I’ve been in India two weeks now. Five days to go. Time to get down some of the thoughts that have been buzzing round my head with every new, extraordinary, shocking, amusing, joyful, surprising, uplifting, unnerving experience.
I can’t pretend I’ve been much exposed to the rough and tumble of India. I feel slightly embarrassed that the whole trip so far has been experienced from a level of comfort and protection which is unusual for me in my UK life, and far removed from the experiences of ‘ordinary’ Indians. Whatever ordinary is for people here. In straight statistical and visibility terms, you might think that life for the majority of Indians is quite miserable. For many, very many it is unbelievably grim. But you take a walk in Lodhi Gardens or the Deer park at Haus Klah on a Sunday or by India Gate at sunset and see so many ‘ordinary’ Indians having a pretty chilled time, walking in beautiful green spaces, hanging out at local ancient monuments playing games and music, enjoying the leisure that the city affords many of its citizens…
So I’m staying here with a friend (Indian by birth but a Londoner) who has an Important Job In The Arts at the British Council. Working for the BC means you have diplomatic status ; access to the British High Commission, a step back in Raj-scented time with Ghurkas standing guard on the gates, and inside rolling well tended lawns, tennis courts, swimming pool, bars, club-houses. I only spent 30 minutes there waiting for my friend who was at a medical appointment but already I was starting to feel like Daphne Manners.
What I’d failed to grasp before I arrived that my friend has staff : a housekeeper and a driver, which means that for two weeks I have not had to get myself anywhere by public transport, cook any meals, make my bed, do my washing , get my shoes repaired, open the front door myself or even make a cup of tea. This means that the remaining things I have to do – personal hygiene, taking the right stuff with me when I go out, not having major wardrobe malfunctions, making appointments and enquiries on the phone – I have been doing spectacularly badly. I conclude I would be quite rubbish at being wealthy and having servants.
I should add that having a housekeeper and personal driver is not unusual and by UK standards wages are very low. British Council staff tend to pay well above the going rate as trustworthiness and security are very important.
But with all this molly coddling in the background I’ve been out and about a fair bit. I feel a bit feeble not having done what most people do when they ‘do’ India which is charge about all over the country cramming as many historic, cultural and natural wonders into the itinerary as possible. In the 20 days I’ll have spent here, 13 of them will have been spent in Delhi, with trips to Goa and Orchha interspersed across the two middle weekends. But I’ve got to know Delhi and the many heritage, cultural and retail experiences it has on offer. I’ve had cocktails in the Imperial Hotel, seen contemporary theatre and digital arts, had dinner with quite a famous author (and read her book in four days), had an incredible pedicure for £3.60, meditated at an Ashram and shopped for Britain. Or India, as I like to think. Made the trip to Old Delhi and took a cycle rickshaw tour through the lanes festooned with electric cables at first floor level, crowded with bazaars and shops selling finery in one zone, stationary in another, auto spares in another and spice in another. I felt like a total tourist (especially as I had gone out with aforementioned wardrobe malfunction and had forgotten my scarf to go inside temples). I’ve visited the National Gallery of Contemporary Art, the National Museum, Crafts Museum, Ghandi Museum, visited a number of World Heritage sites and saw the Delhi opening night of Nirbhaya , the UK-Indian co-production of the astounding and heart rending play about the Delhi rape case of 2012 that resounded across the world and brought thousands of women out on the streets ‘breaking the silence’ about sexual abuse and violence against women so prevalent in Indian society.
I’ve also spent a lot of time sitting in the back seat of a car stuck in notorious Delhi traffic to the symphonic and ever present fanfares of car horns. Whether at a standstill or moving along, this gave me an opportunity to observe things at street level, including the culture of instant commerce/ philanthropy which the poorest of Delhi citizens pursue at traffic jams on the elegant wide boulevards of New Delhi. Whether exhorted to buy a window shade for the car, a flower, packets of crisps or simply give some money to a blind beggar led through the queueing traffic by a child, one is tempted to fling handfuls of 10 rupee (about 10p, but about one third of what the poorest of Indians live on per day) notes out of the window to assuage one’s guilt. In reality I find I give to a beggar about once a day, more if I have eaten/ shopped particularly well.
But when not dealing with the angst of a pampered first world tourist, I have noted down some observations and musings on things spotted out of the car or on my trips. They’re random things you see on the streets and are best summarised randomly.
Three men sitting on a cast iron park bench on a flatbed truck. Travelling backwards, legs crossed, enjoying the shade where the van has stopped in traffic.
A group of young people playing blind man’s bluff in a shaded enclave of an historic ruin. As always, the group run off leaving one individual groping blindfold across empty space.
Three puppies in a garden enclosure at the Qutub Minar . Their mother limps towards the entrance to the historic attraction in search of food. She’s thin, her dugs are hanging.
A woman and three kids on the central reservation of a dual carriageway where traffic is at a standstill. The children do acrobatic tricks then ask drivers for money.
A tiny girl on the back of a scooter, no helmet, arms barely long enough to reach around her father’s waist.
Signs saying Horn Prohibited. Philharmonic cacophony of car horns.
‘Accelerate towards your own car’ says an advert offering car finance. There’s a picture of a family looking at a car in the driveway. Bizarrely, wife is holding a tray of food. Maybe to dispel the idea that she may have been involved in the financial decision making.
An elephant with a man on walking along a busy highway.
A naked man walking along the road with a large bundle on his head. After the bent servitude of the raggedly clothed beggars, there is something joyful and proud about his healthy, strong unclothed body and his long stride.
I have spent four days in Goa (not exactly hippy slumming, the Marriott Hotel actually) and we’ll be taking a trip to Madhaya Pradesh tomorrow, but I’ve decided against the Agra/ Taj Majal/ Jaipur trail. People seem surprised I’ve not seen more places. But I’ve seen loads of places, mostly in Delhi. Loads of places, loads of things. I may not be getting round India much this trip, but I’m trying to get my head round it. I’ve got five days left.