Monday 13 July 2020

A Partial India - Introduction

In October and November 1986, I went to India for the first time.  It was an important experience,  which I tried to capture as it happened in one of my black travel notebooks, now online as three blog posts.  They are essentially unedited transcriptions of what I wrote as I journeyed.  As such, I hope they possess a certain immediacy and freshness.  But they are also necessarily unstructured, other than by each day's itinerary, rather long, and therefore perhaps rather hard to read.

The experiences of those three weeks were so rich for me I decided to re-work my notes into shorter, more digestible pieces, which together form what I called A Partial India.  Partial, because they obviously captured only a tiny part of the vast land, its people and civilisation; partial, too, because it was born of my gratitude for the experiences India gave me.  

A third of a century later, it describes an India which no longer exists, if it ever did.  Given my inevitable lack of comprehension of India's subtleties during that first journey, perhaps this is the best I can now hope for: that the evident non-existence today of the land I described will make Partial India of mild historical interest to others.

For want of anything better, I organised my memories under arbitrary alphabetical headings, which are as follows:

A is for Agra
B is for Books
C is for Camels
D is for Delhi
E is for English
F is for Fatehpur Sikri
G is for Gandhi
H is for Horns
I is for Incense
J is for Jaipur
K is for Kashmir
L is for Large
M is for Mosques
N is for Nights
O is for Ochre
P is for Poverty
Q is for Queuing
R is for Raj
S is for Shangri-La
T is for Trains
U is for Udaipur
V is for Voyaging
W is for Work
X is for Xenophilia
Y is for Yamuna
Z is for Zenana

Z is for Zenana

India has never been a woman's world. Muslims have routinely locked them away, Buddhists regarded them as one of the snares which bind us again to our fleshy, suffering body, and Hindus seem to have ignored them completely. Hindu goddesses tend to be either beautiful pieces of furniture like Lakshmi, or cruel vamps like Kali. The female pantheon comes across like nothing so much as a bunch of fractious film stars. It is probably no coincidence that it is on the screen - large and small - that Indian women have made their greatest impact.

Wherever you go in India there are cinema hoardings, crude and garish posters which almost invariably depict buxom women in slight undress, either looking helpless - like Lakshmi - or wielding guns and whips as Kali might. And where the women, who are young and lissom, tend to look fraught and hysterical, the heroes - who are at least forty-five and probably wearing a corset - always look calm and suave.

One advantage female film-stars have is that they tend to sing more songs than the men. For this reason they are necessarily indispensable. Often it is the music which makes, indeed, justifies a film, and the power and fame of the unseen singers - who are rarely if ever the screen actresses - is gratifyingly great.

The singing is just as popular on the small screen. But at least on television women have managed to make a more positive contribution. Much of the news, together with many of the programme links, is presented by women. Partly this is due to television's obsessive desire to offer visually attractive images; but it is also an indication of the medium's greater liberalism. The women who appear are clearly very westernised, and speak the perfect English of the Indian intelligentsia.

For women of the lower classes and castes, the prospects are not so good. In the country and smaller towns, a woman's destiny is simply to become married and produce children, and to work. Passing them in the road it is hard to tell whether they are fourteen or forty-four. It is very noticeable that you never see young courting couples; any couple is married: courting as the west knows it seems either non-existent or coyly invisible. Yet being married is a totally public activity, as neutral as any other business. Judging by the advertisements in the daily papers for brides and bridegrooms, which detail the required characteristics of body and background, this is almost what it is.

Indian women seem good for only one thing: dying. The greatest building in India is a monument to a dead wife. While the Rajput warriors donned their saffron wedding robes of martyrdom and rode out of doomed fortresses like Chittorgarh to certain but glorious death, the women inside built huge funeral pyres and committed the mass suicide known as jauhar. And even Mrs Gandhi, perhaps the dominant formative influence on modern India, may one day be best remembered for her murder at the hands of Sikh extremists. Whether in life or through death, Indian women are conspicuous by their absence. For them, Indian history is the history of the zenana, the area in a Muslim household where they were hidden from the world.

A Partial India A to Z

Y is for Yamuna

The great red sandstone forts at Delhi and Agra both lie on the banks of the River Yamuna. At Agra, the riverside battlements offer a splendid vista across the huge waters winding among the blank sandy banks to the distant Taj Mahal. In the Red Fort at Delhi, you are hardly aware the river is there. From place to place India's attitude to water varies so.

Its availability seems to be taken for granted. Which is strange in a nation which receives little rain outside the monsoon. Perhaps the government has been particularly efficient in digging wells. In the countryside, irrigated fields are ablaze with a rich, dark verdancy. In the towns, public gardens are watered endlessly. Especially in Delhi, where the extensive lawns around India Gate and Parliament building are maintained as lushly as any Home Counties gardener could wish. And in the old part of the town, people who live on the streets take turns to bathe at their local standpipe, holding a cloth around themselves like coy holidaymakers changing on a Cornish beach. As they wash themselves in the running water, they make no effort to be frugal. Perhaps such profligacy with free water is the one luxury they can afford.

Rivers have helped shape much of the sub-continent: the Indus gave the land its name, and the Ganges remains a holy symbol. But it is the lakes that are special in India, partly because of their rarity. One of the main attractions of other-worldly Kashmir is its dreaming lakes, typified by Srinagar's Dal Lake. The contrast between the flat dull land of the Indian plains, and this mobile film of water mirroring the encircling mountains and the soft blue of the sky could hardly be greater.

The tranquillity that water engenders has even moved some to create new lakes. The Pichola Lake at Udaipur is a masterpiece of this kind. In its present form, the lake now reaches out to the surrounding soft-contoured hills, like Lake Dal on a more intimate scale. It provides the perfect setting for the palace which occupies Jagniwas island. And its example spurred others to create Lake Fateh Sagar behind it, whose waters answer the complex of lake and reflected land with a further reflection of the whole design like some huge artifice of mirrors.

But the grand ensemble of Udaipur is an exception; Indian architects have mostly been content to use water as a just another decorative element, like an occasional semi-precious stone set as an inlay among the main expanse of marble. For example, the deserted palace at Fatehpur Sikri has a number of small pools with decorative bridges. But water here is no more central to the overall design than the courtyard-sized chessboard nearby, or the small palace built for games of hide-and-seek. For real architectural sensitivity to the magic of water, you must travel to Agra.

The Itmad-ud-Daulah is a modest tomb for the grandfather of the Lady of the Taj. A narrow pool leads the eye naturally to the exquisite pietra dura of the mausoleum, as delicate as lace. The Taj Mahal takes the same idea but realises it on the grandest scale. The long watercourse points like a gleaming arrow to the distant tomb. A marble wraith, it stands silhouetted against the sky, brooding over the slow, silent Yamuna below.

A Partial India A to Z

X is for Xenophilia

For millennia, India has been susceptible to outside influences. First the Greeks, then the Moghuls, the Portuguese and finally the British have all left their distinctive stamp upon various aspects of the country and its life. Perhaps it was a question of politics: the lack of unity among the fragmented Indian states - which were often either squabbling or else sealed off completely - always made them easy prey for invaders. Whatever the reasons, the Indians retain to this day an honest curiosity and openness towards foreigners. And to none more so than to the British.

In part this can be attributed to, hazy nostalgic memories of the Raj. Most Indians have been touched by the British Empire, either directly or through their parents. Even more seem to retain a fond affection for the race, despite the past imperialism, and despite the patronising acts of political clumsiness which British ministers continue to wreak on them. Although the British can be blamed only too easily for the massacres which followed partition, they might also be praised for limiting religious friction so adroitly in the century before. Perhaps it is this, in part, which people recall. In an uncertain world, nothing is treasured so much as the memory of stability.

Attitudes to the British are complicated by the widespread use of English as the language of intellectual debate, of commerce, and of national politics. The very act of speaking English is so freighted with cultural baggage that Indians are almost inevitably impressed when a Briton talks. Particularly since, rightly or wrongly, British English stands as the yardstick of correctness. Any utterance, be it never so banal, strikes the Indian with all the force of wisdom engraved on stone.

But this goodwill is so widespread, and passes so far beyond cynical deference to affluent tourists, that a deeper cause than history or linguistics must be sought. It is not hard to find. Watch Indians dealing with Indians. In the interminable queues, neither the clerk nor the queuer ever seem to lose their placidity; both accept that neither is to blame for delays and problems, and that both are victims. Travel amidst the madness of Delhi's rush hour as rickshaws and bicycles swoop across on-coming traffic: horns are blown continually, but there is rarely any real ill-feeling. Everyone, everywhere, preserves their equanimity.

It is tempting to ascribe this to some profound Hindu passivity, or to the effects of centuries of downtrodden serfdom bleaching out any spark of resistance or protest. The real reason is surely much simpler: the Indians enjoy a natural and deep-dyed good humour. Being pleasant in daily life is one manifestation of it; liking foreigners another.

This makes staying in India a joy. As well as the constant unofficial welcome which is pressed on the visitor, even the hotels manage to convey something of the same spirit. At the best of them - like the Imperial in Delhi - service is raised to something akin to customer beatification. Whether amidst elegant surroundings of old Raj splendour, or enjoying the simple hospitality of a Kashmiri home, the question of who likes whom the more - guest or host - becomes totally and blissfully academic.

A Partial India A to Z

W is for Work

In the towns, in the fields, by the river, on the bustling streets and deserted mountain roads - everywhere in India, there are people constantly at work. It is as if they were intent on offering their own symbolic tableaux of daily life on the sub-continent. Look, they seem to say, existence is just such an unending struggle. Much of India's success in combating problems of poverty and underdevelopment can probably be attributed to this countrywide mobilisation of its workforce.

Yet there is something very odd about work in India. It is true that large numbers of people sitting or standing around idly are rare. But this has been achieved not so much by boosting the total amount of work which needs to be done - as western job creation schemes try to do – but by sharing out what work there is among the whole population. The result is a dilution of activity which affects every sphere of Indian life.

For the visitor, Indian bureaucracy is one of the most striking examples of this built-in redundancy. Most of the work in offices seems to be filling out forms which are then passed on internally before being filed for ever. And everything is in triplicate to employ three times the clerks. Each Job becomes a matter of taking great pains over an essentially trivial and inefficient task.

The same principle of division of labour applies to the shops in towns. Department stores are unknown, even in Delhi and the larger cities of the north. The fragmentation of the pattern of working is manifest in the myriad small shops and stalls of each trade. Throughout a city there may be many tens or even hundreds of these, all selling the same goods.

Along with this reduced scale of endeavour, there goes a corresponding refinement of services. India represents the ultimate in niche markets. In each town there is someone offering every specialised service imaginable. By the side of the road people sell glasses of water; mend bicycle punctures; offer a few lemons or second-hand torches. The constant division of labour down to this almost vanishingly small scale seems possible only because the basic subsistence level is itself so low. Selling something like an apple or two a day is all it takes to live.

Purely manual labour obeys similar laws; everything operates at the level of the smallest physical act. In the country, women and children sift endlessly through fields, tending the land manually. In the towns, public gardens are weeded one plant at a time; grass is watered inch by inch; even gravel roads seem to be laid down stone by stone.

The acme of this dogged, timeless approach is to be found along the only route into Kashmir, a road which clings precariously to the sides of mountain after mountain. Tens of thousands of low stone walls in the form of squat rectangular blocks lie along its outer edge as a safety barrier. The road is in the middle of nowhere; and yet all along its length, as if by some ancient magic, there are the solitary workers, diligently and patiently re-painting the ends and sides of each of the stone blocks white. An eternal and totally characteristic task.

A Partial India A to Z

V is for Voyaging

Transport and communications set the pace of a country, forming its natural heartbeat. In the West, fibre optics and satellite links define the characteristic speed of the nations; the speed of light. With a telephone system so unreliable as to be unusable for long-distance calls, it is transportation which provides the pulse for India's national clock. As a result, the country becomes one defined by voyages.

Paradoxically, the larger distances are closer together in time. The Indian airline system is relatively efficient, and allows you to travel quickly between most major cities. Getting a ticket is another matter; and in any case, the cost for the majority of the population would represent an impossibly high proportion of their annual income. It is as if air travellers moved in a world of their own, untouched by the realities of India. The sealed compartment of the aeroplane voyaging high above the dusty earth is its own metaphor.

At the next level, there are the trains. They form the backbone of the country's transportation system. Indeed, without the extensive railway network, modern India would probably not continue to exist at all. The infrastructure created by the railways is a vital economic resource; without it, the country would slip back into the dark ages. For the network to function even half-way efficiently, it must be managed centrally. Which in its turn requires some form of nationwide organisation, and the existence of a nation. The railways act as the string which holds together the bursting parcel of India.

Trains serve the major cities and towns. Outlying villages rely on buses. Just as the plane is alien to the vast bulk of the population, so the bus is very much of the people. The battered juddering hulks which lumber along dusty roads are the mobile analogues of the ramshackle stalls in the markets, and the patched and poor houses. Like so much at this end of the economic spectrum, buses seem to be held together more by faith than by structural design.

Buses are also found within towns and cities themselves; but as the cities get bigger, the buses become less efficient. Like stranded dinosaurs, they can only look on helplessly as the smaller and more agile beasts weave in and out among them. The new urban mammals take many forms, from familiar ones like taxis, to the stranger centaur-like bicycle rickshaws.

The bulbous-bodied taxis, looking like something out of Britain in the 1950s - which they are - occupy the same place within the city as planes between them. They are relatively luxurious, fast, and prohibitively expensive for most people. The rickshaws are the trains, widely used and ideal for everyday purposes. At the top of the range are the yellow and black moped rickshaws with their reckless drivers and constantly bleating horns, followed by the human-driven bicycle version. And it is the solo bicycle which forms perhaps the commonest method of mechanical transport in India. Everywhere there are numberless shoals of them, swooping in and out of the traffic like minnows. If a symbol of India's modernisation were needed, it would be not the atom bomb but the bike.

A Partial India A to Z

U is for Udaipur

Rajasthan is the Land of the Kings, homeland of the Rajputs. Elsewhere in India, where the Moghul influence had been strong, there was a balance between the temporal and spiritual; Islam proved a crucial ally to the expansionist ambitions of the emperors, but it also exacted homage as more than an equal. In Rajasthan, the warrior ethic was all.

This is visible in the massive forts which dominate the towns throughout the region, and in some cases wholly contain them. Like Chittorgarh, once the scene of numerous acts of suicidal chivalry according to the haughty Rajput code. Now the small modern town camps outside the broken walls surrounding the long low hill of the city, as if aware of the disparity between its glorious past and quiet, dusty present.

Most of the cities in Rajasthan have been touched by the Rajput vision; but one of them has been completely shaped by it, and remains its greatest achievement: Udaipur. It was founded in 1567, born of the third and last sack of Chittorgarh, and a monument to its people's indomitable spirit.

The magnificent city has grown up around the lakes and the palaces built by its successive rulers, As if conscious of their standing – the Maharana of Udaipur is the highest ranking of the Rajputs - each strove to enhance an already impressive city with new expressions of their majesty. First came the artificial Pichola Lake, a huge sheet of water which provides the centrepiece of the city's design. It must have seemed paradise for the erstwhile dwellers of the cramped and arid Chittorgarh.

Then, to match the lake, and use its incomparable setting, the huge City Palace was built, an Escher-like concoction of towers, arches, balconies and cupolas. Appropriately enough, it is the largest in Rajasthan. Today it is a museum; its collections are varied but curious in their scope. There are extensive memorials to the region's past, faded delicate miniatures, fragments of ancient stone inscriptions, and a pair of stuffed siamese-twin deer. All are displayed amidst genteelly run-down surroundings evocative of the passing of time. The overall effect is one of Udaipur as a forgotten oasis amidst the bustle of the outside world.

From the City Palace there are impressive views over Pichola Lake, set amidst the surrounding hills, and of the two island palaces. The later and more famous of these is the Lake Palace on Jagniwas, which covers the island entirely. It has been converted into a gleaming white hotel, and looks like nothing so much as a floating iced wedding cake. Less prettified, and more romantic, is the Jag Mandir island palace. It sits at the southern end of the lake, a little apart from the city, hovering like some unearthly vision in the still green water,

The rest of Udaipur has grown in response to these elements. Answering Pichola, another artificial lake was built to the north. The city itself clusters around the great palace on the banks of the lake. Its narrow twisting streets, many of which are steeply inclined, recall the stern hilltop forts of Chitttorgarh and the rest. For all its extravagant glories, Udaipur remains true to its origins.

A Partial India A to Z

T is for Trains

The best way to experience India is to travel by train. It is not the fastest: in 20 hours, an express may cover only 500 km. But the leisurely and continual journeying gives you an idea of the scale of India. It also allows you plenty of time to look out of the window, to see India in all its slow rolling details.  This is true travelling in a landscape.

Trains are not only a vital element in modern Indian life, they are splendid cultural artefacts, living dinosaurs of the Raj. Steam rather than diesel or electricity powers the thousands of locomotives on the network. In part this reflects the country's limited resources; but it is also of a piece with much else in India today. Whether it is in transport, language or bureaucracy, the country preserves, as if in amber, the rhythm and rituals of fifty years ago. To step onto a platform as a battered hissing train arrives, is to step back in time,

With a resource as complex a railway network, the Indians are able to indulge their love of paperwork to the full. Buying a ticket, reserving a berth - anything to do with the railways - involves queues, forms and interactions with countless species of clerks, most of whose responsibilities are so carefully circumscribed that an ordinary enquiry is likely to involve a platoon of them. Along the bustling station platforms, a small forest of signs hanging above offices maps out the hierarchy of this station world.

Fine distinctions extend to the trains themselves. As well as the express, mail and passenger trains, there are a variety of track gauges: broad, narrow, and narrower. On board, the railway has its own caste system, though less stringent than the Hindu scheme. At the top is the first class air-conditioned car, followed by ordinary first class. Then there is second class reserved and second class unreserved at the bottom.

First-class, like express, is a word used loosely on the Indian railways; first-class sleepers feature hard seats which turn into harder bunks. Most Indians bring their own sleeping-bags. Food and drink, on the other hand, are readily available on the journey. At every station stop – and there are always many - the air is full of the reedy mournful diphthongs of the chaiwallahs as they hawk their small thermos flasks of hot tea. Around mealtimes, men with trays of food pass through the train,

For the westerner, the stations and the trains are like something out of an old film-set, with the hub-bub of the milling crowds, people jumping on moving trains, the steam and the screaming whistles. Indians harbour no such romantic illusions. For them, they are often simply the only way to get to work in the towns. In the early morning, the seats in the already overflowing passenger compartments are supplemented by people crowded into freight wagons hitched behind; some even sit on the roof, or stand on the links between carriages. The builders of the railways, the red-faced, moustachio'ed Victorians, would probably have approved. For all their sentimentality, they too were hard-headed about trains. They knew that, like the roads for the Romans, railways were instruments of empire. And they remain today as the British Empire's most valuable legacy to India.

A Partial India A to Z

S is for Shangri-La

The Kashmir railhead lies at Jammu, some 600 km and 15 hours by train from Delhi. The journey along the only road from Jammu to Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir, takes another 12 hours. Two thirds of that is uphill.

As the road winds its way round mountain after mountain, leaving the narrow valley floors further and further behind, the landscape gradually changes. Trees give way to low shrubs, then barren scrubland. With each hairpin twist of the snaking road, the landscape to the south folds itself, pleating the horizon with soft-contoured hills. The road peaks at 3000 metres, then begins a partial descent.

The dusty valleys are exchanged for a deep gorge: below lies the huge River Cherab. From this height, its surface is deceptively still and jade-like. The conjunction of placid glistening water with ranks of mountains shouldering each other into the distance looks like nothing so much as the Lake District - writ five times larger.

As the road follows the Cherab upstream, the gorge gives way to a narrow valley, with fertile land edging the river. Small villages are visible among the neatly-parcelled fields with their low mud walls. To conserve valuable space, some houses hug sheer rock faces shrouded in shadow like a colony of bats. Thin, sill-like terraces are carved into the steep concave bowl of the mountainside to eke out the arable land yet further.

The road turns off, following a tributary; its valley rises and narrows to nothing. The land begins to spread out before the final wall of mountain tops. The Jawarhar tunnel under them is long, dark and damp - a last rite of passage before entering the light and spacious Vale of Kashmir itself. As you emerge from the tunnel, and turn a couple of corners, the whole valley is spread out before you with the clarity of a map.

It is ringed by majestic mountain peaks which block out the world. To the west is Afghanistan, to the north Uzbekistan, and to the east, the Himalayas. The Vale itself lies at over 1500m, and is about 100 km long by 20 km wide. It is flat and abundantly fertile.

To understand and appreciate Kashmir, its position as an impossible kingdom must be grasped. This is best done by arriving slowly overland. As each metre in height and kilometre in distance is dearly won, and each hour paid out in the journey, so the true co-ordinates of Kashmir are fixed within you.

In contrast, departure should be a swift and effortless escape that allows the essence of the Vale to carried away intact. A flight is ideal. As you rise out of Srinagar airport, the valley contracts to a giant's footprint. Like the old land it is, creases run over its smooth surface. To the north, the great snow-capped peak of Nanga Parbat gleams like a fang; to the east, the Himalayas lie like hundreds of huge, jagged flints. Set amidst this frozen sea of raging peaks, the calm and peace of the Kashmir valley is all the more miraculous. It can be no coincidence that an anagram of Srinagar is Sangri-ra.

A Partial India A to Z

R is for Raj

Wherever there is open ground, children in India play cricket. The bat and stumps may be no more than sticks, but the game is conducted with a fervour which would not be out of place on the playing fields of an English public school.

Cricket, and the way it permeates modern India, could stand for much of the heritage of the Raj, Following Independence in 1948, the sub-continent was crudely dismembered, and thousands were murdered in sectarian violence. Yet there was little anti-imperial iconoclasm. Instead of dismantling all the apparatus of the hated colonial oppressors, the new Indian ruling classes simply shifted across into the places left by the departing British. The system they inherited was so complete, and in many respects so appropriate for India's problems, that the spirit of the Raj, as well as many of its details, survives to this day.

As well as the army, the main pillars of the British Empire in India were the English language, the railways, and the bureaucracy. They remain just as central to the modern country. Without English as a common, neutral, lingua franca, communications would be hampered across the disparate linguistic zones of the sub-continent. Worse, the imposition of Hindi as the only other viable national language would aggravate regional tensions, and bolster the destabilising movements for local autonomy which already pose a major threat to the integrity of India.

The extensive railway network serves a similar dual function. Railways are the key element in the country's transport system; but, like English, they provide also a unifying factor across different geographical regions which otherwise have little to connect them. Only bureaucracy seems an ambivalent legacy. True, the enormous Indian infrastructure does at least act as a stabilising and moderating element in a labile society; but the price paid is a stultifying slowness, and a lack of receptivity to innovation. Rooted in the past, Indian bureaucracy may serve the present,
but it seems to block the way to the future.

The continuing presence of these major imperial relics has made it all the easier for memories and minutiae of that period to linger. Everywhere you go in India, there are signs and notices in the stiff, hortatory English of an earlier age; railway stations are exotic reworkings of interwar images; the whole political process is carried out in a sober imitation of the Mother of Parliaments as she used to be; and the newspaper reports and television quiz shows dwell endlessly on trivial details of life back in Britain, assuaging a strange, phantom homesickness which lingers on. It is as if the British had never left.

One of the most impressive monuments to the Raj is in New Delhi. Running for over two miles past ponds and dark green sward - the apotheosis of the Surrey garden - a long straight road links India Gate with the ensemble of government buildings placed dramatically at the top of the hill. At the end of each day, the sun sets behind these buildings, casting huge shadows over the broad road and lawns below. This great east-west axis of Sir Edwin Lutyens's designs for the new capital is called Raj Path.

A Partial India A to Z

Q is for Queuing

To do anything in India, you have to queue. Several times. For example, to get a rail ticket to Kashmir, you queue at the ticket reservation office; who tell you that you need a special permit from the Ministry of Home Affairs, several miles away. So you queue at the door there, in order to get a security pass to be able to queue upstairs for a form, which is then processed once you have queued at another door. At that point, you can return to the reservation office and queue for your ticket.

Everywhere you go, there are Indians patiently queuing. They rarely push, and are almost invariably good-humoured however long their wait. The same goes for the clerks who, slowly but inexorably, deal with the queues. The British might like to think this deep-seated respect for queuing is part of the legacy of the Raj, just like cricket. But unlike sports which seem to transfer readily enough between races, the phenomenon of queuing is too firmly rooted in the Indian character to be explained away so easily.

Queuing in India is intimately bound up with, though not totally caused by, that country's love of endless, intricate bureaucracy. Every stage of every transaction is noted, registered, approved. There are special forms for each stage, many of which require other forms, duly completed. Forms often require queuing.

This is partly a reflection of an almost Victorian state of organisation within Indian society. Although computers are beginning to appear, notably in booking airline seats and banking, the systems elsewhere are manual and the main medium is hand-written paper. It is a universal rule that paper begets paper, both in the form of multiple copies and as records of other records; yet there is a level of redundancy in India which goes beyond any normal wastage. The Indian nation does not just connive at bureaucracy on this scale, it seems positively to welcome it.

An obvious universal benefit of functional redundancy of this kind is the creation of much-valued jobs: it takes five people to do what only really needs one. But beyond this, there is a deeper psychological reason why queuing and bureaucracy are so central to the Indian way of life.

To queue is not only to recognise an order, it is to affirm it. If you queue, you suffer the inconvenience of waiting; but while the queue lasts you know that by waiting long enough, you will be attended to. Without queuing - that is, in an anarchic world - there is no such guarantee. If you are strong, you may push your way to the front; but with 750 million people out here, you will have to be very strong. Better to queue.

The very size of India's fragile society imposes an even greater need for order. Queuing and bureaucracy are a kind of microscopic order which everyone can contribute to. The theory is, if you acquiesce and aid at this level, society will pay you back by exhibiting a similar degree of control on a larger scale. It seems to work. Maintaining the world's largest democracy - especially one created so recently and in a relatively artificial way - is a considerable feat. Having to queue, then sign in triplicate, is a small price to pay for freedom.

A Partial India A to Z

P is for Poverty

For the visitor, India offers a rich spectacle. The land is a seamless backdrop for the entrances and exits of massive Moghul forts, holy mosques, and towns which hover between the twentieth and the twelfth century. Around these impassive architectural displays, the Indian people swarm like a distracting cloud. If they are seen at all, it is only when they stumble into the picturesque: the wizened old man guarding shoes at a mosque; the bent forms of the women gleaning in the fields, swathed in coloured saris; naked nut-brown children playing by the river; the Sikh hotel doorman with his turban, moustache and thin-lipped salute. There are beggars and hawkers too, but they seem just another component of the bustling tourist scene. The abiding poverty of India, which lies behind all these images, too often remains invisible.

That poverty lives in the spaces between the sights on the tourists agenda. The planes fly above it, the air-con coaches ride round it. Only the riders of trains and rickshaws discover it.

Stations act as magnets to poverty. Enter them, and you find rows and rows of bodies lying on the ground, quite still, as if lined up to an attractive magnetic pole. But it is only the poor, camping out on the platforms. Elsewhere, the ground is littered with people hunkered down beside their few belongings. Like the porters balancing impossibly huge and precarious loads on their heads, everyone seems undernourished, their skin leathery.

But these are simply the relatively poor. Some may even be waiting for trains. To see real poverty you must take a rickshaw. In the tourist area of Delhi from Connaught Place, down Janpath to India Gate, there are only taxis and moped rickshaws. Further north, as New Delhi gives way to Old, the bicycle rickshaws begin to appear. In outlying cities and towns they are the norm. For a journey among India's real poor, a rickshaw is the only proper vehicle,

You begin to learn something of poverty and its impotence even as you climb into the bicycle rickshaw. In front of you is a tiny stick-man, his blue-black hair shining, his shirt greasy and frayed. He moves his almost muscleless legs with difficulty, rising high in the pedals. Throughout the journey you stare at his thin body as it sways with exertion you have bought. He will pedal all day, waiting patiently wherever you stop, not eating until you have done; for this he may be paid a couple of pounds. The poverty of India begins to rise in you from the pit of your stomach.

And yet the rickshaw driver is not poor. To find poverty you must travel further into Old Delhi. There the streets are lined with poor people; this is where they live. Around them are their few possessions: a pot, a blanket. They eat, sleep and die on this street. They wash at the public standpipes, their only privacy a cloth held up around them. And yet they seem strangely oblivious of the outside world, It is as if they had reached an accommodation with their poverty, having worn it so long. They are not abject or bitter. And this is disturbing. Angry poverty in the face of wealth would be reasonable, and could be coped with, This lack of reproach reproaches the visitor with the worst meanness of all: of spirit.

A Partial India A to Z

O is for Ochre

From the air, the flat Indian landscape looks like a huge dusty carpet. The monotonously regular fields form a huge patchwork where each square is a variation on the fundamental hue. Tan, dun, tawny, beige; fawn, bronze, khaki; bistre, sienna, umber, ochre: India exhausts them all in the infinite varieties of dull brown its earth assumes.

Nor does the sky offer any relief to this pitiless landscape. During the long summer it is an unbroken dome the colour of faded blue Wedgwood. There are no swirling cloudscapes to captivate the eye, no gradations of mist and vapour to provide variety. Apart from the occasional bird of prey wheeling in the sky, there is not a single breath or movement to break the mutual stare of the earth and heavens.

To this bleached-out brown and burnt-out blue is added a third element which seems another product born of the sun's furnace. The rocks of northern India, and hence the great forts built from them, glow with a dull hot redness which wearies the view like the land and the sky. To visit the empty palace of Fatehpur Sikri is to enter an oven for the eye as the stone throbs redly around you. Only the lush green grass of the abandoned courtyards provides any respite or offers any balm.

Perhaps as a defence against this stultifyingly narrow natural palette, the Indians love bright and varied colours. The saris ot the women are a blaze of impossible shades; the more they clash, the better. The moped rickshaws are often gaily painted with intertwined flowers and coloured patterns. And the cheap pictures of Krishna, the Indianised Christs, the saccharine-sweet images of chubby children - all are tricked out in the most garish and cloying combination of hues. Likewise the huge cinema hoardings everywhere, which seem to promise plots just as colourful and as unfettered by the constraints of subtlety.

The Kashmir valley is less afflicted by the sense of monochrome found on the plains. Partly this reflects the fact that it is the expansiveness of the colour which makes the brown plain or blue sky so exhausting, The essence of Kashmir is that the scale has been reduced and humanised. The valley is only a few tens of kilometres long, and even the sky's extent is bounded by the mountain peaks which rear up on all sides.

It is not only the fields which spawn brown: the Kashmiri houses, with their timber frames and mud-coloured bricks, contribute as well. And yet though the colour may permeate the region, it does not overwhelm. The landscape is saved by the trees, which stand like great fountains and torches of colour. Unlike those on the plain, they are deciduous. As a result, their myriad autumnal hues echo, extend and finally redeem the surrounding countryside. The gamut of scarlets, vermilions, russets and golds justify their staider setting.

Ultimately, the difference is that Kashmir's hues are those of an English landscape; with the trees in their full dismantling glory, it is easy to relate to the ensemble. The ochres of the plain are alien. They make no concessions to previous experience. They are the true colour of India.

A Partial India A to Z

N is for Nights

Night transforms India. By day, the land bakes under a dusty pitiless sun, and the cities are a constantly jarring clash of opposing sights and sounds. Darkness descends like some ancient balm poured over the sores and wounds of the day. The heat is moderated; the air becomes Zephyrous, neither hot nor cold. The harsh contrasts of the streets mellow and mingle as the shadows lengthen, reach out and coalesce. Most importantly, the mad frenetic din, the horns and the trucks and the banshee shouts, all is tamed and harmonised into the soft equable noise of human babble.

Delhi in particular is magical by night. Without the harsh light, the city's constant and overpowering sense of distances is lost. The weak electric bulbs in the shops cast small circles of illumination which further reduce the scale. Only Connaught Place retains a sense of wide open space.

But even that is tamed. What by day is a huge bowl of empty sky becomes at night a hall whose roof is hung with velvet drapes. Around its inner circle, the shops which hung back diffidently in the deep shadows of the colonnade are now glistening like tiny candles on a grand iced cake. Across their lights, twin currents of people swirl in opposite directions, spilling out onto the almost deserted road.

The outer circle is even more animated. Hundreds of tiny shops have burst into life: one is selling car seat covers, another has typewriters hired out for use there by the hour; another boasts a single small photocopying machine; many others sell brightly coloured cloths or provisions or one of the many monochrome cooked dishes. Laid out on the street are second-hand books or some of the multitude of indigenous and foreign magazines. It is one of the great Joys of India that neither here, amidst the huge throngs of bustling shoppers, nor in the quiet roads radiating out from Connaught Place, or indeed in any of the other cities of the north-west, do you ever feel threatened. The night in India is totally benevolent.

That same carefree sense of certain safety exists in Kashmir. More so perhaps among this happy and graceful people. But the night itself has a very different quality, and none of the plain's enveloping sense of a warm, almost maternal embrace.

The Kashmiri night is stern. During the day, the sunshine streaks through the thin air with a direct and surprising strength. But the instant that the sun sinks behind the rim of the encircling mountains, it is as if some great brazier had been extinguished, plunging this other-worldly land into the dark and deep cold like a bad wizard's spell in a fairy-tale.

But there are compensations. Not only is the next day's light and heat all the more welcome, but the cold of the valley is of such a clean and bracing kind it is hard to harbour a grudge against it. Besides, it is the occasion of one of Kashmir's richest pleasures: to sit on a houseboat on Dal Lake in Srinagar, the boards creaking around you, as a blazing log fire in the room's stove throws out a wet and almost loving heat, together with the unforgettable odours of gently choking woodsmoke.

A Partial India A to Z

M is for Mosques

The divided modern states of India and Pakistan were born out of the age-old tensions between Hindu and Muslim. The latter did not relish being a minority in a country ruled by the former. But whatever the political realities, the balance of spiritual power surely lay the other way.

Hinduism does not proselytise: since caste cannot be altered during this life, only by it, nothing can be done for those whose previous lives condemned them to be re-born outside Hinduism, and hence outside all castes. It is a religion of temporal stasis. For the Muslim, on the other hand, there is the siren call of the jihad, the holy war to defend the faith and convert the infidels - against their will if need be. It is the epitome of spiritual dynamism.

The same extroversion is manifest in their religious architecture, faith made stone. Everywhere the Muslims went, they built mosques. Not just one, but several, preferably greater than ever before. Paradise was to be won by action. Hindus often veered the other way, towards the abnegation manifest in Buddhism; you must desire nothing, strive for nothing, do nothing. Which is hardly conducive to piling up ever-higher stones.

And so it is that Hinduism remains a dominant yet invisible religion, while the departed Moghuls have left their indelible stamp on northern India in a string of massive forts and soaring mosques, Together these represent the twin aspects of their warlike faith. Delhi itself has fine examples of both. The Red Fort stands rock-like at the corner of the old city, its huge red walls an unarguable statement of imperial and religious intent. A little across from it is the Jami Masjid, the main mosque of the town. Open to the skies and to Allah, it can hold 25,000 souls and is the largest in India.

Unlike Delhi, which now lies in the Hindu heartlands, Kashmir has remained staunchly Muslim. Geography apart, perhaps this is not surprising. Nowhere else in India does the muezzin's call to prayer carry as distinctly as through that thin mountain air. In Srinagar, the frail reedy cry can be heard for miles as it floats across the still Dal Lake.

Like all the greatest artists, the Moghul architects of the mosques took the circumscribing restrictions of their faith regarding ornamentation and form and made it the springboard for inspiration. Particularly in their intimate monuments to the dead. The tombs are austere in their geometric patternings, stern and formal in their inlaid quotations from the Koran. Yet their perfect proportions and simplicity are moving for any faith.

Of no building is this more true than of the Taj Mahal. Too often it is regarded simply as beautiful architecture, or as a postcard symbol of India. But as well as a personal testament to the unassuageable grief of the Emperor Shah Jahan at the death of his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal, it needs to be understood as a religious monument. To enter, you must remove your shoes as well as your cultural prejudices. It forms a fitting memorial to the Moghuls' enduring passion for architecture, and the apotheosis of their legacy to India.

A Partial India A to Z

L is for Large

Maps are designed to deceive, not to describe. They must allow you to grasp whatever they represent. Because the paper on which they are printed has a certain physical size, you scale your perception to the map, not to its matter. Hence, whether you are looking at a plan of Cambridge or California, Surrey or Siberia, you reduce them all to the same level; the absolute sense of size is lost, and the constant mismatch of scale between expectation and experience is always shocking.

It is the same with India. For the westerner, it is an exotic triangle nestling against the underbelly of a vast and vague Asia. Most people would be unable to place it in a hierarchy of size. To travel in India is to stretch the mind.

Several factors conspire to magnify this effect. Much of India is flat and featureless; without landmarks, you immediately lose scale. Flying over north-west India is like passing over endless graph paper with no co-ordinates. The fields are ruthlessly square; the occasional town is the same identical fungal growth at the intersection of two straight roads. The parched earth is light brown, the ultimate average colour.

The towns themselves possess this same invariance. Wander along any street in any city, and the landscape will not change for half an hour on end. Every part of a street could stand for the whole; and that whole for the city. This is largely a matter of arithmetic; a population of 750 million, together with a labour-intensive economy, means that every function is endlessly duplicated, every variant of activity and design universally replicated. And it all has to be put somewhere.

Distance is also a function of time. Since Concorde, the Atlantic is only a Mozart opera wide. In India, trains and buses use clocks which run at half-speed. Distances are measured in fractions of a month. It is the same in the towns. Everything has been scaled to match the culture; travel pegs itself to the level of rickshaws, bikes and cows. The chaos of Indian rush-hours clogs the roads yet further. Traffic congeals as if in a slow-motion film; the roads lengthen in proportion. Crossing Delhi, you spend half a day watching a pageant of its history and people.

It should be even worse for Indians. Most of them lack that magic ointment, money, which makes ragged distances heal up neatly. Instead, they must verify the continent's dimensions by personally walking them. The fact that they have not revolted, or demanded a smaller India, is probably a matter of expectations. They have never known the joy of little countries like Britain, or how helicopters can take you anywhere,

In fact, they seem to revel in the largeness of India; so much so, that they exaggerate it by growing up a good head shorter than most westerners. For Indians, the soaring dome of the Taj Mahal, the mighty walls of the Moghul forts - everything - becomes all the more impressive with this assumption of physical humility. As uncomprehending tourists confronted by the vastness of India, perhaps westerners too should try to become small, that the land and its spirit might grow for them yet larger.

A Partial India A to Z

K is for Kashmir

Emerging from the Jawarhar tunnel, the road into the Kashmir Valley descends swiftly onto the flat alluvial plain. Srinagar, the capital, lies some 90 km further north. The land is fertile and cultivated, divided up into a patchwork of small fields by low walls. Huge silver birches and broad elm-like trees stand at intervals, decked out in their autumnal Cotswold colours.

The houses and shops in the villages along the way are built sturdily to withstand the heavy snow and ice of the winters. A basic timber frame is filled out with rough dark bricks; the effect is pure Tudor. As dusk falls and the air chills suddenly, fires are lit in the open shops; the red light spills out onto the road, and faces are caught in its glare like figures in some painted tavern scene. The Kashmiris wear long, smock-like panchuls, perfect bucolics in a perfect Dutch landscape,

Srinagar itself is Venice. Its gondolas are the shikaras, which ply Dal Lake. Like gondolas, they can be sleek and graceful, bearing passengers on down cushions amidst velvet curtains and gold tassels; or they can be functional transports, carrying impossible quantities of precariously balanced vegetables to market. Some are little more than punts, which are used in the endless task of carting away the choking bright-green weed their oarsmen tear out from the lake's bed.

Shikaras are the only way to get to the hundreds of houseboats moored on the lake. A typically British solution to a Maharajah's ban on foreigners buying land in Kashmir, they look like long wooden summer houses carried off by floods and mysteriously brought together. Although each is unique in the details of its carving and ornamentation, the basic design remains the same; passing along between ranks of them brings to mind the same diversity in unity found among the palazzi of the Grand Canal.

Venice, like its palaces, is founded on mud. Behind the houseboats lies the mud of Srinagar. Some of these outcrops are used as floating gardens where massive lilies flourish, and vegetables grow lushly. Others have trees and houses, chickens, dogs and children - the Kashmiri equivalent of Venice's Torcello.

The best place to grasp the myriad elements of Srinagar is a shikara in the middle of Dal lake towards the end of the day. At sunrise – which comes late, as the sun must climb over the Himalayas, and fight its way through the morning haze - the lake boils with a low swirling mist which hovers inches above its surface. Shikaras glide like ghosts, and are not of this world. In the heat and stillness of noon, they hang on the lake's mirror like glistening water insects. At the distant water's edge, the perfect lines of shimmering silver birches look like Normandy in September. In front of them, Friesan cows wander along placidly, indifferent to the green double-decker buses which rumble by.

As the sun begins to sink towards Afghanistan, the haze finally clears, and the full circle of mountains can be seen, just as their snow-capped peaks turn soft pink. Srinagar is Venice, set amidst Switzerland.

A Partial India A to Z

J is for Jaipur

A hot, flat and barren land, divided up into small princely states, ruled over with a benign despotism by Maharajas of immense splendour from their walled cities; such is many people's idea of the quintessential India. It is a perfect description of Rajasthan, the Land of the Kings. And few places are more representative of this region than the city of Jaipur. The name has royal ring; it both evokes the whole region, and seems to contain within it the other great Rajput cities like Jodhpur and Udaipur.

Jaipur is pre-eminently the pink city: the red sandstone found throughout northern India is used not just for the city palace, but for the walls, which remain complete and impressive to this day, and for most of the buildings within them. Jaipur is probably unique in India in being a planned city; its streets are laid out on a grid which antedates Manhattan by a century. As a result, its avenues are very long and straight, which can make them even more oppressive than the endless winding roads found everywhere else in India; but set against that, they are broad and airy.

Not that this is immediately apparent travelling down the main road of the bazaars. Apart from the usual problems of traffic, with everyone trying to cut past everyone else, matters are made worse by the camels. If you travel to Jaipur on the train from Delhi - called, appropriately enough, the Pink Express - the odd camel begins to appear in the small villages and towns along the way. In Jaipur they are common; in their painfully slow imperturbability, they are quite unpassable in the street. The result is a gently ambulatory traffic jam - which suits Jaipur perfectly,

The best place to see the town is from the Hawa Mahal, or Palace of the Winds. Externally, this curious building consists of a five-storey wall with a diminishing series of intricate windows and semi-octagonal turrets built into its dark pink facade. But facade is what it is: the window bays and towers are false, and behind there is no commensurately grand palace. Instead, a series of small rooms where the ladies of the royal household would gather to watch the bustle of the streets below without themselves being seen. It is a rare instance of India not fulfilling the promise of its appearances.

From the top of the Hawa Mahal, there are fine views over the city, and of the Nahargarh Fort which broods on its rock above it. But the most striking aspect of the city scene are the bicycles. From this elevated perspective, they seem to swarm down the long roads like huge plagues of insects, their tiny metal limbs and carapaces shimmering in the light as they wobble their way along, Seeing them foreshortened in this way brings home the sheer scale of bicycling in India: there must be millions - possibly hundreds of millions - of these frail contraptions in use.

Jaipur is notable too for possessing two museums, one as part of the old city palace, and the other in a grand, crumbling Victorian building just outside the walls. Both bear witness to the weight of history in Rajasthan; both, with their endless collections of swords and elaborate muskets, along with miniatures of bewhiskered princes, are melancholy reminders of what the proud and glorious Land of the Kings has lost.

A Partial India A to Z

I is for Incense

The most notable thing about smells in India is that there are so few of them. Westerners pre-conceptions about third-world countries might lead them to expect a rich melange of noisome smells constantly assaulting the nose, just as the hectic collage of sights and sounds will hit the eyes and ears. But there is no equivalent cacophony of odours.

It is certainly possible to find smells, hunting them out like exotic truffles. But the best smells are those which ambush you in unlikely places, striking your consciousness like the sound of a tiny distant bell.

For instance, there is the incense. Not from the temples, of which there are few in northern India, nor from the mosques which are open to the sky and smell only of the what the wind carries. This incense is from the slow-burning sticks found on stalls in the markets everywhere. Its purpose is purely functional: to ward off the flies from the food. But far more than any smell of cooking it remains as the defining smell of the bazaars. Its cloying richness seems particularly appropriate for the huge, sprawling congregation of shouting people, garish colours and endless, fecund confusion.

More elusive is the smell of the old forts and palaces. A rare conjunction of conditions is needed to catch it, just as if it were some marvellous nocturnal bird, seen only by autumn moonlight in leap years. The rooms where it can be found must be dark and secluded from the sun; they must be high yet draughtless; and their peace must be broken by intrusive visitors only rarely. If these three requirements are met, as at the deserted palaces of Fatehpur Sikri, you can catch a whiff of the rarefied exhalation of old stone. It is cold and dank and a very ancient smell, the smell of history.

The third smell is perhaps the hardest to recognise, because it is at once so subtle and so trivial. It is ubiquitous, but easiest to detect towards twilight. A high vantage point helps to spot it. There you can watch it form over the whole city, and colour the air itself.

It is the smoke from domestic fires. Sitting atop a minaret of the Jami Masjid in Delhi, you can see the city wreathed in its mists and vapours. As dusk falls, the smell seems to concentrate itself as the more workaday odours pack up and go home. It is less a smell than a small sensation at the back of the throat, a slight acidity.

The Kashmir valley offers the experience in its purest form. From the high vantage point of the Shankaracharya Hill behind Srinagar, you can watch the rich woodsmoke curl out of the chimneys on the houseboats and houses. As the lower air thickens, the view turns into some crazy industrial landscape, with tall wiry silver birches for smokestacks. Walking back down into the city you lose sight of the thin pall of smoke in the darkening air, but gain, step by step, its gently choking smell. It smells of the fire which awaits you on your houseboat. It smells of home, as it does for everyone in India.  Which is why it is so hard for the westerner to detect, and so worth detecting.

A Partial India A to Z

H is for Horns

It is hard to conjure up a typical Indian landscape in the way that you can for Switzerland, say. And beyond the Taj Mahal, most people would find it difficult to define representative examples of Indian architecture. But everyone knows what Indian music sounds like. For most westerners, an image of India always comes with a soundtrack.

In particular, things Indian immediately evoke the distinctive combination of a sitar's twang and the thwup of a tabla. This is justified to a certain extent. Even if other strummed and drummed instruments exist with similar sounds in neighbouring countries, it is still true to say that the use and interplay of the Indian versions are unique.

Partly this is a function of the way Indian music has evolved. It is fundamentally monophonic, with the tabla's role that of a complex rhythmic commentator. Unlike Western music, which develops vertically through harmony, a raga-based composition can progress only linearly, both in terms of length and ornamentation. Tension is achieved between the two main players, and between each player and the limits of their medium.

The sitar may be replaced by other melody instruments, but the approach remains the same. The composition is an improvisation on the scale which defines the particular raga. The codification of ragas, and their allotment to specific hours and moods is another example of the Indian penchant for systematisation, be it in Sanskrit grammar or the Kamasutra.

This lack of western-type development, the timeless dwelling on a few notes, seems appropriate for a civilisation which has always rooted its philosophy in what lies behind, what remains. Playing a raga is not so much a performance as a joint meditation, active on the musicians' part, passive on the audience's.

Given this apparent centrality - to western minds at least - of music to the Indian spirit, it comes of something of a shock to find practically no trace of classical Indian music in India. There are no concerts advertised in the papers, nothing on television, and few records or tapes in the shops. It is as if it were all a huge hoax played on the gullible outside world.

But it is not just classical music which is conspicuous by its absence. Wandering through the bazaars and down streets in Delhi and other cities, there is very little music of any kind to be heard. No trannies blaring away, not even a cat-whiskered Bakelite wireless, some venerable relic of the Raj. True, the popular Indian cinema draws heavily on songs for its appeal; but even these seem to have little currency outside the cinema and a few clips shown on television.

They may care little for music, but the Indians are besotted by noise. Everywhere you go, there are people hawking their wares, children shrieking, and cars, buses and rickshaws blowing their horns. The most characteristic sound in India is not the sitar, however apt that would be; it is the huge, raucous, many-voiced cacophony of motor horns.

A Partial India A to Z

G is for Gandhi

Everywhere in India the presence of Gandhi is felt. But it is of Mrs Gandhi rather than of the Mahatma. The succession of her son Rajiv as Prime Minister has helped. He stands as a constant reminder by his name and bearing alone, quite apart from his active promotion of her memory. With his tenure of what is effectively a presidential post, the third of his family after his mother and grandfather to do so, the Gandhi dynasty is in danger of become synonymous with post-Independence India,

But the country could do a lot worse. Confounding his critics Rajiv has proved himself an able and astute politician. For many, he has come to stand for a new, dynamic. India. Looking like some Indian film star, his serious and handsome features are the perfect symbol for the growing aspirational classes in India which form the core of his support.

These new middle classes - the equivalent to the west's yuppies - are increasingly evident in India, and are testimony to the changes which Rajiv and his mother have helped promote. The wide range of weekly magazines of the news- and views-paper type, which cater specifically for this market, are the bellwethers of this generation. In keeping readers up-to-date with the latest lifestyle trends at home and abroad, they serve the same function as western magazines like The Face and Elle. One magazine recently carried a cover story on the self-same rising middle classes, and their possibly destabilising effect on Indian society.  It's a perfect example of the narcissism common to all these groups, whether among the Indian middle classes, or the self-regarding yuppies.

It is this same class of managers and entrepreneurs that is fuelling the boom in computers. As might be expected, Rajiv too has been a keen exponent of high technology, and in certain areas the country has made great strides in modernisation. For example, the national airline now boasts a fully computerised booking system. But the old India has asserted itself; ticket reservations are never definite, but must be confirmed once or even several times nearer the departure date. The result is a nullification of any hoped-for advantages.

The railways have also benefited from computers. Sleeping cars now come with neat printouts of names and berths stuck to their side. However, once again much of the benefit is lost through the inefficient manual ticket booking system and its labyrinthine quota schemes.

Other problems remain for this brave new India. Power cuts are common in some areas, and, even worse for an economy striving to modernise itself, the telephone system is practically unusable. But there are more serious difficulties than those of infrastructure. Perhaps the biggest challenge faced by Rajiv is the new wave of separatist terrorism. Westerners tend to forget that India is a recent and unnatural creation; many Indians do not. As well as in the Punjab, there is unrest around Darjeeling, and continuing border tensions with Pakistan exacerbate the situation. As the centrifugal movements gather momentum, Prime Minister Gandhi will need to draw on all the inherited power and resonance of his name to stop the New India that he is forging from falling apart in his hands.

A Partial India A to Z