Interview with Guy Helminger

A Wealth of Experience to Draw On

The post-expressionist author Guy Helminger did a stint as writer in residence in Hyderabad as part of an Indo-German exchange project. Larissa Bender spoke with the German-Luxembourger about his stay in India

Guy Helminger, cow (photo: Guy Helminger)
Guy Helminger: "I didn't have any preconceived notions like expecting to encounter an elephant or a cow around every corner"

​​Almost half the population of Hyderabad are Muslims, the other half Hindus. How does this make itself felt? Are there Muslim city districts for example?

Guy Helminger: Yes, there are different quarters. Hyderabad was founded as a Muslim city around the Charminar Mosque – a mosque with four minarets. That whole quarter is Muslim; you notice that right away. You see it in the black clothing worn by the veiled women as well as in the attire of the men.

I also had the feeling that the residents there are quite poor. The Hindu population is of course poor as well – there are thousands and thousands of homeless people everywhere.

But when you walk through Charminar, you have a completely different feeling; the alleys are very narrow in comparison with the rest of the city, which is relatively generously proportioned, with very wide streets and much more traffic. The fact that many occupations are practiced on the street is also different. The various artisans are much more in evidence in the Old Town than in other quarters.

People say – although this is hard for me to confirm after just five weeks there – that the Muslims and Hindus in Hyderabad live together in harmony. Many regions – including Hyderabad – are today witnessing a resurgence of Hindu nationalism. This will of course lead to renewed conflicts, and one can only hope that things will continue to go smoothly in Hyderabad.

Also noticeable in Charminar were the children, who were much more aggressive, pulling on me like they did in Egypt – something I didn't experience at all in other areas of the city. It may of course just be that there are more tourists there, and tourists have more money.

You weren't there as a tourist, though, but instead as Writer in Residence, and you wrote that you would rather get to know the life of a marketwoman selling vegetables than the things you can read in any travel guide. Did you succeed? Did you come into contact with the citizens?

Helminger: To a certain extent, yes, because the Goethe Institute gave me the possibility of getting to know some people. One of the things I wanted to do, for example, was to visit hospitals, and they are closely guarded ...

Why hospitals of all places?

Helminger: If you walk through the streets at night, you see thousands of homeless people, one sleeping next to the other, and there are children begging. But then there is the much-touted economic boom in India, attributable for one thing to the IT revolution. Only a small slice of the population is reaping the profits, however, getting richer and richer.

At the same time, people are leaving the countryside and coming to the cities in droves, and these people live on the street, in some cases sleeping on traffic islands. This contrast between the rich and the poor is also reflected elsewhere.

Watching the city's chaotic traffic, I wondered what happened when someone got hit by a car. I asked people, and many replied that they simply kept on driving. There is no health insurance and a rich person can even get into trouble if he hits someone and takes them in to care for them. Then people ask: 'What is he to you?' The police are immediately summoned.

So I thought that there must be hospitals for poor people. When I asked about it, I was brought to a hospital for rich people, where the standard is similar to that in Europe, and then to one for really poor people. It had huge wards with up to 60 beds, completely adverse to our ideas about hygiene, light and brightness in a hospital. But most people still manage to recover there.

At a press conference, an Indian asked you why foreigners always describe India in negative terms. How does this impression come about?

Helminger: There are various points: Since in Europe we don't have the same kind of traffic, the pollution, the homelessness, it tends to be the first thing we mention. This naturally bothers the people who live there and appreciate many other aspects of their country, because they don't only hear these disparaging comments occasionally, but all the time. I can understand that.

On the other hand, I have to say that it might get on your nerves, but that's just the way things are. To ignore it would be wrong.

The second thing is that, with burgeoning Hindu nationalism, a reticence about these negative aspects is desired on the part of various people since it is viewed as derogatory to the culture, which it is in fact not, however.

Which stereotypes did you wind up jettisoning during your stay?

Helminger: "I didn't have any preconceived notions in the sense of expecting to encounter an elephant or a cow around every corner." But it is true that the picture one has of India is in some ways very rudimentary.

Of course, I knew about the strong contrast between the rich and the poor. How this is actually manifested, I didn't really know, however. For example, whole districts are being built for people working in the IT industry. But other people are at the same time building incredible homes – people who spend their lives in a self-constructed shack.

When the bungalows are complete and the people move in, the workers tear down their shacks, go to the next building site, and construct the whole thing all over again out of wood and plastic. It's crazy.

What do you think of the writer in residence project – in which authors from Germany and India travel to each other's country, note down their observations and put them on the Internet?

Helminger: Writers won't be setting off the world's next revolution. But for me personally it was very interesting. I got to know part of the country and many new people. When you're here at home, you tend to overlook a lot of things, but when you go someplace foreign, you notice every little thing. This is a wealth of experience from which an author can draw an unbelievable amount.

I have also begun to read a lot of Indian literature.

But how do you get to know a country? It starts with people taking time to think about what makes that country unique, and I found it valuable that this project got me thinking.

Interview by Larissa Bender

© 2006

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor Gaida

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