Archive for June, 2012


Posted: June 25, 2012 in Delhi life
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And so for my penultimate entry. It’s been a narcissistic blast, dearest of Readers, but on Thursday I must return to Blighty—itself incidentally a name bastardised via the Indian army from the Urdu vilayati (foreign). Lest you subscribe to the idiotic Niall Ferguson view that the Brits were a nobly philanthropic bunch of give-give-give imperialist pig-dogs, other words we’ve shamelessly nicked from the subcontinent include shampoo, jungle, cheroots, dungarees, bandana, verandah, bungalow, toddy, curry, punch, mandarin, juggernaut, cummerbund, mongoose, catamaran, yoga, pundit, polo, avatar, chit, loot, thug, dinghy, doolally, coolie, pariah, orange, cot, typhoon, atoll, and nirvana. As James Nicoll says,

The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.


Remember that next time you put on your cashmere pyjamas emblazoned with khaki swastikas. (And to answer a question I’ve been asked several times—no, the Jubilee was not met here with shrieking crowds and fireworks, surprisingly enough. The British High Commission, though, did tastefully deck out an elephant in Union Jacks, part of celebrations that it rather surreally claims ‘explain why Britain is such a creative, open, connected and dynamic country to live, work and visit’. As creative as Gary Barlow, as open as Prince Philip’s urinary tract, connected to the globalised world by a flotilla of rowing boats.)

Ahem, where was I? Ah, yes.

‘India’s Nuremberg’: Lutyens’ Delhi and its lovable tyrants
The vast, eerily empty left ventricle of Delhi was once the glorious heart of Imperial Delhi. ‘In its monstrous, almost megalomaniac scale, in its perfect symmetry and arrogant presumption’, the donnish William Dalrymple sees an ‘echo of something Fascist’. Or, as Georges Clemenceau put it more hearteningly in the 1920s, ‘They will make magnificent ruins.’

Above the great Secretariat buildings, Lutyens’ inscription still, er, stands:


This inaccessible, authoritarian ‘lifeless void, this corrupting vacuum’ is now the beating heart of independent India’s democracy. And it’s where I trekked today to interview a very friendly, implausibly chiselled, and frighteningly powerful young bureaucrat.

Shastri Bhavan, home to the coal, oil and mines ministries alongside law, culture, and women’s development, sprawls—but not in Lutyens’ elegantly autocratic style. Instead, it’s more reminiscent of the giant blocky pisspots of Bucharest (a recent holiday destination) and other Soviet concretocracies. Outside, rows of flabby white Ambassador cars loll next to kebab stands and flabby brown soldiers.
Inside is structured chaos. Piles of people clamour for a chit permitting entry, as a woman in the corner stamps blank documents with religious fervour. Pass acquired, the ministries jumble upon one another, a maze of brown walls, half-broken lifts, grey rooms bursting with dusty files, shuffing peons, and the faint pervasive smell of the gents’. The office itself was pristine. I perused an accommodating New Scientist while the bureaucrat deftly dealt with two complainants in a mixture of Hindi and English, fielded three more phone calls, and offered tea. They might be high-handed, but some of these guys are bloody impressive—and they have impeccable manners.

This part of town (or round the corner in the district named after the ‘Indian Machiavelli’, Chanakya—sample quotation: ‘A woman is four times as shy, six times as brave and eight time as libidinous as a man’) was also where last night—feeling like a nine-year-old betrayed by Gareth Southgate all over again—I watched England bellyflop out of Euro 2012. You’ve guessed it: I was at the Italian embassy. Wince. I confess this was God wreaking revenge for my proving the world’s most obnoxious guest at the French embassy during the Six Nations. Sorry, Ashley, it was me—you were but a mere semi-sentient prawn in the karmic sea.

This may lead you to blithely assume all those diplomatic resources are directed at taxpayers or (god forbid) winning over local hearts and minds. Nonono, never fear: the diplomatic cash goes to the diplomats. The Belgian embassy’s beer events are attended almost exclusively by French and Italian embassy staff; ditto for Australian gigs and our noble British representatives overseas. The Americans pretty much hate everyone, of course.

And with that, my guided tour of Delhi must stutter to a halt just as it was getting started. I haven’t told you about the world’s best, melt-in-the-mouth kebabs from the old middle classes’ beloved Khan Chacha (meaty, yes, but when in Rome at least once join in the orgy); or the ghee-dripping Mughal food of Karim’s in the chaotic (illegal electricity-laden) shadow of the Jama Masjid; or how appalled slum children pointed and said, ‘Madam, you are looking very dirty’ after a very public rugby humiliation.

I haven’t ranted about the thrill of sampling (admittedly disgusting) masala ice pops and yak butter tea beneath posters of Tibetan martyrs in Majnu-ka-Tilla; or mounting the stage at a music festival by a lake in hilly Naukuchiatal; or the exhibitionist brown bear and the gharial struck by stones from a music-blaring crowd at Delhi’s dismal zoo; or the bizarrely modernist architecture of the seventeenth-century observatory Jantar Mantar (‘hocus pocus’) just outside the stately, decaying web of Connaught Place; or the serene beauty of the Taj Mahal’s aunt, Humayun’s Tomb.

Delhi, for all your foibles, I shall miss you—and all who sail in you. Shantih, shantih, shantih.


It is one of the more unsettling facts of my ‘normal’ life that I am used to being watched. For four years, my every move—post-gym sweat, illicit snow angels, evening stagger, Sunday hangover bagginess, gluttonous M&S shop, kebab van prowl, spasmic midnight dance, nighttime visitor, accidental backflip over the QUIET PLEASE sign—has been lovingly observed and recorded. (And the zoom is so good that they can even see into some of the windows, I remember with occasional heart palpitations.)

I live almost exactly under Oxford’s ever-vigilant two towers. In a dusty, key-strewn panopticon, three porters and a catfish-faced bursar watch, to lubricate the flow of college gossip preserve our security against the great unwashed. It’s impossible to forget that the eyes are there, even once you’ve resigned yourself to the existence of a rapidly circulating This Is Your Life video of shame.


The upside, though, is that being stared at and judged all the time in India is just like being back home, only with marginally less risk of blackmail. Foreign women—and my delicate brother—frequently complain about constant violation by hundreds of goggling strangers. Some beaches now even have signs imploring locals not to harass visitors. On one hand, Indians (some themselves internal tourists) have an inexplicable urge for pictures of dreadlocked albinos holding their unamused babies, just like, er, Bollywood. On the other, young men—and often much older, besuited ones too—are clearly interested in something else. I don’t deny the staring grows wearing. But gradually you becoming inured to it, just as you stop seeing the dirt. I’ve only had to punch one man this whole trip.

In fact, it’s not just goras who attract eyes: anyone weird or even vaguely female does. This is coupled with a famous nosiness—the classic ‘how much do you earn?’ quizzing—and a frankness hideous to British ears. ‘Your personality grows larger every year!’ a friend’s mother said to his cousin, by which she meant: Fattyboomboom. Equally when people say I ‘look like a Punjabi’, I slap them and burst into Bollywood tears. These are the gentle ones, though: I’ve eavesdropped on brutal conversations that basically went ‘Woah, porky, lose the monobrow’.

And on to the loose women of the title: c’est nous. Indian neighbourhoods are notoriously gossipy. Alas, the gossip surrounding our flat—where pretty young foreign women come and go every month or so, occasionally having flings with the downstairs people—is that it’s a brothel. The landlord called in to check, but unfortunately only a blonde Russian monoglot was home.


Added to this is the fact that women never, ever call in at local ‘English wine’ shops. Even respectable men do it away from home, so that even ‘the world’s most expensive shopping area’ (it’s not), Khan Market, can’t stomach public booze sales. This does mean I get my own lady queue. It also means narrowed eyes from the neighbours and the nightwatchmen. Gasp! even a young man came to stay with me (nobody realised David and I were related…awkward). And sometimes one of us will crash elsewhere to desperately milk an acquaintance’s air conditioning, turning up panda-eyed before the morning guard. We confirm the stereotypes: Western women are loose. BUT at least nobody’s CCTVing it all!

Unfortunately, staring is a contagious hobby. Who’s that three-headed dude/attractively bearded lady/ludicrous sari-wearing Westerner over there? I find myself thinking unabashedly, and having a good gander. You have been warned. College, if you’re reading this: I require serious re-house-training in eyeballing, how to hold a fork, and the etiquette of talking about overactive sweat glands and bowel motions over the Sauternes.

A word from our sponsors
Loyal Readers, I must start by waving a giant blue warning sign. Oh Mother, tell your children not to do what I have done! Yes, at long last, my laptop is finally knocking at the door of the great pearly Apple store in the sky—even God’s own Geek Squad couldn’t save it now. Four years, 47-degree heat, dust storms, and innumerable questionable downloads later, it was the old bedside beverage whatdunnit. Four (admittedly sizeable) droplets landed on the mouse and, with immense meaningfulness, the letters D, T, and K. I reacted much like filmic monsters do just before the kamikaze hero lands his nuke in their eye: I cocked my head and gave a bemused grunt, and everything went horribly, moistly wrong.

The laptop still wheezes awake, death-rattling melodramatically. ‘Just for once,’ it seems to be saying beneath that oddly intact shiny helmet, ‘let me look upon you with my own eyes, Luke.’ Luckily I didn’t listen, as I have the technological skills of a pipistrelle bat. Actually, its brain seems OK–but now along with a broken disc drive, the keyboard and mouse also don’t work except to right-click and mute. It’s become the Stephen Hawking of laptops, or perhaps that Diving Bell and the Butterfly bloke, trapped and bored and thinking in furious silence. Either way, this means all further updates will use the laptop’s pretty village idiot cousin, the iPad, and its offensively bad Autocorrect. The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away.


Kunj action
Ten days to go, and I realise how little I’ve actually said about D-Town, ‘that monstrous, addictive city’. Like London, Delhi feels like a series of distinct quarters, the character of each preserved still further by dubious transport and urban planning—so that our relatives hadn’t ventured a handful of metro stops north to Old Delhi for years, or ever visited the city’s southwest. At least in my end of town, each muhalla is composed of concentric circles of housing around a market–‘Residents are both figuratively and physically forced to turn their backs towards everything outside. It’s introversion by municipal design.’ Here, then, are some parting snapshots of the varied areas I’ve been loitering in for the past five months.

I begin, of course, with my home turf: Vasant Kunj, a sprawling low-density area just south of Jawaharlal Nehru University’s safari park of a campus. Approached across an area of sewage stink and dusty forest (which leads occasional city-mouse auto drivers to plead, ‘Madam, you take me in jungle. Very far, very dangerous, you give more’), it bustles like a genteel ant hive in the mornings, and is pitch black and paranoid at night, with the clatter of the nightwatchman’s stick and the roar of drunk drivers and the 01:13 to Bangkok the only sound.

The Kunj is almost entirely ignored by travel writers. Not so by Delhi’s middle classes, who nod approvingly when I give my Stalinistically number-heavy address—‘Ah!’ they exclaim wizard-like—‘Ambience! Promenade! Emporio!

For I live in the centre of polysyllabic, Europhilic modernity: three of Delhi’s great malls flank our street. They loom, alien, a kilometre beyond the pat-a-cakes of dung fuel and acrid burning plastic that line our local mini-slum, sending the bourgeoisie’s obese pets sputtering. The latter used to be ‘semi-pukka’ houses, apparently, with cement and electricity, until the municipal government ‘beautified’ the area and smashed everything. Rich Delhiites complain that the state’s hands are tied by democracy, unlike Beijing’s, but some citizens are far, far more equal than others.

Spotless, soulless, ice-cold, the malls are where the middle classes come to play. Here ladies—and the whining albino freaks that are Westerners—can hang out without being stared at. Families make a day of it, shopping eating bowling cinemaing drinking dancing (just like that Betty song, cool kids). I concede they are relaxing places for those with doctor-parent-induced OCD, a love of imported goat’s cheese, and a desire to watch Euro 2012 (argh stress) or Prometheus (argh stress in a good way).

They are also sinister, dystopian places, always too empty and heavily guarded, with feral rich kids and lab rat lighting and interrogation room chic (in fact, Indian changing rooms are Kafkaesquely called ‘trial rooms’). I hold my breath waiting for a zombie attack or a doomy voiceover from HAL.

Luckily vestiges of Indian customer service survive to recontextualise you: car parks reached only through barbed wire-filled building sites, layers of receipt bureaucracy, whitening creams. Once I tried to return some ill-advised shorts. ‘Exchange?’ repeated the security guard, with a sharp intake of breath. The entire mall clattered to a standstill. No fewer than seven people were required for the transaction; I signed four different documents; and finally I was forced to placate them by buying socks. Only trying to buy football boots was worse—the incredulous ‘for ladies?‘ and more than usually sceptical glances at my breasts.

‘India’s dreamtown–and its purgatory’
Further southeast still, rearing out of the smog and scrubland, is the Kunj’s notorious neighbour,

the schizoid, bulimic satellite city of Gurgaon—a city which isn’t a city, which is both Delhi and not-Delhi, and which is so engorged by the fruits of modernity that it needs a regular anti-emetic… a soulless, dispiriting, lonely experience… Were all cities destined ultimately to resemble each other? —Sam Miller

Ten years ago—or perhaps even five—Gurgaon had a smattering of titanic office buildings. Now it sprawls, tower after block of exclusive flats after golf course, in varying degrees of architectural offensiveness. In ten years people will complain about the colossal waste of space; now they complain because the public infrastructure is famously poor, with flooded drains and endless traffic in the corporate morning. Inside, blocks have armed guards and swimming pools, and only fools, thugs and gigantic black hogs venture onto the pavements.


At the weekend I ventured here to the Kingdom of Dreams, a sticky borrowed three-year-old adoringly suctioned to my torso. TimeOut describes it as ‘the happy lovechild of [state-run souvenir emporium] Dilli Haat and Las Vegas’. There was an indoor beach. And musical shows. And a clown who left the three-year-old weeping hot Factor 50 tears. No more need be said—if only the iPad understood photos.


Somewhere between the exotic and the kitsch is real Delhi.  —Ranjana Sengupta

Delhi (deservedly) has a reputation as a macho, aggressive, sleazy city—for gang rapes, institutional misogyny, and paranoid women packing pistols—and its power elites are still dense with Stalinesque moustaches. But it has another side, too. Whisper it (a touch breathily, with a coy pout and a flirtatious twirl of your cheerleading cane): D-Town is camp.

Professional sociopath A.A. Gill wrote recently, ‘If New York is a wise guy, Paris a coquette, Rome a gigolo and Berlin a wicked uncle, then London is an old lady who mutters and has the second sight. She is slightly deaf, and doesn’t suffer fools gladly.’ Delhi, then, might be an ageing tsarina: ruthless, capricious, avaricious, oversexed, paranoid—and fond of bright colours, pretty trinkets, and cross-dressing. Like all grandes dames, she’s showy, hard to love, easy to photograph.

Camp, in Susan Sontag’s famous formulation, is a sensibility that revels in artifice, stylization, irony, playfulness, theatricality, and exaggeration rather than content. It ‘sees everything in quotation marks. It’s not a lamp, but a “lamp”; not a woman, but a “woman”‘. With a knowing wink, it embraces the garish, the kitsch, the sentimental. It’s good because it’s awful.

Everywhere you turn in Delhi, you glimpse camp’s potential, sitting prettily atop the muscular highways and throbbing noise. It’s there in the sashaying yellow hips of autorickshaws in traffic, the painted trucks with their big warbling horns, the sultry-eyed, improbably skinny young Roadside Romeos slinking snake-hipped down the streets in their shiny purple shirts. It’s there in the childishly sweet vivid orange whirl of jalebis, the love of Bollywood song and dance, the pot-bellied jollity of Buddha and Ganesh, the tendency for melodrama in politics and relationships alike. It’s even sometimes there in the faint undercurrent of slightly self-conscious menace on some streets or some evenings—like staring at Steve Buscemi’s upper lip fur.

Imperial rule of course had more than its fair share of high camp, as the foppish Britishers Carried On Up The Khyber with their cocktails, uniforms, and strange obsessions with deviant sexuality (see Anne McClintock’s brilliantly titled Imperial Leather). Colonial-era ‘tropical gothic’ architecture is archetypal camp: the flamboyance, the kitschy imagery, the fakery (wealthy Brits like Thomas Metcalfe would even build faux-mediaeval monuments to spice up their views). Edwin Lutyens himself—a friend of Vita Sackville-West—was an ostentatious mixture of ‘joker and buffoon’. In his extravagantly orchestrated New Delhi, neoclassical lines flirt with odd domes, cupolas, and elephant motifs, in two shades of pink Agra sandstone. Butch, non?

Sontag pinpointed two kinds of camp: naive Pure Camp, and Camp Which Knows Itself To Be Camp. In the hands of Delhi’s middle classes, Delhi’s unconsciously limp wrist becomes a deliberate sardonic eyebrow raise and a Hellooo Sailor! flourish. Shah Rukh Khan pirouettes in drag for Indian film awards. The swanky markets are full of boutiques selling unashamedly garish (and pricey) consumer goods covered in Quintessentially Indian Symbols: rickshaw cushions and hijra makeup bags and ashtrays with cartoon turbaned Sikhs—and, in the new May Day Cafe, even cappuccino cups with the hammer and sickle emblazoned on them in an (unwittingly?) hilarious pastiche of coffee-house revolution. In the malls, my fellow South Delhiites eat Haldiram’s sanitised ‘street food’ in a floodlit refrigerated dystopian hell soundtracked by Lady Gaga. For both of us, braving the dirt of sprawling Old Delhi is a touristy adventure—dare we gobble a real kebab? (Answer: yes, because Delhi belly is ironic and self-referential.) Even international development becomes camp, trying to take itself seriously even while it blasts out ‘Sexy Bitch’ over impeccable lawns and expats wryly sipping vodka nimbu pani.

The dark side of camp, as Sontag noted, is that it forever converts the serious to the frivolous. It is permanently ‘disengaged, depoliticized—or at least apolitical’, trivialising the unpalatable. It ‘proposes a comic vision of the world. But not a bitter or polemical comedy. If tragedy is an experience of hyperinvolvement, comedy is an experience of underinvolvement, of detachment’. India’s real problems are only admitted in their most photogenic and sentimental guises, and difficult questions vanish in a puff of Old Spice.

For Marxist cultural theorists, kitsch is a great threat: it is a type of false consciousness, deliberately encouraging a passive, consumerist response that distracts people from their very real social alienation. As Milan Kundera argued, it equals ‘the absolute denial of shit’. Camp sugarcoats reality, Photoshops it, places a pair of heart-shaped rose-tinted Lolita spectacles on it. We must peer through its consumerist veil to the Truth beneath.

But in tipsier moments, I can’t help but suspect there is no dividing line between kitsch and reality in this strange academic life—not in Delhi, not in tweed-encrusted snuff-snorting Oxford, not in the prettily Sisyphean development world—and certainly not in this blog. So I’ll continue hoovering up Horn Please placemats and slightly sinister faceless sari mugs, and hoard them right next to my saintly Bulgarian icon and Russian dolls. And next time I’m having a nihilistic thought, I’ll stroke them and solemnly say to myself, ‘Don’t be so absurd!’

I once asked a young dissertation writer whether her suddenly greyed hair was due to ill health or personal tragedy. She answered: ‘It was the footnotes.’    —Joanna Russ

I know what you’re thinking. Being a PhD student is a glitzy whirlwind of socialising, sizzling oratory, and wittily incisive commentary on things of great global relevance. Well, you’re right. But there is an exception, a giant, maleficent exception: the outer circle of hell that is actually writing academic papers. For one particularly idiotically titled conference paper, then, all of normal, fun, interesting life has been put temporarily on hold—I could almost forget I’m in Delhi except for the UNREMITTINGLY OPPRESSIVE M%☢£♪☦ING HEAT—so you’re about to get a flash of what lies beneath that glamourpuss PhD exterior. Children, look away now. This shizzle just got real.

As you may recall, one of the many valuable public service functions this blog sporadically fulfils is keeping the Olds in the loop about T’internet memes. As I’ve been doing far too much writing this week, I’ll nobly take the opportunity to update y’all in the form of a meta-meme. Warning: if you look at too many of these, you will develop .Gif Autism, and be unable to express yourself except in two-second simulations of startled raccoons. Luckily, there will always be a home for you within academia.









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