When a childhood friend and I met Jan Morris just before a speaking engagement at a posh London club, Morris, then in her eighties, confessed she was tired. I used to edit her regularly and had never known the great Welsh writer, who was recently described in the Financial Times as possibly the best travelled Briton alive, to sneeze – indeed to be anything other than impishly exuberant. Minutes later, Morris mischievously joked from the stage that the club president’s effusive introduction was “straight off Wikipedia” and explained she had been doing the only yoga pose she knew all day to keep herself awake. Morris proceeded to do simhasana, the lion’s roar, which requires scrunching up your face and sticking your tongue out. Some in the audience looked as if they might fall over from shock.
I had read and reread Jan Morris’ writing long before I met her years ago. She broke the story of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s conquest of Everest in 1953, in part because she created a specially scrambled code for the scoop that was sent by telegram via the Indian high commission in Kathmandu to The Times, London. In the 1970s, she wrote an analysis of Delhi that would have saved multinationals investing in India hundreds of millions if only their executives had read it: “And most detached of all seems the unimaginable bureaucracy of Delhi – a power sucker, feeding upon its own consequence or sustained intravenously by interdepartmental memoranda, triplicate applications, copies and comments and references to precedent, a monstrous behemoth of authority slumped immovable among its files and tea-trays.” It’s reprinted in a compendium called “A Writer’s World.” She gifted a copy to my father; he was reading it in hospital when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
One of life’s less remarked upon blessings is that long lives are generally the norm today. I consider myself metaphorically an orphan because I lost my parents when they were 71 and 76 and because managing without them is a hardship posting. Most of my friends, by contrast, have at least one parent alive who have near total recall and are in reasonably good health in their eighties. Last June, Morris, who was 91 on October 2, drove me half an hour on a highway to a restaurant with movie-set views of a lake in Portmeirion in Wales. We toasted a friendship that began exactly 20 years earlier on the last day of British Hong Kong in 1997.
My former landlord in Delhi, 95 next week, travelled constantly in that forgotten era of multiple fuelling layovers on flights from India to the West. Gurdev Singh Dhindsa was likely India’s first exporter of high end garments to US department stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale’s, who printed large advertisements in the New York Times of his brand of women’s wear. He started his business so soon after independence that customs clearance for exporters was only done out of Bombay. The collector of customs had to intervene to open an office in Delhi. It was only weeks after hearing this story that I realised that the collector of customs in Bombay then was my paternal grandfather who died soon after, aged 50. Recently, I pestered my former landlady, Komal, for a copy of a thank you note from Jackie Kennedy for a special saree that zipped up on one side designed by her boutique in Delhi. Jackie Kennedy, as first lady, and her sister Lee Radziwill even visited the house for a fashion show on a trip to India in 1961. I find this incredible because I regard the Kennedy clan as a compulsive soap opera, with much more talent and better looks than the British royal family, which bores me.
Being with people who have lived long, eventful lives is a kind of armchair time travel. Morris was invited by the Sultan of Oman in 1955 to join him as he set off on a campaign against mutinous tribes. She recently published a book on a Japanese battleship with 2300 crew that sailed into battle and certain death rather than surrender in the last days of World War II. She started her first diary after turning 90. Full of wit and wisdom, it will be published this year. If she were younger, she would probably be working on a biography on Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla, her current obsession.
On Sunday, my former landlord called to say he was delighted to hear I had started squash again. My nannyish friends in their fifties had tut-tutted about the build-up of lactic acid from strenuous exercise. My landlord is a former national veterans’ champion. He recounted winning a hard-fought first game as a 65-year-old playing against the St Stephen’s College squash captain. Then, the court at the Delhi Gymkhana suddenly went dark. Narpat Singh, a national champion just after independence, was the culprit. “Gurdev,” he shouted. “You will kill yourself.” Thirty years on, Gurdev Dhindsa’s voice was full of good-humoured outrage. He sounded sure he could have won -- and lived into his nineties to tell the tale.