When in India, I always appal my highly educated tour guides. They despair of me, as they drag me round the cultural sights, trying to force education and refinement into me as I lounge about on the walls outside temples soaking up the atmosphere.
This trip was no different. My guide had come to pick me up bright and early from the Hyatt in the business district of Calcutta where I had been staying for a three-day economic summit.
I had arranged for a further three days of what the tour operators refer to as R&R before I headed back to London. India is one of my favourite destinations but I am a lazy so-and-so when it comes to sightseeing. All I want to do is wander about watching beautiful women wash clothes in rivers. Then a Bengali drummer in the evening and I’m set.
The tour operators fail to understand this. They imagine that what westerners really want when they visit India is to see the remnants of the empire. They fail to realise that number one, we have plenty of Victorian buildings in England. And number two, even if these Victorian buildings are particularly spectacular, once we have seen one vast red-brick pile that was once the seat of colonial government we have seen them all.
When I visited Chennai — which the locals urged me to call Madras, because they didn’t want me to stand on politically correct ceremony on their account — I particularly enjoyed the church with the monument to a British army officer eaten by a tiger. It simply said: ‘Eaten by a tiger’. Let’s face it, no matter how much we try, none of us is going to get ourselves an epitaph as good as that.
In Calcutta — which I was urged by my hosts not to call Kolkata to my heart’s content, for truly they believed these semantic problems had been invented by Brits for Brits to have a row about — my tour guide wanted to show me ‘the black hole of Calcutta’.
Slight problem: it isn’t there any more. We drove past a cheerful white building and the guide announced that formerly this had been the place where Mughal troops imprisoned 146 British soldiers in a small dungeon, causing most of them to suffocate.
Then onwards to the vast red-brick pile that had once been the seat of …I know, I know, I thought.
‘Here it is!’ he said proudly, gesturing to Writers’ Building, which once housed all the bureaucrats. ‘You take photos?’
It looked like the University of Manchester but I said yes, scrambled out of the car and clicked the iPhone in its general direction.
When I got back in, the tour guide looked at me sceptically. He knew I was a philistine who only wanted to casually soak up atmosphere. As we drove past the old grand hotel, half a dozen horses blazed past us on the racetrack on the other side of the road, their jockeys bobbing in bright colours.
‘Oh, the races!’ I exclaimed, looking in the wrong direction. The guide gave me a rapid-fire history of how the cream of society went there during the Raj.
More Victorian architecture followed, the guide getting feisty about my lack of picture-taking as he pointed out a Rubens in a dusty old palace full of exotic birds, for some reason. ‘Why is that one in such a small cage?’ I asked, fretting over a parrot.
He sighed heavily at my irrelevance as I made him ask the caretaker. ‘Apparently he is new,’ he reported back crossly. ‘They will be moving him to one of the big cages when he has got used to it. Please, in here there is a painting by…’
But I was wandering out into the sun, turning my face up to the heat and thinking dreamy thoughts.
Maybe there would be a pool at the next hotel. The one at the Hyatt had been closed for essential maintenance and the sunbeds were under covers. So I sat in the children’s play area with my trousers pushed up round my knees like a true Englishman.
No one there could understand why I would want to sit in the midday heat when there was a perfectly good air-conditioned lobby to relax in.
Next year, I am thinking of being honest with the tour operator from the start: please, I will say, just drive me through some chaotic streets so I can take pictures of people in bright clothing selling onions, then deposit me by a pool and put a club soda in my hand and a marigold garland over my head and leave me for five days.
I might call it imperialism 2.0, because they will then be only too pleased to indulge it.
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