’s old hat. Hipsters seem to be gotten over it.

But wait again: Not in India! What ist outdated in the United States, hasn’t even started here. “You are the first person in Delhi to ride a fixie”, the smart shop assistant told me, who is commuting 16 kilometers each day by bike. I nearly hugged him.

I  just made one concession: Because I want my new bike to get me from point A to point B as safe as possible (whatever that means), I didn’t go for the “No fucking Brakes!”-hardcore version, but asked the assistant to assemble some tiny brakes. And I bought a helmet, that comes in a matching colour: bright yellow. Also part of the then 18000-rupees-package (260 euros): some powerful lights.

So, my dear friends out there: join the club. I’ll be looking for you.

Exploring Night Life in Shahjahanabad

After having seen Chandni Chowk in the first light of the morning on the bicicle, I took part in a Night Walk of “1100 Walks”. They promised: “mind blowing street food; the lovely people of the walled city, and their infectious joie de vivre – all weave a fascinating web for the walker”. And all promises were fulfilled.

Learning Hindi

What do sugar cane, a camel and a mango have in common? I can identify them in Hindi! I can even write their first letter in Hindi!!

After being three weeks in India and literally not knowing more Hindi words than “nameste”, “theek hai” (okay) and “shukriya” (thank you) it was definitely about time to get some lessons. My Indian colleague remembered that a friend had told her about an ambitious, german-speaking girl that was looking for a job. They passed the number – and so I met Lakshita.

Page of my new book – with some tamarind lying upon it.

On thursday I had my first lesson, today followed the second. We are starting with the basic writing of the squiggly letters. Consequently we use a book that was made for first graders. So on every page there’s a huge drawing with the initial letter of the fruit, the animal, the body part, the household article… When I didn’t know what a tamarind was, Lakshita brought me some today. Funny taste!

Because Lakshita is coming an hour-long way into the city, I don’t want her make to come over to my place. So we meet in the horrible McDonald’s of the metro station at Kashmere Gate. I hope we are going to change this soon. But today it turned out to be fine: When we finished the lesson, we went together to some booths and bought a modern, yet indian-style top, matching trousers, traditional shoes, a necklace, earrings and bracelets. We even had some south-indian food at one of the food stalls and saw the rehersal of a dance-theater.


Cat Content

I’ve tried hard – but I can’t hide it anymore. I’m living together with cats, or, to be honest: They allow me to live with them. Every once in a while they even get off their butt, walk over and spread themselves across my belly when I lie in the living room, reading or watching TV.

When they were very little, the team from the german radio found them and fed them with the bottle. One of litter died, one is now big and strong and adventurous, and the third still needs a little help with everything.

Sometimes he ends up being in the garden and doesn’t know how to get out. Sometimes he is dirty and doesn’t know how to clean himself, so our maid ties him to a post and scrubs him. Andwhen he gets out on the balcony, I feel uncomfortable, because he might fall down (he already did once!)

Now, while writing about him in the middle of the night, he staggered out of his room, totally dreamy. Tiptoed over the tiles, streched his forelegs and arched his back thoroughfully. He paid the feeding dish a brief visit and then went back into his bed. Yes, his double bed. Human size.

Finding myself a Home

My favoured apartment – so far. But in fact it seems to be too expensive…

I feel so exhausted, even though I just had two days off and didn’t write a single article. I only sat in cooled cars that brought me from one apartment to the next, so that I can have a look at what the market has to offer. But it is so hard to decide: Do I want a flat with furniture or do I rather want to style the rooms myself? Do I want to live alone or share an apartment? How much am I willing (and able) to pay? How far away from work is acceptable – I would like to ride my bike to the office from autum to spring.

Living in Delhi is not cheap, if one is looking for a nice neighbourhood. A furnished room, with a standard acceptable by westerners, can be found at around 150 euros. And if there’s a kitchenette and a bathroom attached, it can easily cost 200 euro. Obviously there’s also big one-room-apartments in a hotel style for more than 700 euros (and this particular one was supposed to be cheap for that area it is in).

This isn’t so comfortable – you also have to go outside to reach the bathroom.

Another problem seems to be that there’s heaps of bigger flats, but only few with one or two bedrooms. Also people count different here (at least in the standard I’m lookin for): Bedrooms are just the ones that have an attached bathroom. Rooms for studies and living rooms don’t count. So in the beginning I asked for two bedrooms and got shown something I would consider as an four-bedroom-apartment.

A lot of the apartments didn’t have air conditioner nor fridges, washing machines or ovens. And I really don’t feel like I want to go out and start buying everything. So one option that lingers in my mind is to take over the lovely flat of some Germans with whom I spent yesterday’s evening. But on the other hand they’re only moving in january – so what will I do till then? Argh!


With Colonial Regards, …

Are my perceptions and reports of India mixed up with colonial and racist structures? I just read a booklet (in German) of glokal e.V., an association based in Berlin that works in development education. They talk about the influence of images and languages as well as narrative patterns that commonly emerge in reports from stays abroad. And yes: I do see some of these patterns in my stories.

I can’t help but sort my impressions and experiences in my system of values,somewhere  in between developed and underdeveloped, rational and emotional, close to nature and urban, modern and traditional. But what I can do is to become more aware of the system I apply. What is the assumed “we” and who are “the others”? Do I regard people as objects? Where do I generalise? And what’s the norm?

Not only the language I use is important, also the photos transport a lot. What I take pictures of depends on my social position. Do I want to show, how wild, backwardly and  exotic everything is? Are the pictures kind of trophies I want to show around?

I should also consider: Even if I ask people, if a picture of them would be okay – are they sometimes not too much taken by surprise or regard it impolite to say no?  And is it not true that sometimes I only see them as aesthetic objects?

Well, that’s a whole bunch of questions. Obviously there’s no easy answers, but it’s good for me to think about the issues. And I already found one position: Especially in the tourist spots a lot of Indians take pictures of me or try to film me. I let it happen. And when they approach me and ask for a picture (normally a group picture with teens around me), I always say ‘yes’. Level playing field.

I can’t help to write about experiences that are “different from home”, “adventurous” and “totally crazy” (quotes from the booklet) – and by doing so rating the people. Because that’s what I think interest you. And by doing so I obviously compare India with Germany and draw the lines between the two societies. Another thing: “The focus on the extremes functions to portray oneself as an adventurer, hero … .”

Yes, I pay more for the rickshaw than people do that grew up here. And the entrance fee for the Red Fort was 250 rupees instead of 5 rupees – and I didn’t have to stand in line. But during these experiences I never forgot that I have much more money than most of the local people, so I don’t see the point in bargaining excessively hard. On the other hand I also try not to pay too much in order not to bull the market. It’s obviously not easy.

Something I never do is complaining about the higher prices, even labelling the handling as being “discriminated”. The booklet puts it this way: “White people can be discriminated in a situation, but never are victims of racism. The asking of higher prices or the begging for money is a reaction to the position of power, that white people / people from the global north have.”

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