Impressions from Delhi

This is a older post, written while I was in Delhi last year. I hope it captures the immediacy of the city a bit better than my historical musings and I also hope to have more time to write actual new material soon. Nonetheless: enjoy, immaterial readers.
  When looked at through the lens of history, Delhi proves to be one of the most fascinating places you could hope for. A city of ruins where you can find something unexpected that will propel you back sixty, two hundred or several thousand years at street corners. But it is also a place that devours the present, digesting it into history, at a monstrous, tropical pace. Only seventy years ago what is now Old Delhi, the Walled City, the location of the Lal Qila, the Red Fort that still draws thousands of visitors, was a place of havelis, large and pleasant villa-style homes with verandahs and courtyards, fountains and peacocks. The ruined tombs of Mughal emperors in the Lodi Gardens sketch out sumptuous courtly dreams of pearls, soft silks and palaces. The gigantic imperialistic government buildings of the Raj era, the British colonial times, are still in use – a deeply impressive fusion of Asian and European styles of architecture, softly differing shades of red marble, large enough to dwarf and awe any crowd – but keeping the tombs and vanished palaces in mind one cannot help but wonder how long it takes for weeds and cracks and shantytowns to appear on the open fields around Rajpath.Delhi of today is, as it must have been during almost any time of its existence, an uneasy mixture. Beyond the historical awe, day to day living in this city can be an unbearable grind. The press of people, the never-ending crowds often makes me wish for a bit of empty space. In Majnu ka Tilla, a small Tibetan colony at the outskirts of Delhi where I stay in a decent hotel room, this wish is partly fulfilled. Whenever the crowds and the dust and the endlessness of Delhi becomes too much to bear, I can sit on a small balcony and watch the banks of the Yamuna river. A few hundred meters behind me is a dusty highway and a district of small, crowded huts, but in front of me are green riverbanks. There are about twelve small huts along both riverbanks and I can watch families of farmers dividing the banks into neat rows, growing vegetables. It is a calming scene, especially when one is convinced that India is nothing else but an endless city and a ceaseless stream of people. But the idyll is short lived – when the Monsoon comes in three months the Yamuna will rise and swallow the huts and the vegetable patches. The farmers will move away, perhaps huddling together on the streets, to wait for the rains to pass.
  I was visiting Nizamuddin, a small Muslim village within the city of Delhi. I wanted to see the famous Sufi shrine that is at the center of it. Earlier that day I had met Gonzalo, a young Brazilian who had been touring Europe and North Africa before coming to India just the day before, and we had hired a rikshaw together to safe some money (since we had come across a savy Sikh driver it took a lot of haggling and I still felt it turned out too expensive and wasn’t too pleasurable at all). In the beginning the streets were oppressive but manageable. A steady stream of people and cars, motorcycles and obstacles, much as I am used to by now. Then the streets became narrow and started turning and twisting. A walk through any part of an Indian town can yield disconcerting, surreal or plainly funny scenes that vanish as fast as they appear – this time it was a door frame painted with advertisements for a travel office, bus tickets etc. Looking through the door all I saw were light brown meat carcasses. An abattoir. A strange sight, since I hadn’t seen any Hindu meat vendors before, but of course those were Muslims and the business of slaughtering animals (pigs excepted) has always lain in the hand of Muslims. Further into the labyrinth of Nizamuddin, there was an opening to what vaguely reminded me of a Moroccan soukh, a roofed alleyway filled with stalls. We tried entering it but soon the crowds, the endless stream of people, the incessant voices, many calling to us to buy something or offering to store our shoes, holding bright pink flowers into our faces, to buy them as offerings, became a scene of nightmarish claustrophobia. It felt as if it was impossible to escape from this village. That the passage would close behind us or that maybe the people would become more and more until it would be impossible to move on. People lose character and individuality in such a scene – it becomes impossible to process all the information one receives. I felt that without a local guide, who could help us make sense of what we saw there, we would be hopelessly lost. I suppose it is a bit like an attack of agoraphobia (which, literally, means a fear of cities), but at some moments the crowds drive me right to the edge of it.

Mr. Singh, our agreeable but slightly greedy driver, also took us to Gandhi Smriti, the house where Mohandas Gandhi had lived. It is now a museum erected to his memory and I found it to be disconcertingly sycophantic. There were a few interesting photographs by Cartier-Bresson and others taken from various newspapers, but the essential information about Gandhi’s life was simplified and repeated until I felt it had no impact at all and served only to reduce the memory of the man who, apparently, stood for great simplicity. His belongings (glasses, a spoon, a pocket watch – although I strongly suspect that Gandhi’s real pocket watch did not have a fake dial dramatically stopped at the moment of his death like the one enshrined) were enshrined in a glass case, endless rows of charts described the same things over and over again and Gandhi’s rooms at the time of his death were re-organized “just in the state that they had been in” (apparently Gandhi liked stagey sterility a great deal). A tangential multimedia exhibition on the first floor provided sensual overload. Unsurprisingly, it is a place of worship more than a historical museum – as the faultless Mahatma, Gandhi has ascended into the thronged Indian pantheon and all traces of his real persona are absent, lost in the eager and decorative arrangement of his life and acts. The visitors were a few Westerners scattered mostly amidst groups from rural Gujarat (Gandhi’s birthplace is in Gujarat) and Rajasthan and the staff was mostly listless, rattling of memorized speeches that left me as bored and glassy-eyed as they must feel giving them all day.

The Lodi Gardens, on the other hand, are pleasant. The location of three sandstone tombs from the sixteenth century, filled with Indians who are out to relax a bit or to sleep and rest in the shadows of the old tombs.

Image Selection XI – From the Himalayas

A bone-white sheet of cloud draws slow dreams across the darkening sky.

A hole in the clouds is relief, even though at times one feels as if the eye was staring straight into the darkness of space.

Like settlers on a distant star…

Snowfall means the world is gone. The clouds are threatening. One might wander into them and never return.

Copyright by Sebastian Buchner.

Poverty and Pressure – a brief look at an Indian woe

When I talk about travels in India I am often being asked how I deal with the poverty in the country (and I do feel tempted to quote Sir Mark Tully and say quite bluntly “I don’t have do, but they do”, because to assume that poverty is the problem or nuisance of the onlooker is, frankly, ridiculous and callous) – this is an attempt to give an answer, unsatisfying as it may be. This focuses on a segment of society that is ignored in the debate about India’s newfound prosperity – which is, however, just as true and consequential as this.

One undeniable aspect of India is the abject poverty that is on display. People sleep in tiny, makeshift huts on the street, cab drivers often have no roof over their heads and sleep in their cars, scores of beggars, little girls with ragged hair and women whose bones seem to rattle underneath their bright saris, men whose limbs were broken and twisted at birth to force them to make their living from the pity of others, stretch out their hands, pluck at shirts, wail and demand. The challenge is not to deal with this poverty as if it were some obstacle that the individual has to overcome by hardening oneself and losing all sense of empathy, but to see it and to realize that a majority of people live in poverty and under an immense pressure, if not to get food for the day then to pay back loans or to fulfill their perceived role in society. Pressure, not poverty, is the defining aspect of Indian day-to-day society. One can face that fact in several ways, the most common of which is a brief feeling of guilt and a rationalization that someone is to blame (caste system, government, etc.). Another way is to reflect for a second and then come to the conclusion that we (the privileged Europeans) are well off after all and do our petty problems really mean as much as we believe they do? Both ways are grossly superficial and are little more than looking away. We are afraid of tarnishing ourselves by looking at misery for too long. We are used to have everything pass us by, nothing sticks and if it does no thorn is too deep not to be loosened by lengthy complaining.

The fact is there is no one to blame, no one to complain to. One can analyze the situation and come to the conclusion that corruption is to blame or that there really shouldn’t be any social differences, but as soon as one looks at individual situations everything becomes muddled and human. The beggar girl has lost her family and fell in with people who treat her as nothing but a way to make money, but she is resigned to it and believes that this is the way life works because it is a way for her to retain dignity; the man with the broken limbs was the seventh kid of a piss-poor family and they thought to break his limbs would mean a safer future for him than to work fields that bear too little for four people; the cab driver who overcharges you has a family to feed, debt on his car and no hope to ever escape from his creditors. Almost everyone around you is under enormous pressure.

Those are aspects of existence that are very hard to look at for longer, no doubt, but this is what one has to do if one wants to understand properly. A poor man and a poor woman are nothing to be scared of. Refusing to accept them or to look at them directly is a terrible thing. Neither my guilt nor my sympathy do them any good.

To accept that also means to look at yourself in a different way. Most of the things you think you can’t live without are luxuries. You can live without every single one of them. That is not meant to be a wisdom, it’s simply a fact. As money becomes increasingly unbalanced in this world one may want to reconsider values – the printed paper isn’t the only thing that makes a life worth living, especially not for those who have enough to feed themselves and keep the roof over their heads without holes.

Where Westerners react with guilt or fear, well-off Indians, especially people who know the comforts of the West, react with indignation and sarcasm. Emotions are not hedged, like we Westerners prefer to do. Rigid structures make social maneuvers more easily calculable. This is without doubt a world that makes you harder, harsher and less sentimental. After spending time in India and experiencing poverty and instances of social cruelty first hand, I cannot be sentimental about it. It often strikes me, like a blow or a dagger, because it is real and impossible to ignore. But I hope that instead of sentimental it has made me more human.

When I travel the country in search of images to photograph and stories to tell, I pick out those that are uplifting and insightful, but there are just as many stories that are cruel and hopeless. It’s a challenge to find a mental balance between those two sides of nature and humanity. But ultimately one must resign oneself to this. It does good, in the words of the Dhammapada, to strive to do good and to avoid evil. But no person can avoid suffering, and sometimes all we can do is to keep our own peace while we’re suffering or witnessing others in pain. For someone growing up in a social system protected by egoistic complaints, bureaucratic immovability and an underlying and slow socialist materialism the Buddhist words may seem either seductive or callous, but faced with daily physical and spiritual suffering, they become a way of life rather than ultimately empty words.

There are many things I could suggest to improve the situation of poverty, especially caused by starvation and the lack of resources, and there are many people who work hard to improve the situation. There is no question that – in theory – it is possible to feed and clothe every single human being on this planet (and it is not just possible, but deeply necessary)…the practice is another matter and as long as we remain short-sighted and self-centered in our goals nothing will change.

Travel books for people who miss the road

Travel companions for people who miss the road – nutcases, artists, poets, soldiers…the voice at your side shapes the world around you, whether it’s in a book or in real life. This is a selection of books to be read when the travel bug bites hard and you can’t follow the itch but only, feebly, scratch it.

Colin Thubron – pretty much anything from the somber and poetic Englishman, offspring of a Poet Laureate. Thubron travels to the timeworn city of Damascus, through the forbidding snow-wastes of Siberia or follows the Silk Route from China into Russia. His voice is the voice of the solitary traveler, the person who becomes his surroundings and transforms them with clear melancholy. The people he meets speak clearly of loss and joy, frozen in time, ephemeral…beautiful. The closest he came to India was a journey to Mount Kailash, and it is hard to imagine his perception in the maelstrom of quotidian India, but one can imagine him crossing the Himalayas and the Hindukush or walking through the jungle valleys and hillsides of tea of Sikkim.

Tahir Shah – son of Idries Shah, the late Sufi grandmaster who lived in Britain, Tahir has inherited the flavor of language from his father. His writings mix observations and fantasies, deliberately blurring the line. I like the idea of not knowing at what point the writer decides to walk into his own head, although purists of “realistic” or observational travel writing might disapprove (although of what is not so clear to me, unless it is their own inability to separate fact from fiction). The descriptions of India and how it appears to a bemused outsider (one can find them in Sorcerer’s Apprentice) are recognizable and hilarious. His books mystify those who have no sense of the mystical and lie to those who cannot separate truth from fiction, a perfectly regular Sufi behavior, I’d say. He goes to India to become a sorcerer or rather his apprentice, so that should give you a hint to the level of humour, detachment and fantasy you should expect…as well as the level of self-importance of the author (fair warning if you’re sensitive that way).

Helena Drysdale – she moves us away from India (although she has written a book on her solitary travels in Nepal and Tibet, which I haven’t yet read), but her book Mother Tongues is a excellent account of her search for tribal communities in Europe. In a time where the Euro and maybe the European Union itself are about to scatter, this is a timely reminder of cultural uniqueness, personal identity, diversity in a continent that finds it just cannot pretend equality for too long. Drysdale travels with her husband and her two young daughters, so this becomes a family account as much as a travel book or an anthropological study. It’s fascinating and personal and leads the mind far away from the trappings of globalization and corporate identity.

Simon Allix – after the death of his brother during an accident on a road in Kashmir, Simon Allix, a graphic designer by trade, decided to create a memorial to his sibling. Mandala Mountain or Rivers of the Mandala, a beautiful picture book (for grown-ups, if you need that disclaimer) about the two brothers’ multiple journeys to and around Mount Kailash is the result. It is filled with snapshots, memorabilia, sketches and drawings taken from their travel notebooks and put together in a wonderful zany way that evokes both a bande-dessiné and a travelogue.

Olivier Föllmi – a Swiss photographer (one of my favourite photographers) who founded a vast project called Sagesse de l’humanité. He travels the world photographing people, cities, places. Having lived for several years in Tibet and the Middle East, he understands the worlds he moves through better than an outsider would and his photographs are vast and personal, calm and assured. You can pick them up in beautiful oversized hardcover books and travel through them for a few hours…or days…or months…

Image Selection X – The Solitude of Mountains

Work and illness have kept me from updating this for a while – my apologies. Here is a new Image Selection taking us, once more, into the Himalayas:

The colours are what comes back to me when I close my eyes. I am at home in these colours.

The shadow fingers of a tree reach out, partly obscuring the bone-white silhouette.

The rivers mean so much here, one cannot take their roar for anger. We threw bottles, a damaged sandal and sticks into it, not to pollute, but as offerings and to watch – like children – the passage of the strange object and to wonder where it might be found again.

The houses of the gods are man-made things and therein lies their beauty and their solitude.

Please refrain from using these images without my permission. All images copyrighted by Sebastian Buchner.

Image Selection VIII – Amritsar

A street worker sleeping in the shade of a flyover while his colleague waits for supplies. Taken on a street in Amritsar.

Riksha drivers debating or watching the outcome of a game to while away the time, Amritsar.

A blind man with knapsack and teapot sitting by himself in the Golden Temple while behind him a large family gathers on the warm marble floor.

Two women, one in the shade of the colonnades, the other in bright sun, walking along the inner courtyard of the Golden Temple.

All images copyrighted by Sebastian Buchner. Don’t use unauthorized, leave alone, angry dogs barking and so on.

Nordindien kommt nach Schwarzenbach…

…und zwar am 7. Oktober 2011, 19:30 Uhr, im Cafe Restaurant Bernhardt. Dort gibt es die nächste Fotoshow über Nordindien und den Himalaya. Eine Gelegenheit für alle, die es bisher verpasst haben oder in der Zwischenzeit durch die Lektüre des Blogs Interesse gefunden haben…und zum Einstieg gibt es die Erzählung einer 27-stündigen Busfahrt in Richtung des höchsten Bergmassivs der Welt…

Indische Busse, sind eine Sache für sich. Zwanzig-, dreißigjährige Fossile aus Eisen. Kantig, wenig vertrauenserweckend, mit einem Lenkrad, für das man die ganze Spannweite der eigenen Arme braucht. Gepäck liegt auf dem Dach verschnürt oder unter den Sitzen verstaut. Die Fenster sind verschmiert, die Sitze ziemlich hart, die Rückenlehne zu niedrig um den Kop darauf auszurasten. Es gibt, wie bei allem in Indien, Abstufungen im Komfort. Private Buslinien bieten Super Comfort Deluxe Busse mit verstellbaren Sitzen und Kilmaanlage (oft permanente Klimaanlagen, bei denen der Ausschaltknopf defekt ist um die Passagiere halbgefroren am Ziel abzuliefern), die immer ein Glüksspiel sind. Man bucht Super Comfort und wird auf halber Strecke in einen regulären Bus abgeladen oder die Busse sind in erbärmlichem Zustand und außer der Klimaanlage funktioniert gar nichts. Generell ist man besser beraten, wenn man einen der billigen regulären Busse nimmt, auch wenn Mahindra, der Herr in dem kleinen Reisebüro, wo ich wegen Bussen anfrage, mir das ausreden will.

„Nach Reckong Peo?“


„Siebenundzwanzig Stunden?“


„In einem regulären Bus?“




Endlich tut er mich als hoffnungslosen Fall ab und gibt mir die benötigte Information. Reckong Peo ist die Distrikthauptstadt von Kinnaur, einem komplett unbekannten Flecken Indiens. Gelegen im östlichen Rand von Himachal Pradesh und ein absoluter Geheimtipp unter Reisenden.

Siebenundzwanzig Stunden Busfahrt sind auch für mich ein Rekord. Der Bus scheint zumindest nicht auf den ersten Blick auseinanderzufallen, hält aber schon bei der Ausfahrt aus der Bushaltestelle an um einen Reifen zu wechseln. Mein Gepäck ist verstaut – Rückenschmerzen sind erwartet und ich wundere mich, ob ich müde genug sein werde um zu schlafen. Orte ziehen vorbei während mein Geist leerer und leerer wird. Baijnath, Mandi, Rampur. Kleine Gärten wechseln sich ab mit überfüllten, grell bemalten Marktplätzen. Als es Nacht wird, bekomme ich eine junge Sitznachbarin, die gutes Englisch spricht. Sie ist dreizehn und spricht mit einer Weisheit und Unmittelbarkeit, die man in wenigen jungen Mädchen findet. Physik fasziniert sie, ebenso Technik. Sie fährt mit ihrer Familie, Vater und Großmutter, nach Mandi um dort ein gekauftes Auto abzuholen. Am nächsten Morgen wird die Familie stolz im neuen Auto nach Baijnath zurückfahren. Sie teilt Namkeen, gewürzte Teigwaren aus Kichererbsenmehl mit mir. Später, wir sind beide müde, fragt sie mich ob ich an Gott glaube. Viele Menschen aus dem Westen, so weiß sie, glauben nicht an Gott. Was soll ich sagen? Ich bin alleine in einem fremden Land unterwegs und steuere gerade auf das höchste Bergmassiv der Erde zu. Wie kann ich da nicht ein gewisses Urvertrauen haben? Wir einigen uns darauf, dass die Menschen im Westen vergessen haben, was Gott ist.

Stunden später, sie ist lange schon ausgestiegen, es gab einen Fahrerwechsel – sehr zu meinem Erleichtern fährt uns nicht derselbe Fahrer für die ganze Strecke. Wie das in lokalen Bussen so ist, steigen Passagiere andauernd ein und aus. Jeder Platz ist besetzt und die Leute drängen sich am Gang. Das hat sich auch in der Nacht nicht groß geändert. Jetzt wird es ein Vorteil, dass der Bus vollgestopft ist – man kann im Stehen schlafen ohne umzukippen. Mein neuer Sitznachbar schläft bereits bequem auf meiner Schulter. Menschen schlafen auf Säcken, die am Gang stehen oder breiten Decken aus. Im Halbschlaf spüre ich wie sich eine Hand fast zärtlich um mein Schienbein legt. Ich schaue hinunter und sehe einen Kopf, der sich meinen Schuh zum Polster gemacht hat. Ich würde mit den Schultern zucken, aber ich will niemanden aufwecken. Draußen ziehen Bäume vorbei, verschwinden schnell wieder in der Finsternis. Ich meine Abhänge zu erkennen. Der Bus kurvt fleißig und die Strasse steigt an. Irgendwann sinke ich in einen unruhigen Schlaf.

Weiter geht es vor Ort…freue mich auf euch am 7. Oktober in Schwarzenbach (oder am 4. November in Pitten – weitere Termine werden bald bekanntgegeben).