Exclusive: two people get married

On the way to the train station a young man frantically hauled a piece of wheeled luggage behind him in an awkward, desperate jog. He was late. And he was getting the hell out of London.

It was hard to blame him. Two days ago I gave in to morbid curiosity and visited the site where our future king would wed, Westminster Abbey, in all its Gothic glory.

The sidewalk was a sideshow. Television news reporters set about broadcasting eleventh-hour observations across the country and the world.

There were more satellite dishes than there ever were, I imagine, in the yet-to-be successful SETI project. There, they were searching for extra-terrestrial existence. Here, those sorts of life forms could be found, in their thousands, on concrete pavings camping out in makeshift tents sprawled with makeshift signs and makeshift cardboard cutouts of the soon to be married.

“I’m not crazy,” read the back of an old woman’s outdoor chair, “I just want to see Kate’s dress.”

History, it seems, is forgotten in such times and in such places. Never mind that colonists fought wars over stuffy high-taxing monarchs more than 200 years ago.

Americans love it. One such woman said she was 14 years old when Diana was married. She woke at 4am, Iowa time, to get up to watch that wedding. And when the former princess died, the Iowan promised herself that she would come to watch her son walk down the aisle.

So now here she was, her first time in Britain, draped in a Union Jack, holding an unofficial wedding programme, sitting next to an auction house placing bets on what colour the Queen’s hat would be. Yellow was the front-runner.

Down the road, outside the houses of Parliament, the more stable street dwellers looked more disenfranchised than usual. Their protests of continuing “corporate war crimes” in the Middle East no longer were the object of tourist camera flashes and the news media microphones.

Two men in orange overalls briefly argued about which of them was going to spend the next few hours standing on a black wooden box, handcuffed, with a black bag over their head.

A US cable news anchor was speaking to her camera out the front of the Abbey. She repeated the same line a few times with different emphasis: “Now Kate only has one more day to wait before she walks through that door,” she said, gesturing toward’s the Abbey’s western entrance.

The spectacle, unsurprisingly enough, attracted a small crowd desperate to get some face time on some obscure network that broadcasts 5000 kilometres away. The anchor looked to her producer and said: “Is this going to be OK because we can’t actually see the door?” The producer shrugged.

Enterprise springs forth in such times. Flags pasted with supermarket chain logos. Masks pasted with the facial features Kate, Wills and the Queen.

Such a family, now 3 pounds poorer, walked down The Mall away from Buckingham Palace. “I think you should ditch the grandma,” heckled a passer-by. The “Queen” shook an angry, dainty fist.

There is something about the monarchy. I am tempted to frame it in the terms of celebrity. Celebrity transcends. It gets people up at 4am to go to camp on a tiny patch of grass for six hours. It makes people travel around the world, or even from Wales, to catch a glimpse of something – a flash of red coat, a dash of lace veil.

My uncle tried to convince me that the whole thing wasn’t utterly ridiculous. That it was ingrained in people’s DNA. There was a deep historical affection for this bunch of people in their colourful hats and copious medals. I thought that the wedding would be like the Wellington Sevens – people dressed up in silly outfits, drinking heavily, not really paying attention to the score. Great day out, though. So I went.

Hyde Park began to swell early yesterday. Crowds soon gathered around three large television screens. Estimates varied from 100,000 to 300,000. Two billion watching around the world. Soon you couldn’t move. Soon the prince would make his way to the Abbey. Then he did. Cheers and flag waving.

There was something in the air.

“An air of excitement,” BBC presenter Huw Edwards called it.

“We suspect it to be a matter of seconds … seconds now …” and then Kate emerged: “A limited view but a splendid view,” Edwards said.

The girl in front of me was already crying. “I really feel for her,” she said.

I met with friends and new acquaintances from New Zealand who were also making the most of the day off. Scones and parma ham and Pimms and quiche. “Just making the most of the occasion,” 28-year-old Nelsonian Kyle Thomson said.

Historian Simon Schama waxed on about a marriage not only between two people but between monarchy and the people. Guest David Beckham appeared to have had a blow-wave.

The crowd followed every word. They sang every hymn – with even more gusto than Elton John. They cheered when the couple said “I will” and gasped when it appeared William was struggling to squeeze the ring over Kate’s loose knuckle skin.

Couples kissed and cuddled. And I swear the sun came out when Kate started walking up the aisle. The crowd danced during the suitably royal peck on the balcony of Buckingham Palace. The band began to play. The crowd quickly morphed into a conga train. I grabbed on and followed it out.

As printed in the Nelson Mail

A long journey

In the maroon carpeted aisle of the non-upper-class section of Virgin Atlantic flight 306, a teenage girl asked her mother a probing question.

“Why do all airplanes smell the same?”

It was a fair question and her mother stumbled over the answer, faintly mumbling something about the air conditioning. What was that smell, she wondered?

I had spent the previous two days in the office of a Muslim tailor discussing life, love, faith and charity. There, in the back streets of Delhi’s Pahar Ganj, the smell was of stale cigarette smoke that refused to vacate the premises despite the efforts of a rattling ventilator fan. Further down the alleyway the smell was of stale urine, mixed with fresh urine. The source was a urinal.

While on the way to a pathetically boring  breakfast of an omelette and coffee. Rafiq Mushtaq had asked me, as vendors are prone to do in that area of the city, whether there was something he could do for me, “friend” . I asked him what he did.

“Tailor, you know. There are many cheaters here but I am not that man.”

He was adamant.

Rafiq looked pleasant enough. A more benevolent and less steroid-infused version of Shoaib Akthar. I told him that I had some shorts that needed fixing. In my more solemn moments if India self-reflection I had also pondered the purchasing a suit of some sort. Mr Mushtaq assured me he could help.

We agreed upon a price – a round figure for a suit (blue, three buttons), a white shirt (cotton), the repair of my shorts (rip in the ass) and my backpack (one of those annoying things that happens when the zipper comes of the zip and you can’t put it back on).

I would stay for lunch, he said. We would wait for his brother (who he confusingly referred to as a “she”) and we would all eat together. When I returned to the office an hour or so later, Mir Mushtaq sat behind his desk, a full quiff of black hair that he put down to a special oil purchased in an obscure part of the city, orange-rimmed glasses perched on his nose and a Gold Flake cigarette hanging out of his mouth.

His brother didn’t understand tailoring, Mir said. He was young and didn’t understand the costs and overheads associated with making a fine custom fitted suit. So I had to pay extra for the shirt. I reluctantly agreed. Rafiq hung his head. Then we ate. Then we talked. It was mainly about money, but more about how Mir didn’t care  much for money. How when you die it’s all gone so it should go to a good cause. Spend it on something worthy. And about how his father was quite ill and he needed some money to pay for the emergency dialysis he needed.

“If you lose money you lose nothing. If you lose a friend you lose something. What is the third?”

I said I didn’t quite follow.

“The third, there is a third. If you lose faith, you lose everything.”

“Ah.”

“Where are you staying,?” Mir said, inbetween shovelling rice into his face with his hand.

“Down the road.”

“You come stay with us.”

By this stage the relationship had grown. He had already measured my inseam. But alas I had already paid for the room.

“I will pay that money.”

He was very keen for a houseguest.

He asked me where I had been in India. So for not the first time I tried to recount where I had travelled in my three months there. I had started in Delhi and gone to Jaipur and then to the Punjab and then to Ahmedabad and then to Mumbai and to Calcutta and to Chennai in the south and then to Nagpur in the middle and then to Goa and Ajanta and then back to Mumbai and then back to Caluctta and then up to Darjeeling and then across to Varanasi and then to Dharamshala and then, now, finally back where it began on January 22. Back in Delhi.

I said I would come and stay tomorrow. In my last night in India I would stay with the Mushtaq family.

The next day I dropped off my bags at his shop while I went to some meetings. He was there again, the cigarette dangling out the bottom of his lip. Same quaff of hair. That evening we drove to south Delhi. His wife cooked us mutton and we sat on the floor of his living room, his wife, brother, nephew and me.

Mir was especially proud of a plastic ornament he had picked up in Bangkok a few years ago. It was a photo of him, rendered in see-through resin.

“Isn’t that something?” he asked.

It was pretty cool.

The next morning Mir and Rafiq dropped me at the train station. Business had been slow recently and they appreciated the custom. I threw my backpack over my shoulder. It was heavier than usual, weighed down with an item that Mir convinced me would make a good birthday present. Then they drove off.

On the plane, the girl tried impatiently, yet politely to ask the turbaned Indian man in front of her in the aisle to move so she could get past. She called out her mother again.

“That smell,” she said, “it smells like a long journey.”

In the land of the Gorkhas

The sign has a thin see through veil over it. But you can still see the writing though, like it’s not even there. Like the yellow plastic is just waiting for the inevitable – a ceremony to make it official – an inevitable that has been waiting 100 years when the British deemed this hill station to be the same as the place 200km further down the line.

On shop fronts, on the sign that adorns the main intersection, on jeeps that shuttle workers, tourists and locals from lower West Bengal up the green misty valley to Darjeeling, the same word is spattered through the hills. Gorkhaland.

It was a place the British thought nice enough to set up a health retreat. And a military depot. And grow some nice tea. Under British rule, the Darjeeling area was set up under an administration applicable to economically less advanced districts in the British Raj. In 1919, the area was declared a “backward tract”.

Vijay Jung Thapa, an editor for the Delhi-based Hindustan Times, used to come here as a child. That was thirty years ago.

“Nothing has really changed,” he says. “It all looks the same.”

The hills – tiered with zigzagging tracks cut into them. The shops – leaned and sitting precarious against the mountainside. The politics – ignored and underfunded. The economy – stagnant.

What Thapa is referring to is the same thing the American tourist living in the room upstairs from me might refer to as “old school”. A feeling that Darjeeling is frozen in time.

While India has progressed and diverted national funds to important projects, while it has invested heavily in education and commerce and progress, Darjeeling is the same place that Thapa visited as a 10-year-old child when his parents took him to experience the fresh mountain air.

There are hangovers. Rowi, a tea merchant lives at the bottom of a tea garden. The village there is segregated, the tea sellers live in one corner, the pluckers in another, the factory workers in another.

I ask why.

“It’s from the British. They did a lot of strange things.”

They say you can see Everest from here. There are lookouts, places with supreme vistas of the most famous peak on earth. Once it was thought unattainable. It was documented by British surveyors who marvelled and its magnitude but then dismissed. Impossible.

But now the Himalaya seem invisible. They are clouded over, covered it some fog, some mist that refuses to vacate.

West Bengal, which runs from its capital Kolkata in the central eastern tip of India, all the way up to Darjeeling and its surrounding villages, is preparing. For 35 years the people of this state put their faith in a leftist party that promised change. Change came, yes. Many things came. But Darjeeling has always remained an afterthought.

Last year a landslide took out the central government-funded national highway. It closed half of Darjeeling’s famous Himalayan railway. A year on the sign at the railway station remains: “Remains closed due to landslide.” It is the same message that was put up when the landslide occurred on June 10.

“How did you get here,” asks Thapa.

Well I took the latter half of the railway. It was incredible I tell him. I’m falling in love with trains, I say. Nothing like I have ever experienced, tracking inches away from shop fronts and homes, watching school children illegally run and jump to grip onto its protruding handrails as it slowly puffs its way up into the hills. The tea gardens appearing through the mist. Watching the old man try to copy the school children and make a break for the hand rail and then watch him stutter and fail and give up and throw up his hands in defeat. Watching children and parents and store keepers cover their ears as the train driver relentlessly horns at each of the rails hundreds of corners. UNESCO likes it too.

 

The jeep trip from New Jalpaiguri station, bypassing the landslip, to Kurseong takes about two and a half hours. The train trip from Kurseong to Darjeeling takes about three. If the highway was open that would have taken about two – in total.

So the Gorkhas want their land.

Tshering, though of Nepali decent, is now a third generation Darjeeling man. His son is the familiy’s fourth. He is like most of Darjeeling’s residents. Nepalis that skipped the country in the late 19th century and never left. The Indian Government finally regarded Nepali as a national language in 1961.

“We want out identification. Isn’t it?” Tshering says. “We do not get the funding. Isn’t it?” He is looking forward to the election. He hopes it will signal some sort of change in the policy that has ruled the region for, well, forever.

I ask who he will vote for. I ask about the main contender to the crown, but he does not know who I am talking about. I think I must have mispronounced it.

“Now I do not know. But when I get to the vote I will know in my heart who is right.”

“Hey buddy want to work in Bollywood?”

The second floor of Club Escape in north Mumbai is pumped full of an intoxicating blend of artificial stage smoke, can’t-make-this-stuff-up stereotypes and a single, gorgeous Ukrainian model by the name of Natalia.

This Bollywasn’t.

I had been promised, like dozens of foreigners a day in the city’s tourist hub, a chance to see celluloid dreams up close. My cousin had regaled me with stories of dressing up as a Maharaja and meeting Miss Universe while working as an extra in Bollywood. But as the bus approached the club, carrying 13 such curious tourists, we were still very much unsure as to what we were in for.

Iman, a fat, balding casting agent, who waddles Colaba Causeway most days asking the same line over and over to hapless Europeans, “Hey buddy you want to work in Bollywood,” had met me that morning and promised big things. “A big movie,” he said. “Big Bollywood movie.”

Upstairs at the club, Natalia is getting her makeup done by a small legion of dedicated professionals. The man who seems to be in charge of that part of the operation, speaks with a Hindi lisp and wears eyeliner.

The man with the designer glasses, tinted for no apparent reason in the windowless dun of the club, seemed to be what could be described as a director.

The plump woman with the clipboard in hand barking orders at anything vaguely looking in her direction could conceivably be a producer of some sort.

But you don’t ask questions. Not on set.

“Quiet when we are not shooting. I want quiet!,” the woman shouts. Her face crinkles, as if bracing for something. And then it comes:  “Get to your positions! I want you in your positions.”

Even three hours after arriving most of the tourists still believed that this was a going to be a movie. That we were a part of some sweaty club scene where a boy meets girl and sparks fly and then the familiar jagga jagga of Hindi pop spurts out of the speaker system. Everyone dances.

We were lined up and assessed as to our appropriateness. The prettiest ones, a French girl and a young musician from New York called Sonia, are picked out and told to sit in the seat that Natalia had recently vacated.

A young woman from Austria is given the once over by the director.

“You are forgettable,” he says, before moving on.

Her face drops as she tries to forget her disappointment.

The girls are given tacky glittery outfits straight out of the 1990s. There is rolling of eyes and swapping of costumes. Finally a compromise is reached on the girls’ looks.

But I am still in the corner hustling for a position to make sure the director gets to know what I am capable of.

A hairy ginger ball of a thing shuffles his way through the group. Tim, a 19-year-old from Sydney, hasn’t shaved in six months. He hasn’t cut his hair in 12. At his age he expects some politeness from the workers. But Tim is naive. This is showbiz… maybe.

For a split second, the director’s amber tinted eyes meet mine. Then they move on.

I am given a t-shirt that smells like a cheap Calvin Klein knock off and one too many nights in places like Club Escape. It is musty and fits perfectly.

We are all told to make our way to the dance floor where an unseen machine is spewing out gallons of smoke. It is choking and stings the eyes.

I am positioned next to Haile, a 24-year-old model, who holds an MBA, but does this sort of thing on the side. This is good. He is the male love interest.

Yes, apparently, there is a plot to this scene.

Haile is unsure exactly what is about to take place, but he is adamant it is not a movie. For one he is not an actor. Instead he does catwalks and pageants. So then, this is not Bollywood.

This, as it turns out, is a mouthwash commercial.

The premise, if one can call it that, begins with Natalia. She is in a club. She sees Haile from across the room. Their eyes meet. She is a little drunk. A lot drunk, in fact. She begins to feel nauseous but with no toilet in sight she, not so discretely, opens her white leather handbag and barfs into it.

But Haile has not seen the action. He is still transfixed by this girl’s long dark hair, skinny hips and Slavic sensibilities.

He makes his way through the dance floor and says “Hi”. Without even returning pleasantries Natalia rushes forward to plant a big kiss on Haile’s lips.

That, apparently, is how you sell mouthwash.

But Haile is a bit nervous. Coming from a traditional Indian upbringing, the thought of kissing anyone in public give him butterflies. It is not the done thing.

Before the camera starts rolling, I am positioned next to him, as one of his friends along with a Spanish guy called Louis. This is a good spot. I’m sure to get some camera time here. And after all that is what it’s all about – some inkling of peppermint-tainted fame in an obscure corner of India’s largest city.

Then I am moved. Replaced with the forgettable Austrian girl’s equally forgettable boyfriend.

“This is just an exercise in destroying our self esteem,” Sonia, the New Yorker declares. “And I can’t handle this smoke. We should strike.”

She is only half serious, but on all counts she is correct. However, we remain – automatons to the declaration of “action”. And then we dance. We throw our hands in the air, throw our hips left and right. We are all sober. It is the middle of the day. It is totally bizarre.

Despite Haile’s nervousness he manages to kiss Natalia. But the shot is not right. He keeps stuffing up the timing of his approach. I suggest to him he is just doing that so he can keep kissing the girl.

“It’s pretty nice,” he admits, slyly putting out his hand for a low-five.

For the next four hours the 45-second, one-take shot is repeated 20 times with breaks for no apparent reason and then a break for lunch.

We dance around like idiots. I am sure the combination of choking, dehydration, light deprivation and repetitive Hindi trance beats, puts people in a strange place. In another context, another small black box of a room it could be considered torture.

By 4pm, I am flailing my arms around and screaming maniacally. In no place in the civilised world could this ever be considered dancing.

The director shows the video to the clients sitting in the VIP corner, content with their cookies, cold bottled water and MacBook Pro laptops.

The director, plugs in the camera and looks hesitantly at his bosses’ faces. They begin to laugh. The director laughs. Even Natalia is laughing.

The director walks over to me and says: “In that last scene you were brilliant.”

I beam. I want to tell him how actually I’ve done a bit of acting in the past. You know, just small scale stuff mainly but quite arty and poignant.

Natalia walks over in the only way a 5’10 Ukrainian model in stiletto heels can.

“You are so funny,” she says.

I want to say something funny. Something witty to follow it up. But instead I falter, turn red, and look around at my foreign compatriots. They are all seething with the type of jealousy that can only be bred by close-proximity confinement – in a human receptacle, forced to scramble over crumbs.

“Ok, last shot,” the director shouts.

The music starts again.

An hour and a half later the 45 second masterpiece is finished. There is clapping, hollering and the release of 10 hours of over-hyped, pent-up expectation.

We give back out clothes. We are given 500 rupees each. It is the hardest 15 dollars I ever earned.

But it wasn’t quite the experience I was looking for. We are herded back into the bus and drive back into Colaba, exhausted and sweating from the record March temperatures descending on the city.

The next day I see Iman waddling in front of me. I walk past him trying to ignore him. He speeds up and taps me on the shoulder. He doesn’t recognise me.

“Hey buddy, want to work in Bollywood?”