(This is the text of a letter I wrote in 1992 about a trip to India in 1991. I have edited out bits that were nothing to do with that trip, and corrected a few typos, but everything else is much as I wrote it.)
A long flight, drunken. G. was determined to get drunk – it doesn’t take much to get him determined, and he kept summoning the stewardesses. I didn’t feel like drinking – I rarely do on planes, just a whisky or two. G. wanted to do litres. He turned to the Indian guy at the window, and whilst I dozed, listened to the same tunes on the jazz channel over again, and half watched the movie (Robin Hood; only worth it for Alan Rickman), G. got him drunk. This wasn’t such a good move. I mean, at the time it might have seemed like a good idea; a sociable thing to do, a chance to get a head start on the atmosphere. This guy ran a small chain of video shops in Hounslow; a canny Indian, trading, and turning a trick. (A lot of British business must be like that: small, slightly shadey, with dodgy deals hidden away in the cupboards, beneath a layer of dust and varnish.) He was flying back to go to his father’s funeral. One of three brothers, he felt guilty for getting out and going overseas. He had supported his family – built his father a house – and he foresaw big family arguments over: who would get the house (which he saw as his; he built it).
I am not sociable on planes: I rarely talk to strangers. Instead, I stare out of the window, watching the city lights – London, Cairo, Delhi – hypnotised, glad still to be alive [amazed still that those things actually take off – I never believe they will, always thinking, maybe this time, maybe now…]. Why should I want to talk to anybody?)
So I played little part in this discussion, despite G. entreating me to lower my western attitudes, drop the cool posture, get involved!!! but it isn’t my earnest Englishness; it is planes. But I did listen, happy to listen. G. got him drunk (and I drank more than I would normally in the air, because for some reason the stewardesses kept bringing them; it is an offence to be drunk on a plane). G. got himself drunk, too. I don’t think the Indian video-master was used to drink; maybe his religion – do Hindus drink? – maybe his home life. He got drunk, very drunk. He passed out, he threw up (I was glad G. was next to him), he groaned. G. even felt a little guilty; he felt a little sick himself (sneaking off to the loo to throw up himself, before ordering a double brandy).
Me, I was tipsy; I slept. Roll on the holiday.
The flight wasn’t the start of India: almost it was the opposite, the flight was secure, predictable, uncrowded, westernised.
No, India started at passport control – with the queues and the forms and the rules. There were six desks open, with their screens and keyboards; behind each, sat an Indian. Above four of the desks hung signs saying, Indians Only; over the other two, the signs said, Foreigners. In front of the four, waited a handful of people; in front of the two waited three hundred and fifty people, offloaded from the jumbos that had just landed.
It was two in the morning; G. was drunk and I was tired. And I don’t think I really wanted to be there at all.
I don’t mean I didn’t want to be in a queue of three hundred and fifty people. Who wants to be in a queue of three hundred and fifty people? No, I had doubts about being in India at all; I was only there because I couldn’t think of a good reason not to be, because it might be fun to go travelling with G. again, because I had more holiday than I knew what to do with, and spare cash for spending (G. still owes £500 for his ticket) which is what it is there for. I wasn’t there because I wanted to be; I was there because I had to be somewhere.
And now, in this huge queue, a drunken Irishman swaying in front of me getting irritated because we weren’t moving – his Indian friend had walked through – staggered, his tie undone, his hair unkempt, and his mouth tasting like some forgotten nightmare to see his relatives on the other side (and then it was a two day trip to his father’s town in the north) – I mean, this was like some vision of 20th century hell –
– and this queue was not moving.
There was then movement behind one of the desks, an empty one; another official entered his box, to open up the desk. There was a mad rush, as people left the two “foreigners” desks and ran to form a third line, watched by this little Indian with a smile on his face. G. and I were left behind in our queue, not quick enough off the mark; we were still near the back, but now it had shrunk to maybe half its size (it was closer to the new counter than the others). The official slowly reached beneath his newly opened desk and pulled out a sign “Indians”, and hung it over the desk; the queue dissolved in disarray.
Our queue moved, slowly. On each desk stood a computer, switched on; but everything was written down by hand – in triplicate – as well as being typed into the computer. The papers passed back and forth over the desk – being signed and resigned, stamped in four places, stapled to others bits of paper and put in four different trays to be processed. The computer seemed to have made things more difficult than simpler.
Finally we got to the front of the queue; four Muslim Pakistanis in front of us were summarily sent to the back of the queue again by the passport officer, who appeared to believe that “foreigners” meant white, and “Indian” meant Indian. Maybe Muslim meant unclean.
We picked up our luggage, after all the papers had been signed – a process I got seriously used to after just a couple of weeks. In fact, I got seriously used to it after just a couple of hours. The next stage of paper-filling (jeez! think about the trees!) came when we wanted to get some money. There was a problem to overcome before this, however, because we couldn’t find the bank. We had gone through customs after the baggage hall; but there wasn’t a bank after customs: the bank was hidden at one end of the baggage claim hall. We had to beg the customs officials to let us go back through, where we eventually found the cash desk. There was a short queue here – maybe four people in front of us. Easy, I thought. I had a lot to learn.
Getting money was far harder than getting through passport control. I don’t know why, but it was. Even after all the right bits of paper had been filled – address, occupation, passport number, insurance number, car registration number, phone number, blood type, national insurance number, added together dived by two and subtract the number you first thought of… After all that, the teller then disappeared and we had to wait till they found the money. This happened after each person; I would have thought they’d have realised that each person in this line would eventually like to be given a handful of grubby notes, and they’d have had a supply ready. As G. had said, I had to get out of the western way of thinking.
The next lesson in Indian philosophy came in the effort of getting to the hotel. G. had booked a hotel in New Delhi, by phone and fax. The other side of customs again, we went to the taxi desk, to get a taxi. The man behind the desk said that we should call the hotel to make sure it was all ok; he wanted to send us somewhere else (to a cousin’s, no doubt). I was surprised that he didn’t ask me to fill out a form, giving my date of birth, my mothers occupation and my father’s death certificate before we could pick up the phone.
Needless to say, the hotel had no record of us at all. We decided to go there anyway, and butch it out: the idea of being taken to some other place didn’t suit at all. We wanted some semblance of control.. We argued, and finally got our cab, one of the old Oxford cabs that tout everywhere. There was little traffic at this time in the morning. We stopped at some traffic lights, where the slip road from the airport met the main road into Delhi.
The lorries on the main road didn’t have their lights on, thundering down the road in the dark. The several cyclists didn’t have lights on either. Life is cheap; batteries are expensive. The traffic lights changed from red to green. Suddenly, all around us, car, taxi lorries and buses were hooting, desperately: the light was green and they weren’t moving! They hooted violently; there were few vehicles, but they made a lot of noise. We started, people still hooting. On the main road, there was a frantic jockeying for position, as people tried to get ahead, overtaking whilst trying to avoid the lorries without lights.
It was, I believe, crazy.
We got to our hotel. There was a man behind the reception desk. We started to tell him our story, but he waved us away, saying we needed to go to the registration desk. We moved along the counter, to the registration desk. We waited a couple of minutes, and then he walked to the other side of the registration desk. He asked what our problem was, and said he had no rooms free.
Next lesson. G. told him very firmly that we had a reservation; the Indian said we didn’t. So G. raised his voice, scowled a bit, and said again that we had a reservation and, furthermore, we would not move until we had a room. The Indian looked more concerned at this. G. was still drunk; we were both irritated. He thought for a few seconds, and then said he did have some space because of a last minute cancellation. We had to pay in advance, he said; at the cash desk.
The cash desk was at the other end of the counter, the other side of the reception desk. We walked back there; he followed, mirroring us on the other side of the counter. He took our money, checking our bank details and stamping a few forms, and then he gestured us back to the registration desk. There we had to fill out some forms. Then we had to pick up our key; from the reception desk.
By now, I was in the swing of this. I was part of a Kafka short story! I was in India.
G. asked if there was somewhere where we could get a drink; it was early morning now, maybe four am, and we were tired. The receptionist took a long look at G. and said, “oh no sir, not now, and I am thinking you have some already…”
The lobby had the look of a building site, with piles of cement and sand on the floor, cables running through the dust, and furniture turned up for use as a workbench. Apparently it always looks like that – a perpetual state of renovation. The room on was on the seventh floor; we had to take a lift to get there. The lifts too looked liked they needed renovation.
The room was plain; but it had two beds, and water, and maybe even a view out across New Delhi. Below, there was life stirring. We went to bed. It wasn’t a particularly restful night: I slept solidly, but I was woken early by a dreadful noise. I had forgotten that G. snored, as if his nasal passages were taking their revenge for his dissolute life on anyone who might be within sleeping distance; usually this would be someone sinful, someone dissolute themselves. But for the next week, it was me. I knew all this, of course – no stranger to travelling with G. singing, she drives me crazy – but somehow, in between trips, you never remember waking up in the middle of the night with a lawnmower in the next bed, screaming at him to shut the fuck up (he never wakes up; when you realise this, it can be quite amusing: you can take out the frustration of trying to sleep through a pneumatic drill by being as cruel as you possibly can. In his sleep he – his subconscious – will agree to almost anything; if only I could get him to use his hands as well, he would sign away his life.)
I awoke again later, the sounds of the traffic rising from below. It was cacophonous. I still had not seen anything of Delhi of course, just the rumble of traffic, and some buildings from the window – the angular pink of the Janpath observatory like an abstract form in the blue sky; the smell of petrol wafted up to the seventh floor.
We had no plan for the next two days, aside from checking our flight east. Breakfast was in order that morning; a ritual with G. There was a cafeteria on the ground floor (and we found a bar on the first; there was also a posh restaurant attached, but we didn’t get to use that). This was organised along similar lines to the reception. You had to pay before you ordered anything, at a cash desk not obviously attached to the cafeteria; this caused problems, because you had to go backwards and forwards when you decided you wanted something else (say, another cup of coffee) and then you had to go to a counter to get your food, handing over the slip of paper that you’d been given at the cash desk. Since there were two sets of counters – one for food, one for drinks – this took two people to queue to make sure that everything arrived at the same time. Unfortunately there was only one Indian serving; still, you had to be at the right counter – if you asked for eggs at the toast counter, you wouldn’t get served. I asked for coffee at the tea counter, and almost got laughed out of the building. Most of the things meant to be served from the counters were off the menu anyway. Good thing I didn’t really want breakfast…We then set out into the sun.
And where are we now – sitting in the latter part of the twentieth century – another year (middle age creeping like a tube train down my spine) and jeez, time flies ( time crawls; like an insect: down the wall) – but where were we?
That was a good question: where were we? The streets of New Delhi were wide, the traffic uncertain, and we didn’t really know where we were. We wanted to get to Connaught Place, to check out the flight east; shame on me – just in case – pumped up full of vitamins, on account of all the seriousness – and looking for Connaught Place.
I hadn’t been there before, but I like maps; G. had been there before, but he was lazy. The wide avenues (all lined with tress) were bustling. The buildings were hotels or large office buildings – there was a police station, a post office – and there were groups of people, standing in the shade of the flame trees. We walked down one avenue, realised we weren’t going the right way (maybe the sun – we wanted to go north, but our shadows weren’t going that way), and went down another. The roundabout was a chaotic jumble of cars, bikes, buses and lorries, and pedestrians happily walking through it all, driving animals amid the hoots on account of all the rattlesnakes and of course the obligatory cow, wandering aimlessly, trying so hard to get run down (and curse the traffic in the process).
So we double backed, cut across, looked at the map, and found ourselves walking down Janpath, beside the observatory. The curves and lines – the steps, the notches, the king’s geometry set – were beautiful, cutting together, setting apart, a tension between the different shapes. Art or science?
We walked on up Janpath, where G. lead us down an alley; this was a market, crowded and bustling – alive with people. We looked around the stalls, buying a couple of bottles of drink (the first of many, many bottles of Sprite, Pepsi (because the Indians demand that no foreign company can own all of an Indian company, there used to be no coke in India; the Indian government has just changed the law, so coke has set up a subsidiary; Pepsi had a joint venture with an Indian company, happy to take the cash without the control), and whatever the local versions were called) – the stall holders wanted the bottles back. Everyone was friendly, smiling at us, trying to get us to look at their stall.
We walked around Connaught Place, the wide Edwardian circle at the edge of New Delhi, before it falls into Old Delhi. The buildings were in a pleasant state of disrepair – the tropics does that (the plants always win), the paint peeling, the plaster cracked, the facade worn down by the rain and the sun. We were pestered by shoeshine boys and beggars, map-sellers and spice sellers.
The airline office was on the other side of Connaught Place: we completed most of the circle, just looking, and went in Indian Airlines. We took a number, and waited.
We waited; and when our number came up on the counter, we went up to a free desk. Oh no no no, said the man behind the desk, we had the wrong coloured ticket, we needed a different ticket… We took a different ticket, uncertain whether this was some separation between tourists and Indians, or a division of labour… Our number came up again, and we went to another free desk, where the lady said she was just going to lunch… but she would deal with us first…
I was surprised how easy it was to be relaxed about all this bureaucracy: there was no hardship in staying cool, no problem in not getting annoyed. Slipping into Indian ways, however pointless the form filling – and I don’t care any more – it didn’t matter. The lady behind the desk looked at our tickets, said everything was in order, and she didn’t know why we had bothered to come to the office to check. (She may have been right this time, but we quickly realised that it always paid to be cautious when dealing with travel agents.)
We too went off to lunch. Around Connaught Place there were several fast food joints – there was a MacDonalds selling lamb burgers (so as not to offend anyone, although I reckon the lambs might have been pretty pissed off), there was a not-quite-Kentucky Chicken outlet. We settled on an Indian fastfood place, part of Nirulas. It was crowded with office workers at lunch. Just like the hotel, there were different counters for each kind course; G. went to get the drinks, leaving me to deal with the main courses. This was not easy, and certainly not fast: they had just had an order for 20 lunch boxes, and the queue deteriorated. I couldn’t get the hang of the queue – I don’t know whether it was how loud you shouted, how forcefully you pushed money at the counter, or perhaps the delicate nuance with which you caught the tortured eye of the cook. Whatever, many people got served before I did, pushing in front of me, shouting louder, grabbing the platters.
We finally got our food, a mixed selection – a thali. We were the only white people in the place, though Connaught Place itself had a lot of white faces (most of them with a wake of Indian children streaming behind them).
After we had eaten, we got in a motor-rickshaw and went into Old Delhi. G. took charge, bargaining with the driver. This wasn’t a game I really enjoyed; they were dirt cheap anyway, and I never really knew what the real price was. We got him down a bit, decided it was reasonable, and headed off into the traffic. We had no idea, really, where we were going; sure, the Red Fort – our first port of call (hell, lets face it, we were tourists; weren’t we?). But as we fought against the traffic, in huge roads, battling with buses and lorries, bicycle rickshaws, goats cows and camels – even elephants – in a huge river of traffic, it became clear that it didn’t really matter where we were going; there was just so much to see – so much movement – all those people – the shanties, the dust, the sheer force of numbers…
We got there safely – maybe not the most direct route (though I never tried to walk it, it doesn’t look very far on the map). The Red Fort was fascinating – my first Indian palace. We wandered around; I was impressed by the sense of design, the beauty of the architecture and artistry of the craftsmanship. The curves of the archways and cupolas were beautiful, and the rows of carved pillars added a serial perspective. The ceilings, inlaid with metal and glass and sculpted, stretched above them. (Remember; I had my camera.)
There was dust everywhere; they were not too many tourists, although there were a lot of school children, on whom we acted like magnets. Much of the palace was in disrepair, but that didn’t detract from it; instead, it added a certain charm to the less important parts.
The sun shone; it was hot. We bought drinks, and as we drank we were approached by a party of Indian school girls, wanting to practice their English. They were flirtatious fourteen year olds (we were lecherous thirty year olds), and we flirted back. I think G. almost found himself engaged.
The alleys of the fort were cool, in the shadows of the walls. The buildings were now all shops, selling souvenirs. The fort is still in use as a barracks, and there were guards on some doors, and troops marched past.
Back outside in the sun, we decided what to do next. We were quickly surrounded, by taxi drivers, souvenir sellers, guides, and children; we started walking, just to get away from the claustrophobia. The taxi drivers were incensed: they couldn’t see why we were walking when they could drive us. We crossed the large road outside the fort, a broad and busy dual carriage way which ran back towards New Delhi, avoiding rickshaws and cattle; one of the hawkers kept up with us, walking beside us, continually talking – suggesting places that he could show us, as he was willing to be our guide. He was rather more sophisticated than the others who had crowded us outside the fort; his English was very, he dressed well. He kept up his banter, as we walked into Old Delhi down Chandni Chowk; he also spoke to several people in the street. In the end he gave up, and I think he was angry with our attitude; perhaps he wasn’t trying to sell us anything, but was volunteering to show us around. G. and I felt we might almost have been rude – we had paid him little heed.
Chandni Chowk was stunning. A broad street, lined with buildings that looked like they had grown organically, one sprouting wherever there was space. Their signs proclaimed businesses that belied the different attitude to life in India: crowding the walls lining the street, in bright yellows and reds, the advertised the trades – tailors, jewellers, gun sellers; there was the banner urging us to “consult for sex problems Hero Pharmacy”, and another for Dr Sablok, Sexologist. (These were the ones in English; I would love to have been able to read the Hindi signs as well).
The whole street was crowded, with pedestrians, handcarts piled high with sacks (pushed by a young child, somehow without hitting anything), bicycles loaded with bags (more often walked than cycled), motor and pedal rickshaws (who touted for our trade whenever we walked by); lorries, cars (old design Oxfords and Ambassadors, still made in India and the main stay of the Indian motor trade). The street was packed, everyone weaving in and out, not caring. (We were right to give the taxis a miss; aside from seeing much more on foot, being able to stop and look at shops, nip down alleys; aside from that, we walked faster than the traffic.) There was a tremendous noise, a chatter, as people made bargains and deals, as drivers shouted at people to get out of the way, and the cyclists rang their bells; the taxis and lorries hooted, ignored by everyone; and the stall holders shouted their wares, like a medieval incantation. Snatches of western pop music could be heard from distorted speakers in the backs of shops – Madonna singing, like a virgin – added to the surreal nature of the market.
In front of most shops was a stove, and there were people cooking food in heavy, black oil; the smells, hanging in the air with the dust and the noise, were sometimes enticing and often nauseous. The food was unrecognisable. We walked the length of Chandni Chowk, dipping up alleys, looking at stalls, crossing the street to look at particular shops or stalls; there were children following us the whole time, but most people (aside from rickshaw drivers) ignored us. They were no other tourists. There was hardly room to breath – you could only move with the crowd, caught in the stream – but it was not threatening at all; there was no fear, no hostility.
The light began to fail as evening grew closer. We looped down through the back streets towards the main mosque. Off Chandni Chowk, the streets were still crowded; people were surprised to see us, everyone smiling and practising their English. Down one dead end, a man wanted to show us his house. The roads were potholed, some of the holes filled with black water. G. stopped for some tea from a street seller; my western worries for my stomach stopped me (also, I never drink tea: a superstition of mine; something to do with sex).
The sun was low on the horizon as we walked up the flights of steps leading to the mosque. A team of elephants moved down the main street past the Red Fort, advertising a circus; the elephant handlers called to us, trying to get us to take a ride on their charges. The walls of the fort caught the pink light of sunset, and glowed beneath the dark blue sky that was turning black.
People were laying out their wares for the night market; the more upmarket ones had stalls. The towers of the mosque were silhouetted; the callers – the muzzein – broadcast to the faithful. At the walls of the mosque, the market was in full swing. There were posters pasted to the walls, praising Saddam Hussein; some stallkeepers tried to sell us Saddam t-shirts. Each stall was lit by a gas lamp, with strings of weak electric bulbs strung between the stalls.
As darkness fell, I grew more nervous: this was just too different – I mean, hell! this was my first day, and my senses were nearing overload; the beggars on the steps to the mosque, the food-hawkers, the smells, the sounds; I dragged G. away, back to the hotel.
At the hotel, greeted like old friends by the same receptionist who had tried to stop us staying the previous night, we showered and had some whisky. From our window, the skyline was black and purple, the dust in the sky shining in the sun below the horizon.
We went to the hotel bar, open at this time of evening, and had a couple of Tiger beers; and we decided what to do next. In contrast to the rest of the day, the bar wasn’t crowded; a couple of Indian businessmen sat in one corner (it wasn’t a tourist hotel, but one used by Indians, part of a chain owned by the government); some western pop music played. We drank more Tiger beer – maybe it was Elephant (in Tanzania they have Lion beer; something about foreign beers and wild animals: must be good for advertising, and sexology).
What we decided to do was follow the advice of Lonely Planet guide and go for a good meal. The restaurant they said was the best was in the Sheraton Hotel. We thought this was a good evening to celebrate – our first real day in India – so we went for it. We were going to get a taxi, but a bicycle-rickshaw was waiting; so we took that. We asked the price, and G. got into bargaining mode again; he got the price down by half, and the driver looked very pissed off about it. The Sheraton turned out to be miles always, and this little man had to cycle hard to get us there; we felt guilty (the white man’s burden) and gave him twice the money we had agreed: it hadn’t been a fair price that G. had bargained at all!
The restaurant we wanted was full, and we had to wait for a table; this was fine, as we sat in the bar on some more beers; I always drink a lot more when I am with G. The opulence of the hotel was in stark contrast to the crowds and the dust of Old Delhi; the staff wore pressed white suits and catered almost obsessively to make sure everything was as we wanted (in the toilet, the attention was very offputting: I thought the retainer would offer to pull down my flies; and knowing that someone is watching you pee makes a simple action almost impossible). The bar where we waited for a table overlooked a courtyard, through which ran a stream fed by four fountains, lit by blue and red spots, and the water played on the leaves of small palms and cycads (which probably didn’t like it, since they grow in Mexican deserts). The restaurant itself was dark and smoky: the food was cooked on open grills. The chairs and tables were roughly cut wood, and the plates were wooden too – simulation of Indian peasant culture, so the mixture of tourists and rich Indians, out with their families or white guests, could feel like they were roughing it. The food was quite superb: moghul cuisine, from the north west. It tasted delicious: dry spiced dishes. 23.1.93
The meal lasted a long time – several beers’ worth; the restaurant emptied out. The tables were fairly close together – I have no idea what the ruling Indians and the touristing Scandinavians thought of our manic conversations, and I can’t recall what I thought of theirs; there was some talk of politics from a large party of eight Indians and westerners on my right; to my left were a couple youngish thirtysomething blonde American women, dressed in painfully ethnic clothes, freeflowing paisley cloth (I have no idea whether the actual design came from Scotland, or just the cloth; was the design taken from the east, and made in Paisley, or did it flow the other way?).
We took a motor rickshaw back to our hotel. G. paid the driver to let him have a go at driving it, and had there been any other traffic we would have had an accident; the driver was very nervous, since he could lose his license, or else lose his tip. At a roundabout, where the driver said turn right, G. turned right onto the roundabout (instead of right off it), going the wrong way around; after this the driver firmly took back control of the steering wheel, worried that he might not even have the means to make his living – or a life – if he let the crazy white man carry on…