Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Killing the Salman

First, go read Kitabkhana's hilarious Brave New Rules of Indian writing. Then decide how many of those I am breaking or observing.

This was written in January 2005, and the final version published in The Itinerant Indian, ed. Aruna Nambiar (Bangalore: Unisun, 2005).

The Enigma of Arrival: Midnight’s grandchildren in the belly of the Raj

Dear Mr. Rushdie,

Your Midnight’s Children is badly in need of updating. It is a good book, but much water has flowed under the bridge since then. I was born smack in the middle of the Emergency. This entitles me to write the sequel. Ok ok I won’t steal your thunder. You can write it. But let it be about me. I’ve had quite close contact with more than a few major public personalities of our time, so you won’t even have to rack your brains for those tangential connections between protagonist and larger historical context that you are so fond of. Here’s the plug: (Granta, 2008?)

Fine, I’ll admit it. Before you ferret around for my birth certificate, I was not born in the midst of the drama of the Emergency. If truth were told, I popped out into the world during the reign of a simple-living, high-thinking, urine-drinking Prime Minister. But hey – I’m sure you weren’t born on the 15th of August 1947 at the stroke of midnight, so we’re quits. And I suppose before I begin blowing my own trumpet, I should acknowledge that I was born the great-grandson of zamindars and courtiers, the grandson of civil servants and soldiers. Native collaborators all. No freedom fighters in my genealogy, no Quit India veterans (not even a roadside Romeo great-uncle who might have seen it as the biggest bunking opportunity of the century).

Thanks to my wily ancestors, I was born with a very high quality stainless steel spoon in my mouth, so that when the time was right, I was well positioned to make that most predictable of moves for the aimless bratpack-lok: Go Abroad. Between me, and the ivy-covered stone walls with their manicured lawns and Benetton-ad groups of laughing students in baseball caps that I aspired to be part of, stood a bewildering flurry of acronyms – GRE, TOEFL, USIS, I20. A significantly less complicated route – if you managed to snag it – were the Rhodes scholarships to Oxford (no acronyms, just an interview). Different destination perhaps, steeped in history, but I would still get the things that were important to me: ivy, lawns, Benetton people. Preparing for the interview, I suspected that I would have to know something about the scholarships and their Founder.

I read so much about Cecil Rhodes that, perhaps taking pity on me, in the week preceding the interview he visited me frequently. Every night he gave me a PowerPoint presentation outlining, in rather abrupt bullet points, his expansive vision for the world and my place in it. On the first night, he bragged about being one of the most successful British (ad)venture capitalists of all time and – like a benevolent mentor sharing business tips – divulged to me gleefully the sordid details of how he had managed to hoodwink African chiefs into granting him concessions to mine for diamonds in the 19th century. He droned on about the vast fortune that this had allowed him to amass and even offered to present the latest annual report of his beloved De Beers, but I had never been good at economics and feared that talk of non-performing assets would only make me more nervous. On the second night, he took me a video tour of his estates, boasting that he had virtually pioneered the system of apartheid by separating the Africans working in his mines from the outside world. On the third night he was more intimate, chuckling blithely as he revealed that one of his favourite Sunday pastimes was to throw shilling coins into a swimming pool and watch natives dive to retrieve them for his amusement. On the fourth night he declared, in his pompous and oratorical voice, that he had dedicated his life to re-establishing British dominion over Africa ‘from the Cape to Cairo’, and regretted that he had only managed to grab what are now Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe back in the days when he was still able-bodied. On the fifth night, he explained that he had left the bulk of his fortune to bring young men from the United States, the British Empire and Germany to Oxford, in the hope that mutual contact between potential leaders in these countries would facilitate understanding among the three great powers that he considered fit to run the world. The sixth night was more of the same, but somewhere along the line he started off about the Anglo-Saxon race being ‘the best, the most human, most honourable race the world possesses’; and when I looked at him quizzically, he clarified hastily that while I might never be blond and blue-eyed enough to actually be Teutonic, if I went to Oxford and did well there, I might at least be like them. Plus I could help run the world. On the seventh night, he wished me luck.

It should have been a perfect fit. Children of native collaborating elite go knocking on the imperial door. We’ve done your bidding, we’re almost like you, let us in, at least a little. Social climbing in the global pecking order. Essential, if one is to attain moksha from the cycle of birth and (relative) marginality and eventual nirvana. Plus it all made sense. I was exactly the kind of person the Founder might have wanted.

So I’m not sure what it was – upbringing? socialisation? nationalist propaganda? self-loathing? – that led me to throw a spanner in the works and begin my supplication to the Rhodes Scholarship India Selection Committee with something along the following lines: ‘I’m grateful that Cecil Rhodes does not sit on this selection committee. He might have listened with interest as I pontificated on the problems that the world faces today, but that interest would surely have turned to condescension – if not outright horror – if he heard what I thought ought to be done about them.’ Remarkably, the head of my regional selection committee nodded empathetically, remarking that the poor (little rich) man would be rolling in his grave if he could see who they were giving his money to: women! (post-)colonials in countries he couldn’t even have named! (they didn’t exist at the time).

Factoid (while we’re on the subject of Cecil Rhodes’ grave): In the midst of one of his lunatic and murderous outbursts against all things non-Zimbabwean – nay, against all things non-Zanu PF – Robert Mugabe demanded that Rhodes’ bones be dug up from their resting place in the Matopos Hills of the erstwhile state of Rhodesia and repatriated to Britain. I often wondered how exactly the macabre handover would be effected, if it ever came to that. Would the pale-faced John Rowett – then Warden and self-styled CEO of the Rhodes Trust – simply throw open the great metal doors on the pillared portico of Rhodes House, stretch his hands out to reach for the proffered gunny sack, with a grateful ‘Cheers, Bob’?

I am running ahead of me (but you do this all the time). But this is important. Because when I finally got to Oxford, no matter how many times we Rhodents were reminded in hushed and reverential tones of ‘the values of The Founder’, no matter what moral sophistry was employed in defence of The Founder (‘a man of his time’ – or the quite different tack: ‘if you don’t like him, why take his money?’), no matter how prominent a place The Founder’s portrait occupied in Rhodes House’s grand Milner Hall, and no matter that a tapestry of The Founder hung opposite one of Nelson Mandela – grotesquely positing a sort of equivalence between the two men – my Selection Committee and I (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) had a contract. To be sure, the terms of that contract were vague and open-ended, but they were clear enough: be everything that Rhodes was not.

I asked to go to Balliol College, and that is where I ended up. I’m not sure why I chose Balliol, seeing as I knew very little about it at the time, beyond the fact that it was founded in 1263. Having just graduated from a 13-year old law school, the prospect of joining an institution that had been a going concern since about the time of Genghis Khan, was strangely appealing. So it was with little information and few preconceptions that I wandered into what continues to be my academic home. I remember flinging open the door to Balliol’s dining hall and stopping dead in my tracks. I had seen it before. The same three endlessly long tables with long backless benches on either side, arranged longitudinally in a large room with a high table at the far end about a foot above the ground, where the More Important People ate (better food?). (I would soon discover on the walls of other Oxford college dining halls, the same black and white photographs of sports teams posing in the same ways with the obligatory two languid figures sprawled in the foreground on either side of the same trophies.) Same, same, same as in the old dining hall of Bishop Cotton Boys’ School on St. Mark’s Road in Bangalore.

Factoid: (while we’re on the subject of school and college): Three-and-a-half years after joining Balliol, while stumbling around the chapel one cold February afternoon, I would gasp in astonishment to find the name of George Uglow Pope engraved on a plaque in the north wall antechapel. Pope was Warden of Bishop Cotton Boys’ School, Bangalore (1871-1882), before going on to become – apparently – Chaplain of Balliol College, Oxford (1886).

As my North American friends exclaimed at this weird and wonderful sight, using phrases like ‘culture shock’ and that sole adjective in their vocabulary – ‘awesome’ – I could only think, petulantly, that I had wanted to go somewhere different. There were differences of course – the spooky organ that played Jaws-like music at our Fresher’s dinner, the massive stained glass windows and the general exponential increase in magnificence and grandeur. But these only made me feel more wretched, almost cheated, as if I’d had to make do with a pale imitation all these years, like the hundredth photocopy of the class topper’s notes distributed the day before an exam. Then I pinched myself and thought: ‘Do not become a cantankerous brown sahib like Mr. Naipaul’ (hee hee! I don’t like him either). The only mitigating factor in all this was that the food in Balliol hall was much worse than anything I had ever had before (‘chips, mash or potato wedges?’, ‘chips, mash or potato wedges?’, ‘chips, mash or…’).

Munching on my forty-sixth soggy potato wedge, my eyes came to rest on Lord Curzon. Hanging on the wall. Pupil of Balliol, Partitioner of Bengal, husband of the Patron of Bowring (hospital in Bangalore). I was later to read that three successive Viceroys of India (1888-1905) had been Balliol men. 19th century India had been run by Balliol men. Of course I knew that places like this had been feeder institutions for the Raj, but the proximity to these characters, the following-in-the-footsteps-ness of the whole experience was more than slightly discomfiting. What on earth was I doing in this place? Had anything changed?

My name is George Nathaniel Curzon,
I am a most superior person.
My cheek is pink, my hair is sleek,
I dine at Blenheim once a week.

Factoid (while we’re on the subject of Blenheim): Blenheim Palace is grand for day-long getaways from Oxford on rare sunny days. On its lush manicured grounds sits the vast stately mansion in which Winston Churchill was born. Yes, the same Winston Churchill who, when he lived in Bangalore in 1896, described it as ‘a garrison town which resembles a third rate watering place’, started a butterfly collection, and left unpaid bills that you can still see proudly displayed in Bangalore Club on Residency Road, just outside the still-existing men-only bar that the Club is also very proud of.

‘Hi! I’m a Balliol transgendered person’, someone said, digging me in the ribs and offering me his hand in greeting, jolting me out of my reverie. ‘But I thought we were all supposed to be Balliol men.’ ‘Oh no! Balliol women were invented in 1979.’ 716 years after it’s founding, I thought. So there was hope for Bangalore Club yet. Curzon, potato wedges and Balliol men notwithstanding, I was soon to realise that Balliol was exactly the right place for me, for three very important reasons (this is, incidentally, how we are supposed to write Oxford essays – I can no longer communicate in any other way). First, it does not require one to wear academic gowns for meals – so it is possible to eat without looking like an erudite bat. Second, it allows students (indeed, all living creatures) to walk on the grass - unlike a certain Oxbridge college which permits only fellows to walk on the grass and has - to preserve the sanctity of the rule – designated all college ducks as fellows (better that than the other way round, surely). Third, it has (or had, till very recently) a tortoise called Rosa Luxembourg, who could often be seen eating her way around the college quad at the rate of a few feet a year. Now that Rosa has disappeared, I have no doubt that a replacement will be found and appropriately named Subcomandante Marcos or something like that.

Factoid (while we’re on the subject of Balliol’s appropriateness): When Rhodes came to Oxford to receive an honorary degree in 1899, the Master of Balliol, Edward Caird, was the lead signatory of a letter of protest to the Vice-Chancellor. Of the 92 signatures attached to the protest, 18 were of Balliol dons, more than from any other college.

So I was in the right place, but to do what? I had come Up to Oxford ostensibly to Read for a degree in international relations, but little that I learnt in class seemed to bear any relation to events in the world outside. Inside, I was reading about World War 1 in the most infuriating detail (at 9:05 Bethmann-Hollweg picked up the phone and dialled the Russian Ambassador), without the faintest idea even of who was on which side. Outside, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of pre-emptive defence, it was the age of offence, it was the season of Us, it was the season of The Terrorists, it was post-Cold War, it was like Crusade Four, We were all going direct to Heaven, They were all going direct the other way. There was a sick king and a librarian queen on the throne in the White House; there was a slick king and a lawyer queen on the throne near Whitehall.

By day, I pondered questions of theory (‘but is It empire?’), as argument and counter-argument flew between my classmates – who, incidentally, included the delightfully down-to-earth Chelsea Clinton (see? I’m much better connected than Saleem Sinai or Moor Zogoiby or any of your fictional creations). By afternoon, I read about imperial continuities in US foreign policy, including during the retrospectively halcyon presidency of one Bill Clinton (fellow-Rhodent). By night, in the company of the flamboyant and operatic François Tanguay-Renaud, the dread locked free radical Vincent Bouchard, the dreamy and enigmatic Bilal Siddiqi, the lithe and go-getting Oeindrila Dube, the energetic and fast-talking Elizabeth Angell and the always reliably gossipy Antara Datta, I was provoked to reach answers and practice. And practice we did, as an entire Oxford subculture mushroomed in response to the events of the time, like the multicoloured fungus that my friend Alex Luck seemed so fond of growing over his left-over food. As war clouds gathered and the news was full of weapons inspections and Council resolutions, aluminium tubes and enriched uranium, we spawned a jargon of our own: affinity groups, non-hierarchical networks, spokes-council meetings, Direct Action. The more paranoid among us insisted that Big Brother was always watching, so that emails would only remind the faithful to meet you-know-where at you-know-what time, to disrupt you-know-which event.

When the first missiles hit Baghdad, we were ready on Manzil Way – demonstrating, drumming, dancing, dying-in on Cornmarket Street splattered with fake-blood, staging mock weddings between Bush and Blair replete with death vows. A delegation of Rhodents trooped off to meet the second-in-command at the US Embassy in London to convince him of the folly of his Commander-in-Chief, only to be entertained by an avalanche of crocodile tears as the reptilian Glyn Davies claimed fidelity to the rule of law since time immemorial on behalf of his beleaguered nation. Back in Oxford, those who put less store by talk offered up their bodies as traffic barricades, forming human chains and causing maximum disruption by lying down on the ever-so-narrow arterial roads that led into and out of the city. As anacondas of protesters met police cordons, one heard snatches of conversation between the two lines that only the surreally-polite British could sustain through grimaces and clenched teeth (‘Sorry, but would you mind telling me when I start doing something arrestable?’ ‘Sure luv.’) Others staged acts of commercial sabotage, chaining petrol pump handles to their stations and rendering them temporarily useless, as co-conspirators distracted pump attendants with silly questions about ball bearings and phone cards to Bangladesh. Still others wrote. Some did all of the above. (Contract partially fulfilled.)

On the fifteenth of February 2003 we became part of a statistic: one in sixty people who lived in the British Isles visited London that day with the express purpose of saying no to the then impending war on Iraq. Investment bankers and trade unionists, pink-haired punks and black burqhas, bearded skull-capped Muslims and bearded skull-capped Jews made common cause.

Say hey! HEY! Say ho! HO! Bush and Blair have got to go!

At least that was better than ‘No attack on Iraq!’, which didn’t even rhyme when I said it – given that I actually could pronounce the name of that country. I relented eventually, trying out ‘No a-tark on Iraq!’ and then settling on the more hegemonic ‘No attack on I-rack!’ No one heard me get off my high dissonant horse as my voice mingled with a million others, buoyed by whistles and samba bands and tin pots, the sound magnified a hundredfold beneath every bridge that we marched under. As this vast, seething mass of humanity crawled down the Thames Embankment with Big Ben looming ahead of us, I wondered if this was what the storming of the Bastille had been like. But we were (largely) British remember? So we skirted politely around Westminster and turned into Whitehall where civil servant faces huddled at windows peered down at us – some, I imagine, cheered us on, while on others, upper lips quivered even more stiffly than usual. As for us, very little of the sloganeering seemed to be about ‘us’ – not many ‘bring our boys home’; lots more ‘no war for oil’, ‘save the children’, etc. ‘These people built an empire?’, I wondered incredulously. I might have been proud to be British on a day like this, I found myself thinking, blasphemously. Walking between London’s impassive public buildings, past great white palaces and museums and offices – trappings of Empire all, built on Indian indigo and Cairo cotton, on Jamaican sugar and Malayan rubber, on weaver’s thumbs and opium wars – I found myself wondering, like Asya in Ahdaf Soueif’s In the Eye of the Sun, why I felt little resentment. It wasn’t simply that this was a very changed Britain – it was also that some part of me had been made in this place, even before I had arrived, even before I had been born. Overlapping geographies, intertwined histories. The contract still made sense, but perhaps its mode of performance needed to be renegotiated.

At a press conference held later that day, the ghost of John Stuart Mill was seen floating around the head of Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. As Straw ducked in bewilderment, journalists rushed forward with big furry microphones yelling ‘Mr. Mill, Mr. Mill – the largest demonstration in British history gathered today in solidarity with the barbarians. What is your reaction?’

Proud to be British on February 15? That’s what I should have said to Queen Elizabeth II, when I met her several months later. It would have been the perfect thing to say: polite, even flattering, but subversive, honest. Instead, I gave a thoroughly undistinguished performance – worse, I behaved like a fawning imperial courtier. As part of the centenary celebration of the Rhodes scholarships, all Rhodents-in-residence had been invited to Buckingham Palace for an audience with the Queen and Prince Philip. ‘Wear your sherwani!’ everyone had said, but that is where I had put my foot down. I was not going to look like some miserable princeling at the Delhi Durbar, like just another ethnic pawn in Her Majesty’s Commonwealth chess set. So, rather blandly attired in jacket and tie, I went, intending to blend into the background, just to see what it was like. We stood around for an eternity in large state rooms with gilt-framed Renoirs (maybe? I know nothing about art), talking mostly to each other and the occasional palace official and drinking copious amounts of very dilute whisky. Having walked through a succession of such rooms, I staggered around a corner and straight into QEII (I thought she would be at the very end of a long room on a throne and that we would have to walk down a long carpeted aisle and bow low before her, saying ‘I have the honour to be, Madam, Your Majesty’s humble and obedient servant’. I had been practising all sorts of ways in which I might subtly avoid the bowing and scraping, but I simply had not been expecting her to stand near the door like the host at a common dinner party). She held out a white-gloved hand (was I to kiss it?) and smiled at me like a postage stamp, but the evening had begun on a less than graceful note.

Later she circulated, surrounded by her ladies-in-waiting. These were larger than life Barbara Cartland-like figures with dazzling smiles and coiffed hair, each of whom could have been a minor celebrity in her own right. It was hard to get a good view of anyone noteworthy as each was surrounded by huddles of chattering, gnawing Rhodents. This was going to be a case of survival of the fittest and after much manoeuvring, the Canadians seemed to have made a breakthrough. Since I was often to be found in the company of these warm friendly creatures from a cold frigid land – and this evening was no exception – I soon found myself in the path of QEII, who was steaming inexorably towards me. I edged forward slightly so that she might dock before me. She did so and looked at me expectantly.

[Oh my god. What now?]
QEII: [after an eternity] Hello
RR: [God. She’s stern.] Erm…Hello
QEII: Where are you from?
RR: [Isn’t it obvious? Damn! Should have worn that sherwani.] Er…India.
QEII: [Long pause. Why oh why can I think of nothing to fill the silence?] What do you study?
RR: International Relations
QEII: [She lists to starboard, as if to hear me more clearly.] Ah! Very important subject. And you can meet people from all over, here, and talk to each other and solve the world’s problems.
RR: [Oh no. She’s drawing on her stock of platitudes. That must mean I’m boring and unimpressive] Yes.
QEII: [Another long, stern look. Jesus, she really thinks I’m dumb.] And what do you want to do after your studies?
RR: [Oh shit. That question again. What do I say? Pragmatic revolutionary? No. Inchoate. Silly. And rude? Public intellectual? Too pretentious. No one sets out wanting to be that anyway. Naipaul types, maybe. Oh come on. Say something dammit. Dimwit.] Oh…ah…Foreign Service. I want to join the Foreign Service. [I cannot believe my ears. I don’t want to join the Foreign Service. I have never wanted to join the Foreign Service. I just want to say something that sounds impressive. Something that I think she thinks is impressive.]
[QEII nods and steams on.]

There is an audible collective gasp in the air and several pairs of eyebrows arch skyward. Anarchist jaws drop. Tongues wag. Later, emails will fly. Allegiances will shift. Dazzled by the splendour of the state, I have sold out. I have collaborated. Liberals look at me with newfound interest. I am wishy-washy enough for them.

Pussycat pussycat, where have you been?
I’ve been to London to see the queen.
Pussycat pussycat, what did you there?
I was the little mouse under her chair.

Undistinguished as it may have been, I have nevertheless had an Audience with the Queen. I am not doing too badly in Western Society. (must go easy on the upper case. danger of morphing into arundhati roy.) What more fitting role to be cast in than Othello? ‘It is the cause [vodka shot], it is the cause [vodka shot], my soul. Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars [yeah, right]. It is the cause.’ I have not shed her blood, but by the end of the cast party I have puked all over her bed sheets. I am forgiven because we have done six outdoor performances – the last one especially good – over the past week in the quad of Oriel College, thus concluding its Garden Shakespeare summer season. It has been a tiring but thoroughly enjoyable experience. At least I have been able to speak in my own voice – unlike in Frank McGuiness’ Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, where I tried, desperately, to be Northern Irish. This was accomplished with the help of an intrepid voice coach who had me say ‘Hoy Noy Broyn Coy’ every morning, so that slowly but surely, I acquired enough of a Protestant Northern Irish vocabulary to start a sectarian riot in Belfast. Apparently ‘Jay-ams, the Catholic tray-tor’, was all that this would require.

When I wasn’t reading, writing, fawning over or fighting, empire, I went to bops. (Salman: if we make this into a movie, I’d like to do a sort of anthropologist-among-the-savages bit here.) Bops are a uniquely Oxbridge institution (not even understood in nearby London), where people starved of a late night social scene gather to bounce around to their parents’ music. Madonna has an American accent, Kylie is in Neighbours, Michael Jackson is still black and Freddie Mercury not yet dead. (In Wadham College, every bop ends with ‘Free Nelson Mandela’, so I really, seriously, rest my case.) Balls are the more upscale, but less frequent, alternative to bops - guests in black tie (even at the Hindu Society’s Diwali Ball), ticket prices sky high, all manner of entertainment (jugglers, a capella singing, bouncy castles, masseurs) but always the same music (Madonna, Kylie, MJ, Freddie). Ball themes are a favourite source of controversy – the merest suggestion of a non-Western theme (Africa, 19th century Ottomania, or the Orient Express) will bring on a collective wringing of hands from hyper-compensatory white liberals and hyper-defensive postcolonials. Edward Said (poor man) will be dragged out of context and used to explicate the sensitivity of such themes. Non-western culture becomes off limits – curate! don’t celebrate! – and the only ‘safe’ themes end up being Anglo-Saxon. This almost always implies – you guessed it – more Madonna, Kylie, MJ and Freddie. Anyway, Freddie was at least born in Bombay.

One night after a particularly raucous bop at Trinity College in The Other Place (Cambridge), I saw Thomas Babington Macaulay stagger out past the porter’s lodge. Two hundred and four years old, he insisted on attending every social event at his old college – not that he enjoyed them very much – just to see if everyone was behaving themselves. ‘Lord Macaulay!’, I exclaimed, ‘What a surprise’. He was pleased to see that I could string together a sentence in his language, though slightly perturbed that I had not set my sights on becoming a babu in the civil service. ‘Oh but now the best babus go to the IMF’, I told him. ‘Now that would really be your kind of place. They have this one-size-fits all policy to make their work really easy. It’s sort of like the Penal Code you wrote that all the colonies ended up with’ (I had discovered only the day before that the fraud section in the Nigerian Penal Code was 419, not so far off from our chaar-sau-bees). ‘I should warn you, though, that we’ve really messed up your language’, I continued. ‘I wish we’d done the same with the Penal Code. We’ve still got your favourite s. 377, even though homosexuality was legalised in Britain in the ‘60s. It’s a bit like the hunting scenes that still hang in my house, even after hunting’s been banned in Britain. And the flourishing of cricket in India, even after… You should come to India now, Lord Macaulay. You’d love it!’

Come to India, come to India,
India teri hei! Hai!
Hind, hind, hind, hind…

Do I have to say something about sport? I suppose I do, though it’s not a subject I tend to bring up of my own accord. It does crop up every so often though. You see, The Founder (may his bones rest in Matopos) thought it fit to require, as a criterion for selection as a Rhodes scholar, ‘fondness of and success in manly outdoor sports such as cricket, football and the like’. In 1976, the word ‘manly’ was deleted in a move that not only paved the way for the opening of the scholarship to women, but also, I suspect, legions of men who would not otherwise have made it. At any rate, the issue still hovers over selection committees and I was about to charge out of my interview in relief that it had not come up, only to be dragged back and questioned about my sporting prowess. This I addressed (‘I run for fun’) while studiously avoiding eye contact with Ranjit Bhatia (who represented India in the 10,000 m. and the marathon at the 1960 Rome Olympics). For the record, I continue to run for fun, mostly in Oxford’s misty dream-like Port Meadow over fields and streams, dodging geese and cows. Because ‘fun’ is the key word, I was decidedly vague when I was questioned relentlessly over coffee the other day by a charming elderly gentleman whom I had never met before and who sat at my table because there were no other seats available in the QI coffee shop. Half an hour into the conversation:

??: So, you’re a Rhodes Scholar. What sports do you play?
RR: Er…I run.
??: What distance?
RR: Oh…er…middle distance.
??: Do you use the Iffley Road track?
RR: No, I don’t like running round and round the same place.
??: Where do you go then?
RR: Oh…just…here and there, really.
[45 minutes later]
??: Oh, by the way my name’s Roger Bannister. What’s yours?

I am clearly hopeless at this celebrity thing. That’s why I’m writing to you Salman. (Gosh, I’m not sure when exactly I got on to a first-name basis with you, but you don’t mind do you? I still can’t call my supervisor Andy.) So do you think there’s a story here? I’m not sure how it’s going to end. Obviously, this is still a work in progress.


PS – You may not agree with my politics – actually, I’ve been somewhat disturbed by some of your post-9/11 stuff. But we can agree to disagree. Remember, I’m the character. You’re just the author.

PPS – You were great in Bridget Jones’ Diary. Oscar avant le Nobel?

If you liked this, you will enjoy the rest of this volume. The Itinerant Indian is available for purchase from major Indian bookshops; in the UK, from Star Books, 55 Warren Street, London WIT 5NW, phone: 020-7380 0622, fax: 020-7419 9169, email:

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