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Mail from Delhi

By Martin Lamß
(September 2011)

1. Flirting With Bureaucracy

I have arrived in Delhi two days ago. One of the first errands that I need to do here: Put together an Indian birthday package for a friend at home and send it. But I'm afraid of simply getting crushed in the post office. After all, the people there, like in many places in India, are not simply waiting in the queue, but they jostle for the counters like dogs for the feeding bowl. The one with the sharpest elbows is first and wins it. And when your turn finally comes, you're told that you're at the wrong counter. At the next counter the game starts all over again. In the next step, you probably have to fill in thousands of forms that definetely require your father's name in each case. And depending on the post office probably also that of the Son and the Holy Spirit.

I already had an experience of that kind in the mobile phone store today. When buying a SIM card for getting an Indian mobile number. But the father's name was not the problem. They actually wanted a passport photo of me. Actually I already knew about this requirement and had just forgotten to take one with me. But allegedly there was a photographer around the corner, who could make a new photo in less than two minutes. So I started searching my way through a temperature of 38 degrees celsius and the stink and noise of the city. Asking around I came across the owner of an internet cafe who even gave me two addresses of two photo shops. The first one turned out to be a greengrocer in reality, and the second one was still closed for another three hours for lunch break. I gave up and went to another mobile service provider.

There, the very beautiful and very friendly assistant at first wanted a passport photo, too, but was ultimately satisfied with a copy of my passport. The first real problem occured when I gave her my address in Delhi: The mobile fairy asked me to call the friends with whom I lived, to confirm that I was really staying there. But how was I supposed to make calls without a working phone? Besides my friends were in Laos than, and I could not reach them there anyway. Then she asked me to show a business card with the address. I didn't have one. After another ten minutes of lamentation it finally turned out that I had just mispronounced the address and the assistant simply hadn't understood. Or maybe she had just had enough of the discussion. I gave her the address again, and everything was fine.

A few misunderstandings later, she started, well, flirting with me? It would be naive to believe that, because it would have been unseemly to Indian customs. Anyway, with a little embarrassment but clearly amused she asked how my home address, the "Gutsmuthsstraße", was to be pronounced, and whether it was so hot in Germany as well, and how long it would take to fly down there. And as a farewell she took my picture with her cell phone. Supposedly for my file. Sure, the copy of my passport couldn't have been enough! Probably she just wanted to show off in front of her friends by pretending she knew a Westerner. That's what many people do over here: filming Westerners or taking photos of them. When asked why they do that, they give the simple answer: "Because you are a stranger."

Anyway, I'll have to go back to the beautiful, friendly woman from the mobile phone shop at least one more time: In India - at least with my provider - you can't just buy one prepaid credit card for all services. No, you have to buy one for domestic calls, a second one for international calls and a third for SMS - and I definetely need SMS! My goodness, no wonder that corruption flourishes here! Such a bureaucracy is really forcing you to give a little something extra. In this case perhaps an invitation to dinner?

2. Qawwali Culture Shock

Oh man, India really got me now! I just came back from Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah. The shrine is the tomb of a famous Muslim saint. A suburb of New Delhi is named after him. Some say Qawwali was invented there, the sacred music of Islamic mystics of South Asia. You can hear them sing there every night.

But the short walk from the road to the shrine turns out to be actually quite long. You have to fight your way from the broad highway through a muddy lane.

Beggars with and without crutches, with and without leprosy are running, limping, crawling towards me. The alley is getting more and more narrow - not only from the right and left, but from above as well. For the alley is covered about a hundred meters away from the shrine, and the roof seems to lower itself more and more. As kind of a compensation everything shimmers colourful in there. The vendors sell everything that the pilgrim might need: devotional pictures (with and without flashing lights), DVDs, dead and half dead chickens as well as food that does not have to be slaughtered before you can eat it. For example, freshly fried dumplings of all kinds, saturating the alley with their strong smells. The dealers knew that I wanted nothing of all that, but that I had to do one thing: namely, take off my shoes to be allowed to enter the sanctuary. And so they all encouraged me loudly: I should not hesitate to park my beautiful slippers at their shop for a small fee. I did not know it at this point yet, but I already guessed: Between me and the shrine were still 50 meters full of leftover food, sewage puddles and fresh saliva with chewing tobacco. I wish I could have flown over it. I would never pull off my shoes before having passed that danger zone! But eventually I had to do it...

And that was at Selim's tea stall. You come to his house if you take a wrong turn just before the main entrance to the shrine. A wrong turn to the right. I can only advise everyone to take that wrong turn. Because of the relative peace and purity that you find at Selim's tea stall. Besides it is located next to a sparsely visited side entrance. And if you happen to get in there, you stand right at the Sufi grave in Taj-Mahal-style. The mystic musicians sit in a square on the white marble floor in front of it . A lead singer and two instrumentalists with harmonium and dholak, a barrel drum. The lead singer declares his love in erotic verses. But not love to a woman - to Allah! The twenty men seated around him to do the same, responding to the lead singer with the same words and clapping rhythm with their hands. This all sounds really danceable!

But dancing would probably have been inappropriate. Moreover, it was definitely too hot and too humid. Thanks be to Allah, there still is an original Pankhawalla at Nizamuddin shrine. This is a white-bearded man in a green dress, whose job it is to wag a fan. The thing is more similar to a flag on a pole, though. And it swishes so narrowly above the heads of the visitors that you must watch out not to get hit by it. I think I was pretty much the only westerner in the place and therefore got many friendly, sympathetic stares. But well, I've been staring too. Particularly fascinating were the people with the white gowns, caps and long beards who looked as if they had come directly from medieval Mecca. Just until they unpacked their smartphones. After twenty minutes I could not endure the heat and the flies any more, unfortunately, in spite of the humble efforts of the Pankhawalla. So I got back to Selim's chai shop.

He asked me to sit down with him for a while. Then he introduced me to his little old mom and his four year old son. The boy repeated a poem for me in English and Hindi with his miffed children's voice. That was really super cute. Especially because his face totally corresponded to the baby scheme with its big brown saucer eyes. However, I think they had trained the kid a bit for tourists. Then there were the usual questions of the Indian to the foreigner: name, where you're from, what are you doing here, and so on. "Ah journalist! Then write in your newspaper at home that the narrow access to the shrine has to be extended. After all, it's the most famous of the world. And then this whole mess! That's not good at all!" Well, now I have written it. And thanks Selim for seeing your neighborhood with similar eyes as I did. I had in fact been a bit scared that I looked at Nizamuddin with the arrogance of a culture-shocked westerner.

* Martin Lamß studies journalism in Leipzig. He spent the summer of 2011 in Delhi to do research for his dissertation on German foreign correspondents and sent us occasional travel impressions.