Tales From India: Bombay in denial

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It was the cows that turned out to be the key sight that defined India. Yes, I knew they were sacred to Hindu worshippers, and that you wouldn't find beef on the menu of real Indian restaurants – but I hadn't realised there'd be so many of them, ambling about the backstreets of cities, nosing through the bazaars, sitting down with fantastic insouciance in the middle of a busy Delhi thoroughfare while the traffic squealed and honked around them, or just standing with magnificent bovine complacency outside shops and offices, while the whizzy, ant-colony life of modern India pullulates around them. They know they can't be harmed, or rushed, or bullied, or made to do anything they don't fancy. Someone has told them the penalty for crashing your car into a cow in the street and killing it is one lakh, or 100,000 rupees (about £1,400). They regard you with utter superiority, aloof, seraphic, beyond feeling, good or bad. They exist in a state of emotion-free nothingness to which Indian people aspire

It was the cows that turned out to be the key sight that defined India. Yes, I knew they were sacred to Hindu worshippers, and that you wouldn't find beef on the menu of real Indian restaurants – but I hadn't realised there'd be so many of them, ambling about the backstreets of cities, nosing through the bazaars, sitting down with fantastic insouciance in the middle of a busy Delhi thoroughfare while the traffic squealed and honked around them, or just standing with magnificent bovine complacency outside shops and offices, while the whizzy, ant-colony life of modern India pullulates around them. They know they can't be harmed, or rushed, or bullied, or made to do anything they don't fancy. Someone has told them the penalty for crashing your car into a cow in the street and killing it is one lakh, or 100,000 rupees (about £1,400). They regard you with utter superiority, aloof, seraphic, beyond feeling, good or bad. They exist in a state of emotion-free nothingness to which Indian people aspire and which they call Nirvana.

It was my first visit to India. I got back to Blighty on Monday, shaking with sensory overload. Some of it was to do with size, some with people. Bombay, for instance, is astounding, not for any Bollywood-glamour reasons but because you cannot get your head round the multitude of people silhouetted against the sunset on Chow Patty Beach. (Someone said there are 16 million people in Bombay – you mean, that's all?) I clocked the Bombay hookers, standing outside the reeking stews of Grand Road in their sensible saris and glam evening gowns. I gazed at the geometric complexity of the Jain temples; sniffed the pong of fresh coriander that hangs like a green cloud over the vegetable market; recoiled at the suppurating organic reek of authentic 12th-century drainage in Jaisalmer Fort; and felt the ground shake as a tribe of Reika nomads appeared with a few score of camels and hundreds of sheep and goats, driving them from the Thar desert in search of sustenance.

And in the middle of it is the sight, and sound, of a population trying to play down the violence that's been rumbling beneath the world's largest democracy in the wake of last week's shocking terrorist assaut on the Akshardham Temple in Gujurat, where two armed men burst in among the tourists and left 37 dead and many more injured. In the days that followed the outrage, I tried to find a consensus of opinions about who or what might lie behind it. The Indians I spoke to were strangely quiescent. Many wanted to dismiss it as a one-off phenomenon. "It's nothing to do with us," they said. "We're a peace-loving people." When the gunmen turned out to be Muslims, my interlocutors went out of their way to insist that Hindus and Muslims are wholly integrated socially. "Some of my best friends are Muslims," they intoned. "I respect their beliefs. I celebrate Muslim holidays with them." They blamed the shootings on Kashmir; it's because the Muslims couldn't influence the Kashmiri elections that they'd retaliated in this way, said my Hindu friends. Gradually, the arguments shifted across the border. The temple shootings were General Pervez Musharraf's fault. The Pakistani President had wanted (they said) to highlight the Kashmir dispute in order to distract his countrymen from his autocratic ways. A government minister I spoke to insisted the temple carnage was a regrettable tragedy performed by Pakistani "commandos".

What everyone is at pains not to suggest is that the atrocity signals a new flare-up between Hindus and Muslims, a direct consequence of the Godhra massacre in the spring, and the riots that broke out in Gujurat. Nobody wants to raise the possibility that their peace-loving society is about to be riven by tit-for-tat killings, that every Hindu temple and Muslim community might suddenly be a target. Nobody will admit to the existence of Hindu fundamentalism. Every Hindu, in other words, is in uncomfortable denial, aware that he may be sitting on a powder-keg, praying that the Hindu majority will not be pushed into bloody reprisals. The last thing he wants is to feel that his Muslim neighbours are, any minute now, about to turn into deadly enemies. No wonder things are so tense in Delhi and Agra and Rajasthan. No wonder they'd rather blame the nasty general across the border than the fault-lines of modern India.

When Western hard sell takes on traditional values

Nothing defines the national Zeitgeist better than its television commercials, and the present crop of Indian TV ads are revealing indeed. They suggest a society wildly impatient to join the world of digital cameras, Starbucks and homeboys, but uncertain how to get there, and settling pro tempore for Kodak, Nescafé and second cousins. They usually feature cutting-edge young things, all revved up but with no place to go because they haven't had their parents' permission.

The result is a hilarious hybrid of ancient and modern images. Andrew Lloyd Webber's composer friend AH Rahman, of Bombay Dreams fame, turns up in a commercial for Airtel mobile phones, where he plays electronic keyboards to an audience that includes a turbanned Sikh and a hairy sadhu, neither of them obvious fans of such crossover material. The new Pepsi ad has three lovelies in Western gear approach that classic Bollywood hero, the sexy young field labourer, to ask him for something to drink, only to discover he has a stash of Pepsi down a well. Elsewhere, six groovy young teens daringly agree to go out for a Chinese meal – but, of course, it's at the flat of the girlfriend's trendy aunt, who introduces the young whipper-snappers to noodles and black-bean sauce, to huge approval. A proud, sari-clad housewife praises the speed and easiness of her new microwave, but still has to cook five meals for umpteen children, parents and her husband – not much sign of female liberation there.

Ariel soap powder concludes its 30-second commercial by offering tiny powder sachets at three rupees (5p) a time. The ad displays pristine white washing-machines, apparently keen to steer modern people away from the low-rent habit of washing their smalls in the river along with the rest of the dhobi-wallahs. Celebrity rears it swollen head from time to time, with mixed results. In one, a real-life, tennis-playing legend comes to town, is persuaded to play in a cricket match, whacks the ball and is caught out by a pretty girl standing on a balcony. The advertisement is for Siyaram's Bodycare Fabric. Keep your clothes nice, girls, it seems to suggest, and you might one day get to shag Boris Becker.

Presumably there's an advertisement watchdog keeping an eye on all this First World propaganda. Certainly, there's a small backlash in the press about the presumption of advertisers. It was discovered Coca-Cola had painted its logo on some rocks in the Himalayas and now faces a five-million rupee fine for endangering the environment. You can push the old guard just so far...

The Maharajah's light fantastic

There are no official figures, and it doesn't have an entry in The Guinness Book of Records, but I think I can confidently state that I've discovered the best hotel bedroom in the world. It's the Khush Mahal suite at the Lake Palace hotel in Udaipur, a beautiful white marble hideaway rising from the waters of Lake Pichola, which was built 270 years ago as the Mahajarah's summer palace. The Khush is, according to the hotel's staff, the room in which the old Maharajah would have slept, with a selection of his wives. They'd have had a lovely time. The room's unique selling proposition is its six stained-glass windows on the east side, to the right of your bed.

You're awakened by a glow of light, as the sun heaves itself over the battlements of the City Palace on the shore, and illuminates the first window like a Christmas tree. Twenty minutes later, you wake again to discover that all six casements are now ablaze with dazzling colours, as the sun comes through the glass and throws red, blues, greens and yellows all over the west wall like a Damien Hirst spot painting come to life. As the sun climbs higher, the display of coloured spots slides down the wall and out of sight – but that's when the sun hits the lake, and appears as if it is floating on it. The sun's reflection bounces off the water and comes streaming in through another, lower-down window, offering the thunderstruck Maharajah (or the lucky traveller) a wiggling kaleidoscope of verdant strobe effects, as if the viewer were underwater. It goes on for half an hour, then starts to steal across the ceiling...

How did the architect who built the Lake Palace hotel achieve this miraculous, multi-million-dollar special effect back in 1732? By using sunlight, and water, and 10 rupees' worth of coloured glass, and getting some angles right. Ah, the simplicity of genius.

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