On Tour with... ... Saskya Jain through Delhi

Saskya in Kaka Nagar
Saskya in Kaka Nagar | Photo: © Sarang Sena

The Indian literary scene welcomes a new-comer: the German-Indian Saskya Jain. Admired by colleagues and critics alike, her debut novel ‘Fire Under Ash’ is set in Delhi. A walk with the author through an underwritten city.

Two hearts beat at once in Saskya Jain´s bosom: As daughter of a German mother and an Indian father she unites two nationalities, two cultures and three languages – she speaks fluent English, German and Hindi. Homeland? Difficult to say. She was born in India, studied in Germany, and a couple of semesters in USA too. Her husband is German but her book is published in English.

Saskya at home in Kaka Nagar Saskya at home in Kaka Nagar | Photo: © Sarang Sena It is precisely this area of tension that Saskya inhabited since her earliest childhood, that shapes and inspires her, as her choice of the meeting place for us makes clear. As a starting point for our excursion through the city, she suggests Kaka Nagar, a posh residential neighbourhood in Central Delhi for high-ranking civil servants. Separated from the main road by an ugly, two-meter high stone wall. ‘‘That was earlier not there’’, explains Jain. Neither was the bamboo-fence, which now protected the individuals in the grey housing block from curious glances. ‘‘At that time everything was open here. We could go about anywhere, knew every nook and cranny, every shortcut.’’ Today one has to look for a hole in the green fence to get a glimpse of the parental house of Saskya Jain.

Faster, faster!

The famous shop The famous shop | Photo: © Sarang Sena It’s still there. Also the driving school ‘‘G7-Star-Motor’’ has survived the years. Often she meets her friends here. She has vivid memories of the driving school because back then their time was calculated according to the mileage, not the number of driving hours. ‘‘They would say all the time ‘Faster, faster, drive faster’…’’. The market and the small shop ‘Safal Pure Veg’ next door are the setting for a scene in Jain’s second novel on which she is currently working. ‘‘The entire colony plays an important role in the book. It’s about a Badminton tournament. I can’t reveal more.’’

Guarding the Colony

She was five when she moved with her parents and brother to Kaka Nagar, 18 when she left the colony for Germany. In between lay years of a well-protected middle class childhood in a well-guarded neighbourhood for the bureaucrats. The crazy thing is that her father was no bureaucrat. As an art historian and the director of the Craft Museum he got an apartment on the ground floor of Block D-II, right next to the Sports Club of the quarter. And unlike the neighbours who had to leave the house in cycles of 3-5 years, his family was allowed to stay on indefinitely: One of the many privileges that Saskya enjoyed in her life. But it was not always an advantage to the girl who will remain somewhat different.

Between the Worlds

For example during her schooldays: Having a German mother, she was allowed to go to the elite German school. Surrounded by children of diplomats, Saskya would notice how different their respective worlds were. And it was not only to do with her being Indian. She was at a loss to understand the superficiality of the classmates, their showing-off and their inability or lack of desire to mingle with the exotic world around them. She seldom invited friends to her house. And she became a good student. ‘‘I wanted to show it to them.’’
The older she grew, the more she grappled with her cultural identity and her socialization. ‘‘One is never completely this or completely that’’, she remarks. ‘‘Somehow one always takes on an outsider’s perspective. Perhaps, that’s the reason we become writers’’, she muses. And why is Delhi the focal point in both her novels? ‘‘My roots are in Delhi. I grew up here. I am proud of it. In that sense I can safely say, that’s where I belong’’, she declares without hesitating. And because she’s not a person who looks back poignantly, for whom nostalgia is not only dealing with the past but also with the future of her land, both her novels describe the current condition of the capital of India.

‘‘My little Saskya‘‘

In the Crafts Museum In the Crafts Museum | Photo: © Sarang Sena A little poignancy, however, inevitably comes in as we reach our next destination: the Crafts Museum. Whether it is because Saskya Jain regularly spent the weekends here during her early years, or because the museum that her father had built so meticulously had lost some its former shine, we can only guess.

Hearty meeting Hearty meeting | Photo: © Sarang Sena Possibly it is because of the museum staff that suddenly appears from nowhere. They are visibly pleased to meet Saskya and hold her in their arms. ‘‘I see you still in your Papa’s arms, your knees wrapped tightly around him, with your favorite doll in your hands’’, says Renu Mathur emotionally. The former secretary of Saskya’s father has tears in her eyes. ‘‘And now a young, successful woman stands in front of me. I am so proud of her. I’ll certainly go to her book-reading’’, she promises.

Hearty hug Hearty hug | Photo: © Sarang Sena This museum is a heaven for craft-lovers. Their collection is amazing and the area where the artists demonstrate their skills live is certainly worth seeing. One can enjoy a good couple of hours here in a relaxed atmosphere. With a shop and a nice café and not at all over-crowded, the museum is ideal for kids. No wonder that Saskya Jain is so attached to this place!

Looking forward to the German translation

Yummy Yummy | Photo: © Sarang Sena Having ordered vegetarian Thali at Andhra Bhavan, Saskya explains why she has written her book ‘Fire Under Ash’ in English and not in German: ‘‘German is simply not my literary home. I feel closer to the English, at least as far as the language is concerned.’’ And the translation in German? ‘‘No way am I going to do it. It was difficult enough to write the book once.’’ She took five years to write the book. But she hopes that there will be a publishing house which will translate her novel. There are enough literary translators with an Indian connection. ‘‘I am excited to see what comes out. Especially the title in German.’’

Andhra Pradesh Bhawan Andhra Pradesh Bhawan | Photo: © Sarang Sena The Andhra Bhavan canteen is, for her, a place not to be missed at any cost if you are visiting Delhi. These Bhavans are comparable to the German ‘Landesvertretungen’ which represent various states. The canteens in these Bhavans present the regional cuisine of the respective states – authentic, reasonably priced and delicious.

Picnic and Birthday at the Lodi Gardens

Saskya im Lodi Garden Saskya im Lodi Garden | Photo: © Sarang Sena A welcome change for the senses is offered by the Lodi Gardens. The vast park area is one of Saskya’s favorite places in Delhi. Thus, we go there for a leisurely afternoon walk. Embedded in a high-end residential quarter, the gardens are a peaceful haven away from the chaos of the city. Saskya likes to spend time here to relax, on children’s birthdays and family picnics or simply to unwind.

The 31-year old writer spends six months each year in Delhi and the other six in Berlin. And all this while there are enough book readings, book fairs, literary festivals, appointments with agents and publishers to exhaust her. For this reason she has to manage time well and has fixed three to four hours in the morning as the time to write. She is convinced that without discipline and a strong will the greatest talent is futile. She is supported by her husband Christopher Kloeble who is himself a writer. ‘‘That’s like having my editor right at home. Very convenient’’, laughs Saskya Jain. ‘‘Naturally there are also many challenges when two writers live together.’’ For one thing there’s the competition, and then having to deal with frustration. It takes maximum understanding of the other’s moods to make it work. ‘‘An author’s life is often full of rejections and disappointments.’’

Safely underground

On tour with Saskya in the metro On tour with Saskya in the metro | Photo: © Sarang Sena From the green lungs we take a metro on the yellow line, headed south. And not just as a means of transport. Saskya selects it as one of her special places in Delhi. ‘‘The metro is a recurring metaphor in my novel which stands for path-breaking changes, change of perspective and democratization.’’ What she means is that in a metropolitan city with 20 million people, where traffic is a great nuisance, metro has brought relief. ‘‘It is modern, clean, fast, safe and extremely punctual’’, says Jain, proudly displaying her Metro card at the counter. For women and Delhiites without cars especially, Delhi Metro is a blessing.

In the metro In the metro | Photo: © Sarang Sena ‘‘Metro is a great equalizer: everyone from a banker to a cleaning woman uses it.’’ Also one of the protagonists in her novel experiences a change of perspective in the metro. This functions in one direction as well as in the other: When he drives on one of the main roads towards Gurgaon, Ashwin sees, for example, a row of boutiques and shops whereas the view out of the metro only shows rusty roofs. But shortly after, he is able to see the luxurious farmhouse of his parents from above. What was hidden from people on the street is now revealed by the metro.

The first two coaches of each metro are reserved for women. They are pretty strict about the rule – we have to travel with our photographer in the third coach. Five Metro lines intersected by the sixth one connect the entire NCR (National Capital Region), which includes the prosperous suburbs Gurgaon and Noida. Moreover, further work to extend the network is under progress.

The Tea Cult and Masala Maggi at the Campus

Ganga Dhaba Ganga Dhaba | Photo: © Sarang Sena Also our last stop is an example for Saskya’s original perspective. Our walk through Delhi ends at the campus of Jawaharlal Nehru University, popularly known as JNU. The state-funded university located in South Delhi is one of the most prestigious ones in India and a microcosm in itself. Replete with hostels, markets, an amphitheater as well as many ‘Chai-Wallahs’ (the typical tea-sellers) and ‘Maggi-Wallahs’ (Indians love the ready-to-eat Maggi noodles so much that they have special shops and kiosks for it). We want to have tea at the Ganga Dhaba, one of Delhi’s legendary tea restaurants, which attracts not only students, but also alumni and outsiders. Only the initiated know what is so special about this dusty, windy ramshackle revamped with a patch of stony blocks. It must have something to do with the intellectually charged atmosphere of the philosophical debates and discussions. The secret eludes me too. The ‘dhaba’ is closed for lunch until 4 pm.

On JNU-Campus On JNU-Campus | Photo: © Sarang Sena