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’.