At the shores of Ganga

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A fresh wind blew from the hardly recognizable mountains when I was half-way above the Ganga. Reaching Rishikesh by midnight, the last cab driver had dropped me at the steep stairs to the Lakshman Jhula suspension bridge. On the other side, I found myself meandering through small streets on the desperate search for the booked hostel. The next morning proved that the village was home to even more tourists than cows: countless road stalls sold yoga mats to foreigners in wildly coloured buggy pants, large loudspeakers treated the pilgrims on the ghats with meditative music. Wise white-haired men sitting on little tables in the water performed prayers and pilgrims took dips in the holy water of the goddess, thus washing away the sins of their past. Since I was not completely sure about its immaculacy, I limited myself to a little refreshment and went for a cup in a nearby restaurant instead. Only after I found out that I had drunk holy tea: when I saw them washing the dishes a bit further downstream.
Roaming around in the village, I met Marisol, a yoga student and world traveller from Chile, and Björn, in Germany a yoga teacher, who was following a strict fruit diet imposed by his Ayurveda Guru. A somewhat strange ascetic, he was serving his guru already for several years as guinea pig for the test of new Ayurveda practices, involving applications of ghee into his eyes and vomiting in front of some larger conference audiences, as he phlegmatically explained.
One early morning, at the ghats, I was approached by Anil, a young mendicant, asking me to buy a costly ghee for his prayers. A longer conversation along the lines “why don’t you work? why do you expect society to pay for your personal faith?” – “finding work is not easy” – “life is not easy. life is a struggle” left both of us a bit perplexed, obviously living in very different worlds.
The bus ride back to Delhi, passing the crowded pilgrim city Haridwar, became a rather rough experience: sitting on the driver’s lap for about eleven hours for these hardly 220km since someone had cut a tree blocking the main road for several hours. One specific picture was stuck in my mind though: on the way to the bus stop, I had walked through the poor areas in the outskirts of Rishikesh. There were children playing in front of their tent housings, and they had kites high above in the sky.

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.”

The Volkswagen Scam

Next morning in office, back to “normal Delhi life”, my colleagues greeted me with a Faustian smile and the latest news: “the Volkswagen Scam”. Volkswagen had a special software built into the diesel engines of 11 million vehicles to pass the US emission tests. Under normal conditions these emission controllers were switched off for enhanced performance, exceeding then by forty times the emission of nitrogen oxide pollutants permitted by law. My little scam stories from Jaipur faded away in view of this outrageous and shameless fraud.
I don’t know about the reception in the german media, but by the time of this blog (20/10-15) the repercussion has presumably already dwindled. Here are some background facts why we should be seriously concerned:

  • The car industry is by far the most important and largest industry sector in Germany, in terms of revenues (about 400 bn€/yr.) as well as in terms of employees (about 1 million), making up for more than half of Germany’s export surplus and more than 40% of expenditures in german R&D.
  • Volkswagen, with 10 million cars produced and a revenue of 202bn€ in 2014, is the largest car manufacturer globally.
  • Interest links between industry and politics are strong: since years, to the increasing irritation of the public, chancellor Merkel is stalling the European legislation for more restrictive emission standards in private transport “to prevent damage to the high-end segment of german limousines” while greenwashing the sector with a few costly electric vehicles and “the German Energiewende”. We highlighted this already in an open letter to Dirk Niebel – Mr. Niebel expectedly never answered, but rather shifted from development aid to work as lobbyist for arms shortly after.
  • The revealed fraud is a scandal, proving the cynic recklessness of some business over social and environmental norms. I hope that those responsible will be brought to civil justice.
  • Jaipur

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    Early morning train from Kota to Jaipur. People sleep in simple berths, while sellers pass the narrow corridors calling out tea, coffee, ice cream and snacks. Reaching Jaipur rather tired, I find myself immediately surrounded with “local guides” offering to show me around. It was this continuous obtrusiveness of dubious people which gave me a rough ride for the next two days and which made my strolling around a somewhat tiring experience this time. Despite all defense, I ended up in so many shops of some “cousins” or “uncles”, trying first politely and then more and more desperately to sell me jewelry, cloths, scarfs, dresses, tailor-made suits, handicrafts, souvenirs.
    One of the train station guys kept following me, he spoke a quite good English and even some Spanish and had a somehow wild savvy which made me trust him. In those two days together we developed a mild sense of friendship for each other. I tried to explain him some Hindi writing and to convince him to abandon the huffing of the glue-soaked rag he carried with him (with both I presumably failed), and Daya took me into little courtyards, Hindu temples, a Hindu service and narrow streets and hidden corners of the old town hardly ever seen by a tourist’s eye.
    Just before leaving, on the very way to the main bus station, I -“eyes wide shut”- fell victim to a little scam of two Orientals, seating me overpricedly in a random local vehicle. After a few hours, I was still not sure to be in the right bus and desperately tried to decipher the road signs. Suddenly, in the middle of the highway, the driver stopped and turned, causing a considerable jam behind. For about ten minutes -people screaming, arguing and praying- he directly steered against the traffic to the next exit where we continued the travel on flooded mud roads through spooky little villages. At midnight we finally saw the first lights of Delhi.

    Live recording of the worshipping in a Hindu temple in Jaipur:

    Trip to Kota

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    Business trip to Kota, my first time out of Delhi and my first train ride in India. No people on the roof, but I spent hours on the open doors: Impressions from another planet. Other passengers, fascinated by my camera, insist on pictures and comment on my regrets over missed photo moments: “fast-fast”.
    After a night in the comfortable guesthouse of the client company and a day of friendly meetings, my colleagues dropped me at the pre-booked hotel near the train station and left. But the clerk at the reception refused to let me in: “too much hassle registering foreigners”. As soon as I left, the gentle rain turned into a waterfall. A moment later electricity was cut, the chaos of the streets lay in complete darkness. Sprint to the next hostel in some small street, very simple for 300 rupees (=4€), toilet just a hole in the ground, bed used before.
    A considerable amount of mosquitos flew in through the defective net at the window’s place. Different to the European mosquitos, they come in total silence, they never rest on the walls when you desperately switch on the light and they don’t have any respect at all for German repellents. It was definitely becoming a hard night.
    Lying on my trousers I was already dozing off, when someone knocked on the door – half naked I opened: police! They simply could not believe that a respectable westerner checked in into this kind of hostel. My ancient greeting phrase “aie, aie, tashrif laie” (“come in, come in, bring honor”) then swept them off their feet. Deeply embarrassed, they asked for proof of identity. I showed them my business card. Later, I went down to the reception to ask if everything’s alright: police still there, completely stunned, invitation for tea, friendly conversation about life in Kota and life in general, selfies in various combinations.

    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…

    Indian_Rupee_symbol

    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.

    Janamashtami


    “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