I have been coming to India for over sixty years.
I first came, aged five, by boat on the SS Chusan, a wonderful P&O liner, en route to Hong Kong where my father was working. India had been independent for merely seven or eight years. We docked at what was then Bombay and is now Mumbai. I can still smell the city even to this day. It was swelteringly hot, there were simply thousands and thousands of people coming off the trains like ants in a tremendous hurry whilst the maidans were awash with young cricket hopefuls. Now cricket is their new religion with up to seven tv channels dedicated to its coverage here as well as Sky
I came last week to Chennai in Tamil Nadu, which we remembered fondly as Madras, the home of the East India Company. At one time it was the largest, richest and most powerful conglomerate in the world. There is a cracking book called The Honourable Company by John Keay which I would commend. On my last visit, I stood in the middle of the Madras Cricket Club where Test matches against England used to be played. It was 10.30am and the temperature was 40C.! No wonder we hardly ever won a Test here.
My stay in Chennai this time was brief as my other brief was to fly up to the adjoining state and to the city of Vijayawada. Change is in the air here. In 2014, the President of India created three new states making twenty nine in all. He agreed to bifurcate the state of Andhra Pradesh which now becomes, on the west side, Telangana and on the east it keeps its name. Previously, the Capital was Bangalore which is now in Telangana and so a new capital is being built called Amaravati. As we flew over the site, we could see its extent from the marks in the reddish brown soil which seemingly stretched for miles.
A new capital to house just over a million people as a minimum is an exciting project and a huge undertaking but where to start? It is not as easy as you think. We have built Harlow, Stevenage, Basildon, Haverhill, Cumbernauld, Crawley and Milton Keynes in the thirty years after the Second World War and they have had mixed success. Only the latter has really put its name on the map. New cities in India are rare. New Delhi and Chandigarh allowed the great Le Corbusier loose to build an enchanting new part of the original city in 1968.
The lucky architects who won the overall design in Amaravati were Foster & Partners and they have been busybusy. They have provided a space age design which I hope will be tempered with local Indian traditions. It could become the most visited city in the whole of the Indian sub-continent. Already the road network is marked out though clearly it is a work in progress for the next five years.
The first buildings, a number of high class universities, are ready to take their freshers intake in July. I was lucky to meet the President and his Pro Vice Chancellor of SRMAP. SCR itself is a private university to the south of Chennai with facilities to rival any in the UK. It is ranked third in India and has ambitions to reach the top 100 in the world. SRMAP (the AP stands for Andhra Pradesh) is its younger child.
Prime Minister Modi in his first term has already transformed regional and local airports and brought down ticket costs. There is still a miss match though, between the rhetoric and the reality. After landing at Vijaywada’s newly improved airport it took us two hours to travel less than twelve miles to Amaravati to the SRMAP campus. The roads were choked and we crawled in our car in the heat which reached 38C. Once India solves its infrastructure its economy will boom.
On my weekend off, I travelled down to Pondicherry. It proved harder than I thought. The fastest train took four hours for a journey of just over a hundred miles. But the timetabling was at best sclerotic…I did not fancy the alternative which was by coach especially as one of them bore the name of a once famous Leyland and had no air con. so in the end I bargained and found a car luckily with a driver attached to take me. Pondicherry was an overseas French blip. The French gave up on its unruly child in 1956. It used to house many an Indian who had upset the British. One such so-called trouble maker was Sri Aurobindo, the Indian visionary and leader of India’s independence movement. He lived there from 1914 and was the inspiration for Auroville, a spiritual city for the future, which started being built in 1968 just twelve kilometres to the north. What makes Pondi so attractive is, of course, the small but perfectly formed French lined avenues with their fabulous houses. French can still be heard spoken in shops and restaurants.
If you have never been to India take your time. There are hundreds of palaces and temples to visit most tucked away; so worth a little homework before travelling. It will take your senses some time to accommodate the heat, the air, the noise and the vibrancy. To better understand it you have to visit regularly! Good luck.