By Asmo Esser
1. Incredible India
“Why did you choose India?” has been one of the most common questions I have gotten over the past few months, asked by friends, family and locals alike. It was already past midnight when I arrived, and while I was trying to clamber onto anything firm during my first uber ride with my driver, who had just minutes ago confessed his passion for Formula 1 and was convinced we were in a supercar and not a Suzuki, this very question kept ringing in my head.
The next day I woke up to a surrounding, unlike anything I had ever seen before. I was in Bangalore, a bustling city with a population of 8,5 million, located in the South Indian state of Karnataka. Commonly referred to as the Silicon Valley of India due to its thriving IT- sector and named one of the fastest growing cities of the world by Forbes, it is particularly popular due to its excellent infrastructure and year-round warm temperatures. Although many people had assured me that Bangalore is the most “westernised" city in India, I could not comprehend how anyone who’d ever stepped foot on European soil could claim this. During the first days simply crossing a road would be challenging, all while being subjected to a sensory overload of different new scents, sounds and colours. And yes, cows do just roam around freely here. I was absolutely fascinated by this new and unknown place, but it certainly took me a few days to get accustomed to the city I would call home for the next 5 months.
I had already come to India in mid-September, well in time before the official start of the exchange semester, in the beginning of November, with the intention to travel and explore as much of the country as I possibly can before starting university. After staying in Bangalore for the first 2 weeks and getting acquainted with the area and university, all while realising that Delhi bellies are a real thing, I was ready to set-off for my 5-week backpacking adventure. My journey would lead me to the ancient city of Hampi, through dream-like beaches in Goa up to culturally rich Rajasthan and the snowy peaks of the Himalayas in Rishikesh. At the same time, I also had the chance to indulge and get lost in the bustle and vastness of cities like Delhi and Mumbai. I learned how to ride a scooter through the notorious Indian traffic, tasted nearly everything the Indian cuisine has to offer and realised that I still have to keep looking for my spiritual side. But first and foremost I got to know India and its people. Experiencing the enormously different lifestyle, which is largely still based on ancient philosophies and traditions, was a truly unique experience. It also made me question the fundamentals of society and sometimes excessive lifestyle we lead in Europe more than once. I made incredible friends during my travels and got to know the unprecedented hospitality and kindness of locals which remained continuous throughout, in a country where the differences in local cultures and customs otherwise are as vast and diverse as the landscapes you travel through. The journey through this country made me understand one thing: India is everything. It is rich and poor, educated and uneducated, hot and cold, modern and traditional (but the food is always spicy). It made me realise that a nation of 1,3 Billion cannot be categorised and it made me accept the fact that I will most likely never be able to find a straightforward answer to most of the questions I have. Yet it also made me understand the beauty which lies in the roots of this. If you plan to come to India to ‘find yourself’, stop reading now. The only thing you will learn here is to observe and create a sense of unquestioning appreciation for other peoples beliefs, traditions and ways of life.
Returning to Bangalore, I truly started to understand why it is being considered a ‘westernised’ city. Compared to other major cities in India, Bangalore is clean, modern and lacks the staggering and vast social inequality I had experienced in Delhi or in Mumbai. People here tend to have a more laid-back attitude compared to the north of India and, although Bar’s and Clubs have to close by 1 am, Bangalore has a great bar scene and nightlife living up to western standards. In addition, nearly all western franchises and chains can be found here and there are nearly endless possibilities to find great and very cheap food at every corner. In comparison to Delhi and Mumbai, air pollution in Bangalore is also on a lower level, however, if you are suffering from a severe respiratory condition I would not recommend you coming here either. If you are looking for a weekend escape, the beaches of Goa or Kerala are only a bus ride away and perfectly reachable for a brief getaway. To sum it up: if you’re looking for a bustling Indian metropolis with laid back people, sunshine, great food and a touch of western lifestyle, Bangalore is the place to be!
2. Harvard of the East
In the early days of November then it was time to begin a new adventure. I arrived at the National Law School of India University (short: NLSIU), which is located on the southern outskirts of Bangalore. The university itself is located on a beautiful campus, which is very green and incredibly serene by Indian standards. The area around the campus is called Nagarbhavi which translates into ‘well of snakes’ in Kannada (the local language of Bangalore), and the near weekly cobra sightings on campus undoubtedly give a hint as to the origins of this description. Accommodation is provided by the university and along with food and other costs is included in the fees of around € 500 for the entire trimester. Typically, you will be sharing a ca. 15m2 room with another exchange student (usually from the same university) alike to other students on campus. Nevertheless, it is generally also possible to get a single room if necessary. The quality of the hostels are Indian standard but might not quite live up to European expectations. Another interesting fact is that the hostels are strictly separated by gender, and trust me, they do take it seriously. There is no need for despair though, as there are enough other places on campus to (privately) interact with both girls and guys ;) In general the campus has all you need in day to day life, including several bistro’s, cafe’s and cantines serving continental and Indian cuisine as well as a variety of snacks. You will also find other facilities such as a gym, library, basketball court and common rooms. The campus area itself is surrounded by a wall and guarded by security, ensuring a safe environment. Nagarbhavi, the surrounding area which has experienced a boom over the past years, also provides for all services one could need in daily life such as liquor shops, pharmacies and smaller general stores. The newly built metro, which is located only 5 minutes by auto rickshaw from campus, serves as an excellent and quick connection to the hotspots of the city such as MG Road and the vibrant nightlife of Indiranagar, regardless of traffic.
By the way, did I mention that NLSIU is also regarded as the best law school in India? With a maximum intake of 80 students per year, which have to be among the 100 best out of 40,000 participating in the national common law placement test, studying here is a privilege and a glimpse into an exclusive club. Obviously, this also reflects into the classroom: my Indian classmates at NLSIU are with among the most intelligent and hardworking people I have met throughout my academic career, period. The way students engage in academics as well as extracurricular activities, organising Indias largest college festival on the side, for instance, is beyond impressive. It is evident that the future elite of India is being educated here, with many of my classmates already having job offers from the best law firms in the country before even graduating. Having said that, the expectations I had to face also exceeded what I had anticipated at first. With little prior knowledge about the courses being offered, we had the choice between 7 different 5th- year law electives and seminar courses. Every course amounts to 4 Indian credits, which can be transferred into 6 ECTS leaving you with 5 course selections. Each course usually will deal with a rather specific topic of Indian Law, such as drafting commercial documents, health care law and ethics or corporate mergers and acquisitions, to name a few. In my experience, most courses have been taught very well, with lively discussions taking place during class and giving me the chance to immensely deepen my knowledge in the common law system and draw various comparisons with civil law. Within every course, you are expected to write an up to 5000-word essay on a topic of your choice (usually comparing legislation in India with your own home country), hold 1-2 presentations and take a final examination at the end. Additionally, 75% attendance is required for all classes and along with in-class participation contributes to your final grade. Although this may sound rigorous at first, you have to keep in mind that due-dates are a little bit more flexible than in Europe and generally everything is a matter of personal discussion with the professor or course instructor. There has not been a single day of the university where all classes have been held according to schedule, usually giving me slightly more free time while also teaching me how to adapt to changing circumstances.
This may however also be NLSIU’s biggest flaw.
Schedules adapt continuously and it can be very hard to plan ahead and it is naturally expected that students adapt to the teacher's needs and not vice versa. This can, for instance, lead to me suddenly having a class on the weekend or an evening class from 9 to 11 pm. It also remains a mystery to me what the administration's function is, as they rarely answer e-mails nor offer any other assistance when it comes to certain questions such as course registration, grade conversion or other general matters. There is also no central portal over which students can access information on courses etc. and information regarding a course is usually shared within a WhatsApp Group by other students. Keeping up with the constant inflow of numerous messages and emails each day can be quite challenging and has made me nearly miss out on crucial information or deadlines more than once. Generally the classrooms are quite modern, however, the internet does not work everywhere and can be very slow at times. These things are very small issues in an otherwise great university and which certainly also stem from cultural differences and habits, however, I often felt that they also obstruct NLSIU from reaching its full potential in certain areas.
India is definitely not an easy country to live in and can be quite challenging at times. I had to learn how to adapt to a completely different lifestyle and adjust to a culture which does not necessarily always share the same views as me. Having said this, my personal experience here has been wonderful. I had the chance to meet extraordinary people and made new friends along the way. I had the chance to develop my understanding and passion for different cultures. I had the chance to grow academically and as a person. And if you ever end up in a racing rickshaw, being chased by a crazy man with a stick or happen to be somewhere on time just to realise no one else is there yet, just have a chai. It helps.