Life Between Two Worlds
A City Awakens From Its Slumber

The opposite of a lively city: In Berlin, it’s not particularly difficult to feel lonely at night. © shutterstock

In Berlin, life leaves you alone, particularly at night. Quite the opposite in Delhi. Peace and quiet — and certainly life coming to a standstill — are not commonplace here.

Christopher Kloeble

In Delhi, the world never stands still. At least that’s what I thought for a long time. Every year, my family and I visit the Indian capital, where my wife grew up. The sprawling behemoth of a city is not always easy to like. Noise, smog, garbage, and social injustice are only some of the problems that Delhi grapples with. Nevertheless, I still enjoy visiting the city. Especially because Delhi is so much more alive than in our other home, Berlin. Even in our own neighborhood — bustling Kreuzberg — silence reigns at night, broken only by the occasional shouts of partygoers or the distant drone of the subway. On a Sunday morning, it’s rare to encounter people on the streets. It’s almost as though everyone has fled the city overnight. And in any case, this is the reality: If you don’t go looking for life in Berlin, it leaves you alone. It’s not particularly difficult to feel lonely in the German city.

Not in Delhi. Life doesn’t let up there. It’s so in-your-face. If I don’t leave the apartment, life seeks me out. Starting in the morning, the milkman, the ironing woman, the garbage collector, the housekeeper all ring the doorbell in quick succession. The vegetable vendor shouts about his wares as he makes his way through the neighborhood. The snack vendor and the man selling brooms follow shortly after. Parrots join this morning concert with their penetrating squawks. A muezzin gives the call to prayer. The acoustic diversity is underscored by the hooting horns of the infamous auto rickshaws.

And just as each day begins, it continues to evolve and develop into a never-ending togetherness. I am often visited by somebody I was not expecting and am often not visited by somebody I was expecting. When I go with my daughters to the playground, I soon find myself immersed in conversation with other parents, much less forced than in Germany. As soon as I make my way out of the residential district into the public areas of the city, I find myself in the midst of life’s strong current. A car ride in Delhi is enough to convince you that something is happening at every corner and in every alley. A friend from India once told me there are so many people in his country, that he even sees them when he shuts his eyes. Peace and quiet — and certainly life coming to a standstill — are not commonplace here.

Das Leben lässt nicht locker: Delhi steht selten still. Selbst nachts pulsiert es in den Straßen. Das Leben lässt nicht locker: Delhi steht selten still. Selbst nachts pulsiert es in den Straßen. | © shutterstock
So, I was all the more surprised when I traveled to Delhi last winter with my wife and our children. Because of COVID-19, it was our first visit in two years. We had all missed India greatly, particularly in the dark winter months in Berlin when social interaction was limited. I really can’t advise anybody to visit the German capital in the winter. The lack of light does something to the people of Berlin. They become unpleasant human beings who are grouchy and seldom greet you. In contrast, they are transformed into relaxed — or perhaps I should say relatively relaxed — city dwellers in the summer, fellow citizens one can sit and chat with well into the night. Berlin is a different city in the warm months and a wonderful place for families, the young, and the old. However, when autumn announces its arrival, you should get out as soon as possible. As the leaves start to fall, the relaxed mood also starts to fade. During the pandemic, the situation was even more grim than usual.

We accordingly had high expectations for Delhi. At first, our expectations were met. The number of infections was low. My older daughter could go to a daycare center and to a roller rink in the evening in a nearby sports complex. She made friends and soon had play dates. We visited the railway museum and had a sense of freedom that had become alien to us — to have fun among people.

More of a Life

My wife and I were also able to have more of a life once again. I was suffering from a slipped disc, but as I said, life doesn’t let up in Delhi. A certain Dr. Latif would come to us every morning and give me some relief through acupressure. He enjoyed talking while working so much that I always had a dry throat afterwards. This was also the time when my wife published her new novel. Several bookshops in Delhi invited her to introduce her work, and the publisher organized a book launch at the India International Centre, the first in a long time. Many friends and acquaintances came. Some were cautious. When asked, they said that they hadn’t been to an event in months. It was a splendid evening with loud and soft conversation, considerable laughter, and many proclamations to meet again soon. We all let out a sigh of relief that we would finally be able to shed the fear of the pandemic.

But then, the numbers started to climb. In fact, they skyrocketed. It was worrying to watch the news. The state acted promptly. My daughter’s daycare was closed, as was the sports complex. I could no longer see Dr. Latif. And my wife was forced to cancel all the events that had to do with her novel. A weekend curfew was introduced.

My mind repeatedly returned to the time when I was waiting in the car at a railroad crossing somewhere in Rajasthan. As the train passed, more and more vehicles came to a halt on either of the barrier. At some point, the drivers in the front became impatient and quit waiting on the left side of the road, beginning to drive up the right side until they reached the barrier. Rickshaws, trucks, vans, cars. When the barrier rose, both sides were eager to step on the gas. Only now, everyone was in a tricky situation. Nothing moved — forwards or backwards. It took a long time — a very long time — for the traffic jam to unravel.

Was this what was happening now in India? Had we all been too excited to finally pick up speed again, with the result that nothing was moving at all?

Nothing Was Moving

The city genuinely seemed to stand still. On the weekends, my wife and I would implore our small children not to take the balance bike out the door for a spin. It’s not particularly surprising that children don’t believe in standstill. They suffered the most. When I looked out the window, I didn’t see a soul. I’ve never experienced that in the past eleven years. Nobody rang the doorbell. Even the squawks of the parrots seemed more reserved (this was probably due to the January cold). And despite all the precautionary measures, my family caught the virus. Fortunately, nobody was seriously ill, but we were all confined to bed. We couldn’t have come to more of a standstill.

Only when the temperatures started to rise did the situation start to ease. We could leave the house again. The children were very, very grateful. We adults were as well. This new awakening from hibernation was more hesitant, more cautious. We didn’t trust it at first. I have the feeling that a part of us will not trust it for a long time.

One of our first excursions took us to Lodi Gardens. It was fabulous. I can’t put it any other way. My daughters frolicked in the grass, fed swans, and delighted in every little thing. Adults played badminton, children cricket. Cotton candy was being eaten and sweet tea drunk. Several families were sitting together in the shadows of the old ruins. Bronze sunlight, the kind you only find in India, hung in the air. We were surrounded by so much life. The city was awake again.

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