What is it about the British and India? It does seem, at least on the UK side, that there is something of a special relationship there, but if there is, what lies at its heart? Affinity? Affection? Romance? Obsession? Is it based on something real and shared? Or is it really just a one sided, misplaced paternalism? A nostalgia for a Raj that never really existedbut that still strikes a chord with the British and is totally irrelevant to modern India?
I found myself thinking about this as I watched The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. I went along looking forward to thoroughly disliking the film. I don’t much care for ‘heartwarming, feel-good’ stories about ageingand find many portrayals of India, especially in British comedies, fatuous. I’d found The Best Exotic Marigold Hotelirritating and had gone to see its sequel under protest, looking forward most to being thoroughly sneery and pompous about it on the way home. Strangely, people don’t seem too keen to go to the cinema with me. Can’t imagine why. Anyway, to my profound disappointment, sitting through the closing dance number with a soppy grin on my face I had to confess I had rather enjoyed it. Of course it’s silly and the few plot twists were signalled so clearly a five year old could have seen them coming, but, well I liked it, dammit.
Of filming in India one of its stars, the venerable Dame Judy Dench said, ‘The whole experience changed me as a person.’ Isn’t that nice? Personally I don’t want too many experiences that change me as a person: At my age, let alone Dame Judy’s, life changing experiences rarely tend to turn out well, being statistically far more likely to be life threatening than life enhancing. But watching the film, I did have a flash of insight. Admittedly on the epiphany spectrum it wasn’t exactly a Road to Damascus moment. Maybe more an insight-lite. Anyway, I realised that with the original I’d bought into the premise that I was supposed to identify with the arthritic Brits resident in the hotel. In the sequel, I was totally with the 20-something Indian entrepreneurs. And I don’t just like them. I wanted to be them. We will draw a veil over the fact that such a transition would require the loss of 40 years, about as many pounds and a change of ethnicity. Detail, mere detail.
This isn’t entirely a new aspiration. I was first conscious of itwhenwatching the rehearsal for the 1980 Republic Day parade in Delhi. Now there’s something our two great nations share: we do military show, pomp and circumstance, better than anyone else. Other armies on parade in full dress uniforms look either like thuggish automata or operatic popinjays. I’d argue only India, Britain and indeed Pakistan manage to get uniforms so spectacular they verge on the ludicrous, synchronised, precision manoeuvres and chest-puffing macho stamp and swaggerjust right. Even with bagpipes for goodness sake. Talk about making it hard for ourselves. But that’s not what stole my heart. That was the moment with the dog. Perhaps overcome by canine patriotism, this dog broke through the watching throng and, barking joyously bounded back and forth in front of a formation of Soviet made armoured vehicles. Tanks swerved, their commanders, standing erect and proud in their turrets moments before were jerked around like rag dolls and several collisions were narrowly avoided. And the audience whooped, cheered,clapped and laughed. That’s when I fell in love. Having been brought up on images of just such hardware grinding menacingly through Red Square on May Day, I’d expected dour patriotism. Strident nationalism. Instead I had my first glimpse of a wry, anarchic humour that could balance pride in the magnificence on display with an open delight in things going wrong.
And yes, the dog did survive. Unlike, sadly the dignity of the Armoured Corps.
Most Indiaphiles herald the diversity, the contrasts, the spiritualism, the grandeur. They are seduced by the gorgeous foreignness, the profound differences from home, but me, I like our similarities. For example, the extent to which our two countries retain an abiding commitment to class. To clubs and cliques. Both nations are governed and run by a remarkably small ruling elite, drawn from a narrow social set, educated in a few schools and universities, socialising in tight circles. Whilst the institution of ‘The Club’ itself may not be so all powerful, its ethos of arrogant exclusivity remains deeply appealing. Especially the rules which separate the right sort from the rest. A quick glance at the Royal Bombay Yacht Club website includes the advice,‘It is prudent to be attired appropriately for the time of the day…’ Fantastic!
And that leads conveniently to two further aspects. First the skilful use of English. We do love euphemism. And the more grim the deed, the more imaginative our use of language. ‘Enhanced Interrogation.’‘Eve teasing.’ Second is bureaucracy. Now in both countries bureaucracy gets a bad press. The word itself has a negative connotation. Call it administration if you prefer but both the UK and India love it and more importantly understand its true strength, not only to get things done but also as a tool to redistribute power and wealth. We are good at making up rules and regulations which can then be used tocurb the excesses of politicians and enhance the authority of the administrator. And that may be why we also share a love of huge public sector organisations: The UK National Health Service and Indian Railways are two of the largest public sector employers in the world. And each holds a special place in our respective affections. They are vast, cumbersome and often inefficient. We like moaning about them but woe betide the foreigner who takes a poke at them or the politician who proposes to privatise or dismantle them.
And then there’s cricket. Now, on cricket, well, I have to confess I know nothing about cricket. If trapped into a conversation on it, I rely on the example of Shah Rukh in KhabiKhushiKhabieGham: I clear my throat, frown and say ‘You never can tell with…whoever.’ But I at least know it is important to both nations. Another thing we have in common. So if I ever get my second life as an Indian, well maybe that will give me time and space to finally understand how scoring works and what decides who has won and when. But I wouldn’t put money on it.
Dawood Ali McCallum is the author
of three novels published in India and
one (The Last Charge)
published last year in the
UK. His first story, The
Lords of Alijah, is available
to download free for
a limited period at www.