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:
LIBERTY WILL NOT DESCEND TO A PEOPLE;
A PEOPLE MUST RAISE THEMSELVES TO LIBERTY;
IT IS A BLESSING WHICH MUST BE EARNED BEFORE IT CAN BE ENJOYED.
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.