If you are invited to one of these grand Indian weddings, you should jolly well make an effort. I inquired about the dress code, and was told that it would be all right for me to wear something called Kurta Pyjama. So I got the full bollocks. No mucking around. I went to the Delhi equivalent of Harrods, where the Suits-you-Sahib boys kitted me out, at some cost, in a green silk smock, an off-white silk waistcoat, and those funny drainpiped white pyjamas called churidars, not to speak of the agonising Jesus sandals called chaptals. And then there was the turban. Until you have had a turban wrapped around your skull, you do not appreciate what a socking great spinnaker of cloth it is. There’s enough to make a bedspread, and when complete it significantly impairs your hearing. The final effect was a mixture of Nehru and Roy Hattersley canvassing in his local gudwara. As the other guests started to roll up, it dawned on us that most smart young Indian men actually attend weddings in dark suits. They smiled broadly at me, and I beamed back, in a fixed sort of way.
The ceremony took place on a ‘farm’ outside Delhi, which is actually a kind of gentleman’s estate. It is an Eden with waterfalls and lush lawns fringed with mangos, acacias and other strange and stately trees. The breeze whispered through the chains of marigolds that hung from the boughs and adorned the canopy in which we congregated. We all sat cross-legged while a bevy of bearded priests sang and thudded their bongos. I must have dozed off, but awoke in time to throw rose petals at the happy couple, and to receive Sikh communion, a sweet pudding called prashad. This is provided in quite generous helpings, so I was able to stuff it into the face of our youngest, to keep him quiet.
From time to time a Welsh-style silver band would launch into a crashing oriental polyphony, and people would dance, or cavort, across the lawn. If you want to look professional while doing Indian dancing, you raise your hands and rotate them as if changing a light bulb. Then you lower them and pretend to rev a motorbike. So it goes (squawk, honk, parp), light bulb, light bulb, motorbike, motorbike, all the while wreathing your features in Gandhiesque serenity.
‘But why does Blair support Bush?’ people have kept asking me. ‘Why does he poodle to America?’ These are liberal-elite Indians, and they put up a great show of being scandalised by America’s general thuggishness. On the other hand, they also have their difficulties with Pakistan, and Muslim terror. The real mood, if I am not mistaken, is entirely acquiescent. If and when the balloon goes up in Iraq, there will be no fuss from India. Or from anywhere else, come to that. Remember how the Arab ‘street’ erupted when we bombed the Taleban? Neither do I.
When I was last here, five years ago, intelligent Sikhs were in two minds about the new Hindu nationalist government, and its aggressive saffron-hued extolling of Hindu culture. Now they have made up their minds. The BJP is a bad thing. ‘First they go for the Muslims, next they could go for us,’ is the line. It is the most disgusting thing any democratic government can do: to find an issue of culture or conscience that divides society, and to play it up, in the hope of exciting the prejudices of your core constituency. Hitler did it. The BJP does it. Labour does it, of course, with fox-hunting.
The BJP’s ideology is called ‘Hindutva’, or Hindu-ness. I am not sure that Hinduism, whatever its attractions, has been an unmixed blessing for India. My admittedly imperfect understanding of the religion is that it promotes a belief in karma, and therefore, perhaps, a certain passivity in the face of suffering. Away from the shimmering silks of the wedding, it is still stunning to encounter – to take one of thousands of examples – a man on a wheeled tea-tray, his body missing beneath the waist, scooting himself along in the fast lane of a flyover.
Another slight problem with Hindutva is its cow fixation. The Indians adore cheese, and the upper classes are becoming cheese-oholics. But to make cheese you need rennet, and since rennet derives from the stomachs of calves this sometimes puts the kibosh on local manufacture. Or so I am told by India’s biggest cheese importer, whose volume has increased, in two years, from 500 kilos per month to seven tonnes per month. Incidentally, the phrase ‘big cheese’ is of Hindi derivation, cheese being the Hindi for ‘thing’. Big cheese equals big thing. Thought you ought to know.
Looking at the diverse wedding crowd, and thinking of this planet’s multicultural future, I have been brooding about carrots. It is a fact that the British carrot used to be white. It was a pale, delicate, Anglo-Saxon root. As anyone who has eaten Indian carrot halva will know, Indian carrots are red, the colour of blood oranges. It probably follows that at some stage the dark red carrots of the subcontinent cross-fertilised with our indigenous carrots, to produce the modern orange cross. Yes, folks, the next time you chomp on a carrot, reflect that it is a half-caste. It is the result of rampant miscegenation. Look at the modern British carrot, and you behold the future of the human race.
The only real moment of culture shock, so far, was on the flight out. A couple of the children were in the seat next to me, gouging each other’s eyes out, biting, pinching, and so on, and my eyes had closed in reverie. I awoke to find a sweet-faced Chinese air stewardess standing over me in my aisle seat. ‘Prease, sir,’ said the BA girl. ‘Prease come with me. I have found a better seat for you in row 52.’ Well, I began to say, wondering whether this was just a beautiful dream; well, that is really very thoughtful of you. It crossed my mind, in my groggy state, that this must be one of the world’s favourite airline’s popularity-building measures – to send gentle oriental girls, shortly before take-off, to separate fathers from their unruly children. As I unbuckled my belt and rose to go, the rest of the family started to protest. Why was I deserting them? I dunno, I said, but she wants me to move. ‘It is the rule,’ said the BA girl. ‘We have a very strict rule that adult men are not allowed to sit next to young children. There have been incidents,’ said the BA girl darkly. I was going to reassure her, and say how much I agreed with the policy, and that as far as I was concerned adult men should at all costs be protected from young children. But one of them gave the game away. ‘He’s our father!’ said someone. ‘Oh,’ said the stewardess, flummoxed. ‘Velly solly.’