*Disclaimer: These are the first experiences I’ve had of accompanying any celebrity in their day to day life, and hence any overreactions should be excused merely as the internal excitement of a poor travelling Westerner. For the purposes of privacy, the celebrity in question shall, from here onwards, be referred to as Mr. Bollywood.
Or Mr. B, for short.
Let’s set the scene…
I’d said a sad farewell to my travelling buddies of the last two months after a wonderfully relaxing few days in Goa, where we did nothing but eat, sleep and attempt to absorb more of those deliciously harmful sun rays. When I stepped off the plane in Delhi, I was alone for the first time in a long while, and I really noticed the absence of my friends.
Suddenly I was unable to make all those wonderfully witty comments that made them love my company so much (no sarcasm whatsoever. You know the witticisms I’m talking about) – instead I was thrust cruelly into a hotel room and expected to sleep there by myself?! The mind boggles.
But I managed to cope; mainly, thanks to the inclusion of a TV mounted on the wall opposite the bed, with which I found I could happily while away my time with Harry Potter and Bridget Jones. Although Bridget’s drunken ‘Allll by myselfffff’ was certainly preying on my mind somewhat.
Where were all the people? I needed to have a conversation, dammit!!
This need was thankfully sated when I found myself sitting in the grounds of the Red Fort, sweating profusely, next to a guy reading the Lonely Planet: aka the password that signifies a fellow traveller. I took it as an invitation to start chatting, and ended up spending most of the day with Andrea, a 30 something Milanese guy, before an awkward non-hug in the Metro as we went our separate ways.
That evening, alone on my cramped bed, I wasn’t certain I’d be that happy travelling around the country completely by myself. Not that the logistics were any problem – trains, planes and auto-rickshaws no longer freak me out like they first did – but the lack of anyone to share all my thoughts and observations with was already proving an issue.
Luckily, there was a solution. A somewhat surreal one. I’d been in contact with a good friend of my cousin, who is based in Chandigarh (5 hours north of Delhi) and runs a PR company. Knowing I’d be in the country for a long time, I’d asked him if there was any way I could do some work with him, and gain some experience in the Indian media world. The opportunities he suggested in response were jaw dropping.
But that’s to come later; first up was the idea that I spend some time at the island farmhouse of a top Bollywood singer. As you do.
The next 24 hours were possibly the most intense introduction to a totally new world that I’ve ever had…
Hour 1: the car ride
After a very bumpy rickshaw ride, I arrive at Mr. Bollywood’s Delhi office, where I drink a china cup of chai and quickly eat four biscuits eagerly offered by the housekeeper. Mr. Bollywood’s manager hoists my backpack onto his shoulder and heads out the door. Still swallowing biscuit crumbs, I follow him to an air conditioned car which will take us to the yellow farmhouse that accommodates Mr. B.
I have a ton of questions about where we’re headed, but get the impression from the manager’s constantly ringing phone that he’s not one for chatting. I keep schtum. This effort to be silent is aided by the gloriousness of air con. I’d forgotten how lovely it is to not sweat inside a moving vehicle.
Hour 2: the boat ride
We park by a wide lake in the middle of the countryside and transfer to a little boat. I am the only girl present, with six men intently concentrating on their Blackberries. No talking, then. I content myself with trailing my fingers in the water. We step off the boat when it reaches the opposite bank and walk down the path to see Mr. B conducting an interview on the grass. Two camels wander aimlessly behind him. We enter the house; all black and white interior, huge dogs under the table, quiet fans whirring. I sit awkwardly on a sofa and wait for somebody to talk to me first. It seems like the safer option.
Hour 3: meeting Mr B
I eat lunch, served at a table inlaid with mother of pearl, while seated on a plastic covered chair (presumably so the dogs don’t rip into the velvet lining). Four people have prepared the plateful in front of me, and watch expectantly as I make a mess, tearing roti with my right hand and scooping up aloo curry (being both a leftie and a Westerner is not recommended in India when you’re expected to only eat with one hand). While I’m still chewing (this keeps happening to me!), I’m introduced to Mr. B, without being totally sure if it’s him or not. This is mainly because he doesn’t have much of a celeb attitude, and also because he doesn’t say his name. At least I stand up to shake his hand. After the pleasantries give way to silence (again) I say I’m looking forward to watching him perform tonight. He looks a tad bemused.
“Oh, you want to come?”
I say yes. If that’s ok of course.
“Ok… but do you have a dress?”
I am duly informed that my wonderfully comfortable, travel-worthy, Ali Baba trousers are, in fact, known by every Indian to be pyjamas. Frikking awesome.
Hour 4: girlie time!
I am adopted by the various girls in the house; my Chandigarh friend’s daughter – aged 16, who is being trained in music by Mr. B – and her mother; Mr. B’s 19 year old niece, who is somewhat in awe of her famous uncle and hence can’t speak or eat in front of him; and the Iranian receptionist of the adventure park next door, which Mr. B also owns, and where the camels tend to spend their time.
The girls show me the various animals that live at the farm; two horses, mum and baby; a herd of cows, who stare blankly at us; a group of guard dogs, an adopted jungle dog named Cutie (and she actually is!), the biggest Great Dane I’ve ever seen, and two terrifying Rottweilers, both of whom continue to scare me for the next week. We pass the studio where Mr. B practices and records some of his tracks, and stop at the swing seat where I’m introduced to tinny Blackberry recordings of Mr. B’s songs – and various imitations of how he walks.
Not yet knowing the man’s gait, I can only pretend to find them funny. But I think the girls appreciate it.
Hour 5: prayer time…
Mr. B commands me towards the stairs, which I accordingly hop up. Apparently my everyday behaviour (walking, talking, moving in general) becomes a tad affected when in the presence of greatness. I also find it difficult to stop rambling, even when various members of his household clearly don’t understand much English.
Mr. B shows me the room I’ll be sleeping in and mentions that I may have a bed partner; the Iranian receptionist I met earlier. Success! My need for nighttime company satisfied (I miss you, Fiona!). As I lay my bag on the floor, Mr. B asks if I’d like to take a rest – but with his next breath then directs me to the last room of the second floor (this is my first introduction to his topic-jumping mentality), where a priest sings and the girls sit with their heads covered, alternately joining the singing and checking their Blackberries. I walk into the room and am pulled out again just as quickly, where a blue handkerchief is placed atop my bare head. I tie it under my chin and, feeling slightly like a farmer’s wife, sit cross-legged on the floor.
Being quiet is coming more easily now.
Hour 6: awkward conversation
We’re driving back to Delhi for Mr. B’s performance tonight. I’m told to be ready on time. A combination of being British and being just plain nervous means I am ready before time. No one else is. A half hour later they suggest we eat before we go; more right handed eating and thankfully a little less messiness on my part. Result.
We walk to the lake and it’s just me and Mr. B, his hand guiding me over the trailing ends of a barbed wire fence as he abruptly fires questions my way – all completely unrelated:
“You’re single (ok, this was a statement, not a question) – me too, I have no time. Should I be getting married?”
“Do you like cricket?”
I was still deciding how best to answer the marriage question and had just turned my brain over to a sport I know nothing about, when:
“Can you write songs if you’re a writer? Sing me a chorus.”
I try my hardest to avoid tripping in the dark while he talks incessantly. I’m partway successful. We load ourselves into the little boat. The moonlight on the water is beautiful, even if none of our party are paying much attention. More Blackberry tapping action is taking precedence.
Hour 7: a freezing car ride
We drive. The air con is on so high that I actually get cold – but I don’t want to be the one who breaks the silence, so I wrap up in a thin silk scarf and pretend I’m warm. Meanwhile, my friend’s daughter (let’s call her K) is put to work massaging Mr. B’s temples and pressing her thumbs gently into his eye sockets. I’m told later he barely gets time to sleep as he’s performing almost every night – which explains the collection of fluffy pillows that have accompanied us in the car.
Hour 8: eyes on the road!
We’re still driving. Mr. B’s driver is only flouting the speed limit by 40kmph or so; this is clearly not good enough for Mr. B, who commands the car to stop in the middle of the highway. Suddenly. Driver and celebrity switch seats, and we settle into a more comfortable 160kmph. The cars we swerve around are little more than blurry shapes, and I discover what it’s like to be a helpless passenger in a round of Super Mario Cart. Evidently it’s not just rickshaw drivers who take foreigners lives lightly. I surreptitiously buckle my seatbelt, and try not to watch the road for him while he checks his mirrors to apply hair oil and aftershave. He passes the bottle back to K so she can spray the scent liberally on his waistcoat collar.
The car’s interior fills with the smell of male Bollywood star. It’s part intoxicating, part cloying.
Hour 9: showtime – wedding style
The car heads inside a hotel car park and comes to a halt by the backstage entrance. The sudden revelation from K that this is a private wedding reception – ‘a small one, only 500 people or so’ – only adds to my excitement (and adds the mental note to cross ‘attend Indian wedding’ off my bucket list). Two bouncers open our doors and we’re humbly shepherded to a set of silver curtained dressing rooms, where K and I sit impassively on a white leather sofa and watch the fans rush eagerly in.
I feel a little like a member of a cool security team, and get a rush of enjoyment when I realise that, for possibly the first time since arriving in India, I’m actually being stared at with jealousy! And even these stares are only fleeting, as they pass the random foreigner up in favour of their idol, Mr. B. His photo is taken with a steady succession of waiters, wedding guests, young men, old women, and even a couple of stage dancers, all who hug him with violent enthusiasm and try to stay in the little room as long as possible. The huge bouncers towering over the proceedings start to make me feel a tad suffocated, so while we wait for Mr. B’s performance to start, I head outside to have a gander at what an Indian wedding is really all about…
What to know what happened next? Then here’s Part 2!