Letter from Berlin

It’s a cold, but sunny, day in Berlin. I seem to have stumbled upon a ‘Golden October.’ It’s the beginning of Autumn and temperatures have been falling swiftly over the last ten days. Yet, even with the nippy winds and occasional rain, there’s still enough sunshine for lazy Sunday Frühstück in outdoor cafes, languid strolls between the gritty urban art and tall frothy glasses of quintessentially Berliner, cinnamon dusted Chai lattes.

This is weather for cyclists, who zip past followed by their adoring dogs. For girls in pink stockings, tiny denim shorts and warm pullovers sashaying down the roads. For pink-cheeked babies being taken for a walk by chic, slim mothers in designer jeans and carefully set hair.

On the Nahaufnahme journalist exchange programme, which is what has brought me to Berlin, I spend my days at the Berliner Zeitung offices, learning how differently journalists work here, and realizing how much we have in common. There’s much that’s new. The layouts and stories here are styled differently, planned in the mornings over a series of meetings. Since my German is still admittedly shakey, I’ve resorted to running the text through Google translate to read the papers in the morning. It’s not the best way to determine style, but it gives me a good idea of story angles and ideas. I also enjoy reading the simpler columns slowly, with an online dictionary to help with unfamiliar words.

Despite the differences, I feel at home at the office. The focused tension and beehive of activity just before pages are passed reminds me of The Hindu. So does the morning routine, of zipping though other newspapers and websites to see if a story’s been missed. Then there’s the universality of major news, like the recent death of Steve Jobs, and subsequent rush to get stories, analysis and pictures organized.

In this staunchly German environment, I find more similarities: the way everyone’s tables are stacked with newspapers and books, the ritual of endless cups of coffee,how journalists’ desks always feature a strange assortment of odds and ends. Over here I sit between pen drives, post-its and an inexplicable model of a wolf. Back home, I have no doubt, that the intern currently in my chair is wondering what to make of the misshapen Stone Buddha I proudly display, a gift from a gang of bread-making life prisoners I interviewed at Puzhal prison.

I give silent thanks to Goethe Institut Chennai, and my teachers Hem and Dhanya, at unexpected times. As I walk into a cafe and ask for ‘Milchkaffee’ painlessly. In the supermarket shopping for groceries when I realize I  understand the all-German labels. When I need directions, and have the confidence to take them down in – admittedly slow and simple – German. My grammar still leaves much to be desired, but I´m surviving.

And it’s a completely different experience from the time I first visited Germany 5 years ago, not knowing a word of of the language.(When I got lost in Cologne, nobody could give me directions in English. Finally, a very patient German man, realizing we had French in common, explained my route in French.) Knowing even a little of the language is like being given a key to unlock the city. Even though many people here speak English, I enjoy listening to the rapid German around me, and trying to guess what it means, grabbing words from here and there. It makes Berlin feels foreign and exotic.

It helps that the city’s so proudly individual. It’s resisted being swamped by the global chains that are standardizing the world, taking pride in funky little cafes and eccentric bars, many of which are the centre of spontaneous communities. Yesterday I stumbled upon the Gaudy Cafe next to my Prenzlauer Berg apartment, where the Australian Barista told me they have a language exchange programme on Wednesday evenings. Add glamorous art exhibitions, live wire flea markets and underground music events – in Berlin there’s always something to do.

For a journalist, this is a dream city to report on with it’s independent, gritty, individualistic vibe. The Berliner Zeitung’s journalists have been astonishingly warm and helpful. Astonishingly, because most journalists are frantically busy, and I didn’t expect the level of help and interest I’m getting with my stories here. Via the journalists I’m meeting people and getting a far better, deeper understanding than would ever have be possible if I was just a tourist. Tomorrow I’m interviewing a secretive underground street artist in his studio. After that I’m attending ‘Strokes’ an urban art show. The next day, I plan to see Das Schlaue Füchslein at the Komische Oper.

I’m living Berlin and loving it.


(I was in Berlin on ‘Nahaufnahme journalist exchange programme’ working at the Berliner Zeitung newspaper. The program was organized by the Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan Chennai)


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Butter Chicken In Berlin

I’m listening to the Gayatri mantra, being sung by a German in a laundromat in Berlin. Between showing me how to start the washing machine and work the clothes-dryer, he tells me about his fascination for India. It would be surreal, if it wasn’t so familiar. I have heard so many similar versions of the story over the course of the one month I’ve been in Berlin. At my neighbourhood bar, I bump into an aging pony-tailed hippy who tearily talks of falling in love with a Indian drifter in Mumbai, and then returning to India 14 times to find her. An edgy street artist tells me he plays Shah Rukh Khan’s bodyguard in the upcoming “Don 2”, set in Berlin. And every neighbourhood flaunts bustling Indian restaurants — all crammed with locals wallowing in butter chicken, vindaloo and palak paneer.

Berlin’s favourite fast food is the curry-wurst, a startling combination of sliced sausages and a dark, viscous tomato sauce, deepened with paprika and flavoured with curry powder. At the sun-filled Sgaminegg café, my Berliner friend regularly orders frothy cinnamon-dusted ‘Chai lattes’ with apple pie. I snootily dismiss them as inauthentic, but as time goes by I’m gradually captivated by their sweet, vanilla-scented lushness.

The Germans I meet ask about my opinion of the Indian restaurants in Berlin. They tell me the food’s unapologetically inauthentic. However, inauthentic is not always a bad thing. Look at what we’ve done to Chinese food in India, creating a fiery, oily but delicious new cuisine by blending the most obvious, populist elements of Chinese cooking, and reinterpreting them for a mass desi audience. A cuisine should be strong enough to be adapted in many ways and tailored to suit different tastes without losing its soul. This way it transcends borders.

Yet, I’m decidedly less forgiving when a friend takes me to Ashoka, a trendy Indian restaurant in chic Charlottenburg, West Berlin. It looks promising, crammed with German customers happily spooning up their ‘lentil dal’ and ‘saag aloo’.

The meal starts promisingly with steaming samosas, liberally dusted with chaat masala. Then comes a sugary raita, butter chicken that tastes like a cross between cranberry juice and tomato sauce and finally a black dal that’s chewy with husk. It’s all washed down with refreshing mango lassi, a German-Indian restaurant staple, made from canned mangos.

Is this Indian food? Across Berlin, Indian restaurants serve the same fare. They use paprika instead of chilli powder, parsley instead of coriander and pour prodigious amounts of cream into every curry. Sometimes you’ll find sugar in a dish, sometime cheese floating on top of a curry. Yet, in a city with very few Indians, it works. From ‘Yogi-Haus’ to ‘Maharadscha’ to ‘Namaskar’, on Saturday night, every Indian restaurant is full. So who decides what’s traditional?

Personally, I prefer the W-Imbiss approach. Instead of hankering for authenticity it calls itself Indian-Californian fusion. The steamy little kitchen specialises in naan pizzas.

We stagger in late at night, exhausted and starving, and are quickly served a Jewish naan, slathered with sour cream, capers, sliced onions and generous slices of salmon.

Despite being tempted by the Dirty Naan — ghee, garlic, fenugreek and chillies — we settle for a Indian red lentil soup, which tastes like sambar and is served with a salad. The vibe’s relaxed and friendly. So friendly we get into an intense political discussion with the guy eating a quesadilla at the next table, and end up polishing off his bowl of super-hot sauce.

However, since I’m on a mission to find at least one authentic Indian restaurant in Berlin for this story, the pressure is on.

Finally, through a network of Indian friends, I hear about a tiny place called Agni in Alt-Moabit, a quiet part of Berlin. As soon as we enter, the smell of tandoori and presence of Indian customers convinces me that we’ve finally hit gold. ‘Uncle Sanjay’ who runs the kitchen with his wife, is from Delhi where he studied catering with ITDC Ashok group. He moved to Germany as a cook 21 years ago, worked with a series of restaurants and finally decided to start his own.

In classic Indian style, he cooks us a massive meal of kebabs, stuffed parathas and dal, and then brings out a complimentary tray of rich, milk sweets as he pulls his chair up to our table and settles down for a gossip. He eats his own lunch as we chat — dal-roti.

“In the end,” he chuckles, “this is what I like best.” It seems appropriate. To cross continents and end up feeling the most at home with a plate of dal-roti in a small room shiny with plastic lights and alive with the sound of Kishore Kumar.”