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.

Not being taken seriously

Every sunday my favourite park, Lodhi Gardens, is littered in a nice, secluded area, where a large bench is running around a big tree. Polystyrene cups lie next to plastic plates, cutlery together with plastic bags and napkins with spoilt food. This can only mean one thing: A lot of people have breakfast there on the weekends.

Today morning I walked over to ask the huge group why they always leave such a mess behind. Why they can’t take home what they brought. Or at least walk the couple of meters to the next dustbin. If they don’t think the park belonged to everyone (we can hardly do our Parkour training at the spot after they leave).

Before I hadn’t even finished asking all these questions, the big, bearded man with the scoop in his hand and the bowl in front of him started replying. But instead of speaking to me, he addressed Siddharth next to me, who hadn’t said a word before, but had made a point in accompanying me for the confrontation. The other Parkour fellows looked from afar.

For the next couple of minutes, the bearded Sikh told Siddharth in an “I blow you away tone”, that the group hired a guy to clean up after them. He kept on emphasizing that the guy was well paid by receiving Rs 100. He then said they would be more strict with the garbage guy.

Not once during this self-righteous reply did he look at me. Not once did he make any gesture towards me. Not once did he pause so that Siddharth could translate. He didn’t even gave me a nod when Siddharth and I said goodbye.

Part of this might be due to the fact that he wasn’t well-versed in English and prefered to reply in Hindi, and this to the guy who looked more like he understood it. We don’t know, as he made no effort to speak any. But he perfectly understand what I was telling him in English.

I strongly believe it has more to do with the fact that I’m a girl and Siddharth a boy. A similar situation happened recently when I went to the cinema. It was a very posh one, so we could order during the movie. I rang the bell, I asked the waiter for a popcorn, I got the popcorn delivered – but then the bill was brought to the guy the friend sitting next to me.

It’s all about who you are – or pretend to be

Status matters in India. A lot. So I’m not surprised that a gang leader, disguised as a lawyer, could just walk past all the security checks at Rohini court in Delhi without being stopped. If he just looked like he entered through the lawyer’s gate every day without flashing his card, he for sure didn’t have much problems.

As the “Times of India” reports, the guy was wearing the black mantle of a lawyer, when he and nine other men set out to kill a rival gangster on the court premises. “He carried a couple of  ‘case files’ which contained two pistols and stood outside the courtroom waiting for the target,” the article reads.

But the police was second to none. “Around 11am, at least 100 men from the special cell armed with Glock pistols spread across the court premises. A few were dressed as lawyers, others as litigants, while some pretended to be ‘bad characters’, walking around with shirt buttons open,” the paper reports.

Sharing the story with my colleague, he tells me that while researching stories, he sometimes only says he’s “calling from Delhi”, when he tries to get an official or manager on the phone. The office assistances or secretaries then assume he’s calling from the headquarters or the branch in Delhi and transfer the call – which they otherwise often wouldn’t.

Every now and then, he also profits from some misunderstanding. More than once he correctly introduced himself as “calling from the German Press Agency”, and the call got transferred, him being introduced as someone “from the German Presidency”.

But back to the security guys: I also always look super-confident and if I knew where I was going when I enter business houses or civil servant’s offices. Most of the time, no guard stops me. Otherwise they would get out a huge big book where I have to write down all my details (including visa number) or, worse, ask for some permission from someone.

A diplomat friend even made it a point to ignore the ever-present metal detectors in front of hotels and other premises. She never placed her bag on the belt and just walked pass the body scanner. She always got away with it. But in case some guard would’ve taken his job seriously, she would’ve flashed her diplomatic pass, of course.


Hazrat Nizamuddin

Hazrat Nizamuddin is a quarter in Delhi that is definitely different from the rest of the city. Completely moslem in it’s appearance, the main street is dominated by men grilling lamb and goat, baking bread in earthen ovens, and drinking tea.

In many of the labyrinthine alleys, street vendors sell fruits or handkerchiefs, caps, rosaries or religious posters, shops are full to the brim with Qurans or household items, beggars try to get the attention of the passerbys, and blind(ed) boys sing beautifully to get some coins.

In the middle of all the bustle lie the dargas (mausoleums) of Nizamuddin Auliya (1238 – 1325 CE) and Amir Khusrau (1253–1325 CE), as well as the graves of many other people who wanted to be buried close to the Sufi saints. Medieval archways lead to the open space which has a marble floor and beautiful old structures.

long-bearded men talking in front of the mausoleumIt’s close to impossible to pass all the flower-sellers who lovingly pester us to buy a tray of flowers, sweets, or a chadur (cloth) to offer at the dargahs. Once inside, many Sajjadah-nashins (keepers) of the mausoleum ask for money for their blessings and the maintenance of the dargahs. This also includes a daily langar (community meal) for the poor.

I had already been there a couple of times, but always missed the Qawwali, a form of devotional Sufi music, which is supposed to be played ever thursday night (but then, it often isn’t). But this time we were lucky. So we sat down and listened to the men and their instruments until late into the night.

Expanding the home

Indians are the absolute, unchallenged masters of expanding their homes onto the streets – mostly out of necessity.

They (have to) wash themselves in the streets, dry clothes in the streets, cut vegetables in the streets, have their cattle graze in the streets, come together for a talk in the streets, set up their bicycle workshop or shoe repair point or ironing board or sewing machine in the streets, and some even have to sleep in the streets.

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

Jaipur Literature Festival, on the elections

Many conversations at the Jaipur Literature Festival circeled around the upcoming general elections. The talks had titles like “Democracy is the worst form of Government, except for all the rest” or “Why India votes” or “India at the crossroads” or “Conquering the chaos: empowering the future”.

India's elite listening to Mukulika Banerjee

India’s elite listening to Mukulika Banerjee

Mukulika Banerjee,  Associate Professor in Social Anthropology at the London School of Economics, for example asked: “Can a larger vision for basic needs like health and education come from within the current system, from the elected citizen elite?”

Yes, answered Dipankar Gupta, Director of Centre of Political Affairs and Critical Theory at Shiv Nadar University in Noida. But for that it is of utmost importance that leaders have a vision, an utopia. Governments like the one from Basque region first invested in health and education, and the once backward region became one of the shiniest parts in Europa in a matter of 20 years, Gupta said. “Unless you take that risk ask a leader, you cannot make democracy happen. You cannot play sick.”

Lily Wangchuk, president of a the political party Druk Chirwang Tshogpa in Bhutan, believes in the wisdom of society as a whole. “Good people are out there. They need to be given a chance.” Gupta adds, that sometimes only a handful of poeple can bring the change. “A small number of poeple put the others in action. Once they come togethter, the magic starts working, and goes out from there.”

Where are the people who can shape India's future?

Where are the people who can shape India’s future?

Gupta also believes that bribing the people into the elections doesn’t work anymore. “You give them rum and rupees, but that doesn’t mean the people are voting for you. They have a very clear vision of who they want.”

Banerjee, author of “Why India votes” pointed out that “the Lok Sabha election is the largest humanly organized event in the world“. It’s a festival, with noise and visual pollution, and a huge voter turnout. People go to the polls because of the peer pressure that the inked finger incites, she thinks. The index fingers of those who have voted in India are marked with indelible ink.

On another panel, she talked about her research village in West Bengal, and stated that issues which are discussed on the national or international level are often not known in the villages and not important for their decision for whom to vote. “For them it’s what has materially changed, like if there is water or electricity.” And: “India’s growth rates mean nearly nothing to the common man, if it doesn’t make a material change.”

Political scientist Louise Tillin sees a decline of the Congress-dominated politics, which was seen as a constant. “1985 was the last time there was a democratic single party government,” she said, then the regional parties surged. Now people are longing for a strong leader, instead of looking into good coalition building.

“The record of regional parties contributing positively to the central government is rare, if not non-existent,” backs her journalist and author John Elliott. All they want are positions so that they can get money through that.

Yashwant Sinha, a BJP member of Parliament and a former finance minister and foreign minister, believes “India is a functioning democracy“. If a tea seller can become a prime-ministerial candidate, the “majesty of the Indian democracy” shows itself, he said. He seemed absolutely confident that India would overcome the current problems and march ahead of the countries that now are heading.

The average age in India is 27, so the young ones will decide the upcoming elections

The average age in India is 27, so the young ones will decide the upcoming elections

The former Chief Election Commissioner Navin Chawla pointed out that since the state was founded in 1947, there was always an orderly transition of power. “Elections were always held on time,” he said. “These are no mean achievements.”

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, who wrote a biography of BJPs prime-ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, says Modi has very consciously shaped the religious identities. “There is a very, very dark side on Narendra Modi, which I feel very uncomfortable with.”

Modi was the first to realise the power of social media, Mukhopadhyay believes. But: “In most of India the niceties of the modern societies, which we in the urban areas use on a minute to minute basis, are not there.”

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

Culture shock, the other way round

After a tightly regulated drop-off at the Zurich Airport (5 min max – otherwise the car driver gets charged), a high-end self check-in (one even has to affix the baggage tab) and a super smooth, fast and reliable security check, I obviously had to secretly compare the Swiss (respectively German) standards to what I know from Delhi.

Innumerable people had also asked me in recent days: What struck you on your return to Germany?

To be honest, it’s not that much. Foremost, I felt and saw darkness. People, for example, like to wear black clothes, and nothing but black (well, every now and then, a blue jeans or a sombre beige is standing out). The sky prefers to obtain all shades of grey, and the fact that it gets dark at 4pm also doesn’t help.

Public display of things that remain private in India also catch my eye: the guy drinking a bottle of beer and staggering along the train station, a couple kissing intensely, someone (not belonging to the lower classes) openly lighting a cigarette, young people singing out on the way to the next party.

And no one is staring at me. Initially, I felt a little disappointed. Not outstanding anymore because of my skin colour, no one took notice of me. But after a while, I started feeling comfortable being just one in a million again. We’ll see how I’m going to feel back in Delhi.

Shahjahanabad through my new 70-200mm lens

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