Travels in India, 2001: (3) Delhi, part three

My last day in Delhi: balls, babies and other small matters of life and death.

On the first tee of the Delhi Golf Club, and in a tone much favoured by my first wife, I heard within me the words: ‘you haven’t come to India to play golf’. I agreed, but there I was, and invited to a party that evening. I said ‘yes’ and ducked-hooked my drive into our fore-caddies, who had made the common, but misguided, assumption that anyone from St Andrews would know how to play the game.

If you come from a country where labour is expensive, you may not know what a fore-caddie is – it’s someone who runs ahead to watch where the ball lands and, in the case of mine, wades into the jungle to retrieve it. Rather him than me, was my reaction as the undergrowth closed around the poor fellow, and all I could hear was the cracking of twigs underfoot and the slithering of snakes. Somehow, he found my ball. I know that because two holes later he came running up to me holding it triumphantly in his hand. I searched his outstretched arm for tell-tale lesions which might have had a bearing on the size of the tip. I am pleased to say that he seemed to be unbitten, and he wasn’t frothing at the mouth. Not yet, anyway. After the game, the caddies who had carried the bags received 100 rupees each (c.£1.40), the fore-caddies rather less. It was the going rate. They should come to St Andrews. They would clean up.

That evening I smoothed out the creases in my smart white jacket, selected my wampum (a pot of Dundee marmalade) and went to the party. Knowing nobody is a great advantage at parties: you can go where your fancy takes you and people are inclined to give you the benefit of the doubt. I found myself talking to a man who worked for the Indian railways: one of the few unambiguous benefits of British rule, or so he thought. It wasn’t long before I knew more about the subject than I had ever imagined myself knowing. Since the first steam train set off from Bombay in 1853 to chug along to Thane 21 miles away, the Indian railways have mushroomed to include some 7000 stations and 40,000 miles of track, enough to stretch comfortably round the world, with sufficient spare to allow for overtaking. ‘With 12 million journeys a day, the wonder is it works as well as it does,’ he said, and looked at me for confirmation. I confirmed. It was wonderful really. All those people and all those trains for the Fat Controller to look after each morning.

Somehow, we found ourselves blended into a group of young, attractive and highly articulate females who were talking about babies. I wracked my brains for something to say. ‘There seems to be a lot of them about… babies… in India,’ I blurted out, like the idiot I am – at which point the conversation stopped and they all looked at me. ‘Yes’, said one very pretty lady, who I will always remember with gratitude, ‘15 million a year, one baby every 29 seconds, enough to populate Chile. There was a new Chile this year. There will be another one next year, and the year after, and the year after that.’ I had been rescued. Conversation resumed. Population, I discovered, had the same resonance for educated Indians as the iceberg had to passengers on the Titanic. It worried them. It was what was going to sink them all, if nothing was done.

The conversation moved on naturally to disease. Malaria was back. ‘Watch out for the mosquitoes.’ Dengue fever was back too. ‘A friend of a friend died of it.’ A collective thought then dawned on them, and they turned to look at me. Written over their faces were the words: ‘and we all know which pink-skinned visitor will make the best eating round here.’ ‘By the way’, said one, picking up the unspoken theme of things which might finish me off, ‘be careful about the water, even if it is bottled. Check the seal. Check for tampering. I wouldn’t drink – and here she mentioned the Forbidden Brand – if I were you. I memorised the name and went over to help myself to the best food I was to eat for quite a while. I loaded my plate and consumed enough hot curry to turn my complexion into something sufficiently florid to discourage even the most determined insect.

Next day, I transferred, courtesy of my kind golfing companion, from my hotel in old Delhi to a club which occupied priceless acres of New Delhi. It had been built during the Raj, and gave every impression that not much had changed since.

The layout was magnificent and odd. I thought so anyway. It had gardens, lawns (some for croquet, I think), a library, a swimming pool, a ballroom and plenty of buildings scattered about that looked exactly the same as each other. What it didn’t have was a distinctive central building, visible from anywhere, around which you could navigate. This made getting the hang of the layout a problem, even for those with a sense of direction. For someone like me, who can get lost stepping outside my own front door, going from the bedroom, to which I had been guided, to the dining room was an expedition. The nice man sweeping the leaves outside smiled at me as I passed by, acknowledged my cheery ‘good morning’, and a few minutes later, as I reappeared from a different angle, smiled again, leant on his broom and watched me cut behind a hedge before marching off purposefully in entirely the wrong direction. Eventually, I managed to bump into a door that looked as if it might be the right one, pushed it open, inserted my bewildered head, and exclaimed involuntarily, ‘Ah… the dining room.’

It was cavernous. It would not have looked out of place on the Queen Mary, except that it was empty apart from three minuscule waiters standing in its far distant corners. One of them, seeing me take a seat, began the long trek. When he finally arrived, I saw he was a smiling man with short grey hair and of more normal proportions than I had initially supposed. We discussed soup.

‘You want soup?’ he asked.

‘No soup, thankyou.’

‘You want no soup?’

‘Yes, no soup, thankyou.’

He brought soup. He brought other food, plenty of it and all good. I had a tea-bag with boiled water to follow and the bill came to 83 rupees, about £1.10p. I offered  to settle in the traditional manner; with coin of the realm. This was refused. The spirit of Victoria lived on. I had to go to the desk and purchase a book of tickets which could be torn out and used as currency – so that servants would not be tempted by handling cash.

In the afternoon, I hailed an auto-rickshaw (a tuk-tuk) and went to the Lodi Gardens, a favourite public park for Delhi-ites. The Lodi Gardens were a haven of peace and tranquillity, jogging and picnics, and fifteenth century tombs with ‘onion’ domes on top which looked to me inescapably mammarial. I inspected the Shish Gumbad and the Bara Gumbad, the resting places of two Lodi nobles, each tomb with its own fulsome boob aloft. Seeing them as a pair, left breast and right, together as nature intended, and surrounded as they were by other tombs with similar rounded protuberances exhibited unashamedly across the park, I began to understand the stimulus behind India’s annual Chile production.

I strolled along watching courting couples holding hands and staring lovingly into each others’ eyes. ‘Get out of the Garden,’ I urged silently. ‘Give yourself a chance, at least.’ It did no good. No one moved. The future was not to be denied.

I found myself standing in the middle of an abandoned picnic: a party of 16, I guessed, judging by the number of miniature wooden spatulas that were lying around. I investigated further. ‘Ice cream’, I concluded, having knelt down to examine the spoons closely, ‘they have eaten ice cream’ – at which point a passing ice cream vendor very nearly ran over my head with his trolley. Someone had also drunk The Forbidden Brand. A discarded bottle lay among the other pieces of evidence. This was serious. I listened for groans coming from the nearby bushes, but whoever it was had obviously crawled off to die further afield. A used copy of the Times of India rustled listlessly on the ground. If I was a street-dweller, this is where I would come. Here was peace, quiet and plenty of raw materials. I would read the newspaper, make a small fire out of discarded scoops and then, when ready to call it a day, snuggle up in a stone alcove beneath a monumental mammary and dream the night pleasantly away.

I walked towards the park gates where I hoped my tuk tuk would be waiting. Dusk was fast approaching. I didn’t want to spend the night here after all. I didn’t want to be out here alone as Mr Mosquito rose from his tomb in search of fresh blood. I quickened my step. But was this the exit I had come in through? It looked different… It was different. No sign of my tuk tuk. I retraced my steps. The light was now all but gone. I broke into a trot. A mild current of alarm pulsed through me. I could see the headline: ‘Tourist trapped in Gardens. Body picked clean.’ I tried another exit. Nothing. I turned around, stumbled through a break in the trees, found another path and followed it out. There, sublimely unconscious of the emotional crisis to which his client had been subjected, was my tuk tuk. I acted, of course, as if nothing untoward had occurred and, as he returned me to the Club, I was comforted by the fact that no blood-sucking insect, hot on my trail, could possibly survive the cloud of noxious sulphur that was spewing out of the exhaust pipe beneath me.

I reached my room, lay down on my bed panting, and popped an anti-malarial for luck. You can’t be too careful. Then I circumnavigated the grounds several times in search of a light supper, and packed my bags for Varanasi.

… to be continued

 © Michael Tobert