The empire gets its revenge - on me!

The four men in the lorry cab drove us before them on the narrow causeway like a flock of sheep. We

Orchha, for 200 years capital of the Bundela Rajputs and their kingdom, is on the fringes of the tourist map. But the temples of Chaturbhuj and Lakshmi Narayan are as spectacular as anything India has to offer. Dilapidated isolation adds to their charm. Whatever the romantic attraction of the Taj Mahal, it does not have long-beaked vultures nesting in its roof or langur monkeys climbing up its walls. It can only be a matter of time before the crowds arrive. A hugely incongruous notice has been hung over the city gate - "Orchha pampers you" - while novel "souvenirs", such as a flat iron circa 1900, are on sale along the road that leads to the palace.

Our guide was a young Kshatriya - the warrior caste, which rates second only to the Brahmans in the Hindu hierarchy. He spoke perfect English with an American accent. We all took it for granted that, as part of his studies, he had travelled to Britain or the United States. Someone suggested Harvard Business School.

In fact, he had travelled only as far as Khajuraho, half a day's journey away, but watched videos in bed each night. Had we, he was eager to know, seen the new Casino Royale? He estimated that 70 per cent of Orchha's 30,000 inhabitants had a television set - courtesy of Rupert Murdoch, who is Star rather than Sky in India. Had we seen Pirates of the Caribbean? Did we know Keira Knightley? It all served to make me feel young again. It is almost half a century since I last complained about what, in those innocent days, I called "cultural imperialism".

Ringing the changes

The road into Orchha is being widened. The technique by which the job is being done has not changed since I visited India in 1969. The workforce is entirely female. Some of the women, sitting cross-legged or kneeling by the side of the road, break up old house bricks with small hammers. Others bear the rubble away in baskets, which they carry on their heads. A third group pounds the broken bricks into the ground with baulks of wood. W B Yeats's judgement of the limitations of home rule in another country seemed sadly appropriate: "Parnell came down the road, he said to a cheering man:/'Ireland shall get her freedom and you still break stone.'"

Some old social habits have changed, however. At least half of the road-mending women had mobile phones.

Everyday miracles

There are many miracles in India - though the rope trick is now officially discouraged because it does not create the right impression of a nation which aspires to be "the next global superpower".

One major source of wonder is the driving, which seems destined to cause death and destruction but rarely results in even a minor collision. Somehow it manages to be thrusting without being aggressive. Cars overtake buses on both sides simultaneously, motorcycles cut across carriageways without warning, and motorised rickshaws put-put happily in the middle of the road while overloaded lorries puff along behind them. And all of them honk and hoot without pause or, apparently, purpose. In fact, the honking and hooting is a friendly warning rather than a threat or a reproof. For the Indians are a gentle people. And their driving, although noisy and careless, lacks all malice. That is why the incident at Orchha was so surprising.

The town is joined to a river island by a causeway about ten feet wide - on which our party stood watching the sun set over the temples. Sunsets and sunrises are a very big part of any Indian tour. Our rapt attention was disturbed by a lorry, about a foot narrower than the causeway, as it made its slow way towards the town.

Locals were standing on the edge of the causeway, often with their heels projecting over the water. The lorry brushed against them as it passed. We decided to flee - first at a walk and then, as the lorry accelerated, at a trot.

The four men squashed together in the cab must have felt they were driving us before them like a flock of sheep. As they passed us, after we reached land, their smiles were more patronising than malicious. I got the distinct impression that they felt that, in a small way, the indignities of the Raj had been avenged.

This article first appeared in the 11 December 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Trident: not too late