Week in the Life The British Consul, Delhi: Envoy hands out home comfort as crises erupt

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JOHN GREENGRASS, Britain's consul in Delhi, has not exported any elephants in the past seven days, nor lit any funeral pyres, but the week has had its usual share of unpredictable distractions.

Monday was meant to be a day of rest, but he came in to cover for a sick colleague. Before long, four different crises had erupted around him. First, his office was occupied by a sobbing woman whose marriage to an Indian had broken down, and who could not think of anywhere else to go for advice.

She was still there, still distraught, when an equally upset young man turned up. He said he had been lured into a grimy quarter of the city and poisoned with mind-altering drugs administered in a rum and Coke. The plan, he believed, had been to knock him out then steal his possessions. But, dazed and staggering, he managed to escape in an autorickshaw taxi, and came straight round to the High Commission, still hallucinating. Mr Greengrass parked him in a neighbouring room.

BEFORE HE could deal with either of these cases, London was on the phone urging him to go at once to Chandigarh, the capital of Punjab and Haryana, north of Delhi: three young British backpackers had been arrested there over the holidays after apparently having a row with a policeman who demanded baksheesh. Although an investigating magistrate had suspended the officers who had carried out the arrest, one of the youths was still in jail on a drugs charge, and the parents had had a dreadful time worrying.

Mr Greengrass's challenge now was to persuade the police to drop the case so the boys could go home.

The conversation was interrupted by a knock on the door: it was the honorary consul for Lithuania who had come round for a quiet word in Mr Greengrass's ear about a ticklish visa problem. He was going to Britain for a visit, and he wanted to take his maid along. "Domestic servants," Mr Greengrass intimated, "are always a problem."

In the Indian context, a quiet word in the ear of a highly placed friend is exactly what is required to solve such problems. Britain, however, does not work in this way, at least not reliably so, and Mr Greengrass had to give his diplomatic acquaintance the gentlest possible brush-off. But before he could return his attention to the original problem - the desperate wife, divorce (he has a list of solicitors) or marriage counselling? - the honorary consul and the hallucinating tourist had somehow got into a surrealistic argument in the corridor, and Mr Greengrass had to pull them apart before they smacked each other.

JOHN GREENGRASS wears a shirt of constabulary blue, has thinning hair and a bushy moustache and in every other respect is about as ordinary- looking an Englishman as you could hope to find east of Suez. Several times every month he sallies forth from the sanitised surroundings of the High Commission in Delhi to visit some of the most terrible places in Asia.

There are eight British prisoners in Tihar jail in Delhi, which is the biggest in India and, according to Mr Greengrass, "probably the worst. Conditions in Tihar go from the dire to the unacceptable," he said. The men's cells are too small to contain a bed, and there is no other furniture either. The lavatory is a hole in the corner. The light, a bare bulb in the ceiling, is on day and night. The conditions for the two British women are even worse.

"The women's jail," Mr Greengrass explained, "is what used to be the maximum security wing of the men's jail." Now three women are squeezed into a cell built to house a single prisoner in solitary confinement.

Fortunately, the prisoners are allowed to stay outside the cells all day and, when the whims of the guards permit, Mr Greengrass and his Indian assistant, Dinesh Kumar, come laden with comforts sent from home - blankets, hats, tracksuits, toiletries, peanut butter, cheese, books.

ALL THE prisoners but one are inside for drug offences; all of them are on remand. Due to the Bleak House-like sluggishness of the Indian legal system, practically all cases drag on for years; and drug offences are non-bailable by law.

"The thing that hurts the prisoners more than anything else is the constant delays," Mr Greengrass said. "By law, there have to be hearings once every two weeks, but often for one reason or another, cases are adjourned over and over again. One guy has had no proper hearings for nearly five months."

But when the case finally comes to trial, prisoners can find that the nightmare ends quite fast. Arresting officers often make mistakes in procedure - one of Mr Greengrass's prisoners was arrested on the aircraft that was about to take him out of the country - and a good lawyer can often get the case thrown out in no time.

"All those whose trials have concluded have been acquitted," he said. "It seems to be a pattern. They spend two years in jail on remand, there's a quick trial, they are acquitted and deported."

MR GREENGRASS, who said: "I love this job, I think it's brilliant," has lit two funeral pyres down at the Yamuna river (one to the chanting of Hare Krishna devotees), scattered ashes in a Himalayan cemetery, facilitated the export of several elephants to Woburn Safari Park and helped Mark Shand to become the first person since India's independence to get a visa to visit India's troubled north-eastern border with China. But the blankets and peanut butter for the sorry inmates of Tihar Jail will probably be recorded as his most valuable acts of mercy.