Archive for the ‘Delhi life’ Category

And it’s still only 9.30am! Argh. Britishers, note how the coldest time of night here is substantially hotter than your goshdarned ‘heatwave’. If I see one more status update about sunburn…

In tropical climes there are certain times of day
When all the citizens retire
to take their clothes off and perspire.
It’s one of those rules the greatest fools obey,
Because the sun is far too sultry
and one must avoid its ultraviolet ray…
At twelve noon the natives swoon,
and no further work is done—
But mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.
        —Noel Coward, ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’ (1931)

Delhi, a city always threatening to topple headfirst into the hideous, has started to boil. The temperature has replaced bowel movements as the expat topic of choice, the weather forecast shows a line of tiny, unblinking 40°C+ Saurons, and I simmer at inanimate objects in perpetual lethargic rage. The rulers have always fled: the Mughals to Kashmir, the British to Shimla, contemporary elites to the more glamorous American and European cities. Stuck in our foolishly un-air-conditioned flat, we have tacitly agreed not to judge each other’s increasingly skimpy outfits and middle-of-the-night pyjamaed showers. One lucky flatmate’s bedroom has a neurotic AC unit that burps lukewarm air, and during the days I sneak in to press myself against it, dreaming of Pimms on laughably cool ‘summer’ lawns.

This is a long way of saying: it’s homicidally hot, and my scalded synapses are stuck on permanent complaint mode. If you thought the gastrointestinal updates were tedious, look away now (there are sweat patches). The only thing preventing me from flying back to Blighty is the fact I belong to a department of international development, where all the other kids on fieldwork get typhus and dodge grenades and are periodically falsely imprisoned in Côte d’Ivoire. They can’t even get internet, not even the ghetto sites like Bing. ‘Uh, it was getting a bit warm’ would reinforce my status as the playground dweeb. So I’ll stick it out—but shaddap about how amazingly hot the UK is!

It is the custom of ‘Society’ to abuse its servants,—a façon de parler, such as leads their lords and masters to talk of the weather, and, when rurally inclined, of the crops,—leads matronly ladies, and ladies just entering on their probation in that honoured and honourable state, to talk of servants, and, as we are told, wax eloquent over the greatest plague in life while taking a quiet cup of tea.
—Isabella Beeton, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861)

Preliminaries out of the way, let me get onto the second-favourite topic of everyday expat whining: domestic staff. Chez nous the day begins at an arbitrary time somewhere in the very loose vicinity of 7am, when the doorbell rings. Lounging on the doorstep is Kamala, the most formidable and indomitable housekeeper since, well, my badass Oxford ‘scout’ Sue. Both sneakily chain-smoke, both are utterly unfazed by the motley collection of half-naked refugees who sporadically grace our floors (currently Feckless Brother and an Australian)—and both would pulverise Dominique Strauss-Kahn. This morning, the new Australian came downstairs to where the rest of us were foetally huddling, ‘scoutxiled’, and pointed up at the ceiling—’Did she…? Over all my things…? Without even knocking?!’ We nodded forlornly, as upstairs Kamala’s phone blasted out Bollywood tunes.

In the UK I’m an anachronistic weirdo—and quite possibly immoral—for having someone come to take out my bin. Here, it’s common for middle-class families to have several servants: a maid, a cook, a driver, a nanny. The monthly salary of a 24/6 Calcutta driver, for example, is only about £130; a maid will be cheaper. Trained staff fetch higher prices: expats trade staff for their skills in French cuisine or English, and a couple of weeks ago I witnessed a Delhi-born friend ‘breaking in’ a new driver like a horse, with good-humoured curses as he stalled and overrevved and tried to put on his own music over hers. As we stepped out of the hot car, she glanced worriedly back at him settling for a nap inside. ‘I’m not sure he’ll think to open a window. I hope we don’t come back to find him baked alive.’

Kamala is wonderfully no-nonsense: when I was still in denial that I’d killed the second of my plants, she hacked every root and shoot out, and then polished and watered the pot. Despite working in an anglophone flat for two years, she has resolutely refused to learn any English word except ‘Morning’, a greeting which she imbues with such withering diphthongic sarcasm that it sounds like a genealogical insult. I find her Hindi utterly indecipherable (she’s Nepali, like many of Delhi’s domestic workers, and hates the city); she finds mine utterly hilarious and often tells me so. Our interactions are a clash of civilisations in miniature, and we end up head-bobbling at each other—me in confusion, her exasperation. The worst of these involved a sanitary towel. Unfortunately, she pronounced it so that it sounded exactly like the Hindi word for ‘tree’. I was bemused until she did a Michael-Jackson-style crotch grab.

We aren’t good people to work for, I don’t think. Most Indians I’ve met treat their staff with great patience, and understand things like when to give festival presents and what recipes to demand and that occasional random days off will be taken. My one Indian housemate doesn’t seem to believe in any of this, and the rest of us are clueless. I’m torn between resentment of a work ethic that involves one day’s work being skipped every fortnight, relief that I don’t have to cook or do the laundry, sympathy for the low wages and dull work, and grudging respect for the fact there isn’t a cowed or obsequious bone in Kamala’s body. So we’ll muddle through for one more month, and when I leave she’ll inherit whichever of my abandoned possessions take her fancy—kurtas, electricity magazines, phone charger, Hindi Harry Potter. And one day I hope she gets, like me, to escape back home away from this infernal city.


The shrine itself (no turning your back)

Paddling in the murky pond of Delhi, every now and then I accidentally swallow some culture. (Don’t worry—I take prophylactic measures—just yesterday I found myself hurling spheres of fluorescent urethane in ‘India’s most advanced cosmic bowling centre’ with a bitterness I usually reserve for courgettes, iceskating, and the Daily Telegraph.)

First stop was Nizamuddin dargah, the shrine of the great Indian Sufi saint Shaykh Nizam-ud-Din Auliya. Back in March, Hannah and I brushed close to one of its more urine-soaked corners when we hopped on our delightful 25-hour train to Calcutta. This time I was back for real, albeit with a headscarf and a kindly friend to guide me through the alleys of staring eyes and pirate DVDs on the path to spirituality.

Sufism is a mystical, ascetic brand of Islam, which over the centuries fused bits and bobs of magic and other devotional traditions with Quranic meditation—to the extent that ‘un-Islamic’ Sufi shrines are frequent targets for suicide bombings in Pakistan today. People of all religions visit to pray for favours. As a young William Dalrymple’s (Sikh) landlady told him:

Crowd control

‘Well, if you’re not going to wear a turban then you should at least go to Nizamuddin,’ said Mrs Puri. ‘The saint there is very good at solving all sorts of calamities. Mark my words. Your baldness will be reversed in a jiffy.’

Nizamuddin preached the power of music to bring believers closer to God, and it it is for these hymns of devotion and remembrance, the sacred qawwalis, that small intrepid packs (hordelets?) of tourists join the praying crowds on Thursday evenings. Two harmonium players struck up a dirge, two tabla players drummed, and another two joined in as they began to sing, a high throaty tremble. It was gritty rather than melodious, but oddly gripping—especially because the musicians were like One Direction inverted in a funhouse mirror, a motley collection of snouty, battered men with gnarled mouths dripping lurid red paan-juice onto the tiles. 

The music began to build with a clatter of tabla and a collective howl. This evening, alas, devotees didn’t fall into a trance and whirl like the famous Sufi dervishes. Fat drops of rain began to pelt the musicians. A rather impressive stripey roof whirred down—but alas, there was a tear just above Toothless Wailer and the wads of devotional rupees were getting wet, so God was packed up with the harmonium case for another day.

Today was another cultural mouthful, this time in the cotton-wool-safe farmhouse of modest patron ‘Zorba the Buddha’. Surrounded by burbling brooks and art-loving beetles, I took big gulps of not one but four major styles of Indian classical dance.

First was Kathak, a lovely North Indian style which seems to involve a lot of elegant pirouetting. It is apparently often associated with the Mughal courts, but in fact is much older (she says sagely).

Next was Bharatanatyam, a flouncy genitalia-obsessed Tamil style I’d once somehow heard a talk on, set to fluttering beats and syncopated religious chants rather than music. It was (is?) traditionally performed by devadasis, girls who were ‘married’ off to deities—and frequently acted as high-end temple prostitutes. Third was Odissi, a 2,000-year-old style from Orissa in eastern India. This was also associated with devadasis, as well as gotipuas—young dancing boys who dressed as girls. It started out sedately, before building to a frantic climax of vermillion-coated stomps.

The final demonstration was of Mohiniattam, a frankly deranged style from Kerala of swooping arm movements and ridiculous facial expressions. With the gurning, fake prayer hands, and ooh-it’s-Shiva miming, it was how I imagine Richard Dawkins would do Hinduism. Finally, they all came back for a mash-up dance-off battle to a big cheesy Heal the World-style tune—a micro-repeat of the Commonwealth Games closing ceremony. Because Delhi loves being reminded of how well all that went.

© British citizens (I assume)

What a lovely time we all had. It makes me worry slightly about how successful the ‘…IS GREAT britain‘ advertising posters scattered around the city are in comparison, especially because when I ask people what they think of ‘contemporary Britain’, they seem to pick out two slightly disheartening things: our uselessness in cricket, and mildly-offensive-yet-inexplicably-popular-here ’70s sitcom Mind Your Language. I have faith that Wallace & Gromit, a sinister robot hand, and a small Tellytubby hill are going to turn all that around.

Lobby art by Krishen Khanna, ITC Maurya

My life here—as you may have gathered—is a bit odd. Back in Blightistan, I’m more slumdog than millionaire. I won’t lie: my potential career options (international development? academia?) have been strongly influenced by the fact that being badly dressed is part of the uniform—fermented tweed, sola topi, bits of owl. So imagine my horror last week when I suddenly found myself interning as an almost-Footballers’ Wife.

Ninety percent of the time Housemate I is plugged Matrix-like into Sex and the City, but is secretly a social ninja. On Wednesday night she’d snared us tickets to a ‘fashion show cum IPL afterparty’. I refused, started to warm to the idea, found our companion would be a Russian model, and refused again.

Still, somehow we found ourselves lurching towards the Stalinistically-named luxury hotel ITC Maurya. To preserve the social order the tickets turned out to require that we (a) travelled in couples and (b) gave up all our personal details and Facebook access to pseudo-whiskey brand Signature. I quickly married a nice young Mussoorie lad called Harsh, and honey-trapped him into handing over his details.

Alas, we were distracted from the freebies by some bored bristly-faced blokes. ‘That’s ※☭☮♙✯!’ exclaimed someone. We dutifully shambled up for a photo with some famous Delhi Daredevils, surrounded by hopefully blinking girls—as a group, Indian Premier League players are the second highest-paid athletes in the world, richer even than the average Premiership footballer. This culminated in one particularly resourceful friend stalkerishly cornering a Bollywood actress in the ladies’.

The Show began. A couple of oiled shirtless chaps with pectorals like unripe yellow Alphonsos shuffled down the runway looking a bit sheepish. Every now and then a girlmodel stalked through wearing an expensive skirt made of teatowels and glared at the crowd. All proceeds to charity.

I hiccuped happily.

Next came an hideously inappropriate cheerleading troupe called ‘White Mischief’, and the IPL players perked up. They gambolled like lambs before wolves, lambs with heavy tangerine makeup and dubiously imported accents. One by one the cricketers were called up to cavort awkwardly with the cheerleaders—including Britain’s very own Kevin Pietersen, ending his stint as reportedly the IPL’s most expensive player at £1 million for six weeks, despite the great Indian pun ‘white men can’t stump’. (Later I felt obliged to have my photo taken with him, though unfortunately neither of us was cavorting.)

By this point we had well and truly sampled the delights of Signature and India’s vineyards. The dancing began. Alas, only for us, though I attempted to lure some bystanders into the Charleston and burbled about intercultural harmony.

We concluded with quite possibly the worst idea since my earlier ill-advised ‘interview’ in the Claridges bar (but that’s another story). An evil ringleader decided to elude our muscular but slow-motion security guard and dive into the VIP section, and we all followed for precisely 24 seconds of glorious We Are The Beautiful People dancing, before being gently ushered back into the prole pen. Finally, we danced with a bona fide dwarf. After a bit of dwarf grinding, Housemate I’s potential squeeze shamefacedly revealed himself to be entirely sober, and drove us safely home.

Just another night in D-Town.

Throw out the Hindi phrase books, the capricious software. You don’t need ’em. All you need to do, citizen of the world, is to master one simple yet profound gesture: the Indian head waggle.

The waggle’s effect is something between a nod, a shrug, a dog’s tail wag, and flipping the bird at someone when their back’s turned. From experience, it appears to mean:

  • Archetypal head-bobbler

    Yo, homies

  • Yes
  • No
  • Ta
  • I acknowledge your existence, underling
  • I’m doing your bidding, madam, but with extreme lack of enthusiasm
  • That’s impossible, but I’m damned if I tell you that
  • I have no idea what’s going on
  • Meh.

This ocean of meaning gives rise to some minor ambiguities in social interactions. Indians, as my (Indian) friend generalised wildly, hate to say no. Is the hat shop that way? Yes, madamji, if you want it to be that way. Do you still have train tickets left? All truth is relative, madamji, and we are but motes of dust in the timeless eye of the Universe. This culminates most mornings in my house with the maid and I locked in mutual incomprehension, bobbling away at each other passive-aggressively over the toaster.

My favourite bollocks explanation for the head bobble was put forward by an Indian management consultant:

For well over 400 years, Indians were ruled by the British Empire and before that it was all monarchy. And people were afraid of saying no as an answer… They would just nod their head this way and leave it up to the other person to judge whether it’s a yes or a no and leave it there.

Certainly the Indian education system seems designed to inspire boredom and mindless deference. Hindi is also full of little responsibility-evading techniques. Lack of knowledge, strong and unruly feelings like regret, love, hunger, and diarrhoea often happen to you in Hindi (mujhe dast hai, mujhe bhukh lagi hai, etc)—we humans are mere ants facing a powerful and hostile world/our passions/loose bowels. But compare this with Indian drivers’ psychopathically aggressive use of the horn, surely the basis of Amartya Sen’s The Argumentative Indian. Apathy and va va voom coexist… land of contrasts… melting pot much like a curry or a slum or a curry in a slum… schizophrenic elephants… etc etc. What I’m trying to say is that the head bobble is a cunning and sublimely useful manoeuvre—imagine its potency when deployed against an unfairly nosy supervisor or indulging in some light bigamy—and I intend to use it religiously from now on.

You too can become fluent in the waggle. Imagine your head is ludicrously gigantic, like a Thunderbirds doll or James van der Beek. Keep your face entirely expressionless (resigned eye-closing optional): we’re talking reluctant subordinate ‘tude here, not African-American diva. Relax your neck and dip your left ear precisely 15° and then precisely 15° for the right ear. Repeat smoothly for several minutes. Practise in all social situations for the rest of your life.

Today I was—fleetingly, almost—part of a gang: and I loved it. As we pelted whooping through the narrow shit-caked streets, faces daubed and guns cocked, I thought, Crikey Moses! being an antisocial menace is fun!

Holi arsenal

Holi is a Hindu festival celebrated increasingly madly across North India, most famously a couple of hours southeast of here in the sacred towns of Mathura and Vrindavan where Krishna was born and grew up. Its enormous popularity today across the country probably owes much to Bollywood: the White-clad Superstars Gambol Flirtatiously Through Puffs of Colour scene is now mandatory, much like inexplicable shots of Paris and London and driving a white convertible. A sixtysomething Bengali maintains that it wasn’t a particularly big deal when she was growing up in the east, but notes that’s since changed dramatically; South India resolutely ignores it, but given the creep of Bollywood I doubt it can hold out. Like Diwali, it’s just too danged photogenic to resist.

In the abstract, Holi looks a lot like the Roman Saturnalia and Feasts of Fools celebrated across mediaeval Europe: to ring in the new year, social norms are briefly overturned—or at least relaxed—and the old year is consumed in a brief carnivalesque period of fire, anarchy, and debauchery. People light bonfires and paint each other with less regard for seniority, caste, and gender than normal (although young men still sometimes bent to touch their seniors’ feet, and occasional men were very wary about powdering me). Women get to beat men with sticks, though in practice this seemed to be a marginal phenomenon. And of course many quaff booze and bhang—an almond or pistachio milkshake laced with cannabis, or served in laddu-sweet form or samosas—and sway blank-eyed through the streets.

The stakes were high—we were off to play with half the Indian rugby team, who are all from the same village and troublingly almost all share the same surname—so yesterday my perpetually beaming French housemate and I headed out to load up with weapons for our Holi war: SuperSoaker rip-offs, cans of coloured foam, packets of gulal powder, tins of water-soluble pigment, Barbie® water balloons. I carefully moisturised (‘Colour only sticks forever on dry skin’, I was sagely warned), filled with a disproportionate excitement probably best reflected by the fact I waited impatiently on the stairs for 45 minutes so that I could shoot my flatmate when he came through the door (and then misfired, a fatal error punished by copious squirting).


Holi hai! The celebrations start early, around 10am. The few autorickshaws plying their trade charge an extortionate Holi premium, but our driver then obligingly veered us towards passing pedestrians and cyclists so we could SuperSoak them. I felt quite the hooligan. This backfired somewhat when we got out too early and swaggered along the street, excited children approaching to smear us as we sprayed the odd motorbike piled high with young men. One such motorbike screeched into a U-turn and we were well and truly vengeance-inked. By the time we arrived in the village—as the old unplanned quasi-rural settlements that the modern city has guzzled are still known—I was already a mess.

The day passed in a colourful blur, possibly because someone sprayed me in the eye. (I have since committed the grave error of searching ‘Holi India’ on Google Scholar, imagining a pleasant slice of anthropological whimsy. Some choice results in fact include Ghosh et al., ‘The “Holi” dermatoses: annual spate of skin diseases following the spring festival in India’; Velpandian et al., ‘Ocular hazards of the colors used during the festival-of-colors (Holi) in India—malachite green toxicity’, Journal of Hazardous Materials; and my own uplifting personal favourite, Chauhan et al., ‘Bilateral periorbital necrotizing fasciitis following exposure to Holi colors: a case report’. Where’s Hugh Laurie when you need him?) After fly-strewn snacks and vast tots of whiskey with some respectable Uncleji figures, there was a brutal initiation ceremony in the team’s clubhouse, as I hear gangstas are wont to do. ‘Playing Holi’ itself is fun as long as you’re on the winning team, like all other sports. When one person turns on you, though, others follow, aiming savagely for eyes and maximum saturation.

Boyz n the Hood

Bonds sufficiently forged, we took off over the wasteland—where delinquent puppies and giant pigs root and people bathe in a filthy plastic-filled pond—into the village proper. With terrifying ululations and the roar of a dragged motorbike, the pack started to hunt. Women and children pelted us with water grenades from above, vanishing out of reach of retaliation; it was exactly like taking on the Taliban. Roaming through the narrow streets and climbing a tower block to snipe below, we sprayed anyone who wasn’t wearing a priceless Alexander McQueen concept/looked like they wouldn’t actively burst into tears. Amazingly, most of them just stood and took it with a resigned expression, before smearing us with more powder. The exception was a particularly feisty group of Aunties, who covered their faces with saris to protect against the gunfire and launched themselves upon the yelping boys, beating thighs and buttocks until their thick rods snapped. The entire village was left dripping with fuchsia and vermilion and lime.

A bit of Bollywood grooving and a surreal visit to woo a local politician for rugby money later (soiled bemused English girl = excellent bargaining token), and with the young men getting ever more ominously boisterous, I retired. An unforgettable day—not least because I’m (a) still purple and (b) lying here worrying that my flesh is going to gangrenously start eating itself while I sleep.

What on earth does the doctoral student do with her long sunkissed exotic days? As this weary old meme-chart (and the meta-fact of the creation of this weary old meme-chart, and the meta-meta-fact of the writing of this entry on this weary old meme-chart, etc) suggests, less than she probably should. Much of the time fieldwork life seems to involve waiting, watching people, buying hard-to-find books, musing on stuff. It’s the intellectual equivalent of having a really good scratch of your onion bhajis.

In fact, there’s a great tradition of not doing a whole lot in India, especially for educated unemployed youths. There’s even an expressive Indian-English phrase for it: ‘doing timepass‘.

In clumps through the city, young men (and occasional women) kill time. I watch them sidelong, they stare at me. Rich kids like the spoilt brats in the awesomely titled Pakistani film Slackistan go to malls, have endless torrid affairs, go clubbing, sip macchiatos (I am extrapolating wildly from the trailer). Those a few rungs down the social ladder smoke bidis, ‘hang out’, drink tea, drink booze, dominate public space, wander around, play mobile phone tunes in parks, mutter to each other and leer and catcall at passers-by; these sleazy and occasionally aggressive young men are flippantly termed ‘roadside Romeos’, and their harassment of women ‘Eve-teasing’. If the cult-classic novel I’m reading—English, August (1988), purely because it’s by a bloke called Upamanyu Chatterjee—is at all accurate, marijuana and masturbation also play a central role.

Watching the day go by in Purana Qila

Many of these young people have little option but life in limbo, watching indefinite tracts of time flutter by. Waiting forlornly for a middle-class job to open up in a phenomenally competitive labour market, they collect endless degrees from fourth-rate colleges—the sort of places notorious for scandals like the entrepreneurial registrar who subcontracted postgraduate examination marking to schoolchildren, and student campaigns for the right to cheat in examinations because cheating is so widespread. The result, as in so many other countries, is a dangerously large and disaffected group who are really, really bored with the status quo.

One particularly idle afternoon of my own, paroxysms of guilt threatened to spoil my coconut-water. A new friend soothed me with an essay by Bertrand Russell, the title of which I’ve cheerfully nicked here.* With his caustic class analysis, slightly mad economics, and call for a healthy maximum dose of four hours of work a day, Russell is a primly reassuring voice in defence of laziness:

I want to say, in all seriousness, that a great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of WORK, and that the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organised diminution of work… The morality of work is the morality of slaves.

Idleness and leisure are essential for civilisation, and are one of the ends of life: surely a heartening message for the world’s millions of jobless educated youngsters. I almost feel inspired to start an NGO to spread the word. Right after I finish this onion bhaji.


* I tip my hat, in the oddly C19th blogospherical phrase, to Puja for this. In case you’re really procrastinating, the full text has been inexplicably provided by the Massachusetts Green Party here, and you can also hear it read aloud by a smug American or a more lovable world-weary robot.

He used to call me thirty times a day. It stopped for a few months, and I found out he’d moved overseas. I breathed a sigh of relief, but as soon as he came back, he started calling again…

He called so often I had to change my phone number. He used to send me SMSs calling me all sorts of terrible stuff: bitch, slut, whore. I had no idea what he was trying to achieve… We’d had coffee once.

Indian men—and, dare I say it, especially Delhi men—are notorious for their stalkerish tendencies. Rare is the woman, Western or Indian, who has not been pestered far, far beyond the point of flattery. A couple of days ago, (unwittingly) wearing my Lois Lane shoes, I gained a valuable insight into the mind of one of these young men.

Nicky [I have melodramatically changed names and details] was from a large town in the sprawling state of Uttar Pradesh. He’d moved to Delhi to study, before spending six years in Australia, acquiring a much-coveted MBA, an anglicised version of his name, and a comparatively lucrative job. One of the most dramatic changes that he’d experienced during this uprooting was in his attitude towards the pursuit of women.

Almost as soon as he arrived, Nicky fell head-over-heels ‘in love’ with an Australian girl: let’s call her Sheila. He’d only spoken to Sheila a couple of times, but he set out to woo her in the ways he’d been honing since he was a wide-eyed Indian teenager. He kept lists of all the dates and times he’d seen her and what she was wearing; he wrote her streams of emails declaring his undying love in his (at the time) rudimentary English; he text her endlessly; he sent her expensive gifts—a gold necklace, an iPod; he had friends approach her; he followed her home from work.

You can see where this is going. Nicky ended up in court—’that was the first time I heard the word: stalking’—was kicked out of university, and served a community sentence. He was lucky not to be deported. (Incidentally, however, the conviction was not enough to put Nicky off Australia. Not until he had been beaten up three times in ‘curry-bashing’ attacks, finally being stabbed in the arm, did he decide to move back.)

By this point, I was feeling ever so slightly traumatised by the turn of conversation, but Nicky pressed on with his reflections about the events. He acknowledged that what he’d done was wrong and scary—’now I understand’—but insisted he hadn’t known better:

You see it in Bollywood and on the TV. Indian girls always say no, they have to say no, but they expect you to keep chasing them… They want you to keep calling, calling, calling, sending SMS, gifts, following them every day… checking what they’re doing and who they’re seeing. That’s how you show it’s real love.

That evening, another friend corroborated: ‘A friend of mine from work was getting older, and her family thought she’d never marry. One day she noticed a man on the metro, staring at her. The next day he was there too, and the next. Finally he followed her home and asked for her number. They’re still dating a year later.’ Admittedly the man has married someone else in the meantime, but ah well—it’s the romance that counts.

Nicky doesn’t date Indian girls anymore, because he finds the expected process of pursuit confusing and risky, ‘though it wouldn’t even be a crime in India’. He shook his head forlornly. ‘How do you know when no means no?’

There you have it, from the stalking-horse’s mouth. I decided I’d better bring the conversation to an end—and was quite clear on the NO. Since then, Nicky’s only sent a handful of unrequited texts and calls, so perhaps he really has learned his lesson.