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In this column, we look at places which are "inside out" - where Europe suddenly pops up in a non-European country, or where we find ourselves in a corner of Europe which feels more like China or India. In the third instalment, Paulina Landes finds an island of Europe in the middle of Delhi, India.

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Photo: Paulina Landes
Mall heaven: Saket Mall in Delhi

India: scents and more that make you go "oooooooooohhh!"

Walking out of the not very modern Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi after a horrible eight hour Air India flight at 1 a.m. local time is a major slap in the face. You are overwhelmed by a whole bouquet of sensations: an undefinable, but strong smell, a humid heat that makes any exposed flesh moist in a second, plus a constant hum of weird noises that seems to come from every possible direction. And that is before you open your eyes. Once you dare to look around you, you notice that you are instantly stared at, talked to and pushed around. Fortunately you have the exchange-programme coordinator from your destination, the Jawaharlal Nehru University, at your side. You are then safely guided to the waiting cab, which is an Ambassador, that looks like it has been waiting for you ever since the British quit India in 1947.

Walking out of the Airport in Delhi is a major slap in the face.

So much for your first impression. The next few days you are busy with registering yourself in the university, finding a room and adjusting to the climate – during the day temperature is around 45°C, at night it cools down to a mild 39°C. You drink around six litres of water a day, hardly eat anything because digestion takes too much energy, and sleep on a towel because you are sweating so much under your fan, as the luxury of air-conditioning does not apply to student dorms. After some two weeks you have settled in, know your way around as far as the other side of the road, which classes to take and where to go for cold and tasty lassis and papaya juice. And then you hail a rickshaw and finally decide to check out "Saket Mall" – after all this is India, they cannot possibly have a decent mall, it's probably just some shopping complex full (again) of smells, heat and noise. But why not give it a try?

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Photo: Paulina Landes
A cow in a shopping precinct in Delhi

And then you see them – because Saket Mall is not just one single mall but three massive malls – concrete, glass and steel, attached to each other. You gasp for air, which makes you cough instantly, as the pollution in Delhi is intense, even though all buses and rickshaws run on natural gas. You get out of the rickshaw, cross the road (which only takes you three minutes: a small climb over the elevated middle section of the road) and long to enter through the sliding gates that seem to promise you an outpost of heaven, but your entrance is delayed for some five minutes because of a strict security check. But then, you step through the glass gates and find yourself standing on a marble floor. The next thing you notice is the air-conditioning, the temperature is a mellow, almost tender 25°C accompanied by soothing 90's background music – the first time you've ever been glad to listen to Celine Dion and Boyzone. Then your gaze settles on all the well-known major brands of jeans, sportsgear, cosmetics, bags, shoes and jewellery. You check the first shop for price-tags and your credit card gives you a twinkle, then a broad smile: all your worst fears of ending up as a hippie in filthy flowery Aladdin-trousers with a batiqued T-shirt that sports the ohm sign are gone. You look around and see the people, who don't look not so different from you – no shabby rags, no sarees or salwar kameez, everyone is in casual to business attire and even wears closed shoes! Stunned by all this you almost miss the sensation your nose has detected: your olfactorial senses give you yet another surprise – you smell something that just smells like – but can it be? Coffee, more precisely Italian coffee? You follow this strange, but oh-so-familiar odour and arrive at the counter of a café – where to your utter surprise you are able to order a completely decent Café Latte together with Amarettini. You sink into the leather-cushioned sofa, sip your drink and enjoy the bliss of the moment. Then you take out your mobile and send a message home: "Just found an ITALIAN coffee place. Don't expect me to come back soon, I am saved!"

Malls like this one are the up-and-coming thing in the big cities of India. These palaces of luxury brands and global commerce are exclusive to the upper classes, and of course to all westerners.

Malls like this one are an up-and-coming thing in the big cities of India. They also have attached nightclubs, bars and cinemas. These palaces of luxury brands and global commerce are exclusive to the upper classes, and of course to all westerners. The security check at the entrance also works as a control of who is allowed to enter – but I assume that the people who would not get in do not even try – the shame would be to great.

In the beginning the social injustice and all the suffering you see in India touches you profoundly, but after a while, you just come to ignore or block it out. Cruel as it may sound, you have no choice, because you can not save all those people – and simply by giving money you are not necessarily helping – for example, children have to give this money to their parents, who often spent it on alcohol or drugs. The children just do the begging, because of their cuteness and their power to provoke pity in others. I always tried to have some food (cookies or fruit) or water with me when leaving the campus, so that I could give something to these children which would actually help them.

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This column is created in association with our  partner, the M.A. programme "Studies in European Culture" at the University of Constance, Germany.

To find out more, go to www.europa-studieren.de

Going to a mall, where everything is clean, neat and "western" of course is sort of a light culture shock: suddenly you find yourself in surroundings that exist almost like this anywhere in a big city in Europe, when just a moment ago you were in a place that is as peculiar and alien as can be.

Actually, I am not a shopaholic, but being in such a mall in India just gave me a break – not only from the heat, but also from the noise, the congestion and the foreigness I felt at most times. Having a cup of great coffee there, which alone would already be a small break in Europe, simply meant for me an accustomed and cherished form of necessary recreation – because yoga can't do the trick alone.

Paulina Landes is a student at the University of Constance, Germany. As a part of the Masters programme "Studies in European Culture" she spent ten months at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, India. Her stay in India is documented (mostly in German) on her blog www.paulindiana.blogspot.com

Cover photo: JMPerez, (CC-SA)

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