Whereas I still can’t say “Nice meeting you” in Hindi without getting stuck, the owner of this shop managed to spell out the massive German word “Winterschlussverkauf” without a flaw.

Stranded in India

I went to the Delhi High Court today to help as out as an informal interpreter. And to give moral assistance. And also because my journalistic instinct was awaken when I heard the story of this man. And I just couldn’t believe what was happening.

An 80-year-old German went to Kenya last summer for a safari. In a group of friends, he travelled around, saw a lot of wild animals, and enjoyed his time. One evening, when they were all sitting together with the owners of the guesthouse they were staying in, one of his German’s companions asked what weapons they use in self-defence in the savanna. A rifle was shown. A cartridge was handed over as a present.

The holidaymakers went back to Germany. Half a year later, in the middle of January, the old man and his wife boarded an airplane to India. The couple landed in Mumbai, flew over to Jaipur, and later on to Delhi. Never during all these flights did anyone complain about the live cartridge that was still stored away in the luggage.

But when they wanted to leave India on January 29th from Delhi, they were stopped at the gate, shortly before boarding the flight. The luggage had to be opened, and the munition was found. So the two had to stay in India, while the airplane flew without them. For eight hours, they were sitting at the police station.

The next day, the 80-year-old’s wife flew home. (The cartridge was in his wife’s suitcase, but he is the man. It’s not atypical in India for the senior men of the family to shoulder the responsibility for other family members. Whenever I fill in a form – for example to get access to the High Court today – I have to give my father’s name. There even is kin liability: Last year a girl in Mumbai posted a negative Facebook comment about a politician, and members of the politician’s party got angry, and what they did was not to harm the girl, but to destroy the girl’s uncle’s dental clinic.)

Anyway, the octogenarian stayed back – and that without knowing any English. He also had a heart surgery scheduled two days after his planned landing in Germany, which he missed. When he was complaining, he was sent to doctors in Delhi instead. But they either knew German but had no clue about hearts, or they were heart specialists but didn’t know any German. So he refused to examined there, and booked himself a room in the posh Leela Palace instead.

But the nice lodging doesn’t prevent boredom. The old man feels he has seen every corner of Delhi now. And he tried to reach out to every German person living in the city – with success. as someone (not the embassy!) finally found him an interpreter, and others help him passing the long days. 

The case is now dragging on for nearly three weeks already.

UPDATE: It is the 6th of March, five weeks after his scheduled flight, when the 80-year-old finally arrives back in Germany. According to a local German newspaper, he had to go to Court eight times, then he was so fed up that he pribed a policeman to get his passport back and flew out illegally.

How to prove you are Indian

India is arguably one of the most diverse countries in the world.

Just to give an impression: a staggering 780 languages are spoken on the subcontinent, and 66 different scripts are used, the People’s Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI) recently found out. “Another 100 languages spoken in remote areas have escaped our attention and the total is around 880,” said linguist Ganesh Devy,  who was in charge of the project.

But: Many Indians are not aware of the ethnic and racial diversity. Especially the people from the remote North-East complain about being treated as outsiders in their own country. They have paler, more Central or Eastern Asian features than other ethnicities from central or southern India, and are considered to be more closely related to people in neighbouring Myanmar and China – which leads to harassment and often even physical assaults.

After the death of 20-year-old student Nido Tania, from the north-eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, after a suspected racist attack, the media is discussing the problem. And Sanjay Panday, professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, recounted a telling story to “The Hindu”:

national anthem

Being part of a jury

Thanks to my great german language skills, I was invited to Bal Bharati Public School in Dwarka which, despite the name, is a private school, to judge pupil’s plays from different schools there.

dancingThey had to act in a mix of English and either French or German, and we had to evaluate both their language as well as their creativity and coherence of the play and so on.

It was great fun, and afterwards we were rewarded with a McDonald’s burger and filled puff pastry. But the best part for me was the dancing before the event. I didn’t know the students learn these traditional dances at school. Gorgeous!

One man and 600 women

On International Women’s Day, German Ambassador to India Michael Steiner invited more than 600 women “from all walks of life” to his lawns. Many of them came – but to what end?

What could have been a nice idea in fact was a disaster, because no one seemed to have thought about what to do with these women once they were all greeted personally by the embassador with a super-glued smile.

To have at least one item one the agenda, the embassador entered the stage and uttered a sometimes trivial, sometimes embarrassing statement (when he talked about how he would love to be a women) – instead of giving his wife Eliese Steiner the advantage. Then actress and social worker Nafisa Ali Sodhi adressed some words to the women – but they weren’t translated.

And then – nothing. Most of the interesting women on the lawns weren’t accessible for me because they didn’t speak English and the interpreter that was promised to the journalists either didn’t show up or wasn’t locatable. So all we could do was looking at interesting dresses. Wow. (No wonder sports the official embassy website only a photo gallery and not an article.)

embassador's wife

Okay, there was one benefit: Everybody was allowed to take a picture with the embassador. Or at least with his wife Eliese.

A tiny buffet had been prepared to feed the crowds. But as many of these women came from very modest backgrounds, they tried to eat as much as possible. And there wasn’t much. When some of them started filling their pockets with sandwiches, the tables were empty after a couple of minutes.

The staff tried to bring in more supplies, whatever eatable they found. So in the end they offered Christmas stollen, a sweet german bread. And Christmas cookies. In march. Apparently leftovers from December that had been already been served to journalists in february – but we didn’t finish it.

More strong voices at the Jaipur Literature Festival

“It is in our hands if something changes”, author Kishwar Desai said to me in an interview. The brutal gang-rape in a bus in Delhi  was not the first one and not the first high-profile one. “We had candlelight processions before”, she meant. To change mindsets, to install fair justice, to get rid of curruption, to change to good governance – all this are going to take years, if not decades.

So India shouldn’t only focus on the delivery of justice, she explained further. “We also have to clean up our education system.” The change in society comes through schools, she firmly believes. But Desai warned: Change does not come easily. “When you try to change minds, you have to change hearts.” That’s why India needed female heroic figures. Her conclusion “if women want to change something, they should write.”

Too long men have thought women are an interesting topic to write about, she said. “We have to take that space back from them.” At least until men start doing it as well.

more audience

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, the Pakistan director of the 2012 Academy Award winner documentary “Saving Face”, has closely watched what happened in India. “Finally people gathered,” she said. People realised they are not living in isolated cocoons. “That gives me hope.”

She wants to give people role models, Obaid-Chinoy said. “Because we as a country lack heros.” So she wants to portrait them. And she gets her bravery and resilience from people she interviews. “They encourage me.”

through treed

The Indian constitution is one of the best in the world in respect to women’s rights, Shobhaa De is sure of. “The laws are in place. But it’s the enforcement of the laws.” Even police officers don’t see an urgency to register a file on rape. And women police officers and bus drivers are not the solution – they can also become victims.

Throughout their lives women are made to feel diminished, she said in an interview. “Women are looked upon as properties, as commodities.” Even in upper classes women are prone to violence. It’s part of your life, Shobhaa De meant. “Life comes with it.”

Society has to ensure safety, Shobhaa De said. “I don’t want to turn into a street guerilla fighter.” And she also doesn’t want to look over her shoulder all the time, preparing to run.

But she hopes, that younger generations are no longer passive if they are victims of violence. The should reveal it and file a report against the perpetrators, Shobhaa De hopes. The fight has started. “There is no way anyone can suppress it now.”

She also is sure that violence against women has little to do with sex but with power. Women are now competing for the same schools and colleges and jobs, Shobhaa De adds. The new order doesn’t only attack their social status, but also their economical one. “So men are feeling directly threatened and directly hit.”


Shobhaa De is attracting the crowd even on a monday

If the founder of that company spoke any English?

they produce ice creams

they produce ice creams

I can do it on my own! – Well… no.

I firmly thought I could organise everything alone. But then I called a women at the local government to inquire about a story. She asked me to speak Hindi, and when I replied I couldn’t, she hung up. I wanted to write about a man in the slum Dharavi who gives classes in acting and dancing. Many of his students went into Bollywood and a lot of media organisations already spoke to him, so he asked for money. And I heard about the Dabbawallas, who collect home cooked food in lunch boxes and bring them via bicycle, train and handcart to the office workers – but I couldn’t get hold of the organisation.

Prachi, my stringer

So I employed Prachi, a local stringer. It was the first time for me I asked a freelance journalist to contribute to my storys. It was a good experience! She made all the above possible, because she knows whom to ask and how to talk to them. She could also translate for me. Plus it is much more fun to go around in the city when you have someone to talk to and share the meal with. Thanks!

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.


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