Travel India: Cricket the only game, oranges the only fruit

Four hundred miles from Mumbai, and bang in the middle of India, Nagpur is green, fertile and refreshingly tourist-free.
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The Independent Culture
THEY SAY that if you took a map of India and tried to find its centre of gravity by balancing it on a pin, you would put it pretty close to Nagpur, midway between east and west, the Himalayas and the southern tip.

Nagpur is cricket and oranges. The British have known it as a venue for Test Matches at its homely cricket ground since 1969. Indians, and particularly the locals, know the city for oranges.

I drove the 400 miles from Mumbai (Bombay) with Nikil, an Indian friend in the orange business. Sharing the driving, we covered the green and brown undulating country in one long, hot day, starting in a pink dawn and arriving in a black moonless night.

It is better in what is known as an "A/c car", but in a "non-A/c car" you close the window to avoid the dust, and you sweat. Or you open the window for air and the red dust sticks to your mouth and the sweaty parts of your face and clothes.

"You realise we were barking mad to do it in one day," Nikil said. "But it avoids the delights of the no-star hotels on the way." This part of Maharashtra is intensively if primitively farmed, and small- holdings produce cotton, sorghum, millet, nuts. Beyond Nagpur, manganese is mined.

Through villages and hills the road rises 1,000ft, with the surprising result, for tropical latitudes, that cattle graze in greenish fields.

Tall palm trees and loping monkeys remind us we are in India. There is no tourism and little call for foreigners to penetrate here, and I enjoyed being in Indian India, seeing its pleasant country and sensing its ageless ways and self-centred preoccupation with survival.

The Blue Moon Hotel welcomed us to Nagpur. It was the best hotel in town. The elderly staff in faded, threadbare tuxedos and almost-white shirts had worked there for ever. Carrying bags up the same stairs to the same rooms and pulling back the same curtains for so long had given them a self-confidence, even arrogance, in the mastery of their art. They and the place were timeless. Everything was brown. The wooden stairs and banisters were a lighter shade, the linoleum in the hall rather darker. Everything else was sepia like a Victorian photograph. The fixed prices were so fixed that they were painted in shaded lettering and varnished over: "Non-A/c Rooms from Rs275; A/c Rooms from Rs475" - in English money, pounds 4 and pounds 7, including breakfast.

One day we drove out to an orange grove on business. The altitude slightly tempers the ferocity of the sun. The groves stretch for miles in all directions, their green foliage colouring the dry landscape.

There is little in nature more bountiful than an orange tree in full yield. Hundreds of fruits weigh down every tree, and the trees stretch in arrow-like rows as far as the eye can see.

Young men pick and load the oranges into wicker baskets. Young women in saris of yellow, red and purple carry them on their heads to the sorting centre. The baskets seem to be part of their bodies, imposing a gliding rhythm and poise with their slender arms gracefully helping their balance.

The 20-mile journey from the sorting centre to the market takes a whole day of goading and trundling, if not half the night as well.

Nagpur city centre itself, like all Indian city centres, is a bustle of perpetual motion. It is a low-rise traditional town, less huddled and teeming than many, but all the activities are there, if a little more spread out. The streets are busy with motor-rickshaws carrying the better- off, weaving through bikes, barrows and skinny men with backbreaking loads.

The energy makes you forget the sorry statistics about illiteracy, incomes of pounds 5 a week, and low nutrition. There is no time for self-pity in the theatre, or even the circus, of pavement life. Cleaning shoes, mending bikes, cutting hair: the bizarre magic of the scene blots out gloom. There is a life force in the hustlers, the healers, the preachers, the entertainers.

Nikil invited two orange traders to join us for a meal in the Blue Moon one evening. It has a kitchen but no dining-room, so we selected the bigger of our bedrooms as the venue. There were no chairs, so we put all the pillows on the floor and awaited room service. "What about a drink?" I thought aloud. I went to reception to ask the manager.

The Blue Moon clientele is almost exclusively non-drinking Indian, but every few years an international cricket match brings in some foreigners, so the retainers understand their strange ways.

The manager knowingly pointed to a sign on the wall. "Liquor obtained," it said.

"I'd like a large whisky."

"Of course, sir. It will be obtained."

This is Indian India. They do things their way. Thank God.