| Too evil, or too stupid
The woman who runs the corner-shop bursts into peals of disbelieving laughter when I walk in swaddled like a Bengali infant on a trip to the Himalayas. “You!” she screams, rolling in torrents of malicious joy, “what are you doing here at this time of the year'”
It is, I try and freely admit, a mistake. She laughs some more, and her movements suddenly become much looser. She plucks out my tobacco and papers from the shelf behind her with newly-discovered verve, almost as if it were Navratri and she was dancing garba, out just off the North Circular somewhere. By the simple act of walking through the door on a sub-zero London morning, I have made her day, possibly even her week.
The reason for the glee is simple. In this neighbourhood, I am seen as the one to hate in the deepest troughs of cold because I am usually far away in sunny India while everybody else faces up to the appallingly anti-human weather called the British winter. I am never normally known to set foot on these shores until the cricket season is well under way, around mid-May at the earliest, and the lady at the shop has sworn in the past that, once I arrive, even the most recalcitrant warm weather cannot be far behind. “Friends he has, innit, in the weather department! Cheatin’, innit' Never shows up before it gets right up there!”
I mitten my purchases and stumble out back into the South Arctic, cursing the misjudgment that has put me here but, somehow, the wind doesn’t have the bite it should. This time, at this particular millisecond of history, it’s worth it being here.
Sitting in Delhi or Calcutta, one could not have got the full Dolby effect of the destruction of Tony B-Liar, as cartoonists now like to label him. It’s like watching something in slow-motion, something you know you will be able to play back at fast speed later. The brazen whitewash of the Hutton inquiry into the death of Dr Kelly, the cluster-bomb of the statement by Dr Kay in the US, which forced even Bush to institute an American inquiry into pre-war intelligence (possibly another nascent cover-up, but the announcement of which leaves Bush’s trans-Atlantic sidekick hanging by his fingernails), the “Jeeves” commission that the US inquiry forced the Labour government to set up, the pesky absence of any actual WMD, coupled with the very sharp presence of continuing Iraqi resistance, the squeak-through “victory” on the Tuitions Bill, the impending explosion of the debate on immigration — it’s like watching pieces exploding off the bad-guy’s car, a.k.a the current Labour Government. The same Labour Government that came in with so much hope attached to it in ’97.
Suddenly the Labour leader of “New”, “Cool” Britain is caught in a classic pincer. What was said about Anthony Eden during the final reverberations of the Suez fiasco — “If he knew, he is too evil to be Prime Minister. If he didn’t know, he is too stupid to be Prime Minister” — is now being said of Tony Blair. Of course, something similar could also be said of “Papa Doc” Vajpayee in the case of Gujarat, but there it is, every macro and micro detail, from public opinion polls to the fact that Cherie Blair was seen checking out estate agents around the Ladbroke Grove area, possibly for a house to move into after 10, Downing Street has to be evacuated, all point to an ignominious end for Blair-Margaret.
Given this delicious scenario, I cannot help remembering our own war-mongering scribes who argued so vehemently (at least one of them in these very pages) that India had missed a great opportunity in not joining the so-called “coalition” that attacked Iraq. Every specious argument from “enlightened self-interest” to “the sound moral case for war” to, (a personal favourite this last one), “pragmatism”, was unfurled before, during and in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Baghdad. In the face of this whole curtain of lies now coming unravelled, what, one must ask, are our unfeathered hawks saying'
What exactly did India miss out on' Losing our soldiers in the ceaselessly shifting minefield that is now Iraq' Spending lots and lots of money in the hope that the Americans would throw us some crumbs from the rebuilding feast, when it’s clear that not even the British will get any change from Cheney and gang' Making new enemies in a region where India is still not so badly regarded' Having to set up a tertiary copy-cat commission of inquiry to investigate how we got embroiled in this political and strategic cesspit'
I must admit I do miss the hilarity that would have ensued from such a commission:
Justice Chanakya: Mr Fernandes, whose idea was it to send Indian troops to Iraq'
GF: Sir, it was the prime minister and the deputy prime minister!
Justice C: Mr Vajpayee, what convinced you to involve India'
ABV: Ji, I can’t recall exactly, after all I am not as young as I used to be, but it might have been Colin Powell.
Justice C: Mr. Advani, what do you have to say'
LKA: Sir, I suspect it was Smt Sonia Gandhi’s fault.
Justice C ( scratching his head): How so'
LKA: Well, she is, as you know, Italian. And Berlusconi, who supported the war, is also Italian. The inference should be clear to you and to all voters.
One can imagine all kinds of outlandish rigolation but the reality is, as always, far more bizarre than thin human imaginings, and the situation in Iraq continues to outstrip the creativity of most fiction-vendors including myself. In the middle of World War II, with most of Europe under its control, the German army assembled two huge battle forces. While the Afrika Korps under Erwin Rommel was a formidable military machine, taken together, the Wehrmacht Army Groups that rolled into Soviet Russia were, till then, the largest armed force ever seen by mankind. Though Rommel was initially sent to North Africa to aid the hapless Italians, and the southern army group primarily aimed at the Caucasus and Iraq was to be cretinously re-routed by Hitler, the logical military objective both were tasked with was the capture of the Middle Eastern oilfields.
Now, at the beginning of these campaigns, had some lowly but clairvoyant infantryman gone up to his General and said: “Herr Feldmarschal, don’t mind me saying so, but the Japanese army will get to that oil before we do”, there might have been some pretty serious repercussions for the poor fellow. Rommel might have laughed and sent the soothsayer to a loony bin, while one of the more humourless chaps up north might have shot him on the spot. The point is, the man would have been right. Last week, in its first deployment since 1945, Japanese armour rolled off transport planes and on to the rocky ground of Iraq.
Looking at the strange sight of tanks painted with the Rising Sun insignia churning up Arab sand, one can’t but wonder what massive ironies history still has in store for us. Here, however, is a brief list of the current ones unfolding: the wall around the Warsaw ghetto has now sprung up in Palestine, a Labour government in Britain is about to self-destruct because of an imperial war gone wrong, Cyprus is to be re-united after nearly thirty years of partition, Atal Bihari Vajpayee is, currently, hugely popular in Pakistan, and Coke and Pepsi may give a few more joint press-conferences in India.
I don’t quite know how to explain this to Mrs Desai at the corner-shop but, compared to all this, the absurdity of someone like me being caught in an English winter has to be seen as very small beer.