Robert Clive is said to have ‘gone native’ in India, sitting on a charpoy, puffing a hookah, dusky ‘bibi’ by his side, watch-ing the fascinating, multifarious world of the subcontinent go by, so much more vivid and intense than the cold, drear monochromatic little island that he came from. Clive was, of course, a robber baron and a proto-imperialist, a ‘savage old Nabob with… a bad liver, and a worse heart’, as Macaulay, no slouch at empire-building himself, was to call him. But Clive has had benign avatars in latter-day Englishmen who, having come to do a job of work in the erstwhile Jewel in the Crown, have fallen under its Circe-like spell and elected to stay on, lounging on metaphorical charpoys, to watch the passing show, the cavalcade of lively contradictions that is India: vulgar wealth and grinding poverty; politicians so full of pious pomposity that it’s a wonder they don’t float up and away like hot air balloons; the round-eyed ingenuity of illiterate village folk that masks an educated canniness which would do a PhD in Political Science proud and which is made painfully evident to smug candidates on election day;
ambling cattle and occasional elephants and camels negotiating right of way on anarchic roads with Marutis and BMWs and Bajaj scooters in a graphic representation of how the world’s most populous democracy works; the ubiquitous street dog, enduring symbol of survival against all odds, lifting an irreverent leg against a streetlamp, temporarily out of order thanks to a power cut.
India is street theatre like no other in the world. And it has commanded a dedicated audience of sahibs, from Clive on to Mark Tully of BBC fame. Like Sir Mark, Adam Clapham is an ex-BBC hand who worked in India during, as Tully’s Foreword says, ‘a unique period in the history of global media, a period in which a foreign broadcaster became more important than a domestic broadcaster, with far more powerful signals and more extensive coverage.’
Though the title of the book has been borrowed from an outdoor signboard in a Sri Lankan hotel which gave rise to a philosophical train of thought (‘In India, over… 12,000 million coconuts are harvested each year. And many of its ten crore inhabitants live beneath coconut trees. That suggests quite a lot of fractured skulls. But… this is not the case. Why not? The Indian answer is that coconuts do not injure humans because they are spiri-tually benign and the gods protect us from them’), the narrative is centred on India, from strife-torn Kashmir to the seclusion of a seaside villa outside Mangalore where the author settles down to well-earned retirement in the company of a canine couple called, appropriately enough, Mr and Mrs Dog. From the travails of trying to get a drink in ‘dry’ areas to the perils of driving on roads peopled by would-be kamikaze motorists, from political upheavals to the snafus of everyday babudom, Clapham tells his charpoy tales with verve, resilient wit and, most engagingly, in obvious empathy with his intractable, chaotic, irresistibly compelling subject-matter. As he says ‘in India, stories just seem to fall into my lap… terrifically good yarns wanting to be told. Together they encapsulate my India where I am an Englishman abroad and yet I am at home.’ Mario Miranda’s cartoons are, as always, delightful; a perfect accompaniment to the text, sparkling tonic to top up the Bombay Gin of Clapham’s invigorating prose.
If I have one small quibble with the book it is that the author sometimes allows his evident admiration and affection for Sir Mark to overshadow his own role in the stories he has to tell, hiding his light under Tully’s bushel, so to speak. That said, I strongly urge the reader, Indian or otherwise, to take time off from the tick-tock tedium of clocked routine and, adopting a comfortably recumbent position on Calpham’s charpoy, in the good company of Mr and Mrs Dog, take in the teeming tamasha that is India as it goes by. And hang the falling coconuts.
Jug Suraiya, columnist, is with The Times of India.