In February 2002 I was in India, visiting an arms fair to make a film about the death- metal trade for the BBC.
In February 2002 I was in India, visiting an arms fair to make a film about the death- metal trade for the BBC. It was a sensitive time. In Kashmir a million troops were massed along a euphemism, the so-called "Line of Control", while the two, subcontinental nuclear powers rattled their plutonium sabres with unashamed glee. It was a tense time for me too. Before leaving London I'd visited the BBC's medical unit, which was housed in a steel-clad, paint-by-numbers block under the lip of the Westway. Here I'd been given a galaxy of shots - for cholera, typhoid, hepatitis and God knows what else - as well a small rucksack full of malaria pills. It hardly seemed necessary for a four-day sojourn in the developing world. (Another great euphemism; if somewhere with a 5,000-year continuous civilisation is the "developing" world then what does that make Britain? The "foetal" world?)
Together with the director, Amir, a charming, faun-like Anglo-Iranian; and David, the cameraman, an avuncular presence, I was holed up in a vast New Delhi hotel. Laid out on two storeys in a series of bewilderingly similar corridors and halls, the hotel reminded me of an Escher print, and as I made the trek to my room I kept expecting to see my doppelganger disappearing around the next corner.
On the first evening we met up with our local fixer, and the four of us headed out to dinner at a restaurant of great repute. Suddenly we were plunged from the mock-oriental straight into the real thing. It was the first time I'd been in India since the 1980s and while I hadn't forgotten the visceral impact of the place it still came as a shock when we climbed out of the taxi and met a forest of begging arms, many of them deformed. The sheer unadulterated huggermugger of old Delhi with its tuk-tuks, naked lightbulbs, mud walls and teeming, pan-chewing humanity surged in on me like a wave. Then, sitting in the restaurant I had a gastro-epiphany, registering the exact moment when a bacillus crawled off my fork and into my mouth. Sod it, I thought, in for a rupee in for lakh, and I kept on eating.
The following day as we stalked the arms fair, trying to get oleaginous Department of Trade and Industry wonks and British Aerospace Systems salesmen to talk to us, my innards dissolved into a muddy flux. "You too?" I squealed at Amir as we dashed between aisles of machine guns and missiles to the kharzi. He nodded in pained acknowledgement. But when we both emerged he had in his hand a capsule as big as smart bomb. "Take this," he told me, "the BBC gave it to me. It's so strong it'll kill any known stomach bug stone dead in 24 hours."
"Why didn't they give me one?" I wailed petulantly.
"Look," he thrust it at me, "I'm giving it to you now - take it!"
The next 24 hours saw Amir and I reach a state of considerable nervous hilarity, as we attempted to interview reluctant arms traders while breaking off every 10 minutes to answer the anguished howl of our diseased natures. We were reduced to spoofing the death-metal dealers - on camera - with a series of skits which we thought wildly funny:
Self (to Swedish artillery manufacturer standing in front of a model of one of his guns): "Is that the actual size of the 200mm Bofors?"
Swede: "Um ... no ... it would not be operational at that size."
Self (to Finnish camouflage specialist): "What's the biggest thing anyone's ever asked you to camouflage?"
Finn: "Um ... I don't know ... "
Self: "How about a whole country, could you do that?"
Finn: "Well ... it would be ... "
Self: "Could you camouflage a whole country as another country?"
Self (to South African sniper-rifle salesman): "Tell me a little about this one."
South African: "The Springbok 8809 is a versatile, laser-targeted weapon capable of 99 per cent accuracy at a range of two kilometres."
Self: "So in your opinion would this be the right weapon to hit someone in a motorcade?"
SA: "Errr ... I guess."
Self: "Like a head of state?"
SA: "You could do that."
Self: "For instance ... Robert Mugabe?"
SA: "Robert Mugabe?"
Self: "Yes, he's up that river operating without any control at all and we're going to terminate him ... with extreme prejudice."
Needless to say none of this made it on to the box - but at least the Delhi belly was forced back to its line of control. But a week later we were back in England, and I had to raise a delicate matter with Amir. "Have you, um ... been burping sort of sulphurously?"
"Yup - you too? It must be because those pills have worn off."
"Yeah, either that or else we've been internally camouflaged by a miniaturised special-forces unit."
"As a volcano?"
"Yeah, obviously, as a volcano."
"Best call Geoff Hoon then."
"Yeah, yeah, better had."Reuse content