Karen and I have just spent the last 24 hours in the extraordinary city of Delhi. For those who don’t know, the real Delhi (or the “Old” one, according to the British) is actually eight cities, and both old and new (the one laid out by Lutyens, the Art Deco designer of the Cenotaph) contain fully 17 million people. It is a return for me, having played a hockey tournament here in 1994. It captured me then, and I vowed to come back: it hasn’t disappointed.
Why? There’s something releasing about Indians: to this stuck-up and stiff Englishman, their joy, their charm and their sheer delight at being alive (despite some pretty obvious poverty) is an inspiration. What I’m discovering is that this isn’t new, and the same captivation was felt by those Englishmen coming in the days of Empire. Freed from the rigid conventions of Victorian uniform and cooking, arriving in India to the sight of such a cornucopia of colour and of taste was clearly impactful then and it retains its impact now, even though we English have loosened a bit since the days when a chair leg was seen as impossibly erotic.
We have spent the last day and a half visiting a series of historical sites, which has taught me a little more about Indian history, and reinforced the gut instinct that history rhymes in a big way. My impression of India has always been of a restless Hindu majority rather sitting on its Muslim minority: the latest hooha over Prime Minister Modi’s links to Hindu nationalists only goes to illustrate this in my mind. However (and, reader, you may already be aware of this, so humour me), the reality is that the Muslim faith was that of the Mughal rulers who held sway for almost 200 years, and Delhi is full of their triumphant architecture, and indeed of their pious vandalism, where Hindu temples were destroyed and the idols contained therein had their faces defaced – Isis, anyone?
Of course, I have to admit that part of my thrill of being in India is an association with a time when Britain led the World – the Indians harbour still a respect for its old oppressor that is sadly so at odds with its 21st Century reality: health and safety mad (completely absent in India, it seems), cringing insularity and the ascendancy of the little people. Heho.