Category Archives: Culture

Food matters

Telling by the time and efforts my colleagues spend on our daily lunch order, food is a very important topic for Indians. Alongside with breathing and sex, eating is the only activity which makes one exchange substances with the surrounding. No wonder that religions, claiming to frame our behaviour within the world, insist on specific purity provisions for these intimate contacts.
Those codes infiltrated the deeper layers of the psyche to an extent impervious to rational discourse: I remember when in a Hindu temple back in Jaipur, I observed people greeting a long-haired old man, a guru, by touching his feet. By my pure sight he abruptly shied away, not to be touched by the supposedly meat-eating foreigner.
When coming back from a concert at Purana Quila (“old fortress”) last week, we saw many rickshaws transporting tied-up goats: during the Muslim festival Eid al-Adha (“Sacrifice Feast”), worldwide 100 million goats are slaughtered each year in memento of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac. This year, just in time, a public petition had enforced the interdiction to spill the blood into the river Yamuna passing Delhi where the idols of god Ganesha have been immersed a few days before (Ganesha Chaturthi).
I noticed that as a light side note on the otherwise tolerant and peaceful coexistence of religions. But fronts get harsh when it comes to beef: in Delhi, as in most states of India, the consumption of beef is banned by law. In his readable book on the Indian mindset, “The Indians”, Kakar writes: “The eating of beef and thus the killing of cows by Muslims has historically been the most important source of Hindu bitterness. … The Muslim eating of beef and the Hindu abomination creates perhaps the most effective barrier … between the two communities.”
Last night, in Uttar Pradesh, 45km from Delhi, a mob gathered in front of a Muslim’s home who was suspected to have slaughtered a cow: the 50 year old man got killed, his son severely injured.
As my boss Nitin puts it: “Politicians talk about missions to Mars and their vision for the country, but elections are decided on cows.”

Small Money

A basic principle of economy states that the higher the demand and the lower the supply, the higher the price of the good on a free market. Surprisingly enough, this principle fails when it comes to money itself: it’s the small notes which are in short supply but highly demanded. ATMs here provide money in banknotes with a face value of one thousand Rupees (currently worth 13,58€), but on the local market you can’t buy anything for these notes – the traders plainly refuse any deal: “no change”.
To just buy a bottle of water, I usually have to run down a cascade: starting at the mobile shop who deals higher priced devices, I change such a note in two notes of five hundred Rupees each, carry those to the local sweet shop who provides me with hundred Rupee bank notes and then buy some fruits from another booth (whose owner always sighs when he sees me coming and starts hunting for coins from his neighbours)… By the time I reach the local kiosk to get a bottle of water for twenty Rupees, with all the losses and trades in between, not much of the withdrawn money is left. And the circle starts anew.
The only resource in even more scarcity here is: toilet paper. But that’s another story…


Promenade in New Delhi

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Today, I went for an afternoon stroll in the New Delhi, the posh quarter of the city, with the foreign embassies and the homes of parliament members on splendid green grounds behind guarded fences. Built for twenty years between 1911 and 1931 by the British architect E. Lutyens, this administrative district was the attempt of the British to assert their Imperial credentials, rivaling the great city quarters of the Moguls and Delhi sultans. But as the old saying goes “Whoever builds a new city in Delhi will lose it”, the colonists had to leave the country shortly after. They left behind the central plaza “Connaught Place“, now serving as the upmarket commercial hub with streets radiating in all directions, the magnificent buildings of the viceroy’s residence, now home to the Indian president, the pompous arch of India Gate and the boulevard Rajpath. On the lawns at its sides families spend a relaxed time enjoying picnics and spontaneous cricket matches.
Coming from the Gandhi Smriti museum, I was followed by a group of youngsters. Since I did not know what they were up to, I stopped and confronted them with my few Hindi greetings. Shy in the beginning, they soon started taking selfies with me in their middle until the whole Rajpath gathered around for pictures. Having had my shot on fame, I continued to Jantar Mantar, the outdoor observatory built three hundred years ago for precise measurements of solar and lunar calendars and the planetary movements. While probably no one understands their exact function any more, these monuments appeal for their figurative shapes.
In the streets around this site, people had put up beds, indefinitely fasting for the freedom of Tibet. While passing their manifestation, an ôto-Rikshaw driver kept approaching me: he prided himself with the German word his tourist passengers always utter in his car: “langsam, langsam!” (slowly, slowly!). Since I was not sure if he really understood that word, I preferred walking.


“India has as many gods as people”, a rather confused anthropologist once noted. While this might be a slight exaggeration, there is some truth in it: here, it seems to be a matter of taste which god to worship depending on which virtues one values and wants to bring forward in oneself. There is Ganesh, the elephant god of good fortune, there is Hanuman, the monkey god of loyalty or bravery, there is Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, there is Saraswati, the goddess of learning and so on. This indulgent polytheism is certainly one of the reasons for the peaceful coexistence of so many religions and cultures in this country. But that is for a later chapter.
One of the principal gods though is Krishna, often depicted as a blue-skinned cowherd and starring in a great variety of myths. One is the legend of his birth: the evil king Kansa was warned that he will be conquered by the eighth child of a certain woman. He imprisoned her and slaughtered her new born babies. But a storm was coming when the eighth child was born, the doors burst open, the guards fell asleep and Krishnas father walked out with the baby. This event gives reason for one of the major religious celebrations all over India: Janamashtami. Richly decorated temples host theatre and music groups for several days, devotees observe a twenty-four hours fast, and the whole country is afoot to worship the birth at midnight.
I was strolling around in a comparatively quiet region with my friends from the guesthouse, Durkapanda and Sunil: people praying in the temples, pushing little swings with money and ringing bells, while the priests supplied milk and sweets. At midnight, only a group of about fifteen women was left in front of the temple, chanting and dancing. The red tilak on my forehead lasted for several days.

On Education: Delhi Book fair

Nitin, the founder of the company I’m working for, had invited me to join him on his visit to the annual Delhi book fair: following China, US, UK and Russia, India is the country with the fifth largest number of book publications – more than 90.000 titles (Germany: 82.000 in 2011) are published each year in more than 24 different languages, with half of the publications in Hindi or English. Strolling around on the fair, there were large piles of books in every corner: comics on the Gods stories of the Mahabharata, the ancient Sanskrit epics, primers on reading and writing, large volume textbooks of engineering and IT, moral treatises, biographies and essays of Abdul Kalam, the rocket scientist and esteemed president of India (from 2002 to 2007).
But seemingly the largest share was made up by workbooks for test preparation: those books are available everywhere. From a very early age, children are trained to pass the entry tests to the renowned colleges – a literally life-decisive hurdle. When a job position was open in our company, one of the first questions in the telephone interviews was always “which college?”. This question targets actually not so much the quality of education, but rather the influence of the peer group, one’s social context, the value that one’s family has set on education. And the bonds between graduates from the same university stay strong, even in business life where relation is everything.

Once I bought a little booklet on the local market: “Math Olympic Questions for 8th class”. Here are some sample questions – are you up to it?

  • “There are only two candidates in an election. One gets 62% and wins by a margin of 144 votes. How many voters are there?”
  • “In some code language the word Hurdy-Gurdy is written as GF-GE and Hob-Nob is written as BE-CA. How will the word Hugger-Mugger be written?”:
    a) EI-AG b) EI-GA c) EF-GA d) FF-GA.
  • If sqrt(12 + sqrt(12 + sqrt(12 + … = x, then x is
    a) 3 b) 4 c) 6 d) greater than 6.
  • Testbook (1)a

    Testbook (2)a

    Raksha Bandhan

    The winter season in North India delights not only with more comfortable temperatures but with a wealth of traditional festivities. The first I could attend was Raksha Bandhan: a secular Hindi festival which celebrates the love and duty between brothers and sisters, and more general the friendship between male and female relatives. As a sign of blessing and protection, the sister ties a colored bracelet around her brother’s wrist and paints a tilak (Tikka), a red mark, on his forehead while the brother promises to take care of her for all his life. The family of my colleague Rohan seized the occasion for a relaxed familiar get-together, with karaoke singing, tons of delicious food and Indian desserts and spirituous beverages. Being cordially invited to take part, I soon realized that I had plunged into the intellectual elite of India: originating from the far North East, from Meghalaya, where India touches Bangladesh, Bhutan and Burma, they all reached out to ambitious careers as lawyers, doctors, journalists, engineers with an intense intellectual drive of open-mindedness, curiosity and global exposure – everyone had studied, travelled or worked around the world, in Canada, US, UK, even Darmstadt. Some knew Germany and its history better than me. Perfectly informed about the situation on the global stage, we shared interesting discussions about the culture and economy of India in the triangle of tradition, modernity and education.
    Later that night, the host Raghav and me scored 96 out of 100 points for our two-voices interpretation of “Bridge over troubled water“. In the following days, people often wondered about me not wearing any bracelet. I kept shrugging my shoulders: “nahi bahan – no sister”.

    Qutub Minar – und der Weg dahin

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    Das früheste und zugleich seltsamste Zeugnis islamischer Präsenz in Delhi ist die Siegessäule von Qutub Minar: ein 73m hoher Turm rötlichen Sandsteins mit einem Marmoreinsatz im oberen Turmbereich – eine Materialkombination, die 350 Jahre später typisch werden sollte für den Baustil der Mogulnherrscher, die um 1556 das afghanische Sultanat in Delhi ablösten.

    Im sternförmig angelegten Metronetz der Stadt fehlt noch die direkte Ost-West-Verbindung, sodaß ich ab dem Flughafen auf den Bus angewiesen war. Niemand konnte mir allerdings trotz großer Hilfsbereitschaft verbindlich sagen, wo der nun abfuhr. So verließ ich den Flughafen zu Fuß auf der Standspur einer Autobahn; bald schloß sich mir ein freundlicher junger Mann an. Sämtliche Reiseführer warnen vor “zwielichtigen Elementen rund um den Flughafen, die sich die Unwissenheit der Neuankömmlinge zu nutzen machen”, und die genaue Intention seiner etwas aufdringlichen Begleitung wurde mir nicht ganz klar. Tatsächlich sicherte er mir nach einigem Fußmarsch einen Platz in einem unerwartet vorüberfahrenden, gedrängt besetzten Bus, dessen jointrauchender Fahrer großes Gefallen an meiner weißen Mütze fand, und übernahm trotz meines nachdrücklichen Protests den Fahrpreis. Wir gondelten beschwingt dahin und tauschten unter den argwöhnischen Blicken unserer Mitfahrer gestikulierend Angaben über unsere Familien. Als wir nach einigem Umsteigen in ärmlichen Vororten und etwa anderthalbstündiger Fahrt, eingeklemmt zwischen großen Säcken mit allerlei Krimskrams, den Eingang der touristischen Anlage erreichten, brachte er die Sprache auf meine hiesige Anstellung. Ungeniert fragte er nach meinem Gehalt und nahm, auf meine wahrheitsgemäße Auskunft hin, zu meiner Überraschung unvermittelt einen schnellen Abschied.

    Chandni Chawk – the moonlight crossroads

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    The history of Delhi as the capital of India reaches back to mythical ages. Its destiny shaped the changeful fate of the whole country under foreign rule: being conquered by Afghan invaders in 1193, it served as the power base of the Mogul empire until the British took over in 1803. A total of seven Islamic capitals (all names are still known by heart by every Indian scholar) was founded in this strategically important region, melting the various cultural influences over the centuries and lending each district a unique and distinctive character. ‘Old Delhi’, founded as the seventh capital in 1638 by the Mogul emperor Shah Jahan, is known for its narrow, crooked alleys, the Red Fort and the bazaar quarter Chandni Chawk.
    I was lucky enough to discover this labyrinth with my new friends Vikás and Rohan, who took me out already on my very first weekend in India. Some say this is ‘the true India’, but that shortcuts in a too handy manner the variety which makes up this huge country. Sure enough, this place is pure chaos. Cars honking, three wheelers bleeping, Rickshaws ringing, pushcarters shouting. Marketeers sit behind their blankets on the ground, people sleep in the streets, heads on a brick, dogs stroll around, monkeys climb on the open electrical cabling. The smoke from the coal stoves of numberless street food trolleys mixes with the parfums of the bazaar, the odours of colorful spices in huge sacks and the smell of excrements on the sidewalks. “Chandni Chawk”, meaning “moonlight crossroads”, actually ows its name to a water reservoir on the ancient crossroads whose pond reflected the moon at night. But the romantic picture has given way to the bustle of an oriental market pouring out from squeezed little stores onto the streets.
    After a rich lunch with a delicious naan and dal makhani, we, in the middle of the crowd, happened to meet a desperate dhl courier on his motorcycle: “we deliver everywhere”.