Mad dogs and Englishmen
It’s time to confess that I’ve just been to India for the weekend – Friday to Monday. A mad enterprise in a way, but we (a) needed a break, (b) didn’t have time for more than a couple of days and (c) wanted to see the Taj Mahal. OK, it left rather a large carbon footprint, but no larger than if I had gone for a fortnight (as I told my conscience).
One tip for anyone thinking of following suit. Don’t try to do it cheap. If you want to cram a lot into a very short time, you have to pay what you would have paid for two weeks. You want everything to be comfortable and to work smoothly… you cant risk any of your three nights being hot and sleepless. Though there is one bizarre consequence of doing the trip upmarket -- you go to a very hot country and spend all your time being slightly cold, such is the over-efficiency of the air-conditioning (there is the carbon footprint problem, I fear).
Anyway, the result for me is that I now have the sense that I was there for at least five days – so much did we see, including the Taj (the ostensible reason for the visit).
Things started well. We got to our hotel room in Delhi to find a wonderful bunch of flowers, sent by an American friend (of Indian roots), to whom we had confessed our scheme. It seemed a good omen of everything working out.
The first morning we did Delhi, starting with the New Delhi of Lutyens and Baker. The buildings and spaces are completely vast – making Whitehall and the Palace of Westminster seem small and faintly domestic by comparison. Whatever your judgment on the Raj (and it would be hard to wholly in favour!), there is something very appealing about the cultural mix that its remnants represent. The idea of Lutyens’ Indian-neo-classicism now appropriated for ‘real’ Indian purposes (from the kids doing rough and tumble where the British horses presumably pranced up and down to the cheap skate snake charmers) seemed a nice end to the story.
The contrast with Old Delhi was mind-boggling. The separation of the different parts of town reminded me a bit of that Hadrianic moment in second-century CE Athens – when Hadrian puts up his gate between the two city sectors, each one clearly marked: “This is the city of Theseus”, “This is the city of Hadrian”. Anyway, our driver put us into cycle rickshaws (in the picture - I'm at the very back) and we went off to buy pepper and spices. (He came with us, thank heavens.)
In the afternoon, we hit the road to Agra. This is a main highway/motorway. Never be tempted to drive it yourself. It was full of the most eccentric driving I have ever seen, hundreds of motor-bikes and bikes (India, unlike us, still obviously has a bicycle making industry) -- plus wandering cows, camels and the occasional elephant (always a wow factor for me).
We were just reflecting (in that modern orientalist way) about how refreshing the lack of Health and Safety regulations were, and slightly admiring the jolly gaiety of all those motorbikes driven by a bloke, with his sari clad wife (holding the baby) riding side-saddle on the back . . . .when we passed in quick succession what seemed to be two fatal crashes. Jolly gaiety has its terrible price.
We only got back yesterday, so these are instant, unprocessed reactions – and yes, down-playing the poverty, the battalions of gun-wielding policemen and the voyeurism of tourism.
More on the Taj to follow.