4.30 am. After five days in the mountains we have spent the last seven hours trying to snatch sleep as the train rattles and sways down from the north.
Now a lady with a singsong voice and cut-glass diction comes on the tannoy. ‘Good morning and welcome. In a short while the train will be arriving at New Delhi railway station. New Delhi is the political capital of India and renowned for its culture. Please dispose of your water bottle to avoid its possible misuse. There is a twenty-four hour foreign exchange at the station for all your currency needs. Thank you.’
John Simmons commented last week that one can understand a lot about a nation’s personality from its public service messages. He’s right. So much of India is revealed in this short announcement to the bleary-eyed passengers now stumbling from their bunks.
There is pride, in the Lutyens buildings of administrative New Delhi and the political edifices they house, struggling to govern this practically ungovernable nation of over one billion souls; pride too in India’s brilliantly rich tapestry of music, art, literature, dance, theatre and architecture.
There’s the irresistible urge to issue instructions that wells up from that dusty and deeply bureaucratic crevice in India’s soul, though in this case the injunction is futile; the habit of littering is endemic and the infrastructure too inefficient and corrupt to make the slightest impression on it.
And then there’s money. Even at 4.30 am it seems that the urgent daily business of making a rupee has begun. Enterprising porters have leapt onto the still-moving train to present themselves at our compartment door. Taxis and rickshaws wait, engines spluttering, at the station entrance. Embers are being blown up in the hearths of shadowy little food stalls. And, of course, it’s never too early, or too late, to garner a few more tourist dollars.
Finally, there’s politeness and a wish to please, perhaps more evident in the singsong tone than in the words themselves, but there nevertheless; a solid seam of civility present at all levels of Indian society.
This one short message contains a whole bundle of contradictions, and that is where its real character resides. We reveal most about ourselves, nation, organisation or individual, in our contradictions, our complexities; which is doubtless why so many businesses present such a one-dimensional, and ultimately uninteresting, personality to the world.