Entry 51 -India II: lard air, dubai, babu the bamboozler, caffiend

Lard Air

I was sitting in my seat on my Emirates flight admiring the decor - a sort of Arabian nights meets Barrat homes "vibe" - and loudly congratulating myself on picking the only seat on the entire flight with a vacancy next to it. Alas, my smugness was short-lived: a man whose fatness would cause comment even in this day and age (and possibly even in America) toddled down the aisle and eased himself weightily into the seat next to me.

This put me in a difficult position (both figuratively and literally). He was, you see, involuntarily invading my personal space. And while I didn't doubt he was a top chap in his own way and fully entitled to scarf as many cakes as he wanted, I had paid my £500 for a whole airline seat, not 80% of one. Every 30 seconds or so another polyp of plump, warm man blubber insinuated itself into my chair - and, other than trying to make it obvious that you are uncomfortable, there really is now polite way of asking someone to get their stray rolls out of your space.

As I say, a tough one (which wholly compromised my enjoyment of Charlies Angels II and Terminator 3) but given current obesity trends, a problem which is likely to grow (haha). Upon my return I shall be taking this matter up with the CAA and suggesting that passengers are forced to declare their girth before they buy a ticket. Anything more than hefty and it's two seats or businesses only. Actually as I would subsequently discover some US airlines already do this. Good for them. Only when we stigmatise and penalise gross obesity again will these lard buckets realise that being fat is a not "a legitimate form of self expression." (actually quote from a woman who weighed 600lbs on a US fattie docu).

Dubai It

Fortunately my supersized chum left after our lay over in Dubai. As I have only seen the inside of Dubai aiport, I cannot really say much about the country, except that the whole place seems to be a sort of Tenerife for people with more money but not much more taste. The fact that they are building a palm-shaped island out in the Gulf, much of which has been bought up by footballers and other celebrities would support this theory. The airport itself is a sort of blingin' shopping mall and may as well have signs all over the place that say 'THIS MAY BE THE ONLY CHANCE YOU GET TO BUY STUFF AT SUCH FAVOURABLE RATES. CONSUME, CONSUME, CONSUME NOW!!!' Beloved of Americans and the kind of people who think that Humvees are the ne plus ultra of personal transport, it is quite awful in a very clean and acceptable way. I was lucky to get out having consumed only six falafel and a pair of sunglasses; though prising Jane away from the Rolex boutique was quite an effort.

Holiday India

Chennai (Madras) airport, by contrast, is the antithesis of swish. It has a sort of tropical communist feel and the lights kept going off. Curiously, it also had piles of feedback forms everywhere 'How would you rate your Chennai Airport experience?' Alas, they didn't have a box for 'primitive.' Once we'd cleared customs (about 4am), we headed over to Le Merridien, a largely unremarkable airport hotel, very JG Ballard, notable only for its excessive use of carpets in a locale where the weather is a constant humid 30C. It was as soulless and indifferently plush an airport hotel as you could have wished for. It could have been anywhere; it could have been in Dubai.

The following morning, we tried to get a taxi. But this wasn't going to happen. Chennai currently has an enormous dearth of these, so we took at tuk tuk 12 km into town, allowing us to experience the aroma of an Indian city first hand. I pictured myself as a wine critic: 'Ooh - I'm getting hints of sewage...no, it's rotting garbage...and petrol fumes and burning rubbish.' Actually, while few Indian cities are nice, Chennai is pretty good compared to the uberdump that is Delhi and the megalopolis of Mumbai. Mainly because, weighing in at a mere 6 million people, it's kind of small, a big town really.

We were staying at the Taj something or other - the best hotel in Chennai and somewhere the Queen had once kipped. Its identikit international hotel feel was mitigated somewhat by a vaguely historic building and a very nice swimming pool whose water had a curious weight about it - like swimming in heavy water, deuterium oxide. We had been upgraded to a suite the size of several London flats (all for about £80 a night) and just sort of hung around for a day, recovering from the flight, with me nursing crush marks from the man who 'shared' my seat.

Despite its undoubted status as Chennai's premier lodgings, it came as something of a relief to leave the Taj. I find excessive luxury rather stifling -and this was about as bad as it gets. You cannot turn around without having someone offer you something you don't want. Moreover, as I discovered at the bar, you may not even take your drink the two metres from the mahogany to the table: 'Sir, please, I will call the boy.'

Babu the Bamboozler

For all this excessive swank, we still couldn't get a cab anywhere. While we looked for one, we visited Fort George, a large and OK colonial relic, now stuffed with government buildings and Marina beach, the second largest beach in the world. Miami is number one. As an Indian city beach, this is actually nicer than you'd expect and the water looked clean enough to swim in. But I had already seen the river flowing through the city and that was enough to convince me that a dip within 10km of Chennai would be a short cut to all sorts of unusual and exciting diseases.

By this stage we had wholly given up on cabs and elected to get a three-wheeler 50km south to the beach and temple town of Mallapparum. This was where we met 'Babu' (which, I think means friend), the big fat bastard. As many people know, to come to India and not get swizzed at least once is not playing the game. We had been to India before - thus, we reckoned, this time round it wouldn't be too bad. Still, a minor stiffing was definitely called for.

So Babu charged us three times the going rate for our trip. Whenever we remonstrated with him, he'd come out with some great Indian English, 'Sir, Madam, it is not that I am bamboozling you. Do not be perturbed unduly.' We got him down a little, but were still being taken for a ride in every sense of the word.

Then he tried to get us to pay all the tolls, then, extra for petrol, before, finally, trying to convince us that there was a $10 per person fee to enter the town of Mala. Each time he repeated his mantra: 'It's is not that I am a bamboozler…' In a sense, I had to admire Babu's perseverance and chutzpah: here we were telling him it a) wasn't true and b) he was a bamboozler and c) he could piss off and he just kept on going.

Eventually we decided that the only way to combat his unrelenting hucksterism was to say 'We don't understand.' to his every request. This was a bit tight, especially as, comedy over-use of the word bamboozle aside, his English was actually pretty good. But eventually, I think our apparent lack of understanding made him understand he dropped us off in the centre of town, then sulked when no tip appeared. We thanked him very little.

Mallappaprum is a small town with a grubby main street, a spectacular 7th century shore temple and some rather stylish rock temples. It also has one of the world's largest stone idol chipping industries and the town rings to the sound of small idols being chipped. Like good tourists, we e scored a Ganesh for the bathroom.

Down by the shore temple and there's a pleasant beach, although signs warn you not to swim, citing the number of drownings per year, but these are to be taken with a pinch of sea salt. Modesty means that most Indians enter the water with their clothes on - and very few actually know how to swim, which makes it rather easier to drown.

rich food, poor food

In Mallappapuram, we also fully discovered the delight that is south Indian food. We had eaten in the hotels in Chennai, food which was OK, but unspectacular. We had eaten in a middle class restaurant, which was pretty good, although we were the centre of attention as honkies in Chennai are few and far between. But in Mallappuram we realised that, within certain limits, the less you pay the better the food is. Pay a lot and you will get something blandish with an internationalised taste; pay a little and you will get something like the fabulous dhosas I have fallen in love with, which come with no fewer than eight condiments and cost about 30p. Of course, there are limits to this rule: pay too little and you will spend a week on the can wailing that your God has forsaken you..

Although Mallapapurum is pleasant, it's a bit of a one-day town. Plus they were digging up the sewers, which, well, you can imagine - so we took a real taxi down to the former French colony of Pondicherry. Evidence of Babu's duplicity, it cost half as much to go twice the distance. The southern Indian landscape outside towns is a restful one: hazy post monsoon greens, fields and surprisingly, even the odd forest. It's dotted with villages still largely constructed with natural materials and goats and pigs scurry about everywhere. I can't quite account for the presence of the latter for although they do eat garbage (of which India has a superabundance) porkers no good unless you want to eat them. There aren't many folk who do in these parts and, city boy though I am, I'm guessing you can't milk a pig.


I was immensely relived to get to Pondy. Over the past three days I had been experiencing all sorts of problems. My body ached, I had trouble getting up in the morning and I had started more or less involuntarily falling asleep in the afternoon. A bit like My Own Private Idaho, without being a rent boy. Jane, I think, was finding this combination of lethargy and narcolepsy rather irksome; for myself I thought it was the heat or jet lag, although it seemed to be getting worse, not better. Then, just after I'd dozed off mid-sentence, Jane woke me and said, 'Darling when was the last time you had a cup of coffee?'

'Err, I replied, about three days ago.' Indian coffee is pretty awful, usually a cup of over-sugared milk with a few grains of Nescafe. Luckily Pondy is a former French colony and, as such, espresso is available everywhere. I had one cup and, within about five minutes was my witty, animated self again - worse, that evening, I even slept better. Now some would say that this is rather worrying and I would be inclined to agree, so I will try and reduce my coffee intake. But it's also given me a valuable, if rather neutered and middle class insight into the shocking world of drug addiction. I will never make fun of a crack 'ho or smack head again.

October 16, 2003