India gives people diarrhoea. A loosening that can even afflict the mouth, it encourages the expulsion of the most rancid drivel imaginable. The verbal dysentery that seems to afflict visitors to the sub-continent is surely India’s gravest infection without an inoculation. We have all come across those cancerously tanned bores who wax transcendental as they stare straight past you, lost in remembrance of the enlightenment they found in Anjuna for $200. You know the ones, those people who spend a fortnight in Goa and come back to 10 degree England wearing earth mother flappery that doubles the wearers size and pretension. “You simply maaast go to India.” These are the Ray-Banned yogis who will corner you at a party and describe how their meditation is helping with the stress of accountancy. No one wants to hear your views on the nature of existence if you work for Deloitte. Even if you don’t, it’s always a red flag topic unless you’re Ludwig Wittgenstein or Brian Cox. And you’re not. Neither am I. What is interesting is what is it about India that fosters such feeling.
My friends and I arrived in Mumbai after the only sort of flight you ever want, uneventful. It was scant preparation because we then embarked on what I became sure would be the last taxi ride I would ever take. The driving in Mumbai is like a Mario Kart race where the only chequered flag is reincarnation. A hell for leather death-for-all with missiles of abuse and the odd chicken lobbed at your competitors. Impossible gaps and angles that would break a protractor were all attempted with a knowing, almost smug head wobble. I didn’t particularly want to be reincarnated, so I clutched the Lonely Planet close to my chest and looked down at the road rushing through a hole in the chassis. Indian driving can be seen as a metaphor for the whole country. A rapacious, rampaging roller-coaster of human energy racing its way up the development scale. Mumbai is what London would have been like in the middle of the nineteenth century; a metropolis on the make. If you look at very early film of Piccadilly Circus, then you will see what I mean. A geometric nightmare of infinitely bisecting paths that if you traced them would look like a drunk spiders web. And, of course, you can feel the hand, or should that be the kane, of London everywhere you go. Enormous gothic stamps of imperial might poke through the exotic canopy like a Mayan ruin and the Gateway of India looks out imposingly over the harbour. It is an arched manifestation of the hubris of empire builders that keeps a lonely vigil for masters long dead. A last weeze from a tired empire that now whispers the warning of Ozymandias to anyone who will listen, but no one will. No one ever does.
In this case the mighty were not laid waste by disease or foe or time but by a thin man in glasses. And his mildly accusing, bespeckled face peers out, like a reigning monarchs, from every bank note in the land. Gandhi is as ubiquitous as you would imagine a man with over a billion children to be. The only man with even a vague claim to similar status is a small Mumbai cricket player named, you might have guessed, Sachin Tendulkar. A cross between Ganesh and David Beckham, Tendulkar is the demi-god of the largest democracy in the world. At the most recent test in the cathedral of the Wankhede stadium, children and grown men alike would rush to the fence to be blessed by just the faintest wave of his hand. A dangerously old man sitting near us would leap up like a frightened gazelle and excitedly repeat “Sachin, Sachin” whenever the great man did anything. Indian heroes are the opposite of the country they come from, small and quiet.
India is itself an oxymoron, at once impossibly exotic and comfortingly familiar. And Mumbai is its most breathless example. A place where you can see a man flagellating himself next to a child of five tightrope walking, all within the disconcerting surroundings of a train station that looks as if it belongs somewhere in north London. A place with cricket and cobras. Health and Safety isn’t even a twinkle in the eye of a bored bureaucrat yet, they have more important things to worry about. And there is something rather refreshing about that. As you emerge from the airport onto that red earth you can almost feel the miles of clerical cotton wool unwrapping from your shoulders and the cool breeze of danger goosebumping the skin. Perhaps thats it. Perhaps the secret to India’s appeal is danger. The heightened feeling that comes with proximity to the Reapers scythe. But I think it’s more subtle than that, more refined. I think it’s down to that inalienable right that few truly have – freedom. Freedom from the more insipid rules of western society. Freedom from traffic wardens, hi-vis jackets and tannoy advice. Freedom from the quotidian cage that silently locks us into place. And, most important of all, the freedom to flog yourself senseless without feeling the need to seek medical assistance.