To be fair, he had it coming. Ever since he sat down next to me on the plane bound for Delhi, he had been ‘the one’. Every time the stewards came past, obviously in a hurry to get everyone settled and get the flight off the ground, he was asking for a different newspaper than the ones provided, or a Johnnie Walker Black label when it was obvious that they were working their way through the cabin, in order of seating plan, to make sure everyone had one. He was, as my father would call him, a “menace”.
So when, after lunch had been served, about an hour into the nine, he asked for a coffee (it was on its way, anyway) I could sense a certain annoyance from the crew. It arrived, and was too cold. Oh, and the milk was too warm. So he sent it back, specifically requesting a piping hot coffee and cold milk to put in it. By this point, I had started my headphone-cocooned, media catch-up and was working my way through the excellent Social Network, as he was irritating me too, yet I could easily ignore him.
I was then somewhat startled from my zen-like state by the unmistakable yelp-swearing of a man grabbing at the lap of his shiny-with-age suit trousers, and the crime scene having already chalk-marked the guilty, piping hot cup on its side, his nether region the obviously scalded victim. He was, at this point, in the aisle, hopping from one foot to the other, interspersed with expletives of various languages and volumes. Apparently revenge is a dish best served cold – but not all the time it would seem. I didn’t see him for about 2 hours after that. My first visit to India was going to be interesting, and I took that as a huge karma-laden hint. And I hadn’t got halfway here.
First port of call this week is Delhi. This is where cars go to die, and the first vital organ that will give up is the horn. My ears are still ringing with a tinnitus-like tooting and beeping. Every car is beaten, scratched and marked. Buying a new car here is sheer folly. I suspect that unlike dealerships across the world, when they receive a shipment here, there is a team of people to dent, scratch and mark it, so that it feels ‘run-in’ and takes away the anxiety of driving such a gleaming target – which, inevitably, must become something of a trophy-hit for the underclasses.
In fact, some are more battered than a seal cub in an Eskimo chip shop. The driving is chaotic, the lanes foolishly painted in the road are apparently to show drivers the direction and curves in the road only, and should not be used as anything more than decoration. 5-abreast in a two or three lane road is the norm, and each movement is punctuated with a swift beep. The driver assigned to scare the living shit out of me, Sirdana, spent so much time with a thumb on the centre of the steering wheel that perhaps the next evolutionary step for Indian drivers is to grow a third thumb, as useless as a cat’s when not driving, but as essential as having 7 eyes on Delhi’s roads. It is a form of automotive tourettes. Involuntary reflexes, even when there is nothing else around on the road.
You need this constant reminder that you could kill someone at the flick of the wheel, so as to avoid some of the jaw-dropping sights and potential roadkill: a family of four on a motorbike, all without helmets, for instance. Tire-less bicycles, with three, 40-litre gas canisters hanging off them, that were being hosted by a man whose arms had the girth, tone and definition of a pair of breadsticks – why don’t India produce more weight lifters, I wonder? Livestock (though ‘live’ is being kind to the cows). There is also the ubiquitous ‘Auto’, the open-sided, three-wheelers that are seemingly powered by polluting hairdryers, and are regularly seen showing off their undercarriages for all the wrong reasons, like kicking-out time in Cardiff on a Saturday night.
Although when it comes to the safety of the motorbike riders (their passengers never wear helmets anyway), you fear that if they come a cropper the helmets they have on demonstrate the protective and aesthetic properties of a tea-cosy with a chinstrap. Some fit so badly that it the only size you can buy is ‘Shrek’. The fear that if they turn their heads suddenly, the helmet will remain continuing in its natural trajectory and the owner will be plunged into a sweaty darkness, where the loudness of the horns all around and on top of him are the last thing he hears.
Which, oh irony of ironies, might have been the last thing I heard, had the tremors from the Pakistan earthquake got any stronger. They were felt strongly in Delhi, and perhaps this is Mother Nature’s way of saying that although the food and drink hasn’t riddled me with bacteria yet, then we’ll still get the shit out of you somehow. Sub-Continence will continue in due course…..(apologies for lack of photos – tech issues)