PsychoGeography #31: Sitting on top of the world

Will Self
Monday 10 October 2011 10:55

Two decades ago I spent three months in India. My companion was Turnbull St Asser, the last scion of a north-country dynasty of enormous antiquity (they came over with the Cro-Magnons), who had dedicated 30 generations to dissipation and dilettantism.

Two decades ago I spent three months in India. My companion was Turnbull St Asser, the last scion of a north-country dynasty of enormous antiquity (they came over with the Cro-Magnons), who had dedicated 30 generations to dissipation and dilettantism. Turnbull and I had been at the varsity together, and we shared a taste for the finer - and fouler - things in life, although coming from East Finchley my dandyism had a curiously Neo-Marxist tinge. Inevitably we quarrelled in Kathmandu, after I threw some coloured water on his Shantong silk suit during the festival of Holi. Turnbull departed to stay with some maharaja or another to whom he had a letter of introduction, while I headed by minibus for Varanasi.

Strange though it may seem now, we arranged to rendezvous a month later at Srinagar in Kashmir, to see if we could resolve our differences; ah, such is the folly of youth! After an unscheduled extra week on the banks of the sacred Ganga, I entrained and took the thundering Himgiri-Haora Express across the north of the subcontinent to Chandigarh. On the train, slotted into a third-class couchette like a beige filing-cabinet drawer, I met a young couple from Maidstone. We discussed life, love, politics, religion and the future of mankind. I wrote some jejune verses in the girl's commonplace book. When we parted I breathed a sigh of relief.

Fifteen years later she pitched up again while I was signing books at Hatchards in Piccadilly, and yes, she had the jejune verses. Truly, notoriety is a depth charge to your acquaintance, throwing up all sorts of dead fish, and for that reason alone it is to be avoided. There was no avoiding Turnbull either. At the appointed hour I arrived at the Tourist Office and sat huddled on a stone bench. It was cold in Kashmir, especially so after the heat of the plains. The locals went around with portable charcoal stoves, which they sat with underneath their djellabas. It looked right toasty to me, who was clad in regulation traveller's denims, set off with bits of embroidered cotton wrapped around my extremities. "My God!" expostulated Turnbull, striding towards me, his tweeds whispering affluently. "You've gone bloody native!"

Turnbull, however, had already paid for his cultural arrogance. With his flame of hair and flashing monocle, the impoverished houseboat proprietors had seen him coming rather better than he was able to descry them. Out on Dal Lake the flotillas of houseboats, with their ornate, fret-worked superstructures, were mostly empty. There was hardly anyone about to be taken to the famous floating gardens. Knockdown deals were the order of the day: for $2 per day I was staying on the Houseboat Ceylon, with full board, laundry services and excursion transport thrown in, courtesy of its efficient proprietor, Rashid.

Turnbull on the other hand was paying 20 bucks a night for a stinky berth on a muddy barge moored in a sewer running off the Jhelum River. No food, no transport, and certainly no dry cleaning for his suits. I laughed long and loud when I saw his quarters: "Ho, ho, ho, ho, ho!" I went, hoping to pay back in some small measure the centuries of schadenfreude the St Assers had exacted from their tenants. "You've been rooked!" An hour later Turnbull was ensconced with me on the HB Ceylon and we had begun to bicker all over again. Rashid, hating dissension of any kind, suggested we take a trip into the Himalaya; he would organise everything. He was as good as his word, and two days later we were clopping up into the terrifying Pir Panjal range, Turnbull and I mounted on laden donkeys, while Rashid took the lead on foot. Turnbull looked ridiculous in a blanket he contrived to wear like a Mexican poncho, and a pearl-grey fedora. I was still cold.

When we reached our destination, a mountain hut at 15,000 feet that looked like a cricket pavilion, I was a hell of a lot colder. We were there for two days, but it felt like two weeks. Rashid fed us indigestible meals of bread, rice and potatoes. "Carbohydrate, carbohydrate, carbohydrate!" Turnbull admonished him. "That's three kinds of carbohydrate!" We took to our sleeping bags, and Turnbull then tormented me by reading aloud lengthy descriptions of princely feasting in a book he'd borrowed from his maharaja: "28 capons stuffed with sweet almonds, a pie of lark's tongues and live songbirds, jellied crocodile kidneys ..." on and on he brayed. In many ways I feel I've never left that hideous place, and that my whole life has been spent in a cricket pavilion being persecuted by an English aristo. But at least I know I'm not alone.

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