Monsoons, maharanis and millionaires

In Delhi, devotees of an FM station call in to moan about the weather

On Radio City 91.1fm in Delhi, all talk is of the death, at 90, of Maharani Gayatri Devi, a famous beauty whose long-published hit memoir, A Princess Remembers, still thrills the listeners. Was she not the most alluring woman in the world? Kamal says she must have been, because, "as the book excellently documents", the young Gayatri would take herself off at the age of four to Harrods ("the world's best department store") and run up enormous bills, charming the shop attendants with her lisp.

Gayatri's love for her ancient husband, the millionaire Sawai Man Singh ("known as Jai for Jaipur"), was then much picked over. How they had met when she was still a teenager and how she insisted on marriage despite objections to his commoner status . . . the hunting lodges . . . the cocktails . . . the irritating matter of his being already married to two women ("one of whom was called Jo for Jodhpur").

But what, these days, "in our modern India", does one reasonably describe as wealthy? Someone calls in remembering Prince Patiala, who once went to London to buy a Rolls-Royce, but the salesman said no, and the prince said why, but the salesman still said no, and so the prince
came back to Delhi and ordered a hundred of them to be sent over, and the prince cut off their tops and gave them away as garbage trucks.

The presenter, Kiran - an expert in getting his callers to repeat, exaggerate or contradict, his voice filled with that world-over radio staple: a too-wild desire to make enemies for life (automatically suggesting someone actually good-tempered) - delightedly reminds us that this indeed is the same Prince Patiala who dressed like a loser and "upon whose death was found the third-largest diamond in his shoe".

Outside the high window of my hotel, red kites swoop low enough for me to examine their backs, incredibly lazy, and yet somehow conveying a vivid sense of speed. From here, Delhi looks, dishonestly, like a city of gardens, a forest scattered with low temples and the occasional sallow high rise thrusting through the tree-blur like a fist. Abruptly into an advert for a new 375 rupee burger, and, an online dating service popular with cricket lovers. The city in front of me - through this glass nothing but a frieze and weirdly stripped of spirit, save for the radio - is
bright green after the rains, horizon to horizon, so intense you almost shrink from the repetition of the colour.

The monsoon is completely pissing everyone off. Naturally it fatigues all but the newcomer (moi, namaste). "Flooding of Delhi is an annual event!" shrieks a caller; “. . . the same excuses every year!" What happened to the 3,000 nallah beldars recruited to clear the drains? Why must the Dwarka underpass stay closed until Saturday? Why are the city's neem trees all falling down? And always, helplessly, back to Gayatri, and her Olivia de Havilland mouth.

Do you know, a caller says, that the maharani once wrote that, of all the royal etiquettes, the most important was never to wear emeralds with a green sari, because they look better with pink? Followed by a music mix including "the latest from Shakeel Badayuni and the hits of Jennifer Lopez".

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Red Reads