33rd Post: 1st INDIA – Polo and the Princess

Sacred cows – Delhi



2006 November: Friday

The shows in India were perhaps the best organised, most widely publicised, and most prestigious of all the tours. And, for the only time, I was not alone as a performer – I was a member of a literary repertory company assembled from my own home turf in London. Ann was an internationally respected author specialising in biographies of such disparate characters as Pontius Pilate and Perkin Warbeck, while her husband Malcolm was an excellent actor who had written some genuinely charming poetry books. Our hostess and promoter in Delhi was equally distinguished in her own field; Vinod was the President of the Bernard Shaw Society of India, held a doctorate, and possessed a first rate knowledge of Irish literature.

She was also the entry point into one of the most delightful families it has been my pleasure to meet. Throughout my time in India I came to know and admire all three generations – Vinod and her charming husband Shalendra, her son Shharat and his wife Ratna, and their two sons Sunur and Supunya. They provided a wonderfully helpful and hospitable background to all the events that were to take place.

Despite their seventy odd years apiece, Vinod and Shalendra had no qualms about turning out at one o’clock in the morning to meet our plane in Delhi. As we walked out across the airport car park, we edged round an impassive Brahmin cow, its hindquarters resting nonchalantly against a Mercedes. We were in India all right.

Dr Vinod – on roof top in Gurgaon

2006 November: Saturday

Cows remained the dominant impression the next day as Shalendra drove us into the centre of his home city of Gurgaon. They strolled down the dual carriageways and sprawled across the fast lanes with utter indifference to the surrounding cacophony of car horns and swerving lorries. Shalendra: “They are only sacred up to a point. They are not allowed to walk along the shopping malls or into people’s houses.”

Well, the Brits are just as protective of our sacred dogs, I suppose.

However, if cattle were safe from the traffic, the same could not be said of humans. On the 18 miles of link road between Gurgaon and Delhi, an average of seven pedestrians are killed in accidents every DAY! There appeared to be an equally sanguine attitude to other forms of animal life. I was struck by the number of three-legged feral dogs roaming the roadside. A fourth leg seemed to be an optional extra.

Map of the new city of Gurgaon

Gurgaon itself was a result of the huge population explosion of Delhi and the need for satellite towns. Since 1990 it had expanded from a small farming village to become the sixth largest city in the State of Haryana. It was a wealthy district with a per capita income third only to Chandigarh and Mumbai. Some of this wealth had been invested in a massive building programme and the inevitable construction of high-rise tower blocks.

Tower block in Gurgaon

But, unlike the brutal stumps of London and Hong Kong, some real imagination had been employed here. Each tower had been topped out with giant ornamental representations of temples, elephants, and the like. One office block had what looked to be a giant glass turban on its roof, (it turned out to be a disco club). They were the most attractive tower blocks I’d seen. According to Shalendra, the most expensive of the residential high rises had English names – the ‘Windsor’, the ‘Hamilton’, etc. But the apartments in identical high-rises with Indian names actually cost less.

The Gurgaon shopping malls had an international sophistication of choice – in fact, my search for a couple of shirts was hampered by the sheer variety on display. It was also an introduction to another Indian phenomenon – the amount of staff that allotted themselves to every activity. As I pondered over a rack of shirts, an assistant came to advise me. Then another. And another. It ended up as an open debate over the merits of button-down collars as opposed to more flamboyant styles. Even the uniformed security guard joined in.

View of Gurgaon from rooftop

Over dinner that evening, Shalendra told us a story about the hugely rich Nizam of Hyderabad who, in the 1930s, had visited London. One day, he went out into the West End in some old casual clothes and without his usual escort. Spotting a new model, he went into the Rolls Royce salesroom on Piccadilly and attempted to buy it. The salesman, seeing only some brown foreigner wasting his time, told him to clear off. The Nizam, feeling understandably insulted, sent his emissaries back to the salesroom and bought 365 Roll Royces, one for each day of the year. He then brought them back to India and used them to collect the Hyderabad rubbish. A horrified Rolls Royce board was forced to apologise and plead with him to stop as it was ruining their image.

This story stirred a memory for me. I recalled a period in the 1980s when the spiritual leader Bhagwan Sri Rajneesh was widely derided in the West for purchasing 12 Rolls Royces. When challenged about it, his spokeswoman had replied sweetly: “Why shouldn’t he have 12 cars? Why not 365 of them?” I wondered whether this just might be a reference to the Nizam’s revenge, and a jibe too subtle to register on the radar of the Western media.

NJT on  Gurgaon rooftop

We went on to discuss what endured of the Anglo-Indian experience. India was undoubtedly way past its post-colonial phase; it was now a muscular player on the world stage. Vinod:

“But a lot of things remain from the Raj – the railways, the civil service, things like that. But the best thing is the language. After independence, we tried to make other languages the official one. But each time one Indian language was chosen, it upset another language group. So we went back to English in the end. On the other hand, because of the Raj, we drive on the left hand side of the road. So almost the only place in the world where it is easy for us to drive is in Britain!”

The legacy of empire seemed to me rather like the relationship between two ex-lovers who have spent years apart – sometimes joltingly alien and uneasy, sometimes familiar to the point of intimacy.

2006 November: Sunday

At breakfast, Vinod announced a special treat for the day. We had guest tickets to the All India Polo Finals, followed by the Maharajah of Jaipur’s celebratory reception for the teams. Other than a vague impression that the game involved horses and was a reliable cause of concussion amongst the British royals, I had never seen a match before and had no idea of what polo involved.

The field of play was large, 300 yards by 150 wide, and surrounded by advertising hoardings. Two goalposts, each about 25ft wide, stood at each end. Despite the size of the arena the crowd was small enough to fit into three tiered stands, each decorated with banks of flowers and protected from the sun by striped awnings. A large silver trophy stood displayed on a table at the front of the main stand. The scene was slightly reminiscent of Ascot Ladies Day.

Cup at the Main stand at the Polo Match

There was a stir in the adjacent stand as a tall, very pretty Indian woman arrived. The line of dignitaries rose to greet her as she air-kissed her way to a seat.

Vinod: “That is the Princess of Gwalior. She was voted one of the ten most beautiful women in the world by American Vogue ten years ago. Her palace in Gwalior is bigger than Buckingham Palace and it has two of the largest chandeliers in existence. They are worth £3 million pounds each.”

(Later Vinod told us that in 2001, the Crown Prince of Nepal had fallen in love with one of the Princess’s relatives. When his parents rejected her as a choice, the Prince got drunk, machine-gunned the whole royal family, and committed suicide.)

Ten minutes later, the two teams, the ‘Johore Tigers’ and the ‘Jindal Steel and Power’, rode out to play. There were four horsemen to each side, amongst them an English major, a turbaned Sikh, and an apparently world famous Argentine player, Senor Santiago De Estrado. After a quick salute to the chief guests in the stands, (now including a renowned Bollywood star), the game began.

I have to admit it was breath-taking stuff. In spite of the constant wheeling of ponies and whirling of sticks, the players rarely mishit the ball and almost never collided. It really was hockey on horseback. There were six chukkas, each of 14 minutes, but as the clock was stopped during each halt in play, the game went on for some time. After each goal the players changed ends in order to compensate for field and wind conditions.

At half time, a girl armed with a microphone strode along in front of the seating area greeting the guests and getting in plugs for the corporate sponsors of the event. She had a slightly shrill, hectoring tone to her voice that seemed to be common with Indian public address announcers. Two marching military bands performed on the pitch, one Indian Army, the other a Gurkha regiment.

Gurkha band at Polo Match

When I went to the rear of the stands to have a cigarette, two Indian gentlemen were already there smoking cigars. One turned in my direction and commented on the game: “That was a superb reverse double drive hobble switch” (or words to that effect). I pursed my lips judiciously and gave him a sage but non-committal nod: “Indeed it was.”

The game actually became quite exciting as the score fluctuated in the final chukka. There were only four seconds to go before one team won its final point with a crack of mallet on polo ball – 12/11.

Before the trophy presentation, a young rider galloped past the stands standing on top of his horse. On his return, he stood astride two horses. On his third gallop past, he repeated this feat, but now gripping the reins between his teeth. Astounding horsemanship.

NJT at the Polo Match

Moving on to a large marquee at the rear of the stands, we were ushered into a ‘high tea’ that would have put a Parisian gourmands’ bacchanal to shame. Turbaned servants darted through the crowd bearing drinks and replenishing plates already heaped with delicacies. In one corner of the tent, an Indian rock band played a wobbly version of the Eagles ‘Desperado’. While circulating the crush, I mumbled: “Well played” through a mouthful of cake to the Argentine horseman, de Estrado. He gave me a curt glance and strode on.

Vinod gathered Ann, Malcolm and myself together and led us off for a formal introduction to the Princess of Gwalior. Despite owning a light fitting worth six million quid, the Princess turned out to be charmingly democratic. She had been a university student at Harvard and Stanford and it showed both in her hip, western manner and her slightly American accent. She was also still amazing good-looking – ten years had not wilted her Vogue laurels.

She radiated an indestructible air of superiority, but also an obvious anxiety not to appear superior – the ‘I may have rank but I’m street-wise as well’ approach. She seemed enthusiastic about our theatrical venture and offered her patronage to take the shows to Bangalore at some future (unspecified) date. I wasn’t sure whether this was just small talk or for real, but nodded with alacrity. Having drizzled stardust upon us, the Princess drifted on to the next group. A fine woman.

As we left the marquee, Vinod said that she had once met a Maharajah and was required to call him ‘Your Highness’. She added indignantly: “He was only five feet tall!”

The Delhi Polo Match

Abruptly leaving the world of princesses and polo we skidded on to the considerably less rarified world of Delhi railway station at night. Rather like moving from Henley Regatta to Dante’s Inferno.

Our group, consisting of Ann, Malcolm, Vinod, and Vinod’s sparky daughter-in-law Ratna, were bound on a purely tourist trip to the holy city of Varanasi, five hundred miles east down the Ganges River. Although it would have taken a much shorter time to travel by car, (on average, it takes twice as long by train), the Indian railway experience is so renowned that it was the popular choice. Until we entered the main concourse.

It was the first real encounter with Delhi’s sheer mass of humanity. Amid the seething scrum, I noticed that a tiny ad hoc village seemed to have formed round a small campfire on Platform Nine. A family group huddled around it as the matriarch stirred some porridge-like substance in a suspended cooking pot. In the murk of the unlit station, beggars begged and children wailed. Men passed by carrying large sacks and even luggage trunks on their heads. It resembled squashing rush hour Waterloo Station into Glastonbury Festival.

As we struggled forward, a train pulled out with about twenty men clinging to the outside of the carriage. Vinod saw my disbelieving stare. “Oh, they don’t hang on to the long distance trains. Only to the suburban ones”.

A tall man carrying a staff and a bundle passed us, his glazed eyes seemingly oblivious to his surroundings. Ratna said: “He is a swami. The swamis have cut themselves off from the world.” An impressive feat, considering the mayhem around them in Delhi station.

About every thirty seconds, a disembodied loudspeaker announced: “We are sorry for the inconvenience but the train to Agra, (or Lahore or wherever) is running late by one hour, (or two hours, or seven hours, or whenever). Or has been cancelled. Or is missing. (Or whatever.)” The tannoy speaker was so regular that it formed part of the background racket – a looped tape of metallic apology.

7pm at Delhi Main Station

We elbowed our way to the Varanasi train and settled into a compartment for the eleven-hour night journey. As we left Delhi, the train took on a life of its own. Each compartment was wide open to the main corridor, so the carriage acted as a long dormitory separated into individual tableaux. In the next cubicle, a group of Sikh men were praying, while in the one beyond them, a cheerful Hindu family produced a seven-course dinner from their luggage. Chai wallahs wandered along the aisle, distributing tea from mobile urns.

Having bought a meal off the curry wallah, I accidentally drooped my tie into the plastic container; it emerged decorated with green dall. To be honest, the only practical purpose I’ve ever found for a tie is for absorbing soup.

The discussion turned to Indian life. Ratna said that the harassment of females, though frowned on, was quite rife in India. It was called ‘eve-teasing’. She continued:

“It’s very silly. I suppose that men always remain immature.”

I made the lugubrious reply that:

“I’ve reached an age when an accusation of immaturity is a compliment”.

I retired to my bunk in the next compartment, having first ejected a large drunken Pathan who thought he’d got lucky. As we crossed over the border into Uttar Pradesh, (also known as ‘the Cow Belt’), I drifted off to sleep about midnight.

India Gate, New Delhi

Next week on January 23 – the holy city of Varanasi and a complete loss of cool.

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