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26 February 2015

Will Self: At a revolving restaurant in provincial India, I saw a vision of the future (as imagined in 1971)

Jaipur, 1971 and London 2015: a queasy syzygy.

By Will Self

I once ate in a revolving restaurant in Minneapolis but only because it was midwinter, too frigid to venture out, and the spinning eatery was atop the hotel I was staying in. Anyway, I alighted from the lift and stood gawping, awed, as empty tables and rigid napery sped along a horizon snaggle-toothed with high-rises and swollen over by snow clouds. Once seated, I could observe the rather skilled footwork required by the waiters as they moved from orbiting table to focal servery and back, incorporating the revolution into their parabolic course calculations. I put it to mine that the restaurant was really, um, going a bit fast; and he said that the management sped it up from time to time to keep everyone on their toes.

I suspect this was apocryphal but one thing was true: despite the subdued lighting, the inoffensive dark-leather banquettes, the plain white tablecloths and the bland cuisine (when in doubt about anything in the Midwest, order steak), I felt utterly nauseous. I tried fixing my eyes on the horizon, or looking only at my immediate surroundings, or following the lolloping waiters with my sluggish gaze – but it made no difference. Man, I concluded, has not evolved to digest in a giant orrery; and so I resolved never to eat in a revolving restaurant again.

Not only that, I began to look upon the Provisional IRA in a rather more kindly light. True, its members were murdering, terroristic bastards but at least they’d bombed the Top of the Tower, London’s only revolving restaurant, which occupied the 34th floor of the then Post Office Tower between 1966 and 1980. It seemed a curious target choice. At the time (1971), people wondered if the Provos were making some sort of anti- heliocentric statement but I think their ASU (active service unit) ate there and had a bad experience. Nowadays they’d probably just leave a snarky review on TripAdvisor.

Still, resolutions, like ceasefires, are made to be broken, which was why, on a chilly, smoggy day in January this year, in Jaipur, Rajasthan, northern India, I found myself dismounting from Ricky’s tuk-tuk, breasting the Heraclitan flux of the traffic on MI (Mirza Ismail) Road and entering the Om Tower, which has a revolving restaurant atop its lofty 14 storeys. True, I’d resolved never to become a human rotisserie again but a revolving restaurant in a provincial Indian city? This wasn’t a case of a “real meal”, more one of a “really meal”. As in: “Did you really eat in a revolving restaurant in Jaipur?” To which the only possible reply is: “Well, yes, I did, and it was right tasty.”

That goes for both the food and the decor, because although to someone of my generation the concept of a revolving restaurant still seems utterly modern, the truth is that in their relentless go-round, these gustatory equivalents of the DeLorean DMC-12 simply convey us back to a future imagined in about 1971. From the exterior, the Om Tower even looked like the Post Office Tower – a concrete yoghurt pot on top of a concrete milk carton. Once inside, I thrilled to the expanses of wood-veneer-effect MDF, the dusty-leaved rubber plants, the mercurial mirroring, the greasy pile carpets and the halting progress of the lift as it oozed up to the 14th storey. Time, as any post-Einsteinian knows, is a relative concept, so when I was seated at the window, looking out over exhaust-shrouded domes and minarets towards the nearby park-your-ox-and-ride stop, I had the curious sensation of straddling several decades at once.

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It was a sensation that only increased in intensity when the smiling waiter, executing some nifty dance steps, brought me my Revolving Special Thali, which was a snip at 540 rupees. It helped, I suppose, that the thali is a circular, flat-bottomed aluminium dish that put me in mind of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, because although there was no sign of the elephants and the turtle underpinning that fabulist’s cosmology, the conjunction of all these revolving circular bodies implied a syzygy.

Moreover, although I could see little of Jaipur through the smog, I knew that somewhere down there was the Jantar Mantar, the bizarre celestial observatory built by the Rajput king Sawai Jai Singh in the early 18th century. As I tipped out the little aluminium pots – or katori – and filled the thali with a sludge of dhal, rice, curds and vegetable curries, it occurred to me that were I sufficiently attentive I might be able to make some interesting observations using this foodie instrumentation. After all, the instruments at the Jantar Mantar are huge, solid structures of marble, stone and bronze, which are still used to calculate auspicious ceremonial times. Surely I could pull off something similar with my lunch crockery? Especially considering that I, unlike Sawai Jai Singh (and possibly the IRA), have no conceptual problem with the idea that the planets revolve around the sun.

Such speculations entertained me as, like some interstellar traveller in a Christopher Nolan film, I described an arc through space-time that took me, oscillating, between Jaipur and London, 1971 and 2015. My speculations were so absorbing that I forgot I was eating in a revolving restaurant until the bill came. I paid up, tottered across the greasy-carpeted empyrean, felt suddenly nauseous, found the gents and vomited copiously. The moral is: you can put the boy in a revolving restaurant but you can’t keep a good meal down. Or something like that.

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