World Cup final in the Embassy

There is no publicity option the current German Embassador to India would miss out on. So when the German football team reached the World Cup finals, he opened the gates – literally.

40 minutes before kickoff, a huge crowd had assembled in front of the main entrance to the embassy. It was by invitation only, but someone must’ve sent out a lot of invitations. The head of the press department stood in the middle of it all, his nerves at breaking point, constantly exclaimed there were 80 TV camera teams already inside. Many of them going live.

Whoever was wearing a tricot, was sure to be captured.

Whoever was wearing a tricot, was sure to be captured.

Seemingly over-worked embassy staff tried to form a line out of the throng at the gate, first on the right side, then on the left side, but failed. Some of them hectically went through the printed invitation lists to tick off names, but while finding one person, twenty others had made their way past them already.

Nothing was moving really. Reason being: The ground has a double door, with a thoroughful security check in between. Only one door can be opened at a time. Normally, passport details are taken down. And mobile phones are not allowed inside.

In Germany, we call live  public screenings of football matches "public viewing" (with exactly these English words)

In Germany, we call live public screenings of football matches “public viewing” (with exactly these English words)

But that night nothing was normal. When the embassador came to the gates and saw for himself, that under no circumstances would the crowd be inside in 40 minutes, he weighed the options before him: On one hand a PR disaster, which surely would feature in all the national media, already assembled at the place, as the Germans – with the organisation skill predicate attached to them – couldn’t handle a crowd of a few hundred.

The other option included a security risk. He chose the latter and declared the doors open – while the security staff stood stunned next to him, their head shaking in disbelieve.

Kickoff was at 0.30am, so many people were hungry again after they have had dinner

Kickoff was at 0.30am, so many people were hungry again after they have had dinner

Once in, everybody was munching away the Sauerkraut and Wurstl and Berliner, while grabbing as much drinks as possible. Because during the semi-finals, the embassy ran out of beer ten minutes into the match. Only after a while they again had managed to bring boxes of non-cooled, different German brands (from god knows which cellars in the embassy or staff living close by).

To prevent this, the embassador announced on the mic we should go easy on the beer. Otherwise it wouldn’t last the whole night.

Lucky us, it did. The rest was joy.

a happy lot of South Asian Correspondents

a happy lot of South Asian Correspondents

 

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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

Old habits die hard

The German embassy had invited to a get-together, because a German delegation was in town. As soon as the speeches were over, everybody bolted for the buffet, to load heaps of rice, roti, daal, and all kind of curries onto their plate, then went back for a second filling  of salad, bratkartoffeln and kässpätzle.

broken plateWhen the feast was over, not enough waiters were around to immediately collect the plates out of the hands of all guests. So I saw an Indian man do what an Indian man does: He threw his plate underneath the next tree. Bad luck he had forgotten that this time it wasn’t made out of paper of plastic, but porcelain.

 

Paan anyone?

paan

Paan, a betel leave with areca nut and lime, here served as a mouth “freshener” after a dinner at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs

It took me a year and a half and some quite an amount of persuasion by visitng friends to finally try paan, India’s stimulating and psychoactive pastime. The rolled betel leaves are available at every street corner in Old Delhi, and in many other places of the city as well. Of this the brown stains on buildings and in staircases, even in government offices, bear witness to.

The huge package I then placed into my mouth was filled with the usual areca nut and lime and tobacco, and also some mukhwas and something sweet and I don’t know what else. The flavours exploded in my mouth, and made my head spin. But to be honest, after chewing for a minute or so, I spit everything out. And so I didn’t realise any longer lasting effects. Mercifully.

Sharing is caring

on a donated bedMany stray dogs in Delhi are not really stray. They live on the streets, okay, but they have poeple looking after them – who then boast about how caring they are. Most of the dogs seem to be well-fed and in the winter time they get blankets to sleep on, or they are even made to wear pullovers.

Indians also spent a lot of money to buy grains for birds. On some flyovers or in front of the town hall at Chandni Chowk, there are always dozens, if not hundreds of pidgeons – and even they can’t eat all the handouts, so that the ground is always full of grains. Other people feed birds of pray with buckets full of meat, for example around Jama Masjid in Old Delhi or at Lodhi Gardens.

I often wish these people would spent the money to buy food for the very poor who often live underneath tarpaulins just a few meters away from their doorstep. Or even as domestic servants inside their houses.

Ah, the smell of Coffee….

On sunday we set out to walk to different coffee places in the city to indulge and celebrates this extraodinary stimulator.

We started the session with a terrace breakfast at India Coffee House (there since the 1950s) in Connaught Place, a fragile stalwart of the city. Then we went over to the more moderate Saravana Bhawan for their South Indian filter coffee, before we ended up being in the plush counterpart, the United Coffee House (around since 1940s). We skipped the chains Costa Coffee and Cafe Coffee Day and ended our walk with a Turkish coffee at Kunafa, Meharchand Market.

Himanshu, the guide, made positively clear that India was more than a tea country. And he cited  Cassandra Clare in City of Ashes: “As long as there was coffee in the world, how bad could things be?”

Something’s wrong here…

Cola-Cola

find the mistake

The tea country

You want to drink proper coffee in India? Well, good luck. Even though Starbucks entered the market about a year ago and India has it’s own coffee chain, Café Coffee Day, the subcontinent remains a country of tea drinkers (fair enough, it’s also the world’s largest tea-producing country).

And by tea, I mean this oversweet, strong, milky fluid that is poured from aluminium pots into small plastic cups at every filthy street corner.

The coffeehouse experience on the other hand is possible at more than 1500 places in India, mostly limited to shopping malls, upscale promenades, main tourist attractions (I found one inside the walls of 400 year old Amber Fort!) and airports.

Ah, and talking about “experience”: Don’t expect 1) to get your takeaway coffee in less than 10 minutes, 2) to have any of the many staff members to pay attention to you as a customer, if you are not shouting at them, 3) the cashier to have any change at all. But, expect 1) your brownie/muffin/cake to be heated up in a microwave, 2) get everything packed and wrapped three times and placed in huge boxes or bags for takeaway, with plenty of ketchup/mustard/sauce/, 3) have someone sweeping the floor around you all the time.

coffee loungeSo, if Indians talk about coffee, they mean instant coffee. Always. At the Jaipur Literature Festival, I found a set-up coffee “lounge”, complete with a wooden bar, fancy quotes on the wall, real chairs (no plastic!), and a menu, titled “Enjoy the world’s best coffees”, that listed five different varieties. It turned out: All coffee served there was instant coffee.

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

Free tea and pakhoras in front of my house

tea for freeThe Sikhs in my colony were celebrating something (again).They drove from one place to the other, and distributed tea and pakhoras to everybody who passed by. Lucky me I just came from the parkour lesson.

And after the feeding, a special team with it’s own pick-up cleaned the whole area and collected every single paper cup people had thrown on the ground.

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