“Death is Nothing at all ….” so preached Henry Scott-Holland while King Edward VII’s body lay in Westminster Hall. It may not be to the greater world but when you start hearing people say about a deceased “….well he had a good innings….” and that person was only a few years older than you, or lordy even worse – younger than you, death starts to become more than ‘nothing’. It doesn’t hang over you but one realises that living is terminal and Tempus fugit and it gathers speed and all that.
When my uncle unexpectedly left me a generous slug of money I sensibly spent most of it on boring things like having the garden wall rebuilt. However funeral and memorial service sheets were mounting up on the hall table, I was 64 and I was starting to feel that the horizon of time for travel away from medical help was not widening. India had long beckoned so I awarded myself a totally undeserved holiday. About a decade previously I had been unable to join the Fentons, with whom I had lived in Marseille, on a trip to the Pushkar Camel Fair so when the cursor pointed to a ride across the Thar Desert from Bikaner to the Nagaur Camel Fair, followed by a few days rubbernecking in the Rajasthani hotspots, I booked.
I merrily announced my plan and although my husband broadly smiled encouragement our son was furious: not that I was jumping ship for a few weeks, but that I was proposing to ride a horse. Although I had 40 years in the saddle under my belt I hadn’t been on one for 20 years. He lobbied my friends about my foolhardiness. It hadn’t occurred to me that it would be a problem but to keep the peace I contacted George’s nephew Alexander, who had a stableful of horses, and I started riding again. After a couple of weeks hounds were meeting at home and Alexander generously offered me a horse for the day. I reasoned that if I could enjoy a day’s hunting without being unable to move the next day I’d probably make it from Bikaner to Nagaur. I did – both.
Two months later BA 0257 landed me in New Delhi. I was expecting to be one of five, but mine was a single name on the wall of hand-held placards. I was ushered through the pressing throng into the dusty sun and thence a cool, hushed, people carrier. The itinerary had us travelling by sleeper-train to Bikaner that night but I was told that work on the tracks meant that plans were changed and instead I would be driven to Dundlod the following day. A 64 year old widow, expected during the evening, would join me. The other three would join us in Bikaner. Delivered to a heavily gilded, prestige hotel, I was promised an afternoon tour of the city and was left to re-charge.
My room was large enough to host a party, with a bed big enough for Hugh Heffner and a year’s worth of Playmates. The bathroom was wired for sound and the television could be watched from the bath through the glass wall. I soaked flight-grime in designer suds and missed someone to laugh with me at the unaccustomed luxury. George, never one to splash out, would have been appalled at the opulence. Wrapped in a fluffy towel I peered out across Delhi, listened to the sounds of traffic chaos and watched the black kites wheel silently in the sky as they eyed up garbage. It was very exciting to be at the centre of this 570 square miles of the world’s 3rd largest urban area, the home to the 16 million people busying with their lives beyond the cordon sanitaire of splashing fountains, regimented palms and the guards in their starched white uniforms; yards of aiguilettes and perfectly positioned pagris.
At the appointed hour, feeling rather under-Versached for the hotel foyer, I met my guide for the afternoon – Soumya. She sashayed across the acres of marble and extended her elegant hand. Her sari glistened in the down-lighters. Beautiful with penetrating eyes, it was impossible to tell her age, but there was the inner steel of someone who commanded respect. I would do whatever she suggested.
There have been eight ages of Delhi since 1060 on neighbouring land. Tamerlane hacked his way through and various Rajputs, Turks and Afghans made their presence felt before the British let Lutyens loose on imperialising what is now New Delhi. We drove along the avenues with ample width for regiments of elephants, camels, horses and infantry to progress in endless phalanxes of obeisance to the King Emperor and his representatives. Such grandeur must have engendered in his representatives as much awe of their own self-importance as it instilled awe in his subjects. The Rajpath connects the War Memorial Arch with the President’s Estate and the Mughal Gardens. Willingdon Crescent proscribes a great circus, beyond which is the Delhi Polo Club. Our driver wove between taxis, 4x4s, official limousines, scooters, and the cars that had died in Britain in the ‘50s and had been reincarnated in the old empire. Men swept sidewalks with branches and little dust devils challenged their resolve. Any weeds poking between the flowers in roundabouts were being removed and the railings, the boundaries of diplomatic enclaves, repainted.
We took a cycle-rickshaw ride through the narrow alleys of Old Delhi where cramped booths sold all one would ever need. We could have bought varied sized statuettes of Shiva, Kali, Brahma or Ganesh. Trade was brisk in everything from spices to gems, silks to pulses, tea to silverware, and every brand of tracksuit and mobile ‘phone. There were acupuncturists, doctors and dentists. Woks sizzled and spat, kettles boiled, dogs snoozed just away from footfall and in the wider streets cows chewed the cud or picked over discarded vegetables. Those wanting free electricity had jumped their cables directly to the Mains and pigeons roosted in the resultant spaghetti of wires.
The Red Fort was closed but we visited Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in India that took 14 years to build and was completed in 1688. On the way to a carpet museum we stopped and watched a park full of squirrels being hand-fed by small children and their mothers. It is believed that the Indian palm squirrel gained its stripes when Lord Rama’s fingers stroked its back.
Soumya and I were welcomed with cups of tea into the carpet museum that characteristically was a grand shop. Having been instructed in much of the intricacies of wool, silk, weft and warp, many beautiful rugs were laid before me with their competitive price tags and assurances that export was easily arranged. It was difficult to explain that my mother-in-law had bought Persian rugs as others now buy smart phones and of them I was not short. Reaction to our departure was less animated than our arrival had been and soon the car swept under the hotel’s porte cochere. I felt guilty that Soumya had missed out on the kick-back of a carpet sale and bought some indulgent potions from the hotel beauty salon for her. Hopefully she forgave me.
Lacking the confidence to hit night-time Delhi on my own, I elected to eat in the only moderately atmospheric restaurant in the hotel and it did at least promise Asian food. I tried to concentrate on my Kindle but on the few occasions I was aware of someone entering the restaurant I looked up to see whether it could be a 64 year old widow. My mind wandered selfishly. I had come to India for a lifetime treat and the last thing I had dreamed was to spend a fortnight carrying luggage or walking slowly with an old widow. I always forget my own age.
Breakfast was served in a cavernous room built to impress. Organza curtains billowed in sporadic puffs of air. Water from fountain jets in the gardens beyond splashed gently onto carved marble. It was easy to imagine Mountbatten sitting there with Nehru, Ghandi and Ali Jinnah carving out Pakistan from India; or the formidable Vicereine Lady Willingdon swooshing past the genuflecting flunkies on her way to inspect the lion insignia she had so magnanimously conferred on the place.
From behind my freebie edition of the Delhi Times I observed the women breakfasting alone and wondered which of them was to be my travelling companion for the next fortnight. One possibility was soon joined by a husband. I assumed he was her husband as he didn’t speak to her. Another was so meticulously coutured and coiffed that I could not imagine her roughing it in the desert or patting the neck of a sweaty horse unless wearing Marigolds. A third was reliant on a walking stick and another was well known to the staff so it seemed unlikely that she had arrived the previous night. That left a self-assured woman wearing Cuban boots and an embroidered frock coat that partially covered an extravagantly ruffled white shirt revealing some enviably tanned cleavage – a female Lawrence Llewellyn-Bowen. She might have been widowed but she didn’t look in her sixties. Perhaps ‘my’ widow had decided to take breakfast in her room.
As I finished my coffee a woman passed my table whose face rang bells. I resolved to satisfy my curiosity and I stopped by her table as I left to finish packing.
“Excuse me, I am terrible sorry to interrupt but I think that we were at school together?”
My maiden name was Messer and unsurprisingly, given a creative untidiness that would have been the envy of Tracey Emin, my nickname at school was Messy – it has survived over six decades.
“MESSY!” exclaimed Janet Gay, whom I had last seen when we left prep-school over 50 years previously.
Conversation stopped; jaws dropped; irons remained poised above plates. Only the curtains stirred. Everybody looked at us. This was a mess-free zone.
“Are you the 64 year old trekking across the Thar Desert?” I asked
“Yes are you?” said Jan “Oh how lovely. I had expected a doddery old thing who would want to sip tea at sundown and with whom I would have to linger.“