It’s one of the great clichés of travel-writing that India is an assault on the senses, but stepping outside the terminal building at Delhi airport, I’m lost for any other way to describe the experience of arriving in the sub-continent.
This is my fourth visit and I’m coming to know and love the pervasively musky smell of spices and vegetation, the thick velvety light at dawn and dusk, the incessant passage and noise of people and vehicles and creatures, the jostling buildings, the garish markets, the chatter of birds, the cows sauntering amid the traffic and rubbish.
But there’s something else that I’m noticing this time, and that’s the words. On every conceivable outdoor surface, moving or static, there are words; thousands of them, like a written overspilling of the great, exuberant Indian conversation that starts every day at sunrise and goes on till moonset.
Slogans, advertisements, injunctions, bylaws, public notices, shop and business signs, graffiti – they plaster houses, offices, stalls, vehicles, hoardings, garden walls, bridges and flyovers. A large bus is a ‘stage carriage’ which is ‘propelled by clean fuel’. A ramshackle pick-up declares that it is ‘redefining distribution’ and a truck’s bumper exhorts you to ‘keep distance!’ and ‘horn please!’. A hotel boasts of its ‘lavish lawns’ and ‘poolside parties’. A public park forbids ‘joy riding’ and ‘clothes washing’. And my favourite, whitewashed onto a rock on a hairpin bend in the foothills, warns: ‘Better late, Mister Driver, than the late Mister Driver!’
In the jaded West we know the outdoor conversation to be largely one-sided, dreamt up by admen and clever copywriters, so we tend to see it rather than actually hear it. But in India it’s noisier, less polished, more real; and the babble of those written voices seems almost as loud as the real ones. I’m sure India would be a quieter, and probably a poorer, place without it.
I have a theory that you understand a lot about a nation's personality from its public service messages. Particularly related to alcohol. In the UK we might say "Don't drink and drive", in the US "Drunk driving kills". I remember seeing distinctive messages on this theme in India but I've forgotten the exact wording. Jamie, if you spot one, let me know.
Jamie, I just wanted to say how much I am enjoying your blog. Great reading. I was just listening to a song by Eddi Reader — Safe As Houses, and keep meaning to tell you how much it puts me in mind of the character Poacher in The Reckoning. It was written immediately after the London bombings in July 2005 and so touches similar themes. I think you'd like it. All good wishes from Denmark, Mark