Three ways to arrive in Delhi

There are three ways to arrive in Delhi, the travel author Helge Timmerberg writes in “Shiva Moon”. “The dead cheap version, the horribly expensive version, and the «La Sagrita».” (the bumpy translation obviously is my work)

He explains: “The dead cheap one is in proximity to the train station and costs five dollars per night (in fact, it can be even cheaper, but maybe he gets cheated every time, even though he claims he has been in Delhi 100 times). The room has a small balcony towards the street, where people sleep and dogs bark and cats roam. It isn’t clean, but the staff is nice, and they organize warm beer, no matter when you arrive.”

Timmerberg continues: “The second way of arriving in New Delhi, is the «Imperial». The most beautiful hotel in the world, a mixture of Mogul and colonial, maharaja and officer, turban and crown, elegance and might.”

The third option is always fully booked, Timmerberg says. Always.

As my temporary roommate had read the book before coming to Delhi, we decided – after we had already explored the unnerving Paharganj area next to the New Delhi train station after his arrival – to venture to the «Imperial» for his departure drink.

Timmerberg gives no further advise on how to conduct oneself in the – we have to admit – truly astonishing palace. (The author drinks three Gin Tonic, then likes the receptionist behind the mahogany counter, therefore books a room, but then doesn’t describe the best corners of the lavish building further (maybe he has a headache). He only mentions his discomfort of constantly having to tip everybody.) (<- stupid guy: tipping is not necessary in India, fewest of all for the guy who twirls his mustache at the entrance)

Anyway, my roommate and I ended up spending the evening in the «1911 bar», with leather chairs, period portraiture, stained glass roof and wood panelling.

There even was a saxophonist, but he was on the other side of the huge glass window, inside the restaurant. No one was sitting there, and he was apparently not allowed to come over, as we had soothing lounge music, so he just shrugged his shoulders and left.

1911 bar

500 varieties of beverages in the «1911 bar», and no one to – exept us – to sample them



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.

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.

Paan anyone?


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.

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.

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?”

How to keep warm in Kashmir

People in Kashmir’s mountains have to keep themselves warm in long, chilling winters. So they carry around a basket full of hot charcoals, known as Kangdi, and fit it underneath their long, woolen coats. The basket is either hold around the stomach or the back – an extremely effective heater, I was told. But is it safe?

scene in Tangmarg

A scene in Tangmarg, where tourists have to change from normal cars to jeeps in order to reach the ski resort Gulmarg. The ride uphill is nearly as much fun as downhill, as there are no cars with 4 wheel drive and some go with just one (!) snow chain

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.

Things to know about Republic Day parade

Republic Day rocket launcher

Republic Day is when India shows all it’s military might on the widest road Delhi has to offer, and when the nation can boast about it’s achievements. (Originally though it was the day the constitution came into force back in 1950.)

Republic Day, camels

It’s also the day when people applaud stuntmen on motorbikes and soldiers with big funny hats marching in step, swinging their arms simultaneously, resembling rows of jumping-jacks.It might be the only day of the year when the public can listen to marching bands that’s musicians – other than at weddings – actually know how to play – even the clarinet and the bagpipe (the amount british influence is simply unbelievable; I didn’t see any Indian instruments at this day). Another treat for the audience: They can admire at the cultural heritage of the country, jammed on a couple of floats.

Republic Day, culture

But to be allowed to the spectacle at Rajpath in the heart of Delih, one is “requested not to bring” (meaning: DON’T YOU DARE) the following items: bags, brief cases, food (actually, the wrote “eatable”), radios, tape recorders (do they still exist?), palm-top computers (whats’s that? and what about other computers?), remote controlled car lock keys (and how shall we lock the car then?), arms and ammunition, daggers, explosives (oh, really!), water bottles (but no water was available inside, and everybody was sitting there for hours), cigarettes, bidi (as if this weren’t a cigarette), perfume, handicams (???), wires, and so on, and so forth.

Republic Day, pencils rocket launcher But: to “establish the identity”, everybody needs an identity card, like a passport – or a weapon licence. No joke.

Well, anyway, Nikoleta and I got in, with our mobile phones tucked away in the underwear. Unfortunately the big camera had to be left behind, as even all my waving around with my press identity card didn’t help (often it does, as it has a very impressive government stamp, but this time the security guys were unrelenting… well I didn’t try to bribe them).

So after seeing a lot of mitary uniforms and more uniforms and even more uniforms I went back to where my bicycle was standing – but it wasn’t there anymore. With all my Hindi scraped together I asked the policemen who were standing around, and found out they took it away – because someone could have placed a bomb inside! (The frame has diameter of not even 3cm, and it weights less than 8kg, but what to do.)

Republic Day, jet

I was told to wait, so I waited, but then other policemen came running towards me, telling me to get out of the roundabout where I was sitting. When I refused to go, as I was told to wait, they pushed me with their guns. We argued back and forth, and finally they made me sit down together with another bunch of people. The armed men guarded us, weapon at the ready, like we were criminals – until the motorcade with the president had passed by, and all the tension suddenly vanished. They very friendly even apologised. “We are only doing out job, madam,” one said. Note: Never come in the way of the VVIPs.

Republic Day, sealOne police guy who spoke some English and made it a point to help me, told me to walk over to Tuqlaq Road Police Station. So I walked there, passing dozens or even hundreds of very bright seals on gutters, locks, lampposts, doors… you name it. The whole area was secured, square kilometer for square kilometer.

At the police station, I was told to go to the “women’s help desk” – mine was not a women’s issue, but well, it helped anyways as the policewomen spoke some English. But first, I had to drink some tea. Then once I had relaxed, she had talked to ten other people, I told her the story of my bicycle again. Her problem was, what held her from filing some papers: I didn’t know the number of the bike frame. It didn’t matter I told her ten times the bike is very colourful and unique in Delhi and I have the key to the lock.

I was lucky once more as a guy walked in who overheard my story and knew about the bike. The traffic police on the spot hat brought it back to the roundabout – and the information to go to Tuqlaq Police Station was actually wrong, I was supposed to stay. Well, now the prpblem was solved. A very senior and gentle policeman, accompanied by a young policewomen (you can’t let a woman alone with a man in India) drove me back in a police car. And I was reunited with my bicycle.

Republic Day, horsesAfter that we lived happily ever after. And the police never demanded a fine from me, even though I parked the bicycle in the security zone. Nor was someone angry about my being so stupid and leaving it there. In fact, I found the police to be very nice (apart from the incident when the men secured the ground for the president – but hey: nothing is more important in India than the VVIPs).

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

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