There is only one rational response to the classic airport offer: Buy one, save 10%; buy two, save 20%; buy three, save 40%.
Buy nothing, save 100%.
Cities once had airports. The same airport now has every city. An airport once smelt of local history, or was perfumed by its culture. Stressed tourists began their tryst with Hawaii through military crates sitting around the tarmac since World War II. The tiled roofs and open walls of Denpasar offered the languorous smile of Bali. The gridlock of Tokyo began at Narita. The sly excitement of Frankfurt was contained in the surreptitious enclosure of its sex shop, the symbol of free Europe sitting at its gateway. Delhi offered sufficient evidence that the Third World still had some way to go before it reached the Second; its airport was a punishment posting for professionals and a trial for visitors.
Every airport now is the same mall playing cheap tricks on those trapped within its monotonous glass and chrome. The predictable brands that define modern merchandise occupy stalls in curved rows, offering leftovers at false prices. The fast food is neither particularly fast nor really food, just churn from a giant machine. Even the colourful bazaar of Istanbul airport, once redolent with the chatter and spice of the 13th century at the foot of the Blue Mosque, is now an antiseptic, amorphous collection of trinkets produced by some politically correct junk manual. I don’t particularly mind being cheated during my spare hour at an airport, but would someone please cheat me with a suggestion of grace?
The one islet of relief is the bookshop, a treasure trove of the noble art of raw invention. Exaggeration is an author’s privilege, but these shelves heave with imagination exonerated from any relationship to reality. I write this in utter admiration: never has poetic licence been less poetic and more licensed, with every genre crossed with the agility of a fawn released from responsibility.
The Diwan is nostalgic about the golden age of Punjabi princes when “the woman was shared by the husband and his brothers”, but is outraged by modern times in which a wife sleeps with friends, or, Heaven forbid, Joint Secretaries of the Government of India.
I would never have bought Maharani without the prospect of a transcontinental flight interrupted by a long layover. Its cover said the author was Diwan Jarmani Dass; inside, a second Dass was given equal mention. The uncertainty is exhilarating, and is indeed the theme and purpose of the book. But it is reasonably certain that there was once a Diwan Jarmani Dass, born in 1895, who served the Maharaja of Kapurthala, and during the audacity of retirement wrote a book about Maharajas who were all conveniently deceased and therefore unable to engage the services of a libel lawyer. Its feminine companion could be the story of dead women by a dead man. No harm done. A brand is all about life after death. I occasionally wished the publishers had greater familiarity with the English language, but that is a minor crib on this magnificent tour of early 20th century gossip.
The Diwan is nostalgic about the golden age of Punjabi princes when “the woman was shared by the husband and his brothers”, but is outraged by modern times in which a wife sleeps with friends, or, Heaven forbid, Joint Secretaries of the Government of India. The author opens his narrative with a wink. He was a stripling of 30 when His Highness the Aga Khan told him, “Jarmani, if you are successful with women, you are successful in life.” He had just danced a tango with the French consort of the Aga Khan, and knew instinctively what the great Groucho Marx was to make more familiar: that dancing is a vertical expression of a horizontal desire. Jarmani had a good life, with a choice from 20 to 25 women each night when abroad and more frugal but regal options at home.
Dropcap OnIt was all great fun, except when it wasn’t. Nawab Hamidullah Khan, ruler of the seaside state of Sachin [Sachin?] wanted Rs 25 crores to build a local version of Monte Carlo or Las Vegas, and didn’t much care whether his favourite, Begum Naseem, nicknamed C in some mysterious alphabetical order, slept with Diwans or financiers. The Nawab disappeared after a champagne dinner, and the Begum entertained who she pleased till dawn, when she slipped into burqa.
The wives of one Maharaja were no less capricious than their master, which was one reason for the proliferation of tall, handsome Sikh aides. His European wife, illegitimate daughter of a Hungarian Count, would faint each time the Maharaja approached her for sex – not at the prospect of his virility but in terror at his impotence. Maharaja Jagatjit Singh became besotted with a certain Arlette Serry [the publishers don’t have a spellcheck on the office computer], who took the sensible precaution of keeping a journalist lover on the side. Fridays were reserved for the Maharaja. His Highness knelt before the scriptures and prayed fervently for an erection before he entered the bedroom. When the Lord answered his prayers, gifts as generous as 10,000 francs were offered to each minister in his entourage. But the treasury was safe: this happened only twice or thrice a year. Then there was the occasion in London when Jinnah pleaded on behalf of an abandoned mistress while the Diwan…
What happened next? I don’t know. We landed in Sydney and I threw the book away.