India Land of Teeming Tranquility

I went to India and didn’t go to the Taj Mahal, or Rajasthan’s lavish palaces and temples, or to lush Kerala or holy cities. I didn’t stay in any hotel with Raj bling and smiley doormen dressed up as royal attendants ( turban, silk tunics and lush moustaches) or eat in restaurants where they throw rose petals over you. Didn’t buy a tourist T shirt either. Done all that and been awed and delighted. The usual tourist trips are fantasies. This was a different journey of discovery. I had a travel fellowship from the Churchill Foundation to explore the relationship between England and India today. I was also interested in the extraordinariness of ordinary, urban India and how its people- including those who are creative and artistic- define, decipher and elucidate their country which is changing dizzyingly fast and yet, in many ways, stays still and timeless like a Buddha statue.

The Tug-of-War between the old and the new has gone on for centuries and neither side wins or loses. Nobody gets too exercised. Many now fear that the balance is unsustainable, that the demons of modernity will break the taut cord and claim the future. They know the detritus it creates, the human cost and dread the loss of ancestral connections. Others take a longer, more optimistic view. Progress is essential, everyone understands that. The poor though are even more wretched than the starving Victorians in the sketches of Gustave Dore and George Cruickshank. Yet the cities pulsate with energy and aspiration. Some aspects of India will endure no matter what. It is too big, too varied, too unpredictable, too inventive, too spiritual, too poetic, too conscious of its history to be consumed by the rabid consumerism of the last three decades.

I booked the flights to and accommodation for Mumbai and Delhi and took off, alone and a little tentative. The nervousness soon vanished. I started to get shape-shifting, modern India, a multilingual, multicultural, multi-religious melee, its layers of complexity and mystique captured in beautiful pictures by the award winning Indian photographer Raghu Rai. You only get a sense of all that through intimacy with the people, by not being afraid of teeming crowds.

Rai – a protégé of Henri Cartier Bresson- will forever be known for his pictures of victims of the Bhopal disaster . Less familiar perhaps are his affecting images of normal life and joy in the heaving conurbations. The photograph of men reading newspapers contentedly while indistinguishable crowds rush and swish around them in stations is what I saw at Mumbai’s Gothic Victorian terminus. His street pictures are unthreatening, peaceful even. When I walked around in busy localities, afraid of being run over by anything from a car to a cow, I realised how Indians have the ability to share space. I witnessed no road rage. Drivers seem to understand a spurt of anger would turn into a riot and who knows what. So smiles, tolerance, humour, self restraint and good manners are necessary life skills. Sometimes a young woman would take my arm and help me through the most maddening spots and we would have go for a coffee and talk. I made friends that way – Rehana took me to the Prince of Wales museum ( now renamed the CSMVS Museum) in Mumbai, an Indo-Saracen structure standing tall with imperial vanity. I sat with women who were chatting to each other on some steps in a suburb. Soon I was in one of their homes drinking tea and snacking on the best vegetable samosas ever. Two of them came with me to a clothes shop so I wouldn’t be cheated. Rai’s picture of just such a gang of women will always remind me of that afternoon. I was waiting for Rehana one day in a cheap restaurant and found myself next to two orange-robed priests and a nun. They were discussing the speed of modernisation and growing godlessness. I told them churches were emptying in Britain too. One priest with amber eyes gave me a small, elephant god statuette, Ganesh, to keep me safe.

Such encounters made this visit precious. But there was much more. I stayed in Juhu, by the sea, where the top Bollywood stars have their mansions. Not one of them invited me over for a cocktail. Never mind. Far more exciting was the Writer’s Bloc theatre festival staging new works by young writers, a collaborative venture between our Royal Court and Mumbai’s Rage theatre company. It was at the Prithvi theatre, owned by the famous Kapoor acting family, the equivalent of the Redgraves. Some plays were unbearably dark, others were sharp and witty. All dealt with live themes. I have rarely seen such raw brilliance on stage. Shashi Kapoor, a gorgeous screen star once who was married to the late Jennifer Kendal, Felicity’s sister is now very ill. He was there, every night a ghostly presence in a white shawl. We ate potato parathas in the open air theatre cafe, met the playwrights, actors, and young punters. Bonhomie, arty discussions, intellectual debates, the buzz. Was this what it was like in Paris’s Left Bank in its heyday?

You could hire a driver and car for eight hours for around £20 and go wherever you fancied. Such freedom. With my driver Surinder, I went to the usual sights but in my time and following his quirky ideas. I left feeling I could belong to this city- because it is like London, such an infinite mix.

Delhi was bitterly cold, and at night full of small fires on streets lit to warm street dwellers, watchmen and others, dangerous I’m sure, but lovely. There I stayed at The Park, a thoroughly modern hotel in Lutyen’s grand Delhi. with boulevards and showy buildings. The Scandinavian decor makes a statement. India is forging ahead and is more than busy bee call centres and an ‘ethnic’ pleasure ground for westerners. I liked that defiance. But even here the staff was obliging in a way you would never get in Europe and people come up and talk to you. Sangeeta, a dancer, was waiting in the lounge, said she loved London and took me off to a wonderful classical dance performance.

In the restaurant modern Indians were eating linguini and steaks and salad. And a mile away at Bukhara, a famous restaurant serving Afghani food in Maurya, a very olde worlde hotel, white visitors are given pink cotton pinnies to wear and have to eat messily with their hands. Bill Clinton loved all that. Contradictions, big and small, make India baffling and endlessly fascinating.

In Delhi I did revisit some of my favourite old buildings like the Qutub Minar, a tall red sandstone tower built by Muslim rulers in the 13th century surrounded by other monuments. Many such relics are in ruins, neglected. In one of Rai’s pictures boys are draped contentedly around broken, old carved pillars. The speedy new India is neglectful of this precious past.

There are countless such accusations and criticisms one can make of this populous, difficult democracy. In the end though, as Rai’s pictures show, you find tranquillity here and incredible human contact, resilience and life force. Will all that go as modern towers fill the skylines? I hope not. I think not.

Published in The Independent Magazine

Black Eyed Beans or is it Peas?

Sunday evening. Exhausted after finishing my column for Monday’s independent. What do you mean you didn’t know? How have you lived without my weekly homilies? Such wisdom on sex, love, frocks, Blair, Blair, Blair, Cameron and his Eton mess, men and their faithless ways – all passed you by. Buy the paper on Monday plus one for Granny. Was both amused and vexed watching Masterchef. A white Australian chef was described as the expert on Thai food. Of course. He just helped himself to teh food and recipes. Locals were just dumb locals. Anyway, this is the cheap, cherry dish which only needs forethought and cooking time. No attention – like a sleeping baby you just need to sometimes go check on it.

The day before
Wash 2 cups of beans and soak in plenty of water with a pinch of bicarbonate of soda.

The day after
Drain the beans and boil in plenty of salted water with another pinch of bicarb. Cook till they are soft but not broken down. My mum said it kept down farting. But she had strange ideas

1 bunch fresh coriander
Juice of one lime
1 tsp sugar
8 cashew nuts
1 hot chopped chilli
1 tsp turmeric
2 tins coconut milk
Whizz together all ingredients but the milk
In a saucepan mix the milk with the mixture and cook for ten minutes adding water if it gets too thick.
Add beans, cover and cook on low heat for 20 minutes. Eat with rice or French baguettes and salad.

Sev- sweet Vermicelli- a Mother's Offering

It’s Mothers day and what do I feel? Guilt of course- part of the job description- but for my generation, the conscience is pinched at both ends. I miss Jena, my mother terribly, every day but most of all in March when she died in 2006, and then on Mother’s day itself when with her I was a child, her child forever. I think of how awful I sometimes was to her, the shouts and tears and, even when she was an old woman, my impatience and hurry to get on with the rest of my life. Well, now I have the rest of my life and I want her here. Then there are all those ways in which I fail my teenage daughter soon to fly off to university ( I hope and fear), for whom I would do anything and have and then casually let down because I don’t think about my words often enough when it comes to my family. My mother loved sev, sweet vermicelli and so does my daughter. Women from my Shia Ismaili community make it for a special lunch to feed seven pre-pubescent girls, who are also given rose scented hankies and rosaries, when they have a run of bad luck and want to turn it round. It tastes of sweet sorrow and contrition. When Ugandan Asians were thrown out by Idi Amin and arrived in Britain, many were housed in camps around the country. These lunches were made and fed to girls in hope. Many of the exiles have ended up rich and successful. Maybe there is something magical in the foods offered.
But today I make sev to say sorry- to Jena and to my little girl. And to tell them how much I love them. 

I cup vermicelli- you can buy some which is broken into small bits and that is best
1/3 cup golden castor sugar
1 can evaporated milk
½ pt full cream milk
A handful each of sultanas, shelled unsalted pistachio nuts or flaked almonds
½ can condensed milk or less if you like things less sweet
¾ pt of water
½ tsp vanilla essence

Heat sugar and water in a pan with a lid and bring to the boil- boil for 3 minutes.
Add the vermicelli, put the lid on, lower the heat so it simmers for 5 minutes.
Check it is almost cooked or cook a bit more.
Add all the milks and simmer for 4 more minutes stirring gently so it doesn’t stick at the bottom
Add the sultanas, nuts and essence.
You can eat it warm or cold.

The Old Order Returns

Next year it’ll be forty years since I landed here. London is my place, my home, and I feel a slow-growing attachment to England in particular and Britain too. I am coming to understand the nature of my country, its queer ways and deep conservatism. It changes yet never can change. Its past achievements and sense of high destiny in world matters make it special. But in modern times one finds lethargy, widespread fatalism, dull acceptance. After radical lurches towards a different and better society, Britain reverts back to what it has always been – a set, immovably hierarchical, secretive, unequal, shady nation.

The New Years honours list is released and fake outrage breaks out over some of the names. The ritual now is as familiar as fireworks on New Year’s Eve, brief and noisy and then it’s back to the couch, computer, bed or bar. Once again medals go to gentlemen who selflessly donate cash to political parties and a bit to real charities too. How can we begrudge these fine chaps their knighthoods and CBE’s? Sir Alistair Graham, previously chairman of the committee on standards in public life, warns that though the recipients gave to good causes, people might suspect otherwise and that such ‘unfortunate’ public perceptions could ‘devalue’ the system. How can you devalue an indefensible system? The rows will blow over. It will be business as usual by Tuesday. This is not a slur on all those individuals who make real contributions to their communities and localities. We must honour them. The disgrace is that they have to share their glorious moments with the undeserving. Let me confess that I too was once handed a gong. I was stupid and hypocritical to accept it. It was returned when we went to war in Iraq, but that doesn’t mitigate the stupidity and hypocrisy. It was all wrong. You never know about the nomination process, who decides and you can’t talk about getting an offer. It is all to keep up the mystique and draw you into a dodgy, conspiratorial club.

The political parties are known to be consummate exploiters of the honours system. The Royals are at it too, big time. They hand them out to each other like sweets- the ghastly Prince Andrew regularly gets baubles from his doting mum. And the munificence extends to men and women who indirectly ensure royal reputations and longevity. No one minds. Helen Mirren was rewarded for her portrayal of the Queen and now Helena Bonham Carter has a nice brooch for playing the Queen Mum so sympathetically in the King’s Speech. And why, surprise, surprise, that arch royalist William Shawcross, was also thanked hugely with a shiny CVO for his hagiography of the Queen Mother, a lady with charm and also some questionable views and habits.

The old order has reasserted itself in parliament too, and insinuated itself back into the hearts of people. New surveys show the upper class Tories in government are more trusted than Labour. Britons obviously believe toffs know best how to keep the ship on course in stormy waters. They have been watching too many episodes of Downton Abbey, gazing back wistfully at the past when class was fixed and ensured continuity.

Multitalented and affable Julian Fellowes, the creator of this romance is a Tory peer and generous supporter of his party. In the House of Lords some Peers are there just for the kudos and a number used cash and influence to get in. The nation feels no shame about any of that. In other countries we call such practices ‘corruption’. Here sleaze is just tradition.

MPs still will not accept proper scrutiny of their expenses and maintain unwholesome connections with lobbyists and interest groups. The biggest scandals evaporate faster than you can say ‘investigation’. Anyone know what happened to Liam Fox’s good friend Adam Werritty? Will we ever discover what the duo were up to in clandestine meetings with the Israelis and US Neocons?

As times get harder, instead of protesting about the rich and privileged who give back as little as possible to the society, Britons now blame and hate the most deprived and disadvantaged. It is all there in the latest British Attitudes survey I wrote about recently. Victorian values are back and so too Thatcherism. And just on cue here comes the compelling Meryl Streep in a new, heart-pulling movie about Mrs Thatcher shown to be a woman having to fight to make it in a man’s world, mother, icon, saviour of the nation. This woman did nothing for women, used state instruments viciously against all those she decided were the enemy within, wrecked collective bonds and any bids for a fairer society, promoted greed and self interest. Her image has been carefully guarded and nurtured and now she is back as in the hearts of voters. All is forgotten, all forgiven. Apparently a state funeral for her is already planned by the establishment.

The nation turns away from progressive politics. The right owns government, culture and media including the Blogosphere. Even the poor and wretched have given up trying. They may not have bread but boy in 2012 they will have the biggest circuses – with the Olympics, Queen’s Jubilee, Boris probably re-elected, honours for the cleverest tax dodgers. Democratic socialists, republicans, feminists, anti-racists, egalitarians are in for a bad year. Stay strong comrades. Just hope our day comes. Just not yet, not for a long, long time. Perhaps never.

Published in The Independent