Full Circle

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.

 

Advertisements

The Impossible City

Nine hours on Air India to transition seamlessly (more or less) from one life to another. Chetan from Leicester in the next seat shook my hand, asked me in the morose accent of the Midlands if the food was safe on Air India and sank three beers in quick succession (“It’s really naughty of me, I know,” he told the stewardess, “but could I get a brandy?” She smiled thinly at such English self-effacement and brought him one). He was of Indian origin himself, travelling on to Ahmedabad (pron. “Amdabad”) to visit family with his little girl, who like him appeared Indian but was British in every respect – accent, dress, manner, conversation – and he was asking me for advice on how to cope. Most of his stories seemed to have but one theme: what a great bargain he had got. When it turned out my ticket had cost fifty quid less than his own he lapsed into a troubled silence and apologetically ordered another brandy.

It was 7.30pm on a Monday night in Delhi, toward the end of January. A chill in the air, about 9 degrees, everything covered in a thick layer of grey dust. We found an auto rickshaw (tuktuk) to take us south to Alaknanda for ten rupees over the meter, which seemed fair. We buzzed along for a while, bumping over not so much potholes as entire sections of road that were missing, through clouds of dust and exhaust fumes, in this, the world’s most polluted city, then hit total and utter gridlock. Five lanes of traffic on three lanes of road, none of it moving. Next to us on one side was a top of the range Mercedes. On the other, three lads on a small motorbike. Ahead one motorbike decided to bump over the verge onto the pavement, and proceed that way. Others quickly followed suit. Then a rickshaw saw a gap it could get over and also went onto the pavement. Five more followed. Soon the pavement was a line of motorbikes and rickshaws and bicycles, all slowly edging forward.

Then I saw him. A man in a knitted tank top and grey slacks. He was trying to walk. This particular section of pavement had some fume-blasted trees on it, and he had to dash from one to the next, seeking cover as a tide of vehicles edged around him on either side. The kerbstone had crumbled at one point and one joker in a car decided he’d make better progress on the pavement too, so he bumped over it, scraping his exhaust. One bike had to edge so far left that his mirror dragged down the wall of the building overlooking the road. And it struck me then, with perfect clarity: this is it. Total and utter capacity. Every inch of the road was locked solid. The pavement was jammed with snarling vehicles. Even the narrow cobblestone divide between road and pavement had bicycles wheeling along it. And this one guy, who had foolishly tried to walk down a main road in Delhi, was left scurrying from tree to tree, marooned by an endless tide of traffic. If it becomes so congested that you can’t even walk any more, what sort of city have you got? One that has become impossible.


And yet, and yet… Woken by raucous cheers and whoops at 9 in the morning. The uncles are playing cricket on the maidan playing field – uncles being a generic term for older men (it’s nice that we are all related in this way, but I notice with mild misgiving that some are clearly younger than myself). They wear an odd assortment of old tracksuits and tank tops, with an utter lack of self-consciousness – big, paunchy men with moustaches and a waddling gait. There’s a constant babble, a joyful ebullience, laughter. The traffic on Alaknanda road is but a faint rumble. The leaves of the peepul tree overhead whisper dustily. There is the scent of incense from the small shrine in the hallway where the maid crouches, murmuring invocations. Next door the neighbour is singing his prayers, on and on. In the background comes the call of the muezzin from the mosque. Three different religions intertwining simultaneously. I peer through the window next to where I lie wrapped in the patoo. Here in the colony there are small, yellow-striped squirrels that chitter around the trunks of the trees, mynah birds crying to each other and sometimes monkeys in the foliage above.

I hear the mellifluous burble of two ladies talking in Hindi on the steps outside; they sit in the sunshine wrapped in voluminous shawls and will talk for an hour or more, in great rolling sentences that unspool like colourful strands of yarn. What tapestry do they weave with them? They are domestic workers in the nearby apartments, and are the ones who really run this place, catering to the whims and needs of the ostensible owners, raising their kids, packing lunches for the office, doing the laundry. One I know lives in a small shack in a slum with a tarpaulin overhead. After a while, about 9.30am, there’s a honking like the horn of a clown’s car: it’s the subji (or sabzi) guy – the veg man. He tows his cart of vegetables around the alleys by bicycle and maids shuffle into the lane to make their purchases. He has upgraded in the five years since I was last here; he’s bought a bigger, louder klaxon for his bicycle. At night the chowkidar, or night watchman, walks around the compound blowing his whistle and thumping his stick to warn of his presence – or perhaps to reassure himself against the dangers of the night.


Walking round Humayun’s tomb – a sort of miniature Taj Mahal in red sandstone, described unforgettably by Mr William (Dalrymple) as possessing a sort of “blowzy Mughal rococo”, one saw a quite different Delhi – beautifully symmetrical gardens through which small channels of water trickled. Little yellow-striped squirrels tentatively lowered themselves over the edge, hanging by their back legs to drink. Young couples walked around and sat quietly on benches together, glad of the privacy offered by a ten rupee ticket (or 250 for foreigners). A group of boys played a game called “gilli danda”, similar to cricket or rounders, whose tools were two sticks – a small one as the ball, and the larger one as the bat. The interior of the tombs possessed a deep, sepulchural chill at this time of year, the sun filtering through the latticework windows, making the marble of the coffins gleam. This was a Delhi which was known for its poetry, its ghazal singers, its dedication to the arts, its nautch dancing girls who moved with a liquidity and seductiveness to melt the hardest of hearts. (“I see you dance from place to place…”) There was peace, tranquility, if only for a while. Seven cities have arisen and fallen on this spot over the ages, and now we are in the era of the eighth.

Leaving the tomb we emerged back into the mayhem of modern India. The auto drivers. These ones were used to preying on tourists, and circled like sharks. How much to Khan Market? 50 rupees. Outrageous, K snorted, and slopped off in her red slippers. “TK, TK, Madam – 40 rupees and we go to a nice shop on the way.” This was so ridiculous that even the newest arrival on the subcontinent would have been advised by their guidebook that it was a trap. We walked along the pavement pursued by one auto. “Khan Market? Very far. Not possible to walk. Only 50 rupees. Standard price, fixed price, meter price.” When we declined he U-turned in disgust and went back in search of fresh pickings. Besides, I wanted to walk.

In a city of extremes, people tend to move from one insulated bubble to another, sticking safely to their chosen method of conveyance. You might use your own car and driver (most middle class families have one), or get an Uber or an Ola cab. You can use a pre-paid taxi of the Delhi Police booked from a stall. Or you can try your luck with the autos who can be hailed off the street. But what few people do is actually walk – not least for the reasons above; that sometimes it is physically impossible, it is often searingly hot, that it is never particularly pleasant, but most importantly, because it crosses the invisible barriers that separate the different layers of this city. At Humayun’s Tomb coaches drew up in the car park and disgorged tour groups. We crossed the road, and there, just the other side, was a slum. And what a slum.

Jhuggi. Bustee. Zhopadpatti. Remember the words. They describe hell on earth, and all mean slum. This city has the dubious distinction of having slums as bad as anywhere – perhaps worse. And this is just one of dozens, hundreds, of these torn cardboard and tarpaulin encampments in Delhi alone. Each city in this country has the same. How do they get here? How do they live? It’s like the aftermath of a battle. People lie on the pavements on their backs with their knees raised in attitudes that are alleged to ward off the worst pangs of hunger. There is a bus stop here and in it are a business man with a briefcase, a college girl playing with her phone, two labourers, and amongst them on the floor lie three men wrapped in rags. There are shacks that aren’t even shacks, made of cardboard boxes and torn plastic sheeting. There’s a mountain of rubbish and a man… asleep? Drunk? Dead?… on top of it. Chickens peck around him. The stink is unbelievable – you don’t even want to breathe. It curls into your mouth with a fetid reek, through the scarf you cover your nose with. Here on the pavement are three bright pools of scarlet liquid. Paan juice? Blood? It is not clear. A horribly crippled boy crawls along begging from some equally destitute-looking people, illustrating the subtleties of the hierarchies at work here. A woman is shrieking, waving her hands dementedly. The water tanker has arrived, the driver running a hose out from his truck, and a queue rush to line up with pots and pans. It’s a garbage mountain crossed with a sewage farm, and there’s a line of washing hanging out to dry between two decaying trees. You have to look – you can’t look away. And across the intersection a boy is washing himself with a small jug of water and singing. On the pavement sit two dead-eyed derelicts, a man and a woman – she with matted hair, huge, prehistoric gnarled feet, and both of them are covered in dust as if they’d been rolling in it. Try to see the beauty in everything, the sages advise; we are all of this world. But there is no beauty here – only horror.

Across the road are two giant billboards. One offers spiritual enlightenment courtesy of a well-known guru, for a suitable fee. The other shows a minor Indian actor, son of a more famous actress, scion of Bollywood’s dynastic nepotism, striding across Waterloo Bridge with the Houses of Parliament in the background – taken from roughly where the number 4 bus meets the 172. His coat is open to reveal a smart suit, and he looks serious, businesslike, slightly pissed-off. “Bahaar Paan”, it says in Hindi – the spicy, mildly narcotic nut confection that people eat which produces vast quantities of scarlet-tinged saliva, pools of which are notably absent from Waterloo Bridge. “Bahaar Paan. The Measure of Success.”

In quite literally the next street were smart apartment buildings with security guards at every gate, and frequently cars with diplomatic number plates outside. Surely nowhere else has such inequality in such proximity? Khan Market is a kind of upmarket shopping centre, identical to many others around Delhi – Hauz Khas, Greater Kailash (known as GK 1 and 2) and Defence Colony, shortened inevitably to Defcon 1, are all cut from the same pattern. Small boutique-style shops, selling clothes, books, cosmetics, shoes. There’s a yellow metal entrance gate on rollers bearing the logo of the Delhi Police (“True, We Slow You Down, But We Try Not To Let Criminals Slip By”, it ruefully acknowledges) and usually three or four machine-gun toting cops hanging around it looking bored. There are cafes and fast food places: Pizza Hut, Cafe Coffee Day, Amici. Everywhere is overstaffed – it’s not unusual to find shop assistants outnumbering the customers, and there are always various people hanging around who may or may not work there. There’s usually someone crouched on their haunches sweeping dust around with a bundle of twigs, all over your shoes if you have just entered – but there’s usually someone outside who offers to clean it off again for a suitable fee. The cafes have become the hangout of choice for the young, middle-class Delhiites; where they went before such places existed a few years ago is something of a mystery. Round each other’s houses, mostly.

And it’s pretty good really; there’s usually a charming level of ineptitude, but they do try. Outside the main urban centres the concept of customer service doesn’t really exist, and you may wander into a restaurant to find yourself the object of unflinching scrutiny of the eight or nine staff who spend their time hanging around waiting for something new to look at. So these markets are where the affluent go, playing with their phones, swapping gossip, and they talk about the same sort of things as their counterparts in other large cities around the world, although with a certain local idiom. “Shruti’s gone to UK,” someone says. “PhD.” Everyone nods approvingly. “I heard Raj is in the US,” says another. “He’s working for Google! now.” The name Google is inevitably followed by an impressed exclamation mark, as is Microsoft! They are the international generation, the globetrotters, and they’ve got money, but it’s still not a level playing field, and it would be easy to read into it the notion that success comes only with getting out. Bahaar Paan. No globetrotter would be seen dead using it.

And somewhere in all this you have to figure out how you fit into it. You’re going in the other direction, so to speak – turning your back on the places that so many are aiming to get to. The place is an antidote to self-consciousness by magnifying it to such an extent that you’d go mad if it bothered you; the staring, the people whose heads swivel as you pass, the guy on a bike who damn near crashes into the car in front so mesmerised is he by the sight of a foreigner, the guy at the next table who just stares and stares and stares, and when you greet him, stares a few seconds more then breaks into an astonished smile and returns your greeting. It’s like being a celebrity perpetually on stage, and you have to get over any hint of stage fright before it takes you over completely.

Invited out to “The Club”. Not some techno-pulsing nightspot, but the colony club – colony being the residential neighbourhood complex. Originally a British institution which locals were barred from – George Orwell satirised perfectly all the petty snobberies and prejudices in “Burmese Days” when the club’s denizens were scandalised by Flory inviting in his friend Dr Veeraswamy – it has retained all the same essential attributes; only the characters have changed. Dinner was pizza, but with a distinctly local flavour; the choice was veg or non-veg. Non-veg pizza had chicken tikka on it. The veg had cubes of paneer – the Indian cottage cheese. This was consumed to a soundtrack of 80s hits while businessmen in blazers sat around discussing oil prices and correcting each other in that vaguely admonishing style that is so common here, while their wives sat on looking decorative, swathed in yards of gilded silk, like a shelf-full of ornamental hens. Occasionally one interjected with an anecdote about a child who was doing particularly brilliantly, or who had just been accepted at a US or UK university, or got a job offer. (Google! Microsoft!)

“Oh, I love London,” someone says. “Where do you live?”

On hearing the Barbican a row of immaculate foreheads pucker slightly.

“Is that near Knightsbridge?” someone else asks.


Such was my arrival. No matter how many times you’ve been before, India still hits you if you are arriving from more organised, sanitised locations. The smell, the chaos, the scale of it all, the noise – every vehicle hoots, incessantly, all the time. And yet somehow you find yourself simultanously horrified and charmed: the stink of open sewers is just about masked by the coiling wafts of incense, the lunatic driving is somehow offset by the garlands of flowers across the dashboard, the hooting is reflexive, not aggressive, as in England. The sign on the ATM that warned of “Miscreants attempting to befool with offers of easy puzzles” while relieving you of your wallet. The anachronisms, the archaism, the quirky, jaunty, colloquialism of it all. “Thrice,” they say here, for three times – something that hasn’t been used in England since the days of Dickens. There’s a distinct lack of the garish brand-names that decorate every English kitchen cupboard; here everything is stored in little glass jars or steel “vessels”. Tea is made in a stainless steel pot on the gas ring, picked up with tongs. Milk must be boiled and strained. One showers by putting the geyser on, filling a large bucket and using the accompanying jug to tip water over oneself. It’s like living in a museum. Everything feels like it belongs to an earlier era – one in which things work perfectly well, just about, so why change it?

On July 10th, 2013, sitting in my flat in London, blind in one eye from a piece of flying grit, 10kg thinner than usual, with my wallet full of rupees and pockets full of sand from the Nubra Valley in Ladakh, I wrote this:

The Delhi Police run a pre-booked taxi company, and they are generally cheaper than the private operators, so I tottered up to the stand and ordered a cab to Lajpat Nagar. 275 rupees. The private firms had wanted 400 (although that was negotiable). The driver looked about 15, and had a thin, wispy moustache and the half-famished look that comes of generations of grinding poverty. The car was a small Maruti, the name written on the steering wheel in Hindi script, and looking around the interior I realised what it was that I liked about this city, and indeed this country, so much. Everything was broken. Everything. The speedo needle sat stubbornly at zero. The windscreen was cracked. The knob to the fan was snapped off and stuck on cold. The rear seat was exuding a mixture of stuffing and springs. My window didn’t go up. The car shuddered and lurched round the potholes, and we weaved from lane to lane, missing other vehicles by inches, and all of this in slow motion, never exceeding 30 miles an hour. Everything was broken and yet everything somehow still functioned. We drifted like a shoal of fish across an intersection where the traffic lights flashed amber endlessly. A motorcyclist passed with a six-foot plank sticking up out of the back of his shirt. Green and yellow autorickshaws crawled up the hill of the flyover, barely holding together over the bumps. A truck reversed down the hard shoulder having missed a slip road. The slip road itself was missing about 5 metres of tarmac, and the patch of dirt was pitted with potholes.

We passed yellow police blockades which said: “True, we slow you down. But we try not to let criminals slip by.” I loved the rueful honesty of it. Yes, we’re crap, but we do what we can with what we’ve got. It was like a metaphor for the whole city. Two tousle-haired little girls in pyjamas rushed up to car windows at an intersection and tapped on them, trying to sell pens. Grain covered the pavements on both sides of the road, pecked at by hundreds of pigeons. A man crawled along the pavement, spine twisted by some appalling condition, his spindly legs dragging behind him. College girls in jeans and flip flops waited at bus stops and talked endlessly on their mobile phones. A long-distance truck, short wheelbase, orange and with gaudily painted sides ground along leaving a cloud of black smoke belching out behind it. Punjab, Haryana, All India. Green buses packed to the gills, every window open, the pixel signs on the front advertising their destinations in Hindi: Okhla, Defence Colony, Hauz Khas, Lajpat Nagar, Khan Market. A Sikh in a turban and face mask on a 125cc Pulsar with his wife in a sari side-saddle behind him, and a small child tucked under one arm. Three girls colourful as birds all sitting on a scooter, going tripsies, the one at the back flicking the long plait of her hair back over her shoulder as she texted on her phone with the other hand. Delhi, Dilli, दिल्ली. I love it, I hate it, I miss it, I’ll be back soon.

Well here I am.