Many have eulogised about travel on the Indian Railways. Indeed, I have done so myself in these very pages. Relatively few are moved to praise travelling on India’s roads. There are some good reasons for this - India’s roadways are, for the most part, pot-holed, crowded, noisy, choked by diesel fumes and amongst the most dangerous in the world. Of course, there are some places you cannot reach by rail, other occasions where trains are fully booked. But I don’t believe you should be too disheartened by this, there is as much to take in on many Indian roads as there is from the frosted window of an AC Chair Car.
It was on the occasion of a train being fully booked that we took an office cab to Agra for the weekend. We planned to also visit Fatehpur Sikri which would have required a cab for at least a day anyway, so whilst it cost more than a train might have, the financial penalty was not too severe.
The journey from Gurgaon to Agra takes you along a short stretch of the Grand Trunk Road, one of Asia’s greatest ancient trade routes. The grandeur of 19th century cathedral-like stations at Howrah or CST may be impressive, but historically they are but young upstarts in comparison to the aged Grand Trunk Road along which traders and armies have traversed for some two millennia.
The Grand Trunk Road stretches all the way from Chittagong in the East to Kabul in the West; Google Maps has it at two thousand one hundred and fourteen miles or (a frankly, hugely ambitious) forty nine hour drive.The four and a bit hours or one hundred and fifty or so miles of this mighty route that we would cover are a relatively insignificant portion of that but, for those raised on a lonely island where the maximum single overland journey one can make is a paltry eight hundred miles, simply being on a road on which you could keep driving in a single direction for in excess of two days feels quite remarkable. That people have travelled it for two thousand years only makes this more remarkable still.
And there are still sights to be seen along the GT Road. The camel trains have long been replaced by the honking, dilapidated, brightly painted trucks that thunder dangerously up and down. Overloaded and steered by over-tired, over-worked and underpaid drivers, they race along as fast as their ageing Ashok-Leyland motors will allow them; competing with public buses for who can achieve the most risky last minute overtaking manoeuvre. The caravanserais are no more, replaced instead with regular dhabas, draped in the colours of one or the other big cola brand (sometimes both), fronted by rows of silver pots with various dahls and chai blends bubbling away and flanked by string cots for the rare occasions the truckers do see fit to take a much needed rest.
I have heard it said that a Bengal Tiger drops dead every time a non-Indian tries to explain jugaad, so I shan’t attempt to provide one, but suffice it to say the Indian road is the best place to see the concept exemplified. Huge motors strapped on to any old three-wheel chassis, people sat atop inches from the humming motor and spinning fan and scooters with additional wheels welded to either side to create a new kind of four-wheel vehicle, cheap to run and with the ability to carry much more are just two of the innovations regularly seen. All contributing, no doubt, to the aforementioned poor road safety statistics but also all demonstrating ingenuity out of necessity.
You will see all manner of things being carried on scooters and motorcycles regardless of whether they have been re-engineered into four-wheelers - entire (extended) families, mammoth cathode ray televisions, produce of all kinds (8-10 milk churns being a favourite) and, of course, livestock (usually, but not limited to, chickens.)
On the road you travel right through the heart of towns and villages, often at low enough speed to take in everyday life much better than is possible from a speeding train. Mechanics working on rows of tipped-up auto-rickshaws, queues and chatter at paan shops, crisps swinging outside kirana stores, snacks of all kinds being fried and sold and people sipping chai. Buffalo, the fortunate ones mud bathing, the unfortunate ones working hard in the fields. Women in the fields working harder still. In densely populated India, you don’t seem to pass ten minutes between one town and the next. As you pass all this by the trucks and buses constantly rumble past in the opposite direction, too fast and too close.
When you cross the border into Uttar Pradesh, you are required to stop and pay the relevant state road taxes. Just like when your train pulls up in a station, the hawkers come out in force, but here the stream of potential customers is much thinner and the goods on offer all the more desperate as a result. Bangles and jewellery of the lowest quality I saw anywhere in India are held up to the window. There are the usual bootleg books and genuine magazines, but all dog-eared. Any foodstuffs on offer are covered with the filth and dust of passing traffic, little or no attention is paid to keeping them covered.
Saddest of all, an ageing moustachioed and turbanned fellow keeps a macaque on a narrow chain. The monkey is wearing a hat and wastecoat, both of which are greyed with dust so as to be barely distinguishable from his fur and his eyes, both of which have lost any lustre they may have once had. The master tugs the chain to command he do somersaults or leap up and balance on the narrow window sill of the car. A more pathetic creature I have rarely seen. We debated whether to hand over any cash wondering whether the monkey might be rewarded with better care for earning his master something. We decided against it, not wishing to offer any encouragement to the practice. Perhaps he cared for the animal better than it appeared, perhaps he had few alternative options for making an income. It’s always so hard to judge. The driver soon returned and off we went.
It was the rows of trees that most piqued my interest. Along stretches of the road still stand regiments of neatly planted trees which briefly make the road appear a regal avenue, or as Kipling had it, a stately corridor. The trees were likely planted by Sher Shah Suri (although unlikely to have been planted by him personally) who renovated the road in the 16th century. The trees were intended to shade the armies and courtiers who marched regularly up and down these roads. In the places where they still stand they continue to shade weary travellers from the heat of the sun, a simple yet direct link to the road’s grand history.
Aside from the evocation of this history, there’s something important to my mind about the assumption of permanence implied in the planting of these trees. They would, of course, have provided only very limited shade in the first instance. Their planters must have assumed it would be their courtiers, merchants and armies still travelling the road at such a time as the trees were mature enough to afford proper shade, that their dynasty would live to reap the benefits of the efforts made to plant tree after tree after tree. They likely thought the road would be theirs to travel down for centuries. They were not that far wrong.
The appeal to me is the same as the appeal of old brick warehouses with the name of the firm hewn into the very fabric of the building. In these times where we intentionally engineer obsolescence into the things we produce, where we manufacture disposability and design a purposefully limited shelf life it is important to remember that we haven’t always behaved this way. The assumption was that things would and could endure, they would be built to do so and, consequently, often did. We could learn something from these trees.
Reaching Agra, you turn right off the Grand Trunk Road along the bank of the Yamuna towards Taj Ganj. A sign above the bridge tells you that if you didn’t turn off Kolkata is just shy of eight hundred miles further down the same old road.
At the extreme Eastern end of Jaipur’s Surajpol Bazaar, across National Highway 8 and along a winding uphill road sits Galtaji, an ancient Hindu pilgrimage site dedicated to the Sun God. The temple stands impressively shoe-horned into a craggy valley between two hills. Shrines to several Hindu deities abound on both sides as you wind your way up the stairs to the temple of the Sun God at the very top.
The curvature of the temple’s many domes sits in stark contrast to the rocky valley in which they sit, yet being built directly into the hillside, temple and hill seem to live and breathe together. The scale and beauty of the temple architecture is best viewed from the above, watching it snake down into the hillside below you. This is not the most intricate temple you will see in India, there is none of the ornate, gaudy brilliance of the ancient Dravidian temples of the South, but the decorative archways and domes have a simple beauty of their own.
As you climb Galtaji’s many stairs you pass two large pools. . The lower pool of the temple is mainly decorative, its still waters murky and green. The angled sides follow the contours of the temple walls and a small fountain sits in the centre. Further up a deep rectangular pool appears through a gap in the staircase wall on your left. As we passed, three ecstatic young pilgrims in their early twenties were taking running leaps into the cooling sacred water. We declined their invitation for us to join them as this pool was as green and murky as the one below and we lacked a change of clothes.
As impressive as Galtaji is in its own right, few people visit for the temple architecture itself. Most visit for the spectacular show put on by the monkeys. Every evening, just before sunset, local people bring a feast for the monkeys by way of a tribute to the popular monkey God Hanuman – whose exploits on the battlefields of the Ramayana were instrumental in defeating the armies of the demon Ravanna.
Galtaji’s tribe of rhesus macaques spend much of their day in and around the temple and their playful leaps off high temple walls into the two temple pools has brought them world renown in the National Geographic channel’s Rebel Monkeys series. Whilst many will be around the temple anyway, when the villagers appear at sunset with their sacks of bananas the craggy hillsides either side of the temple appear to begin moving. Swarms of brown-grey macaques, indistinguishable at first from the dull-grey hillside, descend on the temple from the hills above to get their fill of bananas. Clambering around the temple walls, leaping in the bushes and pools and full of the joys of an easy feed – their sheer numbers are a sight to behold. They bring the temple to life.
Urban monkeys can be a real menace, but even the usually defensive mother with baby at breast was happy to take a banana directly from my hand without so much as a snarl. Meet her in the bazaars below and I’m sure her reaction would be very different, but within the walls of Galtaji at least, these monkeys have learned not to bite the hand that feeds them. If, like me, you are a lover of monkeys, Galtaji just before sunset is an experience not to be missed.
When you live in Northern India for a couple of years or more you are likely to become something of a connoisseur of forts. The place is littered with them and nearly every major tourist centre has a fort somewhere on the itinerary, some will have several. Amber Fort (beware the soft ‘b’) just outside Jaipur is unquestionably one of my favourites. Equal parts palace and fort, set some distance outside of the modern city, the brilliant sandstone edifice of Amber is overlooked and defended from the opposite hill by its powerful military sister, Jaigarh. Surrounded by a village that retains much of its ancient charm and overlooking a sizeable man-made lake, the setting is fairly spectacular.
You can, of course, read much about the splendid fort elsewhere. My memory of the visit is somewhat skewed by this being the first (and only) time on our travels in India we had agreed to accept the services of a guide. It is possible to ride up the steep hill from the village of Amber on the back of an elephant, but it was a hot day and we had read that the elephants were not well cared for, so we took our cab as far up the hill as we could and began the short walk up to the fort from the car park. It was on this walk that the man who would be our guide accosted us.
Dressed all in khaki with a wide brimmed leather sun hat, he wore the large bushy moustache that is the uniform of any true Rajasthani man. His overall appearance was rather disheveled and his untidy moustache followed suit – this was not one of the carefully combed and trimmed masterpieces that proudly adorn the faces of the gentleman who work the doors of India’s top hotels. He showed us his credentials, certified, it would appear, by both the RTDC and the Archaeological Survey of India. We liked his enthusiasm and for the sum of two hundred rupees his services were engaged.
Rather than being infectious, his enthusiasm soon ran us to irritation. His English was stilted at best and coupled with his mumbling being strained through the straggled ends of his moustache it was difficult to make out much of what he was saying. He certainly seemed to have a detailed handle on his subject matter; a story to tell at every decorative stop along the way be it mosque, mirror-work or fresco. Unfortunately, the commitment and vigour of the storyteller was of little value when the story itself was near indecipherable.
He did succeed in making himself understood (and Liz very uncomfortable) when he was gleefully telling us about the bedrooms of the harem and how the King would choose to visit a different one for sex each night depending on his mood. He was also a little over-zealous in pointing out the wall paintings around these rooms which depicted their subjects in the various stages and positions of coitus. The joy he took in directing this commentary almost exclusively in Liz’s direction made us squirm.
Despite the best efforts of our guide, we enjoyed our tour around the spectacular Amber and as we wandered back towards our car we seemed to have lost him without yet having handed over our fee. At the last second he came chasing down the hill with panic in his eyes. Finding us, he got into the car with us, insisting the tour wasn’t over. The final stop on his tour, of course, was the RTDC shop (which at least confirmed that his credentials were, in fact, genuine). Despite knowing better, Liz proceeded to buy a rather lovely saree. No doubt the commission our moustachioed friend received inflated his two hundred rupee payment nicely – frankly, even the amount originally agreed would have been too much.
Our first trip away from Delhi was to the fairytale Pink City of Jaipur.
It was a four day weekend as Diwali celebrations got into full-swing. We left Friday evening and planned to return, by coach, on Monday. Given our evening departure, there was little to see from the train windows and we snoozed most of the way, arriving in Jaipur around 11pm. Our hotel had sent James to collect us. James had a white Ambassador with ageing sprung leather seats and net curtains in the back to shield you from the worst of the daytime Rajasthani sun.
We stayed at Madhuban, a haveli owned and run by the exceptionally cordial heir to the ancient state of Patan and his equally graceful wife. Madhuban is a distance away from the main city in a mostly residential area; the large lawn (on which breakfast is served) surrounded by mature trees makes for a peaceful setting. The rooms are cosily furnished and good value.
There are many places that you can read about the City Palace, which is exceptionally beautiful, or the Hawa Mahal which towers emphatically over the bazaar. I enjoyed visiting these sights, but you can easily pick them up from the guidebooks. Outside of them, I have two abiding memories of the Pink City.
First is Ganesh Restaurant, perched high upon the city wall above Nehru Bazaar. We found it via Lonely Planet, so it is hardly a secret we unearthed ourselves, but searching for the narrow hidden staircase squeezed between two of the row of identical textile shops certainly made it feel as though we had. We could see the restaurant up above, but walking up and down at least four times could not find the entranceway. Fortunately one of the proprietors must have spotted us from above and sent down a friendly young chap to retrieve us and show us the way.
As we reached the top of the stairs, we could have been on any basic flat roof, only a turn to the right and a glimpse of part of the epic Ajmeri Gate served as a reminder that we were stood atop an Eighteenth Century wall built to defend a grand royal city. To our left was a small shack which served for the Ganesh Restaurant. In the UK we crave natural light in our buildings, the confined dark spaces inside Ganesh are quite counter to that, but are unquestionably a positive in a city where the average high temperature is above thirty Celsius for eight months of the year and above forty in the summer months. There was space for maybe fifteen people split across four wooden tables.
The furthest table was occupied by four locals happily eating away and we sat down on the simple benches a couple of tables away from them. As ever, we were of remarkable interest to them and would constantly fire looks our way. Immediately behind them was the kitchen, constructed out of stone with a large tandoor at its heart. Behind that, only the sun beating down on the bazaar below.
We ordered channa massala and aloo gobhi from the simple vegetarian menu, along with several chapatis. With two drinks, the whole bill was less than two hundred rupees. This was simple, satiating food which tasted brilliant. As we ordered a second round of chapatis, I noticed sparrows frolicking in a large bowl of chapati flour. Still, we ate on. Liz was ill that evening and the sparrows, of course, were prime suspects - but given we shared everything on offer and the timings involved, I think our evening meal at what (on the surface at least) was a more salubrious location is the more likely culprit.
Sparrows aside, cheap everyday fare like this in quirky ramshackle locations is under serious threat in India’s major cities as the Cafe Coffee Day’s, Barista’s and McDonalds start to creep in. I am not one to bely the loss of the poor hygeine standards of many of the more traditional places and there is no doubt more money to be made and more people to be employed by a Cafe Coffee Day than in a restaurant like Ganesh - but there it remains clear that something will be lost if, in the coming years, the quick cheap lunch option becomes a chicken sausage puff and a latte in the faceless, sanitised environment of a chain coffee shop rather than Ganesh’s hearty channa massala.
My second abiding memory of Jaipur is of the bazaars, in fact, one bazaar in particular. Our intention was to climb up to Tiger Fort and watch the sun fall over the city. Unfortunately, Lonely Planet’s maps are terrible and India is generally not fond of street signs, so our search for the path up to the fort led us into some run-down yet friendly residential backstreets. With sunset approaching, we decided to head back into the centre of the Old Town to avoid ending up lost. We reached the familiar, bustling pink streets as darkness fell. Having already walked the majority of the major bazaar streets during the day, we decided to take a turn into a smaller side street and were delighted by what we found.
Each of the bazaar streets tends to specialise in a particular trade, metal work, textiles, motor goods and so on. This particular side street specialised in bangles. Each store with hundreds of vibrant, colourful bangles stacked and arranged spilling out into the street. This being the eve of the main Diwali celebrations, the street was also decorated with a mesh of silver tinsel above our heads, off which the bright street lamps sparkled. Aside from the occasional bicycle or motorbike, the street was too narrow to take any traffic.
With Diwali fast approaching, it was extremely busy but unlike the scowling faces battling along Oxford Street or through the halls of the Bull Ring in the run up to Christmas, the atmosphere was exceptionally jovial. People buying last minute gifts for friends and family and enjoying each other’s company in the pleasant October air - carefree rather than put upon and pressured as Christmas shopping so often makes us feel.
I suspect the difference in outlook is two fold. For one, India’s bazaars and side streets are always hectic and overcrowded and many people live their daily lives here - the chance to visit them for Diwali shopping and not the daily grind is therefore a relief. Second, whilst every advert on television will be selling some Diwali deal or other, in the context of a bazaar like this one and in the sense that the religious festival is still at the heart of Diwali for most families, Diwali remains relatively uncommercialised. People are better able to take joy in the finding and giving of gifts because they do so in celebration of the festival, not in celebration of the gifts themselves. It is this joy, seen in this glittering, colourful bazaar that I remember most.
I wouldn’t recommend making your first Indian train journey from a small station at which your train only calls for two minutes. The mega stations at Delhi with huge numbers of platforms and thousands of passengers passing through are intimidating, but they are, at least, well used to dealing with foreign tourists. Signage is pretty good (at least by Indian standards) and the various ticket officers and platform staff can invariably help and direct you in perfectly good English.
Gurgaon station is quite, quite different. Whilst the city, infrastructure failings aside, is unerringly modern, the station is in the heart of Old Gurgaon. This part of town has the rambling narrow streets and ramshackle shops of any of India’s thousands of unstoried towns and villages. It bears no resemblance to the Millennium City of the real estate and investment brochures. This part of town seems to remember that Gurgaon is old enough to be the ancestral home of Guru Dronacharya of the Hindu epic the Mahabharata.
Most of Gurgaon’s taxi wallahs come from outlying villages in Uttar Pradesh. They certainly aren’t required to take a National Capital Region version of The Knowledge. Most are used, only, to ferrying passengers between the major apartments and offices within the new city. Cross the barrier carved by the Expressway into the Old Town and they are easily lost. So unfamiliar a destination is Gurgaon station that our driver took many twists and u-turns to eventually find it. I remember the roads being exceptionally slow, dusty and pot-holed - even by the highly vibratory norm of Indian road travel. Of course, whilst we all knew we were lost, the national psyche is such that our driver could not lose face by immediately acknowledging this wayward elephant in the cab and thus made many attempts to soldier on regardless before time pressure dictated we insist he asked someone for directions.
We made it to the station with, I think, about twenty minutes to spare before our train for Jaipur arrived and, consequently, around twenty two minutes until it departed again. Being Diwali weekend and ours one of the few Express trains into Rajasthan from Gurgaon, the platform fizzed with activity.
Being somewhat bemused by it all we stood, first, on the part of the platform immediately opposite the station entrance. Gradually the realisation dawned that if we were not on the necessary part of the platform when the train arrived we would have no chance finding our berths in but two minutes. We started to identify fellow passengers who looked likely to speak English. They were routinely as ill informed as we were. Those that did suggest where our carriage might pull up all suggested a completely different location. We now had around ten minutes - really, just five as if we had to get to the opposite end of the platform, some time would need to be allowed to navigate the throng.
The queue for both the ticket and information windows was too long to tackle. Concern began to bubble into mild panic. Eventually, with around five minutes to spare, I managed to grab a gentleman who was stepping out of the back door of the ticket office. His English was less than perfect, but it was clear this was not the first time he had been asked this question and could consequently describe in some detail exactly where our carriage would come to a halt - head to the far end of the platform, just past the police station, where the white fence begins. The ‘other end of the platform’ part was not good news, but we struggled up there with our bags and arrived just as the train appeared in the distance. It stopped with the door to our carriage almost directly in front of us. The journey itself was comfortable and uneventful.
My advice is this. Even if you are living in Gurgaon, the first time you take a train in India, even if it is stopping there, travel to Delhi to pick it up. Arrive an hour before it is scheduled to depart. Take your time to find the platform, enjoy the little lit up signs over the platform detailing where your car will stop. Be safe in the knowledge that the train will halt there for twenty minutes before setting off, so even if the little signs lie (which they often do) you will still have time to roam the platform and find your berth. When you are old hand, you will no doubt take stations like Gurgaon in your easy stride. Not the first time though.
India’s railway network is just twenty-three miles shy of being forty-thousand miles long. It carries some twenty-million passengers a day. With one-million, six hundred-thousand employees it is widely regarded to be one of the World’s largest single employers, if not the outright largest. Aside from its epic size, its picturesque coastal routes and its tiny mountain steam locomotives provide such quirks of interest that the railway is deemed to be a quintessential part of the Indian experience. For this reason, much has already been written about riding an Indian train.
It is commonly said that one of the magnificent things about travelling by train in India is that you will come into contact with all of the colour and vibrancy of all the diverse strata of Indian life. This is only true to an extent. In fact, on board the train itself what you are really presented with is the severe, rigid and inflexible hierarchies seen elsewhere in Indian society. At the bottom, the cramped, dusty, overheated and overcrowded conditions of the general class coaches (in the West we might refer to this in cattle class, in India the revered cattle are treated with far greater respect than the people crammed in here). Next, the standard sleeper cars, where overcrowding is reduced due to a requirement for a reserved berth, but where the dust and heat still win out. Two classes of air-conditioned sleeper cars then stand between you and first class where you will either have a private cabin of your own, or on express trains running during the day, an airline style reclining seat with breakfast, lunch or dinner served by moustachioed gents in turbans thrown into the price.
Having travelled in all classes bar general class, I can say with some confidence that the chances of being exposed to the rich diversity of Indian life are slim. You will share your carriage with a very specific set of passengers depending on the class of your ticket. Little, if any, intermingling across the classes will take place as the omnipresent travelling ticket inspector would not countenance it (in this way, representing many of the explicit and tacit social barriers that exist to prevent this intermingling in day to day life).
Each carriage may be a ghetto for a specific class of passenger, but what remains admirable about it, is that this is a system that means travel the length and the breadth of the country remains genuinely in reach of all but the very poorest in Indian society. In light of this, one has to question whether our more ‘developed’ system in which so many people are priced out of train travel is any sort of improvement on what India has. Of course, I’m not suggesting we should be emulating the conditions of an Indian standard class carriage, but even accounting for purchasing power, the fact that one could travel over five hundred kilometres on an Indian train for less than the cost of a single Tube journey is a scandal.
Where you will, of course, come into contact with all of India’s life - from grim poverty to colourful exuberance - is on her railway stations. Grubby and desperate children begging for scraps and change, most likely watched from a safe distance by a violent and exploitative local Fagin. Rows upon rows of bodies stretched out to sleep on every available inch of platform, covered head to toe in blankets to keep out mosquitoes or the chill dependent upon the season, putting you in mind of bodies laid out in a morgue. Porters rushing past with huge stacks of matching luggage balanced on their head pursued by the well-to-do families to which they belong. The endless cry of the chai wallahs, the carts of the cargo carriers crashing past, the book and magazine sellers, the stacks of samosas. A true cacophony both visual and sonic upon which one rarely has time to reflect as you search for the appropriate platform and correct spot along it at which to wait.
The trains and stations of India’s railways are definitely an experience not to be missed.
I entered India on a one year employment visa. Rubber stamped proudly across its face in bold green letters, the words ‘Registration required within 14 days of arrival’. As in many countries, foreigners intending on a lengthy stay are required to register the particulars of their residence with the local authorities. In India, this requires a visit to your local Foreigners Regional Registration Office.
One can tell much about a place from its municipal buildings; at home the industrial revolution wealth dripping from the council house in Birmingham, here in India the brutal modernism of Le Corbussier’s High Court in Chandigarh, celebrating a new state capital in a liberated country. Gurgaon’s Mini-Secretariat, in which the FRRO is housed, sets claims of the Millennium City’s modernity in stark relief.
The exterior is characterless, boxy, grey. Crumbly red clay bricks pack the gaps between the concrete struts and floors. A pristine white concrete porch that overhangs the main entrance being the only embellishment.
As you enter the porch opens out into a double height hallway, peeling white washed walls seep and leak in several places leaving water of origin unknown trails across the green-grey stone floor and leaves damp yellow stains on the walls. Beggars, their crippled bodies in as ill a state of repair as the building, drag and scrape towards you pleading for change. There must be fifty offices over five or six floors. No signs. Not even in Hindi.
Fortunately I was not alone, our office Admin Manager had already done most of the leg work and I was there for what should have been the final rubber stamp. We had to go to the third floor. There are lifts, but we thought it wiser to take the stairs.
Ascending three storeys, in each corner of the staircase a blood-red and liquid splattered up the walls, some dried hard some still moist and sticky. The smell pungent and acrid. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know what it was, so I didn’t ask. I now know it to have been paan effluence, the deep red colour the consequence of a cocktail of saliva and betel nuts compounded during chewing. At the time it was as mysterious as it was repulsive. The walls of the staircase are tiled to about five feet, presumably to allow easier cleaning of this scourge. Though clearly, they had not been cleaned for some time.
We reach the third floor and a long corridor of identical offices. The FRRO shares a space with the passport office - Indians wishing to leave suffer must suffer this mess just as we foreigners hoping to stay. The FRRO is hemmed in to a tiny corner by glass screens, much of the limited area taken up by two large desks. Behind the large desks, six public servants. In front of them, a throng of bustling agents trying by any means possible to get their man’s papers in next. Encircling them, sweating foreigners sat on plastic garden furniture, looking forlorn and bemused in equal measure.
There is no air-conditioning. There are air coolers, though I have been in the height of summer and never seen them running. Along the wall, filing cabinets no less than six feet tall, on top of which a further three feet’s worth of dot matrix paper sheets, tied with string, carrying the records of foreign residents long past loom over you. Despite the disrepair of the blinds, the filth on the windows means little or no natural light enters. The air is as thick as the neon strip-lights are harsh. It is in this oppressive atmosphere that you must wait for at least one hour, perhaps more, for your man to force his way to the front of what passes for a queue.
What ensues when your turn finally does come is the bureaucratic equivalent of “I know my place”. A physical manifestation of the rigid and crippling hierarchies of the Indian public sector. You journey from left to right in order of officer superiority, the one exception being the fellow responsible for data entry who huddles over his computer to the far right. Three are squeezed in behind the first desk. The first will check you have all the correct papers, the second, he finds the relevant register into which your details will be entered and hands it to gentleman three who will make some, but not all of the required entries. The fourth officer appears to be a checkpoint, ensuring all the previous three have done is correct before the register and papers are handed to the boss who sits proudly and emphatically behind a desk of his own. Afterall, he is the man with all the power that comes with holding some official government rubber stamps (both in the literal and figurative sense). Final entries are made and stamps affixed.
At any stage in this chain, apparently as much by whim as by protocol, one of these officers can decide what you have is not up to scratch and send you away for more papers. You will have to come back and fight another day. I was fortunate that this happened to me only once.
Finally, residency permit in hand, official rubber stamps proudly embossed on the front, there is one final stage. You are taken to meet the Deputy District Commissioner of Police himself so that he may affix his signature against your name in the register. An officer escorts you downstairs and sheepishly knocks on a large wooden door. You enter a room three times the size of the combined passport and FRRO office. It has acid green walls. One large desk sits in the centre of the room at which a moustachioed gentleman sits in a large leather chair, tightly pressed khaki uniform, freshly poured chai in a dainty china cup. The officer walks the ten or so paces from the door, bows and hands him the register. With steely gaze he looks me in the eye, back to the register, back to me and then signs. Here endeth the process. At least until you need your visa renewing in a year’s time.
The tragedy of this whole farcical affair is that so many of the enduring negative perceptions of India are reinforced by it. The pervasive filth and squalor, the catastrophic poverty, the mindless and crippling bureaucracy, the chaos and worst, the acceptance of all this as normal. To be obligated to go through this process within fourteen days of your arrival would undermine the enthusiasm of even the most optimistic of new ex-pats in India and I don’t do much in the way of optimism. This sort of public sector ineptitude is a very real reason many people do not come to India, or those that do stay for less time than they might otherwise. It is massively to this country’s detriment.
We arrived in India on 15th August 2008 at around two in the morning. As an Englishman arriving in India sixty-one years precisely (give or take two hours) since she was declared free of the tyranny of my forebears, one couldn’t but reflect on how the fortunes of these two great nations were shifting under the weight of some four centuries of shared history. I was, afterall, entering as an economic migrant seeking a diversity of opportunity less available to me on England’s green and pleasant shores (the scale of the advantages to be gained only became fully apparent later in 2008 as the West’s financial house of cards really began to collapse in earnest).
When you have endureed a nine hour flight, it’s two in the morning and you are setting foot in a country you have committed to live in for at least two years for the very first time, these sort of lofty concerns do not play on the mind for long. More still, one must factor in that said country is India, renowned for its sensual Blitzkrieg.
It is not a novel or newsworthy thing to say, but India has a smell all of its own. Even now in the pristine environs of the new two-billion dollar international terminal at Indira Gandhi International, then still in blueprint, it hits you as soon as you step from the plane. Today it is a familiar welcome home, on that August morning in 2008 we smelled it for the first time. The bass comes from the dust, the heat and the smog and is not uniquely India; the treble is where Hindustan resides - it drifts in and out of a variety of pungent notes, constantly on the cusp of being pleasant or disgusting but never quite landing in either camp - the oil and spice of street food vendors, paan, sweet chai and the occasional ammonia dripped stab of urine.
Delhi in August is in the last throes of monsoon. It is humid. The terminal building is air-conditioned, but the robotic bridge you cross to reach it as you disembark is not. The smell and the humidity hit us simultaneously as we stepped off. Looking outside it was raining, but not the spectacular pounding rods of monsoon rain you read of, rather a sticky, warm mist of fine rain, an almost steamy fog. Welcome to India.
After exiting through the door on the ‘wrong’ side of the arrivals hall into a throng of taxi and rickshaw wallahs we eventually looped around the front of the terminal building and found the driver that was dutifully waiting for us (dutifully waiting is what they do best, certainly they do it better than they drive). Here we faced another revelation. In the back of Indian taxis a functional seatbelt is a rarity. Having long studied the terrors of Indian roads, we prepared ourselves to be a statistic no sooner than we had arrived. Setting off with trepidation for Gurgaon - turning right onto the Expressway and away from the culture and history of India’s capital, towards the modernity of her Millennium City.
The Delhi-Gurgaon Expressway was quite the tease, giving little away of the life stretching out in front of us. Yes, there was the odd truck emblazoned with a colourful request for a blow of the horn as you pass, swerving erratically from lane to lane with gay abandon, but at 2am on the eve of a national holiday there was little of the anarchic traffic snarl for which Delhi is famous. It is, too, a thoroughly modern stretch of road with nothing markedly different from a motorway at home. Further, in the steamy gloom of rain, neither could you see much beyond the road’s edge.
There was one distinguishing feature which, despite my jet-lagged stupour, I recall quite vividly. The markers at the edge of the Expressway are a stripe of orange lights which blink and spark rapidly in sequence, announcing with a loud bark the road’s borders. I remember reflecting on the stark contrast with the clear, constant, stiff upper lip gleam of cat’s eyes softly and quietly reflecting back at you on unlit British motorways. Something of the psyche of both countries is weaved into the very fabric of even the mundanity of their roadways.
We turned off the Expressway at Rajiv Chowk at the top of Sohna Road, major thoroughfare linking old Gurgaon to the North of the Expressway with the village of Sohna some twenty-five kilometres South. We knew the apartments Millward Brown were putting us up in were on this stretch so we had checked it out on Google Earth, clocked that it was a fairly significant road in India’s shiny new city, noted that the surroundings seemed fairly green from above and believed we knew what to expect. We didn’t.
The monsoon of 2008 was somewhat deficient by historical standards (as is becoming the norm in these straightened climatic times), but not by as much as the near drought conditions of the following year. It had rained. Gurgaon roads are poorly built so when it rains they disintegrate and wash away. There was more pothole than road, the rain had worsened and Sohna Road had no streetlights. The dark, foreboding stretch from the turnoff at Rajiv Chowk to the housing society that was our destination was maybe one and a half kilometres - it must have taken us at least fifteen minutes to negotiate, which felt an hour. I was tired and dispirited and gazing at the little I could see of the the shuttered up welder’s shops and scrappy furniture stores through the rain, many doubts danced through the fuzz of fatigue. Where was the ultra-modern Millennium City I had read about? Were we making a huge mistake?