We spent New Year’s Eve in Rajasthan in a kind of desert camp called the Serai, attended by every manner of hot tub and luxury. As 2010 staggered to a close we sat in front of the campfire, swaddled in blankets. There were ululating Rajasthani singers, twanging away on their zithers. The stars twinkled. The whisky flowed. The cigar tips waved as people made their points. In my hand was an excellent new book by FT wallah Gideon Rachman, all about how the world has been changed forever by the convulsions of 2008. All the old certainties are gone, argues Gideon. We used to believe that humanity was locked in the logic of globalisation, growing ever richer and more enlightened through ever greater movement of goods and people and ideas. Not any more, he says. We are at risk of collapsing back into a ‘Zero Sum World’, of beggar-my-neighbour economics and a mistrust of free trade. It’s good stuff, but after a while I started to get a bit impatient. Come off it, Gids, I said to myself: here we were with my Indian cousins, drinking large amounts of Scotland’s premier export with people from Germany and France. We had Italian coffee machines, Chinese aircon systems and the hotel was about to get a vast cash transfusion from a brace of Russian oligarchs flying in from Amritsar by private jet. That wouldn’t have happened 30 years ago, would it?
And shall I tell you the best thing about Jodhpur? It’s not the old walled city and its picturesque markets and blissfully defecating cows. It’s not even the fort of the Maharajahs, with its huge pink barrels of stone soaring above the acropolis. It’s the zipwire. Some British entrepreneurs have set up a series of zipwires that send you like Batman around the moats and the crenellations. It’s stunning, and they are preparing to expand to other Indian cities. Just think: 99 per cent of Indians have never been on a plane — and the potential zipwire market is even bigger.
There are all sorts of transport technology that we might be able to sell. In Mumbai they have lovely old-fashioned and extremely battered Routemaster-style buses, complete with hop-on hop-off platforms. Sooner or later, of course, they will need new ones with cleaner, quieter vehicles, running on super-efficient hybrid engines and styled with all the brilliance of the best modern British design — and I have just the ticket.
Or there is the tube. Shelia Dikshit, the chief minister of Delhi, has put in a metro system. It is fast and regular, but also extremely crowded. A kindly woman was helping us to navigate our way, and she got a bit confused at the critical moment about whether we had arrived at the right stop. By the time she had worked out that we had to leave, huge numbers of people were flowing into the carriage with a choking, heaving density even greater than that experienced on the Jubilee Line on Monday morning, and there was a tremendous commotion as we fought our way off. Some of the men started to shout at our guide, which seemed very rude. Apparently they thought she should have been in the carriage reserved for women, which are ostensibly designed to protect them from bottom-pinchers, or ‘eve-teasers’ as they are known in the Indian press.
This Mumbai/Bombay business can be quite confusing, by the way. I met a prominent Indian banker who proudly called it Bombay, and protested against what he saw as the chauvinism of the change decreed by the Shiv Sena party. ‘I am not going to be told by a load of f—– bigots what to call my city,’ he said. Still, I think that is his privilege rather than mine.
Back in London I could see the consequences of globalisation and the free movement of people abundantly displayed on the Piccadilly Line. As we swayed and rattled in from Heathrow, we were all chatting about the places we had been, and what was happening in the Bristol murder case, when I became aware of the gaze of the fellow opposite. ‘Why are you here?’ he said in a slightly slurred Russian voice. Well, you know, why not? I said. Then he produced a piece of paper and asked me to sign it. It seemed to be a bail order, so I told him it was too important for me to sign. Then he took out a plastic bag from which the top of a screw-top bottle could be seen, unscrewed it, and took a sip. A silence fell. I knew what had to be done. I fixed him with my most intimidating stare. ‘Oi,’ I said, ‘you can’t drink on the Tube.’ There was a long pause. ‘Iss limonade,’ he said. ‘No problyem’. He screwed the top back on, and everyone started talking again.
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