Sunday, December 14, 2008
Last Days of the Raj
I’m glad England’s cricketers popped back to India to finish their tour. Otherwise I wouldn’t have experienced that sweet sense of shock this morning when I discovered that we could actually win the Test in Madras (sorry, I mean “Chennai” – it’s difficult remembering all the new names India has given its cities to disguise its colonial past)*.
Though I haven’t been back for nearly thirty years, I can still vividly recall India’s smells and sounds. Last week, while moving house, I opened a dusty old box and memories of my year-long trip came pouring out in a pile of faded photographs. One exposes me with hippy beard and long hair, clutching a piece of tinsel and a plate of Christmas pudding: Christmas 1979, Uttar Pradesh. In another I’m bowling very badly against a group of Punjabi children screaming with laughter at my sporting ineptitude. India takes its cricket very seriously. If we win this game, there’ll be gnashing of teeth across the sub-continent.
Madras was on our original itinerary, but we were distracted by an unexpected encounter. Driving from the South with Jilly in our little Volkswagen campervan, we’d decided to visit Khana tiger reserve in Central India. Arriving at sunset we were just parking up in a jungle clearing when we heard a low rumble, then a deep booming voice called out “What, ho! English?” We peered through the undergrowth; lumbering towards us was an enormous elephant and perched on top was an impossibly tall man who looked and sounded just like David Niven. “I say, you must be on your way to the Queen Elizabeth Cup – would you care for a gin and tonic?”
So began our friendship with the extraordinary Bob Wright, a man who managed to preserve the spirit of the British Raj throughout his life. He was a kind of stereotypical Englishman abroad; he’d stayed in the country after partition, and had established a little tourist camp (appropriately called Kipling Camp) in India’s most important tiger reserve. “Never heard of the Queen Elizabeth?” he roared at us, “It’s in Calcutta, the most important horserace in India; everyone will be there, you simply have to go”. Several gin and tonics later, we made a pact. We’d go to the race if he came with us in our van.
“You’re on,” he cried. And we promptly forgot all about it.
At dawn the following morning there was a tap on the van door. There was Bob’s diminutive manservant Nubi, and behind him were lined up more than a dozen suitcases and bedding rolls. Bob was bringing his entire entourage.
Calcutta was 1300 miles away, along a dirt track optimistically named National Highway 7. We didn’t drive along it, we bounced; for six whole days. Weighed down by Bob’s huge frame, luggage and servant, our suspension trawled through the dust and potholes. Swerving to avoid brightly coloured lorries and buses, trying not to hit ox carts, we grew to ignore the cries from the back as Nubi, sitting on the bedding rolls, kept bouncing up and hitting the ceiling. Every few hundred miles or so there’d be a smart government sign: “Roads Define The Culture of a Nation”. Quite.
At nightfall, Bob would instruct us to drive into centre of the nearest village where he’d boom out of the window, “Where’s the inspection bungalow?” Whereupon a mob of children would lead us to the only stone house, built by the British for their touring magistrates. An ancient manager would open the shutters, dust down the bedrooms, prepare us a meal and find a punka-walla to operate the human powered fans. All for about twenty pence. It was as if the British had never left; we’d gone back fifty years and were living a scene from Jewel In The Crown.
Now I doubt our English cricketers are getting service like that, however grand their Chennai hotel.
* Of course, this was written before England performed its customary eleventh hour collapse. I guess I shouldn't have mentioned the possibility of winning. Or touched wood, or something.