I’m back eating dinner at the Leela Kempinski again, overlooking the Gurgaon toll, that winking 32-lane monument to Indian prosperity. Two things are different this time (see earlier post). First, I’m not reading Rosemary Sutcliff (though I did watch the film of The Eagle on a miserably small screen on the way out and ended up feeling irritated that BA can’t provide better quality viewing). Second, my room faces away from the city and overlooks a large tract of woods and farmland, maybe a mile square, that could be anywhere in rural India.
This afternoon I had a meeting in my sixth-floor room. One of my Indian visitors stood at the window and pointed down to where an ancient tractor was slowly ploughing a strip of field.
‘That chap’s probably sitting on twenty million,’ he said.
In hindsight, I’m not sure whether he meant rupees or dollars. But even if it was the former, that would be close to £300,000, a fortune for a small farmer. Only twenty-five years ago, most of modern Gurgaon was like that – open farmland. Fifteen miles from Delhi, there was an ancient town here, but nothing resembling a city.
Today Gurgaon has 1.5 million inhabitants and in the course of a single week you can practically see the skyline change as cranes swing to and fro and new business centres, apartment blocks or ‘convenience malls’ inch upwards. It’s the second biggest city in Haryana province and the first Indian city to have distributed electricity to every household. It has the third highest per capita income in the country and would be far higher than eleventh in the national ‘life-after-work’ index were it not for its abysmal roads and public transport system (and that despite being at the end of the new Delhi metro line).
But this is India, and the statistics take on a comically different perspective when you emerge from a meeting in a gleaming new corporate headquarters, pass through the security lodge, step out onto the street and trip over a pig.
Though I’ve yet to see an elephant here, I can’t help feeling Ganesha must be smiling on Gurgaon. I’ve always felt an affinity for the jolly, pot-bellied mono-tusker. There’s something irresistibly life-affirming about him. He makes me want to pat his fat tummy and tweak his trunk. I also like the fact that in some representations he’s holding a pen, though I didn’t know until today (99 Thoughts on Ganesha is my Gurgaon reading this time) that at the request of the sage Vyasa, he wrote down the whole of the Mahabharata in a single day. Respect, Ganesha!
He’s also the embodiment of prosperity and material auspiciousness. It must have been an inkling of this that sent me searching for a little silver statue of him on the last afternoon of an earlier trip to Delhi, a holiday that time, of which I later wrote:
You could have gone your own way
In search of silk or bolts of cotton
But on that final frantic afternoon
You followed me without complaint
In and out of shops and stalls
Where swarthy men drank tea
And proffered trays of stones
Agate, lapis lazuli, cornelian
Until at last we found him
Merriment with a trunk
I brought him home
And sat him on my desk
My little silver one-tusk
Fragment of the east, fellow scribe
Bringer of wealth, so they say
Though when I think about him now
It isn’t earthly riches that I see
But your patient hand in mine
That last hot Delhi afternoon
Now, five years on, I can’t help wondering whether perhaps he himself has had a hand in my return to India, in the new and bountiful relationship I’m enjoying with this flourishing, infuriating and utterly captivating country.
Illuminating and thought provoking little piece Jamie.
One time in Delhi I saw something that, I think, sums up the new India beautifully – two modes of transport side by side at a junction. A small boy, naked to the waist, on the back of a rather lazy looking elephant and a young man, with slicked back hair and teflon suit, in a purring deep red convertible.