The Telegraph
Thursday , February 23 , 2012
Since 1st March, 1999


- A foreign view of contemporary Indian clothes and Indian past

The view from a Mumbai balcony of the early morning sun on the sea, looking out towards Colaba lighthouse, is not conducive to thoughts of chilly England and a depressed Europe. In any case, my last few hedonistic days of stay in a house in Goa, with sketchy internet and only the most local news, does not encourage thoughts of home politics — happily. The most casual onlooker in India at the moment is hardly cheered by the political situation here either, during this election time. The Shiv Sena has hung onto the reins and reign as before in Mumbai, and Goa is riven with feuding between nepotistic families. The British politician, Keith Vaz, a Goan by origin, has mistakenly involved himself in those battles, doing nothing to improve his already questionable reputation. In fact, his dabbling with Goan politics may never make news at home but decent Goans are unimpressed, to say the least, by this self-publicizing interference, and British visitors find it simply embarrassing.

I am not, however, going to lose sleep over Vaz making a fool of himself, but I am, instead, bent mostly on the sheer escapist enjoyment available to the traveller in India. That, in my case, includes visits to some of the small non-governmental community-based organizations with whom I have long been involved. The sheer pleasure of being with a group of children whose lives began surrounded by danger, squalor and soul-destroying poverty and who, in the changed circumstances, relish every moment, taste every grain of rice, delight in clean clothes and somewhere to wash, and most of all grab every opportunity for education and the wherewithal to fulfil their astonishing aspirations, is unique.

Nobody who spends much time in India can be amazed at the extraordinary achievements of the Indian diaspora. These children are a microcosm of the ambition and determination, let alone brainpower, which have brought Indians to the fore in every country lucky enough to have them. This quickness of mind and determined ambition are further exemplified by many of the young men travelling from distant villages into big cities like Mumbai to work in wealthy homes. A boy with scant education and no English will, as if by osmosis, shortly have enough of the lingua franca to take messages, write shopping lists and communicate with those, like me, with less immediate linguistic skills. Any Hindi I knew when I lived here has been lost in middle-aged cotton wool and I am reduced instead to pathetic pantomime where English is not spoken.

On the other hand, these young men pay a huge price for the chance perhaps to send their own children to school to a higher level or remit the funds that pay for a better living for the families whom they see so little. One hopes they consider the sacrifice worthwhile and that indeed it proves to be so for future generations. Migrant workers within or without their own country have hard and often lonely lives.

I arrived in Mumbai as usual with a shopping list for all my friends and relations — in actual fact, whatever their pleasure, the all-important list is nothing if not a good excuse for self-indulgent exploration for myself. I seldom shop in shops these days at home. That may sound a contradiction in terms, but aside from the usual deadly supermarket run or a trip to the fish market, everything gets bought online. It is not an exciting pursuit but then neither is dragging round to expensive designer stores filled with overpriced and often uninteresting clothes. All those glitzy European designers have now come to Mumbai and Delhi, following newer, richer markets. No doubt I will find them in shiny new boutiques in Calcutta too when I visit it in a few days, but for the visitor to India, all but a very select few of our familiar Vogue names are far outshone by the imagination and skill of great new fashion names such as Calcutta’s Sabyasachi Mukherjee, whose clothes are not only beautiful but also beautifully made.

Most people might envy Oprah Winfrey for her power and her wealth. I, on the other hand, envy her now for her reportedly extensive purchases from Sabyasachi’s new store in Kala Ghoda. It is a treasure trove. I am, unfortunately, going to dream of the extraordinarily glamourous outfit I was persuaded to try on by the designer himself. Although in the black we wear so much in the United Kingdom, it was chalk to cheese from the rusty funereal affairs we dress in for work and play. Think rather of a dramatic celebration of shade and shape that, unfortunately, came in the right size as well and was nigh on irresistible.

Instead, very properly for an impoverished European, if disappointingly prosaically, I gave it up in favour of my new dining chairs. They are also being made in India, quite perfectly of course, to a hybrid design suited to an English dining room but with a distinctly Indian twist. But, dear me, I still want that dress and I fear the allure of Sabyasachi’s skills will demand a return visit when, or if, as they say, my ship comes in.

So I am looking forward to coming to Calcutta. I haven’t visited for some time and feel I have all sorts of good excuses to be there, including, of course, this newspaper. For the last one year, I have been editing the diaries and remarkable photograph albums made by Lady Minto when she was vicereine from 1905-10. Seeing the city and further stretches of India through her eyes has given me a thirst to visit those same sites a hundred or so years later. We are about to have a major Zoffany exhibition in London, a view of the individuals and settings of much earlier Calcutta whose great buildings were the backdrop to the huge business of the East India Company, the public triumphs and so many private tragedies. That, however, is history long past.

British India too is history long past but the photographs of a mere century ago, nevertheless, have an immediacy that seduces. Those uniformed officials, the bejewelled royal courts, camps and game shoots, croquet in the garden at Barrackpore with the Amir of Afghanistan, elephants, tigers, the members of council, including at last Indian members after the Morley Minto reforms. Most of all, of course, Mary Minto’s ‘kodaks’ of the ordinary, often nameless people; bearers —malis, porters and clerks, who kept the whole show on the road. They all seem just an eye-blink away from us today.

I must admit that I am delighted, whatever my love for clothes, not to have to travel with even the bare essentials of the Edwardian woman’s wardrobe. My great grandmother was in India as a young woman during the Minto rule and travelled all over India’s frontier with Afghanistan. Perhaps, up there, the cabin trunks and hats could be dispensed with in exchange for the favoured garb of the adventurous female, described by one such as a “good thick skirt”. Anyway, great grandmamma, whatever she wore, was clearly quite a girl. She arrived in India engaged to one man and went back engaged to another whom she married shortly thereafter. I remember her, but he was killed in World War I just as his son, my grandfather, was in World War II.

Next month, I fear I shall be back in the European darkness, grim economics and an endless circle of Greece in flames, Spain and Italy heading the same way, our prime minister pronouncing from our oddly dislocated position in Europe, and the Germans somehow attempting to hold it all together. Meanwhile, I shall enjoy my pursuit of history to the full while in Calcutta, and, perhaps, be able to brighten the present habitual gloom of British news in a later article with contemporary glimpses of historical residues. That is always supposing readers can bear yet another foreign view of the Indian past.