A thick yellow dusk, the air smelling of burnt matches, haloes of streetlights fizzing in the sulphurous fog. Shadowy figures squat on their haunches swathed in blankets against the chill of evening – on a pavement, against a wall in the shadow of a tree, one perched birdlike on the crash barrier of a dual carriageway. They have the same beadily watchful intensity as the crows, swathed in their drab plumage. After a while they begin to infiltrate your dreams; you see them even when they are not there, in this city of tattered ghosts, crouched on the periphery of things, waiting, watching. The apocalypse already happened here, slowly, incrementally. As eras have come and gone, at least eight cities have risen and fallen on this site, and now Delhi is in its ninth incarnation. These ragged survivors haunt the ruins. Everywhere you go in India there’s someone living a life of sorts just in the periphery of your vision.
The Uber driver’s name was Anand, and his profile picture showed a gaunt man in his sixties with a worried expression. His rating was 4.4 stars – not calamitous, but on his way down. I could imagine some of the scorn with which the city’s youthful nouveau riche would regard him: as a hapless rural dolt, no doubt, granting him a spiteful one star to wipe out his rating. He spoke no English at all. On the radio classic Hindi love songs played, slow and measured, crackling with the static hiss of a gramophone. His shoulders were as narrow and thin as a coathanger, covered in an ancient beige sweater above which poked the frayed collar of his shirt. His ears were as thin and flat as minute steaks. He clutched nervously at the steering wheel with his farmer’s hands as he peered through the windscreen, and suddenly remembered something: one hand strayed to a small icon on the dashboard, touching it as he murmured a prayer, seeking protection from the innumerable dangers ahead. He drove with an old man’s caution, which I was glad of, belatedly swerving out of the way of vehicles that came at us with headlights on full beam. In the jams everyone leant on their horns incessantly, avoiding each other’s eyes. Stinking, shrieking, demented city. No space to think or reflect – only survive.
Anand’s phone with the satnav was upside down in its holder: left had become right, the direction we were to take reversed so that the arrow pointed downwards. Inevitably we went the wrong way at a junction and ended up on a flyover. We pointed this out to him and he embarked upon a lengthy lamentation by way of apology, saying it was all new to him; he stopped in the middle of three lanes of traffic, detached the phone and reverently handed it over, some precious, valuable thing containing incomprehensible magic. His gnarled finger extended and swiped the apps closed tenderly, as if wiping the brow of a child, showing us how it worked with a barely suppressed sense of wonder as the vehicles roared around us on all sides. He was essentially a farmer from a rural Indian village who had, from pride, desperation, or a mixture of both, decided to become an Uber driver in the unspeakable traffic of the impossible city, navigating his way through a dystopian landscape of concrete and dust that he didn’t understand.
I had left Delhi in late June, at the height of the Indian summer – dust-brown beneath the glare of a broiling sun. I landed in England at teatime on a Thursday afternoon, with trees in full bloom and green fields passing by outside the window. The sun in Delhi was something to be hidden from, the temperature over 40 degrees; people spent most of the day indoors, with curtains drawn against the heat. In London it was a balmy 22, and every patch of grass appeared to be occupied by sunbathers. At Liverpool Street Station there was the sound of a military band, playing a succession of popular hits culminating in the theme tune to James Bond. Soldiers in desert-pattern combat fatigues stood around with trays of poppies, raising money for the Royal British Legion. They wore the maroon beret of the Parachute Regiment, and they had all the exits covered. Around them swirled the travellers – stressed-looking men in suits, girls in tight skirts and high heels clipping regally along, tourists in backpacks not knowing where to go, pensioners clutching bags tightly as they shuffled across the concourse. The trains were going haywire due to flooding somewhere in Essex, and a circuitous route took me back and forth across East Anglia on a packed carriage for the best part of the afternoon, till darkness fell at 9pm, a lingering simmer dim of drawn-out northern dusk.
Outside London it seemed like a country given over to the old. At Ipswich Station I shared the lift with a woman in her late 60s wheeling a bicycle. She nodded to my backpack. “That looks heavy. Where are you off to?”
“Home to vote. I’ve just come back from India.”
She gave a cracked laugh. “You must feel right at home here then. This country’s going to be nothing but Indians at the rate we’re going.”
It was wholly unexpected. I digested the nasty little quip until the elevator stopped, then just in time, the response came. L’esprit d’escalier. As the doors opened I called out: “Perhaps we shouldn’t have been so arrogant to plunder their country for centuries then. Tables have turned, na?” (This last bit half Hindi.)
She gave me a look of disgust over her shoulder then wheeled her bicycle away down the platform, nose in the air.
“Silly season”, they call the summer months in British politics – the time when MPs head off on their holidays and nothing much happens. This time it was different. I had landed in a country that was tearing itself apart. The referendum on whether to remain in the European Union had essentially been hijacked into a debate about immigration; not so much a debate, in fact, as a series of increasingly vitriolic and xenophobic statements. Loudest of all was Nigel Farage, leader of UKIP, who appeared on television with monotonous regularity, thin lips smacking with satisfaction, eyes swivelling with outrage, inflaming a tense situation to the best of his ability in that oddy quacking voice – duckspeak, Orwell called it in 1984. “Believe you me!” he’d quack, the Verb-Subject-Object order an archaic inverted imperative, as if to give him more credibility, in the manner of every pub bore or bristling right-wing drunken uncle. “Believe you me, the British People have had enough…” etc., etc.
It was ugly to watch, and uglier still to see the effect it had on so many of The British People he claimed to speak for. Suddenly they did believe him; they’d believe anything he said, as long as he was outraged enough. His statements made less and less sense, but contained fragments of things that people somehow related to. “The pound in your pocket… hard-working families… foreigners sponging off our NHS… decent taxpaying folk… immigrants… immigrants… immigrants…” The poisonous dripfeed landed on fertile ground, ploughed by twenty years or more of tabloid bigotry. Suddenly Britain was Going It Alone, We Could Make it, we were still Great – this last one a characteristically inept government marketing initiative, attempting to brand the entire nation with a campaign of residual greatness in All Caps. At the interminable queue for Heathrow passport control (Borders Agency staff cut by 20% due to austerity measures, departmental civil servants flown in to provide emergency cover from around the country), a sign painted on the floor of the hall, trampled over by the slow-moving shuffle of thousands of travellers, British and foreign alike, had a scuffed and muddy slogan shouting: “This is GREAT Britain!” The feeble exhortation splashed across the edge of the UK border somehow perfectly captured the mood.
In the flatlands of the Suffolk coast the landscape had an illusion of timelessness, the lap and chop of the green waves on shingle, the yellow flowers of the gorse smelling of vanilla and coconut in the summer sun. Then the heavy damps of evening beneath a yellow moon, the slowly sighing waves, the mournful cry of seabirds. It was pretty, manicured and cultivated, and yet subtly change had blurred the edges. The fields across which I looked each day towards the harbour had been reclaimed from the sea by Dutch engineers in the 16th century, who had set up a network of windmills to drain the land – the local phone book was still full of names beginning with “van” this or “de” that. The coastline itself had shifted over the years in an endless interplay of advance and retreat with the North Sea, incrementally losing a little more each year to the waves. The ancient woodland of Dunwich Heath darkened the skyline, a mass of trees steadily climbing inland, and yet just visible beyond it were the white sails of a wind farm slowly turning. In an ironic juxtaposition, off to the left one could make out the golf ball dome of Sizewell Nuclear Power Station. In England if you half-closed your eyes it was possible to blot out these signs of modernity and focus instead on the neat lawns of small, crooked cottages in villages half-smudged by twilight, and hark back to some earlier, simpler era, some idyllic pastoral vision where everyone knew their place and all was well with the world. It was this artificial construct which was being touted by the politicians as the place that we all ought to return to in order to protect it – a narrative fairytale where by closing our borders, and presumably our consciences, there would be no refugee crisis, no migrants in makeshift camps just over the border, no troubling home-grown jihadis. We’d simply pull up the drawbridge and retreat into a daze of boozy nostalgic optimism. Old ladies sat alone in million-pound houses decked with Union Jack bunting, fending off the chill with supermarket sherry.
I went to vote in the old Methodist Hall, reeling with jetlag, ruddy with sunburn, my wallet full of useless rupees, wearing the jeans and dusty boots I had flown home in. An elderly couple manned three trestle tables and a pair of curtained booths. They checked my address on the register. It was oddly anticlimatic to actually add my cross to the Remain box. Then it was done, and I retired next door to the pub. People were blaring at each other like television sets, reciting chunks of tabloidese, everybody shouting, nobody listening. Chatting to a perfectly pleasant couple taking their holiday at the seaside, I asked if they had voted. Yes, they said, both had agonised over the decision. He had grudgingly voted remain, feeling that as a former businessman, access to the European single market was crucial for the economy. But she had voted leave. Why, I wanted to know?
Well, it was awful, wasn’t it, they both opined. What was happening to us? We didn’t have Sovereignty any more! (That most meaningless of terms, which had become a buzzword for the Leave campaign.) Not that they were racist or anything, but in the high street of their home town they hardly heard English spoken! It just wasn’t right!
What was their home town, I asked?
Bury St. Edmunds. (Small East Anglian market town, overwhelmingly white.)
But surely that’s an exaggeration, I said. Hardly hearing English in the High Street. And why does it matter anyway?
Ooh! There’s Polish shops everywhere, and all these gypsies selling Big Issue, and takeaway restaurants! You go out at night and it smells of curry! You see women in burkas sometimes!
Really? Burkas? In Bury St. Edmunds?
Well, you know, these headscarves. All these Muslims. It’s just not our country any more, is it?
“We just want our country back.” Occasionally someone would venture: “Why is it taking so long? We should leave now, today. Enough is enough.” What exactly did these people think they were going to get by doing so? What did they expect to change? England had taken aim firmly at its own foot, shut its eyes and defiantly pulled the trigger while singing Rule Britannia. Now it was just going to have to hobble along as best it could.
I went back home to Goa.
The tang of salt-spray on a shimmering beach, coolness of water assuaging the smart of sun-glowing skin. Teal-coloured sea, gold flecks in suspension, glittering mica swirling around. Rollers lift gently and billow subsiding, smoothing the sand with a faint shushing sound, wiping away the footprints of small birds – pipits and waders – who cheep softly, patrolling the shore. Tiny crabs walk alongside, gathered up by the retreating flow of the waves, carried on a carpet of foam to the sea. Beyond the strand lie the straw roofs of shacks merging into the green backdrop of jungle. The faint thump of bass emerges from them.
The area around Morjim has become popular with the Russians. They are utterly different to the hippy crowd, clean-cut and square-looking. The men are beefy, short-haired and swaggering, orthodox crosses hanging round bull-necks, with the pert (pointy? Putinesque?) pectorals of a weight-lifter’s physique. Many sport urka-style tattoos – translated roughly as “thug” or “gangster” – scrolls of inky iconography across backs and tree-broad torsos, once the mark of the professional criminal in Soviet times, now (usually) a fashion statement. They speak in low, lip-twisting mutters. A group of six stand in a circle, at ease, hands behind backs, smoking, growling like bassoons – a sextet of morose Mafiosi.
Others pack up their swimwear and leave the shack, trudging across the hot sand. Then something catches the man’s eye and he halts and looks back towards the bar. “Kto?” he mutters irritably. What is it? One of the women looks back and it becomes clear. The waiter is waving goodbye to them. “Ah! Goodbye! Bye. Bye.” They remember the suitable response and give a half-hearted flap of the arm.
The women often look Scandinavian – tall, pale-eyed and lissom. They arrange their limbs languidly on the sunloungers, roll onto their stomachs and pull their bikinis up at the back to tan their bottoms, cushioning salt-tousled heads on downy arms. The waiter brings beer for the group of four in front of us, and one young woman stands up, raises the bottle aloft to some of her friends sitting in the shack and lets out a cheer: “Urrah!”
“Urrah” has been used as the battle cry of the Imperial Russian Army, the Red Army and the present-day Russian ground forces. Major Bruno Gebele of the Wehrmacht decribes the chilling effect of hearing it during the battle of Stalingrad, as a mass of snow-suited Russian infantry charged towards the German lines baying the word.
Does this girl on a beach in Goa know this? Does she understand the historical irony, now, here, in the context of present-day events? She probably wasn’t even born when the Berlin Wall came down. Perhaps she’s just a young woman having a nice time on holiday, enjoying a cold beer in the hot sun in the company of her friends. Na zdorov’ye. Cheers. Urrah.
Ideologies… stereotypes… Here, on this sun-struck tropical coast, the world comes together in a temporary truce, like a watering hole in the jungle. Looking around at the other tables in this old Portuguese restaurant, beneath the slowly circulating punkah fans, I see half a dozen nationalities. Four pear-shaped Finns, pale and puffy from winter, converse in long strings of syllables. Next to them are three French diners, two men and a woman. They are sun-wizened and lithe, like rock climbers. Behind me I can hear the strangulated English vowels of an old colonial voice – a man in his 70s wearing a safari suit. Old Africa hand. His companion is a lady of a similar age, but German. His voice has the low rumble of authority and they speak in that terse shorthand that old couples can adopt. “Jolly good bread. Pass the salt, would you?” Now he’s talking about the British Prime Minister’s recent speech on Brexit. “Europeans absolutely livid with us!” he says in Telegraphese. Epsolyutely. “Don’t blame them one bit!”
Four young Russians walk in. Early 20s at most. They are clean-cut, almost plastic-looking, like members of a youth movement. They flick through the menu, scowling at it, clearly ill-at-ease, like gap year kids who’ve ended up in a fancy restaurant by mistake and are trying to act like grown-ups. All the other tables are taken by foreigners, all of us long-stayers in Goa – we can recognise each other somehow. This is where we are hiding out from the world, and yet all the world is here too. The French are wheezing with smoky laughter at a joke. Opposite me some Londoners order another round of beer (“Cheers, squire! You’re a gent,” one says to the waiter, a sleepy boy with a wall eye, to his utter confusion). They drink out of styrofoam Australian-style beer-holders decorated with the St. George’s Cross. Another table has two Irish couples of retirement age, whose speech is a rapid Dublin blur, three times the pace of our own. One man is talking about fields, developments, two-hundred-thousand-euro a piece, building societies, agricultural subsidies. The other gets up and makes for the bathroom, five-ten of solid muscle, wrists like rolling pins and an arm-swinging gait. Two more elderly Brits come in and recognise the Irish: Howarya, roight, roight, still here then, oh yes it’s minus three and snowing at home, ugh, not looking forward to it. Everybody laughs a little ruefully. My chicken xacuti arrives – a spicy green Goan curry – and I tuck my legs up under me on the chair in the lotus position and eat with my hands, because it feels more comfortable that way.
The old hippies are still here, of course. The American guy I met last year, veteran of Altamont who was busking his way to Moscow. I shake his hand in passing, but he doesn’t seem to remember me. It doesn’t matter, he smiles – last season was a lifetime ago, and here we are again. Are we going to the gig tonight? Sure, we’ll drop by. And there are the newcomers, the millennial hippy kids in harem pants and Om vests, the dreadlocks and laptops brigade, searching for something to believe in with an almost evangelical solemnity, documenting every step of their spiritual journey on instagram, no matter how banal. What future do they have at home, now that the politicians have destroyed it? One cannot blame them for trying to find an alternate one here, however clichéed.
Here, on the precipitous edge of now, the fronds of the palm trees sway, stirring the air. The egrets stand upon them, bobbing back and forth, gurgling to each other. I rinse the ants out of the kettle to make coffee, as I do every morning, then shave in tepid water, enjoying the coolness of the pass of the blade, the scent of sandalwood soap and coconut oil. Beyond, the world has gone mad, but here the sky is pink and lemon, and the forested rise of hills cuts off the valley from the outside. The dogs are barking at a cow wandering up the lane, the children are standing outside the temple, which is painted tangerine and lime-green, decorated with golden swastikas. The school bus arrives, its side emblazoned with a picture of Jesus. The poi guy cycles past, splay-kneed, klaxon honking, his tray of round bread rolls covered in blue plastic behind him. The marsh steams gently in the sun, cows grazing on the lush grass, wallowing up to their bellies in water, attended by egrets. The crippled boy comes lurching along the road, as he does every day, one arm limp, one leg dragging, looks up to see me smoking on the balcony, and slowly smiles.