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?
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.
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?’
‘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.
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.