Merci, Inde!

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Leni Lein – A colorful stay at IIT Bombay (1st October 2014- 3rd May 2015)

It has taken me an unusually long time to pen down one of the most intense experiences of my life. While the culprit in part may has been my busy working schedule, which opened new challenges and took me to places, I will put down the blame equally to the struggle of finding words that could suitably describe this unique experience. I have spent hours, when I was lonely and contemplating, writing and rewriting this memorabilia to somehow accommodate every moment I spent there.

India did change me. It became evident from the moment I boarded the British Airways flight to return home a year ago. The smiling air hostess remarked whether I had an Indian lineage, listening to my Indian-English accent. Somehow this has stuck with me and I still manage to surprise an odd colleague with my accent and my “indian way” of saying “yes” by shaking my head from right to left.

I did come prepared to have a cultural shock in India but what I didn’t expect was to have an even bigger shock when I returned back home. The streets felt empty and I felt foreign in my own land for a long while. I still everyday miss the country that has become my second home.
The many wonderful people I met, who generously shared their time and culture with me, unknowingly made me be like them. So this little effort is for all of them.


Writing your final thesis in India? Seriously?

Answering such a question was one of the many hurdles that I had to pass before setting my foot in India. Three things that really made me decide to come to India were:
My craving to discover a different way of living because, although I do come from a multinational family, my mom being German and my dad French, my semester abroad in the small German town Braunschweig was not really a big culture shock. There I met people from different countries and quite a large number of them were Indians, some of whom became good friends.

One particular person left a deep impression on me. Like me, he had come to Germany for a semester and had an attitude towards the German environment that I will never forget. His eyes were constantly wide open and he was in a state of steady excitement and fascination towards the European lifestyle that he saw around him. I got enchanted by his fascination and our long talks about cultural differences encouraged me to think about experiencing the same by going to his country.

It is in Braunschweig that I came across the book Shantaram by Gregory Roberts based in Mumbai. True to its billing that says it inspired a million journeys, I started to find my own way in its pages.
And finally what convinced me to push my beloved European life to the background for a while were the warm responses from the Professors I wrote to, who were eager to coordinate with me and make my transition to India as smooth as possible.

So I decided to take up this exciting journey, a flight of freedom I would say, away from my cosy lifestyle in Europe to a place of which I had only heard from the stories of my friends in Braunschweig- a place I didn’t really know what to expect of.

Touchdown Mumbai

At first I was enchanted by the red carpet with lovely Indian patterns in the swanky new Airport terminal and the modern impressive architecture, one that even manages to house a temple.
But they say India is a ‘Land of Contrast’ and it became evident to me once I crossed the princely glass doors. The shock of heat, extreme humidity and the loneliness of being the only one who looked different, made me feel lost temporarily.

As the taxi, that the Institute gratefully sent to pick me up, waded through the city roads, the scenes outside the windows were appalling. Beyond the chaos of crowd, which I felt were scrutinizing me and the mad honking vehicles, I discovered abject poverty on the streets which would keep unsettling me for long.

IIT Bombay – A home away from home

So there I was, in the campus of my college, a lush green paradise, quite heavily guarded and surrounded with walls. The journey itself is a small episode to describe. The taxi driver dropped me at wrong hostel.
I was terribly scared to approach people in the street and finally asked a maintenance staff, but he did not seem to know English. To my big relief, the cab driver realised his mistake of dropping me at the wrong place, looked for me on the campus and then drove me to my hostel.

Inside the walls of the campus, the life is quite different from the chaos beyond. I was to live in Hostel 10A, a relatively new building in a room shared with three other girls who also happened to be foreign students.

Initial days were difficult as I was too shocked to approach anybody. It took time to adjust to the curious stares of people around and fleeing from them. I spent the first few days either in the lab, in my room or on the roof of my hostel, from where I would admire the marvelous view of the campus, the national park, the slums and a few fancy buildings. I enjoyed the fact of seeing without being seen. It is here that I found much needed solace, and my own little space in this incredibly crowded country.

Things got better as I started to meet other girls from the hostel during meal times in the canteen. I also learnt to live in harmony with so many people in the small room that was allotted to us, something which we are not accustomed to in Europe and that always bewildered me when I saw my Indian friends do the same in Braunschweig.
The complaints about strange looking toilets, a rather thin mattress, the warden downstairs keeping watch and the cleaning staff coming at most inopportune hours in the mornings slowly started taking backstage as I got absorbed into the exotic flair of the place.

The First Month

It took me a while to step out from the peaceful atmosphere of IITs Campus, to the chaotic world just outside it. The administrative chores took a major part of my day.
Among my first experiences that showed me how patient one has to be in the daily life of India, was to open a bank account. The crowd in the State Bank of India office would have made a European citizen leave the place on the spot.

The only employee in charge of opening new accounts had to face more than 30 people who weren’t exactly waiting in a line but trying to catch his attention the fastest, while his phone rang every 30 seconds. Being a foreigner I got little concession.

Also some things don’t always work very logically, like the payment of fees made me carry few bundles of currency, as there was no facility to do it with Card or Cheque.

I remember my first trip alone to the main town of the foreigner registration office in CST. To escape the morning rush I took a Cab which involved communicating with the driver who did not understand me or was perhaps himself new to city as he stopped many times to ask people for directions. In hindsight I think he just might have been pretending.

On my return journey to campus I gladly took the local train. My first ride in the Mumbai trains back to Kanjurmarg station was much more peaceful than the movies usually suggest.

The Mess and Small Struggles

The life in India was not without its fair share of struggle, and one that never seemed to end was the food in the Mess(no pun intended). Although my Indian friends in Braunschweig spoke rather enthusiastically about the food I would get in India, somehow my feeble stomach never really made peace with it.

The first day I enthusiastically filled my steel tray with chapatis, vegetables and lentils. Over time my enthusiasm died down. The food was rather uncreative, mostly floating in oil and spice, which we Europeans have rather low tolerance for. I found a convenient way to be indifferent to what was on the plate by engaging into interesting conversations with friends. Their stories more or less filled my appetite.

My tussle with Indian food further compounded when a tasty little Lime juice that I drank on a roadside cart left a sour aftertaste. The next morning I got an ambulance ride and then travelled by wheelchair to the second floor of IIT hospital. However, my stay in that hospital didn´t last for long and I had to be shifted to a private clinic outside the campus, because I was an external student.

My stay in Powai clinic was a very humbling experience. My colleagues who I had got to know just a few weeks before, were beside me for every moment, took care of everything and brought food. I was also pleasantly surprised by the visit of my professor who came to check on my health, carrying juices and biscuits, and was apologetic for coming only a day later.

Such moments are perhaps the best to describe the warmth of the welcome that I received during my stay in India. I felt like India and its people really considered me as one of its own.

The festive life on Campus

I got to experience and celebrate many Indian festivals. Watching people decorating their cars for Dusshera, dancing with children during Navaratri, observing people light Diwali lanterns on the romantic Marine drive and getting a broken egg on my head during the crazy Holi were all experiences to cherish.

In addition to the big national events there were also the many local cultural events taking place on IIT Campus. I was absolutely charmed by events like Mood Indigo. The numerous conferences, music concerts and dance competitions were far better than any other University events I have ever seen.

I even made my own debut with plugged instruments during the inter-hostel band competition “Goonj”. It was a fantastic feeling to play fusion of different music styles from around the world with my Hostel 10A girls group. It provided the perfect opportunity to discover many aspects of the well-preserved Indian culture and its numerous traditions.


Travelling through India.

I made most of the short time I had, visiting the many beautiful places in India. Travelling alone was full of adventure and I suggest everybody give it a try, at least once.

The splendorous palaces of Rajasthan, the natural serene backwaters in Kochi, the enchanting Ajanta and Ellora Caves, the delicate sandstone carvings in Mahabalipuram, the hills of Pune, the beaches in Goa, the old temples in Hampi, memorable bus rides in the hills of Munnar and the angelic Taj Mahal- I felt lucky to have experienced the wealth of its beauty and its contrast spread across the huge Indian territory with a few exciting co-travelers from India, South Africa, England and Germany.

The Weddings

I attended two weddings, one in Faridabad near Delhi, and another in Pondicherry, both absolutely memorable. The number of people, the incredibly huge amounts of food and the colourful fashion left me speechless. But the most unbelievable thing was to see a groom riding a white horse to meet his future wife sitting in a lotus flower.

All this meant that I was often staying awake until midnight in the lab to complete my Master’s thesis.

Some things that leave you uncomfortable

The thing that keeps haunting me every day is the shock of coming face to face with terrible poverty. Although it is played down in the western world, I don’t think people realize it unless they see it for real. The courage and energy of so many Indians who struggle for things as simple as getting basic necessities and food is really commendable.

I deeply admire people like some of my IIT friends who strive to make the world a fair place to live for all. This has really changed the way I look at Europe and its wealth, often thinking how indifferent it is towards suffering of other people on same planet.

The idea of accumulating wealth over decades seems weird to me now, when I know how much a few Euros can make an immediate difference in the lives of people in India.
To be honest I am sometimes afraid that I will forget the reality I discovered there and that I will get comfortable in my own cozy world.

Thank you
For those who were so patient to read this far, I would like to end by adding a note to “thank you”.
The time I spent in India was very enriching, I feel really touched by all the people I met. IIT Campus has wonderful dancers, musicians, actors, fine arts decorators and the most important, beautiful human beings.
I will treasure these beautiful memories forever!
Thanks for welcoming me as you did…and Phir Milenge this September! 😀