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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 35, New Delhi, August 14, 2021

Recollections from visit to the CeBIT fair in Hannover, Germany in 1997 | B S Chauhan

Friday 13 August 2021, by B. S. Chauhan


CeBIT used to be an annual fair in the city of Hannover, Germany. It was last held in 2018 and then discontinued due to declining footfalls. CeBIT is German acronym for Centrum für Büroautomation, Informationstechnologie und Telekommunikation, which translates to “Centre for Office Automation, Information Technology and Telecommunications” in English. The name says it all about the fair. The annual fair was devoted to advances in these areas of electronics. It was held on the Hannover Fair Grounds, a grand infrastructure created for fairs. Many industrial fairs were organised there throughout the year by Deutsche Messe AG (German Fairs Corp.). I had opportunity to travel to CeBIT, Hannover in 1997. I was part of a team of three representing our organisation, a government funded telecom R&D centre, at the fair. India was designated as CeBIT’s partner country that year. It meant a high-level delegation from India headed by Mr Beni Prasad Verma, then Union Minister of Communications in Prime Minister Mr Deve Gowda’s cabinet. We had an Indian pavilion with Nasscom looking after the arrangements. Nasscom’s Mr Devang Mehta was also there. We were asked to put up a stall at the fair, fairly late, I would say. We did not have a major product to exhibit and took some posters on our products and capabilities to display in our stall. Apart from Nasscom, TCIL and L&T Infotech also had stalls. One small company, developing multi-media CDs on Indian themes and epics like Mahabharat and Ramayana, was also present. Such CDs were a novelty then. India was trying to project its capabilities as a provider of IT technical services.

The Indian Pavilion was quite ordinary. It did not befit a partner country. It was quite possible that the contractor had cut corners and used second hand modular exhibition hardware. Our 4 ft x 3 ft posters were printed on sun board and could not be rolled up or folded. It meant carrying them in two oversized boxes, which fortunately had wheels. It was quite a task to carry those oversized boxes. At Hannover airport, we were at a loss to find a taxi that could accommodate the large boxes. We called our pavilion’s coordinator who advised us to hire a 5-door taxi, a Mercedes with a back door and luggage space.

Our travel agent had booked accommodation for us in a Privatzimmer (Private room). It was a kind of B&B (Bed and Breakfast) in a private home, quite like Airbnb of today. Hannover does not have enough hotel rooms to accommodate all the visitors that descend on the city to participate in various fairs (like CeBIT). They devised this system where visitors stay with a family. They are given a room and the continental breakfast. Our Privatzimmer was in a place called Stephanplatz. I and my colleague Sanjay were at one place while our boss Mr Pant’s Privatzimmer was a little distance away in another house. Our hostess was one old lady Frau Maria. She could be in sixties but was quite active and very soft spoken. She did not speak any English and that is where my German, learnt almost 20 years back at Max Mueller Bhawan, Pune, came handy. We had a room with two beds to ourselves. The apartment, on second floor of a somewhat old building, had a hall and two bedrooms. There was one single toilet. There was a kitchen too, but it was not for us. Maria’s daughter, a lady in her forties perhaps, was also with her. With the bedrooms given out to guests, I think they were sleeping in the hall.

Mr Pant’s room was in the attic with a sloping roof. It had a glass tile to let in sunlight. The living room was a floor below. It was a somewhat new construction and had a lift, which by the way, was out of order for most of the time he was there. The hostess was a single mother with a 5-year-old school going son Peter. The school was just across the road and could be seen from the apartment’s window. The lady was comfortable with English. She was a social worker and left home early after leaving Mr Pant’s breakfast on the table. Her son would be watching cartoons on the TV alone till it was time for him to leave for his school. He would walk himself to the school. His independence impressed us. Also impressive was the faith his mother and the citizens of Hannover, in general, had in their law enforcement agencies. It allowed them to open their houses to foreigners from different continents. I loved having small talks in German with the young Peter.

CeBIT was the most important electronics fair of the world. All major companies and many start-ups were there to display their products, both hardware and software, and services. Many new products were also announced at the CeBIT. All stalls were set up in very professional manner. There were several lecture halls in a nearby complex where companies would be making presentations on their products and services. We attended many of these lectures / presentations. Presentations were delivered mostly in English but for some presentations made in German, simultaneous translation was available in English and French. To use translation services, one had to borrow a headphone, connect it to the receptacle provided on the chair and select the language. Outside the lecture halls, complimentary tea / coffee and snacks were available.

The Indian delegation visited Indian pavilion on the very first day, the day of the inauguration. The minister was not among them. He had left for India. Maybe, the political compulsions of being part of a tottering government on many crutches forced him to cut short the visit. Our stall was opposite the stall of a German start-up. They had developed a software which allowed users to synthesize music on their computers. They had hourly demonstrations when the loud, synthesized disco music would be played and a young boy and girl would gyrate to it. A crowd used to gather every hour to watch the show. It was quite entertaining.

In the evenings, the stalls were still open, but the whole atmosphere would become relaxed. It used to be the time for executives, manning the stalls, to relax, enjoy a drink and discuss business and non-business things with colleagues and visitors. Most stalls offered beer or sparkling wine to the guests in the evening.

One of the exhibition days was celebrated as India Day at Indian pavilion. The German advisor to the Indian pavilion had suggested Fassbier (beer on the tap) and Indian snacks. But it was a disaster. The Indian snacks sourced from some Indian restaurant were cold and tasteless and there was no Fassbier, only some beer cans. We walked to other stalls to have a glass of sparkling wine.

We did not have much interaction with the host family as we would leave in the morning after breakfast and return only in the night after dinner. We would have breakfast in the hall. It used to be bread, cheese, preserves (jam, marmalade) and tea. On our first day, a Japanese was staying in the other room and had breakfast with us. Then it was only the two of us. One guest had come for a day or two but he either did not take breakfast or had it in his room to avoid us. One morning, on our third day perhaps, I saw Maria getting ready to leave the house. We exchanged Guten Morgen (Good Morning). She said she was going to the bakery (there was one nearby) to get the bread. We had been having German bread for breakfast for last two days. It was good but had a hard crust. I said “Do you get sliced bread? We would prefer that”. “Weiss Brot” (white bread), she asked. “Yes that would be better” I said. From that day on, we got a toaster and sliced white bread on the breakfast table.

The CeBIT was a week-long affair, from 13th to 19th March 1997. On the last day, we wound up the stall, packed our posters in the oversized boxes and headed to the Privatzimmer. We had taken some silk neckties with us for gifting to important visitors to our stall. We had a few left and gave one each to our hostess and her daughter. They were very happy. I could sense that they were not very well off. For example, I saw Maria carefully preserve the gift wrappings of the neckties. Maria’s husband was in German Airforce (Luftwaffe) as some pictures in the house showed. I had no idea if he was killed in the second world war or survived it and lost his life to ailments or accident later. I did not want to ask them. Maria was too old to work but her daughter was also out of job. She had rented her own apartment to guests who had come for the CeBIT and had come to stay with her mother. She could speak English and had thought that she would help her mother with the English-speaking guests. But we could communicate with Maria as I spoke some German. She told us that she was working as a secretary in a company before they decided to downsize and asked her to leave. “I don’t know why these companies are firing people. They are already earning a lot. How much more do they want?” she said. The corporate world’s pressures of showing growth year in and year out was telling on some jobs. The unemployment figure for Germany was almost 9% in 1997. And then office automation, the ubiquitous PCs and emails must have made secretaries redundant in all but the offices belonging to the very top brass.

I was sure Maria must be having her pension and state benefits. Her daughter must also be getting some unemployment benefits as she was working age. But it seemed that their lives were not free from financial worries. The most powerful economy of Europe was not without its problems.


Two colleagues visited CeBIT in March 1999. It so turned out that their Privatzimmer was booked with a Pakistani family, a lady with two small daughters. Those were the heady days of much optimism in the sub-continent. Prime Minister Vajpayee’s bus visit to Lahore had taken place in February. For once, a lasting peace between the two neighbours seemed possible. But it was not to be. Pakistan’s Kargil misadventure in June dashed all hopes to the ground.

(The Author: B. S. Chauhan is a retired technocrat)

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