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