At the arms fair, I speak to the Russians, Israelis and Swedes. The Brits, though, won't come near me

The Imperial Hotel in New Delhi is laid out in a grid fashion, with identical, long, marble-floored hallways, bisected by identical, long, red-carpeted corridors. Tubs full of fronds predominate, and there are numerous themed restaurants - Thai, Italian and so forth. Thronging the public areas are western women committing the ultimate fashion solecism of affecting Indian dress, and I am reminded insistently of clamorous flocks of Cherie Blairs. My room opens on to an atrium, which induces still more queasy claustrophobia. In the dead of night I open my curtains and imagine that, Escher-like, I can see my whey-faced doppelganger staring at me from the other side.

Over a suitably imperial breakfast, I read the report in the Times of India of the comings and goings at the Delhi Literary Festival. Sir Vidia Naipaul, the star performer, is on typically pacific form, reminding the inhabitants of this bitterly sectarian nation that, for Muslim converts, "if your past must begin only with your conversion, it must be awful". Elsewhere, it is said that the Nobel Laureate "took turns at being humble and humorous". Remembering accounts of his behaviour in Britain, I wonder what he can possibly be on, soma?

Other news from the LitFest concerns Arundhati God of Small Things Roy, whose vigorous campaigning against the Narmada Dam project has landed her in big trouble. Having made rather robust statements about the Supreme Court justices who have allowed the construction to go ahead (it will make a million people homeless), Roy is now facing jail for contempt. Only Vikram Seth among the attendees has spoken out in support of Roy, and questioning the Indians I'm working with, I discover that while many may agree with her stand, she is widely perceived to be eccentric to the point of craziness. Sanjay Sethi says: "If she were a man she might just get away with it, but only just." I ask Sanjay - who's a consummate fixer both by inclination and profession - whether he can put me in touch with Roy, and this he manages within hours. We arrange to meet on the weekend. In the meantime, together with a compact crew, with whom I'm making a programme on the arms trade for the BBC's Correspondent slot, I attend Defexpo, the "land and naval systems exhibition" (arms fair to you and me) sponsored by the Indian government.

We wander through the vast weaponry bazaar bearding all and sundry. I talk to unabashed Israelis about their superb small arms and their pilotless Hunter aircraft (didn't they do well in Afghanistan!). I engage bullish Russians on the subject of their Amur-class submarines, which they're keen to flog to their Indian hosts. I lock antlers with softly spoken salesmen from the local Swedish Weapons Systems (formerly known as Bofors) on the awesome range of their self-propelled artillery pieces.

Only my compatriots at British Aerospace are reluctant to talk to me and my crew. Damn it, they won't even let me on to their stand, and their PR flak is positively shaking with anxiety beneath the barrel of the camera. What a shame, and they have such a dear little model of their excellent Hawk advanced jet trainer. Anyway, all I wanted to ask was whether they thought Jack Straw might manage to close the deal with the Indian government for 66 Hawk jets that's been nigh on 17 years in the making. Wing Commander Bakshi (retd), of the Indian air force, tells me that as well as being "advanced trainers", Hawks make superb ground attack aircraft in difficult mountainous terrain, like . . . err . . . Kashmir. A sale would be good news all round.

Peeved by this rebuttal, I take it out on a South African sniper rifle salesman.

"This gun," I ask, "is it really accurate? Will it kill someone at very long range?"

"It's accurate to within 12 centimetres over a kilometre's distance."

"So, it's just the thing I need for assassinating a head of state, like - just for example, mind - Robert Mugabe?"

"Listen," he obliges me, "what you do with the gun once you've bought it is your concern. We just sell the things."

On Saturday morning, I can't make my rendezvous with Arundhati Roy because Sanjay, in a bravura display of fixing, has arranged an interview with George Fernandes, the Indian defence minister. Good of Fernandes to take half an hour off from running an army of a million men on high alert to meet with the BBC: it puts the unwillingness of anyone from our own Ministry of Defence to talk to us for this film in perspective.

We drive through the empty, hypertrophied boulevards of Lutyens's New Delhi. In the lemony sunlight, the enormous chunks of pink, imperialist neoclassicism appear curiously cosy and welcoming. At the defence ministry, there are monkeys crawling over the columns. With astonishingly little security kerfuffle, we are admitted to Fernandes's presence. He radiates calm, and answers all our questions with good grace. For the substance of what he said to camera, you'll have to wait for the screening of Addicted to Arms in late April, but I can tell you the essence of the chat we had. Fernandes took the opportunity to gently remind us British that we inhabit a small island off the north-western coast of Europe, and that apart from our European status, we are perceived in the subcontinent as little more than lickspittles of the Americans.

But then Fernandes was also keen to reminisce about visiting Labour Party conferences in the 1950s, and getting Nye Bevan to address meetings of the Indian dock workers' union. It was old Labour lingering on in New Delhi, and it felt appropriate.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 04 March 2002 issue of the New Statesman, Lord Snooty and his party pals