Archive for the ‘Delhi life’ Category

Special K

Posted: September 16, 2012 in Delhi life
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I suppose it was inevitable. Japanese imperialism may have stalled just east of India, but its most (in)famous invention has screechily colonised much of Asia and primetime TV worldwide. (Incidentally, my grandfather was very vaguely involved in the former, with a quiet dignity that seems characteristic of the family. He received a war pension for injuries sustained in Burma—turns out he tipsily fell out of a house-on-stilts and broke his nose. Other lion-hearted ancestors include miscellaneous frauds and drunkards; several Bengalis who greeted the opportunity to become imperial minions with unseemly boot-kissing eagerness; and one shipwrecked whaler who allegedly ate a cabin boy.) The surprise is that karaoke took so long to get here.

Baffling video for Simon & Garfunkel

The popular Japanese drug hit D-Town in January 2007 and its abuse has increased exponentially since. It caters especially to the increasing numbers of East Asians in the city—so we found ourselves in a very nice Korean restaurant, furtively edging towards the microphone across puddles of seafood broth. The karaoke menu was a vast weighty tome, 95% full of either Korean or Wingdings. This was a professional operation.

As enema-loving Karaoke Sauron Simon Cowell has realised, we all secretly believe we have innate musical talent. In my case I appear to be pathologically unable to keep this delusion secret.

Rarely am I accused of an excess of gravitas or reserve at the best of times—and then I was introduced to soju, a Korean liquor that tastes deceptively innocuous but in fact is ‘composed of one part thunder-and-lightning, one part remorse, two parts bloody murder, one part death-hell-and-the-grave and four parts clarified Satan‘. These, it turns out, are the ingredients of a karaoke monster.

Keep your friends close and your microphone-enemies even closer. Note the fetching monsoon Jewfro.

I’ll gloss over the events of the next painful hours of despotic mic-hogging, yowling, rapping (oh god), eyes-closed Cher renditions, and spatters of grisly-looking kimchi. Suffice to say my voice was even better with the chorus of mucus a summer cold had brought. The other customers were evacuated, white-faced. Every video was accompanied by an entirely inappropriate video—Queen with a Lord of the Rings tribute, ‘Mrs Robinson’ with what looked like a ham sandwich commercial. Some oaf put on Jingle Bells. Every now and then a Korean-language song came on and we’d bawl ‘Wonderwall’ over the top with all the cultural sensitivity of the Beijing Olympics—the staff were near tears, and on reflection we were quite possibly massacring the Korean national anthem.

Weirdly, though, the clientele was heavily expat, with a smattering of overseas-stricken locals. Indians love singing and Delhi loves camp—you’d think Bollykaraoke start-ups would be on every street corner. But maybe its pure unadulterated uncool is the reason it hasn’t really taken off yet. Being a Bourgeois Young Dilliwallah is all about performance—looking sophisticated, fashionable, and composed. Most B.Y.Ds drink photogenically, not with the liver-nuking bingey zeal of Westerners; they go to chic all-you-can-eat brunches and sushi places and nibble cucumber rolls; to huge spasming beats they dance sleekly with sky-high stilettos and without sweatiness. Everything is self-conscious, earnest.

Karaoke, on the other hand, is ritual public humiliation—and you walk into it voluntarily, tongue ostentatiously in cheek. Like kitsch (or blogging…), it attempts to tread the fine exhibitionist line between irony and cretinous narcissism. Are your buddies laughing with you or at you?

With that unnerving thought, I’m off to hyperventilate into a paper bag.

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That’s right, Delhi—I’m here again. Didja miss me?

Well, he was mooning about Delli, that highly pestilential place, possibly in search of some undiscovered facts  —Joseph Conrad [h/t Charne]

My visa arrived on Wednesday. By Sunday I was in the air. The babies cried in relays, the food was terrible, and I was fiendishly sleep-deprived after a characteristic London nightbus snafu. Throw in a red colour scheme and I feared things could get a bit Alec Baldwin (or, god forbid, Gérard Depardieu). Fortunately Virgin Atlantic has mastered the art of distraction, and I am a sucker. Proudly clutching a swish bilingual menu, unusably dwarfish toothbrush, and foxy airhostess, I thoroughly enjoyed the trip.

Indira Gandhi International Airport was just as I’d left it—like someone else’s low-res dream of a 1980s soft furnishings store. Anticlimactically the first shop to greet you is WH Smith. At least the irritating tourist quotient is only 1% of Heathrow’s vast semi-permanent population of milling zombies. It did feel alarmingly like coming home. ‘O frabjous day!’ I cried joyously at an alarmed taxi driver (always hit the decrepit pre-pay stall on the left before the exit, kids). My Hindi was as rusty as my feel for comical similes. ‘In Delhi I was living, and now I back come is!’

The traditional moist overshare

Don’t sweat the petty things and don’t pet the sweaty things.  —George Carlin

It’s a lucky 13℃ cooler than when I left. Chronicling my involuntary bodily secretions was the highlight of older posts, though, and I can happily report that I’ve discovered a whole new species of sweat. Back in the heady ’40ºs, you’ll recall I spent most of the time lying semi-naked in a gently steaming heap of misanthropy. Delhi was brown and disgruntled.

This time it’s the clammy tail-end of the monsoon, and the city feels entirely different. Everywhere there are erotically dark sticky pools and thronging people and eruptions of green. Without warning the bloodshot sky has psychotic breaks and frantically pisses on everything. It feels almost obscenely fertile—you could, as Ondaatje writes, ‘spit on the ground and a bush would leap up’. The Victorians must have had panic attacks.

Weirdly, I feel fantastically cheerful in the humidity—I keep finding myself emailing people saying, ‘I feel like an Amazon or a horse! I taste salty! My arms are glowing like Serena Williams!!!’ Unsettling. Most likely I’ve got dengue fever.

I’ve even renovated that all-important pillar of Dilliwallahood: a phone. The SIM card form makes all sorts of irrational demands for proof of address and other bureaucratic extravagances. Unless, of course, you make it clear you’re topping up a princely foreigner sum. As a bonus, I have all these extra passport photos—which the thoughtful young man even took it upon himself to Photoshop for me, just like the Border Agency enjoys.

By Jove, it’s good to be back.

Burn before reading

You played hard to get at first, but I won’t deny I found myself weirdly attracted to you.  —Past Me

Incidentally, the observant amongst you might have been wondering why the previous post falsely claimed to be the summer’s ‘penultimate entry’. Fear not, ElectricMasalettes: this was no blunder in the blog’s characteristically pungent English. There did exist an Ultimate Entry, the glorious Platonic überpost of which Nuremberg was a mere shadow.

Romantic snapshot I planned to send Delhi

The U.E. was a break-up note to Delhi, scribbled and erased and rescribbled over a dozen heat-crazed moments at the End of Days, on yellow Post-Its that disintegrated with sweat and smeared ink up my twitching forearms and forehead. There were phrases like ‘It’s not you, it’s me’ and ‘We both need therapy’. It had kisses on the end. I may even have called Delhi a cougar. (In an early draft, it may have been ‘big boy’. Oh god.) With the 5am airport taxi honking below, sleepless and full of wild blurry joy and the last drams of Feckless Brother’s whisky, I was finally about to whack it up online.

About four minutes before I clicked Publish—hey, my mind wasn’t exactly working like Speedy Gonzales by this point—I thought: It is extremely odd behaviour to write a break-up note to a city.

I scratched myself and fell over an overweight suitcase.

Then—brain crinkling with the effort—I thought: Perhaps your.   Mind.     Has finally.

. .   .   Bro k e n.

I sweated a bit more, fell indecisively over the suitcase again, and into the taxi. Some things ought to remain between me and D-Town.

Nuremberg

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.

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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.’
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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.
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!’

Four weeks to go, so it’s time to take stock. German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans lists ‘the mix of damp carpet and apricot-scented potpourri, Marmite and repressed but omnipresent sexuality’—but what am I going back to Blighty for?

1. Cheese

Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.   —G.K. Chesterton

O cheese! thou pungent lunar material, crowning jewel of Oxford meal! Occasionally I lapse into a heat-coma and dream of it, those beautiful European words melting into one another like the Shipping Forecast: Mozzarella. Gruyère. Yarg. Gorgonzola. Jarlsberg. Wensleydale, rising slowly. Manchego, moderate or fair. Parmigiano Reggiano, becoming cyclonic. (Pace Chesterton, though, the phrase ‘quite the cheese’ actually comes from the Hindi ciz, or thing.)

The great characteristic of cheese that Chesterton praises as ‘the very soul of song’ is its variety. Alas no, not in India. A country of cow-lovers obsessed with dairy products, and yet all we have is this strange rubbery stuff, like tofu in a cuboid condom. (Paneer doesn’t count.) Look at it. LOOK AT IT. Ugh. The brand name ‘Britannia’ is an anti-colonial insult too far. Unfortunately, the fact I’ve started whingeing about cheese confirms that I am now officially an Expat Douchebag.

2. Queues

An Englishman, even if he is alone, forms an orderly queue of one.   —George Mikes

Nothing, nothing, raises the hackles of a Britisher more than the social evil that is queue jumping. We know intrinsically that the inability of foreigners to queue—this goes for you too, Europeans—is the sign of deep, warped immorality and lack of self-control. The queue is civilisation. Remember that at the Olympics: every time you queue-jump, you confirm to the tutting Britisher behind: fine, your country might win more medals than us, but corruption, the Grexit, and STDs are endemic there too because you’re freeloading, sociopathic scum.

Being British, for a long time I was unable to do more than glare, mutter, and paranoiacally dance around trying to block jumpers like a Morris-dancing schizophrenic. But airport queue jumpers be warned: I have been pushed to the very brink, and may actually shake off my English inhibitions and punch you in the gob.

3. The lack of weather

To a foreigner the most striking thing about the English weather is that there isn’t very much of it.    —Bill Bryson

Yes, our rain is feeble and our summer hilariously cool, but this is not a bad thing, Mr Bryson. Having a lot of weather is quite horrible, I’m starting to suspect. Here all people can look forward to as a break from the 45°C heat is dust, smog, or the monsoon, which from past experience is a disgusting time of trenchfoot, Chikungunya, and exuberant geysers of sewage. Plus I lived through a 5.2-magnitude earthquake!—though admittedly I didn’t notice because we live on a giant flight path. A tepid sun, some good wholesome drizzle, and the common cold sound blimming fantastic right about now.

And for all those Johnny Foreigners who mock the British tendency to discuss the weather at extreme length: go and read Watching the English. It’s our beautifully honed way of creating consensus to ease social interaction. Indian men: this is far more successful than the opening conversational gambit ‘So, are you married?’

4. Diversity

‘Elizabeth Chatterjee’? Is that the name you just use for when you’re in India?   —Idiot, studying my business card

Britain is a fizzing blend of people, cuisines, and cultures, but here people automatically assume that Indian = brown. Albion has more than its fair share of xenophobic cretins, but the Indian obsessions with skin colour, good breeding, Islamophobia, and women’s behaviour still rankle. Racism towards migrants from Nepal, sub-Saharan Africa, and India’s own Northeast is overt [h/t Sneha].

No matter how long I live here, I’ll never fit in. As a a burqa-wearing Hyderabadi shouted, ‘Go back to where you came from!’ People will always look at me with $$$ or lechery or loathing in their eyes. And when I say I’m doing a PhD—an entire blood-sweat-tears umpteen-year festival of geekery—on Indian politics, they’ll still say things like, ‘There’s this thing called the caste system, you probably haven’t heard of it…’

5. Health and safety

A ridiculous place. Located three quarters of a mile from the surface of the sun, people audibly crackling as they walk past you on the street… It’s not supposed to be inhabited, and when they’re not doing that, frying themselves outside, they all fling themselves into the sea, which is inhabited almost exclusively by things designed to kill you: sharks, jellyfish, swimming knives, they’re all in there.   —Dylan Moran on Australia

Pottering around India, I feel much like lovely Mr Moran. I’ve encountered a crocodile, cobras (twice), a convicted stalker, and facially-tattooed headhunters with a nice line in skull trophies, homemade guns, and opium. In Delhi people are regularly attacked by monkeys; in Sikkim they warned us about black bears; in the east it’s wild elephants, bull sharks, and occasional tigers. Even everyday life is dangerous: I’m recovering from falling into a pothole, praying the wound doesn’t go gangrenous like last time (shudder); a friend walked straight into an open sewer on her first day; and Jeremy Clarkson says 190,000 people a year die on Indian roads, more than Oxford’s entire population. Terrifying. In Britain, by contrast, the most dangerous thing is the lesser spotted office stapler.

Indian health & safety priorities are a little different from the motherland’s

When India does do health and safety, it revolves obsessively yet ineffectually around terrorism. For the lonely fieldworker the ubiquitous security caress is a rare moment of human intimacy. But it’s slow and awkward and unaccountable too—I still don’t understand why the Taj Mahal guards confiscated Feckless Brother’s playing cards, of all weapons of mass destruction. I prefer the motherland’s own slow, awkward, unaccountable procedures, which at least are colour-coded—though why you guys have allowed them to instal missiles on your houses I have no idea.