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India 2.0

Fergus Henderson returns to India, having left the subcontinent in a bad temper 25 years ago, to fulfil his Bond fantasy and to mingle with the new IT crowd.

My story starts 25 years ago; I was a fresh-faced, clean-limbed architecture student on my way to work for Doshi, Le Corbusier’s Indian partner, for his projects in the subcontinent. The ghost of Corb hung heavily in the office. What a ghost!

A culinary break, lunch to be precise: every day the girls in the office had a picnic in the garden while I went off with the men to a road-side hut and had delicious subdji and puri, embarking on the same conversation every day: “Mercedes very good car,” to which I replied “Yes.” “BMW very good car,” to which I also replied “yes,” my knowledge of cars not being my strong point. I suddenly thought it was time to move on and see India.

The first blow to my aspirations on the road was Udaipur. It was in the middle of a drought so the Lake Palace hotel wasn’t floating. This was a terrible realisation to an old romantic such as myself, especially as someone had sent me a cutting from the Financial Times telling the story of how the Maharaja would float huge chunks of ice in the lake, which were large enough for young maidens to sit on in little silk outfits, the result being a sea of erect nipples. To console myself, I headed up to Jaisalmer, by the Pakistani border, only to make the huge mistake of riding a camel. My camel driver was steaming drunk so we galloped in the desert. The camel’s gait threw me backwards and forwards in my saddle, removing the skin from my behind so I was then confined to my room, applying Savlon for a week. None of this got me down, however, nor did my case of fenny poisoning while I was in Goa. I fear I got overexcited at finding a local spirit – made from cashew fruit, no less – and to this day my innards still take a leap at the mention of the drink.

In Pondicherry, a former French colony in the south of India, I was strolling around town when I spotted a sign that said “charcuterie”. Three and a half months into my stay in India and no one had offered me any charcuterie. No surprise, really, since no one there eats pigs. I asked the waiter for some charcuterie and he said yes. Two hours passed, I asked again, and he told me it was coming from the market. An hour later, he said they were shut. At this point I’m afraid I lost my temper and never really regained it before the end of my stay three weeks later.

Now let’s move on 25 years. Not so clean-limbed, a bit more abdominally challenged, married with kids, and not an architect but a chef, I am back in India again, expecting to see huge changes.

Dust and modern India: this is no ordinary dust. Stand still for too long and it will consume you. I’m sure that the small fires everyone sits around on the road-side have the power to keep the dust, like wild beasts, at bay. The tar seal on the motorways, built since my day, is fighting a losing battle with the dust. On each side a third of the road has been consumed by it – something you don’t notice when you drive in the middle of the night with no headlights, which we did between Delhi and Agra.

Agra is the home of the seventh wonder of the world and sadly this is the only thing it has got going for it. The military presence at the entrance of the Taj Mahal seems to keep all the dust at bay, though, which makes you wonder if it has a mind of its own and does not want to battle with India’s finest.

To arrive in Udaipur and find that the Lake Palace was full was torture, to say the least, for a chap who regularly watches Octopussy. We got close to the palace on a boat tour of the lake, and what could be more Bondesque than the armed guards patrolling on the roof? I have found my spiritual home. I know I’ll be happy there.

I wondered where the growing middle-class IT generation was to be found. On our last night, following a piece of advice, we went to a marble shopping mall on steroids on the outskirts of Delhi. We passed Dolce & Gabbana, Chanel and Louis Vuitton on our way to a new modern Indian restaurant, where we supped very well (it’s hard to remember everything we ate; the table was a sea of little dishes). The place was packed with glamorous Indians. As we left the mall, the dust was swirling around the columns of the car park. No charcuterie. I was happy.

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