Walk to the secret lakes of Delhi

Free time is something Delhi’s elite (which calls itself middle class) normally spends at home with family, in restaurants, in malls, in homes of relatives, in bars, in more malls, in homes of friends, in cafés. You get the picture.

Usually unheard of: Sitting on a bicycle and ride to a jungle. Walk through the Aravalli hills just south of the city. Spend a day at the river Yamuna.

This has many reasons, but foremost people are not feeling safe out there. This is not some unsubstantiated fear, but very real. The chances to get raped, robbed, threatened, pushed around, asked for money, told to go away , or all at once, are very real.

So if people from Delhi do venture out into the wild, they only go in big groups. With someone, who has been there before. Who has talked to the village elders as a backup, and got someone along from the village as a guide.

I joined the group “Delhi by Foot” to explore five secret lakes in the Wild Life Sanctuary Asola Bhatti.

We found: sandy beaches, pristine blue water in the valleys that were rock quarries some 15 years ago, sun that made it through the less dense smog out there. Along the way, we met locals going about their everyday lives, which included the chopping of shrub, walking somewhere with camels, and tending cows.

It was more a stroll than a hike, as the elite in Delhi, even if they are interested in outdoor activities, is so not used to walk on unpaved surfaces. So any climb up a dirt trek with two roots sticking out, or a step higher than 15 centimeters takes it’s own sweet time.

 

Advertisements

No Reporterglück

Journalists often have something they call Reporterglück, which translates into reporter’s luck.

Something like when a tram was stuck forever in Hamburg – and my former Chief Editor, Wolfgang Büchner, was inside and able to email a picture of people in the dimly lit wagon to us, so we could sent in on the wire (here).

But sometimes reporter are not lucky at all. Like I was today. Here’s the story.

There is a village in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh called Ramnagar, in the District of Mainpuri. A man who is accused of raping a women in Delhi in his taxi, booked via Uber, grew up in this place.

Indian newspapers reported that everyone in the village knew that the man was roaming around, harassing and raping women, but no one did anything, except of telling the women to stay indoors when he was visiting. (here)

It was also written that a women who claims was raped by him had to leave college and was married off because of the crime against her. Another of his victims apparently wanted to report him to the police, but they told her not to file the case. (here)

In a frenzy, I decided I had to go there. So I looked it up on googlemaps, (and was pleased to see a river close to the place pointed out, as I had seen a river bank in one of the video interviews with the parents of the accused), booked a cab, roped in an interpreter, and off we went.

According to google, it would take us 3 hours and 49 minutes to get there. According to the taxi company, it would take 5 hours. It took us 8 hours.

When we reached the pin on my map, it was pouring. We hopped from one tea stall to the other, where villagers were waiting for a spell in the rain, but only got vague answers. Finally we made out a direction, and continued on the ever narrowing road, between fields full of blooming mustard, cow chips, and hay stacks.

After asking around at more tea stalls, and families gathering on the veranda next to their buffalos, and women at a school, and a man with a tractor, we found Ramnagar. But there, no one knew the man we were looking for.

It dawned on us we were in the wrong place. “Is there another Ramnagar?” we asked. “Many,” we learned.

One, we were told, was close to Chhachha, where we drove next. There we heart it should be more like towards Fatepur. Or back to where we came from?

By that time, my colleague in Delhi had figured out that the Ramnagar we were looking for falls under the Elaau police station. So we called the officers up, and were directed somewhere.

Which turned out to be false again.

Even though we had started at 7.30 am, it had gotten dark by the time we were sent from one point to the other – just to locate the police station. Let alone the village.

So we called it a day.

Needless to say googlemaps failed again when we tried to get to our hotel in Agra. It gave the wrong place, and navigated us in such a back lane, that the car grounded and could move neither forwards nor backwards.

Let’s see what tomorrow has in store for us.

One place, two worlds

In the midst of nowhere in Rajasthan, somewhere behind Alwar, lies one of the sought-after Heritage Hotels. A fort from the 14th century had been transformed into a palace for royal experience. Every stone there exudes luxury. Or, in the words of the hotel’s PR guys,it is  a “monastic spaces to detox you from the world”.

So I sat on my balconies, one of them being in a bastion with only shooting-slits to see the barren land outside, I swam in the pool, ate regional delicacies in AC cool rooms, listened to Rajasthani folk music in the lush gardens, and watched the stars from the rooftops.

The scene changed immediately when I stepped out from the fort early the next morning and wandered through the fields. Water buffalos dozed next to one-story huts built from bricks, women cooked in the open spaces before them, or washed clothes at the hand pump, men were sitting or sleeping on charpoys, kids ran  between heaps of dried cowshit and stacks.

When I came to a field where women were cutting buffalo fodder, they put their sickles aside, came over and started questioning me relentlessly. Curious, they wanted to know what I had stored away in my bag, and took one strange item after the other out.

They tried the fan, the earplugs, the cream (which they thought was whitening), the lip balm (but were disappointed when it didn’t colour their lips red), the pen, the lighter – and laughed a lot. When one put on my sunglasses, she removed her scarf, and straightened her hair, before I was allowed to click a picture.

Hand in hand, them carrying heavy loads on their scrawny bodies, we finally walked over to the village, where a plastic chair was organised from somewhere, and I was placed next to a group of men for some talk. As my Hindi is very limited, I excused myself pretty soon, and started climbing the hill (which was the original idea for the morning walk).

While coming down, I was greeted by more than 40 kids – called together from every nook and corner of the village, I suppose. They not only ran after me, but also shoved me, pawed and groped me, and even made some sexual comments. None of them being older than twelve (and looking like nine), I guess.

When it all became too wild, I walked off, but they followed me. Until a villager, who’s buffalo was scared of the mob and threatened to tear the rope it was leashed with or even the pole that hold it, intervened with all his authority and told them to get lost.

Nearly two years in India – and beleaguered by children for the first time.

Mango Orchards of Rataul

iced mangoes

As Summer is in Delhi full force, one could be really frustrated… if it weren’t for the mangoes! Everybody loves mangoes, and the best part is that Indians not only know one type of mango, but an infinite number.

There are Safeda from South India, Dussehri from Uttar Pradesh, Malda from Bengal, Sindoori from Kerala, Totapuri from Bihar, and so on, and so forth.

mango varieties

And Indians can tell you which one has season at which week, and, best of all, if they are eaten like they are, or squeezed and sucked, transformed into jams or purees, used for ice creams or smoothies, chutneys and curries, or even pickles, salads and salsas.

So when the cultural heritage tour guy Sohail announced that he planned to visit the mango orchards of Rataul in UP, we happily hopped onto the bus. The journey over the 50 kilometers to the village took us three hours, and often resembled more a joy ride in a rollercoaster than a trip on a street.

mango orchard

When we finally stepped out of the bus, we immediately wanted to get back in, even with the swinging and rocking and hopping, as it was 20 degrees hotter outside than inside. Where was the monsoon, which should be here already?

While sweating, we learnt that one ancestor of the current planter cataloguized more than 500 types of mangoes, and that most of the lovely fruits from Rataul don’t make it to the markets in Delhi. So we did what we had to do and buried our teeth in as much yellow and orange flesh as possible.

eating mangoes

After lunch we hoped for some climbing on the trees and plucking the “king of fruits” for ourselves while balancing on the brunches, but the main orchard was under water, and in the smaller one we only visited the tress where the mangoes weren’t ripe yet. So we just strolled around, until the heat drove us back to the farm.

There we collected five kilogram each in a plastic bag (I guess a more appropriate way for the Delhiites than dangling in trees for getting them) and then headed home. The sugar shock from the mangoes made us fall into some sort of slumber in the bus, and I guess many dreamt of the Khas ul Khas, Makhsoos, Zardaalu, Doodhiya Hakim-ud-Din, Anfas, Husnara, Himsagar, … .

mango dream

I could have been…

at the finishing line, still in pretty high spirits

at the finishing line, still in pretty high spirits

I could have come second, if only I had cleared all the obstacles! Today the organisers of the Devil’s Circuit published the ranking, and it turned out that only eight women managed the parcour, as compared to 133 men. A huge round of applause for these eight!

But the biggest group in this list are the ones who didn’t manage or dared to do all climbs, jums, swings, crawls, swims etc.  Me being somewhere among them…

A fake world

A metro ride to Gurgaon, the satellite city of wealthy urban professionals on the southern outskirts of Delhi, is one through the whole spectrum of Indian live.

After leaving the capital, wasteland, scrubland and farmland drift past. Here an occasional hut, there some crater-riddled streets. And then, out of a sudden, gleaming shopping malls, five-star hotels and sprawling golf courses arise from the barren soil. The symbol of newly affluent India.

But the metro is built at such a hight, that behind the towering residential condominiums and the glass and steel office blocks, the beige earth is still visible. If one looks more closely, the unlevelled roads and heaps of garbage lying in the empty housing lots can be seen.

It’s a mostly unplanned city, with underdeveloped infrastructure, not enough water, and electricity – because instead of some proper city development, every investor was allowed to plant whatever he wanted. Most of it looks like: The more shiny, the better.

And in the midst of it is the “Kingdom of Dreams”, where Bollywood-Musicals show an even more dreamlike and escapist world. But the show is so overpowering and infectious, that all other things outside these glittering walls are easily forgotten.

Kingdom of Dreams

Jaipur Literature Festival, on state affairs and chaos in India

Ravi Venkatesan, former chairman of Microsoft India, painted a really gloomy picture of India’s future. “We should be seriously concerned about the country we are living in, if even we as elite can’t get justice.” The judiciary and law enforcement doesn’t work, he stated, and told the tale of how he can’t get a tenant out of his house who isn’t paying the rent.

“India is maybe the hardest market for anyone, local and international,” Venkatesan went on. The employees are unemployable, the judiciary doesn’t work, development banks have disappeared, the paperwork kills the companies – this chokes and suffocates the whole country, he said. Too much business in India is still based on privileged access to resources, he stated. Companies think: “If the whole pie is inedible, I’m starving as well.”

One big reason for the “mess” is, according to Venkatesan, that the middle class is withdrawing from society. The public schools are bad, so they sent their kids to private ones, same goes for hospitals. And because there is no electricity, they buy generators, instead of tackling the problem. “The classist society is back, which we once thought overcome,” adds essayist and novelist John Ralston Saul.

A mother and her children at the Jaipur train station

A mother and her children at the Jaipur train station

Journalist and author John Elliott sees a slow implosion of institutions happening in India. “Democracy is there, people get elected, but it doesn’t work, as the representatives leave the people high and dry.” The political dynasties are looking more after the family wealth than the good of the country.

Mukulika Banerjee, professor in Social Anthropology at the London School of Economics, described the plight of the farmers who switched to new types of grains, given to them by international companies. First, they generated good yields, but these varieties were very thirsty, so the water table dropped, and because of the rich harvests, the prices fell. “So when the growing of paddy wasn’t possible anymore, the went on to sand mining, brick making, growing poppy seeds, pilfering coal from trains.” They knew that it is illegal, but they couldn’t do anything else and had to survive, she said.

That’s also the reason why we see so many farmer’s suicides, adds Ralston Saul. What we need are other models of productions, for example the milk cooperative model in India, where the income is sufficient to live on.

Sunil Khilnani, professor of Politics, and director of King’s College in London, saw the professional standards for lawyers, doctors and others go down in the last decades. “Now you can buy a licence to fly an airplane – that is worrying,” he said. A lot of what happens in the country is a fix-it-deal instead of real politics.

He also complained about the fact that everybody has the right to be offended – and by doing so narrows the space for freedom of speech. Author Peter Godwin took the same line, when he said about cultural events: “If you don’t like something, you just threaten violence, and then the government says: Oh no, we can’t do this because of public security. That is threatening.”

The always present, but often not so attentive and hands-on police

The always present, but often not so attentive and hands-on police

One positive thought came from Khilnani as well: In Tamil Nadu one could see that Chief Ministers come and go, ministers come and go, but because bureaucracy is in place and organisations deliver, the state does well. “So we don’t always need great leaders.” Actually he thinks that people will one day be able overcome India’s petrified system. “This is a country with enormous potential, with young passionate people, great national resources, a great history, and people who actually believe they can change things, who are more and more passionate than the generations before.”

The temptation for honest bureaucrats and politicians to accept a bribe is huge, said John Elliott. If someone climbs up the ladder and then has the possibility to get several Million Dollars – that would change his whole life enormously. “In one little decision, he can change the prospects for himself and his family.”

Elliott thinks the petty corruption can be tackled, the one citizens worry about on an everyday basis, like to get a police officer to register a case, get a water connection, get into hospital, get the child to school. “But the big one? Hardly possible.” Also because politicians in India need a lot of money to get up the ladder, so they have to borrow money, and then pay it back by doing favours.

He also complains about the government which is more concerned about issuing new schemes – “normally with some name of Nehru or Gandhi attached” – than putting the existing one into place.

Ravi Venkatesan, the Microsoft India Ex-chairman, went on on another panel: For most mulit-national companies, India is not a relevant source of revenues and growth, because they aren’t successful here. Because of that, India is loosing out on investment, know-how and the opportunities these companies could bring. “Particularly in the last four years the amount of chaos was going up and investments were going down.”

Dogs fighting over the little bit

Dogs fighting over garbage which is still collected by hand all over India

“50 years ago India was described as a functioning anarchy. This still seems to be true,” Venkatesan remarks bitterly. This is visible, for example, in the terrible rankings the subcontinent has in the Worldbank’s Ease of Doing Business rating, he says. Companies would rather look towards Indonesia or Nigeria for investments.

For Venkatesan, chaos is everything that makes life difficult: uncertainty of governance, too much bureaucracy, bad infrastructure like roads and electricity, corruption. But somehow, he says, the companies have to cope with it, because India’s consumer market is number five worldwide and can’t be overlooked. “C0mpanies that somehow succeed here, like Samsung or Suzuki or Hyundai, can succeed everywhere.”

But unterstanding the market takes time, Venkatesan goes on. “You can’t come in and be arrogant and think, just because a formula worked in the US or Europe, it will work in India as well.” It took McDonalds eight years to figure out how to run successfully in India, he says. First they failed miserably before they adopted.

The chaos overwhelmes many a company, means Venkatesan. Not just internationals, but locals as well, who increasingly invest outside of the country.

Yashwant Sinha, a BJP member of Parliament and a former finance minister and foreign minister, doesn’t think a growing GDP and progress is all that should be looked after. In the villages of Jharkhand, he said, people are still living like in the 5th century when Buddha was teaching. “We have to ensure they get employment opportunites and we have to give them basic amenities,” Sinha said.

Local traditions still play a huge role in today's India

Local traditions still play a huge role in today’s India

flowers

Find during my mornin run

The Land of the Thunder Dragon

Whatever tales and legends you might have heard about Bhutan, chances are high that they are true. My favourite facts:

traffic policeThe capital doesn’t have a single traffic light. Thimphu is the cutest capital I’ve ever seen, nestled in a lush valley, crossed by an untouched river.  None of the houses is higher than six floors, and they all are built in the traditional style, with sloped roofs, monochromatic walls and ornate wood-carvings around the doors, windows and roof-lines. Around 100 000 people are living there – peacefully guided by traffic policemen.

Buying cigarettes is illegal, but everybody knows his or her little shop, where they are sold under the counter. The sole complain smokers have: Since cigarettes are only available in the black market, prices have doubled. Nonetheless I’m amazed the tobacco makes it into the Himalayan country at all, considering that only three streets connect Bhutan to the outer world (in this case: India, there is no street into neighbouring China).

Red Panda Weiss BeerDrinking is possible, but not on Tuesdays, which is a declared dry day. Bhutan even has it’s own brewery for Weißbier, run but by a german-spreaking guy from Switzerland. Back in 1967, Fritz Maurer applied for a job as a cheese-maker for the king of Bhutan himself. It turned out he liked the country, which is as mountainous as his homeland. So he stayed, but missed tasty beer. Nowadays his brewery churns out 1000 bottles of  „Red Panda Weiß Beer“ a day – in re-used bottles of the Indian Kingfisher beer, because there’s no glazier’s workshop in Bhutan.

chilisChilis are not a seasoning but the main ingredient of dishes, used like a vegetable. One theory I heard: Because it is cold in the mountains and fuel is limited, chilis are used to warm people from the inside. Often served with red rice. (Which is also used to clean the hands instead of washing them before the meal. Just grab a handful, knead for a while and, voila, the palm and fingers are clean!)

Democracy, introduced only in 2008, wasn’t the result of a rebellion or protests or even a single demonstration. As unbelievable as it seems, the democratic system was a gift by the 4th king. So now, after going to the polls the second time, people are still trying to figure out how to voice their opinion and how to debate constructively. And of course they all love their king!

penisPenises are painted beside the entrances to many houses, in order to ward off evil spirits. Some are also cut out of wood and dangle from the ceiling, others guard the front door. Apparently every painter is depicting his own best piece – it’s the only one he has seen, I got told.

The government is conducting a regular survey on people’s happiness. Turns out, 41% of Bhutanese are considered ‘happy’. To measure the gross national happiness, nine components of wellbeing are taken into account: psychological wellbeing, health, education, time use, cultural diversity and resilience, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience, and living standards. The outcome: Men on average are happier than women; especially well off are unmarried and young people. The happiest people by occupation include civil servants and monks. Interestingly, the unemployed are happier than corporate employees, housewives, farmers or the national work force.

TakinThe Takin is the most incredible national animal. It has a plumb, bovine like body, covered with dense, long yellow to brown hair. The short, stocky legs end in two-toed hooves, and the head is defined by a large arched “Roman” nose. It is so unique, taxonomists couldn’t relate it to any other animal and gave it a category by itself.

The mystic story however goes like this: Lama Drukpa Kuenlay, the “Divine Madman” (the guy who is also responsible for the penises on the houses), one day ordered that he be given a whole cow and goat to eat, before performing a miracle. Having devoured both, he stuck the goat’s head on the bones of the cow. On his command, the animal came to life, arose, rant to the meadow and began to graze.

Walking through the rain in Mandi

Delhi Encounters

(Daily) News from Delhi

Experience - The Blog by Ash Bhardwaj

Culture. Travel. Physicality

India Real Time

Unique analysis and insights from The Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones Newswires on the daily news in the world's largest democracy

India Ink

(Daily) News from Delhi