Origin Roots squared

Delhi traffic
Delhi traffic | Photo: Sarang Sena

Now a person from Upper Bavaria can become not only an Indian but even a Person of Indian Origin – it’s all a question of filling in a form. Our author Christopher Kloeble seized the opportunity

I am now allowed to call myself a Person of Indian Origin. Even though I was born in Munich and grew up in a village in Upper Bavaria. This new status permits me to travel to India where I can spend a few months without having to apply for a visa each time. In India, where acronyms and malapropisms are even more popular than in the US, one speaks of a PIO (Person of Indian Origin). This is what I became after I married a woman from Delhi, lived with her for a year, before finally confronting the bureaucratic nightmare of Indo-German officialdom. Previously, only persons of Indian origin were actually awarded PIO status. But that has now been replaced by the Overseas Citizenship, which explains the not very accurate title (unless the Indian authorities know more about my family tree than I do).

Well, what does it mean for me to be a German person of Indian origin? This reminds me of the question I am invariably asked at regular intervals in Germany: So what’s it like to live in India? I’m never sure what my response should be. There are so many answers to this one small question.

The first thing that comes to mind is the language. This may be an occupational disease. There is probably not a single person in the whole of India who cannot communicate in at least two languages. Yet despite the Indo-German roots, Hindi does not come easily to me. To my ears, ‘d’ and ‘dh’ and ‘th’ and ‘t’ always sound only like ‘t’. So far I have only been successful in learning words that have something to do with food. I’m an expert in reading menus.
And anyway: the food! Perhaps the most important subject of conversation in South Asia – besides digestion. I have yet to attend an event or a social get together, regardless of size, where not even a small selection of freshly prepared snacks and drinks has been served. An invitation without food is unknown. No wonder the pot belly is a prominent physiognomic feature among men here. The first quarrel with my wife after marriage was about whether the food in Europe was more diverse than the food in India. In Germany, I am often advised to exercise extreme caution when choosing dishes on the subcontinent if I want to avoid stomach aches and diarrhoea, also called ‘Delhi belly’ here. In India, on the other hand, I find there are many people who fear the after-effects of a German meal: constipation.

Such people are also known to exist on the streets of Delhi. When my wife and I take an auto-rickshaw, I remain in the background allowing her to negotiate the fare without the driver pushing up his price because he must assume that I am a tourist. The monstrous dimensions that a traffic jam can acquire in this city is something we are reminded of in every second report on India in the western media. When we are stuck in one, I play a game that comes from having time on your hands: nowhere else in Delhi can you observe all the social classes the way you can on its streets. A traffic jam is fair and just – it metes out equal treatment to all.

The overarching rule

Ferraris move at the same tempo as the mules pulling carts loaded with debris. Hardly anybody pays attention to traffic rules. But to describe this as chaos would be wrong. The stream of vehicles moves organically. Whenever I come back to Berlin after a long stay in India, I am initially struck by how unnatural it seems to see each and every driver adhering to the rules.

In India, this would not bring you very far, in the truest sense of the word. Here you must adapt – that is the overarching rule. As advertising liquor is illegal in India, whisky brands create frivolous sounding commercials for the cinema and for television, which advertise water that carries the same name. Or: if there is a space crunch on the Metro, you can also sit on your neighbour’s lap. Or: the plastic sachets used for gutka (a tobacco mixture chewed as a stimulant) are used by creative farmers to weave amazingly solid seats.

Even though most people are happy to adapt, they also engage in loud and intensive discussions, whether around the man who irons clothes in the neighbourhood, in the living rooms of the steadily growing middle class, or in the NDTV (New Delhi Television) evening programme where the screen is divided into umpteen sections and politicians and journalists from all parts of the country argue wildly with each other. It is not so much the content of the debates conducted here as the form that reminds me of Germany more than anything else: everybody has an opinion on everything. You can best experience this live at a panel discussion during one of the literature festivals that have become extremely popular in the last few years.

Despite their name, these festivals are often highly political in nature. Most of the events encourage an intellectual exchange. The caste system; Modi’s government; the position of the woman; new media; the relationship with Pakistan and China; state censorship – no subject remains untouched. Apparently there are now more than 60 different ‘litfests’ in India – in every nook and corner of the country. Free entry. Thousands of visitors. A guest list that reads like the who’s who of the international literature and intellectual scene. In brief: a paradise for authors. Nobody is talking about the death of books. On the contrary, readership is growing rapidly, print runs are increasing and one foreign publisher after the other is setting up a branch in Delhi. This is the start of a story that has by no means reached its end.

The same applies to my answer to the question of what it means to me to be a German of Indian origin. A comprehensive answer seems impossible. But perhaps that’s not what it’s about at all. Perhaps it is only about discovering a little more with each new day in Delhi to help understand what this answer could be.