How much space does a person need?

A colleague just moved into a flat close to mine. It’s in a new, four storey building with a lift and lot of glass and high ceilings and nice stone floors. The ground floor is reserved for cars – but so far no cars are there. The rooftop terrace is reserved for him. Here he has ample space to lie in the sun without being seen, he can built a bar here and on the other side he can set up his fitness equipment – and then there is still enough space left for a game of soccer. He even has articicial grass there now, so it is nice to the feet.

The flat itself is enormous: a long stretched living room in which his two by three meter couch looks tiny. There is a large guestroom with balcony and attached bathroom, a sleeping room with attached balcony and bathroom, a music room with bathroom and a big kitchen (next to bathroom number four). 130 square meters, he says.

I went there because the sister of my maid is looking for a job and the new colleague is looking for a maid. After we had seen the impressive terrace, the impressive rooms and the impressive parking places, we went to see the servant quarters. They are built in the last corner of the rooftop. Only covered by a corrugated sheet (so it will get unbearable hot in the summer). With a raw concrete floor. Six square meters big. Without windows.


Turning point?

It’s two month now after the deadly gang rape of the 23-year-old woman on a moving bus in Delhi. Did India change? What did the massive protests do to the society? And did the broad discussion trigger anything in how women are perceived by men and how safe they feel in India?

I just went through my notes from the Jaipur Literature Festival and wrote something about the strong women’s voices I heard during these days here (day 1) and here (day 2) and here (day 3). A formulation that comes up again and again is the “turning point” this incident apparently marked.

“The boil is coming”, said author and feminist Rohini Nilekani for example. Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, who won an oscar for her documentary on acid attacks in Pakistan, told me: “I have hope for tomorrow.” And political analyst Shobhaa De spoke of a “wake-up call”.

Personally I’m not so sure anymore. Recently, when a whole bunch of journalists were sitting together, someone tossed the question onto the table, if we think this indeed will prove to be a turning point. An awkward and helpless silence followed.

India has only two years ago seen people rising in their tens of thousands against corruption. Now every now and then Arvind Kejriwal accuses someone, but no one seems to listen anymore. Last year throngs of people protested against the liberalisation of the wholesale retail market. When the parliament voted on the bill, the protesters seemed to have already forgotten.

Looks like as if the latest provocateur also didn’t lead to a substantial change.

two women

How we get information on the gang-rape case

Getting information on the gang-rape case in Delhi is pretty comlicated. But until now the media in India doesn’t sream, even though they normally rise their voices fairly easy. I wanted to yell today, but all I managed was a sigh.

The judge Yogesh Khanna who heads a fast-track court in Delhi’s southern area of Saket decided the whole trial would be non-public. That’s fair enough to protect whoever need protection in this case. The family of the 23-year-old Indian student that got gang-raped and killed in a bud in New Delhi has been hit enough.

But: The judge itself doesn’t speak to the press. There is no spokesperson of the court who would at least confirm a date or inform about the proceedings. The prosecution doesn’t come forward.

So there is only the lawyers of the five accused who can attend the huge public demand for information about what is going on behind closed doors. So the journalist would linger in front of the court for hours and wait for them to come out and speak into the cameras (never to people with notepads, only to the camers). That worked for a while. More or less fine, because they were not always reliable and the journalists would try to write about the things where their statements overlapped.

But according to a source the judge ordered the lawyers to stop speaking to the press. So on saturday only one of the three lawyers searched the spotlight. The source said, he will be punished by the judge when they meet again on tuesday.

And then?

Memories of my childhood…


…came to life when I saw the plastic pot and cup in the train back to Delhi. Eastern bloc style! I’m totally sure the kids in the former easern part of Germany played with fake dishes from the same company.

Reaching the mountains

What a promising word: Himalayas. I had to suffer a night in an unheated bus over bumpy roads to be able to see them. Even my trick – to reserve me two seats so I could lay down in my sleeping bag in the bus – didn’t work out because the seats were too small to fit the length of my upper body in.

After a hundred times of dozing off and jumping awake again at the next pothole, I reached the snowcapped mountains. Other than I thought Dharamsala is actually not in the mountain range, but merely at the first mountainside. So it wasn’t as stunning and breathtaking and spectacular as I thought it would be.

view from my balcony at the Pema Thang Guesthouse

view from my balcony at the Pema Thang Guesthouse

Plus: The town is as filthy as all Indian towns I have seen so far are. With people living in shacks, chaos on the roads, beggars, street dogs. This was especially difficult as I had images of lovely mountain villages in Austria and Switzerland in my mind, with wooden huts and pointed roofs – because these are the mountain dwellings I grew up with.

A pack of street dogs especially astonished me. They seemed to be racists. When foreigners or tibetan people walked pass them, they didn’t care. But darker skinned Indian people they would bark at and chase down the road.

A bad sign on the roadside?

Initially I didn’t find time to go to the demonstrations. But finally on the 30th of December I drove towards Jantar Mantar, where the protesters gathered, the thousands that came onto the streets to fight for justice for the girl who was brutally assaulted and gang-raped two weeks earlier. And who died the day before. But they also came to shout slogans to hang all rapists or tp sterilise them. Others demonstrated for more women’s rights. The situation was tense. Some feared it could get out of hand again – then police would for sure not hesitate to use batons, water cannons and pepper spray as they did before.

Close to the spot, I found a dead and stripped bird. A disturbing sight. I lay there, dumped on the roadside, naked -just like the 23 year old girl. Fortunately I’m not superstitious, shrugged it off and went on.

dead bird

Things I don’t understand

– A christmas markt was set up around the house I work in. When I arrived at midday, I parked my bike in a spot where  it would not be in anyone’s way. I didn’t lock it for easy removal. I counted on the fact that by now everyone in the house would know that the pink-white-green bike is mine. It would have been easy to ask me, my desk is merely ten meters away from the spot. But by the time I went out of the office at night, a wooden construction covered with canvas was built all around my bicycle. It was close to impossible to get it out.

– There’s a seperate waiting line for tourists at the Taj Mahal, called queue for “high value ticket holders” – that means we pay 750 instead of 20 rupees. Because I went with my Indian friends, I waited in their line to get security-checked. The guards asked me relentlessly to use the other line, even though I explained that we want to wait together. Because what’s the point in waiting alone inside for the others to arrive?

family with donkeys

– I visited workers at a construction site, who’s income rely on their donkeys. The animals carry sand and stones up and down unfinished houses. Because they are overloaded quite often, the harnesses don’t fit well and because the strings are too thin, most of the animals have wounds. Some also lame. A veterinary from the Donkey Sanctuary treats them for free, gives the owners medicine free of charge and helps them with advise. But often the owners neither apply the medicine nor do they follow some basic rules of husbandry. I saw a donkey that was already working at the age of two. After two or three years the animal will have arthrosis and won’t be able work anymore, the vet explained. The normal life span would be around 15 years.

– I arrived at the New Delhi railway station on my bicycle in order to buy a ticket. When chaining the bike onto a traffic sign in front of it, a taxi driver, who had watched me all the time, started shouting: “Taxi, Madam. Taxi!” But why should I come with a bike to a train station to head off in a taxi, when taxis are available all over town?

– The traffic. Everywhere. At any given time.

Searching for places of worship – and for myself?

The walls are high, security is tight. Cameras are not allowed. Nor are mobile phones or mp3-players. Even mirrors and USB-sticks need to be locked away before entering. When I passed the security gate, I had to take off my shoes for inspection. My tiny purse got searched.

The only thing I wanted to do was visiting a temple. But Akshardham is so sacred that everything is forbidden. Smoking and drinking alcohol for example. Pets. Impolite and rude language. Own food. Only “pure, fresh vegetarian food” is served at the food stalls.


In “respectable clothes to respect the dignity of the place” I entered. And was stunned by the beauty and grandeur of the work. Ashardham looks like a clean, unworn, uneroded version of a world heritage site. The huge temple of pink stone and white marble, financed by the sect Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS), was only finished in 2005, but the craftsmen used old techniques to carve the mandir.

I felt at ease. Going around barefooted (shoes are not allowed), seeing not a single piece of rubbish, hearing no honking, I relaxed. I was so relaxed that I feared to be one of the uncountable Europeans that come to India in search for spirituality. But I wiped that thought away when I saw hairs and toenails of the guru and nearly started laughing because it so reminded me of Jesus ‘ relics.

lotus temple

Later I went to the Baha’i Temple, better known as Lotus Temple, because of it’s shape that remind of a lotus flower. But there I felt the feeling of church again. This time like I was in a modern protestant one. Even though the Lotus Temple is beautiful from the outside, it is completely unadorned from the inside – and resembles more an huge community center for sports and concerts than a room for prayers.


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?

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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