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Shooting with Vish Puri in Delhi

When I needed to find a local actor in Delhi to play Vish Puri, I called a veteran film director friend of mine. Arun assured me that finding a suitable amateur thespian wouldn’t pose a problem. “Gentlemen of that build are not hard to come by in these parts,” he said.

In the event, only a few candidates came forward. The most suitable was Mr. Ashok Bajaj. His ‘manager’, who I suspect was his nephew, assured me that Mr. Bajaj was a big thing in Haryana soap opera (Haryana being a state abutting Delhi with a TV industry that enjoys huge audiences, though the production standards have room for improvement).

There was just one thing Mr Bajaj was missing: a moustache. Not an issue, his manager told me at the casting interview – a makeup man would “do the necessary”. Did he own a Safari suit? I asked. No, they were not Mr. Bajaj’s style. He did not have a flat cap, either. These I would have to provide, along with transport and chai.

With the fees and other sundries agreed upon (and the manager’s large lunch paid for), I set out to hire a white Ambassador, Vish Puri’s trademark car. When I first lived in Delhi in the late 1990s, the only cars plying the roads were Ambassadors and Marutis. But white Ambys are a rare sight these days, the only ones being Government of India vehicles with whirring emergency beacons and antennas affixed to their roofs.) Sure enough, when I asked around at all the local taxi stands, I came up empty handed. No one I knew owned an Amby, either. I was going to have to go without.

On the day of the shoot, Mr. Bajaj arrived with his manager. The makeup man brought an assistant, too, and once Mr. Bajaj had changed into the Safari suit, they set about affixing the moustache: a piece of synthetic hairy fluff that looked fake from 10 paces. Adjustments were duly made. A great deal of glue was used.

When at last we headed over to India Gate to get some shots of Mr. Bajaj eating at various snack stands, he could hardly move his upper lip. This resulted in quite a lot of golgappa water dripping down his chin and onto his suit. Worse, when I asked Mr. Bajaj to deliver a couple of scripted lines to the camera, he was unable to say them – his upper lip was almost frozen.

We carried on regardless, shooting in Khan Market and Connaught Place, before heading over to Bengali Market. And there we had a stroke of luck.

As we emerged from one of the restaurants (where Mr. Bajaj had struggled to eat lunch, dropping quite a bit of his rajma and pickle into his lap), a white Ambassador pulled up across the street. Anu, my wife, who had been helping me all morning, hurried over to speak to the owner. The young man didn’t seem the least bit phased at the prospect of lending his car to strangers, and promptly handed over the keys, inviting us to use his Ambassador while he had his lunch.

Thanks to that trusting, generous man, I got the shots that I badly wanted. I was especially pleased with those of Vish Puri driving through Delhi on the back seat, something I had pictured him doing so often while writing the novels. And although Mr. Bajaj was unable to deliver a single line, it didn’t seem to matter very much at all.

You’ll find the photos from the shoot here.

If you’d like a limited edition hardback copy of The Delhi Detective’s Handbook, please go here.

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Blood Diamond – Sunday Times

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My Sunday Times review of Koh-i-Noor The History of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond by William Dalrymple and Anita Anand

You’ll find the original here.

The file in the foreign office containing international claims to ownership of the famous Koh-i-Noor diamond, the “Mountain of Light”, has been growing thicker of late. In 2015 alone, a consortium of Indian businessmen and Bollywood glitterati threatened legal action if the diamond wasn’t removed from its display case in the Tower of London and handed over to their country. In Pakistan, a certain Mr Jaffrey, after writing dozens of letters to the Queen claiming the priceless gem for his homeland, finally approached the High Court in the city of Lahore for help. And the Taliban announced that the Koh-i-Noor belonged to them, on the grounds that it had been in the possession of Afghan kings in the 18th and early 19th century. Return it “as soon as possible”, their spokesman demanded.

The Koh-i-Noor “retains a fame and celebrity unmatched by any of its larger or more perfect rivals”, write William Dalrymple and Anita Anand, the co-authors of this book. Coveted by the Moguls, Persians, Afghans, Sikhs and the British, to whom it was finally surrendered in 1849 in Lahore before it was secretly taken to London and put on display as the ultimate imperial loot, it also remains “a lightning rod for attitudes towards colonialism”.

An “insubstantial fog of mythology” swirls unabated around the Kohi-i-Noor, too. The most prevalent superstition being that any man daring to wear it will face a grisly end, while women are somehow immune to its dark power. Dalrymple and Anand trace the font of Koh-i-Noor folklore to a single report compiled in Delhi in 1849 by a “slapdash” British junior assistant magistrate, Theo Metcalfe, who wrote down verbatim the fanciful tales told by the city’s hereditary jewellers. Crucially, this helped propagate the myth that the diamond is a magical gemstone of Hindu mythology, the Syamantaka, the property of Surya, the sun god. “Theo’s version of events has since been repeated in article after article, book after book, and still sits unchallenged on Wikipedia,” write the authors, who instead relied on bona fide archives to produce a history shorn of “bazaar tittle-tattle”. In debunking the myths, they take a little of the sheen off the diamond’s allure.

Thanks to Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, who had it cut to suit western tastes in 1852, it is today only the 90th largest diamond in the world. What is more, there is no evidence of the Koh-i-Noor being a gem of great antiquity: the first indisputable reference to its existence is in 1739, according to the authors. But even stripped of fiction, the story of the Koh-i-Noor and its owners (emperors, kings, warlords and a one-eyed maharajah, many of whom did indeed meet violent ends, adding grist to the superstition mill) is riveting. Dalrymple and Anand present as evocative a rendering as the most enthralling bazaar storyteller while providing an astute and empathetic study of the historical landscape through which the diamond has made its troubled way.

It is a story rarely short on gore. When the Persian ruler Nader Shah captured Delhi in 1739, his troops slaughtered 30,000 of the population before carting off the gem, which by then had been set in the headpiece of the incomparable Peacock Throne. Shah was eventually knifed to death before the diamond passed to a succession of Afghan kings. The penultimate monarch, Shah Zaman, was blinded with a hot needle, yet managed to hide his most valuable possession in a crack in the wall of his dungeon.

Years passed before the Koh-i-Noor was discovered in the possession of a mullah who “in his ignorance was using it as a paperweight”. Later, it came into the possession of its proudest owner, Maharajah Ranjit Singh. The “Lion of Punjab”, who ruled from 1780 to 1839, wore the diamond strapped to his arm during public occasions — it was during his reign that the Koh-i-Noor “began to achieve real fame”.

In 1849, after Lord Dalhousie, the governor-general of the East India Company, wrestled the diamond from Ranjit Singh’s 10-year-old son, the Scot gloated in a letter about having caught his “hare”. He also annexed Punjab. And although his aggressive expansionism came in the context of an age when the British were hardly alone in assuming their right to grab whatever territory they fancied, the authors leave no room for doubt that Dalhousie’s actions were downright piratical. The gentleman charged with caring for the deposed child maharajah, Dr John Spencer Login, was not alone in condemning Dalhousie’s duplicitousness. He wanted the diamond paid for by the company and the funds used to help create jobs, schools and infrastructure. Instead, the Koh-i-Noor was taken to London, presented to Queen Victoria and subsequently displayed “in triumph, much as the Romans once had done with curiosities from their conquests”, write the authors.

More recently, the British monarchy has not shied from parading the Koh-i-Noor when occasion demands. After the death of the Queen Mother in 2002, her crown, in which the diamond is set, was placed on her coffin as she lay in state. Meanwhile, successive British governments continue to quietly rebuff all claims that the diamond was stolen. “I’m afraid to say, it is going to have to stay put,” David Cameron said while on a visit to India in 2010. Clearly, Pakistan, India, the Taliban and even the prolific letter-writing Mr Jaffrey are not going to have much joy. This highly readable and entertaining book, however, finally sets the record straight on the history of the Koh-i-Noor, which, cursed or not, continues to drive man’s covetous nature.

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India’s Demographic Crunch

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Read my three-part series on the challenges facing India as its population growth continues unfettered here.

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Kashmir Gastronomical Adventure

Wazwaan-2-22Late last year I took my family up to Srinagar, Kashmir to attend a three-day wedding. Our hosts were old friends and it was lovely to spend time with them. But the trip also helped me realise a long-held ambition: to eat a full Wazwaan meal.

Kashmiri food is some of my favourite. A little heavy for some perhaps – you’ve certainly got to enjoy your meat! – but absolutely delicious.

You can read my article in National Geographic Traveller India about the King’s Feast here.

 

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Delhi, National Geographic Traveller (UK)

Nat Geo DelhiMy piece on my relationship(s) with Delhi will appear in the January issue of National Geographic Traveller UK. You can read it in advance here.

Otherwise here’s the text:

When I was posted to Delhi in the mid-1990s it was a sleepy, parochial backwater.  There were no imported cars, and the Ambassador, which was modelled on the post-war Oxford Morris, still ruled the roads.  Non-Indian restaurants were few and far between.  If you wanted a change from chicken tikka and dosas, you invariably ended up in one of the luxury hotels, or Rodeo, a Mexican joint where the Indian waiters were an incongruous site in Stetsons and the enchiladas were essentially rotis rolled into wraps.  The city’s cultural life was equally limited.  Jaded intelligentsia gathered regularly at the same old cultural centres where the staid atmosphere was indicative of the malaise that gripped the country.

Still, there was plenty for me to explore.  Delhi’s history is unparalleled, dating back at least two and a half millennia.  British ‘New’ Delhi, which became the capital in 1911, is but its eighth avatar. The landscape is dotted with the domes, battlements and mausoleums of conquerors, emperors and saints.  During time off from work as a journalist, I would take long walks along the leafy avenues of this former colonial capital, with its whitewashed bungalows and columned edifices.  I would root around in ‘Old’ Delhi, the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan’s walled citadel with its magnificent Red Fort standing sentinel over a warren of frenetic bazaars. And I will never forget the first time I visited the colossal red sandstone tomb of the Emperor Humayun and was mesmerised by its calming symmetry.

But I didn’t feel any great emotional connection to Delhi.  And had a certain Indian-American woman not walked into my office one afternoon, I doubt I would have remained beyond the length of my employment contract.

Anu was 23 at the time with short black hair, dark, intelligent eyes, and a playful, beguiling laugh. It wasn’t long before I found myself hopelessly in love. Suddenly Delhi was a special place – our place.  Riding in the back of three-wheeled auto rickshaws was no longer a tedious, bone-rattling experience, but one softened by entwined fingers and whispered sweet nothings.  We would spend afternoons lolling on the lawns between the 13th century tombs in Lodi Gardens; eat bathure chhole and gulab jamuns at Nathu’s in Bengali Market; and although the cinemas generally offered the cheesiest Hollywood and Bollywood had to offer, it no longer mattered just as long as we could secure two quiet seats together.

I had a flat in one of Delhi’s posher areas, but started spending all my free time at her pad in Amar Colony, a busy, congested quarter inhabited by boisterous Punjabis.  On our first Holi, the spring festival, we spent the day fighting with water balloons and packets of powdered colour out on the street along with all the neighbours.  On Diwali, when the place erupted with fireworks and diyas appeared on balconies and in doorways, the landlady invited us in for chilli pakoras and spicy green chutney, and we played cards with her extended family late into the night. I attended engagements, weddings and even the odd funeral.  And gradually, with Anu as my guide, I came to appreciate – even relish – what north Indians refer to as tamasha, the unending chaos and spectacle of the place.

Delhi is where I proposed marriage (in a private dinning room in the Oberoi hotel); it’s where we eloped (secretly before a disapproving judge and two cuffed local thieves); and where we are now raising our two children.  It’s also where I’ve set a series of novels starring a Punjabi detective whose resemblance to some of Anu’s uncles is by no means coincidental.

Since our courtship and the reforms to the economy, India’s capital has experienced rapid change.  Its population has more than doubled.  Its concrete sprawl of suburbs have grown exponentially with clusters of office towers, apartment blocks and metro lines marching out into the retreating farmland.  Every day, thousands of people pour in from rural India searching for work. For every new golf course, there is a slum to match it in size, if not allure.  The Ambassador is now an endangered species, replaced by plenty of Toyotas and even the odd Ferrari.

For the vast majority of the city’s inhabitants, life is complex and tough. Corruption and sheer negligence make living in Delhi often frustrating, sometimes dangerous.  But there’s nowhere I would rather be.  Asia is resurgent and I wouldn’t miss this show for the world.  Besides, as a mystery writer, there’s always something new to discover: from Kathputhli, an entire neighbourhood inhabited by street magicians, to the new microbreweries of Gurgaon.  And just occasionally, when we want a break from the kids, the power cuts or the maddening bureaucracy, Anu and I can always jump in an auto-rickshaw and hold hands all the way to Lodi gardens.

© Tarquin Hall, 2103

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